Dakota Datebook

Steinbeck

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Yesterday, we began a two-part series of Steinbeck’s exploration of North Dakota in his book, Travels with Charley. Today we pick up his words as he enters the west.

I was not prepared for the Bad Lands. They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child. Such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and forms filled with foreboding. A sense comes from it that it does not like or welcome humans… I turned off the highway on a shaley road and headed in among the buttes, but with a shyness as though I crashed a party… And here’s an odd thing. Just as I felt unwanted in this land, so do I feel a reluctance in writing about it.

Presently I saw a man leaning on a two-strand barbed-wire fence, the wires fixed not to posts but to crooked tree limbs stuck in the ground… His pale eyes were frosted with sun glare and his lips scaly as snakeskin. A .22 rifle leaned against the fence beside him and on the ground lay a little heap of fur and feathers – rabbits and small birds. I pulled up… (and) found I had nothing to say to him. The “Looks like an early winter,” or “Any good fishing hereabouts?” didn’t seem to apply. And so we simply brooded at each other.

“Afternoon!”

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Any place nearby where I can buy some eggs?”

“Not real close by ‘less you want to go as far as Galva or up to Beach.”

“I was set for some scratch-hen eggs.”

“Powdered,” he said. “My Mrs. gets powdered.”

“Lived here long?”

“Yep.”

I waited for him to ask something or to say something so we could go on, but he didn’t. And as the silence continued, it became more and more impossible to think of something to say. I made one more try. “Does it get very cold here winters?”

“Fairly.”

“You talk too much.”

He grinned. “That’s what my Mrs. says”.

“So long,” I said, and put the car in gear and moved along.

A little farther along I stopped at a small house, a section of war-surplus barracks, it looked, but painted white with yellow trim, and with the dying vestiges of a garden, frosted-down geraniums… An old woman answered my knock and gave me the drink of water I asked for and nearly talked my arm off… it came to me that she was afraid of this place and, further, that so was I. I felt I wouldn’t like to have the night catch me here.

I went into a state of flight… And then the late afternoon changed everything. As the sun angled, the buttes and coulees, the cliffs and sculptured hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich browns and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black. It was so beautiful…

And the night, far from being frightful, was lovely beyond thought, for the stars were close, and although there was no moon the starlight made a silver glow in the sky. The air cut the nostrils with dry frost. And for pure pleasure I… built a small fire just to smell the perfume of the burning wood and to hear the excited crackle of the branches… nearby I heard a screech owl hunting and a barking of coyotes, not howling but the short chuckling bark of the dark of the moon. This is one of the few places I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day. And I can easily see how people are driven back to the Bad Lands.

Before I slept I spread a map on my bed, a Charley-tromped map… (the) night was so cold that I put on my insulated underwear for pajamas, and when Charley had done his duties and had his biscuits and consumed his usual gallon of water and finally curled up in his place under the bed, I dug out an extra blanket and covered him – all except the tip of his nose – and he sighed and wriggled and gave a great groan of pure ecstatic comfort. And I thought how every safe generality I gathered in my travels was canceled by another. In the night the Bad Lands had become Good Lands. I can’t explain it. That’s how it was.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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