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In honor of my friends now in grip of a deep northern winter

I always liked the way I had described my experience driving in a winter storm in northern  North Dakota in The Wolf at Twilight.  For those who know, and for those of you who are curious, here is the chapter entitled A Glow in the Distance.  I hope it will encourage some of you who have not yet read the book to pick it up.  Winter is a central element, but its real purpose is to reveal the reality of the Indian boarding school experience that is so little known to most of America.

Here’s the chapter:

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A GLOW IN THE DISTANCE

Where are you?” Louise said. There was something close to panic in her voice. I put my mouth closer to the receiver to drown out the sound of the wind.

“I’m outside a little reservation store up by the border,” I said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t call. There’s no cell service here.”

“Have you been listening to the radio? There’s a huge storm blowing in from Canada. They’ve shut down everything west of Winnipeg.”

I didn’t need a radio to tell me something big was coming. The calm on the way out from Mary’s house had been ominous, the glow too bright and unnatural. It was as if the sky had been gathering a quiet power in preparation for something dark and threatening. In the twenty miles between Mary’s and the trading post, the wind had picked up again. Small, hard flakes of snow were blowing almost on a horizontal, and the air was strangely unsettled.

“Look,” I said. “I’m okay. I think I’m going to push a little farther to the west. I met an old woman who knew Yellow Bird and went to the same boarding school. She mentioned a sanitarium out by Turtle Mountain.”

“Turtle Mountain? That’s in the middle of North Dakota. You’re not going to try to make it out there?”

“What am I supposed to do? I can’t make it home. There’s no town anywhere around here. Turtle Mountain’s about the same distance as heading back. I might as well give it a try.”

“But at least heading this direction you’ve got the trees. You drive west, you’re going into the prairies.”

I knew she was right. Half an inch of snow with a strong wind on the prairies can be more dangerous than a foot of snow in the forests. At least trees serve as markers. You find yourself driving through a tunnel of white. On the prairies the road simply disappears and leaves you staring at a shapeless landscape of undifferentiated whiteness. A false turn or a slip, and you can find yourself stuck in a ditch with no traction, no phone service, and no way to get out. You can’t walk for help, and you can’t stay in your car. More experienced travelers than I had lost their lives in such circumstances.

“Look. I’ll make it to the nearest town, find a place for the night, and stay put until the plows get out in the morning. It’s the best I can do.”

“Sometimes I wish you’d never gotten involved in this,” she said.

“So do I,” I said, as the snow swirled around me. “But it’s a little late for that now.”

“Just call when you find a place to stay. I’ll keep the phone by the bed.”

I hung up and walked back to the car. The windshield and hood were already covered with snow. The road beyond the parking lot was almost invisible in the growing storm.

I pulled a map from the glove box and plotted the distance to the next town. It was about forty miles directly west.

I turned onto the roadway and headed into the storm. The thick pine forest offered protection from the wind, but before long the road had drifted over, and I was cutting tracks through fresh snow. The trees loomed ghostly on either side of me.

Several times I thought of turning around, but when I checked the rearview mirror, I saw that my tracks had filled in behind me. Even if I made it back to the trading post, there would be no place to stay. I would end up trying to sleep in my car, and I had only my jacket to keep me warm in temperatures that were rapidly dropping below zero.

With no better options, I continued on the road toward the little North Dakota town.

Gradually, the forests thinned, then gave way completely to shapeless, treeless prairies. It was as I had feared — the relentless winds were blowing the snow on a horizontal, sending skeins across the roadway and obscuring the pavement with finger drifts. Patches of asphalt were still visible, so I could navigate my way from dark spot to dark spot. But I knew I didn’t have much time before the road completely disappeared.

More than once I thought of stopping at a farmhouse to ask for a place to stay. But the few scattered farmsteads were set far back from the road, and their long driveways were already hidden beneath a featureless blanket of snow. With the wind chill dropping and the snow increasing, parking the car and attempting to walk to one of them could produce disastrous results. There was nothing to do but continue westward until I could find safe harbor in the small town I had seen on the map.

I inched my way forward, decreasing my speed as conditions deteriorated. Soon I was going no more than ten miles an hour. I kept on this way for about an hour until a faint glow appeared on the horizon. I wanted to speed up, but I knew that without proper winter survival clothing — an oversight I was regretting more and more by the minute — skidding off the road a mile from the town could have the same result as skidding off the road on the uninhabited prairie. I had to remain patient.

By the time I reached the outskirts everything was buried in snow. The town was only one street long, and it appeared to be completely shut down. There were a few lonely tire tracks cutting through the fresh layer of white. But other than that, there was only the ghostly haloed glow of the few streetlights casting their weak illumination down on the empty main street.

There were no hotels or motels other than one darkened roadside inn on the edge of the highway leading out of town. I pushed the nose of the Toyota through the fresh snow and banged on the door until a disheveled old man who smelled of alcohol opened it a crack and peered out at me.

“Everything’s taken,” he said. “Construction crew.” He nodded toward the parking lot. There were about ten pickup trucks sitting in front of the units, all half buried in snow.

“I’ll sleep on a couch. Anything,” I said.

“Sorry. There’s just no room. There’s a place about twelve miles up. You should be able to make it. But you’d better get going. This feels like a big one.”

He shut the door and turned off the porch light.

I was close to panic. Once again, I thought of pulling onto a side street and sleeping in the car. But the wind was so raw and the air so cold that I doubted I could survive. I considered going to the police station to see if I could sleep in the jail, but then I realized that this tiny prairie outpost had no police station or any other public services, for that matter.

Finally, against my better judgment, I decided to make a run for it. I tried to tell myself that it was only twelve miles, but in the back of my mind were the stories of the old North Dakota farmers who strung lines between their houses and their barns so they could make it between the two during snowstorms without getting lost. Twelve miles was a lot farther than the distance from a barn to a house.

Within minutes of leaving the town I regretted my decision. But I dared not try to turn around on the snow-covered, featureless highway. If I slid off the shoulder, I would be trapped in the ditch until morning.

Visibility was approaching zero. My headlights did little more than illuminate the raging snowstorm a few feet in front of me. More than once I had to step out into the ripping wind to brush snow off the road to find the yellow line.

It took me almost three hours to make the twelve miles. I don’t think I would have made it had a semi not come roaring by, kicking up a cyclone of snow and disappearing quickly into the night. How he was navigating I don’t know, but I didn’t care. I followed the red glow of his taillights until they disappeared into the mist, then set myself in his tracks and limped my way forward.

By the time I reached the town it was well past midnight. I was so weak with panic that I could barely hold the steering wheel.

The town was little bigger than the last one — a single main street with a few side streets. It could not have had a population of more than a several hundred.

The silence of the great storm had overtaken everything. The roofs of the buildings were buried in huge drifts. The main street was dark except for a few streetlights casting feeble circles of light through the swirling snows. The only sound was the howling of the wind.

I drove through the town, searching desperately for any sign of life.

I did not see a motel anywhere. Finally, on the outskirts where the highway resumed, I caught sight of a small glow behind a darkened service station and café. A few semis had pulled over there and sat rumbling in the darkness with their trailer lights on. Across the lot was a small cement building with a red and white painted sign that read “Motel and Laundromat.” The lights were off, but I could see several cars in front of the units.

Almost giddy with relief, I pulled in, tightened my jacket around my neck, and ran to the door.

A light came on inside, then a man with a long gray ponytail peeked out from behind a curtain. I mouthed, “I need a room.” Slowly, he opened the door against the pummeling wind. “Thirty bucks. No credit cards,” he said.

I gratefully traded three tens for a key and fought my way through the snow to my unit. I could barely stand up against the gale. After I had made several futile attempts to fit the key into the frozen lock, the door creaked open. I stepped inside, turned on the space heater, and collapsed on the bed. My hands were so numb I could barely pick up the phone. No sound came from the receiver. The storm must have blown down the phone lines. I tried my cell phone, but there was no service. I knew that Louise would be frantic, but there was nothing I could do.

I pulled off my shoes, crawled under the covers, and fell into a deep sleep, wondering how the Native people had ever managed to survive on a land like this.


Another deep winter story from Native Echoes: Listening to the Spirit of the Land

I feel with you, my friends, my brothers and sisters from the north.  I see that the weather is not lifting, and I remember it in my bones.  I wrote about it then, when I was inside it.  There was a dark virtue and a frozen hysteria that will be part of me forever.  The reason I have published Native Echoes is to give voice to that knowledge that those on the outside can never know.  Here is a piece from Native Echoes written about a stop at a small convenience store west of Bagley on Highway 2 during weather like you are experiencing.  But it could be about anywhere in the north country, all across the land.

I would say, “enjoy,” but that is an odd word.  Better to say, “I hope it resonates with you.”

URN

We have not seen zero for days. Daylight is a brief spasm between darknesses. The sun is wrong and evil; like a father without love, grinning.

All the news now is of deaths. On icy roads, in frozen houses, in fires that flashed from desperate hands trying to stoke a stove to warmth.

The old are helpless, trapped. The deer are starving. There are no birds anywhere.

Midnight. I step outside. There is a crazed brightness in the sky, like the gaze of one about to die. The moon is remorseless — an adder’s eye, watching for movement, looking for death.

Trees explode, their frozen sap no longer able to endure. The lake rends and thunders beneath the frozen snows. Dogs rise from their burrows and howl in frenzy at the sounds. Their voices break the night like glass.

 

Forty below. Morning light, and pale. I stop at a small store beside the highway. It is a country place, part gas station, part commissary, sparsely stocked. Old men sit on cases of coke and boxes of motor oil, telling stories of the cold.

“I need to make a call,” I say.

They gesture. A back room, tires and cardboard boxes, a payphone hanging on the wall. A man is on the phone — thirties, ashen, missing teeth. His girlfriend smiles weakly at me. She is hunched in a corner. Their jackets are thin.

“Long or short,” I ask. I do not wish to stop for long in so great a cold.

“Our car’s stalled,” she says. “We’re on our way back from Winnipeg. My brother died.”

I soften, deferring to death.

She begins to weep. “It’s so far. We don’t know what to do. We live by Detroit. The car just just died. It was my brother’s.”

I offer consolation, directions. I would help but I must go the other way.

She cries openly. I am the first who cared. The old men are cackling in the other room, full of themselves and their stories.

“His ashes are in the car. God, it’s so cold.”   Her boyfriend is fumbling with a crumpled paper, trying to find some number. “Where the hell are we?” he blurts. “What town?”

She looks at me, a request in her eyes.

“Shall we get him?” I say.

She looks around. The crudeness of the old men has no reverence. “I just can’t leave him out there in this cold.”

Her friend is shouting into the receiver. “I can’t wait five goddamn hours!”

She nods. We go out. The snow growls and groans beneath our feet. The sky is strange, copper.   The car sits, naked and red, against a drift of snow.

She has no gloves. The key will not work. We bang on a door, trying to break its icy seal. The wind gusts once, cuts our faces with a thousand knives. Our lips crack. She is crying.   “Your tears will freeze,” I say. It is not a joke.

In the back I see the urn.

Our breath rages from our mouths. We try other doors. I try to light a match to warm the key. The wind is too strong; the match blows out. My hands freeze.   She is staring in the car.   “We’ve got to get him,” she screams.   Her sobs are frantic, filled with desperation.   The cold is lacerating. We bleed pain.

“Just go in,” I shout. “I’ll get it open.” She runs back to the store. I pull my hat lower. My eyelashes are covered with ice. I kick at the car and curse. Heat is ebbing from me. My legs sting; my toes are numb. The sun hangs lifeless in the frozen sky.

I feel a movement. The seal gives way. With senseless fingers I pry the door from its jamb.   She sees, comes running.   Past me, she dives in, throwing aside blankets, maps, tinfoil wrappers. She grabs the urn and pulls it out, runs back, talking to it like a mother to a foundling child.

I follow, uncertain. Her friend is still shouting into the phone. The old men are still laughing among themselves. She has huddled on a box. Her back is toward me. She is cradling the urn and speaking softly.

I walk quietly toward the door. What gods live in a land like this, where the cold is so great that we must comfort the dead?


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