When asked what it was like to grow up along the chipped-tooth edge of eastern North Dakota, the first word out of my mouth is always winter.
Winter in North Dakota deserves the same treatment as the whale in Melville’s Moby-Dick. How Melville begins his grand adventure with the Etymology and Extracts sections. Tracks the word “whale” through its origins. Hunts it across its poetic, philosophical, and religious fragments. Across pages soaked in saltwater.
Call me Ishmael, I could say, and then lose myself mapping out North Dakota’s monstrous whiteness.
But I only have 500 words here. About 400 left, give or take.
So I’ll just tell a story.
The year is 1973. Maybe 1974.
It’s January. Twenty below zero.
My Uncle Lew and his buddies Jim and Pete are on their way home from a bonspiel curling tournament in Stephen, MN.
Stuffed in an old Ford pickup, they look like the fourth line of a hockey team: mutton-chopped goons and baby-faced bruisers.
The boys slurp beer foam from ice-cold cans. Crank up the Creedence to drown out the heater vents, hot as a dog’s mouth.
They don’t know the origins of the word “blizzard.” Don’t know that “blizzard”—meaning “a severe snowstorm”—is a Midwest colloquialism that first entered the lexicon in an Iowa newspaper in 1870. Don’t know that before this, Davy Crockett used “blizzard” to mean a violent, hail of rifle fire and a “blast of words.”
My uncle and his pals learn blizzard the hard way: when snow whips across the flatlands. The road nothing but howling ghosts.
The pickup skids and slams into a snowdrift. The engine dies.
In North Dakota, we no longer sacrifice our young to the harvest gods. We give them a case of Budweiser, a rebuilt V6. Miles and miles of prairie highway.
The boys burn everything they can in the ash tray: pages from the truck manual, the crumpled dollars in their wallets, hacksawed bits of curling brooms, the Polaroids of their sweethearts. Everything, until all they have left is their bodies. Their breath.
For two nights and three days, the boys sit on each other’s feet. To pass the time, they click on the battery, listen to a stranded radio host beg listeners for food. The boys eat snow and keep each other warm telling jokes: “I’m so hungry I’d walk through this storm to eat that DJ,” Lew says.
On the third morning, wind still whipping across the road, Lew looks up and sees the tops of telephone poles. Blue sky.
This land swallows everything. The Red River. The annual flood. Down to the bottom of a glacial lakebed. So when Lew looks up, it’s Jonah’s view from inside the mouth of the whale. Except much fucking colder.
Before the land swallows that storm and everyone inside that old Ford, Lew hears a horn blast. “Sounded like a ship’s foghorn,” he’d tell me, years later. And that’s what I hear, too, every time he tells it, even though I know it’s a firetruck, blasting through the snow drifts.
When he told it to me again this February, I asked him why we love these stories. About frostbitten toes. Fingers amputated at the knuckle. Killer storms looming in the distance.
“Because we survive,” he said.
And in this one, we do.
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