Do you believe in omens? I do. They help you to stay out of trouble. They even help you to stay out of North Dakota.
For as long as I can remember (which at my age is a highly malleable phenomenon) I've wanted to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The problem is, it's in North Dakota, a state that is, to put it charitably, somewhat off the beaten path.
It is North Dakota's remoteness that mostly explains why I have never set foot in that Canadian border-hugging state. I say "mostly" because I have visited all of the other states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and have several times passed within 50 miles of the North Dakota border. Something -- call it fate, if you will -- has prevented me from adding North Dakota to my life list.
An incident that happened last fall got me to re-thinking this whole business of visiting North Dakota. I am, as I've told you, a guy that believes in omens. Let me tell you about it and you can judge for yourself.
On October 17, 2009, I was in Atlantic, Iowa, ensconced for the night in a decent enough motel not far from Interstate 80, the highway my hunting buddies and I were taking en route to a three-day pheasant hunt near Dimock, South Dakota. The evening was wearing on, and although it had been a long haul from Indianapolis, the previous night's stop, I wasn't quite as sleepy as I wanted to be. Before turning in, I stepped outside to walk off some of the huge dinner we had eaten at the Amana Colonies.
The air was cool and crisp and tinged with wood smoke. I reflected on how great it was to be alive on such a fine fall night, how fortunate I was to have affable traveling companions, how nice it was to be 1,095 miles from Clemson University, the college that all of us University of South Carolina sports fans love to hate.
Standing in the motel parking lot -- the space closest to the motel office, to put a finer point on it -- I turned my gaze to the night sky and searched out Orion. One of the lesser known vital facts is that those three beautifully aligned stars point to the two ends of the Rainbow Bridge. Like most people who have ever mourned the loss of a beloved pet, I want to go there when I die. And so I make a mental note of Orion's location as often as I get the chance. This night I found Orion right away, and it gave me comfort.
Now, let me make it clear that I don't pay a lot of attention to the other constellations. In fact, I can name only five and find only three. This night, something unusual happened. For no apparent reason, I found myself reciting lyrics from a ditty I had not given a thought to in over 30 years.
When the sun comes back,
And the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is waiting,
For to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.
Now, why on earth would I be repeating -- aloud in a lonely motel parking lot -- lyrics from a pre- Civil War Negro map song? I found this a bit perplexing.
Wait a minute. Could this be an omen? And if so, does it portend happiness or disaster? One has to consider such things very carefully.
This particular map song once had a profoundly important purpose. Escaped slaves bound for freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad had to make sure they were headed North when they traveled at night. Follow the Drinking Gourd provided a constant reminder of how to do that. The "drinking gourd" is the constellation you and I call the Big Dipper. It points to Polaris, the North Star. If a slave on the run followed the drinking gourd, never mind if he didn't know exactly where Polaris was, he'd be headed generally North.
Hmmmm. North. I turned my gaze to the Big Dipper and found it more beautiful than I had ever before seen it. It was so perfect that it nearly took my breath away. Suddenly, it hit me like a thunderclap. Of course! This was an omen that only a fool could fail to see. A hidden Something was telling me that fate awaited me to the North. North, as in North Dakota.
I had it all figured out within a few minutes. When we finished our hunt, the rest of the guys would head back to South Carolina, but I would rent a car and head for North Dakota. There I would eat lutefisk and fleischkuekle, see prairie earth stretching to the far horizons, and of course, visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I went to bed a happy man.
At about 1:30 in the morning there came an urgent knocking on the door. As I struggled to wakefulness, the knocking evolved into loud banging. That's got to be my hunting buddy Ernie, I thought, and this is his idea of a practical joke. He's going to tell me that the place is on fire. He wants to see me flee into the cold night air wearing nothing but my PJs. I am not amused.
My Remington 1100 was tucked under the bed, so I briefly considered putting a couple of rounds of high-base 5's through the door at about head height. I decided not to do that. There might be repercussions.
I groggily made my way to the door, yanked it open, and found Ernie standing there wearing a fake deputy sheriff's uniform. Wait a minute. That's not a fake badge on Ernie's chest, and that's not a fake Glock 17 on his hip. More importantly, that's not Ernie.
"You have to leave your room right away," said an earnest-looking deputy. "Don't waste time getting dressed. Leave NOW! Move down to the end of the hallway as far from the motel office as you can get. Wait there for instructions."
What happened next was almost surreal. All of us motel guests, about 50 in all, were gathered up, loaded on school buses, and taken to another motel. There we were assigned rooms and told to wait. We did that for several hours.
Meanwhile, back where all this started, an incredible scene unfolded. Interstate 80 was closed and nearby streets were barricaded. The gathering at the vacated motel soon included fire engines and ambulances, what must have been every law enforcement vehicle in Cass County, and great phalanxes of troopers and deputies. Also present was a bomb squad from Des Moines with a remote control robot thingie and some other paraphernalia. I think they had an explosives-sniffing dog, too.
It seems that an oddly-behaving young man had shown up at the motel office in the dead of the night and then worked himself into a frenzy when he couldn't get a room. With his dander up, this whacko announced that he had a bomb in his car and intended to blow up the building and kill himself, the clerk, and every man, woman, child, and pheasant hunter on the premises. Just to be on the safe side, the clerk called the cops, who were genuinely delighted that they would finally get an opportunity to use their obscenely expensive Homeland Security-financed training and equipment.
Rumor has it that the EOD guys handcuffed the nut job to his car while they searched it for explosives, but I rather doubt it. No bomb was found, of course.
After the all-clear was sounded, we were transported back to the motel so we could shower, dress, pack up, and leave. As I left the bus and trudged across the parking lot toward the room from which I had been so rudely rousted, I stopped to examine the perp's car, a Lexus with two bikes perched atop it. It suddenly dawned on me that the car was parked in precisely the place where I had received the Drinking Gourd Omen.
All became clear. The Drinking Gourd Omen wasn't a harbinger of good things to come from a trip to the North. It was a warning to stay the hell out of North Dakota until further notice. And so I have.
Postscript: If you want more details, read this Iowa Radio News Network article about the bomb scare. Be sure to scroll down to the part where the reporter reveals that the nut job was a Clemson student. It seems that 1,095 miles was not enough.