I hear the train coming
It’s rolling around the bend
I haven’t seen the sunshine, since….I don’t know when.
– Johnny Cash
FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA
One thing I always try to convey to people when they ask me about the road, is that not every experience is a good one. Not every voyage is a winner. This kind of life, it’s rewarding, it’s fascinating, and the road can be a glorious place. But it’s not glamorous. It’s not always fun, and it’s not always good. Nowhere was this more true than Fargo.
Sometimes it’s not even about what happens. Each place has its unspoken vibe, its own energy. A collective energetic embodiment of its residents, both past and present. When enough people feel something (for better or worse), those feelings get into the air, and they don’t easily disappear.
You never know what a place is going to trigger in you, what buried truths or feelings it’s going to bring up. I drive into the plains of North Dakota on a clear day, late-afternoon. Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is playing as I glide down the sparse, isolated streets. A relentless unease has plagued me the entire way.
Not fear exactly, not danger, but a rare feeling of trepidation that I can’t make sense of. I haven’t been able to eat at all, and I can’t seem to get my breathing right. My stomach is in knots. And I don’t know why.
There’s one thing I do know. I know that just like Johnny stuck there in Folsom prison, I’m also stuck under the weight of a claustrophobia I can’t seem to get free of. It doesn’t make any sense, because I’m looking around and…I’m in the Great Plains. This is the frontier, the land of wide open space, land of pioneer spirit. This is the opposite of prison.
And here I am on the wide open road, the land stretched before me, free as a person could be. Yet I keep pushing down this giant wave of claustrophobia, and it doesn’t make any sense.
I try to distract myself from it. I turn up the music, rip open a pack of pistachios, try to snack the feelings away. It doesn’t work. My heart rate is going too fast, and it’s getting hard to breathe.
I turn the air conditioner off. I turn it back on. I turn the music lower, then off, then back up. Nothing works. I can’t get a grip on this feeling. The knots in my stomach grow tighter. A bright mural on the side of a brick building passes my eyes.
“Greetings from Fargo” it says.
The thing about being out on the road, particularly when you’re a woman often alone, is that Instinct becomes your constant companion. It becomes your lifeline. It heightens to new levels, because this is now your primary survival mechanism.
People ask me how I do it, how I keep myself safe & alive out here. They want to know how/why I’m doing these things, a tiny little lady, often with no protection from a man.
I simplify the answer & tell them it’s a combination of common sense, street smarts & good luck. But the truth is there’s something that eclipses all of those things, and that’s Instinct.
Instinct eventually combines with experience to give you an unseen armor. There’s things you learn to pick up on, that other people never would. I can tell by the change in a person’s pupils if they’re lying, and how much. I can read a man’s lurid thoughts from across the room, almost before even he can.
While a normal person is strolling down the sidewalk, I’m looking at the shadows on that sidewalk, to see who’s behind me. I’m glancing at reflections on the glass of store windows, to see who’s around without having to turn and look directly. You can’t go by sound alone. Sneakers are called sneakers for a reason.
So you develop tactics, an alertness, sharp observation skills. But at the end of the day – none of that beats out pure, unfiltered Instinct. It becomes a constant, defining force, and there’s no escaping from it, even when it tells you things you’d rather not know. Things about yourself, about others, about life.
And then there are Emotions, which are another beast altogether. Emotions are not easily harnessed, and they don’t easily cooperate, even when your brain desperately needs them to. Even when your brain furiously tries to get them in line (so you can do things like eat and sleep and breathe and keep yourself alive another day), Emotions tend not to listen.
And when heightened Emotion combines with heightened Instinct, well – you can have a real shitshow on your hands.
At the Dakota state line, I visit a Viking stave church replica. I learn that the word ‘Viking’ translates to mean: To go on a voyage.
Vikings were always heading out somewhere, never satisfied with their spoils – they were always curious as to what more they hadn’t uncovered yet. They had a hard time staying home.
As I stand there hearing this, I can’t help but think – that’s me. That’s how I am. That’s why I have such trouble with ordinary life. It’s why I’m standing here in the middle of nowhere at a stave church, instead of being at work or home or doing something normal. I’m never satisfied with my spoils.
I wait for the other visitors to leave, so I can have the stave church to myself. I walk the periphery, under the eaves, past the ‘leper’s window’ on the side. I’m rounding a corner when all of a sudden a blaring sound screams out of nowhere. I’ve triggered the trespass alarm.
The shock of it of course startles me, but it’s not really a big deal, and my body’s response isn’t in proportion to the event. I have a reaction to this alarm that once again doesn’t make any sense. I have a deep sense of foreboding.
My already knotted stomach goes into even more knots.
EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF
Later that night, I decide to go out for a late night coffee, near the bright lights of the Fargo Theatre.
As I’m walking across a shadowy parking lot, I see a blur of movement out of my peripheral vision. He’s wearing a heavy blue jacket, despite the heat, and leaning next to some trash cans at the back of a building. I slow my pace, alert, unsure. As I get closer, I can see that he’s overdosing, saliva is foaming at his mouth. He’s trying desperately to get in a last hit before passing out or dying.
I know there’s nothing I can do. I’m no stranger to sad sights; I’ve lived in a motel in Las Vegas, I’m familiar with life’s grim realities. I know the outcome here, and I know my ability to change it, which is none. If it isn’t tonight, it’ll be tomorrow.
I think about me, not him. My body goes into default response; my grip tightens on my bag, my eyes & ears furiously scan around me. I pick up my pace, because I’m thinking about me. It’s every man for himself here, and that’s the truth of it.
Even when it’s not what you want to hear, not what you want to face or believe, this is the way it is. When you give up the safety of home, this is how it is. It’s every man for himself.
Bison. You see them everywhere. On the walls at the cafe, on signs, on store logos. There’s even a statue of one outside the door of my hotel.
Why this bothers me so much, I’m not sure. But bother me it does. I don’t want to see any more bison.
It’s rare that I go somewhere, and feel like I can’t get my footing, at least temporarily. It’s rare that I can’t blend out enough to go unnoticed, and just do my thing. To just be present, and appreciate where I am – even if it’s not a great match. But here I just can’t get comfortable.
As a new day begins in Fargo, I drive along and try to make sense of it. It’s very rare that I’m this uneasy in a place. Especially since nothing horrible is happening. No one’s bothering me, nothing terrible is actually occurring. And yet, my Instincts & Emotions have never been on higher alert. My stomach has never been more in knots.
You don’t realize the violence of car crashes until you actually see one happen right in front of you. Even at slow speeds, the horrific sight & sound of metal slamming into metal is sickening.
I’m driving in the right lane, down a quiet, uncrowded residential road on the outskirts of town. I see there’s a utility truck parked in my lane up ahead, and that we’ll all have to merge into a single line to go around it. I slow down, extra slow for some reason, almost to a stop. I go to put my directional on, to merge behind the car in front of me.
But right before I can, a painful squealing sound hits my ears, the screaming of tires trying to brake. And then I see a white truck slam into the car in front of me, the car that was supposed to be me. All goes silent, pieces of metal and glass flying up into the air.
Time pauses for a few seconds, the other cars peering out to see the damage. And then we roll on, getting to carry on with our day, as if nothing has happened. What else are we supposed to do? Every man for himself.
Later that day, I’m at an old ghost town in West Fargo. There’s a somberness, a heaviness in the air, as the events of earlier linger.
There’s no one around, but the silence that I usually welcome is stifling. The heat feels especially oppressive. Dark and heavy, suffocating, despite my phone saying it’s only 77 degrees.
I walk toward the wooden buildings; the first thing I see before actually turning the corner is a collection of photographs on a wall, scruffy old black & white photos of North Dakotan pioneers from the mid-1800s. There aren’t any names or stories attached to the photos, as no one really knows who they were or where they came from.
Unlike today, people rarely smiled in photos back then, so the unhappy, disdainful looks on the pioneers’ faces don’t at first stand out as anything unusual. But the more I look, the more unnerved I get.
I know I’m starting to unravel now, because it’s like these ghosts on the wall are silently screaming at me, trying to tell me what happened, trying to tell me the truth.
It’s this heat, I tell myself. This heat is messing with me. I’ve just got to get some water.
But I can’t get water, because I can’t walk very well, I’m having trouble breathing, and I’m nauseous all of a sudden. There’s one photo, a woman in a beautiful, black, high-collared Victorian dress. She’s looking right at me, and I know what happened, because I recognize the look of rage, grief, guilt, and emptiness on her face.
There’s no info about her, there’s no age or name or anything at all of her story. But once again, Instinct doesn’t loosen its grip and doesn’t take any pity. There’s no running from what she’s telling me, because I know that look, and I know what happened. She’s recently lost her child.
And she lives in a time and place and set of circumstances where she’s not allowed to acknowledge it. She’s not allowed to even speak of it, much less feel it or heal from it. She lives in a time & place where this happens, and everyone just keeps on going, because this is a hard lonely life and that’s just the way it is. Every man for himself.
So she has to put on a black dress and stare into a photographer’s camera, burying an anger and emptiness that will never have any place to go, except deeper within her.
I tear my eyes away from her, desperately looking around for a washroom, because there’s a panic rising in me and I have to throw up.
But that’s Emotions. My brain reminds me that there’s nothing to throw up. It reminds me that I haven’t eaten in days.
At the old saloon, I’m walking the dusty creaking floors when I notice a narrow flight of stairs in the corner. There’s more up there to see.
I know as soon as I begin climbing though, that it’s a mistake. The staircase is narrow, and seems to only get tighter as I ascend. The walls seem to close in with each step, and the claustrophobia of the past few days now materializes into the physical.
Culminating, reaching its crescendo, images from a past both mine and not mine start flashing before me. Instinct screams at me to turn back down the stairs before it’s too late.
But I keep forcing myself up the stairs, even though there’s no air anymore. Even though I can feel my heart now struggling, beating furiously in my chest, frantically trying to get blood and oxygen to me. I reach the top of the stairs and stare down a hall of doors.
I make my way down the hall, quickly peeking into the rooms, hoping that somehow I can get my breathing under control. But I can’t, and I know that if my heart doesn’t slow down, if I can’t get back down those stairs, I’m going to collapse up here and by the time anyone finds me, I’ll be gone.
It’s funny the things that go through your mind when you think it’s the end. A lot of the thoughts, they’re surprising. It’s not what you’d expect.
It feels like the ground has gone away now; I’m not going to make it back down those stairs and I know it. Yet, somehow, it’s like a force out of nowhere turns me around and pushes me back. I have no memory of actually going back down those stairs. I just remember running out the door, on the ground floor of the saloon, desperate to escape.
If they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on, a little farther down the line…
Far from Folsom prison
That’s where I’d want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow all my blues away…
On these isolated, desolate roads, the sound in my head has never been louder. I’ve been wearing the same dark clothes for two dark days, but finally the words of Folsom Prison escort me out of the Plains.
Johnny was never actually in prison. What he was really singing about, what he was very familiar with – was how your own nature can put you in places you can’t escape from. How it can cut you off from things that come so easily to others. And how it can keep you from the things you want most.
He’s talking about a confinement that goes beyond the physical, goes beyond the actual walls or gates or doors of a prison. He’s singing about a confinement that’s far harder to break free from.
He’s telling himself – if only I could get that chance, make that break, hop that train. I’d be happy. I’d be someplace better, and I’d be free.
And that’s exactly what you tell yourself. That’s exactly what you cling to. Because the truth is far harder to accept. That even if you got that chance, got on that train, got out of Folsom prison…you’d still be who you are. And you’d still be stuck with the truth of what that means.
There’s no escape route from your own nature. Not on any train, or on any rail line. There’s no escape. Not even on the wide open plains.
Well I know I had it coming
I know I can’t be free
But those people keep on moving
And that’s what tortures me…
The frontier, despite its harsh and lonesome nature, was always seen as a land of possibility. Pioneers traded in comfort, safety, familiarity, home...for a chance to break out of their prisons. They traded it all in for a chance at something new, something better. They were all trying for something better.
But just because you go trying, doesn’t mean you’ll get what you’re looking for.
The frontier, for all that it’s been glamorized, wasn’t a happy life. It was an isolated life; it was unforgiving, unyielding, and in its own way, deeply confining. This still carries over in its energy today.
The pioneers understood, just like the Vikings, that not every voyage will be a good one. They knew the pitfalls, the risks, the struggles, and yet, for some reason…staying home wasn’t an option.
And so despite it all – the isolation, the ghosts, the weight of Instinct, the fact that it’s every man for himself – despite all of that, for some of us – staying put just isn’t in the cards.
For whatever reason, and I don’t have any good answer why….but for some of us, as it’s always been – staying home, being satisfied with our spoils – it just isn’t an option.