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Entries in North Dakota (7)


Blue Highways: Grand Forks, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

At Grand Forks, we say goodbye to North Dakota and look toward Minnesota ahead.  I passed by Grand Forks once.  While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) gets his water pump fixed, I'll use this opportunity to reminisce about how the city seems to herald civilization at the edge of the Great Plains.  To see where Grand Forks does its duty, head to the map!

Book Quote

"Who in America would guess that Grand Forks, North Dakota, was a good place to be stuck in with a bad water pump?  Skyscrapers from the thirties, clean as a Norwegian kitchen, a state university with brick, big trees, and ivy.  On Monday morning the pump got replaced in an hour for $37.50.  I had expected to be taken for three times that figure, but I met only honest people."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 10

Downtown Grand Forks, North Dakota. Photo by David Stybr and hosted at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Grand Forks, North Dakota

I remember Grand Forks vaguely, kind of like a dream that appeared in the midst of the flat farmland of North Dakota as we (my fiancee and I) made our long drive from Dunseith, North Dakota to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The city just seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and the large buildings that LHM describes, the "skyscrapers from the thirties" stood out in stark contrast to anything else that we had seen up to that point.

To me, just as St. Louis once signaled the end of civilization and the beginning of the frontier, as memorialized in its massive and spectacular Gateway Arch, Grand Forks seems to signal for travelers passing toward the east the onrush of civilization again from the sparse emptiness of the West.  First Grand Forks, modest in size and scale but seemingly gigantic after a thousand miles of prairie and farmland.  Then Minneapolis/St. Paul, the twin cities, positively cosmopolitan on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, one seemingly frozen in time with older architecture, the other with sleek, modern, glassy buildings reflecting the sunlight from a distance.  Then Chicago, which veneers a rough, wintery, no-nonsense type of grit with its own combination of past and present architecture.

But Grand Forks comes as an initial shock to the senses.  It almost seems, after all the miles and all the flatness and the sparseness of North Dakota, like it shouldn't be there.  It's buildings shimmer in the hazy distance like a mirage that you expect to disappear until you are right upon it and discover that indeed, it is there.  It has sprung, like a flower (or a weed depending on your perspective and your like or dislike of civilization), and persists despite the blazing summers and the freezing, blizzardy winters.  It persists despite the devastating floods along the Red River of the North that occurred in 1997, inundating the downtown and neighborhoods and causing the destruction of many buildings and the displacement of many people.

LHM refers to the hardiness and toughness of the people when he makes a reference to "Norwegian."  With typical midwestern and old world industriousness, the people of Grand Forks cleaned up after the floods.  They demolished some old neighborhoods to put in a levee system, and made a riverfront park to buffer and secure the city from future flooding.  In other words, nature gave Grand Forks its best shot, and staggered it, but the flower continues to sprout on the Great Plains, welcoming people back from the hinterlands to civilization.

Yes, I remember Grand Forks, which after a long drive through North Dakota, past flat farmland punctuated by occasional trees and missile silos, seems to sit as a beacon on the plains.  I was grateful to Grand Forks for providing something besides the occasional water tower to arrest my sight.  I wish that I had time to stop there and visit and experience the "honest people" that LHM mentions.  Perhaps one day I'll get to all the places I want or feel that I should have seen.

Musical Interlude

I've been waiting to use this song, and now that we're moving out of Grand Forks and North Dakota, I have to use it.  Lyle Lovett's North Dakota is a winsome and melancholy song, juxtaposing the loneliness along borders, and the search for and loss of love.

If you want to know more about Grand Forks

The City Beat (blog)
City of Grand Forks
Dakota Student (student newspaper of University of North Dakota)
Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau
Grand Forks Herald (newspaper)
Grand Forks Life (blog)
High Plains Reader (alternative newspaper)
Travel North Dakota (blog)
University of North Dakota
Wikipedia: Grand Forks

Next up: Oslo, Minnesota


Blue Highways: Cavalier, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

Engine malfunctions and car repairs in Cavalier, North Dakota.  How LHM has made it 9000 miles without a major engine mishap in an old van with a leaky water pump is pretty amazing.  His luck with engines runs out here, but luckily, the fixes aren't too bad.  If you want to know where to find an honest mechanic in North Dakota, nurse your engine over to the map.

Book Quote

"...I started back to the highway when the smell of gasoline stopped me.  I lifted the hood.  The fuel line below the gas filter had split and was arcing a fine jet of no-lead into the sunlight....

"I made for Cavalier, the nearest town.  Had I not gone to Backoo, the line would have ruptured in Cavalier instead of miles up the road.  So logic would dictate.  The fact is, engine malfunctions happen only in places like Backoo, North Dakota.  Axiom of the blue road....

"At Cavalier I pulled into the first garage I saw, and a teenaged boy with the belly of a man came out and stared.  People don't just throw words around in the North.  I lifted the hood to show him the line.  I didn't speak either.

"'Sumbitch's likely to catch fire!' he said."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 9

Downtown Cavalier, North Dakota. Photo at "afiler's" photostream in Flickr. Click on photo to go host page.

Cavalier, North Dakota

I wondered when it might happen.  LHM complained about a knocking water pump even as he pulled out of Columbia, Missouri so many stops and posts ago.  He seemed to be magically gifted, despite all the miles he put on, with very few mechanical problems in old Ghost Dancing.  But you have to love his axiom of the road..."engine malfunctions happen only in places like Backoo, North Dakota."

I also have been blessed with very few problems like this in my driving history.   Of course, like everyone I've had my share of flats to fix, batteries that have worn down, alternators that have died and starters that went bad.  I've had an occasional radiator problem, and once, when I was a teenager, I think an axle broke while I was driving my mom's car and went over a very hard bump.  But these incidents all occurred in populated areas where I could easily get to repair services.  It might have been a hassle or a headache, and it may have cost me some money, but within hours or at the most a day or two, the car was fixed and I could get back to my normal life.

When it comes to long-distance driving mishaps, I can think of only two incidents.  The first occurred when I lived in Milwaukee and made the occasional long driving trip out toward the East Coast.  Even then, the malfunction happened only at the end of the trip, when I was about 40 miles from home.  It was late afternoon and I was driving a Chevy Cavalier that belonged to my place of employment.  I was looking forward to getting home, having a hot meal and relaxing after a long trip.  South of Kenosha, Wisconsin I had settled in behind a car that was doing a good speed and was fiddling with the radio - I can't remember what time of year it was but I might have been trying to catch the last of a Brewers afternoon game or find some interesting music.  The car ahead of me suddenly swerved to avoid something in the road, and I couldn't react fast enough.  I drove right over a large piece of sidewall that had shed itself from a semi.  There was a loud thump in the front of the car, but it seemed everything was all right.  However, as I got to Kenosha, the oil light came on, and then the car started losing power.  I pulled over to the side of the freeway and walked to the next exit.  Luckily, I was near a gas station with some pay phones (yes, this was pre-cell phone days).  I called a road service and then called my girlfriend.  The tow service arrived and would only tow me up to three miles without charge, so he took it to a nearby dealer.  My girlfriend found me there, and took me home.  The dealer looked the car over, told me that there was a puncture in my oil pan and wanted to literally replace the whole engine.  I called my mechanic and he told me to pay for the tow up to Milwaukee.  He ended up replacing the oil pan for a lot less money.

LHM worries, in this chapter, about getting screwed by unscrupulous mechanics that know that you are in a tough spot and figure they can charge you just about anything.  My experience with mechanics has been that if you get a good one, hold on to him or her like gold because many of them are more than willing to tell you a few more things need to be fixed in order to squeeze more out of you.  Luckily for LHM, he found an honest teenager who fixed a dangerous fuel line leak and charged him a couple of bucks for it, and also gave him some honest advice about his water pump.

These kinds of trepidations, about what kind of service I'd find in a small town on the road, are what kept me from seeking weekend service in Kingman, Arizona as my wife and I were driving back to Albuquerque from a two-week visit to my mom in California.  We had stopped in Kingman to get some fast food and continue our drive.  We pulled into a parking lot for some reason and I found that I couldn't get my car, a G20 Infiniti with a standard transmission, into first gear.  Second gear wouldn't work either.  I had to coax it from third gear.  We briefly thought about trying to find a place, but it was late afternoon on a weekend and we didn't want to stay in Kingman.  We decided to try to make it to Albuquerque instead, and decided not to stop except for gas in case the whole gear system decided to go out.  We made it, though I was clenching my buttocks the entire way like LHM described when he thought he might run out of gas.  We did end up having to replace the entire transmission, but it was better and easier to do it at home.  I always felt we got pretty lucky.

The passage that describes what happens with LHM and his car is a long one so I didn't put it all in.  Essentially, he pulls Ghost Dancing into the bay and shuts it down.  He and the mechanic replace the hose and the mechanic charges him $2.10 for hose and labor, probably a $15 repair today.  The mechanic tells him that the water pump needs to be replaced, and is astounded when LHM tells him he's driven it 9000 miles.  He tells LHM that he wouldn't even drive it to Hoople, 18 miles down the road, and that he should take it to the Ford dealer.  LHM does, but the dealer says he doesn't have the part and that he'll need to go to Grand Forks.  So, LHM sets out for Grand Forks, hoping he'll make it but not sure that he'll even get to Hoople.

I like the metaphor that's implied.  When someone asks me from now on how I'm doing, I'll say "I'm just trying to make it past Hoople."

Musical Interlude

I'm not a big fan of the modern Nashville-influenced country genre, preferring pre-Nashville country instead, but I found this song by Alan Jackson, Talkin' Song Repair Blues, to be very humorous and witty.  As he says at the end of the song, "I like might be a hit."

If you want to know more about Cavalier

Cavalier, North Dakota official page
Wikipedia: Cavalier

Next up: Grand Forks, North Dakota


Blue Highways: Backoo, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

One thing I like about Blue Highways is William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) willingness to go off his beaten path and explore.  Backoo was not on his route but he went there anyway.  He didn't find much, but it's the exploration that's the reward - and who knows, he just might have missed something had he not gone.  Go north to Backoo and locate it on the map!

Book Quote

"A sign pointed north to Backoo.  Backoo, North Dakota, may not be the only town in America named after an Australian river (the Barcoo), but then again, maybe it is.  I went to see it, or, as it turned out, to see what was left, which was:  the Burlington Northern tracks, a grain elevator, grocery, boarded-up school, church, and a thimble of a post office."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 9

The abandoned Backoo school house that LHM mentions in Blue Highways. Photo at the Ghosts of North Dakota website. Click on photo to go to host page.

Backoo, North Dakota

There doesn't seem to be much to write about in terms of Backoo, because I couldn't really find a lot of information on the town.  But I think it is interesting that someone may have named the town after the Barcoo River in Australia.  There is another possible story about the name that the Wikipedia entry below cites: that Backoo was named after the Azerbaijani city of Baku.  However, there is no supporting information that I can see.  And with an Australian accent, it is very easy to see how Barcoo could become Backoo.

In the 1980s, Australia seemed to become the favorite country of the U.S. public.  Part of Australia's popularity was due to Paul Hogan, the Australian actor and comedian who portrayed Crocodile Dundee in three movies.  Depending on how old you are, you may remember the "That's not a knife..." scene.  Or perhaps this 80s Australian tourism commercial aired in the U.S starring Hogan.

Part of the appeal also was due to popular music coming out of the land down under into the United States.  The Bee Gees, though they moved from Australia to the United Kingdom in the late 60s, had huge hits with their songs for Saturday Night FeverAC/DC was a 1970s rock phenomenon and the Little River Band had a string of hits that I particularly liked in the late 70s.  During this time, the U.S. also enjoyed hits by Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton-John (who also starred in some hit movies).  In the 80s and 90s, Australian music seemed to explode.  Men at Work had a huge hit celebrating Australia in Down UnderMidnight Oil became a favorite group of mine because of their hard driving punk tinged rock with a social justice message.  Around the early 90s Kylie Minogue, a former soap star, began burning up the pop charts.

I was always captivated by the idea of Australia.  Of course, we all learned the story of how Australia was founded as a penal colony for Great Britain, which when I was young had me envisioning a country full of dangerous criminals.  What they didn't tell us then was that most of the people sent to Australia either committed petty crimes, were in debt or were turned in by those who wished them ill.  They also didn't tell us that many more people immigrated by choice to Australia than were sent.  I also enjoyed the wild history stories of Australia that in many ways reminded me of the American West.  I thrilled over the original "Iron Man" story of Ned Kelly, the Australian bushranger and outlaw who fashioned a homemade suit of plate armor and shot it out with police.

When ESPN first became a sports network, it didn't have any official contracts with any major American sports leagues.  Instead, it ran different sports from around the world and provided me with my first look at Australian Rules Football.  "Footy," as it's known in its home country, was the strangest thing I think I ever saw.  It seemed to be a combination of soccer, rugby, American football, and even basketball because the person with the ball had to bounce it every three steps.  I watched every broadcast I could of this new game for about a month until something else, probably a girl, caught my teenage mind.

I couldn't put down Bill Bryson's account of Australia titled In a Sunburned Country (a book I'm considering for a future Littourati subject).  His accounts of some of the wonders and the quirkiness of Australia has made me want to go there even more.  He had a wonderful description of driving from Perth and listening to cricket games on the radio - he printed his version of the announcers calling the cricket play-by-play that cracked me up but also reminded me of nights driving and listening to baseball games.  I would think that a foreigner traveling through the U.S. and hearing baseball on the radio would think it the same type of gibberish that Bryson describes on hearing radio cricket.

Bryson's hilarious accounts of the all the poisonous things that live in Australia (which by far has the most concentration of deadly poisonous creatures on Earth) still hasn't deterred me from wanting to visit and explore the country.  Even a Crocodile Hunter episode (yes, he was from Australia also) about the 10 most dangerous snakes in the world (I think they all live in Australia) hasn't cooled my desire.  As I tell my wife, millions of Australians exist alongside funnel web spiders, box jellyfish, taipans, red-backed spiders, brown snakes and other dangerous things and the vast majority of them don't die.

Of course, the Australians themselves make me want to come to Australia.  I haven't known many, but those I've known are extremely nice and have always encouraged me to visit their country.  They are also very adventurous people, and the Australians I know always seem to be doing interesting things and traveling a lot, even to the most remote locations in the world, just to see what's there.  I think Australia is remote, but if you live there, then every other place on the planet must seem like it's extremely far away.

I have a goal to visit Australia and perhaps if I do, I will see where the Barcoo River is located.  I will eagerly explore its cities, like Melbourne and Sydney.  I would love to go to the other end to Perth, which I hear is a wonderful place.  Of course, one must visit the interior, the Outback.  I would like to hike and explore and hopefully not get killed by something poisonous.  And I think I'd have the time of my life.  I think that there are probably a lot of similarities between Australia and the United States, given their shared history as British colonies with indigenous populations (and the bad history with those indigenous) and with a lot of space to roam in.  But I think that it would be so different and beyond my current knowledge that it would be just an amazing experience.  I can't wait until I get the chance to see it.

Musical Interlude

In the late 70s, when I was fourteen, I was filled with hormones and desperately infatuated with a new girl who came to our school named Laura Johnson.  I thought that she was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on up to that point, and I ached for her.  Unfortunately, I was ungainly and awkward, shy, didn't think much of myself and was not very suave or debonair around girls.  And I was not one of her crowd.  The popular guys and jocks went out with her and all I could do was watch her and yearn for her from afar.  But this song, by the Little River Band from Australia, was a big hit at that time and it was to this song, Lady, that I imagined myself slow dancing close to her.  I don't know what happened to her or where she is now, but I can feel the faint echoes of the ache in my heart whenever I saw her that year.

If you want to know more about Backoo

Wikipedia: Backoo

Next up:  Cavalier, North Dakota


Blue Highways: Langdon, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

Hey Littourati!  What is burrowed in the ground, usually has two brains, four eyes, four arms, four legs, is totally computerized, and when it moves will probably kill millions?  Give up?  A nuclear missile in a silo, of course!  William Least Heast-Moon (LHM) gets into a discussion about nukes with a resident of Langdon, North Dakota.  Let's think about that for a post.  If you want to target Langdon, triangulate your coordinates at the map.

Book Quote

"After breakfast in the city park at Langdon, a Nordic town of swept streets and tidy pastel houses with pastel shutters at the picture windows, a town with the crack of Little League bats in the clear Saturday air, a town of blond babies and mothers wearing one hundred percent acrylics and of husbands washing pastel cars to kill time before the major league Game of the Week, this happened:

"In the park, a man walking with a child saw me staring at a 'retired' Spartan missile that now apparently served the same function as courthouse lawn fieldpieces with little pyramids of cannonballs once did....

"'She's a nuke,' the father said with proprietary pride....

"'Make you feel good, don't they?  Proud and taken care of, like.'"

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 8

Bed and Breakfast at Tiffany's in the frost at Langdon, North Dakota. Photo by "bedandbreakfastattiffanys" and housed at Flickr. Click on photo to go to host site.Langdon, North Dakota

Once again, which has really been a rarity on this trip through LHM's book, I can say that I've been to the area of the country through which he is traveling.  You might wonder why I have visited this region of North Dakota.  It was because of a job that I had that required me to drive to Dunseith, North Dakota and check up on some people that I had placed in a volunteer position there in the early 90s.  I can't remember for sure, but I most likely went through Langdon to get to Dunseith.  My girlfriend, now my wife, went with me.  I certainly remember, on my return trip, traveling along North Dakota 5 until it met Interstate 29, and passing by nuclear missile silos.

Of course, they weren't marked as silos.  It supposedly wouldn't do us well if everyone knows where they are.  However, they are probably the worst-kept secret in the world.  As we passed by, we realized that they were obviously some kind of installation that was not related to energy-distribution or water-distribution.  Locals know where they are, and even our enemies at the time, the Soviets, knew where they were from satellite flyovers.  When we passed them, all we saw was a chain link fence surrounding a concrete pad with a kind of cap on top of it, and maybe a small utility structure.  There might have been an antenna of some sort as well.  Usually, a sign or multiple signs warned against entering and that the "use of deadly force is authorized."

On the nuclear missile, nuclear silo issue, I have been related with people who manned the silos, and who tried to get rid of them.  In the mid-1980s, I did volunteer work in Milwaukee, and came to know a group of local activists connected with the Plowshares Movement.  Plowshares took its mission from the biblical injunction:

"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

King James Bible Online (1769 version)
Isaiah 2:4

The goal of the Plowshares Movement, then, is to call attention to these weapons of mass destruction and eventually get them eliminated.  Toward that end a number of people began civil disobedience actions where they trespassed onto nuclear silos, usually by cutting through the fencing or locks, symbolically damaged the top of the silo by cutting wires or splashing red paint or even their own blood on the concrete lid of the silo, and then waited for the military to show up and arrest them.  Often the activists would get a minimum of six months in federal prison for their action.  In Milwaukee, I was friends with a guy who was close to our volunteer community.  After I left Milwaukee, he participated in a Plowshares action and received at least a year in prison.  The last I heard, he is out of prison and affiliated with the Omaha Catholic Worker, where he works on day-to-day issues of the poor and to bring attention to larger world issues such as nuclear weapons.

On the below-ground side, I remember reading how the silo actually works.  There are two military personnel stationed below ground at the silo at all times.  If it is still like I read, these members of the military, when they receive a transmitted code, must look up the code for the launch sequence and then each must insert a key and turn it at the same time to activate a launch countdown.  Should one of them balk, I had thought that the other has license to kill in order to make sure that the launch goes through, though the concept of the two keys is considered a safeguard against accidental launch and would not really lend itself to one killing the other.  This came home to me when I met Bob.  He had manned a silo while in the Air Force.  He was a nice, quiet guy from South Carolina who did on-call work for the university medical school where I have my daily employment.  Retired, he was soft spoken and I had trouble reconciling him with a person who literally had the fate of millions at his fingertips.

I also had that trouble when I met another man named Bob who worked had worked at one of the national labs in New Mexico.  Bob is another quiet, gentle unassuming man who was passionate about his Catholicism and passionate about peace and justice.  In his 80s, he put together a proposal and saw it through so that now a pilot project is testing how villages in Africa can grow food with better irrigation.  After a few times of speaking with Bob, he told his story.  His initial job at the labs was coming up with a better system to defend Europe in case of a Soviet invasion across the border.  All the models said that a full scale invasion could not be countered by NATO without the use of nuclear weapons, so Bob and the rest of the people on his team came up with the fastest and most effective way to put these nuclear warheads into play.  At some point, the labs spun off his business about the same time that he realized that what he was doing was incompatible with his faith, and so he sold out that side of the business to partners.

My father was a person who felt that nuclear weapons saved his life by forestalling an invasion of Japan, and thogh my father-in-law is more circumspect in saying it, he also argued that millions of lives would have been lost in such a campaign.  For years we lived under the protection of a nuclear umbrella.  So I understand how people might see nuclear weapons as safeguarding their way of life, like the man quoted by LHM. 

But when I visited the Trinity Site in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was exploded, I saw a sight that signaled the diversity of the U.S. feelings about nuclear weapons, and perhaps the hypocrisy as well.  The site, located in the middle of the White Sands Missile Range and open only twice a year to the public, was off-limits to any kinds of demonstration.  But here and there in the midst of the space, encircled by a chain link fence, where a stone obelisk marked the fateful detonation, small groups prayed silently together.  Some were pacifists praying for world peace and an end to the nuclear insanity.  Others were evangelical Christians, praying for America and the greatness that conquering the atom stood for.  Some might have been praying for Armageddon, in keeping with their faith that the last battle will herald the Kingdom of God.  Others, blissfully ignorant of these groupings, posed for pictures next to the obelisk and looked for trinitite, slightly radioactive glass fused from the sand when the plasma of the blast seared the desert. 

That blast, which raised a terrible, yet beautiful, flower from the desert floor, caused even its architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer to tremble a little before its might and wonder what type of horrible genie was released from its bottle.  "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," he said, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita.  In our silos in North Dakota and other states, on submarines cruising the oceans, and in Russia, China and other places, many destroyers of worlds still sit waiting for a time when they might be called to wreak their horrible vegeance.

Musical Interlude

Another double-shot, Littourati!  About the time that LHM was pondering nuclear missiles in North Dakota, Iron Maiden was writing 2 Minutes to Midnight, referencing the Doomsday Clock and the launch of nuclear missiles.  Around this time also, Nena was penning 99 Luftballons, about an accidental nuclear launch because, of all things, red balloons.  It's the height of anger, fear and hysteria in Cold War era music, and two very different styles!

If you want to know more about Langdon

City of Langdon
Facebook: Cavalier County Republican (newspaper)
North Dakota State University Langdon Research Extension Center
Wikipedia: Langdon

Next up:  Backoo, North Dakota


Blue Highways: Rolla, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

The immense sky, the land that meets it in an unending horizon that extends in a circle around us as far as we can see.  It's hard not go get lost in the immensity.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) muses on his smallness, we muse with him.  To locate yourself, click here for the map!

Book Quote

"I needed a hot shower.  In Rolla, on the edge of the Turtle Mountain reservation, I stopped at an old house rebuilt into a small hotel.  Despite a snarl of a clerk, it looked pleasant; but the floors smelled of disinfectant and the shower was a rusting box at the end of the hall.  The nozzle sent one stinging jet of water into my eye, another up my nose, two others over the shower curtain, while most of the water washed down the side to stand icily in the plugged bottom.  I lost my temper and banged the shower head.  The Neanderthal remedy.

"In a hotel room at the geographical center of North America, a neon sign blinking red through the cold curtains, I lay quietly like a small idea in a vacant mind."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7

Downtown Rolla, North Dakota. Photo by J. Stephen Conn at his Flickr photostream. Click on photo to go to host page.

Rolla, North Dakota

In the quote above about Rolla, North Dakota, I really like the imagery of LHM lying "like a small idea in a vacant mind."

I like the imagery because sometimes it fits in with my idea of the universe and the place I hold within it.  In fact, this image is the direct result of what LHM is thinking as he drives through the immense flatness of North Dakota on his way to Rolla.  You'll notice, if you look at the map, that whereas most of our stops have been very bunched up, this stop is a long way from the last one.  Here is what LHM has to say during that long drive from Fortuna to Rolla:

"After a while, I found my perception limited.  The Great Plains, showing so many miles in an immodest exposure of itself, wearied my eyes; the openness was overdrawn....

"You'd think anything giving variety to this near blankness would be prized, yet when a Pleistocene pond got in the way, the road cut right through it, never yielding its straightness to nature.  If you fired a rifle down the highway, a mile or so east you'd find the spent slug in the middle of the blacktop.

"Here the earth, as if to prove its immensity, empties itself.  Gertrude Stein said: 'In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.  That is what makes America what it is.'  the uncluttered stretches of the American West and the deserted miles of road force a lone traveler to pay attention to them by leaving him isolated in them.  This squander of land substitutes a sense of self with a sense of place by giving him days of himself until, tiring of his own small compass, he looks for relief to the bigness outside - a grandness that demands attention not just for its scope, but for its age, its diversity, its continual change.  The isolating immensity reveals what lies covered in places noiser, busier, more filled up.  For me, what I saw revealed was this (only this): a man nearly desperate because his significance had come to lie within his own narrow gambit."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7

The reason I'm quoting so liberally from Blue Highways is that these quotes reveal what happens when we start thinking of our place in the vast scale of time and place.  We are really nothing more than motes in time, hardly even specks in space.  For most of us, we will live our lives and pass on with hardly a ripple to mark our passage.  Even those of us who seem to make a big impact on Earth will in the immensity of time and space won't register beyond our own little tiny dust mote of a planet.  When you consider things in that context, is it no wonder that LHM temporarily sees himself as "a small idea in a vacant mind?"

There are times when my mind wanders in these realms of thought.  However, I find my insignificance in the cosmos and through the eons as strangely comforting.  There are times when I wonder if scale doesn't really matter.  I look at speck of sand, like Horton peered at the dust, and wonder if there are worlds that I can't see or fathom on that speck.  I am struck how electrons orbit atoms much as our earth orbits the sun, and the sun orbits the black hole at the center of our galaxy.  I wonder if, when we peer into these atomic levels, if we are really peering into universes where some type of life, so tiny that there is no way to perceive it, is building a civilization and contemplating travel to a neighboring atom.

I read a story once that ended with an archeologist, trying to decipher the symbols of an ancient culture, finds a carved image of what appeared to be a god, but which he discovers that instead is a being staring at some sand and realizes that in the level of universes, we could be simply on a speck of sand in some even greater universe and space where someone is peering down at us and wondering if our universe exists.

It's easy to get lost in this - it's not easy to write about because one can go around and around in circles.  It is also easy to lose ones sense of one's own significance, just like LHM.  But here's why I am comforted.  LHM might feel like a small thought...but he is the center of his own universe and as he stares at a hotel ceiling, he is in the geographic center of North America (actually he's about 74 miles away, according to current calculations), which might be in the center of the whole universe as far as we know.  In the grand scheme of things, does it matter if I make immense waves in time and space?  If I'm significant to those around me, and hopefully my energy that transfers to them is positive energy and therefore my significance to them is positive also, then what does it matter?  In my own universe, my perception of myself is that I can be a giant, hopefully a humble and well-meaning giant, but a giant nonetheless.  It starts with my own awareness of self, which encompasses my thoughts and my senses.  It has effects in my immediate vicinity, and as my field of vision decreases, my effects diminish until they disperse into the random noise created by all the rest of life on Earth.  In other words, I carry my significance with me wherever I go, and even if I am in a place that seems so vast that I lose sense myself, all I have to do is stop, bend down and move some dirt, throw a stone, yell and watch my voice startle some birds before it fades into nothing, smile and say hello to a person and watch them react, or any other active thing that I do.  I may be a small thought in the vastness of the universe's vacant mind, but I fill up the space right around me and, in that space, I'm a force that cannot be ignored.

Musical Interlude

I wanted to find a song that captured something of the immensity of the Great Plains that LHM is rolling through in the book.  But I really couldn't find anything that fit the Great Plains, in my mind, that was actually about the Great Plains.  But I remembered this song that my sister introduced to me to, Station by Call and Response.  For some reason, this song always was a favorite and just seemed to fit when it came up on my IPod shuffle as I drove across the vast spaces of New Mexico.

If you want to know more about Rolla

Rolla website
Turtle Mountain Star (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Rolla
Wikipedia: Turtle Mountain Reservation

Next up: Langdon, North Dakota