The Bean and I are rumbling down the road, the tires jumping at each jutting chunk of loose gravel and deep rut. To our east, a knot of black cows stands munching a swath of hay laid out on the snow. To the west there is nothing but grass, and ahead, to the south, is a loose tangle of canyons, on the edge of which sits a small trailer house. The Bean and I pull up to the house, the barn wood siding and red roof shimmering like a cozy mirage against the slate gray sky. I bundle the baby in his soft blue blanket, and hustle us both through the wind, my boots crunching as we go. Our friend and one of her small sons greets us at the front door, ushering us in from the cold. Today we are neighboring.
Every region has its own unique dialect -- words and phrases that evolve to describe the particulars of that place. Western South Dakota is no different. A word usage that I had never heard before moving here, but have grown to love, is the verb form of neighbor. I first heard it from an older friend one morning over coffee. "We did a lot of neighboring back in those days," she said, cutting into the pan of bars she'd just pulled out of the oven. As a former English teacher, my ears perked up. What a great word! I felt I knew exactly what she meant, even though I'd never heard the word used that way before. Instantly "neighboring" became associated in my mind with having baked goods at the ready, in case someone stopped over for a chat -- the door open, the hearth warm and inviting.
Over the last few years my understanding of "neighboring" has deepened as I've become more a part of this place. Referring to its most basic usage, "to neighbor" someone can mean simply that they are your neighbor, as in, your ranch borders theirs, and that you regularly swap work for seasonal events like branding. Money is rarely exchanged for this type of labor, because everyone knows the favor will be returned when the time comes. But, as a good friend explained, "In the spirit or heart sense, [neighboring means] offering a helping hand with anything they need, be it physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, practical, etc." Or, according to another friend, it can simply mean "stopping over for a cup of coffee for no other reason than just to visit." Which is what the Bean and I are up to today.
Perhaps the art of "neighboring" is the reason I have never felt lonely in this place, which, depending on the criteria you consider, is one of the most remote in the contiguous United States. Living and working in cities, it was easy to be anonymous. The same people frequent the same coffee shops every day at the same time, and yet, they will probably never speak. Contrast that with my experience here -- the first time I walked in to the grocery store in our small town, people greeted me by name. They'd never seen me before, but I guess I fit a description they'd heard, and, really, who else could I be?
By now I've been the recipient of some wonderful neighboring. For example, when I was single and living alone, I left a message on a friend's voicemail to ask if she knew anyone who might be able to help me with a simple carpentry project. It was time sensitive, and she must have heard the anxiety in my voice. I came home that afternoon from work to find her son and son-in-law with their tools strewn across the front porch, the job nearly complete. I tried to pay them, but they wouldn't accept a cent. Thankfully, I happened to have baked goods on hand to send with them. And the knowledge that though I couldn't repay them in kind, someday if they needed help, it would be my turn to lend a hand.
Another form of "neighboring" that took this city girl some getting used to, was never locking doors. Not on your house, not on your garage, not on your car. In fact, most folks leave their keys in the ignition. "In case someone needs to borrow it," I've heard more than once. I don't think I need to tell you that wouldn't fly in a city -- unless you didn't mind not getting your vehicle back.
The same is true with unlocked doors. "Oh, just go in and grab what you need if we aren't home!" people will often say. Where I come from, you don't go to people's homes uninvited, and you certainly don't walk inside if they aren't home and take things. Of course, most city dwellers don't really need to walk into people's homes uninvited. Car troubles? Call the tow truck. Need tylenol for the baby's fever? That's why all-night drugstores were invented. Getting that mid-winter cabin-fever-feeling? Make a lunch date at a local cafe.
But here, those things aren't so simple. It is hard to describe to people who have never seen it themselves, the scale of our community's isolation. When I say our town is small -- less than 400 people live in it -- I could be describing a lot of places in America. The next closest town is equally small, and so is the next, and the next. Again, that is not necessarily unusual in a rural area. What is unusual, however, is that if you drive the 40 or so miles that separate these small towns, you will see a few houses, and you will certainly see cattle, but you might not see another person the whole way. And you won't have cell service for much of the drive either. If your car breaks down, it is quite possible you will need to go into someone's house to use the phone -- and if they aren't home, you will have to walk in uninvited. You really don't have another option.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and I'd say that's true of the other kinds of neighboring as well. Limited forms of entertainment make a friendly visit to a neighbor's ranch a highlight of any given week. A morning spent chatting over coffee, or an afternoon working over the branding fire are some of the bright threads in the fabric of our daily lives. Neighbors get to know each other over generations, as they watch each other's children grow, and eventually have children of their own. Like the beautiful patchwork quilts that were a staple in every homestead, the neighborly exchanges of goods and services, kindnesses and comfort, join us together.
Back at my friend's house, I unwrap the baby from his winter layers, while she makes us tea. We sit with our boys on the floor, chatting as they play, marveling at how much they have already grown, dreaming about the years ahead. Another vehicle pulls up outside. It is my friend's mother-in-law, dropping off my friend's older son, who was visiting Nanny and Poppa for the morning. Forty years ago, this same woman was pulling up to a different trailer house not very far away, taking her own small son, bundled for winter, out for a little neighboring. The friend who came to greet her at the door, is now my mother-in-law, and the little boy she held in her arms, my husband. Forty years later, a good neighbor is as valuable as ever. I hug my son to my chest, reminded again how lucky we are to be patches in this beautiful quilt. A quilt that warms us, even in the deepest winter.