Volunteerism in the House that Harold Schafer Built

Last weekend my daughter and I drove out to see the Medora Musical for the first time this summer. It's always pure joy to sit in row G with the incomparable Sheila Schafer, now 90 years old (but going on 60!). When we were there she had already seen the Musical eight times this summer, but you would have thought she had just dropped in from Mars and was experiencing the show, the Burning Hills Amphitheater, and the badlands for the very first time. She laughed at every joke or gag as if she had not heard them repeatedly over the last three weeks. She jumped and clutched her throat when Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders shot their way up San Juan Hill. She cried over a sad country western song and when the patriotism climbed up towards tilt. If anyone could ever genuinely enjoy the Medora Musical more than Sheila Schafer does—and 30-40 times per summer—I have not met that person. 

Meanwhile, she performed her usual a whoopin' and a hollarin' routine from the stands, beginning with her ear-splitting salute, "Hi band!" when the Coal Diggers first appear on stage. People in our vicinity turn their heads to see who is making all the ruckus, but when they recognize that this is the famous Sheila Schafer, widow of the man who transformed the sleepy village of Medora into North Dakota's premier tourist attraction, they relax and smile knowingly. Sheila is almost as good a show as the Musical. Throughout the evening, people meander up the stairs nervously and kneel before her to tell her how she and Harold changed their lives some time long, long ago. "You won't remember me," says a woman in her sixties, but Harold put me through NDSU back in 1972, when my parents got a divorce." "You won't remember me, but you sent a gift to me in the hospital when I had that emergency surgery. And yet we had never even met."

She does remember.

Sheila is a living embodiment of the concept of grace. If grace is the love and benefit that come unearned, unexpected, and undeserved in life, when we least expect it, Sheila appears to exist to perform that role in the world. I have seen her write a note of appreciation to someone she has never met or heard of, but who was mentioned in the newspaper for having represented the Hettinger speech team at the national finals. "Congratulations! You've made all of North Dakota proud." Think of the effect of such an unlooked-for act of generosity--particularly in the heart of a young person just starting out in life.

The Harold and Sheila philosophy of life seems to inspire everyone who visits or works in Medora. Perhaps Harold put something in the water supply. He did, after all, build Medora's basic infrastructure in the 1960s. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (the heir to the Gold Seal Company) hosts an astonishing volunteer program, which this year will bring more than 600 people from all over the United States to spend 5-14 days in Medora—at their own expense. More than 1000 people from 23 states vied for the chance to come to Medora this summer to plant flowers, bus tables, sweep sidewalks, greet foursomes at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, work at one of the food stations at the Pitchfork Fondue, or hand out programs and point people to their seats at the Musical.

Why do they do volunteer? Because they love Medora and the badlands. Because they love what I call "the House that Harold built." Because they like the mix of innocence, family friendly entertainment, faith, patriotism, and optimism that Medora represents. Because they want to spend time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Because they are the kind of Americans who live to volunteer. Because they love Harold and Sheila Schafer, and all that they stand for. 

Someone close to me had a close encounter with the American medical system recently and was treated like a leper: rudeness, arrogance, dismissiveness, unnecessary pain, how do you intend to pay? But in Harold Schafer's Medora you never hear a rude remark and, if you do, that person will not be working there long. There is something at times a bit retro and corny about the Medora Musical, but that turns out to be one of its greatest charms. In an era of breathtaking change, including here in North Dakota, there is something very comforting in driving off the northern Great Plains into the badlands, into a kind of magic western frontier village where the old values and verities still have traction. When I see the TRMF's extraordinarily successful CEO Randy Hatzehbuhler running up and down the amphitheater steps selling popcorn, I just feel better about myself, my state, and my country, however silly that may sound.

The performers on that stage—the Burning Hills Singers, the Coal Diggers (band), Sheriff Bear, cowboy Lyle Glass, the Medora Trail Riders, and hosts Emily Walter and Bill Sorensen—dance and sing and play their hearts out night after night all summer long, in good weather and bad. And whatever the harshest critic may say of this dance or that joke, the performers are clearly having the time of their life, and the audience quickly leaves all their troubles aside and surrenders to the spirit of the place. Innocence still matters. When the North Dakotans in the cast are introduced, they get a roar of pride and affection. When Emily Walter (an Air Force veteran) asks all the veterans in the audience to stand, I choke up every time. Nor can I hear the North Dakota songs without covering my face and feeling a wave of joy, pride, nostalgia, and loss wash through me. Several of the key players on that stage have significant health issues, but you would never know it from the unrestrained exuberance and joyfulness of their performances. 

Meanwhile, back at the Rough Riders Hotel, my young Argentine friends Fecundo and Lucia (and all of their mates from 28 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states), work cheerfully through long shifts as if it were a privilege to spend their summers in Medora rather than a job. We have all experienced the sullenness of service employees in some of our national parks and in commercial stores and restaurants around the United States, and indeed here in North Dakota. But you never see that in Medora.

Why? The best answer I have is that the spirit of the founder, Harold Schafer, lives on. Randy Hatzenbuhler has done a marvelous job of keeping Harold's spirit at the center of every aspect of the Medora Foundation's mission. Another CEO might not have been able to do that, or even wished to. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the indomitable Sheila Schafer is now spending her 50th consecutive summer in Medora, on this, the 50th anniversary ofthe Medora Musical. If you ask her, she will tell you all about "my five terminal diseases," with joyful detachment, while she bakes 200 rolls for a family gathering or rolls out a pair of rhubarb pies, plays a couple of rounds of miniature golf, greets a parade of strangers on her front porch, or gets ready to whoop her way through another Musical performance under the moon and stars. 

Happy Golden Anniversary, Medora Musical. What would a North Dakota summer be without you?

Winter for Wimps With Praise for Mrs. Howard's Grit

Last night two ants walked across my kitchen table while I was reading. I've heard about the January thaw all of my life, but this is ridiculous. The record temperatures seem to have thrown off the internal clocks of the ants and propelled them out along my kitchen floor in search of crumbs. I didn't have the heart to crush the life out of the two advance men, the Lewis and Clark of the kitchen recon. They will die of natural causes soon enough, I think.

I was in Medora over the weekend for an educational retreat, and each afternoon walked west on the asphalt trail that parallels old highway 10 and the railroad out to where the Marquis de Mores' goons shot Riley Luffsey in cold blood on June 26, 1883. On the first day the wind was blowing like a son of a gun, as we Dakotans say, so although the temperature was 38 or so, the wind chill felt like ten below. On the second day, I walked with my jacket unbuttoned, no mittens, no hat, and only twice in two hours did I think it might be smart to button up the jacket. On the third day, shirtsleeves were entirely adequate.

Before I left for Medora, I would have shoveled my sidewalks and driveway if there had been time, because they were covered with a fair amount of crusted snow where the winds have packed it up in the past few weeks. There just wasn't time to shovel. When I returned three days later every square inch of my corner sidewalk and big driveway was bone dry. The garden had emerged in the back yard from under the snowpack.

It's the mildest January I can ever remember. I know some severe weather is still to come, and winter is at least ten weeks from being over. This is not a state to get complacent in. I love North Dakota in all of its moods and seasons. In fact, I love a brutal winter. There is nothing like that early morning encounter with what Jack London calls "The North" when you step out of doors at 43 below, that somewhat anxious realization that we are living high up near the edge of the last latitudes of human habitation. On mornings like that you involuntarily scan the horizon.

I love not knowing for sure that the car will start. I love the dull sound of my boots on the 30-below snow. I love the camaraderie of the grocery store and the coffee shop when people stomp in and clap each other on the shoulders and do the standard North Dakota riff raff chorus. I love that moment in a calm night when the wind whips up suddenly into a frenzy and you can hear the grit grinding the surface of the siding on the northwest side of the house.

I can remember from my childhood on grimly cold mornings turning on KDIX on our battery powered portable radio to hear the litany of event cancellations. Mother would perch the radio on the bathroom sink or the kitchen table and tell us to "get dressed just in case." And then Stan Deck's KDIX baritone: "The Busy Bunnies 4-H banquet is canceled tonight at the Eagles Club and will be rescheduled at a later time." "The Knights of Columbus style show has been indefinitely postponed." "And now here's a little tune from the Monkeys to cheer you up." Once we learned—to our deep chagrin—that school had not in fact been canceled, though it might be let out early, we switched back to the Ole Reb on KFYR, where we belonged. School was hardly ever canceled in those days, but during my high school years the rural buses didn't always come in when it was blizzardy.

There is a paradox of inverse proportions in our time. Back in the 60s and 70s the cars didn't start very well when it got brutally cold. Parkas, hoods, gloves, and boots were much less sophisticated. But we all soldiered on through the bitterest weeks of winter with a kind of resigned stoic calm. I remember walking to and from high school, well more than a mile each way, on the worst days of the year and not thinking anything was amiss. Today we have infinitely better gear. Fuel injection means that most cars start every time. The doors and seals on vehicles are much tighter now than they were in my youth. I have three or four pair of winter boots, one of which is guaranteed to keep your feet warm to 100 below. The mittens and gloves are outstanding, if you spend enough, and for the wimps of the world there are chemical hand and foot warmers. The winter undergarments now wick the sweat away from the body almost instantly. And yet now our institutions seem to have a hair-trigger for cancellation. Sometimes it feels as if we North Dakotans have become pathetically squeamish—every superintendent now seems to fear "an incident on my watch" more than lost education.

Through the first half of my life they never really closed the Interstates, no matter what. No travel was advised, sometimes sternly, but if you were dumb enough to venture out, you could usually piece your way through to the other end of the state. Such lurching, low or no visibility, white-knuckle, "oh please, Lord, oh please" road trips are part of the joy of living in North Dakota, at least in retrospect. I remember once when my friend Philip Howard's mother drove to Williston to see her older son play basketball in blizzard conditions that were universally regarded as suicidal. She was driving a low-slung Chevy four-door with rear wheel drive. We reckoned we would never see her again. About midnight she calmly walked back into her house in Dickinson. "Yeah, roads were pretty bad," she said, and brewed a cup of tea. Nothing more. Today the big gates go down on the highways whenever serious storms blow through the state. 

If this winter remains mild (unlikely), it will be good news for stockmen, for oil workers, for every town's snow removal budget, for everyone's fuel bills, especially the American Indians who live on extremely tight budgets at out of the way places on the reservations, and for the state's wildlife. We need a few mild winters to rebuild the populations of deer, pronghorn antelope, and other wild creatures. A few mild winters would enable us to measure more precisely how much of the wildlife drawdown has natural causes and how much is the result of the intense industrialization of western North Dakota.

Even if this winter takes a harsh turn, we have broken the back of it already, and we'll will march forward with joy rather than grim determination. The light is returning. We are already 42 days past the longest night of the year. Already we get at least 9 hours, 27 minutes of light every day, up from 8 hours, 32 minutes on December 21. "Official" calendar Spring is now only 47 days away, and "Actual North Dakota Spring" is now no more than three months away. In other words, we're home free.

I'm starting to gather up my garden seeds. I'm going to walk five miles on the bare trails during the Super Bowl halftime, and see if I cannot stir up my own costume malfunction.

Immigration Reform: Let's Start by Rewarding Those Who Play by the Rules

This is a parable about the promise and the paralysis of America. I was dining at the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora last week with Sheila Schafer. Her favorite waiter was serving us, a handsome and exceptionally friendly and well-spoken young man from Argentina. I'll call him Frank. He is here on a work visa, but he will soon have to return to Argentina to remain in compliance with American immigration law. His fiancé—I'll call her Lucy—is an energetic and graceful young Argentinian woman with a perfect spirit of hospitality. She, too, works in the hotel restaurant. They are a photogenic and charming couple just starting their life together.

They love America. They are ideal candidates for the American Dream. They would like to stay here permanently. "Lucy" and "Frank" would be ideal American citizens—hard working, self-reliant, law abiding, well informed, and more enamored with American ideals than many of us.

They will almost certainly not get to spend their lives in the United States, and it is extremely unlikely that they will become American citizens. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation employs young people from several dozen countries. Most of them spend a couple of seasons here and then return to their native lands with stories to tell about the American West, and money in their pockets. A few wish to stay and cast their lot with us. It is almost impossible. The legal wranglings that would be necessary to try to help them achieve their American dream would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and there is no guarantee of success.

It took me about twenty minutes to write the three paragraphs you have just read. If it is true that approximately 10,000 illegal immigrants enter the United States every day, then 139 individuals have sneaked across our borders while I tapped out these words, and more than 500 entered the U.S. illegally while Mrs. Schafer and I dined on lobster bisque and lamb chops.

This is not good, not right, and decidedly not just.

Every nation has a natural right to set its own conditions of citizenship. This is fundamental to the idea of national sovereignty. Each nation develops a social contract: you are a citizen of X-Land under the following conditions; these are your rights as a citizen, and these are your responsibilities. Nobody requires you to show up on our shores, but if you do, you have to meet the conditions we have agreed upon or, with all due respect, you are not welcome here. And, by the way, you have to stand in line, for there are hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people around the world who want to live and work in the United States, and become naturalized citizens, and they are up ahead of you. Why should foreigners who respect the law and play by the rules wait—some for ten years or more, some forever—while those who begin their American journey by violating the law and cheating the system are rewarded?

I know it's a little more complicated than that. Extreme poverty makes people do desperate, sometimes heroic things. People flee oppression when they see no alternative. Certain American businesses—particularly labor-intensive agribusiness, the building trades, landscape services, and the hospitality industry—benefit from our porous southern border and are not eager for tighter immigration control. The staggering differential in prosperity and material blessings between the United States and its southern neighbors makes illegal immigration inevitable and irresistible. There are jobs that most homegrown Americans prefer not to do. It's a cruel paradox: the law of supply and demand lures illegals here—to the advantage of the American economy—and then we get to blame and exploit the most vulnerable human beings in our midst.

At some point the Congress of the United States is going to pass immigration reform. We've gotten close a couple of times, but the die-hards in the House of Representative are so insistent on the moral dimension (see above) that they forget that this is also an urgent practical issue that must be resolved. The McCain-Kennedy bill of 2005 was defeated by furious blow-back from those who are determined to destroy any plan that would permit the 11-20 million illegals in the country to be given legal status as permanent guest workers or de facto American citizens, even if they paid a $1500 fine (try enforcing that). Plans to round up and deport illegal immigrants may sound appealing to those who cannot transcend their sense of moral outrage, but that would be ruinously expensive, would almost certainly fail to achieve its ends, and would turn the United States into a police state. It also violates the basic humanity both of those who would be deported, and of those who would deport them.

I think we all know, deep below the rhetoric of outrage, that at some point we are indeed going to have to grandfather the millions of illegal immigrants in, whether we like it or not, while at the same time attempting to create a clean slate of better, more enforceable immigration protocols.

If a wall along our southern border is the only practical way to prevent people from Central America from infiltrating the United States illegally, I say build it, though the idea makes me feel a little icky for two reasons. First, it doesn't seem like a very attractive symbol of America. To my mind, it feels like something that belongs in the category of Guantanamo and the appalling Fourth Amendment violations of the NSA. It makes the whole country a gated community. Second, it feels like an act of desperation and moral feebleness, like Hadrian's Wall in northern England, up at the far extreme of the Roman Empire; or the fascistic-feeling walls that now slither through the no man's land between Israeli settlements and what's left of the Palestinian Homeland.

So the world's greatest "nation of immigrants" slams shut the door.

We would probably need to add a few new words to Emma Lazarus' magnificent sonnet, "The New Colossus" (1883), that graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor: "DON'T give me your tired, your poor, DON'T SEND
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, YOU TAKE CARE OF the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. DON'T send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift AND GLEEFULLY EXTINGUISH my lamp beside the golden door."

Still, if a majority of Americans insist upon a wall along the Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona borders, if that is the deal-breaking condition for our finding it in our hearts to let most of the current illegals remain in the land they sought out to fulfill their dreams, then I say let's break ground.

But here is what I would like to insist upon when comprehensive immigration reform comes. We need to find a way to fast track an equal number (in other words millions) of people like Frank and Lucy, who have been standing in line for a very long time, who yearn to breathe our free, fabulous air, who yearn to contribute their talents to the economy and the culture and civility and creativity of America. Those who have played by the rules need to be celebrated and embraced, not punished, with a national apology for the years we have kept them waiting while we engage in pointless demagoguery about issues that in many respects are beyond human control.

We should give special honors to those who play by the rules.

Will It Ruin Your Day If I Use the Word "Snow Blower?"

July is almost gone. Any day now the box stores will carve out large spaces for school supplies. We all know what's coming—what every North Dakotan knows must come—and it makes us want to linger outdoors in the evening, makes us want to schedule more picnics, more hikes, more days at the lake, more time on the river, more afternoons in the badlands than we would think appropriate if this were southern California and summer lasted forever. We cannot afford to pace ourselves here. North Dakotans have to squeeze in an awful lot of recreation between July 1 and Labor Day. It's use it or lose it on the northern plains.

My daughter and I were in Medora last week to see the Medora Musical with the great Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her fiftieth summer in the badlands.

Sheila's husband Harold Schafer (1912-2001) started with nothing in life, worked like a demon, made what was then a vast fortune by marketing Glass Wax, Snowy Bleach, and Mr. Bubble, and then gave it all away—to worthy young people who needed money to go to college, to fledgling organizations and institutions across North Dakota, to perfect strangers for whom he felt instantaneous bursts of sympathy. But above all to the broken down little cattle town Medora, which he began to restore in the 1960s.

After he had rebuilt the Joe Ferris Store and the Rough Riders Hotel, Harold more or less inherited the Burning Hills Amphitheater when the NDSU outdoor melodrama Old Four Eyes broke down. At the time, the amphitheater was just plank boards and a rudimentary stage perched on a steep badlands slope. No seat backs. When it rained, the hillside oozed down onto the stage, and Harold and Sheila could be seen, along with Gold Seal's Rod Tjaden and whoever else was handy, shoveling mud and bentonite off the stage to clear the way for the show.

Harold decided that what Medora needed was a music and dance extravaganza—songs with a western feel, a little dollop of "Teddy" Roosevelt, a little gospel, a little humor, some serious patriotism, and a celebration of virtue and the work ethic. Harold brought reliable family entertainment to the badlands, derivative, during those first years, of the Lawrence Welk Show. In the middle of each show he wanted a visiting "act:" acrobats, clowns, comics, or—if the gods were smiling—a dog act, like one of Harold's perennial favorites, "Victor Julian and His Pets." Nothing like a dozen poodles in pink tutus.

In the early years, a crowd of 300 was seen as a "stunning success," but even to achieve that, Harold sometimes had to round up nurses or bank tellers in Bismarck, bus them at his own expense out to Medora, feed them along the way, and give them free passes to the show. If you think about it, it's an inherently insane idea: to try to get a thousand people per night to venture west to a village with a permanent population of around 100, for the purpose of seeing an outdoor song and dance show during North Dakota's brief temperate season. Only Harold Schafer could have cooked up such an improbable notion, and only Harold Schafer could have persevered to make it work. In 1992, the current version of the Burning Hills Amphitheater was built, with its wide stage, sets and backdrops worthy of Hollywood or Disneyland, a state-of-the-art sound system, and comfortable seats. All it needs to achieve perfection is a second escalator. Average summer attendance is now slightly more than 100,000.

The Musical is always good and sometimes great. But I doubt 1000 people per night would venture into the Bismarck Civic Center to see it. The magic of the Medora Musical is that in order to see it you have to sit in the open air on a summer night in the badlands. You begin the evening under blue skies and end it under the twinkling stars of the northern hemisphere. Before the show, I like to linger up on the Tjaden Terrace, where you can look to the south and see North Dakota's greatest butte, Bullion Butte, off on the horizon, and nothing but broken badlands in between.

As I sat there Tuesday night, next to two of my favorite people in the world, in shirtsleeves, with happy, relaxed, and happy people seated all around us, I had that sudden realization that we North Dakotans get, "Hey, I'm sitting outside at nine p.m. It's still light. There are no mosquitos. The temperature is absolutely perfect. I'm in my shirtsleeves." But gurgling through the lower reaches of my brain was the grim knowledge that there are really only about fifty such shirtsleeve days per year in North Dakota, about one in seven. There are at least four months per year (November-February) during which no amount of protective gear would be enough to keep you in am amphitheater seat for two hours, four more (October and March-May) when you'd be in a pathetic group huddle under parkas, stocking caps, mittens, and blankets, and the Burning Hills Singers would be blue, stiff, lurching stick figures, blown off the stage from time to time, slogging not clogging to the sound of music. Actually, I have experienced such an evening at the Musical, two years ago, and it was in late June!

September is arguably the most beautiful month in North Dakota. In an ideal world, the Musical would start on June 20 and continue to October 12. That's 114 temperate days, outdoor amphitheater days. If we lived by "Summer Savings Time" rather than Daylight Savings Time, and the North Dakota school system would agree to cooperate, we wouldn't have to roll up summer (boats, cabins, picnic and camping gear) on Labor Day, and effectively shut down our outdoor life a month early. We North Dakotans need to savor every temperate day we get. It's a shame to move life indoors prematurely, when there is still so much joy to be banked in anticipation of the first ground blizzard.

In the course of my life, I have seen the Musical at least 50 times, most of them with Sheila Schafer whooping next to me, shouting out "hi, band!," laughing, wiping away tears, dancing in her seat, and single-clapping, as if she were sitting in the amphitheater for the very first time. All I can say is it's quite a show—and so is the Musical. When she is in the house, all the performers bring their best game to the stage. It's impossible, I realize, not to be carried away by Sheila's youthfulness (at 89) and generosity of spirit, but I do honestly think this is the best Medora Musical ever. The talent of the Burning Hills Singers is more uniformly high than ever before. Chet Wollan just gets better every year, and he somehow fills that whole wide stage when he steps forward to sing. Candice Lively has a perfect Medora Musical voice. When she sings about North Dakota, I just well up in state pride every time. Host Emily Walter is so major a talent that it is amazing she is willing to spend it out here on the frontier. And Bill Sorensen's buffoonery never fails to make the audience groan with appreciation—what could be better than that?

It got dark a little sooner last night. By my calculation, we have just 36 days until Labor Day. That's when we fire up the snow blower, just to make sure.

Time to Stop Exporting Our Native Talent

My mother and daughter and I were sitting at the Medora Musical on the Fourth of July—soaking in the joy of a perfect evening in a perfect place. This year's Musical looks back over 50 years of song and dance on the stage of the Burning Hills Amphitheater. At one point the lovely and talented host Emily Walter mentions a few Musical performers who went on to national careers: David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), Job Christianson (Broadway), Tom Netherton (The Lawrence Welk Show), and most recently Kat Perkins (The Voice).

It's an impressive but only a partial list. Harold Schafer's summer open-air show has been the nursery for some major national talent. More importantly, it has served as a platform on which scores of talented young people have had the chance to live out their dreams of performing live before large audiences in one of the most beautiful places in North Dakota.

When Theodore Roosevelt spoke of "the glory of work and the joy of living," he helped to create the mythology of the Old West frontier. That mythology is alive and well in Harold Schafer's Medora, and in Sheila Schafer, now 89, who sits in Row G, a whoopin' and a hollarin' as if she were seeing the Medora Musical for the first time. We all know that she has seen the Musical on several thousand occasions in the last 50 years, and yet every evening that she glides down the escalator into the amphitheater, the magic of an outdoor theater in the heart of the badlands rejuvenates her. And everyone around her.

One of the best things about the economic miracle that has come to North Dakota is that it is laying the groundwork for a burst of new cultural activity in a state that has traditionally exported its talent. The old paradigm was represented by Angie Dickinson and Eric Sevareid—talented and ambitious North Dakotans who were born and raised here, but who left the state at the first opportunity and seldom came back. In fact, Sevareid and Dickinson both sometimes spoke about North Dakota as if it were a slough of rural parochialism and mediocrity that had to be overcome if one really wished to live a full and happy life. Once they achieved escape velocity, they gave their mighty energies to other zip codes, and came back once in a very long while to accept awards from a state that congratulated itself for giving the world people it could not keep.

That North Dakota is ebbing away and I say good riddance. I revere Sevareid, who epitomizes what sane public commentary should be, and who was a lively presence at the birth of broadcast news. And I had the chance a year or so ago to be part of an interview with Angie Dickinson, who has softened her quarrel with the northern prairie, and whose performance in Rio Bravo (with John Wayne, 1959) is enough to make you fall in love. But they left forever.

The Minot-born actor Josh Duhamel is a source of pride for North Dakotans, and he seems genuinely to care about the land of his childhood, but we ought to be prouder of musician and writer Jesse Veeder-Scofield, who has chosen to live on a ranch near Watford City, when she could live anywhere, and who sings the song of North Dakota (not Texas, not Hollywood, not New York City and not Nashville), including the song of the oil boom. Her creativity and her art are not just derived from the broken country of western North Dakota, but her Muse seems to be here, in the creaking floors of the old ranch house and out along the ridgeline. Her presence amongst us makes North Dakota a better, richer place to live. She is just getting started. We need people like Jesse to explore our experience and tell our story, to tease out the mystery and identity of North Dakota in the twenty-first century. Her presence will attract other young artists, especially young women, to cast their lot here and not just bolt for easier venues.

The same is true of our fabulous troubadour Chuck Suchy, who is a great musician and an actual farmer south of Mandan. That's the source of his authenticity. His music over the last few decades has taught us how to love our home place. He has given us a vocabulary for our pride in wildflowers, in a red hunting dog bursting through the tall grass, in the dignity of agricultural life. He is more significant to North Dakota than Warren Christopher, now deceased, who was born in Scranton in 1925, and who served as President Clinton's Secretary of State. Christopher was an important diplomat, but what did he do for North Dakota? He's in the Rough Rider Hall of Fame, as he deserves, but the fact is that he built his life elsewhere. He was one of our great exports. Chuck Suchy has done more for us than anyone who was merely born here. And he is not yet in the Rough Rider Hall of Fame.

Over the past couple of years I have heard Governor Jack Dalrymple, on at least half a dozen occasions, say that we should use some of the great Bakken oil windfall to fund and encourage cultural activity in North Dakota. I love it when he speaks of the cultural heritage and potential of North Dakota, of our responsibility to give it as much attention as we give wheat and soybeans, higher education and oil zone infrastructure. It is clear that he has a vision of what North Dakota could and should be in the year 2030—and beyond. Few places ever get what we are getting—a sudden gigantic infusion of wealth and possibility, beyond our immediate ability to spend it or spread it around. I think the Governor is right that we will be judged—centuries hence—by just how we invested the surpluses.

We have it in our power to make North Dakota the most remarkable place on the Great Plains, one of the most remarkable places in America, if we have the imagination and vision to plant the seeds now.

Great things are already happening here. Some of them are still below the radar, but you will hear more and more about them in the coming years. Organic farms, community gardens, a new higher agrarianism, a food coop (soon!). A renaissance of craft and localism, more high tech and somewhat less clunky than the kind we prized in our grandparents. Independent filmmakers are sprouting up all over the landscape. Brew pubs. Young writers are coming or returning to the state, drawn by the complicated story of the boom, but their best work will almost certainly be about something else that is rooted on the northern plains. When is the last time a North Dakotan wrote anything as good as Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1976)? That moment is likely to come, and it will owe something to shale oil.

I do not wish to play down the dark side of the industrial revolution that has swept into our beloved homeland. But we need to remember that the other side of the coin represents virtually infinite possibility, if we have the strength and imagination to insist upon it. We must demand a conservation and cultural renaissance as our compensation for the losses we feel but hardly yet dare to express.

When the Thunder Comes, Summer Cannot Be Far Behind

On Monday, March 5, I heard my first thunder of 2014. It was the 125th day of the year, one of the first shirtsleeve days of 2014. I'd been in Dickinson for an early evening meeting. My soul is ragged these days. I'd promised myself I'd bend down in prayer before a crocus (pasqueflower) before the day was out, and I have learned to measure my mental health in reverse proportion to the number of days since I was last in the badlands. So on a whim I drove to Medora, into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and then into Cottonwood Campground. I'm keeping what I call "last minute camping equipment" in my vehicle through the summer.

Given the rapid industrialization of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has emerged as the one last pure sanctuary where, as long as you are facing inward from its boundaries, you can climb up over a ridge and be sure you will not see a fracking rig or an array of storage tanks on the other side. There is something deeply, even profoundly, comforting in knowing that the National Park will always be able to deliver that spiritual solace—a quiet landscape left alone by man's hustlings—no matter what happens beyond the park perimeters.

There were just five occupied campsites in Cottonwood campground. Three of them had large RVs, and there was one other tent a few hundred yards away. RV and fifth wheel folks tend to spend their time inside their portable houses, which begs some questions, but makes them ideal campsite neighbors.

Part of what makes tent and backpack camping so enjoyable is the way it forces simplification on our lives. If you have to carry it on your back, you are not going to take much, and much that you think you need you soon find that you don't.

It was a "short notice camping trip," so all I had was a blue and off-white tent, a lightweight air mattress, a sleeping bag, water, an exquisitely elegant and miniature gas cooking burner, two miniature pans, a plastic knife and spoon, a small salt and pepper shaker in one reversible cylinder, a Swiss Army Knife, a butane lighter, one food packet, two small bars of chocolate, a miner's lamp that you attach to your forehead with its elastic headband, and a book. I had a backpack, too, but this was car camping, so I barely needed it. This whole ensemble weighed less than twenty pounds. There is something purely delightful in assembling all this miniature high-tech gear. I was roughing it, but roughing it at the top of a very ingenious industrial pyramid.

Nor is such gear cheap. Making any important thing lightweight is an expensive challenge. I just made an itemized list of the gear described above, and the retail price—if you were starting tomorrow—comes to $1,385.40. The backpack ($450), tent ($250), and sleeping bag ($250) are the big ticket items, but once you have them they will last for twenty years or more, if you aren't infected with a raging itch for newer, lighter, more ingenious gear. I can hear my father saying, $1400 would buy a lot of hotel rooms, and they throw in the shower and toilet.

As soon as I had picked my campsite (a very complex enterprise in an organized campground, fraught with second-guessing, backtracking, and lingering misgivings), I walked down to the sacred Little Missouri River. It was up, but not greatly up, and flowing as calmly as it ever gets. I reckoned I could walk through it without wetting my chin, but it was now just an hour before sunset and I didn't want to have to start a fire at my campsite. I never light fires when I am alone. It feels self-indulgent and, though I know it is silly, I don't like the feeling of being exposed alone in the firelight with darkness all around me. I put up the tent (four minutes), and threw my sleeping bag over a bush to air out. The air mattress is one of those self-inflating units.

In honor of the 17-day hike I took on the Little Missouri River a few years ago, and in pursuit of simplicity, I decided to cook a freeze-dried meal from a plastic pouch. You can buy them now at any good outdoor recreation store. They are surprisingly tasty. I chose Chicken & Rice, but if I remember correctly the Lasagna and the Kung Pao Chicken are the best of the lot. All you do is tear open the top of the package, pour in 14 ounces of boiling water, seal up the packet (it has a double ziplock), and let it stand for about ten minutes. Voila: a hot camp meal that occupies a space somewhere between "not bad" and "surprisingly good." I wouldn't recommend it for a date, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend camping with anyone who isn't as eager to do it as you are. The 6 a.m. sullen, sleep-deprived, "I cannot believe you talked me into this," "this is going to be a very bad hair day," look is priceless, but you do wind up paying a price down the line.

After supper, I folded and tucked all the miniature gear back into the appropriate satchels. This is an important part of the ritual, for it reminds us of how little we really need in life, how easily our basic needs can be met, and how much more graspable and manageable life is when we reduce it to lowest terms.

For a while I read my book—a novel by Dickens—at the picnic table, using my nerd headlamp. For a while I stood silently in the juniper trees listening to the concert of a half a dozen species of birds bedding down for the night. And listening to the strange comings and goings of the breeze—a long period of complete calm followed by a little flow-through of purposeful air, and then two more soughings through my campsite, a longer one and a shorter, at long intervals, but never rising to the strength of wind. I remembered John 3:8: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."

It is a little eerie standing there all alone on the banks of the Little Missouri River, ears on special alert, trying to drink in the spirit of place of the Great Plains, trying to identify the sounds of quiet (crickets, frogs, owls, bats, small rustling mammals in the dry grass), and puzzling over the way the unhurried breeze now visits, kissing the tops of the trees, and then slips away like a living presence.

An hour later, cocooned in my down bag, I heard the first rumble of 2014 thunder off to the west. As I dozed in and out of sleep the little starter storm crept in to my tentsite, and gave me two outstanding "just over your head" ka-booms, no interval between the flash of lightning and the thunder retort.

It was just scary enough to be perfect. It was the sound of a much-anticipated summer in North Dakota.

Praise for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's Special Places Initiative

We have now reached the defining moment of North Dakota life in the 21st century.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has quietly put together a very modest proposal to designate a small number of acreages of western North Dakota as special or extraordinary places, and to require oil companies to treat those few parcels with special care when they extract the oil. The Attorney General has proposed that the North Dakota Industrial Commission, of which he is one of three members, adopt a set of special rules (or processes) for the management of those few acres.

It's that simple. And here's the most important point. If the Industrial Commission votes to accept Stenehjem's proposal, not a single barrel of oil will be put off limits.

The short list of parcels Stenehjem has in mind includes such things as the near perimeter of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; North Dakota's most magnificent landform Bullion Butte (south of Medora); the inner channel of the Little Missouri River; historically important sections of the Killdeer Mountains; the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers; the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea; Pretty Butte north of Marmarth. And a few others.

If you ask 100 people to name the most beautiful, fragile, pristine, or sensitive parcels of western North Dakota, almost everyone's list is going to be the same for the first dozen or so places. Everyone understands that the best of the badlands are more valuable to the Idea and Identity of North Dakota than a lovely coulee near Parshall or Crosby. Public lands are inevitably easier to identify with, recreate on, and protect than strictly private properties, however beautiful those may be or special to their private owners. We take our collective identity from those things and places we especially prize (a flag, a veteran's cemetery, a church, a landscape vista), and it is in the interest of a civilized people to make reasonable discriminations about such things as they develop and clarify public policy.

When Stenehjem began to think about this initiative he said, emphatically, that any list he made would need to be shorter rather than longer (a very few very special places, not a unrestrained conservation "wish list"), and that no list would preclude oil development in those parcels. He was adamant that the state of North Dakota has no right to violate the sanctity of contract between private parties or to intrude itself between a willing mineral owner and a willing oil company.

The shortness of Stenehjem's list and his repeated vocal insistence on the sanctity of private property rights has frustrated some members of the environmental or conservationist community in North Dakota. But Stenehjem did not undertake this initiative to please this or that constituency. He has taken the lead because he loves North Dakota, greatly appreciates the landscapes that happen to overlay the Bakken oil shales, and because he understands that reasonable regulatory protocols are as important in the oil fields as they are in all businesses that impact public health and welfare. As a member of the state Industrial Commission, he has a unique public responsibility—to uphold our laws, to promote economic development, to serve the interests of all North Dakotans, and to balance competing interests for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.

I think Wayne Stenehjem deserves great credit for his leadership in the most critical issue in North Dakota life, the most critical moment (I believe) in my lifetime as a North Dakota citizen. My respect for him was always high, but it has deepened dramatically as this initiative has begun to unfold. The easiest thing would have been to just leave it alone, to stamp the oil permits and get out of the way. To show leadership at a time like this is to invite criticism and backlash from both ends of the spectrum, and to have one's integrity maligned by those (on the one hand) who think that any restraint on the oil industry is tantamount to confiscation and communism, and those (on the other) who believe that the special places initiative is nothing more than a public relations smokescreen behind which the "rape" of North Dakota will continue unabated.

The Attorney General is no wild-eyed liberal. He is not a "radical environmentalist," as some in the oil industry like to characterize those who do not rubber stamp all of their extraction plans. He is not trying to lock up North Dakota to oil development, or even a tiny number of parcels. Above all, he knows and respects the U.S. Constitution, the North Dakota Constitution, and the common law. He knows and condemns what would constitute a Fifth Amendment "taking" of landowners' or mineral owners' property rights, or an unfair burden on private property. He's a brilliant man. He's a Republican. He's a cheerful and serious advocate of the oil boom. He's a man of unimpeachable integrity.

The fate of the Attorney General's initiative is going to tell us who we are and what we value and where we draw the line as the first half of the 21st century unfolds in North Dakota. If his leadership prevails, it will not only help to mitigate the industrial impact on those parcels he has designated (and yet still permit oil development), but it will also reassure the people of North Dakota that the government of the state is directing this great economic boom rather than being passively directed by it, that we are sovereign, that we are in control of our own destiny. His list may seem conservative and modest, but it will make a huge difference to the spirit of North Dakota. We are awash in oil.

If Stenehjem's initiative fails, if neither Governor Dalrymple nor Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring chooses to support the Special Places protocols, it will be an unmistakable sign that nothing is sacred in North Dakota anymore, that everything is for sale, with the least resistance, to the highest bidder. It will be a license to the oil companies that they may have their way with us, because we are insufficiently committed to our own sacred landscape to make reasonable requests about how it should be stripped of its oil reserves.

Oil industry pressure on Governor Dalrymple is going to be gigantic, almost unbearable. Already a "landowners' group" has sprung up, located interestingly enough in Tulsa, Oklahoma, denouncing the Attorney General's initiative, urgently warning mineral owners that, "Nearly a million acres of private land across the Peace Garden State may soon be restricted or even condemned." This is so erroneous that it would appear to be a naked lie, both with respect to the number of acres in question, and the suggestion that lands may be condemned, which is no part of Stenehjem's proposal whatsoever. Furthermore, that "landowners' group" warns that, "Out-of-state interests are pushing their anti-development agenda in Bismarck." This would be hilarious if it were not patently untrue and unfair. The Special Places initiative was wholly the brainchild of Wayne Stenehjem (decidedly in-state!) and nobody else, and his "agenda" is in no way whatsoever "anti-development."

I find such tactics simply appalling. An initiative of this importance deserves a serious public debate. That debate will be passionate, possibly even acrimonious at times. But it ought to be a debate by North Dakotans about the future of North Dakota, and it ought to be conducted with a commitment to honesty and fair play.

In my 58 years, I have never felt more strongly about anything than I feel about this.

Thanks to Valerie Naylor for Award-winning National Park Stewardship

As my mother and our guest and I sat around my dining room table on Thursday evening, we explained some of what we are thankful for this year. Our lists are long—health, friendship, family, freedom, longevity, and the abundance of American life. But this year I feel especially thankful that Valerie Naylor is the Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

A few weeks ago, Valerie received the National Parks Conservation Association's prestigious Stephen T. Mather conservation award. She accepted the award at the 36th annual Ranger Rendezvous in St. Louis. It's an amazing achievement, all the more impressive because Valerie did not seek it and, in her characteristically modest and matter of fact manner, she neither expected it nor, for that matter, ever even thought about it. She just did her job with exceptional skill and thoughtfulness, and those who study the future of North Dakota from elsewhere in the nation realized how important her superintendency has become. She won the 2013 Mather Award for her outstanding vigilance in protecting Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the impact of the Bakken Oil Boom, and for her previous management of the complicated and controversial elk reduction project that reduced the elk herd at TRNP from 1200 to about 200 critters.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of America's 58 National Parks. The great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called the National Park System "America's best idea." TRNP is North Dakota's only National Park. It is one of North Dakota's best assets and finest treasures, without which we would be a far less interesting place. It is a relatively small national park, at 70,446 acres, and it is subdivided into three units: the North Unit near Watford City, the South Unit just north of Medora, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit (218) acres, midway between.

The three units embrace and protect some of the most beautiful and distinctive terrain on the Great Plains. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had a significant presence in all three units of what became the National Park, especially the Elkhorn, where he established one of his two Dakota Territory ranches between 1883 and 1887. All three units are bisected by the magnificent Little Missouri River. Because the three units are separated and fairly widely dispersed, they present a serious management challenge. They have lots of perimeter, and no single unit is sufficiently large for a visitor to escape entirely the nagging claims of the outside world.

Now that the Bakken Oil Boom has overwhelmed the landscapes, the social structure, the economy, and the politics of North Dakota, the National Park is beginning to resemble a beleaguered trio of wild and endangered islands surrounded in every direction by a noisy industrial revolution. The three units of TRNP are more important to North Dakota and the world every day, because they are becoming the last precious remnants of what was once an endless untrammeled wilderness, what Roosevelt described as "a land of vast silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman." If that Rooseveltian sentence does not make you ache for our losses, nothing will.

A No Frills Quiet Thanksgiving on New Dishes

Never in my life have I looked forward to Thanksgiving more. I have been so busy this year that I just feel bewildered, numb, vague, and disembodied. I look on the holiday as an enforced and very welcome day of rest. My daughter is spending the break with her mama in northwest Kansas, so there will be no more than three for the Thanksgiving feast at my house, and perhaps a few ringers for pie and brandy. I do most of the cooking and my mother, who drives in from Dickinson, does the … er supervising. She raises her eyebrows with some frequency, tells me she can never find the spices in my cupboards, says, "Don't you think it is a little early to peel the potatoes?," asks me such questions as, "Are you going to use a measuring cup on that?," and eventually offers, with cheerful exasperation, "Do you want me just to organize your kitchen and at least throw the time-sensitive perishables away?"

The answer to these questions is no.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, by magnitudes. It is one of America's greatest inventions. And it almost alone props up the sweet potato industry. It has, until recently, resisted the commercialization that has buried Christmas in materialism, merchandize, secularity, and economic stress—all things that Jesus would have deplored. Thanksgiving is one of two moments in the year when the vast majority of Americans are doing the same thing at the same time, and like its distant cousin the Fourth of July, on that day we all tend to eat the same things at the same time. It's when we as a national family break bread together. Earlier in my life I knew some perverse iconoclasts who, for no good reason, refused to make turkey, dressing, cranberries, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes, gooey marshmallow sweet potato thingy, and pumpkin pies. They'd do a crab-stuffed pork loin instead, or shish kabobs on the grill, and they'd substitute a syllabub with a mango reduction for good old pumpkin pie.

My answer to that is "why?" spoken in the loudest permissible indoor volume. Twice a year I bake a turkey. Twice a year I make cranberry sauce. That's about the right frequency, and I see no rational reason to mess with so delicious, so blessed, and so traditional a holiday meal.

My mother and I are having our annual squabble about the size of the turkey. She advocates about a 15-pound game hen, and I want a solid 24-28 pounder. "What are you going to do with all those leftovers?" she asked the other day, right on schedule, in precisely the tone and words she has used for the last ten years. "What difference does it make?" I snapped back in a case closed sort of way. "It's Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is about abundance." This debate is one of our Thanksgiving traditions. She knew how this was going to come out before she opened her mouth, and I knew she was going to make her annual lame suggestion. Then, just to be insulting, she said, as she has for the past six years, "You're not thinking of trying a deep fried turkey again, are you?"

Had to bring it up! Ha'ad to bring it up.

Once a few years ago with my friend Tom I deep-fried a turkey in my front yard. It was one of those raw Thanksgiving days with leaden skies, a whipping intermittent wind, a windchill of about five below, and some ground drifting. In short, a perfect North Dakota Thanksgiving Day. After pouring about forty gallons of oil into the new fryer and igniting a propane flame under the aluminum tub that had the sound and fury of a fracking flare, we spent a full hour heating that oil to the boiling point. We stood around the contraption beating our hands on our thighs to stay warm, exchanging views on whether we would be able to put out the fire before we burned the house down, and chanting from Macbeth: "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble," (emphasis on trouble), "fire burn and cauldron bubble." My mother had protested this whole operation as dumb and "iffy" from a Thanksgiving point of view. When the $20 of oil finally came to a boil (for the first half hour, it was a dead heat between my modest propane burner and North Dakota winter), Tom and I lifted the cover with a tree branch and with my usual optimism I lowered a beautiful, plump, Dickensian turkey into that seething vat.

Instantaneously there was one profound four-second hissing sound, like a single burst of a train whistle. Then a little mushroom cloud rose up over the fryer to about 35,000 feet. The pot began shaking like the first stage of a Saturn V rocket at takeoff. We looked at each other in an uneasy, queasy sort of way and glanced through the big window at my mother, who was frowning at us from inside. It would not have surprised me if she had been shaking her fist. Numbskulls!

"We're toast," I said. And Tom said, "Actually, the turkey appears to be melba toast."

When we lifted that once-glorious bird out, fifteen minutes later, it had shrunk to the size of a stunted grocery store kiosk chicken. It had a dark brown leathery look (and smell) like a football that had been lowered into a deep fat fryer. The skin was mottled and there appeared to be caverns in several places along the sides of the breast, as if part of the white meat had literally been vaporized. "These turkeys are said to be succulent inside," I said without much conviction. "The idea is that the sudden immersion in hot oil seals the moisture inside the carcass. There may have been some shrinkage, I'll grant you that, but I'm betting it is dee-licious." Tom said, "Sounds good to me. Think your mother will buy it?"

So that one did not become a family tradition, but mother brings it up every year at this time. It's not clear whether she is just trying to shame me for the fun of it, or whether she actually thinks that without her pro-active rebuke I'd be tempted to transform another fabulous turkey into a fist-sized slab of dry jerky again, just to confirm the results of the first experiment.

This year we will light table candles and toast my daughter, her granddaughter, with a glass of white wine, listen to Nora Jones at a low volume, and say a few of the many, many things we are thankful for: "Well, at least you didn't try to fry the turkey!"

"Yes, mother."

The glory this Thanksgiving will be eating our favorite meal of the year on my new dishes, made by the exquisite North Dakota potter and ceramicist Tama Smith of Beach. I helped a little with the design, though the artistry is all Tama. The plates and serving bowls are brown and buff and rust and charcoal—to look like the badlands and the butte country south of Medora—and through the middle of each dish runs a heartbreaking blue trace of the sacred Little Missouri River. When mother and I picked them up the other day in Beach, Tama and I both burst into tears as we gazed at their magnificence. They are far too beautiful to eat on, but we will.

They represent what North Dakota means, and may still mean, if we manage this thing right.

That would be worth thanksgiving.

"Thanksgiving Dinner, Quincy House, Boston, MA." 1899. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Of Tawny Grass and the Medora Musical and a Perfect Summer Night

The solstice has come and gone. That always trips a little anxiety deep below the surface of my summer joy. We have reached peak light and now we are heading back into the darkness at the rate of three minutes per day. I spent that evening outside. It would be a crime against the light to be inside on 21 June. I don't know what your top five things about North Dakota are, but for me the lingering summer dusk is one of them. Sunset plus two hours of speechless serenity. Yellow followed by gold followed by pink followed by Bloody Mary red followed by charcoal and gray. Each color phase longer and subtler than the last. The pink sometimes wraps itself all the way around the horizon. Now station a thundercloud way, way off on the far western horizon intermittently pulsing with firefly light and you have paradise on earth.

When you sit out on a night like that, it is like a moment out of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam by the English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883):

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
To which I reply, Oh let the summer linger and the light.

On the Fourth of July I went to Medora with my daughter and my mother. My daughter is home in western Kansas for the summer. She is involved in 4-H for the last time as a competitor and she already feels the loss. Ask what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America and you will get a range of answers--from the exquisite Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress to the perfect cubic dining room at his retreat home Poplar Forest in Bedford County, VA. As far as I'm concerned, 4-H may be the epitome of Jefferson's vision of life rural kids learning principles of stewardship, humane care of livestock, household economics, craft, nutrition, rural teamwork, and responsible record-keeping, at the hands of enlightened community volunteers.

We sat through the Medora Fourth of July parade in mid-afternoon smirking, had supper in the hotel, and then went to the Medora Musical with Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her 49th consecutive summer in the badlands. Her health issues keep creeping up towards the tipping point, and she just keeps swatting them away with her perpetual youthfulness and lust for life. Her refrain seems to be, I'll let you know when I'm ready! I just want my daughter to be in the presence of such a woman, the most life-affirming person I have ever met. So there I was in the Burning Hills Amphitheater on a fabulous early July evening, with my three favorite women in the world my 18-year-old daughter, my 81-year-old mother, and the ageless Queen.

There were about 1,800 people in the crowd. The singing and the dancing are especially splendid this year. The prestidigitator Bill Sorensen (co-hosting) tells jokes so lame that we guffawed in spite of ourselves. My daughter laughed until she had tears in her eyes. And the principal co-host Emily Walter has such beauty, talent, and stage presence that in my opinion she deserves a much fuller portfolio, in Medora and beyond. Off in the distance Bullion Butte, and the sinuous thread of the sacred Little Missouri River.

The show was moving towards its close. The Burning Hills Singers had danced themselves out. The two North Dakota songs—Come Home to North Dakota, and Always North Dakota-- choked me up, as always, and sent a surge of raw North Dakota pride right into my heart. The finale this year is a beautifully understated patriotic medley. As it began, the most wonderful thing happened. Spontaneously, without cue cards or a barker or an MC, the large crowd just stood up to honor America, born 237 years ago in the pen of our most gifted dreamer Thomas Jefferson. It was everything you could want on the Fourth of July—just retro enough to clear out all the noise of modern life and make you believe again.

Afterwards, Sheila handed out hundreds of ice cream bars out behind her cabin tucked under the bluff at the edge of town, while one of the best fireworks displays I have ever seen cascaded down just over our outstretched heads. God Bless America.

On the way home the next day, near Almont, I noticed that the prairie grasses have begun to turn. After a late wet spring, the northern plains are beginning to take on their proper tan and russet look. The moment when the grass turns, mostly green and partly tawny, mostly tawny but still partly green, is my favorite moment of the summer in North Dakota. It's the paling and the graying of the green. That's when I think Ah, I live on the Great Plains of America.

This last Tuesday night I found myself at home alone with no pressing deadline. There had been a quick soaking thunderstorm about four p.m. so I could not work in my much-neglected garden without becoming a human mud ball. I made myself a little dinner of little leftovers and ate it in silence as I read the famous steeplechase scene in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. All my electronics were in the off position, as they say on commercial aircraft. The house was perfectly quiet. I took my book and a glass of cold white wine out onto the deck.

The temperature was perfect, precisely what I would have dialed up if I had a hotline to the great god of meteorology. It was not hot. It was warm and, depending on how the breeze stirred, sometimes a little cool and sometimes a little toasty, but toasty in just the right way. No wind, just a gentle breeze that came and went without any drama, like the steady even breathing of the continent. If it had been ten degrees hotter or the breeze three miles per hour stronger, it would have been just one of those North Dakota summer evenings with a summer wind. That would be just fine, but I would not have lingered outside. But this was an evening so perfect in every way that it made me forget that there is winter on the northern plains. About an hour into my reverie, I remember thinking, If I died at dusk tonight (rather than go in to fetch a jacket), I'd be wholly content. The Oglala warrior Crazy Horse used to ride off to battle saying, Le anpetu kin mat'e kin waste ktelo, it is a good day to die. That's how I felt Tuesday night, though I am quite happy to be alive and (reverie or no reverie) there are, fortunately, dozens of projects that must be completed before I let myself croak. Still, that feeling that this is what human happiness is, there is nothing that is missing, was exquisite. I miss my daughter sorely, but if she had been with me we'd be chattering and laughing, not drinking in the gentle breeze in a silence so powerful that you hear it, if that makes any sense.

I just lay there just taking in the evening like a human zucchini, letting thoughts drift in and out of my mind the way you see those motes in your eye drift around slowly and disappear. Somewhere in the distance a mother called out lovingly for her children to come in now for the night.

Happiness at its core is such a simple thing.