On Borrowed Time

On the prairie, there was no roadside assistance.

When I was little, my family hiked the wilds of South Dakota without a gun or a phone. The road signs claimed “Last Chance Gas – 100 Miles,” and they meant it. We crossed the Sioux reservation, explored an abandoned copper mine, and hunted fossils and fairburn agates in the badlands and rock flats. There were rattlers and wolves in the hills, and bears and cougars too, but you didn’t worry much about them. Once you understand an animal, you can generally stay out of its way.

Our first order of business was to find a stout stick with which to alert snakes to our movements. Then we kept our eyes open and let Daddy lead the way. He ever carried a weapon, but he always had a hatchet, a plastic bag, and a handful of fencing nails. When we encountered modern trash, we generally packed it home. When we found a loose strand of barbed wire, we secured it. When a fence was down, we stacked rocks or driftwood as best we could, to hold it till the rancher came along.

We didn’t do these things for Jesus, or because of federal law. We did it to be neighborly, to make sure our weekend adventures at least left the world no worse than we found it, to ensure that somewhere, some landowner we would never meet was treated the same way we would want to be treated.

When Iron-Eyes Cody stepped into our living rooms, dressed like Geronimo, to shed tears over highway litter, we stood easy by his side. We’d crossed paths last blazed by Custer’s infantry or the fleeing Lakota people. We’d found shells grown in an ancient sea as long before the dinosaurs time as that era was before ours. It is impossible to confront history on that scale and not be awed. One cannot camp beneath the infinite black of the prairie sky and send orange sparks sputtering up into the jeweled canopy of the Milky-way without feeling connected to the whole of creation, to those tiny bands who have trod here before, and to those whose wonder is yet unrealized.

We are visitors here, all of us. We are blessed with an uncommon gift, a mind that can literally move mountains and yet find beauty in the gentlest breeze. We would do well, all of us, to remember that our time is borrowed, individually and as a race, to care for our world even we are alone, to try always to lift one another up, to look on creation and say not “Thus, it is written,” but “Hey! Look at that!”