Her trees march

A writer's first trip to Fargo


Fargo, I tell my little boy. The place Mama is going for her meeting is called Fargo. Ohhh, he says. Three-and-a-half and he already knows how to turn a noncommittal oh into the three-syllable sound that adults make to seem like they're listening. Later, when I call from Fargo to say goodnight, I quiz him. Logan, I say, do you remember where I am? Where? he responds -- his voice tinged with anticipation, as though I might be someplace exciting, like, say, Uncle Brian's. I'm in Fargo, I answer. Ohhh, he says, and turns the phone over to his younger brother.

Fargo, of course, has no meaning for him. Mama, as far as he is concerned, is either here or not here. He has no imagination yet that the world is big and that there are all kinds of places to live your life. And how do you develop that imagination, really? How do you imagine yourself into all the places you haven't lived, into all the lives you haven't had.

I'm a Western Pennsylvania girl, you should understand -- that's the life I've had, the place that anchors me. Here is the story my husband likes to tell people when they ask why he left an established career in Chicago for Western Pennsylvania.

"I fell in love with a Pittsburgh girl. And I found out Pittsburgh girls don't leave." That's not quite true. Pittsburgh girls do move away -- my youngest sister, for instance. But she's never stopped missing the hills and the trees and curves of the roads. And she's never stopped wishing she could move back. My friend Peter, who is not a girl but is a Pittsburgher, puts it this way when he turns down an invitation. "You know I never go places I haven't been before."

The road to Fargo began, for me, in pitch black. It was so early in the morning that not even my dog took notice as I tiptoed out of the house, and it was so dark that I had no idea rain was brewing until I was at the airport. Even then, when the first lazy drops landed on my head I was preoccupied struggling my overloaded suitcase out of the trunk. It took me until I was out of the parking lot and stuck on the moving walkway behind a baby stroller to identify the splashes of water -- oh, rain. My mind is a lot more nimble when it is infused with caffeine. Not so, apparently, all the people who swarmed the airport security line at five-thirty in the morning. I had expected a ghost town -- only me and the thirty-or-so other passengers on my plane flying out at first light. Instead, the airport was teeming with briefcase-carrying business people, parents with blond-haired immaculately-dressed toddlers, men and women with cell phones pressed tight to their ears (who in heaven's name are they talking to?), and wives come to kiss their soldier husbands goodbye. A friend of mine, a regular traveler on his way to Albany, ran by me with a wide-awake smile. His plane doesn't leave until 7:30, he told me, but he likes being there early.

By the time I landed in Minneapolis, the sun was up but lost behind an overcast sky. I wrestled my suitcase -- why did I pack so much for five days? -- off the baggage carousel, and headed out to meet my ride. Only later when we were on the road did gray give way to a blue sky filled with jellyfish clouds. I was lulled by the road until I began to see lines of corn flipping by with the precision of synchronized swimmers. That bit of optical trickery was worth the price of admission. Where I live, fields of corn don't go on forever. In fact, nothing goes on forever. As far as the eye can see, in Western PA, pretty much means until the next hill gets in your way.

Actually, at home, I'm surrounded by trees as much as hills. Sixty-year-old pin oaks, tops reaching toward each other, form a shade cathedral down my street. The little woods of mulberry and sumac behind my house hide the back yards of the houses below. In summer, the hills you see from the parkway through the city are eclipsed by the trees, all the houses, streets, stores, and schools hidden neatly away.

But sometimes you can't see the trees for the forest as I learned when I saw the cottonwoods that lined the Red River. First of all, I hadn't expected them. Whenever I pictured going to North Dakota I had in my mind a landscape that was vaguely flat and open and the dusty color of soil before a good rainfall. Not a tree in sight. Not the cottonwoods or the shade trees in the older part of town near the campus or the politely-sized trees on suburban grounds. I didn't leave them out intentionally. I just never pictured them. That's the way imagination is -- sweeping and blithe. What makes a place real is rock-hard, the speck and grit -- and spruces. What makes a place real are the things you can't imagine.

I can go places I haven't been before. But no matter where I travel, I'm that Western Pennsylvania girl, seasoned by the many gray days, shaped by the curves in the road, held by the hills and rivers. You have to look up to see the sky. You know your place in the world by what is at your back.

Who would I be if I came from a place where the rows of corn part and bow as you fly by, a place where the sky goes all the way to the ground? Who would I be if I could see what's coming from a mile down the road?

The trees in Fargo taught me to see my own landscape better. Trees look different when they have a level ground. They can stand shoulder to shoulder, they can be individuals in a grove. My trees, it turns out, stand shoulder to head. They march up our hillsides until all you can know is the huddle of green, the spirit of the flock.

My boys watched for me the evening of my return. They stood on the front porch and when my car came down the hill and turned the corner, they ran out. The yard squished under their bare feet from rain that hadn't let up much for the five days I was gone. Jumping up and down, bodies lightening along with their hearts, they crowded the car door, making it hard for me to actually get out until my husband cut through. Riley, the younger one, wiggled out of his hug with a shy smile and ran over to sit at the wheel of his big blue car. Later, I would chase him around the yard and he would sing out in laughter when I caught him. Logan held on to me in a tight hug for a long time, his small head anchored under my chin. He wasn't going to let me go anywhere. Right then, my world was the size of his heart. I couldn't imagine being anyplace else.

-- Sally Ann Flecker