We were young and we were already ghosts. Late at night, driving up and down the blank county roads that circled our small town, one of our favorite pastimes was breaking into the abandoned farmhouses that dotted the countryside. The eastern edge of North Dakota is flat, table-top land disturbed only by a few meandering rivers, the creeks and gulleys that feed into them, and planted tree lines, known as shelterbelts, that march up and down between the fields. At night it has the stark simplicity of a Dali dreamscape, the moon too bright, shadows too sharply etched, every brief rise in the earth, every tree and telephone pole enlarged in the darkness. If you forgot your chattering, half-drunk friends in the car and considered one for a minute, they seemed to carry an elusive significance, some strange weight that was hard to place but left you with a vague uneasiness, a sense of life too stark, too vivid, and passing too quickly.
The abandoned farmhouses were castles in this twilight, towering ruins that blotted out the stars. There were a lot of them. At the end of the 20th century, North Dakota was a place with its future solidly behind it. The state had reached its peak population, a magnificent 682,000 people, in 1930, right before the Great Depression, and it hadn’t been close since. In a 70-year span in which the population of the United States had more than doubled, the rich farmland of the eastern half of North Dakota, the arid rolling grasslands of the west, had only grown more empty, the small towns spaced every few miles that were the heart of the state’s character and identity shrinking as if the desiccating summer winds were slowly turning them to dust. In the east, the land was still farmed, but there were fewer farmers every year, and when an elderly farmer or farm couple died or finally had to leave, the land would be sold, but there was often no one who wanted the house. They stood empty and forgotten. If there had been no heirs to auction off the belongings, they were left furnished, old couches and chairs, beds, books, table clothes, odd knick-knacks, all waiting in the dark.
Waiting for us, half-drunk, small-town teenagers, tumbling out of used Chevys and Fords, boys and girls, laughing, shouting, grabbing, shoving each other, spilling cherry vodka, blackberry brandy, Pabst Blue Ribbon as we trotted, staggered, skipped, walked warily through the wild, knee-high grass toward a deserted farmhouse, which I remember as all being tall and square with evenly spaced windows that dully reflected the moonlight when they weren’t broken into brighter shards of winking glass. Half the time the doors were ajar, long ago forced, other times we pried them open, sometimes someone went through a broken window, we heard a rusty lock click, and the door scraped open into a rectangle of elusive darkness.
Haunting houses is what we called this low-grade breaking and entering. It is strange when you consider that we were so young, so full of the unfocused joy and rage of the young, that we assigned ourselves the role of ghosts. Part of it was simply that we liked to scare each other once we were inside. Half the fun was stumbling through the rooms, hiding against a shadowed wall or behind a moldering chair and scaring the living shit out of someone else. Part of it was that you could never be sure you weren’t going to seriously hurt yourself or worse: fall through a rotten floor or trip on something unseen to land on something sharp. You stumbled through the darkness on the faint edge of oblivion, one solidly stupid move away from becoming a real ghost, always a magnetic spot for teenagers.
That’s all it really was for most of my friends, I’m sure. I don’t wish to make it more. But there was also something else that hung over those nights for some of us. We were staring into a narrowing, emptying future in the only place we knew and it gave our lives a moonlit translucence we had to defy by facing it, by turning it into a drunken lark.
Out there, far away, somewhere, the world was exploding, changing, becoming something new, and we were here, in a state that felt at best static and, at worst, to be fading out of existence. Our insignificance haunted us. North Dakota is forever the forgotten place, the place Jay Gatsby was from when he was James Gatz, a nobody farm boy dreaming of being someone else. In the late ‘80s a pair of sociologists proposed turning much of the state into a “Buffalo Commons,” giving it back to the herds of bison that filled the prairie before settlement. Their argument was it was emptying out anyway, so there was no reason not to hurry it along a bit for the benefit of the creatures that had a rightful claim. A few years later, a newspaper columnist from somewhere down south made the news by claiming he did not believe North Dakota existed. He had never spoken to anyone who had been there or who knew someone who had been there. In what was clearly a sad miscalculation, the state tourist agency flew him up to prove the state was real. He got out of the plane, took a look around and proclaimed he could be anywhere. He still didn’t believe it.
Well, we were there. Some of us wanted to get the hell out. Some of us could not imagine leaving. But we were there and, driving too fast down the county roads at night, standing in front of a towering, deserted house, stepping into the interior darkness, facing the strange shadowed forms of abandoned lives, we were in defiance of our own irrelevance. I remember a night, a girl I wanted to impress, a big house still fully furnished, stumbling across floors that felt unsteady into a back room upon which ghostly sheets had been laid across all the furniture but for a single overstuffed chair that waited patiently for the dead to return. I had ventured deeper into the house than anyone, and I stood waiting in the shadows beside the chair, waiting for her and her friends to appear, so I could step out, hear them scream, let her know I had explored the darkened rooms on my own, had not been scared. Was very clearly not afraid of what waited ahead.
Instead, they wandered down the hallway with Ricky Maple shepherding them, giggling as if in a poorly-done Halloween haunted house, and when they saw me, managed only a brief burst of drunken laughter and a single, exaggerated shriek as Ricky offered me a drink of cherry vodka.
I went to and dropped out of the state’s land-grant university, spent a few years working, pretending I wasn’t still rattling around in the empty rooms of my childhood, and then left North Dakota and never came back but to visit. In the first decade of the 21st century an oil boom hit the western part of the state and it started growing again. They laid out miles of new streets in the small cities in the oil patch, tossed up acres of tract homes, planned new schools and rec centers and strip malls for the thousands of oil workers from other states who were crowded into trailers and pre-fab housing that resembled nothing so much as the metal container boxes they stack on ocean-going transports. A trip through the west sent me driving across the oil patch at night and I remember the flames from the wells, which flared off excess natural gas, lighting the darkness like ordered rows of candles that stretched all the way to the horizon.
A few years later they had almost all gone out as oil prices tumbled. The state was still wealthier than it had been, still had more people, still had some pumps pumping, still had a defiant swagger to its proclamations that its future remained as bright as ten thousand oil wells burning across the prairie like the world’s biggest birthday cake.
Then Donald Trump ran for president telling America that everything you fear might be waiting in the shadows is real, all the monsters are really there, crouching in the darkness, waiting in the next room, and you are right to be afraid, you are right to angry, your existence is as threatened and as fragile as you imagined. You are half a ghost already.
North Dakota embraced him with the ecstatic frenzy of converts at a tent show revival. Trump won the state in a landslide in 2016, received even more votes in 2020. In my old hometown, people who had never seemed to show the least interest in politics were suddenly posting Trump banners, raising Trump flags, wearing hats proclaiming the past was the future. I saw then, for the first time, that we had always been terrified, we had been standing in the abandoned house pretending we were facing our fears, but the truth was, they had always been outside. Out there. The ghost mansions of our past were where we felt safe, a world we knew even as it died around us, even as we mocked it. The world without walls was the one that scared us, the country that marched on past the small towns and uniform fields of grain whispering reassuringly in the wind toward something clamorous, chaotic, changing and unknown. The future was our real haunted house, the rooms all too brightly lit and crowded with people and things we did not know or understand, the doors and windows all tossed open and, worst of all, absolutely no place to hide.
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