Country. noun. According to Dictionary.com, “The land of one’s birth or citizenship; rural districts, including farmland, parkland, and other sparsely populated areas, as opposed to cities or towns.”
I grew up in the middle of nowhere.
This is no exaggeration.
I now live in a legit city, and I take great pride in the novelty of my upbringing. I get to claim outlandish things like that my hometown is six hours away and still in Minnesota, that my graduating class at a public school hovered around 20, and that the nearest Target was an hour away.
If you are not from the boondocks, it will probably sound weird that I miss it sometimes. Yes, even now that I have experienced the wonders of the five-minute Target run and pizza places that deliver and the view of the glittering night skyline over the 35-W bridge, I still ache for the beauty of my home country sometimes.
Let me explain.
I grew up on a gravel road, seven miles from the nearest town, a mere hamlet with fewer than 200 people. The land is flat, a prairie of sugar beet fields dotted with tree rows and grain bins. In winter, the wind whips unfazed across miles, blowing snow into thick drifted fingers. On the unsheltered east side of our yard, blizzards swirl beyond the rickety barn, the world swiped clean with white. The next morning, the sky drooping gray, white lace drapes the cottonwoods outside my bedroom window.
As soon as the crusty snow disappears from the roads, I itch to tighten my tennis shoes, call Buddy the yellow lab, and head out. Sometimes I run, headphones in, music thumping against the whisper of nature. I count the telephone poles, pushing step after step. When pickup tires rumble behind me, I pull Buddy to the side of the road, grass scratching my ankles. He strains against my hand on his collar. In late July, harvest blooming in the fields, he lopes off in search of deer, only the tip of his tail waving above the green. Sometimes I walk with my parents. We match pace and conversation, racing the mosquitoes and the sagging sun, stopping on the intersection to stretch and let my mom empty gravel from her shoes. The intersections measure distance traveled: half a mile to the corner with the little country cemetery, another mile to the tar, four miles total around the section.
In summer, threatening storms roll in from North Dakota, their clouds building as they cross the Red River. We can see them hovering over the water tower seven miles away. When the rain comes, it drips off the eaves of the porch and flattens swooping swaths in the wheat fields. The green of the fields, the trees, the grass in our yard heightens, brilliant against the smudged sky and faded barn. When the clouds drift off to the east, water gathers in muddy pools in the pockmarked driveway and swells in the coulee where Buddy will swim.
When the leaves fade to crunchy brown and trucks scatter the road with dirt droppings, my grandpa and brothers head to the fields. Their bright orange garb glows against the faded landscape, a brown palette waiting for snowfall. Before I went to college, I would join them, dozing in the tree stand and twitching at the squirrels rustling through dry forest. We watched the clearing, guns resting and ready, the light on the line of poplars in front of us softening towards evening. My grandpa would whisper stories of his childhood as we ate chocolate pudding and cheese puffs, trying to crunch quietly.
Over the first few days of spring break, my sister and I brought some college friends up to our house. We drove them through our country, past the pool where I work and the church with an under-construction addition. They may have thought we were hicks. After all, we took pride in our new-ish bowling alley and didn’t find it creepy to know who lived in every house on the drive to town. If they thought that (and were far too nice to say so), I’m okay with it. I don’t expect everyone to get the understated beauty of my home land.
I probably won’t spend the rest of my life in this same place. I honestly don’t know where I’m going to end up, whether I’ll live in a big city or foreign land or tiny town. But regardless of where I live out my days, my home will remain precious and beautiful. This is my country. It was the backdrop to my childhood. Its shape, the flattened plains and stretched trees and long straight roads, is etched in my mind. It makes my heart beat.