Driving across you
a friendly, remembered road
plain but beautiful
The prospect of carrying a heavy pack for eighteen straight days through hills and valleys, prairie and roadside, all under the summer sun, is a daunting one. So, I have to ask myself—“Physically, have I had the kinds of experiences that lead me to believe I can complete the proposed trip?” And honestly I have to answer, “Nothing quite like this…”
When I think back on the majority of my hiking and camping experiences I want to say that I have a fair amount of experience doing activities along the lines of what we are attempting with this hike across North Dakota. But as I’ve gotten more serious in thinking about what a trip like this is going to be like, it’s occurred to me that most of those experiences aren’t exactly relevant. Most of them include gearing up the day of, driving out to a park or reserve of some kind, spending the majority of the day hiking and looking around, setting up camp, sleeping, and then getting up and going home. Obviously, this is not that kind of trip. This trip involves getting up, packing up, hiking, resting, hiking, setting up camp, sleeping, getting up, finding time to eat in-between, and repeating that routine eighteen (or so) consecutive times. Doing that, say, five times in a row would be a significant challenge, eighteen times will certainly exhaust us.
Now, most everyone has been on a day-hike. I’ve done a ton of them. Honestly, at least a hundred. They are a fun, healthy way to get out of the house, exercise, and check out nature. But I suspect that when it comes to hiking for more than one day in a row, fewer of us have gone the distance. And, as much as I’d like to cite my experience, I can only think of one trip where I for more than 3 days (1/6 of the proposed trip); two years ago I went on an eight day backpacking trip on the ‘North Shore’ of Lake Superior with Jeremy (also a member of this expedition.) I can safely say that that was a rigorous trip, and seeing as this upcoming trip will be twice as long, I might have reason to be worried. After all, even if one can cope with the sheer physical demands of the trip, there’s always the additional risks of getting sick, breaking or spraining a limb, getting severe blisters, getting lost, losing appetite, losing motivation, and (heaven forbid) having animals interfere. Many of the things in this list did happen to us on the Superior trip.
For some (perhaps foolish) reason, I’m not too worried. And neither, I think, are my cohorts. Maybe it’s because the prospects of adventure and achievement have, so far, masked the need to carefully think through what lies before us. Maybe we’re better off not worrying too much about what can go wrong. Either way, by my estimation it seems that this trip is going to take a combination of idealistic adventurousness, reasoned concern, and probably even flat-out stubbornness to get us started and get us to the end. I hope we will be willing and able to give it. In some ways, it already seems to late to turn back (and I like that.)
When I tell my friends and family what I’m doing after I graduate, they all seem to react with a bit of confusion. Go walking in the open wilderness of North Dakota grasslands and over miles and miles of rarely-travelled back roads. Okay. Be walking an average of more than 12 miles a day. Alright… Turn it into a 2-3 week trek that spans the Western half of the state. Uhhh… It’s maybe not what you would expect from someone who moved to New York a year and a half ago for a degree in European Studies and Library Science. Yeah – it’s not exactly what I expected either.
The general idea was my Tyler’s (my older brother): to go hiking for a time in the backcountry of our home state. At some point, however, I think he might have accidentally tossed out the idea of hiking across the whole state, probably as a joke, and by the time I had decided to mention this big idea to my high school buddy (and informally-adopted brother), Richard, The Walk Across North Dakota was firmly lodged in my consciousness. Richard was my hiking buddy when we moved out to Minneapolis a couple years ago, and another fanatic for fantasies of epic adventure. During our time in Minnesota, we went on a few hiking/camping trips. Of course, our longest had only been 8 days on the Superior Hiking Trail – although, we were attempting to keep a pace of 20 miles a day – and it was in preparation for an immense journey to circumnavigate the Great Lakes of North America. It was just going to be the practice run.
Don’t tell me you are starting to get worried too? Well, I guess I don’t blame you. Sometimes I’m not really sure why I feel compelled to do these things; rational answers all pale in comparison to the Real itself, to the indescribable experience. But did I inherit some mad ideas from my reading? Did Richard brainwash me with all his talk of “becoming TRULY HARDCORE“? (just imagine someone impersonating Darrell Hammond’s impersonation of Sean Connery – yeah, it’s about that weird) We didn’t end up completing that trip, but maybe it whetted my appetite (but not before the giardia had passed from my system).
Are we North Dakotans especially prone to this sort of absurd challenge? Perhaps there is something in the water – in 1930, Eric Sevareid of Velva, ND, completed an insane 2,200 mile canoe trip from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay – or even better, something on the wind – in 2008, some friends at 2XTM (To Cross the Moon) traveled from the Canadian border to South Dakota on snow kites…in the months of JANUARY AND FEBRUARY no less!
Whence comes this fascination with crazy? A friend of mine, Adam, when I told him about my plans, noticed this deeper urge in me. He asked me if I’d ever read Into the Wild – I said I’d seen the film. (He’s forcing me read it now – and it’s great, as it turns out – Jon Krakauer is easily becoming my new writing hero – and I’m hoping to write an article based on this whole adventure for Outside magazine, where the book got its beginnings.) But then he asked me, “Is this supposed to be a spiritual journey?” Now that might sound like a strange leap – to be fair I was telling him about it at the same time as my new year’s resolutions: go vegetarian for a month, and not drink alcohol for a year. And I’m sure it all smacked of some attempt to “purify my body” or whatever, but that wasn’t it at all. I just had this impulse to start challenging myself, physically and mentally, as part of my preparation for the much more serious challenge ahead.
But I have to say, there was some truth in his assumption. I’m not seriously affiliated with any belief system right now, but I don’t think that it’s out of any lack of spirituality. In fact, I would say it’s specifically because of a deep concern with questions of faith that I am unaffiliated at the moment. I grew up Christian as a Methodist, but that specific designation never meant much to me. And over the years, I’ve tried to explore many different religious systems, often discovering that the one of the elements I find fascinating is the awareness that life is essentially ephemeral, passing, temporary. Christianity has some of this element certainly, but its been obscured by the milieu of contemporary American Christianity and I find it best emphasized for me in the ascetic tradition within Zen Buddhism. But whatever spirituality one puts it in – I even found it in the Sioux religion of Lame Deer – I realized that Adam was right. Like the moment in religious stories and myths, when the character must pass through the desert or wilderness and learn something about himself or herself, this walk will be more than a mental and physical test, something more akin to a vision quest.
Aren’t I coming to this a little late though? By this summer, I’ll be 26 years old, I’ll have 2 Masters degrees, and I’ll have been living away from North Dakota for at least four years and from home for nine. Isn’t it traditional for us to go through this rite of passage stuff when we hit puberty? I suppose I wouldn’t be the only case to suggest that individual development in Western culture is spiritually retarded. And here I am, having spent the last year and a half in New York as a sponge, soaking up all the great things that abound – philosophers and social revolutionaries, sights and tastes from infinite seas, odd movies and new ideas, anything that you damn well please – all the people I have met, all the experiences that have been offered to me, all the knowledge that I have gained – I had never imagined in my life that I might end up here and have experienced such things – my leap into the unknown has fulfilled dreams that I never even dreamed of dreaming! But shouldn’t I know where I am going by now??
That’s not really a question – just a feeling. But I’ve begun to tell myself that this voyage undertaking, this quest I am on: this is my attempt to get back to zero. I’m not even sure what that phrase means yet – I just get this image of squeezing out all the contents of this sponge and seeing what’s left behind, to discover all the things which were really important things and which will remain to define me for the rest of my life. Now, that is going to sound like I want to get sack all the great experiences I’ve had, but that’s dumb, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not thinking about this trip as an attempt to escape something. All I can tell you is that not all quests know their ends – you don’t always get to know what you’re looking for until you’ve gone through it. That seems to be a good reason for not answering the “whys” of my parents and friends. It’s especially true if this is to truly be a spiritual journey – it wouldn’t be a journey of the spirit if you knew what it was or where it was going to take you.
Bone-colored road thru
snow-covered field hiding soil.
Dry veins, quiet heart.
I laced up my boots and threw on my grandpa’s old-smelling army green jacket before I went out the door yesterday morning. Stepping into the cold, humid air, I was optimistic: I knew I’d made a great decision. Despite my humble North Dakota origins – or more probably because of them – I’ve learned well how to cope with the climate of the concrete jungle.
Despite what knocks may be laid on North Dakotans for talking about the weather a lot (see bullet 1 here…and number 8, and 14, 20, 25, 28, etc.), weather is a important factor to consider in every day life. When it comes to North Dakota, you better know what to expect from the weather because it could literally kill you. An unexpected blizzard, white out conditions, far below freezing wind chill…these remain significant concerns for modern day existence. It was only freezing rain in Brooklyn yesterday, not uncommon or anything; although, to be fair, I did nearly lose an eye when I stepped out the door into the ice-laden boughs of the tree hanging just outside my apartment door. (Hey, that’s no joke; I caught a branch in the mouth when I was 15. Don’t ask me how it got past my teeth. Trees are just sneaky like that.)
It was just after a long holiday weekend, with a 4-day week ahead, but not a soul was rushing to get back to work. A lady named Ella once told me that the A train is the fastest way to get to Harlem – but she was not talking about days like this. It was loping slowly along somewhere behind a long line of Cs on the way into Manhattan. The conductor seemed to be drawing out all his syllables
And even the riders looked sluggish, tired and wet like sad old dogs. We are all stuck here under the hohum of empty flourescent lights which cast pale shadows over everything, sitting in silence listening to the slow squeak of cold wheels on cold steel. If weather rarely makes the news in New York, it’s probably because people would rather not talk about it. They’d prefer to be up on Broadway preparing for their first performance or hitting the back streets in search of new threads or reading Pynchon at NYPL. But we all knew what was waiting for us out there…and no one was very excited about it.
Perhaps the greatest danger present to the inhabitant of the concrete jungle on a winter day like this (other than falling icicles) is the sudden appearance of perplexingly large puddles. From the “muddy, refuse-filled puddles that have inexplicably not dried in three years,” to those of indiscernible depth, the inhabitant must develop a unique technique for navigating each of these treacherous obstacles. Contrary to their typical behavior, these city dwellers will actually wait at the intersection, staring at one another interestedly, attempting to perfect their best techniques for the next puddle-jump.
Each intersection poses the same existential conundrum: now, do I try to get around this one or just give up and go home? I’ve become quite proud of my high ankle, water-proof hiking boots – since I rediscovered these boots, I’ve begun trouncing right through these obstructions with a haughty sort of air, leaving the other pedestrians behind to contemplate the path of least dampness. I get to chuckle when I hear stories like this from NPR in December:
But if growing up in ND, and now living in NYC, has taught me the importance of daily preparation for the weather, I’ve really begun to really wonder how we will prepare for that multiple-week journey we’re calling the Walk Across North Dakota. North Dakota may very well be the apex of extreme weather conditions in North America, perfectly oriented to receive the worst of all possible worlds. If it’s impossible to depend on weather from day to day, especially in North Dakota (where the temperature can go from freezing to 50 in the same 24-hour period), then how will we prepare for a 2+ week hiking trip? We’re going to need to be prepared for some extremities. At least North Dakota doesn’t have to worry about hurricanes (or do we…expect the unexpected, I guess). We pride ourselves on surviving this extremity every day, but let’s be honest, one thing it doesn’t make for is nice hiking.
When I got off the train and headed toward the library for work, I appreciated again the fact that my mind was occupied with these thoughts rather than avoiding all those puddles. I pulled my collar up against the sleet chunks falling from the sky, thinking to myself, at least I’ve learned to appreciate how mild a day like this was – I could laugh at these mundane dangers! What matter that the snow plows didn’t get our street in Bedford-Styvesant until Dec. 29th, long after the Snowmageddon blizzard of 2010. While I may not be Finnish and only partially Norwegian, I can sense a strain of sisu running through the North Dakota people and their ability to weather not only the bitter Nordic winters but extreme weather of all sorts. I stopped momentarily to watch as a similarly dressed pedestrian, in his own pair of tall thick boots, approached the upcoming intersection from the opposite direction. I gave him a nod of confidence that he didn’t seem to notice. Then, I watched him stride purposefully toward a large puddle, step one foot in and plunge the second foot deep beneath the opaque surface, far above his ankle.
Maybe the City was trying to tell me something. If there is one thing I am constantly reminded of, it is that too much pride is a recipe for disaster or at least some sopping wet socks. Neither of which you want on a long walk, no matter whether its through the streets of New York or the North Dakota wilderness. But don’t worry, we won’t be piggybacking our way across this state: we’re going to do it on our own.
My twenty-seventh year of life may wind up being the best one, or at least the one where I did the most, grew the most, and had the most fun. Planning the incredible adventure of walking across half of North Dakota, to say nothing of actually doing it, is only one of the many life-changing things I will have experienced over the course of a year. When I think about how the walk will fit in with everything else, I do have some sense of wanting it to be a way to take a break from a fast-paced, detail-crammed existence. On the other hand, I love how my life has been over the past several months. It will probably be good for me to slow down and pare down my surroundings to a minimal level, but I will miss all the things I do and people I’m in contact with.
Here is a chronological breakdown of my year so far (starting June 2010): Deciding to quit my preschool teaching job and move for a year to where my fiancé lives (mid- June). Short but intense trip to Chicago (mid-July). Moving my stuff to my new town, then spending a month in my hometown of Bismarck (August). Visiting my brother in Colorado, hiking to the top of my first mountain, and deciding to participate in the ND walk (early September). Studying for the GRE while settling into life with my fiancé (September-October). Taking the GRE and starting the process of applying to grad schools (October-November). Starting two new jobs relating to my future editing career, one as a writer and the other as copyeditor and food columnist (December).
That brings me to this month, and ever closer to March, when I will be getting married. Wedding planning has occurred throughout the year, but is really ramping up now. It will be a relatively simple wedding, but I have been learning that even simple weddings can consist of approximately two trillion little details, and suck up lots and lots of time.
You now know probably far more about my life than you ever wanted to, but you can also understand that although nothing could dampen my excitement for the ND walk, the preparation for it is competing with several other important things for my time, energy and intellect. And in writing this post, I have realized that same thing anew. I am daunted by all that remains to be done before the walk takes place, but I am also proud of myself for sticking with this project in the midst of so much else. Knock on wood—I may find that I’m in over my head and bring down the rest of the team by being pulled in too many directions. But for all my faults, I am an organized, efficient, high-energy person, and I think I’ll be able to get ‘er done. If I don’t, the guys can stick me with the lumpy sleeping bag each night. As for being apart from my husband, friends, and the other elements of my life, I will have to prepare for that perhaps more carefully than anything else.
When Eric Sevareid used to tell people he came from North Dakota, he said they would merely nod politely and change the subject. Now I’ve had enough experience to know that this event does not always occur so unremarkably. Here’s a list of common reactions I’ve heard when telling someone I come from North Dakota. I’ve included my snarkiest replies and categorized them for future reference (you know, just in case you need to refer back to them). But if you come up with some of your own reactions and replies, please add them in the comments. I could always use a few new retorts.
Variations in Disbelief
So ridiculous they don’t merit a response:
“It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave. Sometimes it becomes more acute for having left.”
-Colum McCann, from “Let the Great World Spin“
Through my open window come the sounds that remind me where I live. If I close my eyes, I can envision the cars speeding past in cresting gusts of air or vainly flashing their lights in time with a distant alarm. There is the inevitable, steady rumble of an approaching bus. I can hear the movements and faint conversations of people on the sidewalk below. When I open my eyes and look out, I see white lights emanating from small businesses on the commercial street: a doctor’s office, a Mexican restaurant, a beauty salon. In this moment, I know, this is the city. This is, incessantly and unapologetically, Brooklyn, but I am thinking about someplace else.
I grew up in North Dakota, but I do not live there now. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the center of that broad expanse of the American Midwest. Then, I left. Although there is considerable interest in the reasons why people, especially young people, leave North Dakota, my decision was not fueled by dissatisfaction with my state of origin. And when I think back now, it is often with wonder at the unusual, intriguing place that I am from.
What does it mean to be “From North Dakota”? I would like to understand, since I consider this heritage a defining attribute of my self. Being from North Dakota is no more separable from my identity than the content of my chromosomes or the date of my birth. It is an established, irrevocable aspect of my life, one that has influenced my life thus far and will surely continue to do so in ways both subtle and apparent. But how?
The most famous thing ever said (and frequently repeated) about this is probably: “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” This utterance, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, clearly speaks to the significance of North Dakota origins in enabling life achievements. Yet, this quote has always bothered me because it says so little about what experiences precisely enabled what achievements and how. Still, I realize that I’ve never doubted that it’s entirely true, which is probably why I’m writing these words today.
I know that being from North Dakota is unusual, so few of the world’s people can claim it. What about this heritage makes me unique? What characterizes this isolated state and its people? What legacy do years, especially formative ones, spent in North Dakota impart on a person? The goal of The Blank Rectangle is to find out.
(Images: Top: Khurram Nazzir; Bottom: Tyler Bold)