“How do you like it out there?” is a question often asked of me when people learn I live in North Dakota or when I meet people who have just moved here.
My answer is always the same, “Oh I love it!” which seems to surprise the asker. Before they can ask for clarification, I say, “I’ve lived in southern California and eastern, western, and mid-North Carolina too, and this is by far my favorite place that I’ve lived.” I go on to tell them all the reasons like how everyone is so friendly, how there’s some kind of hope here that permeates every one of my senses—I swear I can smell it—which infects me and makes my thoughts buoyant. I tell them how I’ve fallen in love with the sky, how every morning that I leave my house to take my kids to school, I look at the eastern horizon where the sun performs its ritual peep show over the edge of the basin. It undresses itself with rare color and form, every morning the effect more tantalizing than the last time. I think the sun feels free here, showing us a side of itself that won’t be seen anywhere else, and this because of the rarity of this place. This endless sky which constantly pulls my chin upward and my spirit into the clouds holds me like a lover, gripped in passion and newness.
Sometimes I feel like I might be living in a dream, like one day I’ll wake up and the adoration I have for this place will have faded like an ill-fated love affair. But the truth is I’ve loved one thing or another about all of the places I have lived, but I have never loved myself in a place more than I love myself here, in North Dakota, where the expanse of land seems endless and unwavering, where rebel dust clouds visit every surface and crevice, where trees, my true love, are as scarce as rainbows, where the biting winds of winter torment my face, forcing me to hide behind layers of clothes. Beneath these clothes which shroud me in protective warmth, I am as free as ever.
I’ve started to think my soul must travel the prairie while I’m sleeping. When winter ties me up, I still manage to feel my life is more open than it ever was in nearly-year-round shorts and t-shirts in southern California or in the seasonal varying beauty of North Carolina. It must be the pioneer in my bones that feels trapped unless I’m moving (or the air is moving around me as it always seems to be here). The flux has caught me up in weightless abandon. All these things have me the grip of awe, but I suspect it’s really the people.
The people, from every clime of humanity, are more diverse than the great melting pot of Ellis Island in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Virginia, New York, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Oregon, California, Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Washington, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Nevada–I have met people from each of these places and I would bet that North Dakota must now have long-term visitors from all fifty states as well as internationally, (there are a group of employees at Walmart with curious accents I have yet to place). As different as the places are that they come from, the people share something monumental in common: They each possess a spirit which frees them from the bindings of their birthright, a fearlessness that brings them to the prairie. The tenor of their souls is a missal of challenge.
In my experience, so few leave the familiarity of home–if they do leave, they always return. They stay in or around their birth places, their families and friends, and even when life is difficult and dependable livelihood a constant struggle to come by, they stay, grounded by their roots. But here we share the same story. Our lives intersect because of who we are, not where we come from or who we knew. Our bindings are loose, yet we are kindred spirits pulled to the same place. In a world of such diverse ideologies, cultures, and people in general, finding yourself among a large population of those who share some common spiritual thread exhilarates the mind.
I have lost myself here among these people and this place of refuge. These people, aurora borealis of humanity, reflecting the same sky, undulating with color and passion, ridiculous tenacity, conviction, and flaunting fearlessness. How stupid you are! How gloriously careless and free. I would not want to find myself anywhere but among you.