A view of the Little Missouri River valley along HWY 22 in North Dakota.
By Michael Lopez
I’ve been stopped in elevators, on sidewalks, in grocery stores, by friends and family alike, with the question: Why North Dakota? Or, more appropriately: “Why would you (or, by implication, anyone else) choose to live in North Dakota?” And before I’ve even had a chance to respond to their question, the second one is inevitably forthcoming: “Is North Dakota even a place?” I’m sometimes tempted to respond: “is Sacramento even a place?” (Or San Francisco, or Oakland, or wherever I happen to be.) Because my first inclination is to ask them, “What do you think constitutes a place?” Perhaps more importantly, I’m tempted to ask them, “Did you choose your place?”
It was not, in retrospect, very surprising on my part to move from the warm climates of Northern California, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area, and my college alma mater’s town, Davis. I sometimes think that, at least for me, a move to Los Angeles, or San Diego, would have been viewed with real surprise by my friends and family as an unusual variation. What I mean to say here is that for me, the way my psychology is oriented, and what I am interested in, is not to be found in Los Angeles, or (though I’ve spent considerably less time in it) New York, or Washington, D.C.
Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, photo by Trip Advisor.
I think it was a novelist – though I can’t remember which one – who said that those places aren’t really places, because you’re never really there (As Gertrude Stein meant it in that there-there sense); it’s more that you’re simply passing through. You may stay there for forty or fifty years, but the place is so large, so rapidly moving, with so many incoming and exiting passengers, that you’re just occupying a space, but never a place. It’s not simply the largeness of a city that precludes place; I think you can find place cities, but those, with their electrifying movement, their caffeinated jolts of frantic energy, suggest to my conscious and unconscious that I’m constantly moving – I’m never at rest. The time for reflection isn’t today (or tomorrow), because there’s too much to be done; too much to see; movies, plays, shows, lectures, enough for a lifetime. Home is about peace, and rest.
Don’t get me wrong about this either: home can be anything but peace, or rest. Especially if something is wrong: a loved one is sick, the bills can’t be paid; external and internal forces beyond our individual power to control can subvert that peace, but in the end, home is always a place where you find yourself again. It resists, from its center on out, the forces of chaos; it calms you, brings you back into its comforting sense of familiarity, and never ceases to surprise me with the newness I discover in things I thought I knew.
The Mandan Indians called "North Dakota" home for a thousand years. They named one of the rivers they lived by "Heart River." The Missouri and Heart Rivers are still considered by the Mandan as their homeland despite their move north and west to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
I’ve driven certain stretches of highway for over ten years, and am still amazed at the new things I see and discover. I’m not talking about little flowers by the roadside, or a hidden brook – I’m speaking about houses, buildings, mountains, that I could never consciously recall in conversation to another. They still have the power to take my breath away: that recognition that within so much that is familiar, there’s so much I don’t know. I do know it takes a lifetime to learn it, and more importantly, a lifetime to shape my life around it. My momentary existence on a plod of earth, the continent North America, the webs of family and ancestral ties that long ago determined the shape of my bones, the texture of my lips, color of my hair and eyes, and future, that remains to be lived.
So North Dakota was partly because of my past. My great-great grandparents immigrated from their native Norway (they were farmers, and the family homestead is still in Telemark), through the famous pathway of Ellis Island, to North Dakota. The state was a great place for immigrants, especially those used to cold climates. And, the railroads made it easy by securing vast tracts of land from the U.S. Government, and through encouraging the settlement of towns close to the rail lines. Casselton, where they ultimately ended up, was in the early 1900’s a major center for freight movement through the state. They lived there until the outbreak of the Second World War, whereupon it was decided by my great-grandfather (I would have liked to have known him then. He was, by photographic and personal accounts, a handsome, debonair, intellectual, and all around cool fellow), that the family would move to California, to take part in the work of the Kaiser Shipyards.
During and after the American Civil War, Generals like Sully, Sibley, Terry, and Custer were sent to the "frontier" to secure land for immigrants like Michael Lopez' great-great-grandparents from the native peoples who already lived there. Above, Clell Gannon's painting Sibley Campaign of 1863 celebrates manifest destiny.
That might have been the end of this story. After all, when I was born in 1982, they had lived in their California house for over forty years (they never moved out of it), all of their children resided in the state, as did every other immediate family member. My own family was established in its businesses and trades; my schooling was secured by nature of district alignment; health facilities were (and remain), some of the best in the country; and the terrain, those geographic areas I’ve been fortunate to call “home,” are some of the most beautiful you will encounter in the world. There is nothing like being close to the ocean for a Norwegian (that ancient blood still moves through my veins), and the ghostly echoes of waves still comforts me when I am most alone. I even attended an elementary school directly adjacent (our fence was about 15 feet away) to the bay itself.
At this point I’m usually stopped in my response to most people’s question on why the move, the radical shift North – but I ask them to hold, because it’s important to understand what has been my home for over twenty years. And, because, I want them to understand that the directions our lives take, whatever choices we make, are bound in an universe (which no one can fully envision) – all that blackness held together by so many particles of light, and motion; families of substance that go back to the beginnings of time – of past, the past of our ancients who traveled from the only places they knew, in a search of being for some epic impulse within them; the more immediate past of our migrant ancestors finding their ways to this young country; and the most immediate past of those relatives who welcomed us into this world, into our first light; our home is already chosen for us.
It could have been anywhere: Australia, Japan, Iowa, or Nevada, but it was San Francisco, California. And in the end, it was only a place. The webs of being were already crafted and formed, the lines of transit between bloodlines and people, established; our fates are bound to those who came before us, and our choice is to accept the open door to adventure, to fate, that they offer.
The answer then, if there is one, or at least the closest that one individual journeying through life, attempting to continue the infinite thread that connects one living being to the family of humanity can give, is my family. My father, mother, and great grandfather, whose life lessons – ones they don’t even know they gave – came in the form of stories; of places they had been, of things they had done; of memories that were woven so tightly into their conscious (and unconscious) being, that it influenced everything they had ever done.
The stories of North Dakota rank, as some of the most deeply affecting of my childhood. I spent a large amount of time with my great-grandfather, and was never so amazed as when his eyes would go off into some distant memory – of which I could play no role, except as receptor for the images he described – of North Dakota. The place he left in his early 20’s, and which seemed as close to him as though he had never left, as though every childhood friend, sour adult, sexy schoolmistress, (secretly) alcoholic husband, and dour spinster, were still there; still living in the same houses they had occupied since the beginning of time – his time, which is as real as anyone or anything gets.
The Security Building in downtown Grand Forks burned down during the flood of 1997.
Those streets of North Dakota never changed for him. I remember when I was in high school, when Grand Forks was devastated by a flood, that for that day (and the week, or two after), the television was always on, always on the news channel, as he watched those electronic images with a reflection so deep that not even a serious student of Kant, or Hegel, could achieve that sense of oneness with the idea, or act. He told me, with something that bordered on the joy of a schoolchild, and the concern of a North Dakotan, that Grand Forks had been flooded; as though he was there, back again, a part of something he had left fifty years earlier. A vicarious involvement in a part of a place that took him into its web of existence, as though he had never left; never ceased to live in Casselton; never stopped being in North Dakota. And, he never did.
His stories filled much of the time we spent together, and of course they weren’t always about North Dakota. Often they were about wonderful parties he went to in the hills of Berkeley, in the Sixties; about organizing labor on the waterfront, as a longshoreman, with the great Harry Bridges, and on. They were the stories of a single man who lived a fully-lived life, and they were never boring – even to an eleven year old. The stories about North Dakota though, were always the ones that took on a different clarity; they caused Berkeley, San Francisco, and the town he had lived in for half a century, to fade away. They became little more than a glimmer, a passing stop on a long journey that began, and ultimately ended in, North Dakota.
Crown Butte, a natural landmark to all people throughout the ages, west of Mandan, ND.
Those stories that he told me, that he honored me with in a sacred tradition that goes back to cave paintings, aren’t remarkable. I mean that in the sense that he wasn’t the Norwegian Scott Amundson, who traversed Antarctica, braving severe temperatures – though growing up in the 1920’s and 30’s in North Dakota could certainly be read as that – while exploring vast territories, as yet unknown. His stories were about everyday events – kids running around, soaping up windows on Halloween; getting a milk cow onto the third story of their High School building – they were stories about husbands who secretly drank, and hid their empty bottles of vanilla in old tool sheds; ultra-religious women who objected to everything, and attractive aunts, who had they not been aunts might have taught my young grandfather more than he could have bargained for. Stories about kissing young girls born in Breckenridge, Minnesota; being sick with scarlet fever, more than once, and a host of other diseases, that he told with a distant tear in his eye – as though he had been happier facing death, in that cold terrain, up North. (Sickness, and kissing, seemed to have less of a pleasure in California, than in that far-away distance sense; a mixture of nostalgia, and a life altered beyond one’s ability to comprehend where it went.)
There were stories about the people who filled this town of Casselton: its two doctors, the good one who took care of the poor, and who charged nominal fees that they could afford; and the bad doctor, who took much better care of the rich. My great-grandfather had the unfortunate circumstance, during one of his bouts of sickness unto death, of dealing with the wealthy one – whose name escapes me. While treating my grandfather, this doctor had to go out of town to attend a gathering, and when my grandfather’s mother asked him: “What more can I do?” his only response was, “To pray.”
The Casselton High School in 1909.
My grandfather’s mother being dissatisfied with this response – she was one of those sturdy Nordic mothers, who could switch fluently between Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish (something that their great-great grandchildren, and I struggle with; we’ve lost something of that maneuverable tongue, that speaks with ease to our neighbors), and who refused to take matters like death, which were always so close at hand it seems, lying down – and so she went to speak with Dr. Reedy, the good doctor. He asked her what medicine had been prescribed, and I remember my grandfather belaboring to me that it was measured in “horse units” (though I may have misremembered it), and when my grandfather’s mother told him, he shouted “My God, he’s killing him!” Dr. Reedy tripled the medication that the other doctor had prescribed, and when he returned from his conference and found my grandfather sitting up in bed eating ice cream, his face – much to my grandfather’s relish – dropped to the floor. My grandfather also told me that Dr. Reedy eventually committed suicide, and he could never quite understand why – he had always served the vulnerable, the truly needy of Casselton. I’m not sure I can answer that question, but it strikes me that it’s not altogether surprising that of the two doctors, his name is the only one I can recall.
Even my grandfather’s fondness for restaurants with booths and curtains (he used to point out the old hooks for the curtains at older restaurants we’d go to), where he remembered these stories with such acuity and narrative clarity, that I’m struck at how real his memories seem to me, though he’s been dead nearly ten years. He liked those curtained booths, for making out with pretty young girls.
A curtained booth in an older restaurant.
One of his most distinctive memories of North Dakota was of a beautiful, young, Irish girl; very Catholic, though as my atheistic, liberal, grandfather told me, “Still I would’ve converted for her, and we’d ‘ave had ten children.” I don’t quite remember how he met her, or where, only that she had gone to a teachers college in Jamestown, and had landed a job teaching primary school in Fargo. It makes sense if they had met there, my grandfather worked in Fargo for Sears, Roebuck – a job that always loomed as his finest. However they met, it was love at first sight: he would begin to describe her fiery red hair, and how they would go to restaurants and spend “hours,” as he put it, “just staring at each other.” Unfortunately, my grandfather was also very much married, and would soon have a child on the way to complement the affairs. And so, as is so often the case, this young woman wrote my grandfather a letter, which was found by my grandmother – and after that, there were no more letters. This affair was never consummated – it was never about that. It was about the passion that burns inside every individual who lets himself live, to find another person that he can love in such a way as no other. It’s our choices that often redirect those ambitions – in my grandfather’s case, getting my grandmother (who he met on a blind date, arranged by his friends) pregnant.
One of the most famous smoking hot Irish women in the early days of film was Maureen O'Hara.
He didn’t regret marrying my grandmother, or having children. After all, he would tell me, “I would never have gotten you.” I know he meant that, and that I was the son he never had (he only had daughters), and so he intended that I should carry on the ambitions of living, as he had done for most of his life. And yet, it’s not without tears in my own eyes that I remember his mind being transported far away from the Pacific Ocean, away from me, from his family, from the very car he was driving – we often talked about his past while in the car – back to a place that then, at fifteen or sixteen, I simply could not understand.
“Okay, Grandpa, what is this North Dakota?”
“There’s nothing like it, Michael,” he would say, “We used to have so much fun, and then there was…”
And eventually her name would come up, that woman who he never had, and at that physical moment in his life, never would, and whom I could never meet. And yet, I did meet her, time and again in that car with my grandfather; she was resurrected from the depths of his memories, which at eighty retained such detail that I’m sometimes ashamed to admit I can’t even remember some of the momentous moments of my life in such vivid imagery. Always the backdrop for this was North Dakota, with its endless stretch of characters for there – in Casselton, Fargo, everywhere – were characters.
New York City in the 1950s.
An author once said that “New York has only eight or nine characters,” and the rest are just “copies.” Copies of copies of copies, that are slowly diluted, like in California. We are too far away from each other here, though we sometimes sit right next to each other on the train or bus, idling in traffic to go to points we think we know, to be characters any longer. Our towns long ago lost that ability to support characters as a town, as a community.
Every memory my grandfather spoke retained the vibrancy of pure air: as though when he spoke of this place so distant (and it is 2,000 miles from San Francisco), the only thing I could even begin to compare it with is camping out with friends on the tops of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where you’re confronted with billions of stars, that you’d never know existed, if you lived your life in the city, if you lived in that image of what is. When he spoke of his love for that young woman, of icy winters, long underwear, and outhouses; of being an upwardly mobile buyer for Federated Department stores; of food, and lefse, dancing, music, and town gatherings – I was drinking in pure air. It jolted my stifled mind, long since used to the clouded exhaust of so much, to realize I had so little of that purity, of characters, of those things that really mattered: love, community, fun, adventure, and the clarity that only forty below brings.
The campus of the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.
Even so, after my grandfather died, I remained in California. This is, after all, my first home, the place I felt I knew best, and I was able to attend one of its renowned universities. It was not until I was close to graduating that I realized I had better figure out what to do with my life, and so after a night of heavy drinking and thinking, I decided that graduate school seemed, at that point, the place to direct myself to. I wasn’t quite ready to relinquish the academic world yet, though it had disappointed me as an undergraduate with its petty vices, and war of words on every miniscule topic one can imagine. North Dakota was one of many places I applied, and it accepted me. At twenty-one I was given full support, and a teaching position – and without a second thought, I left California, and moved there. I have never regretted that choice.
What I discovered there was not my grandfather’s North Dakota; it exists, in parts, and there are still people there who remember him. I was even able to take my sister to visit a woman who grew up with my grandfather (she still lives in Casselton), and my sister’s eyes filled with tears as she listened to this woman tell the stories I knew so well, and for her to understand and see, that our beginning began far away from the coastal territories we know so well. But those stories that were my grandfather’s are not my own, they are his, and will forever be; what they did for me was to show me that my way is not so lonely or alone, as so many young people my age believe; it lit up corridors and halls throughout a place that felt, from the first, as though I had returned home.
"What they did was to show me that my way is not so lonely or alone...," says Michael Lopez.
I knew no one, understood none of the rituals or institutions that were the state, but never felt lost, or outside of what I had never lived. Everywhere I drove, everything I saw, seemed as it should be, in the right place, doing what it ought to be doing. Though, and this is especially true late at night, as I drive on the major interstate highway that runs from Bismarck, Casselton, Fargo, to Minneapolis, and as I pass Casselton, I always howl the loudest howl I can muster, in honor of one who brought me here. There would be no North Dakota without my family; everything would have been strange and foreign. I could have, over time, grown accustomed to it – but it would never have been the strange peace, as when I lived through my first winter, of standing at the edge of town staring off into the infinite whiteness and feeling as though I had only come home.
Our lives are decided for us long before we’re even conceived, let alone physically delivered into the arms of life. I don’t mean to say that we have no freedom to choose, or that we can’t make our lives what they are – we do that everyday. I have done that, made choices, tried to understand who and what I am, and where I’m going, but my stories know too well now that look my grandfather had when he resurrected memories; my heart now feels the icy cold of a North Dakota winter, and sometimes (though, not always; it can get very cold there) longs to be in it; to drink coffee, and drive on highways unclouded by the frantic mentalities of speed, and schedule, lost in my own recollections of what it means to live, to take time to think of everyone around me, of the characters I have encountered, and who are waiting to be born.
A look from an overpass of I94. The roads go to the edge of forever in North Dakota.
My grandfather’s stories, as I have said, did not force me down this path, and he did not mean for them to be a rigid structure for living my life. Rather, as is the case with true stories, he meant for them to be an inheritance of himself, of his lifetime of knowledge on everything that was good, right, and just, on the themes that have been the foundations of meaning for the human race: love, beauty, and hope, and to find, as he once had, a place of home where those could be felt in their true magnitude.
Until I lived in North Dakota it was always an image, a thought, an idea – a place that, sure, yeah, existed, but not really. Having lived there, and having understood my grandfather’s stories as I have made my own, I understand now why California was, for him, a station, where he could tend to all of the things that life gives an individual in a lifetime. And, I like to think, he tended them well. So well, in fact, that whenever anyone asks me, “Why North Dakota?” I only give them a smile of deep feeling, and unconsciously I feel a part of my mind shoot off into the depths of memory, and though I can’t see myself, I feel my eyes taking on the look of my grandfather, as I glance off into the distant sky that forms the horizon, and the outlet of the bay to the Pacific Ocean that unfolds before me, and in my chest, and with the hint of a sigh, I reply, with a sense of complete peace and knowing, “Where else?”