I have been driving around North Dakota the last few days. It is something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while. North Dakota was one of three remaining states of the contiguous 48 that I had not been to (only Idaho and Rhode Island left!) and it’s only three hours away. But there isn’t much reason to go to North Dakota, I’ve found.
Last winter I heard a story that I have been working on in my head, and sometimes on paper, ever since. It is a story about a guy who delivers burial vaults and does funerals in small cemeteries all over northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, about a 150 mile radius of Grand Forks.
The Red River Valley is somewhat mythic territory. The Red River runs north and in the spring, when the ice melts and the river starts flowing up to Canada, where the ice has not melted, it tends to back up and flood. The kids get out of school to help sandbag in Grand Forks and Fargo.
They’re far enough east not to feel the effects of the booming fracking industry, which has brought wealth and destruction and a lot of degradation to not just the land but also quality of life for the people of western North Dakota. On the radio, the story is that the state has a lot of money– and why isn’t it lowering taxes and also putting the money into education and infrastructure? Especially education.
In Fargo and in Grand Forks, I saw groups of young men, college and high school age, running through the streets. They were wearing shorts and sometimes shirts, sometimes not. Cross country season is upon us, and they were running right through downtown Fargo and along the edge of the UND campus in Grand Forks. There is nothing more optimistic and encouraging than a group of young men out for a run.
Once out of the two cities, I didn’t see many people at all. I saw a lot of trucks. I saw FedEx and UPS in really far off places. I saw combines in the wheat fields and a surprising number of crop dusters. One went right over my head, very “North by Northwest.”
The wheat fields are gorgeous this time of year, and so are the sunflower fields. Otherwise it is all sugar beet and soybean fields, one after another. The crop dusters are spraying the beans so they will die and can be harvested (I know). About every ten miles, there is a grain elevator and a town of 200-400 people. About every thirty miles there is a town of 600 or more, with a gas station and grocery store and a beautiful old cinema. And at least two churches, Lutheran and Catholic.
Along the road or at the edge of each town, there is a field set aside and rimmed with trees that serves as a cemetery. Sometimes they’re gated but most of the time not. The gravestones go back to the late 19th century.
In Walhalla (pop 996 on 1 square mile of hilly land), less than 10 miles from the Canadian border, there are a few cafes, several churches and a history museum. There are two cemeteries. The first is hilly and full of trees, predominantly protestant and including the graves of the Walhalla Martyrs, missionaries killed by Indians in the 1850s. If you continue up to the top of the hill you find St. Boniface cemetery, dotted with statues of Mary and fully exposed to the sun.
While I was in the Lutheran cemetery on the edge of Fisher, ND, population 432 on 780 acres, three men in their twenties drove up with a box and a shovel. Three brothers, no doubt. They walked over in single file to one of the graves. One of them dug a hole, put the box in it, and covered it up. They stood around a bit, to formalize the moment.
When I interviewed my friend’s brother, who does the burials, I asked him about stories. He said they’re all “sad stories about young people.” Car accidents, drugs, suicides, accidental shootings. Last week a toddler on the reservation run over by her father’s car.
I suppose people will think it is morbid of me, driving around looking at cemeteries, taking photos. I am interested in communities, religion, life and death. I’m interested in ways of life coming to an end. I’m interested in America. In this particular part of the country, there are large farms, thanks to the invention of anhydrous ammonia, fertilizer, made even more profitable by hybrids and pesticides. Along the road you see the big operations: Johnson’s Farm, Narloch’s Farm. Family names, but big business. The American Crystal Sugar plant in Crookston, a truly desperate place, has signs all over looking for workers for the sugar beet harvest. The sugar plant workers were out on strike for 20 months between 2011-2013, finally signing a contract that resembled the initial ones, with fewer benefits. I can’t help but think I was there at the absolute best time of year.
I will make another trip sometime, to see the place in a different weather. I have to say, it was a great two days, even though I saw almost nothing and talked to almost no one way out in the middle of nowhere, USA.