Fifteen years ago I made a conscious decision to take a trip each year with my son, Nik. He was only three at the time. My reasoning was simple: if we made this an annual ritual, we would continue it when we reached the point where our life paths and outlooks diverged.
I was right. But there was more. And I see it each time we go out together on one of our “little trips.”
I mention this because he and I just returned from a simple three day trip into the Turtle Mountain region of North Dakota. To most folks, it would be a “nothing” trip — 700 miles of driving through the prairies and small towns of a state most either ignore or denigrate. But, oh, how wrong they would be. North Dakota, like everywhere else, has magic, if only you have eyes to see.
I have long loved the state. It has a peace about it that no other place in America contains. This is a result of the spiritual clarity of the land — sky, earth, horizon line — and the physical emptiness that allows the voices of the past to speak. Each town is a sentinel; each cloud, a messenger. The people live with a respectful awareness of the shoulders on which they stand: tough, honest immigrants who braved winters and loneliness and hardships that we can only imagine. But because of how little things have changed, it is possible to come close to an understanding of their lives just by staring into the changing prairie sky, or sensing the coming of a thunderstorm, or feeling the first chill of an encroaching winter wind.
The graveyards, too, echo with the presence of the past. Small and isolated, they sit in the great openness as testaments to the human spirit and the common humanity we all share.
And then there is the Native presence. It is not so strong for me as in South Dakota — not because it is not there, but because the power of the weather and the great, looming presence of the impending winters always intrudes upon my consciousness. Summer seems like a spasm here. In this way, it is like my own northern Minnesota — your eyes turn toward the northwest and hear a distant drumbeat of something inchoate and monumental. In South Dakota, something different echoes up. It comes from the earth. In North Dakota, it comes from the sky.
But I started this post as a praise to a moment shared between father and son.
In the course of our three days, Nik and I walked through the creaking halls of small museums created from abandoned school houses; we shared a table with a 92 year old Dakotah man who grew up speaking only his tribal language and had his life shaped by the boarding schools; we wandered amidst ruins of abandoned homesteads; we met people who had been born and raised, and now were reaching their final years, in the same small town of 150 people. Witnesses to almost a century in a single place, they were not simply the artifacts of history, they were its very vessels. It was an experience of intimacies set against the vastness of a great landscape that levels all with its challenges. Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakotah, Ojibwe, Icelanders, Norwegians, Irish, Lebanese, Poles — all these and others carved out lives in this land of wind and space, and all their lives still echo. When you meet someone in the small towns, they immediately connect you with the past, because their experience has changed so little from those who went before.
Yes, our conveniences are greater; our connectedness is greater; our capacity for comfort and protection from our environment is greater. But to see a Mandan earth dwelling, or an abandoned farmstead, or an old thresher rusting in a field, is to feel the presence of the past in a way that is almost visceral.
This is one of the great privileges that comes from visiting the unpeopled parts of our country: history, in all its guises, lives close to the surface. You can see old trails, old footprints, old shards and pieces of lives in each town, near each riverbed, on each hillside.
Nik and I had this privilege together. We talked — about life, about our individual dreams and failures, about the people we met and the places we saw. I got to see him interact with strangers, watch the nature and level of his curiosity about the things we encountered, saw him meet the world with the fresh curiosity and energy of youth.
My bones are old. They start slowly, take fewer risks, require more rest. If he sees a hill, he climbs it. If he sees an abandoned building, he explores it. He floats out grand theories about life and history, and wanders in his mind with a freedom and excitement that I can only remember with fondness and participate in vicariously. My mind, my thoughts, my understanding, are freighted with knowledge and experience, and those sometime limit the freedom of creative imagination.
It was a wonderful journey, this short flare of a trip into the intimacy and immensity of North Dakota. It was a symbolic embrace of father by son and son by father. And it is the product of years spent traveling together, where the father who once watched carefully from behind a wall or a tree while a young, energetic child ran from excitedly from place to place, now watches appreciatively while the same son wanders with intense curiosity among the memories and artifacts of different people in different times and places.
And I feel him watching me — to see if I am alright, to see if I am keeping up. He values my capacity to talk to strangers, and tries to mimic me in this regard. But he also sees my limitations, my indecisiveness, my easier physical weariness, and works to assist and protect me.
What a wonderful passage this is — father to son. It is our journey across the seasons of our lives, and it is made all the more precious when it is set against the seasons of the land.