I was looking for the prairie

TRYING to ignore the two-gallon jars of floating turkey gizzards and pork hocks on the counter, I finished my breakfast and headed for the car. Itasca, Minn., home of the Mississippi headwaters and embalmed delicacies, is also the gateway to the Northern tall-grass prairie. The maps say it begins about 1,000 miles in from the Atlantic coast. I was driving west over the state line into North Dakota, looking for the legendary vacancy, first stop I didn't know. By the next time I was hungry, I hoped to be in Grand Forks. On Winnipeg radio the DJ was conducting a man-in-the-street book review. ``Hello, what are you reading? How would you rate it from 1 to 10?'' I switched it off. Save for the misplaced screech of migrating sea gulls, the land offered quiet all around. I let myself listen to so little interference. Here it did not hum or groan or croak or buzz. It didn't flinch under the weight of too many people or cows.

Every few hundred acres or so, a farm and its company of barns and silos and equipment appeared to have sprung up like the rock crops frost heave produces. The winter shuffles the earth's layers and discards boulders for the farmers to glean and pile like shrines to a glacial history. You see them six or 10 to a fenced field, huge piles of rocks that man and machine have muscled into uninterpretable humps. The buildings seemed no less random in their placement.

Part of what the people who have chosen to live here must like, I began to think, is the distinct lines of roads, mile-long driveways, fences, striped growth. The pattern is orderly, private, the man-made an elaboration of the setting. There is an adamance about such geometry -- as though the solution to plainness were mathematically solvable. Square mile after square mile you see, and straight lines. From point to point with no apparent deviation, no swerve, no accidents, but for a seed or two scattered over the lines by a bird: an Anderson sunflower in the Nelson corn.

But what about matters of the heart? I wondered. Where do the teen-agers hang out?

Just then I drove into the town of Winger, population 200. A roughly painted sign said, 1:00 LIVESTOCK AUCTION. My watch read 1:10, so I pulled over into the muddy lot where every pickup from seven towns around signaled action. A few paunchy men looked halfway at me and were quick to find me harmless. Good judges of character, I suspected.

On the other side of the loose-hinged screened door, farm people crowded a room that served as snack bar and lobby to the auction stands. Tables held empty grape and orange soda cans, fried potatoes in red and white gingham cardboard. No down-home cooking. I slipped through a back door into the auction room -- a large barnish arena with a horseshoe-shaped pit and box bleachers surrounding three sides. Immediately I was soaked with the smell of fresh life.

I climbed to the top row and sat down in the watchers' section as the man beside me scooted over to make extra room. He wore what's called a feed cap, the kind with the brim and plastic-mesh adjustable back, one of the area's two preferred styles, the other being a cowboy hat. Every man in the room wore one or the other, and I wondered how they chose which team was theirs. Sons seemed to adhere to their fathers' styles, in gear and reticence. Daughters sat beside them looking straight ahead -- eye-shadowed, hair in its prearranged place, waiting for something? Did they wish for fancy boots or kisses, or were they happy, quiet like that?

In the feed-strewn pen, three sheep and a goat sold for $11.50 each. A fawnish brown and white calf from the Gustavson farm was ushered in with a whip onto stage right. The farm was good, evidently; the animal beautiful. Two ringleaders set a high opening price and the mile-a-minute auctioneer was off. ``Put it at a 55. Dollar bill a 55. Who'll make it 56 a 56 a five six and yup, I have a 57 up it 58 and up it once again . . . sold.'' The calf wobbled off stage left.

The farmers here rationed even their nods. Only if I could have turned my head in several directions at once, would I have caught a chin lifting, an eyebrow raised. The bidding, conducted openly, was nevertheless a private affair, who went home with whose cows being something of a secret. In answer to my questions, the man who had made room for me preserved the mystery. ``Yup, mostly,'' or with an incredulous look -- at what, my audacity? ``Why that was per head, the other per pound.''

Mine was the only audible blurt of sentimentality when six foot-long piglets scampered into the ring and, close as toes, huddled to one corner. The whip came down and they were across the floor to the other side.

How they stayed on their feet dazzled me. How much grain to plump them, figured the man who bought the whole lot.

The animals were mute. They munched grain and were moved on through.

Back out in the daylight, I drove on, following the railroad tracks that led to the next town's grain elevator. In the rearview mirror the last town's only landmark visible from any distance appeared to have been built the same way, tall straight sides large enough to handle that town's yield. From time to time I could see the distance of three communities, across a space no less contained in feeling than a sea.

So then the lines are clues, I thought, to places where we belong. They are little marks we drive along which keep us from another sort of endlessness. I had not expected so much from the prairie: a quiet drive, a people certain of their bids, at the horizon, still this side of Grand Forks, the suggestion that some things go on forever.

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