Bleak Beauty

I drove through southeast Montana with the moon rising before me and the sun setting behind me. The mountain ranges in Montana are truly spectacular. Standing at the foot of majestic heights, our eyes are drawn – no, forced – upward. But the prairie, if it is observed at all, requires that we look around and take stock of where we are in space, in time, in life.

Mountains demand respect. You have no choice but to see them. If you want to go from here to there, you have to get up and over thousands of feet, ascend and descend. If we climbed that mountain, there is no question that we accomplished something great.

But the undulating prairie is not glorious, not majestic. The subtle prairie is immediately comprehensible and therefore common. And easily missed by the hurried, distracted, or needs-something-to-conquer passerby. Despite this persistent slight, the voluptuous rising and falling landscape gently invites travelers to turn off their music, their audiobook playing at 1.5x, and just listen. Just think. Just imagine.

The wide open spaces east of Big Timber give your eyes time to relax, the space to stretch out. At just the right twilight moment, I cannot distinguish between snow and cloud along the horizon.

I turn off my audiobook and drive in silence. I drink hot, black coffee from my thermos and wander through time. Glaciers dumped their boulder-sized moraine as they passed through the western prairie of North Dakota. For some time, the epicontinental sea stretched all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Hudson Bay, leaving behind the algal mats which would one day give me a job producing oil. The ancestral Rocky Mountains eroded, sending their sediments and clasts eastward filling in the low spots. The coarser fragments remaining close to the mountains, the finer material lightly making its way to the center of the continent.

There are few trees on the prairie. For company, I follow the Yellowstone River a short while west of Billings, but then it is gone. Occasionally I come across another car or truck, but one of us zips by leaving the other behind. And I am left to befriend the road ahead of me.

Mountains, while they do contain their own danger, also afford one protection. I can only worry about what I can see immediately in front of me. The prairie does not provide this focused protection. On the prairie, I am exposed, vulnerable. Anticipation is its own trouble. I can see a storm coming a long way off and cannot do a thing about it except choose how to respond: pull over, turn back, proceed. On occasion, though, the storm changes direction or dissipates and without any interference from me. Frankly, the storm had no interest in me whatsoever.

Frankly, the storm had no interest in me whatsoever.

 

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Distant storm over Wyoming, more high desert than prairie

 

Driving on the backroads between North and South Dakota, I see the steeples of historic churches sparsely dotting the space. There were neither enough pastors to shepherd each church, nor could many congregations afford to support their own pastor, so they shared. Circuit pastors rode hundreds of miles on horse back from church to church. Imagining these men on horseback braving every conceivable turn of weather, hardly seems fair given my temperature controlled cab. I wonder what these intrepid souls thought about, plodding along from one farm to the next. I wonder how the women survived in such isolated, desolate homesteads, with one day looking so much like the one before and the one after.

Of all the prairie’s perils, this is the most debilitating: introspection that descends into brooding. Ascending or descending a mountain has the steps right in front of you. You can look down or up, and see how far you’ve come. The prairie, however, is not so easily measured. I may be driving 80 mph, but am I actually moving forward? Am I moving at all?

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But there is the promise of the generous view around me. And this is my favorite part of driving through wide-open spaces: uncrowding my thoughts in the prairie vastness, where distractions go extinct and cell service dies. Untangled, uncluttered and unfettered, I cannot spend too much time in such expanse.

I emerge luculent and refreshed.

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