"We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God who created it and runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God." (J.I. Packer)
For the last four days I have walked the sidewalk between my downtown hotel and work, past a plaza peopled by a handful of homeless men, one block down Broadway with the Fargo theater behind me. But yesterday, about seven in the evening, I had had enough of this circumscribed world, having seen all I could by walking. I rented a bicycle. I settled into the seat and cruised helmutless and tentatively toward the river, detouring through parking lots, around construction, navigating broken pavement, until I reached the Red River banks. I followed the greenway south, upstream, and crossed over a bridge into Moorhead, into Minnesota, my wheels singing, the river on my right.
I don't know anyone here and yet for an hour I pretend that I live here, a Fargoan squeezing all the life I can out of the warm and breezy day, from sunup at five to sundown at ten, a respite from the long, frigid winter. There is a family on the path, and I timidly ring my bell as I pass, nod to them. College students lounge languidly on rocks near the rapids. A woman, then a man, run alone. One young man yells at me from a pontoon boat he shares with some friends. "What's up," he says. I wave. Fellow Minnesotan, I think. Dakotan. High plains drifter. I'm just moving in the elements, a Fargoan, I want to say, yet I don't. My accent would betray me.
Flying in a few days ago, North Dakota spread like a earthen tapestry before me, a succession of green fields, plowed fields, fallow fields, farmhouses hemmed by stitched trees to break the wind, the roads at right angles. Yet my eyes were drawn to the river, a serpentine ribbon of green, a scribbled line of watery life on an engineer's grid, a reminder that God makes his way in crookedness, doubling back on Himself, meandering here and there, yet always, always, going to the sea.
Packer, a man closer to God now than he is to earth, goes on to say that "[w]hen we disregard the study of God, we sentence ourselves to stumble through life blindfolded, with no sense of direction and no understanding of our surroundings." Grim travelers. No direction home. Like rolling stones. I think about that now as I hum along, about rocks and gray water and rabbits crossing the path and squirrels twittering up branches and people walking blindfolded along a river, disconnected dots in a landscape of loss, and I utter a few words of thanksgiving that my eyes are open and I have a map of sorts even if I do run up to its unfolded edge time and time again. A lamp unto my feet.
Reluctantly, I turn back and retrace my route. Huffing up the ever so slight incline from the river to downtown, a young boy on a bike hails me from the sidewalk.
"Hey, you wanna race?"
I don't want to race.
"Aw, I gotta sissy bike," I say.
"Come on." He looks so hopeful.
"Ok. To the corner. Go!"
I let him win. At the corner, he turns back, smiling, whooping, the old man beat.
When I finally make it back to the kiosk where I need to turn my bike in, I have seven minutes left on my time. I want to use it up, so I ride down Broadway, clattering over the train tracks. I stop and look both ways down the track, because the infinity of tracks is irresistible. Nothing. Then, about a block down, I turn, my time running. I have two minutes. I'll just make it. I feel smug in my frugality. But no, just as I reach the tracks, the gates close, the crossing bells clang, and a great locomotive roars past dragging freight, grain and fertilizer and lumber, a great elongated behemoth bullying its way across the plains. The delay cost me another four dollars, but the show was worth it. Multi-colored, graffiti-splashed freight cars rumbled past, the peeks of Broadway through their couplings like camera shots, click-click-click.
I had dinner at 9:00 at the Vinyl Taco, where everyone there was younger than me. The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress" was playing, and I smiled to myself in my darkened corner booth. I bought the album when it was released, could picture its gatefold art even now, and yet not a single person in this restaurant was born when I bought it. Not a single one. I consider asking the server what year she was born, but I hesitate. It could not have been before 1990, a year it seems odd to even type, and what would be the point? History is not much-loved.
About 10:00, sundown in Fargo, I sat eating ice cream at Insomnia Cookie. The extended daylight is beguiling, and so I couldn't bring myself to give up the day yet.
"Where you from? You're not from here, are you?" A man seated with his preteen son engaged me.
"How'd you guess?" The accent. Of course.
While we finished off our ice cream, I learned a lot about Joe Antinopolous, a true Fargoan.
"Fargo's a good place to raise a family. You still feel like you can leave your doors unlocked and not worry about anything."
I told him I was visiting for work, doing a peer review of an office like the one in which I worked, and I told him who was in charge of the office.
"Oh yeah," he said. "He's my neighbor. He and my son are in school together."
Of course they are.
Walking back to my hotel that evening, I thought about what Packer said, about how not knowing God we stumble about blindly. We need a map of the world, a compass, a way to connect all the disparate points of light and darkness. I thought also about an article I read earlier that week, a series of journal entries by a man walking in his neighborhood. Trying to come to grips with various tragedies in the world and their victims, he wonders, "What are the continuities between them, and between them and me?" He has no answer.
Walking back to the hotel with Angela, a co-worker, earlier that day, she told me that her only son, who was 32, had been shot four years previously by some kind of white supremacist. "He was nearly perfect," she said. "I still feel like he's near."
I said, "Scripture says 'God is near to the broken-hearted,' and if He is near but unseen, then perhaps your son really is near."
The Fargoan t-shirt I saw was more right than its designers knew: "Fargo, North of Normal," is supposed to be a nod to the quirkiness of this place. And yet all is abnormal. All is broken and seemingly random. People wander the world and try to find some continuity, some thread of meaning.
And yet there is a map of the world. With it you can can start anywhere and find your way home. Even in Fargo.