There was a time when I rode a Greyhound bus from the Port Authority in New York City straight through to Medora, North Dakota. I cannot remember if I carried a cell phone way back then, but I do know that my sister was carrying my nephew back on Long Island and the journey lasted about three days and as many nights.
I saw Milwaukee brewing establishments from the window and sprinted down a sidewalk in Madison as far from the bus as half my time allotted. I must have been all of twenty four.
I had never been to Medora, nor heard of it, to be honest. This was during a time in my life, just after college, when I experimented with different short team, seasonal, data collection jobs for various scientists. In those days, I was able to name myself a seasonal, migrant worker and that did cause some of the more genteel folk I came upon to startle.
When you sit on a Greyhound bus for days and nights on end, there is a blurry quality, you hope, to the experience; no person or persons being too loud, no experience too jarring, just a serene land-based excursion across the hinterland. So, I wasn’t sure how I would know my stop as distinguished from all the other small towns, except that it bordered the National Park where I would be working which was named after Teddy Roosevelt and contained North Dakota’s badlands.
The road had been flat for quite some time and then to the right outside of my window the plains seemed to break into swiftly falling cliffs and ravines of many colors and just as I observed this and registered it as a land that might be called “bad”, I heard my stop called and I swiftly alighted from my diesel steed.
Medora was (and I presume is) a small town and with that, a cast of characters. I walked an easy half block to a timber built bookstore (where I would later be lucky to be both employed and surrounded by excellent literature native to the plains) and after inquiring from the owner, learned that the parks’ housing I was seeking were a scant three blocks further on away from the main drag and towards the Park.
I lived in a small house, first in a row that looked across the pavement to the park itself. I shared it with my field-mate, a very nice young man and that first night we affected nonchalance at the idea of bunking together in a shared room; twin beds separated by an average sized nightstand, when our only slightly older employer gave us the word.
This part of North Dakota, in the summertime, is unlike anywhere else I have been. Wild horses and buffalo were about the land. Wildflowers, rattle snakes, biting flies without a doubt and mudpuppies once or twice in a proper pond. It is quiet and beautiful, the heavens are bright.
Our job was to collect data on the area’s amphibians; eggs through adults, location and frequency and the like. The land there is often dry and the little guys were likely to breed after rains, we would hunt out the footprints left by buffalo where a puddle might form long enough for eggs to be laid.
The plains break, so I learned to call it, and colored layers thread horizontally through the broken parts, looking like birthday cake and letting us stare down the years.
One friend worked in the town’s bike shop. At the end of this summer, he would pack my bike and ship it to Brooklyn, where I would quickly be relieved of it after falling to lock more than my front wheel at the Botanic Gardens; swift teacher, that Brooklyn.
The Maah Daah Hey Bike Trail ran nearby and there was some passion for off mountain biking in the area, including amongst my set of friends. I made some evening forays on my own, because I have never been cool enough to ride with reasonable abandon off road, up and down small stream beds, past wildflowers, to the river and it’s swallow-built nests and smooth, cool stones.
Another friend, who grew up outside of town, up on the higher lands, brought me to ride horses. The horse stepped on my combat boot shod foot, I shoved and she stepped off and it was all right. We rode and rode west and then she pointed further on and told me, “That’s the Breaks up there” and then I knew what to call them. Later, I’d learn that Brooklyn comes from “broken land”, too.
The main saloon in town sat adjacent to the railroad tracks. We drank there and urinated off the other side of the tracks when it got late enough to warrant such behavior. One night, extra young science collectors in town, we all emerged from the saloon into a drenching rain and played football in the street. It felt emblematic in the moment and I have never done that again, to be sure.
My field mate and I spent long days traipsing over the land, employing compass and GPS to visit our froggy sites and mark newly discovered ones. My uniform was galoshes, mud caked pants and my aunt’s old button down shirts with a sun hat to top me off.
One day with a cool breeze and a strong sun, we came upon a group of wild horses eating from the grasses and we crouched behind boulders to gaze at them, time slowed down to a near stop. That was the time when we most nearly held hands and I felt ashamed that I did not know if I could do so for just that magic moment and not feel beholden ever after.
Too, we played at bowling where the rocks were the size of bowling balls on pedestals of softer, eroded rock. We went bowling for real in a bigger town, near the Walmart, due east. It was there I felt ambition rise: to see my name on bowling alley walls across the land for high score, another as of yet unrealized dream.
It was a simple summer, ice cream cones, bbqs and work without direct oversight. The Iyengar Way came in the mail, from a NM friend, and my outdoor yoga practice, under shade cast by cottonwood trees, began. I contemplated a job in the Florida Keys, monitoring the fall hawk migration, but instead returned home to Long Island to await the birth of my nephew and wait tables for a spell. I’d like to go back.