Authors: Roland Merullo
“I think you're flipping out a little, Dad. Rinpoche will know what to do. Enjoy the trip. Love you.”
Walking back to the car I kept a grim little smile on my lips. I got in, started it up, pulled back onto the highway. It had always been Dad who would know what to do, at least in the early years. Now Dad was flipping out. Rinpoche had traded seats with Celia and kept his hat on. The Chinese, I was thinking. Murderers of a million Tibetans, torturers of monks and nuns. The people of Tiananmen Square, five hundred executions a year, supporters of the North Koreans, who kept their political prisoners in cages and worked them to death Ã la Hitler. The Chinese, against six-seven Warren with his pellet gun and nighttime security system and my daughter with her three-week women's self-defense course from senior year in high school. I glanced at my sister in the mirror. I looked sideways at the Lone Rinpoche. From even before Shelsa's birth they'd been telling me what a special child she was and what a special role I was supposed to play in her spiritually illustrious future. A godfather of the first order.
I'd never truly believed it. Not in my depths. And at that moment, gliding south on 85 past a billboard that advertised
QUALITY SHOPPING IN FRIENDLY BOWMAN, ND,
I wanted nothing so badly as I wanted my niece to be a perfectly ordinary seven-year-old, as unremarkable as the flattening dry landscape, as safe as the North Dakota of my youth, as unthreatening to the Chinese haters as a wildflower in a field. I wanted only that.
From behind me she said, “Did you give Tasha love from me, Uncle Ott?”
“How did you know it was Tasha?”
“I had a dream she was going to call.”
“When? Last night? You were home with her last night.”
“A daytime dream,” she said happily. “In the store. When I was holding the Jesus beads.”
All through the barren wasteland, the moonscape, the dry nothingness that is southwestern North Dakota and northwestern South Dakota, I thought about Natasha's call. Probably she'd be fine. Most likely the guy in the Kroger parking lot was harmless, a wannabe cop, a martial arts expert looking for some spiritual counseling from the famous Volya Rinpoche. Maybe he wasn't even Chinese. Probably the visit had nothing to do with Shelsa at all. Still, the tinted windows, the gun, the fact that he'd connected her with Rinpoche. . . . I didn't like it much.
As I droveâBowman, the state line, an eighty-mile stretch of grazing land unsuited for the growing of human foodâI kept a piece of my attention on the cowboy beside me. There he sat, still, happy, unruffled, while swarms of worries, fears, regrets, and hopes buzzed my brain, hornets in a jar. He wasn't aloof, never uncaring, hardly naive; it was just that he'd somehow learned to use his mental energies in a way that was fundamentally different from the way I used mine. In the midst of a violent, speed-obsessed world, peopled with lunatics, how did one become that kind of human being? Focused, undistracted, not battered this way and that by dark wisps of paranoia?
I would have asked him that question except for the fact that he'd been answering it for eight years now, since the first hour we met. He'd sent me booksâhis own and others. He'd given me meditation instructions, jokingly and sometimes not so jokingly pointed out my flaws and follies, turned my attention to the heretofore ignored interior universe of my mind. The story was that Volya Rinpoche belonged to a line of spiritual teachersâ
was the word some people usedâmen, and in his open-minded lineage, some women, reincarnated enlightened ones who volunteered to be reborn into this hothouse of pain and death for the benefit of humanity. I'd been fortunate enough to have him come into my life. . . . And what had I done with that good fortune?
What I had done, I realized, was give up. I had my reasons. You don't lose a spouse, a job, a beloved dog, have your kids leave home, and not entertain thoughts of surrender. The pain was very real. But on some buried level of my consciousness I knew that giving up solved nothing. I had been wallowing in self-pity, and self-pity always feeds its hosts a diet of sour syrup then leaves them hungry and bitter.
And yetâisn't this how the mind works?âeven knowing all that, even realizing, in some abstract, intellectual way, what a stroke of good fortune it was for me to have Rinpoche in my life, even feeling the interior change he'd begun to effect in me, there was a stubborn little part that resisted, that holed up in its cold cavern, hugging itself and muttering complaints. This part of me had its own distinctive voice; I could, at moments, hear it clearly.
Rinpoche burped, smiled, gazed out at the bleak landscape, which was dry and nut-brown and spotted here and there with scrub brush and sage.
“Papi, say âexcuse me,' ” came the gentle order from the back seat.
“ 'Scuse me.”
I wanted to tell him about the Chinese visitor, and I would, of course I would. But I didn't want to be mocked for worrying needlessly. So I worried, needlessly, that I'd be mocked.
Well beyond Big Nasty Creek, beyond Custer National Forest, and Buffalo, South Dakota, beyond Redig and Castle Rock Butte I saw a sign that read,
CENTER OF THE NATION,
and, without really knowing what it meant, I made a sharp right turn onto a gravel road. From my very first driving trip with Rinpoche I'd taken onto my shoulders the responsibility for educating him about America. I don't have any idea why I felt such a need. He'd never asked me to do that; Seese had never asked me. This education wasn't exactly the kind of thing a Ph.D. advisor would approve: I'd taken him to a Hershey's factory to see how the Kisses were made, to a Chicago Cubs game; I'd shown him the Coulee Dam and Yellowstone, the burnt-out iron cities of Ohio, and the elegant farms of Amish country; let him listen to talk radio for a few minutes at a time, occasionally dipped into politics and history. He seemed interested, sometimes fascinated. Maybe it was just that, since he was giving me so much in the way of spiritual teaching, I felt I owed him something in return. And America was a subject I knew. Raised on a high-plains farm, seasoned in Manhattan, denizen of the well-off suburbs, I'd seen a good part of the American spectrum, and I paid attention to the rest. I cared about my country, maybe more than I should have. I followed the newsâon my computer, on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines. When the national mood turned sharply in some new and bizarre direction, when our leaders failed us, I took it personally. I wept when the kids were killed in Connecticut; I laughed when
Saturday Night Live
mimicked Bush, Obama, or Schwarzenegger. I cringed at Katrina. Cheered for the Yanks. It would be foolish to say I was a perfect representative of an American citizenâI was a white, upper-middle-class man, educated, financially secureâbut, at the same time, I took a back seat to no one in my American-ness, my pride in history's greatest experiment in democracy, my shame at its failings.
So when I saw the sign for
CENTER OF THE NATION
on the side of Route 85, there was no chance of
checking it out.
“What's here?” Seese asked from the back seat.
“Dirt,” Shelsa said, and we laughed.
Down the long gravel road we went, empty grazing land right and left. Ten minutes of it and we saw the Stars and Stripes flapping on the other side of a barbed wire fence, a pile of stones there, a two-car turnout, a smaller sign. I parked and we all got out. Happy to be free, Shelsa trotted up the road in the sunlight, black hair bouncing. “I think,” I said, “this must be the point that marks the geographical center of the United States if you include Hawaii and Alaska. It's too far north and west to be anything else.”
We looked across the fence at the pile of rocks. You couldn't walk up to the actual Center of the Nation because, apparently, this was private property and the owners didn't want just anybody treading on a small piece of their ten-thousand-acre, next-to-useless land. After all, what if someone tripped, broke a finger, filed suit? What if, thanks to some weird clause in the law, letting a few dozen tourists a year walk to the actual spot ended up leading to the de facto loss of a few hundred square feet of property? What if, years down the road, some Hollywood type wanted to make a movie here, and would pay for the privilege, and the owners had forfeited that right?
That, tooâlawsuit mania, selfishness, obsession with propertyâwas America, though I decided not to explain it to my companion.
“This place has a very spiritual feeling,” my sister said, and I agreed. Once you got off the highway you felt some kind of good spirit breathing there, in the stillness, the quiet, the space. Time seemed to shimmer rather than move. It seemed reflected in the small breeze, just a breath really, that touched the tops of the alfalfa plants. You felt presence rather than movement; you wanted to
I imagined myself making a three-day retreat in an isolated cabin here, if such a place existed.
Shelsa trotted up and leapt into my arms. I hugged her close and swung her in a circle, the smiling faces of her mother and father passing in and out of view like planets, like moons. I thought:
This is the center of your nation, of your world. Hold this moment. Appreciate this.
And I did.
WE STOPPED FOR LUNCH
at a lonely, general store/cafÃ© outpost, run by a couple who were trying to sell it. Fox News was on their TV and so everything was bad thereâa dip in consumer confidence after a six-year high. The stock market going down after a long rise. The NSA listening in on phone calls. Egypt and Syria exploding. I sat with my back turned to the television and ate my turkey and onion sandwich and shared a bottle of chocolate milk with my niece. There were times of late, many times in fact, when I wanted to tune out all the newsâFox and otherwiseâand focus on the little slice of life over which I had some small influence. I worried that with our demonizing, our penchant for conflict, our knee-jerk angers, we were moving too close to 1920s Germany, too many of us marching under a righteous banner, too much hatred for each other, too much divisiveness, a craziness loosed upon our world. I looked at Shelsa. I remembered what Seese had said about her. I wondered what it would take to save us.
We decided not to make an offer on the middle-of-nowhere grocery/deli. We went on through the humble city of Belle Fourche, past darkly forested hills,
games in the back seat, the road winding and climbing to almost five thousand feet, a brief temptation to visit Mount Rushmore, and then, at four p.m., after a quick descent, we pulled into Deadwood.
Deadwood, South Dakota, turnaround point for my sister and Shels, is a National Historical Landmark and bills itself as an authentic Wild West townâcomplete with casino gambling. We found the hotel my sister had chosenâthe Silverado-Franklinâwithout trouble. Four floors, brick front, sloping concrete patio with wood columns holding up a low roof, it looked to be something right out of gold rush days, which, in fact, it was. Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft had stayed there, then Babe Ruth, John L. Sullivan, John Wayne. In 1929 the hotel went bust, along with the rest of the country, and then, in an ironic twist (wasn't it gambling, of a sort, that had made the country go bust?), when South Dakota legalized gambling in 1989, the Silverado-Franklin was reborn.
We had barely made it through the front doorâheld open by a friendly doormanâwhen we were greeted by the clanging bells and neon of a bank of slot machines. Here was the check-in desk, and there, a few paces beyond it, a circus of noise, light, and dreams of easy money.
“Wery good place, Otto!” Rinpoche said as we stood at the desk, signing in. I felt a splash of guilt. It was one thing to show him America, something else entirely to corrupt him with its vices.
Celia was smirking, Shelsa leaning into the protection of her mother's hip. I was recalling a moment from the first road trip Rinpoche and I had made, eight years earlier, New Jersey to North Dakota. Somewhere in Minnesota, on Indian land not far from the headwaters of the Mississippi, thinking I'd show my traveling companion another intriguing facet of Americana, I'd taken him into a casino. It was a sad place, really, just sixty or so chrome-and-glass machines with a dozen old folks spinning the reels in desultory hypnosis. Rinpoche had had the bad fortune of winning on his first spin and was instantly hooked. The clank of coins in the tray, the celebratory bells and sirensâ
Free money, Otto!
He kept playing, kept winning, kept ignoring my pleas to quit while he was ahead. I'd ended up having to physically remove him from the premises, and I never knew for certain if it had all been an act, or if the allure of money-for-nothing was too much even for a great spiritual master like him.
“Can we play?” he asked excitedly in the Silverado lobby.
“I tell you what. Come with me to park the car. Seese and Shels can follow the bellman up to the room and settle in, and you and I can gamble away a few bucks before dinner. Good?”
“Good, good,” he said, clapping me on the back forcefully enough to make the cowboy hat tilt sideways on his head. He touched my sister's handâso tenderlyâplanted the Stetson on Shelsa, and out we went to bring the SUV around back.
In the hotel lot I told him what Natasha had told meâthe Chinese guy, the car, the gun.
“What means?” he asked.
“I ask what means this
“Tinted. Darkened. Windows made so you can't see through them.”
“So you can't tell who's inside. It's a style favored by criminals, the ultra rich, hip-hop artists, and politicians.”
“Oh,” he said.
is right. Somebody's looking for you.”
“Lot a people looking for Rinpoche.”
“Somebody with tinted windows and a gun is looking for you. Or maybe for Shelsa. Somebody Chinese, it seems.”
He turned his eyes forward, away from me, spent a moment pondering, then nodded.
I'd been worried he'd laugh at me, but now that he wasn't laughing, the worry bubble swelled in another direction. “Did you have some trouble at the Center?”
“Little bit trouble.”
He shrugged. “Few bad phone calls. Some people they painted words on the last retreat cabin one time.”
“The one I stayed in?”
“What kind of words?”
KILL THE MUSLIMS.
“Small people in their minds,” he said. “Maybe the drug people.”
Or maybe, I thought, one of the Aryan Nations nutcases who wanted to start a “community” in the town of Leith, North Dakota. I'd heard the main man interviewed on the radio. All I could rememberâthis was more than enoughâwas his comment about wanting to raise a flag with “a discreet swastika” on it. If there is a more perfect oxymoron I'd like to hear it.