Stop me if you’ve heard this. I’ve told this story before. You can just go about your business. Or you can read on and see if I tell it the same way as you heard it last time. The rest of you, I hope you like it.
Eleven and a half years ago, cancer claimed 54-year-old Rita Fuglie, the light of my life. I mourned as husbands do, for months, and then one day my phone rang and it was an old friend named Clay Jenkinson, calling from Reno, Nevada. Months earlier, Clay had read about Rita’s death and had done the most amazing thing. He had taken out the old portable typewriter from his high school days, the one he used when he and I worked together 30 years earlier at the Dickinson Press, and wrote me a long letter on it expressing his sadness at my loss. It had been a long time since I had received a letter typed on a typewriter, and it was very special. I still have it. Now he was calling to say that he was going to do a humanities program at the Knife River Indian Villages in North Dakota that involved camping out in the snow on a January night and he wanted me to do it with him. I had long since gone back to work after my mourning period allowed, but weekends alone in my house were hard, and he knew that. We really hadn’t spent any significant amount of time together since the fall of 1972, when he had gone off to college, and so I welcomed the opportunity not only to escape my house for the weekend but to get reacquainted with him again.
January 19, 2002 was a crisp, bright, cold winter morning when we arrived at the historic site and crunched off through the snow to the bank of the Knife River, where some Tribal Elders from the Three Affiliated Tribes told us stories of earlier days at this abandoned village, now reclaimed and interpreted by the National Park Service.
Clay had another acquaintance on that trip, a woman named Lillian, the Librarian from Dickinson State University, who claimed she was not there to collect a several thousand dollar fine for the books he had borrowed sometime in the 1970’s and had never returned, although her presence made Clay a little nervous, I think. Before the weekend was over, he promised to retrieve and return the books, and she promised that there would be no fine. Although we didn’t know each other, she, like me, was an experienced winter camper, and interested in the subject at hand, the history of the expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark, whose bicentennial we were just beginning to explore and celebrate. She had come to hear Clay tell us that story in his role as guest humanities scholar. Along with 15 or 20 other brave souls, she and I walked walked beside each other past the rebuilt Mandan Indian Earth Lodge and carried on a casual conversation about Dickinson State.
The day was filled with interesting activities, and ended at a huge campfire on the prairie, where we stood around and shivered and listened to more Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara stories, and to Clay’s stories of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who had no doubt stood on the very same ground we were now standing on nearly 200 years earlier. The day before this, I had gone over to the candy store in Mandan and bought a huge supply of chocolate, knowing that a bite of chocolate at 3 in the morning when the nighttime chill, even in spite of our thick sleeping bags, was just getting to be bothersome, would provide enough warmth to get me back to sleep. Luckily, in preparation for the Bicentennial, the candy store had been making chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil with the image of Sacajaewea on them, and I had brought enough for everyone there, so I said to the group around the fire “Well, we’re at the largest Indian Trading Post of the 18th Century, so I brought trade goods. I will trade this chocolate for whatever you have to trade with me.”
Well, everyone was bundled up in seven layers of fleece, and no one had much, but a few found trinkets, and then Lillian said “In my car, I have a topographic map of Bullion Butte I’ll give you in the morning for one of those coins now.” I was so stunned I nearly dropped all the coins into the snow.
I have climbed Bullion Butte every year since 1976. It is a magical, mystical place to me, and, in fact the last time I had spent any time with Clay was on top of Bullion Butte ten or so years earlier, when we hiked up it on a Bad Lands camping trip. You know that story if you’ve read Clay’s book Message On The Wind. He wrote about it, almost completely accurately, at some length in that book. I doubt she knew what a special place it was for me, nor I, as it turns out, for her. Looking back, I suspect that the spirits of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes that Calvin Grinnell had been talking about earlier around the fire were at work. Neither of us knows to this day why she made that offer, except that it was all she had of value, perhaps, that she didn’t need to keep warm that night. Deal. She got the chocolate. I got the map. We explored a friendship, which became a romance. She dragged me out of a deep funk and taught me how to laugh again. We spent the next two years camping, canoeing, hiking, and yes, climbing Bullion Butte. She had grown up on a ranch just southwest of Bullion Butte. You can almost see it from the top—well, you can see Pretty Butte, and her ranch is about midway between the two. She had gone there often, starting as a little girl on family picnics, and continuing as she grew older and became a North Dakota Outdoors Woman.
And on the afternoon of the Spring Equinox in 2004, we returned to that Mandan Indian Earth Lodge at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, where we had met, and got married. To this day, we celebrate our anniversary on the day of the Spring Equinox. Today. We’re not sure what that day was in 2004, and we don’t want to look it up, because we just want to celebrate on the Equinox, whenever it falls. It’s generally on the 20th of March, but it can happen late on the 19th, or early on the 21st. Doesn’t matter to us. Just tell us when the Equinox is, we’ll celebrate.
Sometimes we go to the historic site. More often we go to the Bad Lands, where we had our first “date,” at the Elkhorn Ranch, on a cold Saturday in February, and where we’ve set up winter camps in the years since. We’re going there today, to the Elkhorn, a special place for us, and a place which is more and more endangered as the forces of oil advance on its boundary.
We’ll open a bottle of wine, and we’ll toast, and we’ll thank Clay, and Calvin Grinnell and his Indian Spirits that brought us together, and we’ll say thanks for our beloved Bad Lands, and for Bullion Butte, and for our love for each other.
And that’s my story. I hope I’ve told it all right.
Happy Anniversary, Beloved Lillian.