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August 10, 2012

The morning after we arrived in North Dakota, I uncurled myself from my sleeping son, slid on my running shoes, and stepped outside into the warm sun rising over the flat fields surrounding the farm where my birth mother grew up.

It had rained in the middle of the night, a long soaking thunderstorm that settled the dust on the gravel road in front of the property. My birth parents’ rental car had kicked up such a cloud as we first followed them to the farm that my sister and I could barely see. We slowed and backed off, keeping them just in sight as they swirled forward. The next morning, though, the prairie had been washed clean in a bright do-over.

With a determined stride, I turned left onto the first road I came to, just as my birth mother had advised the night before. The farmland here is divided into square miles, she told me. As long as I kept making lefts around the 640-acre square that enveloped her family home, I wouldn’t get lost in the endless fields that yawned and stretched on all sides in a disorienting sameness to someone from the outside.

When I made the first left, though, the gravel disappeared and my feet sunk into the mud. I tried hopping around puddles to find drier ground but to no avail. Near the end-mile of what they would later tell me was a “tractor road,” I had so much North Dakota stuck to the bottom of my shoes that I could barely lift my feet. I tried shaking my shoes as I ran, tried sliding across an occasional rock to clear the soles, but nothing worked. Eventually, I crept to a halt, understanding that my morning run in this heavy “Red River gumbo,” as my friend Paul called it, was fruitless. Paul’s mother had been born in North Dakota, so he understood.

I turned around and, out of habit, began running back down the other side of the road against invisible oncoming traffic. But the other side of the road was even wetter, and eventually, the only solution was to run in the tracks I had already left, to go back the way I had come.

When I reached the farm, my shoes and legs were covered with mud. The daughter of my birth cousin, our gracious host who now lives on the farm with her husband and children, helped me hose down my shoes, and I dangled them from a wooden fence post to dry.

Later that day, we were on our way back to the farm after visiting the nearby homesteads where my birth mother’s parents grew up, the Lutheran church they had all attended, and the cemetery where many of the family members are buried. My sister and I were following my birth cousin’s car. Suddenly, it came to a stop in front of us. My birth father emerged with his camera and began taking photos.

My own photographer’s curiosity got the best of me, and I climbed out, too, wondering what had captured his eye.

“Look,” he said, pointing down a road. There were my footprints, now carved into the dry mud, heading off as far as the eye could see. He snapped a photo, both of us laughing.

At the dinner table that night, they were still talking about my morning run, about how lucky I was that I didn’t lose my shoes in the sticky soil that lapped greedily at my feet.

“How long do you think my footprints will be there?” I asked.

“They only mow down that stretch a couple of times a year,” my birth cousin’s husband said. “Could be there a few months or so.”

Well, keep me posted, I joked.

Let me know how long it is before I disappear, before North Dakota swallows this trace of me.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2012 6:28 pm

    I cried at the end. Thanks for sharing. Love, me

  2. August 10, 2012 1:00 pm

    I’m thinking that North Dakota will always hold a small part of you and Jackie. It’s like the harp that when you pluck a string causes the string of another harp to vibrate–your connections have blossomed in the last few years. Peace to you, Jenny!

    • twinprint permalink*
      August 10, 2012 2:38 pm

      I think so, too, Judy, even if below the surface, unseen. I love the image of the harp. Thanks for sharing that!

  3. August 10, 2012 10:39 am

    Beautifully written piece.

  4. August 10, 2012 2:32 am

    Lovely images… and of course, the undertones and potential metaphors are so inviting! – Very nice, Renee

    • twinprint permalink*
      August 10, 2012 2:33 am

      Metaphors? What metaphors? 🙂 Thanks!

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