Gone Summering, July 1998
A patch of sky is not enough, or a wedge, a rectangle of blue between buildings. Specks of sky. Not enough. The only adequate sky is all sky, a tallgrass prairie heaven tarp that stretches down on every side and quiets the heart.
I love crossing the country from the East Coast to the Great Plains, driving blearily through the dark pines of Ontario or the guts of the rust belt, up through the weird, shouting Wisconsin Dells and on, to Highway 210 in Minnesota, where the Red River Valley starts. The sky's a sudden presence. Air touches down on all sides. You see to the end of the world. Distance melts off into mirage, a jitter of shaking air on hot dust. There are no limits but the earth's curve. Sounds travel as far as the ear allows. Vision stretches as far as the eye can strain. Pure sky pulls you right out of yourself and yet bears down so close it seems crushing. Or alive.
Heat of summer. A dust storm magnifies the sun so that it fills the sky. Quaking red. Quenched. Going down in a mirage of fake oils due west, the sun's a bloody Jupiter. Clouds, color, a collision of winds and temperatures, a confusion and a blending of light.
A dark summer morning. I drive to Fargo and halfway there stop the car. I can't believe what I'm seeing. Not a cloud to the east where a sparking sun rises. But directly over me, as though divided with a compass, the sky splits. A storm boils out of the west and a black curtain drops. Against it, the rising sun ignites four fierce rainbows. Through the arcs of color, lightning stalks back and forth, stepping through rainbow hoops like a circus walker on dreadful stilts. Distant licks of rain. Horizon of surging dark. And yes, just to the right, a baby pure sun continues to rise.
Lastly, a word for the ordinariness of the Dakota sky. The casual glimpse of pure space at the end of the street, or looming silently above the artfully eroded promontories of the Badlands. Sky of simple authority, blank. Unadorned and unremarkable. Just the white sky. A fullness locked into my bones. I can't help it the way we can't help love — I need that sky. More changeable than mountains or even the sea, mutable, malleable, ever different. The sky is the scape for the mercurial, the unfixed personality. For me. Without it, I am left with a stubborn acuteness, a want. Not a ceiling or a roof, it goes up forever. And not a wall, though it floods down evenly on every side to meet the ground. Not space, not empty. Yet a shelter. The spirit's gallery, filled with the art of constantly changing weather.
Louise Erdrich's most recent novel, The Antelope Wife, was published this spring by Harperflamingo.
Illustration by Jason Schneider