A North Dakota tableau
It was a windy spring day when we met cover artist Walter Piehl to take his picture. We'd thought the third floor of the Plains Art Museum would be a good place, but Walter suggested the West Fargo stockyard. We also learned he can keep a straight face for his part of the American Gothic pose.
I've not thought myself a particularly lucky person. For starters, I had three older brothers, and in high school, had horrible, wiry hair when the glossy Farrah Fawcett flip was required, which is no doubt why I was denied a place on the echelon cheerleading squad senior year. Formative years full of bad luck, it seemed. Such sacrifice seems to be paying off all these years later. What but luck put me in the right place when the right president came along to launch a magazine. Aha. The top squad at last. Little did I know how much the job would come to mean. I surely did not expect to discover a deeper appreciation for North Dakota, but there it is, reflected most clearly through my counterparts from other universities. It began at an editors' conference where a guy saw North Dakota on my nametag and launched into a description of trying to get his wife to join him on a visit here, and wondered what persuasive strategies could I supply in support of his cause. I was unprepared to do tourism promotion that day, but never again. Back in my twenties, didn't I race along I-94 on trips to Bismarck, my hometown, as fast as I dared (but certainly not exceeding the speed limit, Dad) thinking that this was the dullest stretch of highway ever paved. Now, nearly forty, I bask. I savor the endless horizon line, the blue sky on a sunny day, the space, the photograph I can imagine sending to colleagues in congested, claustrophobic places like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, in long-commute cities like Seattle or Los Angeles. Serene in the sunbeam shining through the car window, I drive along and wish I could whistle like that dad of mine. Crystal Chandelier, maybe, or Green, Green Grass of Home. He doesn't perform anymore, but absent-mindedly sings a little "bum bump bumm" tune. I can't do that either. So I keep quiet to ponder my urban colleagues' fascination with North Dakota. I can imagine their homes, have visited many of their cities. I hope they can come to North Dakota one day. One look at the view I see every morning on the way to work is all it'd take. An unobstructed sunrise, and then rows of all sorts of trees, green in summer, the evergreens snow-tipped in winter. On especially fine winter days, all the trees are coated in crystal, enchanting. How is it, I wonder, that North Dakota is thought to have bad weather when upstate New York routinely gets pounded with five, six, eight feet of lake-effect snow in a day? How could it possibly make sense to equate expense and crowds and congestion with superior conditions? I don't know the answers, but enjoy the questions.
In circumstances of perception versus reality, people who read about the work at North Dakota State University write letters and e-mails, sometimes a confession of being surprised. "Heck," one guy wrote, "I've never even been to North Dakota, but now I get a little piece of it in the mail." A writer from a big, private university in the East says "you don't look like you're from North Dakota," in a complimentary tone, and I laugh along, imagining what she must have expected. I'm short and appear to be brunette (still battling the hair but with a skilled stylist who knows her way around a dye job). Are North Dakotans believed to be tall blondes? On a trip last fall to Boston, I met someone from Montana, and caught myself thinking, "My, he's made quite a trek," as if Missoula were unfathomably remote and Fargo the center of all activity. And another dose of good luck lands in my lap.
Thank you for reading.