Welcome to the final extract from Toad’s Road-Kill Café. There were a lot of joyous moments on this trip; there were a lot of people who were doing well in a tough environment. But there were many places I passed through where people, where the towns themselves, seemed on the point of complete failure. The history of the Great Plains, you could say, is of hurried settlement in the nineteenth century, and steady depopulation in the twentieth. At Arena, North Dakota, I came across a fully-fledged ghost town….
It’s All Gone To Shit, That’s Where It’s Gone
The Dam at Garrison didn’t have a Visitor Center. All right, all right: I didn’t see a Visitor Center, but then I didn’t see, until I went into the rest-room in the Pick City café, that I’d had that whole conversation – and earlier spent half an hour inspecting the Bodmer prints in the company of a party of high school kids and an earnest couple of retirees from Boston – with a blob of Minty Fresh toothpaste smeared all the way from the corner of my mouth to my ear. I’d even said goodbye to Duane and shaken him by the hand and he hadn’t seen it either – or hadn’t seen fit to mention it. And the fact remains: if there was a Visitor Center at Garrison, I didn’t see it.
What I did see, after I’d driven down, down, down under the shadow of the dam, and pulled up outside the office door, was a sign saying there were tours from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. I hesitated before checking my watch. I was going to have a little bet with myself – and, yep, I would’ve won it. It was three minutes past, and the door was locked.
I got back in the car and turned east. All I wanted to do now was get to 281, make for the Canadian border and be done with this journey. The river had offered a change of scene; and it had given me an idea for my next big trip, which I would think about all the way back to Texas. I would follow the entire Lewis & Clark Trail from St Louis to the Pacific shore in time for the bicentennial in 2004. Yes indeed, that’s what I’d do. You can tell you’ve had enough of a journey when the only thing that makes your pulse race is the thought of what’s coming up next.
I’d had enough of this, okay. I was almost tempted to put my foot down and hit the border tonight. I could probably do it in three hours. I believe I might have done, had things happened differently. But somehow, in criss-crossing the river, I’d got a little further south than I intended, and was now heading east on a very quiet road indeed. The land had levelled out and was dotted with wind-ruffled stretches of water which might have been large puddles brought on by an unusually wet winter, but could equally well have been small lakes shrunken by drought. There was no way to tell. Besides, there were larger areas of water in the distance, in every direction, where my map showed no lakes at all. The temperature had dropped to about fifty, and what dry land there was seemed to merge imperceptibly with a sheet of cloud that was pressing down from just a few hundred feet above me.
I was heading for a town named Tuttle when I saw a sign pointing south to Arena. It was a rough road, but I could see the humped outline of some kind of building just across the water-logged fields. I swung the car off the road and headed towards it. Curiosity. I wasn’t out of that yet.
There’s a lovely passage at the beginning of Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian where he describes his first visit to the Wyoming town of Medicine Bow, a trackside halt where he got off the train and took a buggy ride out to his host’s ranch – about a hundred and fifty miles away. While he’s waiting for his baggage to show up he counts the buildings in the town and lists them. There are twenty-nine. When I took a quick look around Arena it appeared to have five.
I didn’t yet know anything about the history of Arena. It was, I supposed, not very different from so many of the sad little places I’d passed through on my way north. It had just got a little bit further down the same road. Its five buildings included two small houses, one long abandoned and almost buried under stunted willow trees, its roof caving in and its windows all broken. The other looked as though it might just have heard footsteps on the front path, the coughing of a car engine at dawn, the sound of laughter at bedtime, within living memory. There was a rotten wooden outbuilding beside it, some sort of garage or chicken-shed, and a sturdy-looking 1950s roadster standing upside down with its windows all knocked out, the paintwork faded to grey and tinted with rust. Across the rough track was an old school-house, apparently still used by someone for some purpose or other. Through one of its windows I could see a couple of metal chairs against a table, and on the table a ring-binder and a half-empty gallon jug of water.
A little apart from these three buildings was a track. I could imagine young lovers would have walked down it, for at the end stood the church. It was one of those churches you expect to see out on the northern Plains, northern European in style, all made of clapboard with a steep pitched roof and a little wooden belfry, all painted white and gleaming in the sunlight. But in this case the white had disappeared, all but a few flakes of it stripped off by the endless winds and successive hailstorms; and the walls were grey, the windows boarded up. When the church gives up on a place you might as well bury it.
So that’s all that remained of Arena. Two houses, a church and a school. Well, not quite. The grain elevator was still there, an old timber-clad thing that was in the terminal stages of decay. It was this that I’d glimpsed from the road heading east. As I walked across and stood there looking up at it, the wind that tugged at my hair got under a loose board high above me. It flapped aimlessly. It was the kind of building you’d keep your kids well away from. Beside it was the railroad – or rather the impression made in the earth many years ago when they built a railroad to serve the town. They’d ripped it up – fairly recently, by the look of it. The ground still bore the long black scar of the spur, but it was patched with weeds and corrugated by the hollows that had once been home to the slabs of wood that supported it. Sleepers to us, ties to the Americans. In its own way it was as much a piece of history as those wagon ruts out at Dodge City.
I was about to turn away, into the wind and back to the car, when I saw a movement. Behind the elevator was a sort of low thicket with a few strands of sagging barbed wire running through it. Beyond was a large field just like the ones I’d been passing – swathes of winter grass interspersed with large expanses of water which, in the distance, merged into a lake. Just inside the field was an old pick-up truck. You see plenty of old pick-ups in the States, and mostly they’re robust, perhaps dented here and there, the paint-work worn right through to the metal-primer, but still perfectly serviceable. You even get pick-ups thirty, forty, fifty years old running about, lovingly cared for and looking as though they’ll last forever with their fancy new hub-caps and re-sprayed bodies. Even the ones that lie abandoned in the weeds outside crooked homesteads in Kansas, unused for years, look as though they could still be brought back to life by a decent mechanic. They were built to last. What you rarely see in America is a really clapped-out old banger – at least not out west, where the air’s generally so dry. But here was a genuine rust-bucket, the sort of thing you’d see rotting on a pile of bricks outside some village council house in East Yorkshire, the sort of thing people hang onto because by now it’s so worthless they’d have to pay to have it dragged to the scrapyard.
So there I had it, a thoroughly dead town, an abandoned elevator, a railroad that’s ceased to operate, and a heap of scrap masquerading as a pick-up truck. And there, wrestling with such strands of wire as hadn’t been eaten away by the cold and damp, was a man.
I would take away with me three images of this man. One was his ancient bomber jacket, which was black, nylon, worn at the cuffs and ripped at the shoulder, with shreds of pale yellow synthetic padding hanging out. And there were his hands, the hands of a man who has always lifted and dragged and tied and hammered, and generally in weather that was too hot, too cold, always windy. His hands were broad and cracked and bloodied, and they were wrestling with a couple of strands of wire, pulling on them and weaving them together as he tried to patch a hole in the fence. Then there was his face, square, sagging, lined, stubbly, and streaked with tears that the wind was whipping out from his rheumy sunken eyes.
You hope a guy like that is going to look up, see you, and make things easy. And he saw me, okay. How could he not? My car was just about aglow with whiteness in the dim light. He saw me, but he carried on twisting.
“When’d they take the railroad out?” I asked him.
He still didn’t look up. “Last fall. Took the damned thing out last fall.” It was longer ago than that, surely. The elevator must have gone out of business twenty years ago, easily.
I kept quiet. I looked towards the horizon where the cold grey water met the sky. “What’s that lake?” I asked. “There’s no lake on my map.”
“Ah, shit. They flooded it all. Flooded all my pasture.”
“Took a thousand acres and flooded it.”
“Turned it all to shit.” He was still bowed over his work, still twisting the wire. But now he looked up, his eyes filled with tears, his hands still holding the wire. “It’s all gone to shit, all of it.” He was looking me right in the eyes; he might have been pleading for something. There was an awful moment when I feared he was going to step forward and grab hold of my jacket and pour out his lament. His hands were shaking, his eyes blinking, his mouth framing another “shit – all of it”. I backed away, stumbling on an old railroad tie, and he returned to his task
There was one more thing to see in Arena: the cemetery. I entered it through a wrought iron gate. I was in a square plot of grass enclosed by a wire fence. There were about twenty headstones, perhaps twice that number of actual graves. Arena may never have amounted to much, but it did have a history, and here it was. It seemed to have been populated by Germans, and perhaps a few Scandinavians. Among the Krupps, and Pehls, the Kreugs and Zimmers, was the odd Leonardson. They were mostly born in the 1880s and mostly died by the 1960s. There were photographs of one or two attached to the stumpy little stones, cheery young men in suits and hats with stiff moustaches and white collars and neat ties. They’d most likely gone to town on July the Fourth and had their pictures taken. One was in uniform: he’d been a sergeant in World War II, and had presumably fought against his father’s own people.
The people who came out to Arena probably did so on the back of the second great Dakota land boom that kicked off in the late 1890s and lasted until the end of the Great War. Many of them would’ve come from oppressed or impoverished circumstances in Europe, and they would probably have enjoyed a few good years with the giddy rise in farm prices in the early years of the twentieth century. They’d have married and raised families and opened schools and invested in the latest machinery to get bigger and better crops out of their land. They would have heard of the war in Europe and in most cases kept out of it. Life in 1917 would be too good for them to want to go back.
Then came the triple onslaught of drought and grasshoppers and falling prices through the 1920s and `30s. Their sons and daughters would have grown up in the Depression in a bleak and beleaguered environment. The Second World War might even have been a relief to them. And once they’d gone from these parts – to France or North Africa or the Pacific – they’d never return, except perhaps to go to college on the G.I. bill or to take a job in manufacturing in Minneapolis or somewhere. And the old folk, those strong, brave pioneers, would have hung on there, their energies waning, their hopes dashed, struggling to understand it all.
That’s how entire communities are born and die on the Plains. It seems careless – no, it seems callous – the way America allows the mere fluctuations of the economy to pass a death sentence on an entire community. In Europe we have come to accept that shops and factories and whole industries are, ultimately, expendable. That’s the world we live in. But as a rule we don’t condemn whole towns. Then again, I suppose, we didn’t try, a hundred years ago, to populate a wilderness and create new communities where there were never going to be enough resources to sustain them. Was this whole pioneer thing, in a nutshell, just a damned fool idea, the fantasy of the escapist? And if it was, what does that make the odd newcomer who is now raising a family out here where it’s “safe”? Is the measure of their kids’ success to be that that they get the hell out, or that they’re satisfied with small-town life, ignorant of the wider world but happy to stick around?
In among the grave-sites miniature irises were poking through the dun grass, purple and pale yellow. On a hand-made headstone cast in sand and cement I read “HE REST IN GOD. J MARKAL 21.4.1920”. And there on a neighbouring plot was the inscription
Again we hope to meet thee
When the day of life is fed
And in Heaven with joy to greet thee
Where no farewell tears are shed