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" …a simple flexing finger might welcome even a stranger home."

Section roads checkerboard the state of "Sou' Dakoda." East River—that is, east of the Missouri—where the land lies essentially flat, section roads seem to run in an expansive one mile grid; every mile, another section road appears. Most are gravel and provide access to cropland and farmsteads. They're numbered according to their distance from the state's borders. This morning, I'm writing near the intersection of 139th Street and 412th Avenue. It's not uncommon to find section roads numbered in 1/2 increments. This whole state, however lonely it might seem, has been thoroughly surveyed and settled.

The dust reappeared yesterday.
Damped down by a thunderstorm two nights before, the usual trailing dust clouds had been gratefully absent this trip. Yesterday, the rear window on the newly-named Schooner silted in as we toodled back from a trip into Aberdeen, the commercial center of this part of the state. So much for that fine car wash in Sioux Falls. The dust comes in fine powdery form, easily swiped off, but it serves to remind us that we're not visiting a world dominated by asphalt. Hardly a weed seems to grow in this landscape dominated by corn and beans. No field lies fallow for more than a week in this season. Prairie quickly reclaims any unattended land.

The Muse takes me on a backroad tour, fondly recalling the families who farmed here fifty years ago, their farmhouses mostly slumping sun bleached lumber now. The house she was raised in, long ago shoved into a whole and burned to make way for her brother's expansive new home. We encounter few other drivers in this country where individual homes lie a mile or more separate from each other. Mid day, most folks are working, not toodling around dusty section roads, but we do come across the odd farmer out on an errand. The etiquette here insists that one acknowledge another driver when passing. Unlike in the city or on the interstates, where custom demands considered anonymity, here, acknowledgement is expected. A simple finger raised from the steering hand suffices. No rolling down any window to share any exuberant wave, just a finger or two raised in recognition, even if neither driver has the faintest clue who that other might be.

It might be that the native loneliness of this country demands no less. One might not see another living soul for hours out here. The sudden appearance of a fellow dust cloud seems to reassure me that I am not the only person left on this planet. Raising a finger seems at least a decent thing to do and perhaps an essential obligation. I'm out of practice, having only recently left the asphalt cocoon. My timing's awkward, sometimes hitting the sweet spot but often not at first. A few repetitions and I almost reliably mirror the finger raised toward me. When I fail, I feel as though I've missed an opportunity to almost belong here, like an interloper with no good excuse for being. It's a small gesture that seems to mean a whole lot more than the effort might suggest.

Here, everyone drives a dusty jalopy, no matter now fancy it might shine up to be. Everyone lives closer to the dirt than those who inhabit the asphalt jungles beyond. There, status might be projected by make and model. Here, everyone seems to be driving a dust bunny-mobile, projecting a certain equality on the roadway. Through the long and often brutal winters, I suspect that some small reassurance that somebody—anybody else—might be here could calm perfectly natural fears. Whatever differences might appear on closer inspection, that humble finger raised in recognition of even an imperfect stranger, reinforces the notion that we really are all in this together.

It takes a different sort of awareness to be present in that moment when another vehicle appears and raise that finger to say, "I'm here. I see you here, too." It's a small act, like all truly significant acts, one requiring no special talent or training, just like being human requires no advanced degree in The Humanities. It's a completely necessary voluntary act of belonging, as much self-validation as anything. We seem to move through this world so damned alone sometimes when a simple flexing finger might welcome even a stranger home.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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