“Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there” – Robert Hunter “Box of Rain”
Somehow the cold wisps of snow lacing across the back of my neck and cheeks will lure my mind to thoughts of fishing. For whatever reason, these towering mountains will lapse into thoughts about the prairie and the river. In the time it takes to smoke this cigarette I will have traveled from Utah to the shores of the Missouri River.
Right now, I stand in the darkness outside my living quarters, my eyelashes netting snowflakes, the tops of my shoes to filling up with snow. It’s cold tonight, cold enough to carry a person’s breath into the air like a spindle of thick smoke. It feels like any winter night in North Dakota.
How many nights have I stood right here, smoking a cigarette and peering off into the east? Enough, that after the last few months, it’s now familiar. These peaks have shrunk down from their once great novelty, and now have the same impact, as say, a streetlight on 6th Ave in Mandan. This view is now part of my vast mental catalogue that could be titled, “Familiar Views of My Life”. As I stand here I imagine this mental catalogue taking the form of a book. It might make a nice addition to any coffee table. It would have glossy pages and colorful pictures.
I begin to page through this imaginary book, viewing pictures of all the legendary views of my life, all the little vantages that have befriended my eyes through the years. The table of contents is well organized and helpful. Of course, there’s a section dedicated to just “Views from Windows“. There’s another section titled “Porches”. “Porches” is preceded by “Stoops”, “Balconies”, and “Doorways”. There are many more chapters, including “Views from Desks”, “Views from Windshields”, etc.
I open randomly to one of the pages. There’s a full color photograph of the view outside one of my apartments in Fargo. I used to stand outside the apartment at night between breaks writing papers. Across the street stood a bank with a digital marquee that displayed the time and temperature. Sometimes, in the winter, the display would stall out at zero degrees. Over the course of a year living there I laid eyes on this scene often.
Another page: Oh yes, the back porch view from my little shack in Idaho during the summer of 2008. This is a cherished view – how the slender pines rose up to frame the distant Galena Peak, and how in the evenings the alpine glow would illuminate the ridgelines And off to the right, pack horses trotted around in their pen. I may never go back there, but that little slice of the world will always be vivid in the archives.
Then there’s my parents’ porch in Mandan, which I’ve peered out from for so many years, the view is seared into my memory. It’s a place that I simply know. I could paint a detailed picture from memory. I realize, it could also be part of an entirely different book, a different organization of thoughts, perhaps titled, “My Mental Atlas (or Places I’ve Known)”. That porch would be marked by a little black star on the atlas, signifying its status as Capital.
I think about this, about mental atlases, for a moment as I stand here in Utah.
Every person has a mental atlas all their own. In this atlas are all the places a person has familiarized themselves with over the years. It’s their orientation. In a certain town, for instance, they might know that a certain park is located down the road from a gas station, which is close to the dive bar that has karaoke on Wednesday nights, which happens to be close to a favorite restaurant. The more places a person lives or visits the more expansive their mental atlas. Some people might know their way around the streets of Billings, Montana because they spent five months there when they were nineteen years old. Some people can tell you from memory the best way to get from Duluth Minnesota to Cheyenne Wyoming because of an exalted trip undertook long ago in a battered car.
In the atlases of my mind there are a lot of half remembered maps, but a few which are detailed right down to the cracks in the sidewalk. These are the places that are in a person‘s blood, the DNA of Place. Bismarck/Mandan, to those of us lucky enough to grow up there, is an expansive map with many panels (which consequently is difficult to fold at times). Inset on the Bismarck/Mandan map is a detail of the Missouri River. This is my favorite reference, and I refer to it often. It’s lines, and black dots, and starred points of interested are coded into my system. Be it camping trips, bonfires, canoe expeditions, photo shoots, long walks, explorations, and more. I’ve steeped many hours in it’s waters. It’s sand has been under my feet and in my hair. It’s presence has left me sunburned, dehydrated, drunk, sleepless, sore, exhausted, but more than anything, exuberant and enlightened. If there’s anything I need, it’s the Missouri River.
And if there’s any indication of being homesick, it’s longing for the Missouri River. It inevitably happens after a few months away form North Dakota.
So, as I stand out here in the blowing snow of Utah I can almost imagine summertime on the river. This sting on my cheeks isn’t the cold, but the tinge of a developing sunburn. And there’s sand, not snow, piling up in my shoes. I know I should’ve worn sandals. If I squint my eyes these snow drifts, with their wind carved contours, appear as sand dunes. As I look at these mountain in front of me I can almost envision them collapsing from the peaks inwards, like the colorful tents on the last day of a fair. Slowly they fold into themselves, leaving a flat prairie landscape, of which wildflowers and grass sprout, and meadowlarks flutter around.
When I close my eyes it all becomes complete. I’m standing on a bluff south of town, the evening nearing twilight. I can hear the dwarfish waves settle upon the shore like a lullaby. I can hear the crackle of a campfire just a few feat away. And there’s a bell ringing somewhere. There’s a fish on somebody’s line! Quick, sprint down to the water. REEL IT IN.