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Reliable Strangers – a Reflection on North Dakota

 

by Stuart Shepard

So, I flew to North Dakota. First time ever.

I learned something that they all know that we would all do well to know.

Took an Embraer 145 up from Denver. One of those tiny regional jets that makes us all tilt our heads to the left as we single-file down the narrow aisle. It has a single column of seats on the port side and two on the starboard. I like having an aisle and a window at the same time, so I settle into 19A.

We land in Bismarck at the municipal airport. I pile into a rented Chrysler van with my colleagues, and we drive to the Ramkota Inn. It’s a sprawling, well-worn hotel. On this day, the long hallways are dotted with clusters of teenage Future Business Leaders of America. Their faces reflect that giddy, sparkling expression of every-moment-of-this-day-is-a-totally-new-experience. And every-person-in-the-hall-is-a-potentially-new-friend.

I help unpack and set up displays for our Family Policy Alliance conference in a utilitarian ballroom: Two widely placed projection screens, a wood-veneer podium with chipped edges, and 40 round tables with carefully placed dessert plates of cheesecake, chocolate cake and what appears to be lemon cake.

I’m not on the program this time around. I’ve got my black Amazon Basics camera bag hanging from my shoulder with one Canon DSLR for still shots and another for video. On this night, I’m just that guy with a camera.

But I’m also an observer of the room.

Finding their numbered tables are hundreds of people still guided by Christian values and principles. When a volunteer prays aloud before the event, her friendly, casual cadence suggests that, to her, God is right there in the room listening and nodding his head with the rest of us.

And I realize that He is.

And I realize that this is America.

And I realize that though I’m a thousand miles from home in a place I’ve never been, these are my people. My family.

Over here, the new state senator, wearing the obligatory suit-and-tie uniform common to the 21-story, no-nonsense capitol building. He’s pinned a custom-made name badge to his lapel. Over there, a guy in jeans and a flannel shirt. I don’t need to look in the parking lot to know he drove here in a muddy pickup truck. Next to him, a young family with several blonde-haired children. It’s hard to tell how many. They keep moving.

Woven into the idle chatter, I hear the occasional, telltale “you betcha” and “dontcha know” of the Dakotas.

Sitting with the AV guys surrounded by electronics in the back of the room, I learn that in NoDak, when drivers pass on the lonesomely long, endlessly straight stretches of highway, it’s common to raise two fingers from the steering wheel as a greeting – the automotive version of “Hey der.”

I realize, and the audio guy next to me affirms, that underlying the gentle friendliness is a cold reality: Should you, in the dark and at 30 below zero, slide off an icy highway and spin into a snow bank with a muted crunch and explosion of white powder – that last wave may well be the person who interrupts his own plans that evening and stops to rescue you from hours stranded in the dark and cold.

Perhaps your last-ever hours in the dark and cold.

He stops, because the next time it may be him and his wife and several blonde-haired kids stuck in the frozen ditch.

If you fetch your nylon ND State wallet and offer to pay him for the trouble, he’ll say “Don’t worry about it.”

In a place where the population is sparse, the winter nights are long, and any random person can describe, in detail, being startled awake by the sound of a frozen lake cracking, there is an unspoken, underlying, unmistakable bond. A real sense that we need each other up here. We can’t go it alone. If we’re going to make it to next summer, we need reliable strangers.

I think our nation’s Founders understood that. Given the historical context of their lives, they must have had their own horseback-version of the two-finger wave. They knew the importance of having neighbors with a shared set of moral values and principles. And they understood the mortal danger if those values were lost.

It’s true for the rugged, self-reliant North Dakotans.

It was true for our farsighted Founders.

And it is true for America, today.

We need reliable strangers.

People guided by Christian values and principles. Allied in all 50 states. Working together to pull America out of the snowy ditch.

Sometimes it’s cold and dark out there, dontcha know.

Consider yourself waved at.