Stepping Twice into the River: Following Dakota Waters

Sample from Stepping Twice into the River

from Chapter One: “Around the Beginning in Sheridan County”

Near the center of North Dakota, near the center of the whole North American continent, I passed a hand-painted sign stuck along the road: “America’s Outback.” It was cold and gray and the thermos-cup of coffee on the dashboard was steaming up the glass so I cracked the window, a grit of ice blasting in as I turned onto a gravel road. With the snowmelt flooding every coulee and roadside ditch, every prairie pothole and low field, I was heading upstream to find a river in a world increasingly made of water.

On my map was the solid blue line of a river which broke up into dots—meaning “intermittent”—near Krueger Lake.

I rolled up the window and sipped the last of the coffee from my thermos, wondering if it would stop raining or rain more or turn to snow, and feeling like one of the last people on earth. Or one of the people on the last of the earth.
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I ’d always shrugged off the state’s image of being “remote”, only meaning it seemed far away from whomever said it. A more serious point is how remote it can seem when you’re in the middle of it. Steinbeck, traveling with his dog Charley, had felt a strange wind in western North Dakota, had said he “felt unwanted in this land.” I only felt irrelevant, a pair of eyes looking out of my little car at the large land.

There were fences along the road, soggy haystacks, furrows in fields from last fall’s plowing—but with no one around, not a house, no machinery working, no seeding yet done, the ground seemed uninhabited, almost original. The dark furrows echoed a map’s elevation lines, each swirl and curve of the plow following the topography of hills and dips so that the prints of human industry seemed here the design of the earth itself.

Everywhere around me, glaciers had pushed down and melted back, repeating for thousands of years, the undulating Plains shaped by the push of ice and then by depositions of sediment, here three hundred feet thick. It looked as if the last ice had just melted and one man had driven a tractor across the remnants of earth.

The landscape was monotonous and confusing at the same time. A complication of forms (stippled and puddled, ridged and hollowed, mounded and cut), it was elaborated in intricate patterns at the same time it dulled to a uniform to a blur. Not a wilderness, it  seemed a wildness, the relic of an unimaginable event that had  disappeared and left its mark.
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When I came to the sign for Coal Mine Lake and Sheyenne Lake—on one map this was the source--I left the highway for a side-trip. The road got slipperier so when I came over a small hill and pointed down toward a catastrophe I had to pump the brakes cautiously to stop.

The road below, a causeway between two lakes, disappeared under a rush of water for twenty or thirty yards and then emerged. Such overflows, even a few inches deep, often eat away at roads while hiding the danger and I wasn’t going to risk it. I got out, zipped my jacket, and walked down to the rushing surge although nothing around suggested it was unusual. The trees, the land, the road—everything—accepted this small spring disaster with complete equanimity, the waters gurgling almost cheerfully as they poured over the downstream edge of the road. And yet I felt a vacancy here.

I stood in a world of cold earth, water, and air, feeling at least a twinge of what it was like to live completely dependent on those elements, before railroads, before towns. Few trees for lumber, settlers often dug their first home into the earth itself—a pithouse or hillside cave—or built it out of the earth, piling up rocks and sod, or firing bricks of clayey soil. Many found soft lignite coal buried beneath their feet, hundreds digging their own for warmth. They cut ice in winter and gathered buffalo bones in summer, often their first source of cash, and planted potatoes—those mealy white chunks of earth and water—and after that wheat and wheat again, the territory soon named for the grain, “Land of the No. 1 Hard.”

They dug at the earth, wrenching up glacial rocks and lugging them on wooden stone-boats to a pile, hundreds now dotting the fields, monuments to hardship.
Add to this the surly summer heating the wheat to the yellow-white blaze of the sun, autumn stripping the landscape into a different color of monotony, winter blowing snow over empty fields and rocks and bones, making everything seem even more the same almost unendurably and then, every spring, snow melting, water again, filling the coulees, welling up in the fields. It was a life lived not simply on the earth, but from deep within it.

I turned away from the little flood, walked back to my car, and took the highway to turn on a gravel road.

The wind was stronger now, whipping droplets of rain against the windshield, and I came to an intersection--a farmhouse and a few outbuildings on one corner--unsure which way to go.  A man heading inside stopped to watch as a stranger’s car slowed. Here were my directions, I thought, and turned into his driveway.

“Just doin’ some mud work,” he said when I came up, answering a question I hadn’t thought of.

“I’m trying to find Krueger Lake,” I said.

“What’s your name?” he asked, gruffly, I thought, but I told him.

“Koenig?” He leaned forward and cupped his hand behind his ear.

“King.” I tried to enunciate the single syllable in the icy wind but I wanted to let it go at “Koenig” because that’s what it would be if I were German Russian, the largest national group in Sheridan County to which belonged, I assumed, Mr. Krueger of Krueger Lake and the Dakota citizen I faced now.

After getting my last name he wanted my first and I felt a slight flare of impatience, but I was the stranger coming into his territory so I slowed down. Maybe in a landscape with few people, it was important to know who each one was, especially with a license plate from East Dakota. I told him my names, received his, and nodded.

“German Russian, then?” I asked.

Oh, yes. His grandparents came from the Black Sea area. They were Rumanians. “Well, you know,” he said, shrugging. “The Black Sea was under Russia, Germany, Turkey. So some of those early guys wrote down they were born in Turkey and some in Austria and some in Rumania.” He grinned. “And they were all born in pretty much the same place.”

When Russia went back on its promise of military exemption for immigrating German farmers, they’d started coming here in the 1870s. In the ’80s—the Great Dakota Boom—people “flooded in,” the usual phrase, a rush of rapid settlement, which built up North Dakota’s “German Russian triangle,” its base six counties along the southern border, its apex two in the north. Up there most of the neighbors were from six German Catholic villages near Odessa while the Sheyenne ran through 95% German Protestant country.

The only major group of immigrants from a semi-arid country, they knew about living on treeless plains, but after the prairie was broken up and the topsoil began to blow away traditional farming methods proved difficult. Many went on to Canada but a lot stayed, droving difficult enough themselves and described by others as frugal, practical, tough-minded, or simply rough, but surely hard-working. The men abused themselves and their wives and children with work, doing without, and then doing without some more. Single-mindedly, crude-mindedly in the eyes of their sometimes scandalized neighbors, they lived in primitive conditions and worked their farms and saved their money to buy another farm when it was up for sale and then another. The very phrase “mud work” was a present echo of the unforgiving heaviness of such labor in the past—Land of the Number One Hard in more than one way.

I asked my question again and he waved ahead. “Just straight on west the way you’re going. Road turns north at the lake.”

`”It’s the headwaters of the Sheyenne,” I explained to the man who lived a mile from it. “I’m trying to find where it starts.”

“Well,” he paused, “that could be.”

“It’s not the headwaters?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, could be,” he shrugged. “Only sometimes water drains north from here. In the fifties, one year? There was a lot of rain around and you could see all them lakes empty northward. Of course,” he relented, “ that could’ve been unusual, you know.”

“Well, I don’t know myself,” I said, knowing my turn to back down when I heard it. “But thanks. Appreciate it.”

When I came to where the road turned north and left, nothing ahead but two muddy tracks along the fence and the hazy tip of a dark body of water beyond, I parked on the road. I walked up the path over thick ribbons of earth, the rounded tops of gopher-burrows dug under the snow and now on top of something rather than beneath it.  Then I turned off the path, stepping gingerly across the spongy matted grass until I was at the water’s edge.   
To my right lay the lake, hills holding it in to the west, a pebbly gray shore on this side, dark water lifting in front of me out of its source, curling through marsh grass and cattails, then around a stranded roll of hay. The Sheyenne began ten thousand years ago in a natural catastrophe of flooding glacial lakes, and it was beginning again today, half winter, half spring, right out there. Somewhere.

Finally, I saw it, I’m sure I saw it, a certain insistence in the flow, a current marked by flecks of foam that moved more quickly than others, swirling one way and another but moving on, indicating a future. This was it, all this water “born pretty much in the same place” regardless of names, a beginning that seemed chaotic but was only a natural rhythm repeating and multiplying. This didn’t feel like the Out Back, after all, but like the Deep Within, some secret I couldn’t translate even to myself. I stood for a few more minutes at the beginning of everything moving off into what was to come. Then, after a long gaze out into the current, I trudged back across the grass, slipping a few times, and followed the muddy lane back to the car.

Then, one other thing. I took, a different county road back toward the highway and in a mile suddenly had to stop. In front of me a rivulet from the flooded ditch had incised a one-foot-deep, one-foot-wide canyon straight across the gravel road. I got out and looked down on a tiny rippling river already sorting its stones, sand at the bottom, then gravel, then pebbles lined up as in any stream. This week’s accident, it could have been here for years, water always acting exactly this way. I stood and watched it follow its nature while interrupting ours, then got in the car and turned, backed, turned, backed, and drove away, my wheel marks on the wet sand of the shoulder showing the exact design of my reversal.