Monday, July 31, 2006

Becoming Ironman: Fields of Gold

I grew up in Western North Dakota. It is a planet whose revolutions depend on a sun that is the earth: agriculture, and oil. Its landscape is mostly unburdened with civilization; the towns are few and the cities are fewer, and they interrupt the rolling, endless wheat fields only briefly. The interstate cuts through the state farther south, but where I grew up, in a spot in a northwest corner situated as close to Montana as it is to Canada, the roads - more gravel than paved - follow the contours and terrain of the land as it crests and troughs like a great earthen ocean.

It is a place mostly ignored by the rest of the world. Its sparse population makes it unimportant to popular tourism, or economics, even as critical as the region's agriculture is. But farming is not on the agenda of the state's youth, and it does not glimmer and buzz. Slowly, the region is dying. This generation of farmers and oilmen will not, for the first time, pass on those farms to its children, for their children are moving away, and very few new people are moving in.

The people are not simple minded. They are not rednecks, they are not hicks. At least, no more than anywhere else in the world. Mostly, they're farmers, or people who make a livelihood directly or indirectly tied to farmers, or who make a livelihood supporting even those. And farmers have other things to do at five in the morning than to involve themselves in whatever topic-of-the-moment has captured the imagination of the rest of the world. The people approach one another with extended hand. They look one another in the eye. Many of them are in the same town or farm the same land as their parents, or their parents' parents. It is a smaller way of life. But not a lesser way of life.

As a restless teenager this wasn't my outlook. I was bored and craved something to interrupt the horizon, literal and metaphorical. I resented the formula of it; planting to tending to reaping to resting to planting. Because it is predictable there. It has to be. As an adult now I regret that teenager's obstinance. He was a fool to beauty, or substance.

The children of Dakota, most of us have roots there that go back four or five generations. Amy's Dad farms on land that her family originally homesteaded. She is one of these children; you can trace her family geography back four generations. She was raised in the area her father's mother's father first tended to when he arrived from Norway. Her hometown has about a hundred people living there. There will be less next year, and less the year after that. We were there to commemorate the closing of the town's school, a place that had stood since 1919. In the same building, she - like her father - went to gradeschool, then middle school, then high school. In its history, it graduated 909 people from its halls, less than some schools in the Cities graduate in a year. There aren't enough children anymore to justify its existence. And the world doesn't have room for places like that anymore.

I lived in one of the larger cities that support the smaller towns - about 11,000 people. I do not come from farmers, or oilmen. I know nothing about farming - I was part of the support system, but we're all influenced by the same things out there. My Dad appraised their land and real estate and mineral rights. My roots are comparatively young; my mother's parents came there from Eastern North Dakota, though in that farming is in my lineage as well.

I don't know how my story would have gone, but Dad died. My brother and sister and I, we were just leaving college, and so naturally in transit. Mother moved. She had to. It's too small a place to remain, and the void left was too great. Staying was tantamount to suffocation. Besides, I am one of those youth who had no future there, so I left. Lacking a family there, then, I lack that home, that place you always go back to. My roots were severed. My grandparents and Amy's family are my reason for return. They and a gravestone.

I haven't been there for two years, and not in the summertime for a very long time. Since before The Towers fell. Since before a lot of fallling. Long before becoming Ironman.


My hometown is abuzz. "The boom is back on, you know." Grandpa says. He means drilling for oil, which seems to appear each generation or so like an indecisive lover. The oil was rich in the 50's, then the late 70's and early 80's, and now again. When its flowing freely, people move there for high paying rigging jobs. The town supports new residents. New businesses come to town to support them. Everyone gets drunk on possibility. Inevitably, though, it busts. I grew up in a town surrounded by rusted hulks of useless drills and rigs. Whole sections ramshackle and in ruin, abandoned when, as quickly as it comes, the boom goes broke, the money stops, and the town goes back to waiting. Grandpa seems to think the frenzy this time around is foolish. That people should have learned by now. To approach things with some moderation.


I went to Dad's grave. This was a critical piece of becoming Ironman. When we buried him, nearly ten years ago, it was near a small pine tree, about waist high. The tree was young and hopeful, and it was like a sapling growing through barren devastation. He died suddenly. We were unprepared for things like choosing cemetery plots. It was at first nice, and then necessary, that the tree lived there. We hung our tokens on it, some kind of altar to express an utterly insatiable grief, love, loyalty. The tree is now huge. I couldn't believe it. Its bows hang over his headstone now, so his grave is literally in its shadow. Inside the tree, near the trunk, are some of our first mementos, the branches having grown around them, and I like that. I talked to him, as I usually do, graveside or no...but it feels different talking to him there. I asked him for help on the September roads of Ironman. I told him I missed him. I'll never in my life adjust to seeing his name carved in granite.


I rode through the roads I grew up on. From Wildrose to Powers Lake, then reversing course until south to Tioga, then west to Ray and finally north back to Wildrose. The route could not be ordinary, because the roads cannot be ordinary. In a place like that, you have limited outlets to the rest of the world. Highway 2 takes you east to Minot, and from there you can continue to Grand Forks, or head south to Bismarck and the interstate. The wind was hard from the east, 20mph or more. I flew east on Highway 2 at 26, 27, 30mph. Rider and Machine, we rode that road that took me back and forth for family vacations, home from college, to see Amy when we were still teenagers, to the sudden funeral of my life, to a new life at a place called Shores, home to get married, away to Minneapolis, to then, to now. I headed north off that road onto one of few paved roads heading north, taking me to Wildrose where Amy's life has always been, and which I now tie closely to my own, a surrogate "home". Surrounded by green and golden endless fields. Timeless farms. Tiny towns. It was important to becoming Ironman, riding those roads that first offered me any sense of direction in life. I take them with me now. My compass is more accurate. And some ghosts were abandoned in the 91 flawless miles.


I ran 10 miles down a gravel road heading west out of Wildrose to the mostly abandoned town of Hamlet; a house here or there, an abandoned schoolhouse. Alongside the ruins of the railroad that once served the town, before the town exhausted its usefulness to the railways, and larger towns became the hub for the shipping of its grain and beans and cattle. The train stopped coming twenty-some years ago, but they got around to finally deconstructing the tracks only three years ago or so. The path the tracks once covered is mostly overgrown now, but still clear enough for walking. The dogs and I walked it, past the piles of discarded railroad ties and chunks of rock. I found two of the huge iron bolts that once assisted the tracks to the ties, and thought - let me find one more as an omen for Ironman - and had no more thought it than it revealed itself to me, hidden in some stones, the least rusted of the three.


I drove down East 9th Street, where I used to live, where I learned to ride a bicycle. I drove by the pool where I learned to swim, and then spent my high school summers as a lifeguard and teacher for children who learned to swim and went on to spend their high school summers as lifeguards and teachers. I went to the new football field, which they built inside the old track - now repaved - where I ran my first races at 8 or 9 years old, through high school track. I was surprised to find that they just imported the old aluminum bleachers from the old football field, where I used to play, to this new place. I walked up the bleachers and heard the familiar ping! of my footfalls echo through the structure, a sound I hadn't heard in 15 years but that is forever embedded in my head. I looked up and found the exact spot mother and Dad sat game after game, where I would look up to when I needed to run just one more sprint on a hot fall pracitice and envision him there, my efforts to make him proud motivating me anew.


The Rider and the Machine crested a hill before finally looking down on great ruins. It was nearing dusk, and in the dim horizon ahead glowed the lights of September. They stopped, and the Rider dismounted.

"What is this place?" Asked the Machine.

"This is where I come from," Answered the Rider, "I didn't expect the road would take us through here."

He walked the Machine through the catastrophe. Around them were great statues, crumbling. The wall of a once mighty building hung, moss covered and tilted, before its ruins littered the road in front of them. Tattered charges blew in the evening breeze, their colors faded, their meanings lost, their embroidered foxes sullied and ripped. They picked their way through it carefully. The rusted ironworks of what was once a fountain in a great courtyard lay skeletal to their left.

"This place. This is huge." The Machine said. "This was yours?"

"Yes. Not just mine." Then, as if to remind himself, "I lived here."

The Machine paused. "Were you a King?"

The Rider thought. "No. But I come from Kings."

"A prince, then," The Machine replied.

The Rider contemplated this. "No. Not a prince. This was never my Kingdom, and I was never meant to be King. I just lived here once. And when I did, it was beautiful."


Michael Anderson said...

Some times in going back, the road forward is better. It's good that you went, that you extended your training backwards as well as forwards, that what you were then enlightens you now, that what you are now hallows what you were.

Shadows and unpeopled places. A sanctuary of echoes.

A spiritual workout.

Geez, it's been 10 years.

What will you do with the railroad bolts?

Glad that you went. Glad that you are here.

Welcome back to Blue, soon to be accented in Black.

Sara F. said...

I can't believe it's so close. August sneaks up and then you realize that September isn't too far off. You're doing great. I, we, you believe in you. All of us. I care about you and I am amazed at all of the thought you put into this blog. I'll NEVER do a Ironman, but I'll watch as you experience Becoming Ironman.

Pharmie said...

Wow. What a powerful post. I have to admit that I got a little welled up when I read the parts about your dad. It reminds me of my grandma who passed away for the same reason. I too am from a small fariming town and have had to watch it get smaller and smaller over the past few years. My grade school closed about 5 years ago. Not enough kids. I never resented growing up in a small town, though. I'd love to go back someday, but I don't think it's in the cards. Steve had to officially tell his parents a couple of years ago that he will not be carrying on the farming tradition.

It's funny how this one thing that we had in common has quickly turned into so many more...

xt4 said...

Thank you Mike.

Thank you Sara.

Thank you SLS. I don't believe in coincidence. It helps me to know that, on September 10th, somewhere out there you'll be going through it too.

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