North Dakota on a Napkin

Snacks on a Plane

While most people who remember meals on airplanes recall them to be the adult, airborne versions of school lunches, their meager snack replacements also serve as the only form of discount airline in-flight entertainment.  The few dozen peanuts or handful of pretzels that keep passengers’ appetites contented until landing easily fit onto the cocktail napkins – the ones that accompany the cups of ice with a few dribbles of complementary soft drinks.  But pouring the little bags of snacks onto the small white squares and corralling them from rolling onto the passenger’s lap in 12E (or sliding into the chair-back pocket) converts simple tidiness into a playful game keeping passengers busy for a full ten minutes.
When the sips of liquid are gone, the cold cubes tumbling forward against my nose, and only the salty remnants of the snacks stick to the napkin, I usually stuff the square into the cup and wait for the trash collectors to make their way back through the cabin.  But this time I take a moment and examine the airline’s flight map printed on the napkin, looking at the final destination in the center of the country where I would land.  When I step off the plane in Nebraska, I will be checking another state off the “Been There, Done That” list, and looking at this mini map, I consider the odd fact that I have traveled to every state around it, but never made it to the Corn Husker state.  Nearly twenty years earlier I traversed its northern neighbor checking off the lower Dakota, but someday would need to head back to this destination in order to add the upper Dakota to my traveling accomplishments.
Stopping for a roadside distraction, a scenic vista or an extended meal routinely fill my solo travels, but a dramatic change of itinerary bothers my budgetary sensibilities and disrupts the mental travel clock that pushes me forward to my daily destinations.  But on a four-by-four white square, North Dakota appeared close and conquerable.  With wheels down, the frequent-flyer-point planets align and the opportunity to spend Independence Day driving along the Missouri River into the Big Sioux valley and across the other continental divide transforms an overnight flight into an unexpected summer road trip.
From the confines of the narrow plane seat, the straight shot journey up and down the northern American plains amounts to the length of a single peanut.  But on Interstate 29, the spacious, untouched fields, the swooping swallows, the sleepy little towns, the glowing mid-summer sunset late into the evening, and rockets red-glaring from distant farms into the darkening sky reward my unusual impulsiveness.  Yes, I check two states off the must-see list instead of just one by doubling the length of this weekend excursion to forty-two hours, but the long-term value of seeing North Dakota on a napkin and choosing to see it in person stacks my mind and my memory with visual moments and quiet scenes unmeasured in my forty-two years.