Thursday, August 14, 2008

Becoming Ironman: Fields of Gold Part 2

Fields of Gold Part 1 was written in July 2006, during the first Becoming. You can read it here.

"They say it's different this time, I guess." My grandmother said as I sat in her living room reading an article on the oil in Western North Dakota and her great grand-daughter scooted around at our feet. Her words rang eerily familiar to what my Grandpa had said almost exactly two years ago when we were visiting - "the boom is back on, you know." But it is different, and it's surreal. Driving on Highway 2, the most familiar strip of blacktop in the world, suddenly oil wells dot the landscape, as likely as a herd of cattle, their perpetual revolutions sending the well-head up and down, up and down. The price of oil has, in just two short years, thrust drilling of the Bakken Formation into unprecedented priority, and this narrow, almost unimaginably plentiful reserve of oil has swept the entire region - the Williston Basin into a frenzy. There are fantastical stories - somehow true, though - of farmers in their 70's, or widows at the nursing home, who are suddenly millionaires. The article I was reading, it was quoting executives from Houston about how the travel infrastructure around Williston needs revamping, because it's hard to get there "from Bahrain or Dubai." It is supremely weird to have "Williston" mentioned in the same sentence.

And so there's a weird growth underway, where suddenly there's more town then there used to be. West of the bypass, where before there was just...nothing - now there are homes, and businesses, and ballparks. In just two years. Growth is normal, of course - every town grows and changes. But not my town, you see. Everything looks the same there as it did 20 years ago, save this strange outgrowth. Literally. When Applebees came to town, or when they built the Super Wal-Mart - these are Events in my town. So that this sudden outburst West of town feels to me anything but natural, and instead like a shiny new addition to a well-worn old home. It doesn't match or make sense.

Furthermore, there are growing pains. Suddenly, the admissions at the tiny community college are way down, because the kids are just going to work in the oilfields, where work - and money - is widely available. And so while there is a population boom in Williston for the oilmen and their families, there is not a boom in the services that support that influx. There aren't new restaurants, or clinics, or any shopping to speak of. With all the young people going to work out in the fields, the normal young-people jobs at McDonalds or Wal-Mart are going unfilled, and so in a strange way the town is suffering even as it prospers. It's a weird time there, and my sense is that Williston doesn't know what to do. It's an old town. It's been on a well worn path for a long, long time. It may not be so prepared to change direction.


Dakota babbles on the floor, her great grandmother and I chatting. Grandpa's chair sits empty in the corner. Some is as he left it - his books and treasures on the shelves next to his chair. It's tidied, of course, but it's still his chair - and as such, I don't sit in it. But my Grandma, she's asserted some necessary independence there as well. I said to her, "the house feels different", and I didn't just mean by his vacancy. She's having it painted. Yellow with white trim, where it's been red for all these years. Life goes on, after all.


"This is where we can come sometimes to remember him." I said as I plopped my daughter down in front of my Dad's headstone, self-conscious about saying even that, as I don't know how to describe what this is, or how it works, or why. Then we sat quiet. She was strangely still, gently fingering the clovers that grow there, and looking up at the big tree. I thought this odd, as my daughter is rarely still, but I didn't make it into anything supernatural - she doesn't understand, and she may never beyond what empty words I can use. But I enjoyed that she was unintentionally reverent as I sat cross-legged next to her. The Christmas ornament we hung on the big tree last winter, the one with her picture in it, is weather-faded. I wonder at the dates etched on the headstone - OCT. 18 - and that she shares that birthdate. It's breezy, sunny. Peaceful. I don't cry, and I usually do. Seeing her there, this phenomenon of life, at her Grandpa Don's grave, thinking of all she's missing not having him to make Donald Duck voices and make jokes and pick her up and swing her around, it's the second saddest thing I think I've ever seen. Here on the same hallowed ground as the saddest.

I don't know how to make Donald Duck voices. Whatever I'll be for her - and I'll be more than most, more than anything I've ever been for anyone ever before - I'll never be that. I don't know how.


We drive around the corner on our way out of the cemetery, and I'm casually looking for Grandpa's grave. Where they buried him on OCT. 18, on her birthday. I'm not sure where it is, as the headstone wasn't there yet at Christmas, when I last visited. I see, then, not a name but the words I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART and I know that's his without seeing the name. I didn't know Grandma had put that there. It's perfect. Oh Christopher. I love you with all my heart. I cry then.


Jack and I, we get back to the business of Becoming Ironman. I run on the gravel road outside of Amy's tiny town, all earth and dust and dirt. My feet crunch pebbles on the gravel road underneath me. A truck passes on the other side, and Jack and I wait on the edge for him to pass. When he does, his dust lingers for half a mile. It gets into my breath, and I taste it, and realize it's a taste I've known my whole life. Like the sound of a pickup truck flying by on a gravel road, it's part of me. There are things you never leave behind, and never want to.

Another truck approaches a few miles later. He slows to a stop, tips his grimy CENEX baseball hat towards me. He's a farmer, and probably Amy's Dad knows him. "Getting some exercise, huh?" "Yup, just getting some work done!" He waves then and heads back up the road.


Jack stays right behind me. He's a good dog. He loves it here. It's part of him, too.


We picnicked, Amy's entire family and me and Dakota and the dogs. In the garden, under the sun, on a big blanket, with sandwiches and fruit and cookies. And we laughed at Dakota and her tricks, and took pictures, and enjoyed the day and the summer and each other, and I wanted to stop them all and say Wait! Look! See! You have this! This family, all of you! This home you grew up in, to come back to! You get this! It is still here and you should never take it for granted and you should always always be thankful for it each single second! But you can't, because then it's lost - the part where taking it for granted is precisely what makes it what it is. So instead we laugh at Dakota and her new words, or how Jack is trying to sneak his way onto the blanket, and I just thank my God for sunshine and good people, and how this place has been part of me for 15 years, and it's as close to coming home as I can get.


We sat together, Amy and her Dad and I, watching the Olympics. I was covered in a blanket, on the couch. Lezak was about to achieve the silver medal. And then, with 25 meters to go, he pulled me out of my chair. The blanket fell away, and I was drawn closer and closer to the TV. No way. No way. Go. Go. Go Go GO GO GO GOGOGO and all of us yelled and cheered and in less time than it takes for me to blink my eyes, when he touched the wall first, we all shrieked and laughed and smiled. It was one of the finest moments in sports that I've ever seen. It gave me chills and made me feel a little ill for a moment. I'll never forget it, or the dim lamps in the living room, or Amy's Dad in the corner chair while we huddled on the couch until I couldn't and had to stand and jump and cheer. It was breathtaking.


I rode, hauling the Machine all those miles with us so I could. I rode the old roads, the roads that forged me once, and still. The wind was restless and hard and in opposition. I looked up to see two cowboys appearing out of the fields, on horseback. They stopped at the side of the road to watch me. As I went by, one tipped his weathered hat at me. I saluted from my helmet. I felt strangely part of something in that moment. This is Roughrider Country. Where Teddy Roosevelt collected his thoughts and found his voice. I am no cowboy. But it felt good to share space with them for a moment, all of us feeling the earth underneath us, and the wind in our faces, and the dirt and dust upon us. Old, timeless, legend. True Ghosts of Dakota.


The best parts are no longer mine. It is the defining, singular difference in Becoming Ironman this time. My journey, my metaphor, is no longer telescoped through if or how fast I'm outrunning ghosts, or discovering whatever essentials about me still require discovery. My essential is found, and she's 10 months old. As time passes during this Becoming, it is marked not by how fast or how far, but instead the mile markers keep time with her own milestones. She rode in a combine, a giant farm tractor that reaps from the ground what was sown months ago. She rode on her mother's lap, sitting next to her Grandpa, the same way her mother once sat on his lap when she was a child in this hulking implement, doing farming, making the world out here go 'round. And as I watched this universe come full circle, with her aunt and Grandma, and Jack sitting impatiently beside me, she smiled and bounced, and clapped her hands for the first time.

It's part of her, too.


Anonymous said...

You are such an amazing, passionate man. You have a special gift of writing, --your gifts are many. I would love to catch up, to meet up with you and Amy--meet Dakota--pinch an ear.

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