In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes what it feels like to travel from east to west, from the lush summers of the upper Midwest to hard-case Montana. Betty and I experienced that in reverse, from the harsh sagebrush prairie of Montana, Missouri River, Milk River, Marias River, to the soggy, soaked land of the St. Louis River that empties into Lake Superior. From Montana’s river breaks, yellow chalk, yellow grain stubble, to North Dakota’s organized agriculture, every red grain of wheat in place, no rooms in the state except one? A ten-twenty-three PM find in Rugby, the geographical center of North America. Maybe it is fitting for two people so intent on seeing it all to get a taste of north, south, east, west on a different plain. Plain and simple. At this very spot, Rugby, step one pace south and you are south, one north, you are north . . . you get the picture, as they say. Old notions of North versus South, or east coast, left coast, southwest, go AWOL. Is there a need for regional chauvinism? And in the background, the click-clack of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Chippewa, Cree, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Sioux, Ojibwa—we motor through their lands: Fort Benton, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Fort Totten, all the places we built to herd the originals out of their buffalo cultures and into our churches, our schools.
Coulees, breaks, badlands, avocets, American white pelicans, “Meth, not even once,” a double sun dog at Devil’s Lake—all morning long. Sunflowers both cultivated and feral in North Dakota and Minnesota, blackest of earth, monarch butterflies, a thunder magic at Minot, the lightning flashes gigantic, wild, around and across, jagged like the cracks in old bones. The sun beneath the sullen sky, sneaking in with the taste of lime, a green so pristine like the first light that struck the earth. Caught on the bellies of the telephone poles; the green, green fields of new-mown hay; the rolled up bales like big, three-dimensional periods; the bellies of the yellow grasshoppers, swarms and swarms caught in the vicious wind. A red roadster, eighty miles an hour, a texting driver, a child in the passenger’s seat, a red fox long-steps it out in front and somehow escapes his black wheels, our black wheels. A fox red like neon in the false approach of storm-forced night, a tipped-tale the color of white.
Breakfast with Paul Zarzyski, the bard of Great Falls, Montana, a bard for every place and time, every genre. His mate, Liz Dear, their dog, Zeke. A Great Falls, Montana , Cajun food breakfast. The poetry of politics, philosophy, prosody, the aesthetics of wolves and the maw of the grizzly bear. Books, Montana mountains, bucking horses, rodeo poets.
The names of Minnesota remind me of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” (which I always felt was maudlinly sentimental—but the music of the words, the words!):
By the shores of Gitche Gummee
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water
Stood Nakomis, the old woman
Pointing with her finger westward . .
And the real words of Minnesota, not unlike Longfellow’s: Minnesota, Minnetonka, Winnibigoshish, and Oshkosh.
Pointing eastward, from Boise to Duluth. Lake Superior; a hard, warm wind; rutabaga-filled pasties and the slick, enunciated “OOOOO” of “you,” “too,” “smooth,” “Duluth.”