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Fall 2001

Vol. 02, No. 1


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'Far' 'go' North Dakota

I have a Fargo thing. Actually, it's more of a North Dakota thing, but I like the felicitous conjunction of "far" and "go." Perhaps I should explain.

When I was six, reading first made sense to me at the breakfast table. I knew how to read, technically, but still thought of it only as something you did in your 1st-grade reading group. The idea that I could read everything, not just Dick and Jane, did not occur to me until one morning when I looked at the cereal box sitting before me and suddenly heard the words in my head. This was too cool. Sentences, no matter where they appeared ... I could read them. I could read them all.

Thus I became a literary devotee of cereal boxes, which, if you're six, convey a lot of useful information. One day, the back of some sugar-laden grain product -probably Sugar Pops or Sugar Smacks - presented to my eager eyes a dozen different license plates. You were supposed to cut them out after you'd finished the cereal, but I just stared at them, morning after morning. In those days my family didn't own a car and I hadn't realized that different states had different license tags. As I stared at these colorful little rectangles, they spoke to me of far-off places. That they were reputed to be manufactured by convicts only increased their allure.

So began a lifetime of scanning license places. Forty years later, I still notice the plates on cars in parking lots, cars that pass me on the freeway, cars that cut me off at the light while their drivers yak on cell phones. And I wasn't very deep into those 40 years before I realized that rarely did I see tags from certain states. I lived in Ohio, so Kentucky and Indiana were a dime a dozen. But Nevada? Not too common. Idaho? Same story. Alaska? I could go years between sightings. The rara avis, however, the plate I never saw, was North Dakota's. Even after I was old enough to get myself to places like Montana, I didn't see North Dakota plates. I formed an image of the state as a sort of American Mongolia: remote, isolated, severe in climate, and sparsely populated, probably by nomadic herders of some sort.

Now I must digress for a moment. During my collegiate years, there happened three significant things. One, I came out to my family as a writer; all in all, they took it remarkably well. Two, I developed a fondness for solitary rambles. I took to going for long walks at four in the morning, which you could do in my college town. Three, I found the open road. The instrument of discovery for the latter was a sky blue 1966 Plymouth Valiant, bought from my father for $200. It had a broken accelerator pump, holes in the floorboards through which slush intruded on winter days, enough rust to make its exterior look psoriatic, and no radio or air conditioner.

It burned a quart of oil a week, allowing friends to track my whereabouts by following the blue haze. I loved that car and I drove it everywhere. My girlfriend hailed from Princeton, and I made five round trips from Ohio to New Jersey, once on tires so bald that I could see white inner lining peeking through the remnants of rubber. I spent hours not in class or in the library, but driving every gravel and dirt road in the county. One lovely afternoon I drove down an earthen two-track so deeply rutted that the Valiant came to rest on its undercarriage, flush to the ground and very stuck; I levered the car out by hand using the jack, something you can do only if you are 20 years old.

When I did find time to get to the library, I discovered that many a writer has yielded to similar urges for long walks and long drives. Robert Louis Stevenson tramped all over. Twain and Dickens covered a lot of ground, as did Maugham and Conrad and Coleridge. The example of Jack Kerouac hardly needs mention and I actually wanted to be the peripatetic Bruce Chatwin. Jim Harrison, my favorite writer about all matters gustatory, once wrote, "Leave your reason, your logic at home. A few years ago I flew all the way from northern Michigan to Palm Beach, Florida, in order to drive to Livingston, Montana, with a friend." In Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor said, "No man with a good car ever needs to be justified." (She also wrote, "Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it." But anybody can have a bad day.) So you see, I wasn't just driving aimlessly - I was being literary. And in the process I learned that I like to drive everywhere. I like to drive in big cities and through small towns. I like driving through deep woods and rolling farmland. I like driving through the mountains, especially on gravel roads with a thousand feet of cliff towering over my left and a thousand feet of drop-off plummeting to my right. And I really, really like driving through empty, austere country. Austere, not bleak. Austere is calming, soul affirming, inspiring. Bleak is enervating, hopeless, sere. Those lovely portraits by Alfred Stieglitz of a young Georgia O'Keefe are austere. Walker Evans' images of sharecroppers are bleak. Iceland, with its immense sky, volcanic terrain, and deep horizon, is austere. Lordsburg, New Mexico, where I once tanked gas at a forlorn little station while a grit-laden wind abraded my skin, is bleak. Or at least it was 15 years ago.

Vast, austere landscapes humble me like prayer. Kierkegaard said - I'm paraphrasing - that prayer was not talking to God, but shutting up long enough to hear God talk to you. In my experience, witless chatter ends when it confronts an uninterrupted horizon. I calm down, I start to listen. I feel grounded, like I really do belong somewhere, which for me is an elusive feeling most days. Something in the wide, wide open fills me with an expansive sense of possibility. A big sky, a flawless horizon, and two lanes of empty blacktop stretching to a vanishing point contain nothing but promise. Out there somewhere, maybe down this very road, is something great, some new opportunity to reinvent myself, and I'm goin'.

Which brings me back to North Dakota. If you can read a roadmap and feel like I do about empty territory, you will naturally come around to the Flickertail State. I have been in all but four of the 50 members of the Union. Only Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, and North Dakota remain, and it's North Dakota that seems to me the most remote, the most exotic, the most in need of driving.

I know lots of people who have been to Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada. I know no one among my Baltimore friends who has ever been to North Dakota. Travel magazines lure tourists to Alaskan fjords, Hawaiian beaches, and Vegas casinos. They expend no ink on North Dakota. But if you have a two-lane sensibility like mine, Fargo and its environs sounds like Shangri-La. Far go indeed.

By now I'm up to about seven or eight sightings of North Dakota license plates, which is pretty good since I've heard there are only 40 or 50 left in the wild. Every one that I see reaffirms that someday I am going to back out of my driveway, slide Lucinda Williams into my CD player, and wheel off toward bison country. When I get there I'm going to roll down the window and cruise slowly along the boulevards of Bismarck and Fargo, Mandan and Minot. I'm going to tramp around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, compare the northern badlands to their more publicized southern counterparts, and travel that straight line of macadam from Souris to Westhope just below The World's Longest Undefended Border. I'm going to see flickertails, whatever the hell those are, and while I'm at it have lunch with a few of those nomadic herders. I am going to be one happy man.

My wife does not share this particular ambition. She has led me on climbs to the summits of 14,000-foot mountains and to the finish-line of 250-mile bicycle rides, but she says she is not driving to Fargo, and that's all there is to it. She'll fly out to Montana and meet me there after I've gotten this out of my system. We stand out on our deck on a crisp, tangy afternoon as autumn comes on, and I say to her, "Hear that? The wind is calling to me. It's saying Farrrgoooo...Farrrgoooo." She just looks at me and says, "It's cold out here. I'm going inside."

-Dale Keiger, Baltimore, Md.

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