Deep into North Dakota, Tizi asks: “Do you know the words to the national anthem?”
We’re doing 80 mph on I-94, west of Bismarck. Today is a 700 mile day, La Crosse, WI, to Medora, ND. At Bismarck there’s 120 miles left to go. North Dakota looks a lot like Minnesota, and a lot like Iowa, and a lot like Wisconsin. If you like corn and wheat, which I do, you don’t mind it. The corn farmers cut wide alleys around, through, and across, the hilly fields. They look sculpted. And the wheat fields, harvested and mowed, are astonishing pools of gold. Beautiful. But there’s a limit.
Bismarck is the limit. For the last 50 miles or so, I’ve been rewriting Edgar Star’s song “Twenty-five Miles” in my head. His lyrics go like this: “Twenty-five miles from home, girl. My feet are hurting mighty bad.” In my head I’m singing: Twenty-five miles from Bismarck. My ass is hurting mighty bad.“
“Our national anthem?” I say. “Yes, of course.”
A few minutes ago, to entertain ourselves, I asked her if she could name the 13 original colonies. Of course she could. She listed the thirteen. A thirteen. I’m not so sure about West Virginia. We’ll have to check on that later. (No, it wasn’t. I checked later.)
Now she says, and I detect doubt in her voice: “All of the words?” .
All right, at football games and like events, I’ve experienced moments of embarrassing, star-spangled confusion and had to hum a few bars.
“All of them?” I say. “Yes and no.”
“Yes, no.” Would she like to hear my Edgar Star rewrite? No, she would not.
We begin to recite that long, long sentence Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814. I’m sure there are other national anthems that are in the interrogative mode, but I can’t think of one, and I have to believe what makes the Star Spangled banner challenging is that it’s a question, and a long compound-complex sentence question at that, and most of us have actually never seen that pregnant question in print.
We get most of it. But recitation doesn’t do it. I sing part of it, hand off to Tizi, who sings the rest. We get it. (A little bit of it. There are three more awful verses.)
Fortunately on these long drives, we encounter signs. Road language raises questions, adds seasoning to the experience. When we drive by St Cloud, WI, I wonder, How can a cloud be a saint? When did the Catholic Church beatify it? Did the cloud perform a few miracles? Which cloud was sainted? Or are all clouds saintly?
Miles back Tizi pointed to a sign that pointed the way to DEBUNK. We drive by a white work van. On the side of it I read WE POWDER THE WORLD. Huh. What could that mean? In front of an establishment on the side of the road, I think I see a sign that says LOVE LABS. Do they do therapy? Are they love scientists? Or is it a hotel?
Dubuque, of course, not Debunk.
We power, not powder, the world.
Love’s Labs, not Love Labs. It’s a dog business.
St Cloud, also a French city with Napoleonic connections, Saint-Cloud, is named after a 6th-century monk, Clodoald. (I bet the good people of St Cloud are happy they don’t have to say they’re from Clodoald. I’d get out of there fast.)
We made a stop for gas in Fergus Falls, MN, the halfway point. It was noonish. I told myself, find out who Fergus was (James Fergus, a Scottish trapper). While I pumped, Tizi got out the Yasmine’s we brought from home. Yasmine’s spinach pies, Yasmine’s cheese pies. Yasmine’s is the best Lebanese food this side of Beirut.
“You have two spinach and one cheese,” she said.
I laid a paper towel across my lap and gazed lovingly at the pies on the console between us. The pies are little things, smaller than a muffin, little doughy purses with good stuff inside.
“Spinach cheese spinach,” I said. “Spinach spinach cheese. Cheese spinach spinach.”
I slipped the car into gear and joined traffic.
“What are you talking about?”
I told her I was trying to decide which order to eat my pies. Did I want the spinach, with its oil and lemon and zatar, to linger on my palate?
“Just eat them,”
Down the road, I realized I’d made the right decision. “Spinach, spinach, cheese,” I said.
She was looking out the window, admiring the amber waves of grain.
“I finished with the cheese,” I said. “It cleaned my palate. The cheese was like a squeegee, a cheese squeegee, leaving my mouth kind of neutral.
Between Bismarch and Medora, you go miles and see no billboards, no signs, no advertising. I mention this to Tizi.
“Makes sense,” she says. “There’s nothing out here.”
She’s right. Nothing out here. And it’s beautiful.