The engine dies and the mainline fails, but surely the heart and the soul prevail, like the wildflowers growing between the rails in the summer.
– The Resurrection by Matraca Berg (linked version by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)
Empires Weren’t Built Here. This is part 3.
It is late March, 2007. I am standing in Garrison, North Dakota, yards away from a BNSF spur, Canon to my eye, positioning a setting sun behind a freight car abandoned to graffiti artists and wildlife. I fire. I inhale. The god of Flickr captions whispers in my ear . . . Empires Weren’t Built Here.
Earlier that day, I found myself in a general store buying a newspaper with my face on the front page. Not mine, of course. My godmother’s face. But also mine. I look so much like her that I have the ability to make people suck all of the oxygen out of the room just by walking into it. Earlier that day, I attended her funeral.
This is a story that is told backwards, working backwards before moving on, the way that we carry on the family businesses and the family secrets, working backwards before ever working forwards. Like fifth generation miners, with the rail car our fathers loaded, our sons unload, pulling to the surface all things buried underneath. Though really, that’s not how they mine in North Dakota. They are strip miners. Peel everything back, expose it briefly, cover it right back up. Hope that wildflowers bloom again.
I began my life in Max. This may be the first time I have specifically identified it. In seeking out that Wikipedia link, I learned something new about my hometown of 278 – that it moved two miles at one point in its history. The mental imagery of my town, picking up and moving two miles, it makes me feel a little more connected to it. I know what it is to move. I know what it does to the soul.
Soul is what we’re talking about. Max was the incubator of my little baby soul, the first version, not the second version that Neil Peart has me nurturing. When it comes to discussing heart and soul and North Dakota, nothing comes as close to what I want to say as Kathleen Norris does in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography:
To be an American is to move on, as if we could outrun change. To attach oneself to place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it.
This is a thing that I peel the earth away from and expose occasionally, to cover immediately again, to wait for something to bloom, to hope that a coal car is moving down the tracks, filled with my angst. “This” being a conglomeration of many many things: depression, chemical dependencies, eating disorders, survivor’s guilt, betrayal, and a generic and all-encompassing suffering.
Leaning against a bar in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood on Tuesday night, a venue where my younger brother launched an album a couple of years ago, GL and I discussed the nearly-full moon. When he was a child, he wanted to be an astronaut. “I’ve got a similar story,” I said. When I was a child, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Prairie-locked, having never laid eyes on the ocean, unable to swim, and bad at math and science, I was going to be Jacques Cousteau. “I just liked looking at fish! I’d never even SEEN the ocean!” I repeated.
“But you’ve seen the ocean now,” he said. “Thanks to your parents, you’ve walked on your moon.” My parents, who gave us the moon, spent a decade deflecting the criticisms for raising us on this other planet to the south, so far away, so violent and depraved and godless.
The stillness under the stars. The sky recalls the painting I made of heaven when I was five; great blue-black swirls that I could never get dark enough.
I stand, as my grandmother once did, in the darkness by the house, the moon-shadow of a tree. Its feathery arms touch the shadow of the eaves. She was alone a lot in those early years: my grandfather traveling by horse-drawn sleigh or buckboard or Model T, making house calls in the country. “I was in good company,” she always said, “worried I got, but never lonesome.”
A jet passes over, blinking, on its way to cities in the East.
It is so cold it hurts to breathe. This is the side of the moon that no one sees.
-Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
While searching for that specific quote from the book, I stumbled across a negative book review and in the comments, I initially laughed and then immediately winced at “I was hoping it would celebrate the people in the plains.” Of course. Because if you aren’t celebrating and elevating every little detail of it, you are a condescending elitist who should head back to the city. This is the only part of my story I don’t know how to prepare for, the feedback, because I’ve been there before. This part, I know too well. I brace for it.
In 2008, my friend Whit from National Geographic sent me a copy of a story they did about North Dakota that resulted in a deluge of angry calls, letters, and emails to their offices, including one from Governor Hoeven. Rural flight is not a topic ripe for civil discussion. Despite the many positive points in National Geographic’s coverage of the state – the prosperity of the cities, the oil boom, the loveliness of the state in general – residents could not get over the perceived anti-Dakota sentiments. Because this is something I’ve learned the hard way, a million times over now, in expressing an opinion on life on the vast prairie: Saying it’s hard is the same as saying it’s wrong. Saying that not everyone is cut out for it or that there are other choices is the same as saying they’ve made the wrong choice by staying. There is no grey area in discussion. You are for or against. An informed booster or an ignorant critic. I have committed this infidelity: accidentally, intentionally, unforgivably, repeatedly.
In June of 2006, I posted a conversation that I thought was funny. It was like many of my conversations I post here: at best, light and humorous and at worst, flippant. In it, I was questioned about whether I still considered North Dakota to be my “home” and I responded no, but that there were situations where I’d consider moving back, namely “Armageddon. Nuclear winter. That sort of thing.” Inappropriate? Maybe? True? Maybe? Meant to illicit laughter and nothing more? Yes.
My godmother, the original owner of my face, my shoulders, the way I stand and carry myself, sent me an email. First, lighthearted, giving me the opportunity to correct myself, to clarify that something was misunderstood. Then upset, accusatory. I’d betrayed and insulted them all, with the simple acknowledgement that it was no longer home to me and that I’d never consider moving back. Despite having already tipped to the other side of that fulcrum, having lived in Illinois longer than I ever resided in North Dakota, redefining the word “home” was unforgivable. Aside from a quick hello to a group containing me later that summer, those were the last words she ever spoke to me.
Less than two weeks before her funeral, my father, her brother, sat on the Empire Builder, motionless, somewhere in Wisconsin, a freight train derailment ahead of them stopping all traffic for hours. I’ve thought about that delay many times, one of those mysterious quirks in a timeline that dig in and stick in my memory. He left North Dakota after only a few days, a long weekend, but the damage was done. Minor events, misunderstandings, anger. I would like to think of this as an aberration, that it was a shock that she died not speaking to either one of us. But the simple truth is that so many visits have ended with conversational deadlocks that any of us, all of us, will likely die in angry, painful silence. Some will be clutching bottles of vodka, some Bibles, some just holding on tightly to that all-encompassing suffering.
[He] explains the man walked the tracks each day for the two miles into town, did this year after year. One day he apparently did not hear the train and was killed. [He] pauses, lets the tale float almost weightlessly in the air with its whisper of suicide . . . One woman came across a death book compiled in the early decades of the 20th century. She says the records show a remarkable number of people killed by trains.
– Charles Bowden, “The Emptied Prairie”, National Geographic 2008
I pause, to let the tale float almost weightlessly in the air with its whisper of suicide. I pause, to turn up the volume on the song about resurrections, so that I don’t hear that same whisper telling me it isn’t over yet. There will be more self-destruction before the story is finished. It has begun already. We are at an impasse. It is easier to just block it out, to not think about my generation and the next, and the next.
I think of them, five, and then I look at my brother and myself, two. I wonder which. I suspect it’s me. I have heard the train behind me many times and stepped aside, been pulled aside, or haplessly fallen safely away by luck alone. It is in those moments, recognizing the engine bearing down, that I find the strength to board the train alone. Winding south and east, I move on. To attach oneself to place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it.
There will be a Part 4.