Autumn in South Dakota is beautiful because it is precarious: summer is beastly hot and winter is brutally cold. Just between is a thin ledge that we and this year’s weather walk. I heard that three years ago, summer ended with a blizzard that killed whole herds of cattle; frosted, frozen and toppled green-leaved trees.
Not this year, we hoped; we headed to the hills.
Fly rods, reels, climbing shoes on carabiners and hammock-ready books tossed out into the gravel parking lot, we ate lunch out of the back of the car: cold chili, saltines and last weekend’s potatoes. Breezes rustled the sunlit, yellow-gold leaves; the colors of the tall white birch popped among the evergreens. I couldn’t imagine what could possibly ruin such a day. Leftovers never tasted so good until they were gone and we went three ways to climb rocks, catch trout and read books.
And we did all three, but I mostly fell off rocks.
No cares, no service, no rally point and no meeting time, we somehow found one another again with fish stories, blisters and chapters to show for it. Halfway through it, we’d already agreed: this was the perfect day. Sore, wet, smelly or well-read, we all shared happy in common, the special kind you get from an afternoon with no internet, good people, and fresh air. Nothing could stop us now.
But because of blissfully poor planning, we were running late for Oktoberfest the next town up, so we drove north.
Lederhosen, down vests, and knit caps tossed out into the packed parking lot, we ate dinner out of the back of the car – more cold chili, crackers and a smashed PB&J we forgot about. The sun dove behind one of the mountain town’s two framing cliffs as we pulled into town, so we tore the car apart for our warm clothes. The city was a far cry from the forest’s open lots, so we tore the car apart to somehow pay for parking, still ending up two minutes short. While John put on his lederhosen, I put on my city clothes, tremendous delight in pulling on a crisp clean white v-neck tee, a sweater and knit cap over my re-tied mess of hair, my watch, wallet and ring back on over throbbing fingers, one by one, next the… wait-
I lost it. Where is it?
I tore open every bag I brought, emptying and re-emptying, pausing and re-re-emptying. I lost it. Where is it? My gut dropped. I felt the cold. I felt the fatigue, the raw blisters hurting and dirtcakes drying between my toes and on my neck. I lost it. Where is it?
“Garrett – Garrett? What’s up?”
Just a couple of minutes… I lost it. Where is it?
The perfect day tottered all of a sudden on make-or-break until some silly idea broke into my cluttered head, from some sane and simple and graceful place: It’s not that big of a deal. But then, I lost it. Where is it? Then again, It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not that big of a deal. Some dozens of mantras later, I realized that maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal, but some mental magnetism sure as steel still thought it was. Caught between a voice of sabotage and a voice of sanity, I needed an out, any out, grasping for anything, for the first thing I heard, desperately reemerging from my submerged searching state-
“…no, the thing is that you have to eat all six saltines in one minute, no water, it’s way harder than you’d think…”
“No way, it can’t be that hard – hey, get that phone, time me…”
“Well if you’re going to do it, I’m going to do it, too…”
“Okay, then get six and then gimme six…”
Me, too! and I got in just in time, finishing all six as the timer hit 0:46:23 and autumn clicked back into place, silhouettes of mountains above brick buildings, dry-mouthed friends laughing out crumbs of remaining saltines, accusing me of cheating while cold stars popped through a black sky, Oktoberfest to be had and October to be welcomed, hopefully for a few more weeks of fall. Hopefully, but at least we had today. We slept very well that night, one Oktoberfest later.
And yes, I did lose it. But I found it the next weekend back at the same place. And between, I just made another.
I’d like to think that the perfect days are immune even to my left-field anxieties, my petty attachments and perpetual distractedness, but I guess not. I’d also like to think that when these take over, a moment of prayer can become a moment of clarity and save the day, but I guess not. Sometimes just a distraction from a distraction will have to do… especially when the perfect day is on the line … especially when it’s with friends and very especially when I win big – after all, the last time I tried the saltine challenge, I lost so bad I got sick.
Maybe there was grace in it, after all: someone packed too many saltines.