We left the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, our last connection with what we knew, and ventured onto the plains of Minnesota and into North Dakota, 80 miles an hour through fields of sunflowers. Outside Minot, the two-lane highway was under construction, but there were no rows of orange barrels striped with reflective tape; instead, both lanes of pavement were ripped up, and I drove the dirt roadbed between earthmovers, graders, and dump trucks while my wife slept in the passenger’s seat and my seven-month-old son made faces at me in the rearview mirror from his car seat. Finally the roadwork ended, and we drove on through a valley where each hill held white rocks stacked to form the year of a high school’s graduating class. Almost twenty years were covered in as many miles, and I wondered what would happen when they ran out of hills. We crossed into Canada at a small town called Portal, then made our way across the plains, trying to remember to read our speed in kilometers. The city of Regina appeared on the horizon like a skyline drawn in elementary school art class: the sky and ground meeting on a ruler-straight line, while boxes and rectangles extended upward from it. Past that, the highway skirted the Arm River Valley, the only variation in the tabletop prairie, where each town was marked with a wooden grain elevator rising in the distance.
July 11, 2012 Dispatches