I am going too fast. The trail of hardened hoof prints jogs left. My front tire spins in the dog day air and plunges into the gully. My bike bucks me over the handlebars. Helmet and right shoulder smash into the earth and instinctually I roll, sending myself over the edge, tumbling like a wind-whipped weed. Fingers fanned like claws loosen scabs of pancaked clay, woody stems, and tufts of grass. The air turns dusty, fills my mouth, tastes like sage and minerals and blood.A thicket of juniper catches me near the bottom. The impact drives the wind from my lungs.I should be still, take stock. Adrenaline and pride force me into a sitting position. No searing pain. Trickles of blood make small rivulets through the dust glued by sweat on my legs and arms. I’ve bitten my tongue. My shirt at the right shoulder is tattered, exposing gashed skin cauterized with trail grit. I pick until the blood is free to run and cleanse; I flick the bloodied sediment to the ground. I am scuffed, humbled, but not broken. * * * I am a six-year-old on his first horseback trail ride. When my “Whoa, horsey, whoa!” fails to impress horsey as he trods downhill, I bounce down his neck and into the middle of some brush. Mom and the sound of her screaming my name reach me at nearly the same time, grasping for me as I struggle to free myself from the bush’s clutches. I don’t cry until later at the motel, when I see the hole torn in the vest I bought with my saved birthday money in a souvenir shop in Medora. The fabric on the front is supposed to look like deer hide, and a fake coon’s tail is fastened on either side. The back is green felt adorned with an Indian headdress painted in neon colors. I’d somehow managed not to impale myself on the plastic bowie knife or the wooden tomahawk I’d secured in my belt loops. At the time, I didn’t think about anything other than getting back on that horse, and that’s what I did, caught up in something I wouldn’t be able to articulate until much later in life. But it starts on that trip, at my first glimpse of the North Dakota badlands at the Painted Canyon rest stop, a sight that launches a frenzy of nonstop jabbering and proposals.
“I could climb that one and you could pick me up on the other side,” I say, selecting the highest, gnarliest points in the landscape as we round each highway bend before the descent into Medora.
“Those hills are a lot bigger than they seem,” Dad says.
And Mom: “You’d get bit by all the rattlesnakes.”
“I’ll catch one with my bare hands and make it my friend.” I conjure a vision of it riding in the basket of my purple bike with the white banana seat.
“Get off me! You’re on my side of the line,” one sister protests as I press to the window from my prison in the middle of the backseat between two older sisters. The thought of getting loose in the badlands makes me a fidget-bucket. Mom tries to distract me with the suggestion to look for buffalo and wild horses, more oxygen to the fire.
And as I squirm and hop with excitement in the queue area for that trail ride into the most mesmerizing place I’veever seen—better than my favorite television show, Grizzly Adams, filled with more possibility than the small woods around the river near my hometown in northeastern North Dakota’s flat squares of farmland—I imagine the moment when I will finally charge up one of the hills, just like Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had done at the musical the previous night. The place wouldn’t let me have it quite that way though. It enticed me with possibility, kicked me in the teeth, and then taught me I could get back up again. * * *
I push myself upright to begin the climb back to the trail, where I find my bike firmly lodged by its pedals in the little ravine. It looks almost as if I parked it there. I read my story in the track of the knobby tires, the broken twigs and leaf litter, the bald slope where the broom of my body swept rock and soil to the bottomlands. Left a mark on each other we have, this place and I, and a deep one at that. * * *