Democracy In America: The Great Plains and the Bakken Shale Oil Fields

A Pre-released section of A Train Trip Travelogue in 2019

The Great Plains

I woke up on the great plains.  Cattle grazing in green and yellow grey fields; soybean, corn, and wheat growing as far as the eye could see.  Gently rolling hills interspaced with a few scraggly trees; a lone house with a few trucks and sheds surrounded by pine trees and vegetation to break the howling winter wind. 

It was overcast, and I rose rubbing my eyes at 7 am, heading into the dining car where I met Chuck, a former locomotive engineer from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin headed to Seattle, Washington.

I started talking with Chuck, an older white guy, with blue-collar shirt, green bay packers hat, from Lake Geneva.  He was a railroad engineer on the old Milwaukee line; he had worked for Metra, his father was an engineer, and his son a conductor.  On the Chicago line it was easier, but you were under constant surveillance; they’d always worry about where you were what you were doing.

After eating I fell asleep, and again when I woke, another man had replaced him, he got on St. Cloud, MN at 12:30 at night.

A white man with a salt and pepper beard, trimmed almost like a goatee.  He sported a camouflaged puffy bomber jacket, a large backpack in the seat next to him.

His name was John.  The label on John’s shirt read Dunn construction.  He was quiet, kind of shy at first; John had been a master craftsman and woodworker for 35 years.  He remodeled two state capitols, and was now going to work at a new airport building in Williston, the heart of North Dakota’s oil boom.

As a carpenter, his specialty was ornate woodwork.  The descendants of Norwegians, one of many of the Scandinavians who began settling in Minnesota over a hundred and twenty years ago, John looked in his late 50’s or early 60’s.  He worked restoring the state capitol in Cheyenne Wyoming for the last two years, a massive complex with ornate woodwork; there were miles and miles of carved trim around windows, and wood paneling on the inside of the Rotunda dome.  “It’s over 11,000 square feet.  They spent about 1.5 million just on wood framing,” John the carpenter mentioned.

He was going to build an airport bar, using ornamental woodwork in North Dakota.   He’d worked on Missile Silos, doing steelwork; he had built bars at air force bases around here before.  “I was escorted and supervised by an armed guard.  I was doing metal work on a missile silo; I was working on the door,”  He chuckled.  Inside were intercontinental ballistic missiles.

We arrived to Minot, North Dakota.  The town is where the North Dakota State Fair takes place every year.

We were about half way through the state.  John was headed to Williston in western North Dakota, where the oil fields are; the heart of the oil industry boom in the great plains.

As we arrived in Minot, fields of grain gave way to large expansive lots of construction and earth moving equipment.  Next to a big hole in the earth gravel and dirt piled up in a pyramid four stories high.  The train chugged slowly past grain elevators and elaborate conveyors designed to load soy, wheat, and millet onto specially designed train cars.  We were in the industrial heart of North Dakota; solar panels, steel I-beams, and wood pallets were stacked along the tracks.  We passed three massive steel drums, huge vats read “Farstow Oil.”

After the massive grain and oil storage sites, one could see bleachers and a track, the seating and arena of the North Dakota state fair center.

I went downstairs use the bathroom and stretch my legs.  Four of us stood around chatting, two were waiting to get off at Minot.  One tall white guy with dread locks was a beekeeper.  There was John the woodworker, myself, and a short black guy who got on in Minneapolis, he was going to Minot to work at an air force base.  Out here there were plenty of jobs, if you didn’t mind the extreme weather; he was going to work on the construction of a water treatment plant.  The train stopped across from a truck stop, and a muddy construction site.

“If you don’t fall in a ditch four times in the winter you’re not in North Dakota,” John joked.  The snow and ice would guarantee car wrecks and surviving the bitter north prairie winter seemed a grim rite of passage for Midwesterners who left home to work exposed to the artic wind whipped snow storms.

The beekeeper worked seasonally, in the summer he was in North Dakota, in the winter he’d bring bees to Texas.  They were necessary to pollinate crops; their populations had declined dramatically; perhaps a combination of pesticides, and as many speculated, electromagnetic radiation from military and commercial radio and cellular tower wireless frequency waves.  He was a tall lanky white guy, with a calm, low key manner.  He wore a flannel shirt and sported long hair tied up in a bun at the crown of his head.  He seemed in his late 20’s or early mid-thirties.  He had this hippie vibe about him, as if at another time of his life he had ear lobes pierced adorned with round hollow washers.  Maybe he grew dreads that were pulled back under a hand-woven green hat. He worked with the bees, traveling with them, caring for their habitat.  He had arrived to transport the colony back south for the winter.

The train’s café car coffee machine was broken, so John went back to see if he could grab coffee the waft in enticing from the sleeper car behind us. 

The conductor and train attendant, a tall black man sat in the back since we got on in Chicago, his eyes were half open still.  John and him got into it;  he went to the back the sleeper car to grab coffee, then returned in a huff, he sat down next to me in a loud agitated voice presented me his grievance.  He was pushed up to the front, his coffee taken from him.  “How long have you been riding the rails, he asked?” the craftsman related.  Just then the train attendant walked past, gave me a look, and shook his head, as if to say, He’s a grown man; he should know better,“ or perhaps “Hey, don’t blame me, I’m just doing my job.”

John continued relating what happened.  “Well the café car, coffee machine was broken.  At least they give you peanut and coffee on planes, and at dining car they want you to eat,” he shook his head.

I drifted off as I turned my head to the window.  We passed eight giant cylinder oil containers painted grey and white; there were fields of sunflowers, a few barren hills covered by thick fog rolling through, obscuring the hillside.  In still water patches of grass poked out, as did an open rusted steel container.  The plains transformed to hills; trees turned yellow.  We passed a little school, past barren terrain except for the stubble of cattle grazed grass and a few bright green pines.

I couldn’t help think about the exchange between the white craftsman commuter and the black train attendant, as if in a terse words over access to a sleeper car’s coffee, over four hundred years of American racial tension and conflict over scarce resources played out, from the economic crash following Bush’s oil wars, Obama’s support of wall street bank bailout, a tepid infrastructure stimulus amidst Midwest factory closures, a healthcare reform that left many unsatisfied as Trump’s reality TV painted a new scapegoat for austerity.  Here, the federal government’s failure to fund Amtrak led to a moment of tension, a few brawled words over access to morning coffee.  But these caricatures, stereotypes are just too easy.  There are always layers to peel back, and at the end there’s just men, women, parents, and children all just trying to get by.

A moment passed, and all was forgotten; perhaps forgiven.

“In these hills above Minot, ND, you can find white moose, antelope, and deer,” John explained.  The train tracks paralleled the mouse river.  “The valley flooded in 2011, endangering the town below,” John gave me a quick guided tour and we hurtled further west.

Nestled in the crevices and curves of the hills, above that wide open plain above Minot, were what the locals called “coolies,” areas sheltered from the harsh wind and weather tucked between hills, in crevices in the terrain; groves of oak nestled in the hills with small streams and tributaries that flowed into the river below.

            We rose up from the valley through the hills, and again settled on another, now higher, flat plain.  A field of sunflowers, their green husky stalks and yellow pedals of brown, prickly grains, the meat of the nuts anchoring the flowers center; fields extending out across the distance.

One of our fellow back of the train passengers saw a coyote; he pointed excitingly, and we all turned to look; it was a skinny, emaciated wolf, its head bobbing hunched almost frightened at being seen.

One could see a few dirt roads in the country extending out and paralleling the rail tracks; a few small homes clustered together; a farm compound.  Soybean, corn, dirt roads small modest homes, sheds protected by clusters of trees in the otherwise expansive stretch of field and sky.  Pools of water checkered the moist ground; cows grazed by an artificial lake.  Bales of hay; a wet scent in muddy fields, tire tracks winding through the wayside.

Warren Buffet acquired Burlington Northern, a passenger pointed to the BNSF stamp printed on an empty boxcar waiting for the harvest’s grain.  Burlington Northern merged with Santa Fe, years ago.  They own all these rails and half of the freight in the country.  It’s guaranteed money.

We passed a small agricultural town named Meridian; a cluster of grain silos along with conveyors; clusters of RVs and homes together with metal and vinyl siding; a city hall building seemed like an open hay barn.  A big water tower, fields of corn and wheat, most of the corn still standing tall, the wheat fields cut to the base of their stalks, prickly shoots sprinkling up a few inches off the dirt; the earth’s product recently harvested.

 The terrain changed again, to rolling hills.  There were fewer homes.  We passed a lone farmhouse with a few recreational vehicles, barns, and grain containers clustered around it.

            We continued through central North Dakota.  A flock of tiny birds sat, then flew fluttering in an open field, black and brown bodies camouflaged in brown fields of wheat, hay, and prairie grass, concealed but for a flutter, where hundreds of wings sprung up together, flapping in the air to move ten feet, wave after wave they seemed to cover the whole earth.

Ponds by the side of the track were surrounded by high reeds; in some places a bit of bright green algae sitting in ditches and birds playing in the water.  The sky seemed to break between a patch of blue and clouds of a dull darkening, white, swollen with moisture, as the mist and clouds wrapped the sky up again shielding the earth.

Now we passed rolling hills of grassland and cattle huddled off in the distance.  Farmers no longer cultivated the land with sunflower and corn as much.  This was rancher country.  The train sped through bumpy hilly terrain.

One could see high voltage power lines strung across the landscape.  The tracks no longer paralleled a paved road occasionally intersecting with muddy dirt roads crisscrossing the landscape.

Two horses a brown and white one grazed in an open field.  A clump of rusted metal—a  broken down car and a piece of a discarded steel plow—a pile of red rusted farm equipment could be seen poking through high grass in an open field sloping down towards the tracks.

Two towering radio cellphone antennas and 20 to 30 brown and white spotted cows grazed in wet fields, a pool of water and a big lake shined with a clean smooth silver as the sunlight streamed through rainclouds drifting, pulled by the wind sweeping across the expanse of the great plains.

John also looked out across the North Dakota landscape across from me. “10,000 Geese,” he said.  “Canadian snow geese and flocks of pelicans land here as the migrate in the spring and fall, they say.”  He raised his hand and adjusted a baseball cap.  “From here they head north in the summer and south in the winter, migrating all together with the seasons.”

We passed a few clusters of homes, trailers siting almost submerged in the dirt, sitting across big heavy-duty pick-up trucks, a sign read Kenmare Fall Goose Fest.  A local late summer town fair.  We were to arrive in Stanley, North Dakota in ten minutes.

Rockin the Bakken

We began to see the signs as we traveled west now, oil drilling.  Fracking.  Torches and flames in the distance burned off natural gas, spots of light amidst the pristine farmland a row of oil tankers coiled around a barn and storage facility, the spur of train tracks spiking off to the right.  The black tankers following in a long-curved winding semi-circle.

A sign read, “Don’t Drill!”

“There was a massive reservoir in this part of North Dakota,” John mentioned.  “Lake Sakakawea, a fresh water artificial lake, where drinking water was piped to the various homes and small towns.”

One could see oil containers in the distance; giant yellow drums several stories high.

“The lake had a 1320-mile shoreline.  It was 180 feet deep, one of the largest fresh water reservoirs.  Sacagawea, the Indian guide, met with Lewis and Clark here in North Dakota, she was brought to them by French Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, both the captor, and husband of Sacagawea.”

We arrived in Stanley, North Dakota, a farming, oil, and military city.  A small blue water tower sat over the expanse of town and sky.

John, the woodworker, and I began talking some more.  He met a woman from Ghana, from the Gulf of Guinea by the equator.  He married her.  She looked about thirty years old.  He seemed in his late 50s or early 60s.  He was trying to get her into the US.

I traveled to grab a snack from the café car.  Two women sat, drinking beer and eating chips and peanuts, on their way to Williston.

“This area of North Dakota is a boomtown.”  One of the women explained; I thought I heard her introduce herself as Jacqueline.  “After they struck oil, it grew rapidly.  There are not enough homes for all the people.  It costs $2,600 a month for a two bedroom, 46 miles from the Canadian border.  In 2010 there was only a Walmart and two grocery stores.  Hotels cost $350 a night.  They call it Rockin’ the Bakken, for the oil boom,” Jackie laughed.  “ Rockin’ the Bakken, for Bakken shale oil field under the earth here.  People live in these RV camps.  We call them man camps, where the oil workers lived.”

Williston’s population more than doubled in the seven years from 2009 through 2015.  The bakken shale oil field is the second largest in the United States, by volume, trailing the Permian in Texas, producing over one and a half billion barrels of oil a day.

A rainbow could be seen shining in the distance.

“The DAPL (Dakota Access) pipeline is not too far from here, down by Bismarck.  I totally agree with why they don’t agree with that.”  She referred to the Native American standoff at standing rock against pipeline construction that made national news in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.  “The oil is spoiling our drinking water.  You don’t want to know how many have health problems.”

Another woman Jill had lived 35 years near Williston.  She had kidney cancer.  “The doctor thinks it’s because of the polluted ground water,” she confided to me.

One could see the natural gas burning in the distance.   “You can see it paddle fishing from the Missouri river; flames up in the air, big old fires poking up from the ground,” Jill recalled.

We passed a track wreck, the carcass of box cars and oil tankers turned over and left on the side of the tracks, pushed out of the way, to seemingly melt submerged into the ground.

“This is America honey; they came up to Williston.  In it for the money,” Jackie laughed heartily.  “My people came here in cars selling magazine subscriptions.  They were roaming from Kansas to south Dakota to North Dakota.”  She spoke reminiscing of her father.  “The oil drilling, they sink farmhouses sometimes.   The soil collapses all around from the drilling they are doing underneath.”

“By my old farmhouse,” Jill mentioned, “you can see all sorts of flames.  I don’t own the farm anymore; in 1999, my husband was pulled into a round boiler.  Raising four girls I didn’t want to bring a man in.  I managed to keep the farm for five years; then the oil boom started.  I sold the land when the oil boom hit.”

We passed a black oil train hurtling past on the opposite track.

“Look at my dog!” Jackie  scrolled through an old android smartphone.  “She’s a cross between a Wiener and a Pitbull.”

“The Weiner dog, just like what you want in your mouth!”  Jackie laughed at her traveling companion, cracking a crude joke.  “I used to party like a Rockstar!” the older woman laughed heartily, smiling at me teasingly.  “It’s good to have fun.” 

Jackie sported a bland faded tattoo of a palm tree on her shoulder and chest, her multicolored nails were painstakingly painted, turquoise and pink.

The oil cars snaked about a circular rail track in the distance by a massive container, a flame shot up amidst the bland brown and yellow earth, several oil pumps sat at intervals in a long line, rocking back and forth, pumping in perpetuity in the middle of that yellow brown field.

We passed a barren stretch of white colored earth, a bunch of junked cars and trailers in the grass, the flames of natural gas burning in the distance.  “It’s $2600 a month for one of those trailers, $1,300 outside town,” Jackie mentioned how landlords exploited the housing shortage.  “Some people get millions a month from the oil on their land.”

A group of cows grazing on in the distance.  Pumping units could be seen pricked up on the horizon.  Deer pranced in an open stretch of prairie, a pair with big fat white tails.

Horses grazed in the grassland by the tracks.  Cows sat grazing in the distance. 

Jackie is a proud grandmother.  She had 13 great grandchildren.  15 grand kids.  We passed Tioga, and its small downtown, with trailers and RVs out in the distance.  An air seeder and 50 tires stacked haphazardly on one side of the rail tracks, a gigantic combine tractor with five- and six-feet tall tires stood parked on the other side.

The graveyard of tires extended the length of a city block, a field amid amber grains, black mud,  grain awaiting to be sorted, shoveled, and stuffed into silos; they wait until the price is good then sell it.

A few horses stood eating straw amidst a neighborhood of trailers. 

John talked about his little farm back in Minnesota as we arrived close to Williston, his final stop.  A section of land, one square mile, is 640 acres, ¼ section is 160.  He owns 20 acres by the Elk River, including five acres of alfalfa.  The rest, he rents it out, sells to his neighbor with cows.  They have big bales; each can feed forty or fifty cows a day.  Let’s see, twelve bales out, 3x 36 bales of alfalfa; he was trying to calculate how many cows could be fed in the winter from his small five acres of crops.  There are deer and bear on the property.  He built his home himself in 1999 and his daughter and grandson live there.

The property borders a lot of wildlife, but he doesn’t get to see it much; he’s working traveling on the road so often.  For his job, he gets 115 dollars a day per diem. 

“Here in this oil boom town, you can rent a room for $600 a month, about $20 a day, for an apartment with a bunch of guys, 10 miles from the airport,” John calculated.  “Workers, they’ll make three or four thousand a week with overtime; $800 a week per diem pay.  People have house payments back home and they can still pay the rent here.”

Flames shot out of the ground in the distance; square plots and fields of yellow and brown.   Five bright yellow flames amidst the farmland rose up in the distance.  There were oil tankers next to a red barn.  Four big fuel and oil containers stood next to the train tracks.

“I worked for this company before out here; 250 carpenters, sixty rooms, they paired people up,” John explained.  “I was a foreman and had my own room.”

People were selling drugs; there were prostitutes.  Guys would shoot up, drink full of booze.  It was like the wild west or something. 

At first, people were living in campers and Walmart parking lots, back in 2012, 2011, 2010, all the way up to 2015.  Then it started dying out.  It was booming from 2012 to 2014, then they came back in 2016.  We did the first national bank, 29 doors.  We built this huge high school.  Before we finished it, there were empty buildings, hotels, and apartments.  So there were not enough kids; the oil boom died down.  It’s all temporary work, job security as long as the project lasts, then on to the next one; you work yourself out of a job.

I was a structural engineering before.  I built sports facilities, grade schools, an REI, schools and churches.  I worked on reservations, in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the Sauk, Fox, Squaken, and Potu—I built a courthouse and a school.

A wall of massive plumes of flames shot out up from the ground as we lumbered past.  A metal pipe shooting fire out from the earth, a metal seesaw like machine oscillating back and forth, pumping gas up from out of the earth, and a small storage facility with its own tanker, all surrounded by flimsy barb wire fence monitored by a security camera, everything automated.

“There are missile silos all around here.  They patrol them all over North Dakota.  They are patrolled by humans on the perimeter as well as aerial surveillance,” John said.

“There are two big air force bases near Cheyanne as well.”  John mentioned.   I told John how my ex had dared me to eat a 52 oz steak there when we passed through town in 2011.  I ate it all, but then puked.

Massive flames from towers every half mile to mile across the landscape of field and rolling hills.  John took off, headed to his job building a bar at the new airport in Williston North Dakota.

Williston is a town of Halliburton oil drilling parts suppliers and warehouse complexes, of discarded trash and oil tankers, oil cars, used parts, expended gear rusting in the dirt and mud.  People head here to work, make some cash, save up, and get out; their goal?  Just to save a bit more for back home.

There were big water puddles everywhere mixed with in with oil pumps and those plumes of yellow and blue flame. 

We passed a slag heap of asphalt, Burlington Northern boxcars, an oil pumping station soaked in water, then a container of liquid ammonia or some sort of fracking poison in canisters placed haphazardly by the rail tracks.  There was a scrapyard of rusted metal; a cattle pen; a red rusted fencing covered in grass next to another oil pumping station sitting in a layer of cloudy water mixed with red mud.

            We rode ny earth torn up by tire tracks, a few canisters sat around an oil pump surrounded by a chain link fence; then a yard full of pipes covered in piles.  We passed a river, muddy and swollen; a brown shining silver of water lined with trees on the opposite bank, oil pumps on the opposing hill.  Green trees changing to a bright yellow ones.  They stood erect, majestic, reaching up towards heaven.

We passed Trenton elementary, a casino, a group of five to ten deer in a soybean field, their painted thin white tails stretching out; a rough rider trailer park, small brown trailers sat on a muddy disturbed earth.

“My boyfriend caught a 91 lb. world Guinness book of world record paddle fish,” Jill explained at the sight of a river in the distance.

A few oil and gas train cars stood wrapped around on rail tracks.  A giant flame reached up burning natural gas.  Huge stacks of piping sat on a red field, by a big oil tank, a giant cylinder full of flammable liquid the length of ten black oil train container cars.

Past a truck full of scrap metal compressed in plastic burlap, as a road paralleled the train for miles, past pickup trucks covered in mud, the hills rolled up above the river valley bluffs, the land arid covered in grass, but for a bit of cultivated green irrigated by the water from the river.

Among the cattle grazing off in the distance and the plains, black cows sat grazing, chewing, swallowing up prairie grass, spitting it out to rechew the cud again.  A red rut filled dirt road sputtered out extending out into the distance.

The fields rolled on as the train rolled past, all under those endless clouds and sky.

In another small oil compound, five tankers sat within a perimeter of chain link fence along with an oil pump, a wind gauge, and a flame shooting up twisting and burning natural gas coming out of a small pipe sticking out of the ground.  Pipes were buried deep into the earth.  Oil pumps worked mechanically sitting on rocky ground swaying back and forth.  Hay rolled in bales sat haphazardly in fields of green and yellow waiting for tractors to scoop them up to feed cattle in the winter. 

The clouds meandered, floating over brown tan hills in the distance.  And so our Amtrak train rumbled on through the great plains of America.

We passed clumps of RVs, hastily constructed mobile homes.  A sign on a piece of fracking equipment read Miller Oil.  An elementary school on a hill sat in the distance.

This is Williston, North Dakota.  The boom and bust of the wild west continues as it has for the past 150 year; from gold rush, to copper mines, uranium, and oil; subdivisions and foreclosures, the bulls and bears, the growth and recession, resource extraction, environmental degradation, the mania and depression of frenzied unplanned and ill-advised investment for short term profit.  Here in the wild west, capital, technology, and hungry hands invaded then departed just as quickly, laying waste to waterways, indigenous communities, the buffalo, mountains, trees, and whole species. 

Is this America?  Her machines powered by wave after wave of immigrant labor; from Mexico, China, and eastern Europe.  From the African-American refugees fleeing sharecropping selfdom in a great migration north, replacing east European factory hands; to the Mexican and Central Americans recruited to work in great plain meatpacking plants to undercut unionized black and white workers; to those internal migrants of today, traveling by rail from the shuttered Midwest industrial towns whose factories have been silenced by outsourcing and automation, traveling west to Williston, to North Dakota and beyond, fleeing after capital long since fled, searching for a better life. Here were are on that great train of America; all aboard, chasing after jobs to survive; to win some cushion of security and comfort for ourselves and families; building the machines to replace us, machines that rape and destroy mother earth. 

We all just want to live, to give a bit back to the family at home, to cling to a slice of the American dream.


After a while we arrived in Wolf Point Montana, a flag, black white with a thin blue line, the Montana flag, the state police, and a local Indian tribe, all under the American flag, the red, white and blue.

An auto scrapyard collected rust outside of town; there were lots of bales of hay sitting in the arid open plains.  We passed an oil train on the opposite track, ninety-five tankers.  All the wheat fields had been harvested already by now.

A sign read, “Glasgow Meadow Gold Dairy.”  Another “Action for Eastern Montana,” next to another that read, “Head Start.”

The town of Milk Valley was built around a river bank, it had a small, muddy downtown.  An old western dirt road kind of village with some open lots and a community neighborhood store.

We passed Malta, Montana.  A quiet dusty farm town with a casino and truck stop.  A lone pile of tires bordering the truck sat next to a riverbank full of brown water drifting downstream swiftly.  The train thundered over an old iron bridge.

The plains extended to the sky about low clouds in clumps, the clouds cover coating the earth, but letting a few sun rays through to illuminate a marsh and lake.  We past oil, wheat, and bales of hay; its mostly plains now, quiet, peaceful, the community has poor housing stock, a shack, an old trailer, a the prairie dirt road full of water and muck and brown green mud.  A tree sits its roots burrowed into the earth next to an irrigation trench, the distant plains are naked free of trees.

Here in the distance, at the edge of outstretched sight on the horizon I thought I saw mountains, blue green, there for the first time glimmering across the earth intersecting the sky, a glimpse, a gaze of the edge of the plains, the first sign of the Rockies.  The train passed that blue green mountain range and continued through massive grey and amber wheat fields extending for miles in all directions.

Another small town, the grooves of a city block’s tire truck traffic.  Trailers lined in rows and ruffled lines.  There were no homes now, here, broken-down rusted tractors in lots.  No water, nor cattle, just wheat.  No oil, just small eastern Montana towns with trailers, shacks and muddy dirt roads.  No trees here either, no oak or maple, birch or pine, just a massive expanse of yellow tan fields, a few already harvested, cut down to a stubble of stalk.   Every few miles, the train would pass a shed and clump of farm equipment, a small town with a few grain elevators barns and homes packed around evergreens to break the frigid winter wind.  Hay piled in long pyramids three bales high.  Prairie grass and hills continued stretching into the distance.

We passed a small ghost town, on the side of a church or city hall, the words painted “Meth, Not Even Once” the words R.I.P. painted in calligraphy on a grey tombstone painted on the wooden building side; the sign of another rural ghost, a plague a specter swirling stalking rural America, besides the barren landscape clouds fell towards the surface of flat barren grassland all around, a few yellow flowers, small birds, rabbits, and coyotes, interspersed with fields of wheat stretching out as far as the eye can see.

And so we continued through central Montana, past shabby windmills dotting the horizon, fields of wheat and cattle grazing.  Air fresh and clean like I’ve never inhaled in all my life.

The plains grass transformed into a green pine and birch as the train suddenly rose into the mountains of glacial national park past the Black Hawk reservation—a cluster of trailers and small homes down in a valley out in the distance. 

I headed to the train’s dining car to eat.

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