I meet Della in a rest stop in South Dakota. She’s joking with the cashier at the gas station, but her jokes don’t sound like jokes. She has long hair and her cat-eye makeup is badly smudged on both eyes; later someone will say she’s definitely drunk. I can’t speak to that. When I stand at the counter she turns to me, but I don’t know her name yet. She says, it’s beautiful out there, isn’t it? I say, this place is wild, and she recoils. I’m Crow, she says. This is my country. I clarify: it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. It’s unfathomable. She leans in conspiratorially. You should take the scenic route. She explains the directions to me. Lodge Grass exit. Left, not right! (But we will go right, which is how we stumble on the enclave with the ponies.) Go, she says. I get my change, I say, I will. She says, You never know, everything happens for a reason, Della. We shake hands. When I tell the story to the others, later, they laugh at how she signed her conversation, but I admire it.
In the morning the town feels like a stage of a town, and the mountains that rise up around it just point down to us. Hi, we’re in Montana. Postcards to my sister, my mother, and two other people with whom I share no genetic material.
You should consider it, a man I only sort of know says in a bar, matter-of-factly, with the casino machines not dinging but certainly flashing behind us, of having sex with strangers.
From a gas station infested with prairie dogs I steal four postcards— bucking baby buffalo, rainbowed collusion of motorcyclists, sunset over the Black Hills, portrait of Merriweather Lewis and my father’s ancestor—but leave my wallet on top of the car.
White clapboard houses trail off almost immediately into the whiteness of ground and sky. The bright packaging of foods that never go bad become familiar, like family, after weeks of gas stations and airports. Everyone else is elsewhere.
The approaching figures on horses make it clear that this is not a public road we’ve driven down. The horses become larger, much larger, as they meander down the lane in the snow. The small enclave of buildings is squat; whatever is not a barn is vinyl-sided. People peek out of the houses: women in long skirts, shawls, head wraps. The horses draw closer: there are two, the larger chestnut brown with an authoritative rider and the smaller a gray pony with a small pink nose has two smaller following riders.
In a book about something else entirely, a historian takes two sentences to dismiss my father’s entire bloodline: all depressed, all entitled, all drunks. Embezzlers. Treasonous. Prolific slave owners. Led multiple raids against multiple indigenous populations across multiple centuries. It is a matter of public record, but I didn’t know until that day in the library.
The skinny neck of Idaho is about sixty miles across. The landscape slowly changes: sculpts, the snow diminishes. So often I have wondered what the fuck happens in Idaho; this, I suppose, is it. Everything browns. Everything is so close to your face that you can’t even see it.
In a diner in rural North Dakota, one of the others does an imitation of the alcohol-addled lead singer of a punk band. He screws up his shoulders, laughing, making hilarious the ways in which this stranger’s body was hunched,scrambled, and disabled by substance. I eat my soup carefully. They don’t know my father could not hold a fork the last time I saw him alive.
Indiana through plexiglass and rubber of train window. Rows of small and dilapidated houses like Easter eggs in enormous spring fields. His body at the end.
In the Badlands the ground is made of soft stones and clay. It is like standing on the most enormous heart.
In Deadwood, Wild Bill Hickok’s Death Chair glows above the door. The floor is sawdust. Every state line I’ve ever crossed. Every bar I’ve ever been in. Everything, stolen, and in my name.
Driving through Minnesota the car’s windows scar over with ice, but on the inside, from breathing. How to not talk about the landscape—the places where it is soft, or hard, or spiny, or calm, or. Listen to how quiet, someone says. I’m awake and I’m not awake.
The idea of becoming a dad, or dad-shaped, makes a pit form in your stomach. I tell you that dads are great. I tell you about holding my father’s pinky with my whole hand. I tell you the name he used to call me and only me: Peony. We’re driving down the street to get the oil changed. We both cry a little then.
- Someone far away texts. My favorite church sign in a while: Transfigure it out.
I write. I’m in Montana.
Someone writes. Where in Montana?
There is just one answer. Somewhere.
One bald eagle, then another. Mountain dogs and elk and bison and cows being herded in a long column by a man in a black jeep at the side of the highway. Historic jail, tiny white church after church, the long avenues off the highway, out to the ranches with their ranch names. Here is where the cows are all the same deep color of black. I watch one get up in stages from its resting place at the sloped foot of a hill.
The horses do eventually pass by. The man on the strong chestnut horse makes eye contact, maybe smiles, I don’t remember. I am afraid of him. The two figures that follow on the gray pony are children: the older one sits behind the younger, holding her, their eyes and mouths ablaze. The pony’s fur is matted and wet two feet upward from the ground and I think stupidly that the pony must feel cold. The younger child smiles, the snow brightens with the reflection of her, we wave.
Being away from what you know is the larger part of life. Seeing it againist the shock. You go and come and go forever.
You used to say San Francisco was like a coat you could put on and take off at will. But no landscape, no context, is like that.
Here: in the future I or someone with my name and DNA will come back to the Pacific. It will be where I left it, if not as.
- We wave, but backward.