I have been a frequent visitor to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. I love the shallow canyon, the steep curtains of sandy soil constantly sculpted by wind and water and topped by volcanic gravel, the howl of the coyotes at nightfall.
Everything there is a testament to the impermanence of worldly things. Every time I set up my tent, I notice that the landscape is subtly deceptive. It looks the same, overall. Yet all the details, every ripple in the crumbling sand, are constantly subject to revision.
To get to the North Unit, turn right off Interstate 95 a few miles west of Dickinson and drive north on Highway 85. Along the way you will pass a church. It is a striking and unexpected landmark. Each time I passed it I thought that I should stop sometime. On my last trip, my son and I did so as we returned from some back country camping.
It was raining softly as we left our car. A gray placard fixed to yellow bricks identified the church. It reads, "St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church, 1906-2006, a century of everlasting faith." A second placard reads, "We the descendants of the pioneers who settled on these prairies welcome all to give glory to God in this temple."
We did not enter the church, but it is quite lovely from the outside. Just past the building was a shrine, shaped like a church window. It is fashioned from rough-cut stones, in imitation of a grotto. The Virgin Mary is sheltered in the grotto, with a crucifix around her neck. There were flowers arranged around her, and two benches were available for the pious to kneel upon.
There is a lot to chew on here. Human history is like a chessboard and sometimes pieces get moved a long way along the diagonal. The Ukrainian Catholic Church seems to have floated all the way across the Atlantic to land in the middle of a continent that St. Demetrius didn't know existed. Whether the church still holds services I do not know, but it held my attention.
The St. Demetrius Church is a very beautiful thing. It is a tangible document of two of the most interesting things about human beings: our urge to turn toward what is higher than ourselves and our urge to carry our history with us wherever we go. Whatever you believe about the origins of this world, you have to admire both of these passions if you think that humanity is at all worthy of admiration.
I admire that small church as I admire the Little Missouri River as it winds through the North Unit of the Teddy Roosevelt Park. If the movement of the faithful to North Dakota is a testament to everlasting faith, so is the slow movement of water carving out canyons. Everything in this world is impermanent. This is true of mountains as it is of all human institutions. There is wisdom in brown water.
Kenneth C. Blanchard Jr. is a professor of political science at Northern State University. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views presented are his and do not represent Northern State University.