North Dakota is a state of the past. My wife grew up there and says the ’50s arrived in the ’80s. For me the state is personal history. Another wife and I relocated there from Cincinnati in 2011. We witnessed the queer sight of pump jacks bowing to the prairie we drove across that first summer. We were moving from the edge of the East to the edge of the West. In academia, we were always on the edge of something. We found the town of Dickinson in flux, a fracking boom underway in western North Dakota. The ground itself shook and belched toxic salt water; the locals were awash in strangers from Oklahoma, Idaho, West Virginia, Ohio. Once a quiet ranching town—or so we heard—The Western Edge was now the oily center, the color of money. What had it been like before? we wondered. What were we too late to see?
We hadn’t come to climb oil derricks, not to bulldoze the top soil or work sixteen-hour days and buy matching jet skis for the man-made lakes. I’d gotten a job teaching writing at the state college. In our city sedans with bumper stickers from the future, my wife and I squeezed our way through the big white trucks that churned the red dust. What I came to know as Dickinson was what the locals, raised on family farms, at Lutheran potlucks, no longer recognized. Old folks on fixed incomes were moving to Bismarck and beyond. To Minnesota. To Arizona. Escalating crime scared off families who’d loved Dickinson for its buffer from all else. Write about it, I instructed my students, some of whom were from as far away as West Africa, but most of whom grew up in western North Dakota. What? they asked. Home, I said.
In my six years there, I glimpsed that side of North Dakota too. The past. The pre-boom holdover. Through the continuing education program at my university, I met school teachers, ranchers, lawyers, handymen, insurance agents, realtors, bar owners, reporters, mechanics, farmers, even oil workers from the last, mostly forgotten boom. I got to know names like Kostelecky, Fuchs, Selle, Mrnak, Kadrmas, Sarsland, Altendorf, Jahner. Names like strange and beautiful rock formations. It struck me how each person turned up in different settings. The dentist who also played a part in the high school musical who also raised goats who also was a democrat in a sea of red. I glimpsed the layer of every town that lingers like bones under fickle fortune. In Eastern cities, I’d never seen that sustaining mesh so close up, each thread visible at this size, the whole ready to catch those who fall. I felt safe.
And feeling safe, I fell. I wanted a piece of the before, the pre-boom ideal that was past. I must have been stirred by the promise of buffered silence, waving flax fields, tongues of blue sky like I’d never seen. All around me, the center that once held wasn’t holding. The population exploded. The roads were broken, the store shelves empty. Man camps littered wheat fields. And there were all the spills. Even our school shuddered—enrollment unsteady, a scandal, an unhinged president, a suicide. The university proved neither ivory tower nor bunker.
The woman I met was much younger, had a child. I glimpsed a way toward something different, and my wife went back East.
That fall was the longest of my life. 2012. I felt the arctic cold of North Dakota when the leaves dropped and the snow piled up. My nose tingled. Everyone assumed I’d leave with the separation. No one quite knew what had happened. And when my secret relationship with the young woman didn’t work out, no one knew that part of my past. I stayed in North Dakota because it had been the plan. This job. My whole life had led to it, all those courses, a decade. I learned to be alone in a house in a subdivision on a prairie in a bustle. Me and a dog. The lights of the oil patch could be seen from space, I learned, and it gave me some comfort. I learned to search, to drive five hours and date women in Wyoming, women with children, to scour the Black Hills for purpose. Nothing worked out. I taught my courses. I switched around the furniture. I talked to myself and the dog. Then the dog died. Still I stayed.
And, perhaps by necessity, I began to need open spaces, like a place to set my mind. I drove. I wrote. I closed my eyes and found those threads, the warp and the weft. Online, I met a woman from North Dakota who was living in my home state of North Carolina. I heard the acquired Southern in her voice when we talked on the phone late into the night. It was like a call from my childhood, crushes I’d forgotten. We talked. We met. She moved back to North Dakota. Thanksgivings with her family in Jamestown became the meaning of the word, fifty people in a finished basement, pool table piled with pies and turkey and frog-eye salad, singing a prayer in front of the fireplace, then dispersing to fold-up tables. I liked to stay with her parents in quiet Kenmare, the routine of dice games and dinner at noon. This place my wife had been young, fantasizing about being kidnapped by Indians, a time in her life I would never know.
In 2017, I got a similar, better job back in North Carolina, and we moved again, this time together. Now I’m the one home, or at least in the place I grew up. Nancy has left her original state behind again. We still visit, of course, keep up with friends we made there on Facebook. Some have scattered across the West like cottonwood fluff. Others hold on. Her parents are getting older, and older. Every day I drive to work now, fifty miles through Cumberland and Robeson Counties, it’s past cotton and tobacco fields most North Dakotans have only read about. Slavery times. And I think of the wide-open interstate between Dickinson and Bismarck, hardly a car in sight, fields of purple flax and yellow canola, wheat, occasionally a falling-down barn in a coulee. Driving there, I used to think, where the hell am I? How did I end up in North Dakota? What has happened to my life? Now, I think, if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t be here. Not the same place.
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