So we've reached carpe diem time in a North Dakota summer. Seize the day. Before you know it, you'll begin to be bombarded by back to school advertising. I hate the moment in mid-summer when you walk into one of the box stores and bump up against massive back to school displays. It actually bothers me more than seeing Christmas decorations on the shelves before Thanksgiving, or that odd moment, the day after Valentine's Day, when all the Valentine's cards are brusquely pulled from the shelves at the grocery store and unsentimentally replaced by Easter Cards. That always seems so heartless to me, opportunistic in the worst sense.
There is only a narrow window left when the summer of 2013 will feel carefree and unending. How can it be almost August 1 The minute you sense autumn lurking out beyond the northern horizon, the rest of your summer activities will feel a little like a forced march. The joy then may be more intense (because we know all too well what's coming), but the essence of summer is that early July feeling that you are off the clock, that time is expansive or perhaps endless, that you are almost as carefree as you were growing up in a North Dakota town, when you burst out the banging screen door right after breakfast and came back in at the other end of the day, then only when your mother's voice got threatening. Bikes, bats, dirtballs, sprinklers, swings, forts, rafts, popsicles, the dank smell of the swimming pool locker room where you took the shortest rinse that could be regarded as compliance with pool rules.
The minute I hear the words NFL pre-season opener on television, I experience a wave of pure melancholy and loss. Too soon, too soon.
As far as I am concerned it has been a spectacular North Dakota summer. I have spent at least 20 evenings out on my deck with a breeze and a series of good books, reading a few pages, then sipping a glass of white wine, then drinking in the western sky and keeping on the lookout for Venus just above the horizon. And reading some more. In the past few weeks there have been just enough mosquitos to drive me inside at dusk, not enough to induce me to buy a Citronella candle.
In countless houses around North Dakota the following conversations are taking place today. If we're going to get out to the Medora Musical this summer, we'd better do it soon. If we're still going camping this summer, we'd better pick a weekend. If we're going to invite the Ricardos for a pontoon ride on the river, we'd better call them right away. If we are serious about driving out to the old farm to pick buffalo berries, we'd better figure out when.
I did get to do a picnic on a butte. My friend Joey was in town from Texas. He's a scion of the King Ranch family. With a group of anarchic merry makers from Beach, we made the ascent of Camels Hump Butte (3,273 feet). We established a base camp in a lovely grass bowl on the northeast side, and spread out a perfect evening picnic on erratic lichen-topped sandstones. Over dinner, the rancher who owns the thing (wouldn't you love to be able to say you owned one of North Dakota's principal buttes) serenaded us with his ukulele. But he redeemed himself with his grass-fed beef carpaccio, the best I have ever tasted. Thus refreshed (at least physically), we scrambled up to the summit, and sat in glorious silence to take in the improbable majesty of the broken country of the Great Plains.
It won't be a complete summer until I have spent an afternoon lying on a gravel bar in the Little Missouri River, with a bottle of water, a wedge of Cloverdale tangy summer sausage and a Triscuit, a cube of quality unsweetened chocolate, and a good book, preferably Walden. You read. You doze. You gaze around listlessly at the starkness of the badlands. You read a bit more and meditate on Thoreau's magical perceptions of the killer contradictions of American life. You doze. The parts of your body in the river are almost cold. The parts in the sun are almost toasted. Lonely hot badlands breezes waft over your bare shoulders to remind you of the strangeness and emptiness of the place. You make a Triscuit-summer sausage sandwich with a Swiss army knife reserved for these occasions. You lie down completely on the polished scoria and sandstone gravel, with some chips of smooth lignite mixed in, feet pointing downriver towards the Gulf of Mexico, arms outstretched first in the Da Vinci position and then close to your side, your head pointing directly upstream, parting the current of the river.
The sun slips behind one of the few clouds in the sky and the world goes gray and you involuntarily release a cool shiver. You pull yourself up on your elbows to inspect—a passing cloud A thunderstorm Is it evening already Does this day ever have to end
These moments are literally the happiest of my life, although in every superlative I ever utter there is a trump card, now 18 years old and beginning to think about heading back to college. She and I walked across the Little Missouri River a few weeks ago just outside of Medora. This river—alone among all the rivers of the world—has marked her short life. She was baptized in the Little Missouri when she was just a few months old, her father gripping the diaper, her mother having a nervous breakdown. I have carried her over to the other bank and back again on my shoulders a dozen times over the years. This was the first time she walked across on her own feet. We held hands hard, partly because that improves everybody's balance, partly because it was one of those perfect dad-daughter moments, and partly because she does not yet know how to read the river sufficiently to anticipate the moment when the firm bottom gives way to the gloppy shore mud that can suck you in to the knees, or worse, before you know what's happened.
As a frequent flyer I know I miss some lovely opportunities, but so far I have not had the joy of a massive and punishing thunderstorm this summer. I was, however, awakened last Saturday by one of the best experiences of ND life, a dawn thunderstorm followed by a sweet sustained rain shower. There is nothing quite like awakening at 4 a.m. to a crack of thunder, and then engaging in that foggy dawn internal debate about whether to hide under the covers and try to sleep through it, or get up and experience its full satisfaction.
Nor have I taken a thousand mile drive (coming); or canoed the White Cliffs of the Missouri (coming); or heard the croon of a coyote from inside a sleeping bag (coming); or counted meteorites on my back; or gotten lost on a two trail track in the badlands until the dust choked my nostrils and I looked nervously at the gas gauge. Life would be so much less without that.
With the arrival of August, I can hear the clock ticking, and as the evening begins to cool, I have found myself muttering lines from Shakespeare's Richard II I wasted time and now doth time waste me.