Pick a number between one and one hundred – a really high number. Numbers in the nineties accurately estimate the percentage of times that the pattern of my road trips resembles a two-dimensional shape. Not always round, sometimes more triangular, but almost never doubling back to form a one-dimensional mark. Numbers, percentages, shapes, multiplying by two, lines – but this is no place for algebra or geometry. On this occasion however, my drive does equate to a defined line segment between Omaha and the North Dakota state line, but this is no math lesson.
Driving through South Dakota, I intersect the route at Sioux Falls that I previously crossed two decades prior, just south of the Big Sioux River. Don’t be deceived by its name. In comparison, safely assume that a Small Sioux River would barely qualify as a creek, perhaps even one with a dribble of water trickling in a few places. Today the Big Sioux flows peacefully, pleasant and petite between its grassy banks and I mentally give it the benefit of the doubt that during the spring snow melt or maybe somewhere downstream, it earns its title prior to draining into the longest river in America. But on this Independence Day, the Big Sioux, and all its adjoining tributary friends, might reevaluate its liberal use of adjectives. I could snap a few photos at this picturesque spot, but since I know I will double-back on this same road, I press northward. And despite this not being a math class, or a geography or grammar class, I am taking notes.
Over the Hill
Farther north I pass fields of wispy, blowing grass, dotted, sometimes heavily, with white rocks and boulders, more than a handful of which would require massive farm implements to maneuver. Most certainly no one would dump these rocks so haphazardly as to impede farming these gently rolling hills. But as I lift my figurative pen after jotting this mental note, I suddenly realize there are no stalks of corn nearing detasseling stage, no waving wheat fields, and no soy beans sprouting – this isn’t farmland. I consider the possibility that beyond the movement of the earth itself, the rocks have remained untouched since the shifting of the tectonic plates deposited them. As my car peaks over the next little vista, I Imagine that the view of the rocks in the field, their white warmth soaked in by the high, summer sun, surrounded by the gently rippling grasses, looks identical to this undisturbed setting centuries ago as the first European settlers came over the rise and chose to make these inviting fields their new home. They most likely didn’t keep driving onward simply because they still had twenty miles to the Dakotas’ dividing line, but I do.
On my route back from my northern excursion (see North Dakota On A Napkin from November 2011), I pull off to the side of the road at this exact spot, this same hillside about which I had mused. I roll down the windows and stare at the tranquil field – this idyllic, bucolic field – with its boulders and grasses and a small, wooden lean-to that may have once been a house, or a barn, or just a storage shack. Undoubtedly these white stones, craggily in their shape and random in their placement, have not budged since the American bison dodged them in their stampede across the northern plains hundreds of years earlier. Nearly unchanged except for two parallel strands of barbed wire and a concrete interstate bisecting the grassy plains as they ease into the horizon, with rocks too numerous to be calculated, and with sunsets completely filling the sky and dwarfing a rainbow’s spectrum, these enveloping images fill me with the gratefulness that I am passing this way and awe of all those who crossed these fields before me and left them undisturbed. This highway, both heading northward and returning southbound, transports me back in time and while I ponder and reflect on this day’s drive, the overwhelming beauty of an untouched Dakota field immerses me in a lesson of history, and geology, and math, and geography, and inspiration, just because I noticed the rocks in the fields. Note taken.