When I took off from Lincoln this time, I decided to go north through South Dakota and North Dakota. Part of my goal was to visit a place I’d never been before: North Dakota. However, I also wanted to see more prairie. I love the prairie. It’s a subtle beauty, and I had studied Great Plains geography, history, music, and literature in college. I wanted to see where Per Hansa and his wife played out their pioneering lives in Giants in the Earth. I felt as though I could understand and appreciate it, even if most of the people I told about my destination thought it would be boring.
I wasn’t disappointed. As I traveled up through South Dakota’s capitol, Pierre, and then to North Dakota’s capitol, Bismarck, I saw beautiful autumn-golden fields—both pasture and crops. The colors were muted, because it was late in the fall. Bright yellow leaves still clung to the branches on the sparse trees, but instead of presenting as a mass of gold, they looked like lace, almost like mist surrounding the dark branches. Many of the trees had more leaves on the bottom than the top, which made the misty “leaf ring” around the trunk look like a netted tutu, with multiple graceful branches rising up from the skirt into the sky.
In South Dakota, I saw harvesters everywhere. They were parked in farmyards and in the fields with pickups, grain movers and clouds of dust floating after them. Tractor-trailers moving south on the highway carried big combines, I assuming to their next contract assignments. One time, I saw three harvester-laden trucks in a small convoy. I imagined the silos filled with grain—corn, wheat and sunflowers.
As I moved north from Pierre to Bismarck, the harvesters thinned. The fields already had been shaved, opening up the sky and shutting down the land for winter. Small conservation areas along the highway took the limelight from harvesting, glowing in their fall finery: creamy pale-yellow grasses, spent brown flower stems, stiff cattails and reeds surrounding quiet waters.
I left the highway and dove into North Dakota autumn to see the Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge, ending up on a unique dirt road surrounded on two sides with the waters of the Lake. I was the only one there. The visitor center was closed. Everything was brown and dusty, but beautiful in a minimalistic way, and peaceful. I stopped the truck, turned off the motor and stood by the north side of the road, gazing across the water quietly. My brain slowed down, my heart stopped bombarding me with doubt and sorrow. In the heart of the Great Plains, in a place I’m guessing few people visit each year, I found a few moments of peace.
I had wondered if the northern launch of my trip was a mistake, but standing there on the edge of the road surrounded by water, a slight breeze teasing the tension away from me, I decided it had been a perfect decision to come this way.