One of the things I love most about North Dakota is its rawness. You can create all the PR campaigns you want to show prospective workers that North Dakota is a quality-of-life paradise, but the plain fact is that it's an acquired taste and it is definitely not for the faint of heart. We've had a long, cold, unrelenting winter (fifth coldest in Grand Forks history), and every time you think it's about over, it wallops you in a new way. Three times I have put my shovels away for the year, and three times I have trudged them from their niche in the garage. I have damaged or ruined two pair of shoes by walking on what I assumed was at long last dry land.
So this is spring, is it? I've been more buffeted in the last week than I was all the long winter, perhaps because, like many of you, I started my annual outdoor life a little prematurely. Again. We cabin feverish North Dakotans explode out of our houses sometime in late March or early April, the minute it feels like spring, with white shins and a long list of planned activities, but we always see our shadow and scamper back inside for a few weeks longer. When was the last time you did not have to throw on a coat on Memorial Day? In North Dakota it is never reliably hot until the first week in July.
I'm deep into spring cleaning. On Saturday last I shoveled out the garage, not without some significant help. It was a sunny, warm day, thank goodness, but I found things in my garage that one should never encounter in such a place. In one sense it was like Christmas—wow, a brand new unopened socket set, wow, so that's where I put that buffalo robe. And in another sense it is like waking up in the third circle of Dante's Inferno. In that famous portrait of hell (14th century) everyone gets the eternity they deserve in an ironic karmic sort of way. For someone like me, who has almost never thrown away a sheet of paper or a notebook or a file, who has bought new toasters for every place he ever lived in, no matter how briefly, my hell will be to be buried under mountains of such detritus, unable to reach out to the New Testament just inches in front of me because I'm so heavily weighed down with a lifetime accumulation of pointlessness. How many boxes can you own? By the end of the day I discovered that there are things even the landfill won't take. Whatever happened to the old joyful anarchy of the town dump?
Last Sunday I drove deep into Indian Country and climbed a butte overlooking the Grand River in northern South Dakota. Saturday had been shirtsleeve warm, even t-shirt warm, so I was not prepared for the seasonal about-face that occurred overnight. When I got out of the car, wearing a coat that I had regarded as too thick back in my Bismarck entryway, I realized it was chilly. Ten minutes later I realized it was cold. And then I finally grasped, to my astonishment, that it was January cold, just this side of dangerously cold. The temperature had dropped at least fifty degrees overnight, and the wind was blowing like a sun of a gun. My brain is wired to discount the idea of windchill for the most part, and automatically after the spring equinox, but I actually found myself scrounging the back seat for a face mask and gloves on April 13th, the 103rd day of 2014.
I hiked up that butte with great joy. Unfortunately, I had to lug my out-of-shape, winter-sluggish body with me all the way up. This was already my second butte of 2014—it's going to be a great year—and the payoff, the view from the top, was spectacular. Not badlands, but broken lands in every direction to the end of the world, and in the near distance the Grand River cutting its way listlessly to the Mighty Missouri. Somewhere out in that vast open space, Sitting Bull's cabin site tucked into a perfect cottonwood bend in the Grand.
Eventually I found a hollow on top of that perfect box grass butte and lay down under the wind for half an hour. I even dozed off. There are few joys of Dakota life greater than that, napping on a butte under the radar of the rawness of the Great Plains.
Back home and steam cleaned, I reckoned that Sunday was just an example of those one-day throwback cold snaps you can get in any month of the year in North Dakota, but that the new week would be balmy and splendid. Over the weekend I heard from an unimpeachable source that the first pasqueflowers (crocuses) were blooming in the southern badlands. Are not those gossamer and infinitely gentle membranes of the palest blue, pure understated purple, a white that is more beautiful than white should ever be, the perfect Great Plains symbol of Easter, of renewal, and of resurrection? Every year at this time they press up unannounced through the gray dead grass of winter earth. It is worth a picnic trip to the badlands in the spring just to see the crocuses. You have to get down on your stomach and crawl up to one the way you would to the very lip of the Grand Canyon. They are that beautiful.
I woke up Monday to a winter wonderland, a perfect blanket of wet white snow in every direction. I literally did a double-take as I wandered out bewildered to the kitchen. By 11 a.m. it had snowed two or three inches, and yet it melted sufficiently by five p.m. that when I walked the long trail up by my house it was entirely dry, and it would be hard in a court of law to prove that it had snowed at all.
In the evenings I've been taking long walks, every day no matter what, which for me is the only way to break the sedentary habits of winter. But the wind has been blowing so hard and so incessantly that it has rattled my brains. It literally blew a set of headphones off of my head the other day, and a few of the gusts nearly blew me off the trail. When I stopped last evening to exchange calls with the meadowlark on the trail, the wind literally swallowed up everything each of us said. At night the wild gusts beat against my house as if it were a February blizzard. When the first calm warm sunny evening comes, 68 degrees and a 2 mph breeze, I'm going to slaughter the fatted calf and drink a glass of dark red wine as the sun slips over the western horizon.
The near-total lunar eclipse Monday night was magnificent. I got up four times to gaze in wonder.
We are fortunate to live out in the middle of nowhere, where there is so much to explore, and where you ignore the earth and the natural world at your peril. It's a kind of backwater paradise, if we have the will to keep it.