My editor said I should get out of the office. “You can’t report on a story like a drug epidemic eroding a town without getting out there.” What I want to get out of is North Dakota. But I decided not to say that. Haven’t had any luck yet from any of the places I’ve sent clips in the last month.
People talk about how there hasn’t been much snow this year, but when I go out there it’s still a big flat plain of white nothingness. I feel like I’m going to fall asleep, after just like a half hour, even when I have music playing. You drive ten miles and you look out and it’s the same flat white fields, a few lines of trees out at the horizon. It looks like you’re where you were ten minutes ago. On and on. It’s like a hundred miles up to Jericho. I can’t believe I make it there. I’m always thinking I’m going to fall asleep and drive off the road.
I did drive off the road, but not because of that. When I got up there, I stopped off at the cafe where I usually go. I ran into the police chief. He sent me over to the bean elevator, to talk to someone over there who might know something. That guy sent me out to talk to someone in somewhere called Neudorf. I’m wondering where the heck that is and he gives me directions down a few county roads. I don’t know why they call them county roads. Half the time they’re just dirt ruts. These were pretty badly kept, with muddy puddles in the ruts and grass growing in the center. Whenever I complain about the roads, people laugh and say stuff like, “You should try driving a pickup, y’know?” They always say “Y’know” around here. They sound stupid when they do it. So I guess if I had a truck the county roads would seem fine. But since I have a normal car …
So I was driving down one and I came to this area where the ground was suddenly very hilly, crisscrossed with gullies, like maybe a river had run through there once. The road wound around bluffs and dropped down into this gully. I thought I must have made a wrong turn. I have an atlas with all the roads in the state drawn in it. I pulled over to have a look. I realized my mistake almost immediately. The flat little patch of snow on the shoulder wasn’t flat or a patch of snow. The snow must have piled up during a blizzard. The shoulder fell away from the road pretty steeply, and my car was leaning off it at a pretty steep angle. I tried to turn back up on the road but my tires just spun on the frozen grass and the car slid further into the snowbank down the hill.
Of course this happens while I’m out on one of those county roads. It was an hour before anyone came by. At least in North Dakota they always slow down to see if you’re OK. It was a young guy, driving an old sedan. He said, “You’re stuck.” No shit, man. I said, “Yeah, I was just trying to pull a little out of the road.” He said, “I can’t pull you out with this, but old on. I’ll go to my uncle’s house and borrow his tractor.” And he moved on.
I thought, There’s no way this guy’s uncle happens to live around here. But about fifteen minutes later I hear this tractor grumbling along somewhere out of sight. That’s when I realized how quiet it was out there. Just the sound of the wind blowing though the grass. Nothing else. Pretty soon this huge tractor comes over the crest of the hill and down toward me. Its wheels were as tall as me. He stopped when he got abreast of me and he said, “You got a tow rope or a chain?” I said, “Do I look like I tow people around in this car?” I don’t think he appreciated that. He said, “Most people keep ‘em in case they do what you just did.” He got down with a chain and held it out to me. I said, “I have no idea what I would do with that.” So he crawled under the car and hooked it up by the rear wheel. I said, “That isn’t going to break my wheels is it?” He came up and he had a little mud on him. He shook his head but didn’t say anything after that, other than to tell me to put it in reverse and to take my brake off. Well of course.
He climbed into the tractor, gunned it up, and in just a few seconds the car was out on the road. He got down, unhooked the chain and he said, “There’s a gate up ahead. Turn around there.” I started to ask if I should pay him — I was hoping he would say no — but he just shook his head. He got back in the tractor, wheeled it around, and grumbled off the way he had come.
I was going to go visit that guy in Neudorf but I figure I’ll just call him. This is a lot easier work to do by phone.
My nephew was on his way out here when he saw a guy driven off the road. That guy from the Grand Forks Tribune. Out poking around, asking a lot about drugs, or whatever it is they want to read about in Grand Forks. He had pulled over to look at his map I guess. The roads around here all go straight. It’s kinda hard to get lost, although he said he was going to Neudorf. Took the least traveled way he could have thought of to get there. Maybe somebody was trying to get him lost, I don’t know. I think people are being polite to him, people are good out here. But I know there’s a few wondering what he’s trying to get at, trying to make a bigger story out of things.
Lucky my nephew came by. I didn’t leave the farm all day. I don’t know many people were out, who would have come by him on that road. He came and borrowed the tractor. Still the best thing to pull a thing. Guy didn’t even have a tow-rope. Made my nephew get under his car and hook him up. I had to loan him a shirt when he got back to the house. I think he was a little put off by that guy, he didn’t even know how to help. But by the time he had that shirt on and I had popped the top on a beer for him, he was laughing about it.
We don’t have guys poking around from the papers that often, but if that’s the worst they do, I suppose it ain’t bad, y’know?