Thursday, December 12, 2013
Morning Thanks--a nice warm house
Must have been ten years ago now, maybe a bit less, and time is, I suppose, important. I was talking to a student--don't remember who, don't remember how--but what I've not forgotten is her bald declaration that she and her friends were going off to Sioux City, an hour away, to grab something to eat. Okay, fine, sounded like something I'd have done once upon a time.
The thermometer, as I remember that night, was somewhere between frigid and sheer horror, double-minus digit wind chills so deep in the basement you'd rather not know the tally. It was January most likely, and taking off late at night was plain nuts. Not insane. Just nuts.
Still, truth be known, there was enough of the late adolescent in me that I envied the lunacy of their mindlessness, taking on the elements for no other than to conquer them (they couldn't have been hungry).
That was a decade ago. Maybe more.
Last night, when the temperature was 3 (there's something doleful about single digits, don't you think?) my wife and I drove out to Irene, South Dakota, to pick up a VHS player/recorder that is supposed to magically turn our tapes into dvds. Got to see that to believe it, but it was a Craigslist purchase and, I thought, a real steal. Now generally I'm a loser on real steals, but we'll see with this one. One voice in me says, "go for it," but the being on the other shoulder says it's just going to cost me again. Which is the gremlin has yet to be determined. I bought. We went.
We left in the dark. And the cold. Did I mention the cold? It was. Bad. Evil cold. Dark forbidding and horrifying cold. And wind. Lots of wind.
All around the Big Sioux River the land bunches up into hills that can be just plain beautiful at dawn or dusk. Trust me. But in windswept darkness, nobody's looking for beauty. Just beyond the hills, you roll into endless vistas of midnight emptiness.
Where do Great Plains actually begin? There's a dozen theories. Some say at the spot where the land gets less than twenty inches of rainfall. Other say at the 100th meridian. Others claim the Plains start right there at the Missouri River. Who's going to quibble? All I know is that once the land flattens on the west side of the Big Sioux, you're in 'em--the great plains. Maybe it's lower case, but you're on land that won't quit.
And, on a country highway, you're all by your lonesome. Once beyond Beresford, we met so few cars that you almost felt like pulling over to chat, to remind yourself that this wasn't some Twilight Zone. Most rural folks know when it's a good idea to stay in the tipi beneath an extra buffalo robe. Small towns are a half hour of sheer loneliness apart.
We were alone on that country highway, the only lights coming from a glowing dome Sioux Falls, an hour away, throws up in the northren sky. Scattered farmsteads offer their own scoreboards, and the brash glare of road signs seems almost welcoming at times.
People who've never lived on the plains can be intimidated because, maybe especially on frigid nights, you can feel so incredibly alone and naked. There's nowhere to hide, no place to shelter. The sky is bestrewn with jewelry, but the road is an empty withering snowy slash in the wash of your headlights, darkness all around.
Maybe it's age--that's what I'm thinking. Maybe you get old and you think of things you never worry much about when you and the gang decides to take off for Sioux City at eleven at night, just for the heck of it. Maybe it's age, but last night there was nothing romantic about being out there alone in all that frigid Great Plains vacuity.
People die out here, I told myself. People hit deer, end up in a ditch, and no one comes by for hours. People dang well freeze to death, just like that.
I didn't remind my wife of those stories, but I thought of 'em, out there in the open sky, in air so cold you'd have to thaw out the steam in your breath to make conversation should we end up in a ditch.
I can overdo it, and maybe I am. But last night the two of us went abroad into a winter land we'd rather not visit again until spring, a forbidding land that offers little respite, a cold world so unshadowy you can't find a hole to crawl into and out of the ever-pressing wind, a place that makes Edward Hopper's classic Nighthawks look like a fun house.
We decided we were too old to be out late on just such a night. We decided--new house or old--that the two of us would much rather stay home on cold winter nights from here on out, Ma and Pa Kettle around the fire, feet up beside the flames, a cat on the quilt on her lap, toes in slippers.
This morning I own a new gizmo, cheap, from craigslist. But that's not what all of this is about. After last night late night ride, this morning, out here on the edge of the plains, I'm just thankful for a nice, warm house.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:57 AM