Mid January in Western North Dakota doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s indecisive. One day it’s a kind, 20 some degrees,
the next a bitter, chilling 20 below.
Then, just when you find peace with your wedgie-inducing long underwear, it decides to warm up enough to melt the snow. “How nice!” you think to yourself as you get in your car to drive to town. “I think I could get used to this winter thing if it stayed like this…”
But you know better and you should have never taken off those long underwear, because as soon as you get far enough away from home that turning back wouldn’t make much of a difference, the wind picks up and drops the temperature enough to turn that once slushy highway into a long and lethal ice-skating rink where a constant stream of semis and oil tankers are your competition.
And you’re no Nancy Kerrigan.
Ah, shit. I admit, January and I are enemies. I try to stay positive, keep my guitar out and my snow-shoes and neck-warmer handy. I try to do some sledding or walking or make a snow angel or something…
but mostly I wind up in my sweatpants under the John Wayne blanket reading a book about someone near the ocean before I turn out the light for the night and prepare to tackle mid-winter in the morning.
White knuckle driving, the “arms-out, it’s icy out,” sidewalk shuffle, an intimate relationship with Henry, the morning weather man, phone calls to Pops and Momma and Husband and Little Sister and my friend down the road about whether or not to believe the storm report, feet shoved in slippers and then in boots and then in slippers and then under the covers, soup and coffee and tea and some sort of disgusting warmed up cold medicine because everyone’s sick around here….and a constant craving for pastries.
Yup, that’s January.
And although it comes every year, I’m always surprised how this month seems to suck the creative light right out of me and makes me question the practicality of packing up the pug and heading south.
But I’m not leaving.
Well, there’s the Vegas thing in February, but as of today, I’m planning on coming back. Because I’m here for the long haul, and the longest haul of them all just happens to be winter.
I was thinking this last night as I sat behind the wheel of my four-wheel-drive and turned up the volume on some melancholy music, singing along soulfully and feeling frigid and uninspired and hungry for carbohydrates. I put my foot lightly on the brake to navigate a snowy curve, when up ahead, about five mils from home along the side of the road I noticed a large, tall, dark figure moving slowly toward the white ditch.
I slowed down as a few hundred scenarios whipped through my mind as they do when you see something unexpected on a very familiar path…to big to be a deer…
A grizzly bear?
A tall, scary, insane hitchhiker?
An alien? Probably an alien.
I pulled a little closer until the length of my headlights revealed the figure: two massive and stunning bull elk moving with ease and confidence across the road toward an oak filled coulee on the edge of the badlands.
I stopped in the middle of the road and looked around. Not much traffic meant I could relax and bask in this mysterious moment for a beat. And apparently those elk felt the same way, not the least bit intimidated by the flare of an oil well behind them casting light on their bodies and transforming them into beautiful silhouettes.
They stood still in that warm glow on a flat, snowy patch of ground and stared at the metal contraption lit up in front of them.
I rolled down my window to hear them breathing, to hear their hooves squeak in the crust of the snow. As they moved along the highway I lightly pressed the gas pedal and moved with them, imagining I was on my way to the oak grove on the edge of the badlands, imagining my body was held up by a set of massive, hoof-clad legs.
Imagining my coat was thick and my head was held high and I could run like that.
Imagining I was one of them.
But people were made for houses I suppose. Houses and words and questions and the wisdom and thumbs to make wool caps to protect us from the cold.
And of all the qualities a glorious North Dakota elk possesses, I don’t imagine he can be inspired.
Although perhaps he is the definition of the word standing magnificently on a snowy flat, staring into my soul.
So I’ll take it. I’ll take the ice and the fur lined boots and the hot cup of coffee because being human on a cold January evening means the ability to become breathless and warmed clear through and falling in love, over and over again with our big, wide, white, frozen, wonderful world.