North Dakota has the kind of space that you forget exists sometimes, living in the city. You forget about the vast expanse of dirt and road. It’s so flat on the prairies where I grew up, with so few trees clogging up the fields where the tractors turn laps for hours, that on a clear day you really can see forever. You can see for miles. On the Fourth of July, we could sit at our farm and watch fireworks from two towns away.
North Dakota has the kind of space that lends itself to quiet. On a winter night, it is silent. Farm machinery sleeps in sheds and under blankets of heavy snow. The people are few and far between; there’s a house every few miles, perhaps a small cluster, a family compound of sorts on the home farm.
The people become quiet. The winter wind whips down the fields and swipes your words right out of your mouth. North Dakota breeds quiet men, the kind of men who prowl the garden at night thinking their private thoughts, the kind who drive around the section with a beer riding shotgun clattering around in the cup holder. The kind who belly up to the small town bars near every night. You talk about the weather, about politics, about the fields. After awhile you run out of things to say and then you don’t say anything at all.
You return home from the city and see these places have become shabby. Buildings flake paint and sag in disrepair. The elderly couples who lived in these houses when you were a child have since moved away or died. Their gardens are just patches of dirt now. The decay of time spreads to every little town on the railroad. There’s one every five miles, you know, and there’s a bar and a church in each one. Most of the churches have closed their doors and consolidated now, but the bars are open. C’mon in and sit on down.
The door of the bar squeals your arrival as it swings on its hinge; this door has always swung wide open as if to alert the patrons of a new presence. Their chairs turn in half-moons to see who has just walked in.
There’s a certain charm to the small town, the kind Garrison Keillor explains on the radio every Sunday in that cello voice. You grow up feeling safe, riding your bike across town and everyone’s looking out for you because everybody knows your name, knows your family. There’s a simple routine in a small town; the same farmers meet for breakfast at the bar every day and everyone knows who wants his toast swimming in butter and who doesn’t drink coffee. There are weddings, and everyone attends. You hear a story about the girl and her boyfriend who climbed the water tower and you know it’s true. I never tried it because I knew that looking at the town from way high up would make me feel more restless than I already did.
When we were teenagers, we would walk the streets in the early hours of the morning, lay down right on Main Street with no fear that any vehicle would flatten our splayed out bodies. We’d run across the football field, dark as it was without those flashy loud lights that always made my cheerleader heart beat a little faster. My best friend and I stood out the sunroof, arms wrapped around one another, as Donny drove down a gravel road and there was no noise, only the wind whipping through our hair and our voices screaming into the night.
I always felt that if I had stayed I would get quiet. I get quiet sometimes anyway; it’s in my blood. I hole up, paint myself into a space and stay there for awhile. It would’ve been worse on the farm. Though to be the only one for miles and miles is wonderful, calming, a big deep breath, pretty soon that space presses in on me the same way the buildings and cars and freeways do here. It’s beautiful. It’s terrifyingly vast. All you’ve got in that kind of space is yourself, and eventually the sound of your own breath makes you crazy.