Old barns and all sorts of mailboxes were landmarks for us throughout short grass prairie country in our young years. In the 1950s, a barn that looked like this one by Sunday morning became one of those landmarks after it fell in on itself one Saturday night.
It had served its farmer well, provided shelter for his cows and a dry place for his hay, occasional shelter for a piece of machinery and sometimes a place to hide Christmas presents that might be discovered if they were brought into the house. Neither the barn nor the farmer would have directly acknowledged it but the last time he walked away from it that evening, they both knew it was about over, and his hand gripped the shaky, worn-smooth-as-silk frame at the door with gratitude. Out of habit, the old latch that holds the door shut is dropped into its place.
The old man knows the barn has nothing left to give. He recognizes that the weather moving in is, sometime tonight, going to take her down. The next morning as the farmers are visiting outside the church, waiting for the bell to ring 27 times, they listen to his story.
~It was a dark and stormy night~
As the thunder and lightning approaches, he sets a kitchen chair out in the back hall. He opens the inside door and sits there in the darkness watching the barn through the old screen door as the storm lights it up: NOW! AGAIN! AGAIN! From one flash to the next, he sees it’s still there. The wind is building. FLASH! Thirty minutes goes by. The barn stands. Another hour. Brave and abandoned, alone in the night except for the attention of the old man, against all odds–the barn stands.
9:30’s coming on. The old woman has gone to bed and he should, too. Gotta get up for church in the morning, but he shakes the cobwebs out of his head and ducks into the kitchen to pour himself a cup of the coffee that’s still warm from supper, trying to avoid getting the grounds from the bottom of the pot.
His neighbors listen to him unroll the story and are urging him to wrap up the “getting the coffee” part when he stops talking in mid-sentence, chuckles ruefully, looking at the ground as he shakes his head.
When he looks up at them again he says quietly, “When I got back out in the hall, she was down. After all these years,…” shaking his head again, “I didn’t see her go down–just because I had to get a cup of coffee.”
That barn never was on any map. Have you ever noticed that many of the most important places in our memories aren’t on maps? Our best memories seem to be in the blank places on the map, that place about which others might say “there’s nothing there.” They would be wrong.
Today’s MBOB is about some the blank places on the map. Each heart knows its own blank places on the map and we kids sure knew their names and their locations. Their seasons and their purposes. Their times of isolation and the times of children’s passing feet.
The Crooked Side was a specific spot on the dirt road that ran the 3/4 mile from our house to our mailbox, sweeping out of the yard in rather a grand curve if you want to know the truth. Now even though the idea of a windbreak in northeastern Montana is kind of a contradiction in terms–because there’s no stopping that north wind and only a fool would think he could “break” it–nevertheless, we had six rows of hardy trees that were our windbreak. The crowning glory of the windbreak was the two rows of Colorado Blue Spruce that formed the innermost section, planted as 3″ seedlings in the late 40’s, and achieving splendor and glory in their mature years–and The Crooked Side is the sharp little up-‘n-down rise in the road that is right off the west end of the wind break.
The road dips rather sharply right there and then sweeps down a 50 yard long, rather steep hill to the next Blank Place on the Map. (We’ll get there in a minute.) The Crooked Side is just that little sharp dip and the peak of the “going over the top” to the downhill portion of the road.
I don’t know how it got named The Crooked Side. Blank Places on the Map often don’t have factual descriptions. You get too many factual descriptions going about a place, it’s likely to end up on some map or other and that sort of ruins the whole point, doesn’t it?
The Crooked Side, about 200 yards from the house, was the perfect destination for a bike ride when I was about 10 or 12, mostly because of the delicious fact that when I was there in the summer time when the trees were leafed out, I was out of sight of the house and Mom couldn’t see me, even though she would know I had gone there.
It was a refuge in the middle of nowhere. Looking back toward the house, the barn, the garage, the granaries and the trees–there was my complete security, the reason I felt safe at The Crooked Side. But here’s the wonder: by just turning my back on the farmstead and looking north, I could see forever! The farms of neighbors not too far away. The church four miles distant in a bit of a valley with gentle edges rising up in all directions to a shallow bowl-shaped horizon that framed my world–when I looked north.
Toward evening on some days, Dad would come and call us, “Get to The Crooked Side. There’s a mirage!” The little prairie town that was not ours (although they were our declared enemy during basketball season in December and January and February) that lay over the horizon 11 miles distant would, for 20 or 30 minutes, be up in the air where we could see it.
There it is, impossibly perched up in the sky, laid out from end to end. It’s not there. But there it is. We see the grain elevators and the rows of houses perfectly.
The Crooked Side is a wonderful blank place on my map. It’s the place where I stood one day when I was about 13 and thought my heart would jump out of my chest for joy. No particular reason. Just wild. Generic. Deep. Natural. Joy. Now on long winter nights I played the piano and sang songs until it was time to go to bed and really long songs get memorized that way, so I sang a song to God on The Day of Joy. I sang all the long, long verses of “The love of God is greater far…..than tongue or pen can ever tell! It goes beyond the highest star; and reaches to the lowest hell…..”
The last verse was what I was headed for as I tried to own that vast sky.
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; Nor could the scroll contain the whole, tho’ stretched from sky to sky.
Machinery Hill is 200 yards further on. It’s just a flat place at the edge of the field at the crest of the next rise in the road. There’s a barbed wire gate stretched between tree branches that serve as posts. Dad brings several pieces of farm equipment for easier access during the week or two that he’s working those fields. So there sits a row of machinery for a few days. On Machinery Hill.
Now the dip right before Machinery Hill is the muddiest place whenever we have significant rainfall. But since we only have significant rainfall every seven or four years, it’s not a frequent problem. Machinery Hill is also a good bike ride destination, and a place to sit and pick up rocks to examine, or gather some Indian Paintbrush from the ditch to take home for Mom.
The Sugar Top is a singular example of a bit of badland in our pasture. Only partially covered with sagebrush that just refuses to give up, it really is mostly bald, pale yellow clay. It’s a rather symmetrical upside-down, cone-shaped butte formation that stands next to the red scoria road that goes to town. We call it The Sugar Top because the top 20 feet or so are completely bare of any growth of any kind so it looks like sugar has been dumped over its head. The Sugar Top is about 200 feet high, and has quite steep sides. There are prickly pears blooming here and there which makes climbing it a bit stickery if we’re not careful.
Climbing the Sugar Top was a rite of passage. Any child who had reached the age of 3 could actually make it up to the top if an older sister or brother held them tightly by the hand. We always made sure our town company got taken down to Climb the Sugar Top. That particularly outing, of course, had the added feature of introducing them to Climbing Through The Four Wire Barbed Wire Fence Without Ripping Their Clothes. We did always help them and tried to be kind about it, all the while secretly relishing the fact that they only got through with difficulty.
Photographs of The Children Who Had Climbed The Sugar Top were always taken from the scoria road by parents who knew better than to participate. The black and white print would present tiny humans, completely unidentifiable except for the note on the back along with the date. Proof that These Children Have Climbed The Sugar Top. It is a wonderful blank place on the map.
Crocus Hill was a quarter mile southeast of the barn and arrived at by a bit of an arduous hike, going deep down into a gully or creek bed where one of the stock tanks was, with a hand pump for the use of whoever was assigned to go and pump water for the cattle. Past the stock tank and up the steep hill ahead….over the top after being winded by the climb….and for ten days in the spring the east-facing slope of that hard sod hill would be transformed when The Crocuses bloomed.
Anyone who has not endured a killing, sub-zero prairie winter cannot understand what that dusky lavender hillside means, how that blank place on the map becomes the source of joy and hope and satisfaction and contentment. It puts flowers on our supper table. This is where we Pick Crocuses for the Teacher. Pick Crocuses for The Widow Nelson.
The first time I saw the following quote I wanted to be alone with it, because it gave voice to something in my heart I had never found a way to say.