Mandan, North Dakota

mandan, nd

Mandan, North Dakota is a flat, pleasant and windy place far away from most everything. Not only is it a very long way from familiar places, it is also an extremely long way from everywhere else. Mandan is literally in the middle of a state that is only visited with a reason except for fleeing convicts and excessively hydrated vacationers who are held hostage by their bladder. A small town with nothing heinous in its history, Mandan, North Dakota must of seemed like a good idea at the time when the settler finally got tired of seeing nothing new and grew weary of traveling at the same time. The city likely represented a break from the green and brown sameness by allowing travelers general facilities, purchase opportunities and general directions, although the need for the latter was rarely exercised.

The desire to see new and different places is primarily a transient one as there is a saturation point for even the most daunting adventurers. To leaving your surroundings for a specific period of time is a healthy use of your time and energy but to fully appreciate the whole cycle, you have to make it back home as well. Trips start with noticeable adrenaline and maintain a sense of newness for the entire journey. You have to be aware of these emotions in order to enjoy yourself because if you remain pained and overtly uncomfortable, your travelling companions will suggest that you remain home next time.

My travelling companion was my friend and hero of all things fascinating. The hero always enjoyed the road but not in any romantic way. He never raved either about Kerouac and any particular Beat but demonstrated, on numerous occasions, no time for the mundane. He enjoyed the road for the visual cues and miscellaneous entertainment was provided by smart-ass comments when seeing odd combinations of words on a road sign, obvious billboard typos and brutal puns literally at every turn. While driving to Mandan, our comments sometimes collided with each other. An idea would get bumped by a restaurant's oxymoron-laded slogan, which in turn, would get bumped from center stage as we passed some newer billboard in which the subject's owner felt they could save money and write and publish their own ad copy. As the primary listener and general foil, I could become exhausted after a particular long ride if I wasn’t paying attention. My primary role was that of a straight man and felt that I was a challenging adversary for the hero, because I know I kept him sharp as he did me. A good conversation can be like sparring with cryptic comments if both combatants decide to lace them up and enjoy the fight. That, combined with a long ass car ride, can make for a mildly interesting trip and there is a minimal amount of heavy labor.

My favorite cryptic comments are mysteries due to vocabulary because you have real options. If someone uses a word that I never have heard, I write down its spelling, as best I can, and make a direct line to my dictionary when convenient. If my friend said, "Your insouciant attitude towards this trip is appreciated." I would nod with an approvingly look, treating the appreciated verb as a positive clue and burn the word "insouciant" into my short-term memory. As soon as possible, I would use my current dictionary to get a working definition and then highlight the definition. If the friend was particularly close or someone that I jousted on a regular basis, I may ask for a definition, but usually I take it all in and charge it up to my never-ending liberal arts education. The beauty of vocabulary is that all the answers reside in a legitimate dictionary and once a new word is mastered, you are free to apply the word to other friends within your circle. You can usually feel stupid once with a word and it is your obligation, once a mystery word appears, to look it up and understand its meaning. Allowing the word to be used with no interest in its use or application makes for a dull and frustrating life.

So when the chance to drive to Mandan, North Dakota arose with the hero, the teaming of our personalities made the trip a guaranteed success for me. I have come to painfully realize that adventures are harder to come by these days, at least real ones, so you do what you have to do.

"I don’t have to think much on the road," said my friend, "the little green road signs do all the work for me."

"Is that a fact?" I would ask in a combination of rhetoric and curiosity. "All the work?"

"Absolutely," said the hero. "I know when I can eat, go to the bathroom, gas up or rest. I know how every destination in the world is related to my journey. There are no real surprises and every once in awhile, that is just the thing I need."

The art of driving allows the mind to be surrounded by large amounts of space allows the driver to take an internal inventory of what is floating around in their head. Sometimes it is interesting: lost loves, regrets, success, failure and stories of really bad timing. You also run the risk of an incredibly boring adventure: second grade classmates, yesterday's lunch, shoe inventories, Super Bowl IV and mileage calculations. A good rule to follow is that the longer the drive, the more opportunities for mental cranial cleaning. Unfortunately, most of the mental conversations are reasonably mundane and most of the real interesting ones are just played over and over until they lose their shine.

However, high-toned and obscure words are not the same issue as vague comments. Correspondingly, a balance must be struck between some opaque comment and a person's true thought at the time. If the word is used to soften a brutal truth or to reduce the malice of a comment, I can live with that as a tactic. It is useful and presents a timid soul a path of least resistance and if one could extract all malice from this honesty, we could be getting somewhere.

Strategy notwithstanding, there are words that perfectly fit a situation and with some effort, even the lazy can use the right word or phrase. The thesaurus is an amateur’s tool to provide a litany of synonyms to describe a mundane event and feel like a modern wordsmith. The listing of similar words is not the point; the goal is to use the absolutely correct word in the absolutely correct manner. Words such as "détente," "memoir," "rapprochement," "dabbawalla" or "shit-nest" may be the absolute word to describe something worth describing. The timely use of the correct word is a treat for both the ears and the brain.

There are roughly two thousand people in Mandan who likely enjoy the place and all its alleged charms. Excluding some teenagers armed with cable access and a thirst for a post-high school education, the populace of Mandan continually and literally sees them come and invariably, sees them go and doesn't give it a thought. The people who reside there have demonstrated their satisfaction with the place by literally being and don't feel there is much more to say on the matter. They do what they do, live where they live and get up and do it the next day without cluttering their reality with options. That could be viewed as contentment, compromise or possibly not viewed at all. If you aren't a Mandanian, you don't get to vote and if you are a Mandanian, you have already voted and it is time to go home and have supper. That type of symmetry is rare indeed and certainly worth a look at for two fans of the human condition.

This beauty was not lost on either the hero or myself. As Mandan technically grew larger as we entered its center, a sense of logic and balance appeared that we had been extremely ready to receive since leaving the well-constructed town of Grand Forks. The smartass comments were long packed away and we just drove through the town with a quiet appreciation of the fact that the scenes we were seeing would be seen again by the next driver and the only legitimate point of discussion was ourselves. One learns to stop kidding themselves into thinking they are discovering new vistas as the urge to marvel at the street scenes of towns just because they are new to the viewer. The other urge is to think that all the people seen and all the scenery viewed is somewhat there for the viewer's personal enjoyment. We appreciated the overall symmetry and kept the windows rolled down to better experience the town and all of its beauty. You learn after awhile that the screen continues well after you have left and it continues to play over and over again to an audience that barely notices but appreciates familiarity.

I have always appreciated camouflaged or non-direct comments because it forced me to work on the puzzle provided by the speaker to determine their intent. The motivation for taking a circuitous route to your main point can be many; you want to act smart, you want to avoid making a direct statement out of boredom, you want to address a difficult issue in pieces or a combination of all three. Why the hero just didn’t say that Mandan was on the border of absolute nowhere remains a small mystery. But in his defense, a fact presented immediately within a discussion can also suffer because too many people are afraid of challenging something irrefutable, and thus accept it for face value and decide to say nothing. Facts are tools used to get to the future topics but only dwelling on things measurable makes for poor conversation and even poorer theater. But there is no doubt that a lot of anguish would be eliminated if people would stop relying on metaphors or other methods to mask honest comments, even spacey ones and just say what they mean

It was our collective theory that the kids from Mandan run out screaming the first moment they have an opportunity. Clutching their high school diplomas and their personal electronic devices, the town would empty out each summer as these graduates finally have an honorable reason to get the hell out of the city. When we arrived, we didn't see a logjam of young men and woman running to all points out of Mandan but instead, we saw nothing of consequence. Our trip gave a watered-down but backward version of the same screaming exodus. The hero and I both took an inverse pleasure of gliding into the beating heart of Mandan commerce; not knowing what was going to happen to us but moderately sure it would be something different than our current lives were offering. We kid ourselves about our value and we spend way too much time frustratingly trying to place ourselves into the world's events. The dance of unrecognized virtue continues as we spend even more time trying to determine why things happen and how we are supposed to react. This exercise can be avoided altogether by just being happy participants that don't attract a crowd. "So, this is Mandan?" I rhetorically asked, "It looks nice." As we drove down Tyman Avenue, two scenes stuck with me.

The first was that of a man and a woman having a conversation on a porch. The man, obviously pulled from his dinner table, was busily chewing on an ear of corn while the woman was speaking. The conversation appeared normal, devoid of both shouting and arm waving, with both sides discussing something straightforward and non-controversial. The man, now finished with the corn, tossed the spent ear into an open topped truck that was parked in his lower driveway. The toss was about sixty feet, certainly no easy feat, made a perfect arc and the bald cob landed in the center of the enclosed flatbed. Their conversation didn’t wane or pause for the landing but continued with a sense of appropriateness. The topic, whatever in hell it was, certainly wasn’t worth stopping or delaying this man’s supper. And the disposing of the spent ear into the truck was the next sensible thing to do for someone who was both hungry and engaged in a discussion. As we drove by, the two seemed to be finishing their talk and the man began walking back into the house to finish his supper.

The other literary curiosity that always entertained me, are the fascinating people, who use the delayed rhetorical question and an immediate answer to set up their next comment. It's like talking to yourself and if you add those two traits together, I have wondered if a person would start talking and never stop due to slipping into a perpetual conversation vortex. A small, confined space such as a car makes it doubly annoying to have your dyadic partner read both lines of a two-person play. These people, invincible by their power to carry on conversations with themselves, will sometimes cruelly allow the other people in the conversation to actually start a response before interrupting. For the most part, they will just use a slight pause in one of their monologues to give the illusion of their interest in someone else’ input.

"Do you know what is important?" asked the abuser of the rhetorical.

"Yes, the most imp…," responds the victim.

"I’ll tell you is most important to you, it is …" says the interrupter.

"But, I think…,"says the victim, attempting to share in the discussion.

"I will tell you what you think," interrupts the interrupter again.

The second image was a few older men, appearing to be in their late seventies and early eighties, sitting in the park watching us drive by. At first blush, they appeared to be three old farmers who hadn’t left their farm in their lives. But as we passed them, I began to think that they all had likely fought in World War Two and had seen the world several times before their twenty-first birthday. As we considered our driving adventure as high drama, they had probably lost their virginity to an Italian hooker in Rome, saw their friends die on Utah Beach or Guadacanal, and had raised families while they were still babies themselves. And the idea of revisiting those mental inventories likely didn't interest them at all. I guess they don't care about shoes like city folks.

"We are a curious group," said the hero and that is all he said for an abnormally long time. As Mandan quickly continued by us, I agreed with his observation and I think I even nodded in a sincere manner. We were busy scanning the streets and we both filled the car with nothing to say. I have always resisted the idea of lamenting about things and this was the first time that I realized that my mental exercise was doing nothing constructive and it was time to concentrate on the neutral beauty of life's circumstances. Mandan had no idea of its therapeutic nature and to explain it would be a waste of time and effort for both ends of the conversation. As our car passed through town, the real audience was Mandan and they didn't seem to be applauding as we went by, but likely just endured the subtle change of their stage. The conversations that they were having had been long since discussed in Mandan before we showed up and they moved onto other things that interested them more.

As we drove, I ventured a theory that many people are always seeking something to make themselves feel better. The trip made me feel better about my fellow humans, the entire state of North Dakota and America's ability to keep the car full of gas with a minimum of effort. My companion thought my theory of betterment it was legitimate and encouraged some examples. I counted off many reminiscences and observations that initially appeared pessimistic and bitter in nature, but I felt they all showed how we go from idea to idea, getting hope from a product or a promise. The desire to seek some solution that would make bad things go away and teenage waist lines return has never has been achieved without divine high-protein intervention or aggressive plastic surgery.

One solution to conversational warfare is to change the environment and driving to some other place. A drive to Mandan cleans out your head and will leave everything better organized, well exercised and be unfortunately, thought through to within an inch of its life. Its distance enhances the process but that is only a bonus, because driving just has a way to bring out your thoughts in a more interesting way in a manner where you don't have to worry about providing scenery. The scenery in North Dakota is far too efficient and linear to give it a lot of credit but it gets points for getting one out of the house. Both the hero and I hypothesized that was about as small as one could go and were happy with the secondary house on wheels we had made. The urge to colonize smaller and smaller worlds in general was a discussion point that lasted all the way across Minnesota. Secure in our temporary second house, we headed northwest with adventure and the definite need to change our scenery, even if the scenery was a bit interchangeable.

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As we continued, we were proud in our compliance with the first law of conversation: don't be boring. The trip was successful, my mind was clear and appreciative and ready to wallow again in the world I left a few short days ago. After letting that sit for awhile, I shared a summary of my observations with the hero who concurred. He said, "Why does one say anything in the first place? It is because they want to change things they don't like, defend their actions or to justify some less-than-honorable action." I found that fascinating not because I agreed, which I basically did, I told the hero that he was right but decided not to elaborate as nothing would be gained by my apparently enlightened agreement. So I said, "Our purpose is to educate and entertain" and left it alone for a future conversation. That realization was mine to enjoy and until I was asked anything else, I felt it was time to hunker down and drive home.

The purpose of turning the car around and returning to our familiar surroundings gave us the next goal and allowed us to begin to assess the next stage of the journey. We doubled back through the town and had the rare non-Mandania opportunity to see both sides of the city, remarking that the landmarks were slightly more defined but still lacking in overall mystery. We passed the county courthouse, this time heading south and east and the hero decided to comment.

"It looks kind of same," remarked the hero, "although I do like this side better."

"I have to agree with you," I said, "but it is not exactly a multi-faceted image."

"It is still a beauty," concluded the hero, "but what it lacks in uniqueness is more than made up with charm."

"No argument here, " I said, "this place is brimming with charm."

The car kept going, we gave Mandan a final look, and headed home. Things were better than before and the drive gave us strength to keep going. Just like the folks of Mandan.

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When a situation takes time to resolve itself, it is neither good or bad, just unfinished. There are many times I realize that something is not going to conclude quickly or easily and I choose to have no opinion about the situation. When faced with the unknown and hypothetical, I have found to pull back and let the natural order of things occur. Conversations continue and every once in awhile, a legitimate and non-rhetorical question garners a sincere response from someone. The ability to pose an unending series of foolish hypothetical questions in part of the charm of travelling with another and it saves a lot of time if the author of the question isn't asked why. Men especially are suited to the inane and harmless because they just keep on going in whatever direction they were pushed out the door in the first place. There is no harm in a little entertainment especially when it isn't pre-mediated or mean-spirited. My desire was not to debate for the sake of hearing myself talk but rather to kill time in an interesting and random way while still being able to look out a car window and think about what was just around the next corner.

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