On Magpie Road, the colors are in riot. Sharp blue sky over green and yellow tall grass that rises and falls like water in the North Dakota wind. Magpie Road holds no magpies, only robins and crows. A group of magpies is called a tiding, a gulp, a murder, a charm. When the men in the pickup make their first pass, there on the road, you are photographing the grass against sky, an ordinary bird blurring over a lone rock formation.
You do not photograph the men, but if you had, you might have titled it “Father and Son Go Hunting.” They wear camouflage, and their mouths move in animation or argument. They have their windows down, as you have left those in your own car down the road. It is warm for fall. It is grouse season and maybe partridge but not yet waterfowl. Despite how partridge are in the lexicon vis-à-vis pear trees and holiday singing, the birds actually make their homes on the ground. You know which birds are in season because you are from a rural place like this one, a place where guns and men and shooting seasons are part of the knowledge considered common.
Magpie Road lies in the middle of the 1,028,051 acres that make up the Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota. Magpie Road lies about 200 miles north and west of the Standing Rock Reservation, where thousands of Indigenous people and their allies have come together to protect the water, where sheriff’s men and pipeline men and National Guardsmen have been donning their riot gear, where those men still wait, where they still hold tight to their riot gear.
If a man wears his riot gear during prayer, will the sacred forsake him? If a man wears his riot gear to the holiday meal, how will he eat? If a man enters the bedroom in his riot gear, how will he make love to his wife? If a man wears his riot gear to tuck in his children, what will they dream?
Magpie Road is part of the Bakken, a shale formation lying deep under the birds, the men in the truck, you, this road. The shale has been forming over centuries through pressure, through layers of sediment becoming silt. The silt becomes clay, which becomes shale. All of this is because of water. The Bakken is known as a Marine shale—meaning, once, here, instead of endless grass, there lay endless water.
There, just off Magpie Road, robins sit on branches or peck the ground. A group of robins is called a riot. This seems wrong at every level except the taxonomic. Robins are ordinary, everyday, general-public sorts of birds. They seem the least likely of all birds to riot.
When the men in the truck make their second pass, there on the road, the partridge sit their nests, and the robins are not in formation. They are singular. No one riots but the colors. The truck revs and slows and revs and slows beside you. You have taken your last photograph of the grass, have moved yourself back to your car. The truck pulls itself close to your car, revving parallel.
You are keeping your face still, starting the car. You have mislabeled your imaginary photograph. These men, they are not father and son. At close range, you can see there is not enough distance in age. One does sport camouflage, but the other, a button-down shirt, complete with pipeline logo over the breast pocket. They are not bird hunters. The one in the button-down motions to you out the window with his handgun, and he smiles and says things that are incongruous with his smiling face.
The night before, in a nearby fracklands town, you stand, with your camera, in your hotel room doorway. You left Standing Rock for the Bakken, and the wood smoke from the water protector camps still clings to your hair. You perform your fracklands travel protocol, photographing the room—the bedspread and desk, the bathroom. In your year and a half of research for your novel, of driving and talking to women in the fracklands, you have performed this ritual, this protocol, dozens of times. You upload the photos onto a website that helps find women who are trafficked, who have gone missing.
The influx of men, of workers’ bodies, into frackland towns brings an overflow of crime. In the Bakken at the height of the oil and gas boom, violent crime, for example, increased by 125 percent. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem called this increase in violent crime “disturbing,” and cited aggravated assaults, rapes, and human trafficking as “chief concerns.”
In each place, each frackland, off each road, you wait until checkout to upload the photos of the rooms. In the year and a half of driving and talking and driving and talking, if you’ve learned nothing else, you’ve learned to wait. Because it is very, very difficult to sleep in a hotel room once you learn a woman’s gone missing from it.
In the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, a floorhand shuts the door to his hotel room, puts his body between the door and a woman holding fresh towels. A floorhand is responsible for the overall maintenance of a rig. The woman says to you that he says to her, “I just want some company.” He says it over and over, into her ear, her hair, while he holds her down. She says it to you, your ear, your hair. She hates that word now, she says, company . A floorhand is responsible for the overall maintenance of a rig. A floorhand is responsible. But who is responsible for and to this woman, her safety, her body, her memory? Who is responsible to and for the language, the words that will not take their leave?
In a hotel in Texas, in the Wolfcamp Shale, you wake to the music of the trucks arriving and departing. This hotel is shiny tile and chrome bathrooms. It is a parking lot overfilled with trucks, with men from the fields who have an arrangement with management. An arrangement can mean flowers in a vase. An arrangement can mean these men pay for nothing, not even a room. In the morning, the parking lot is all trashcan. Beer bottles and used condoms and needles, the nighttime overflow.
In a hotel in Texas, in the Permian Basin, you report to the front desk re: the roughneck in the room above. You dial zero while he hits his wife/girlfriend/girl he has just bought. You dial zero while he throws her and picks her up and starts again. Or at least, one floor down, this is the soundtrack. Upon his departure, the man uses his fist on every door down your hall. The sound is loud but also is like knocking, like hello, like Anybody home? You wonder if he went first to the floor above but think not. Sound, like so many things, operates mostly through a downward trajectory.
At a hotel where South Dakota and Wyoming meet, you are sure you have driven out of the Bakken, past its edge, far enough. That highway that night belongs to the deer, and all forty or fifty of them stay roadside as you pass. You arrive at the hotel on caffeine and luck. The parking lot reveals the calculus of your mistake—truck after truck after truck, and a hotel clerk outside transacting with a young roughneck. Their posture suggests a shared cigarette or kiss or grope—something safetied through vice or romance or lust. You’d take it. But here the posture is all commerce, is about the positioning of the body close so money can change hands. You are in a place that’s all commerce, where bodies are commerce only.
When two more roughnecks stagger into your sight line, the hotel clerk and her partner are heading inside. She meets your eyes like a dare. The staggering man is drunk, the other holding up the first while he zips his fly. This terminology, fly , comes from England, where it first referred to the flap on a tent—as in, Tie down your tent fly against the high winds. As in, Don’t step on the partridge nest as you tie down your fly. As in, Stake down your tent fly against the winter snow, against the rubber bullets, against the sight of the riot gear.
The men sway across the lot, drunk-loud, and one says to the other, “Hey, look at that,” and you are the only that there. When the other replies, “No. I like the one in my room just fine,” you are sorry and grateful for the one in an unequal measure.
You cannot risk more roadside deer, and so despite all your wishes, you stay the night. A group of deer is called a herd; a group of roe deer, a bevy. There is a bevy of roe deer in the Red Forest near Chernobyl. The Bakken is not Chernobyl because this is America. The Bakken is not Chernobyl because the Bakken is not the site of an accident. The Bakken is not Chernobyl because the Bakken is no accident.
On Magpie Road, the ditch is shallow but full of tall grass. With one hand, the button-down man steers his truck closer to your car, and with the other, he waves the handgun. He continues talking, talking, talking. The waving gesture is casual, like the fist knocking down the hotel hallway—hello, anyone home, hello?
Once on a gravel road, your father taught you to drive your way out of a worse ditch. When the truck reverses, then swerves forward, as if to block you in, you take the ditch to the right, and when the truck slams to a stop and begins to reverse at a slant, taking the whole road, you cross the road to the far ditch, which is shallow, is like a small road made of grass, a road made for you, and you drive like that, on the green and yellow grass until the truck has made its turn, is behind you. By then you can see the highway, and the truck is beside you on the dirt road, and the truck turns right, sharp across your path. So you brake then veer left. You veer out, onto the highway, fast, in the opposite direction.
Left is the direction to Williston. So you drive to Williston, and no one follows.
At a big box store in Williston, a lot sign advertises overnight parking for RV’s. You have heard about this, how girls are traded here. You had been heading here to see it, and now you’re seeing it. Mostly, you’re not seeing. You are in Williston for thirty-eight minutes, and you don’t leave your car.
You spend those thirty-eight minutes driving around the question of violence, of proximity and approximation. How many close calls constitute a violence? How much brush can a body take before it becomes a violence, before it makes violence, or before it is remade—before it becomes something other than the body it was once, before it becomes a past-tense body?
Why were you there on the road?
Because Indigenous women are almost three times more likely than other women to be harassed, to be raped, to be sexually assaulted, to be called a that there.
Because when the governor of North Dakota made an order to block entrance into the camps at Standing Rock and then rescinded it, he said the order was intended toward “public safety.” Because in his letter to the Standing Rock Tribal Chairman, the Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers said he was “ genuinely concerned for the safety and well-being of both the members of your Tribe and the general public located at these encampments.”
Because these statistics about trafficking, about assault, are knowledge considered common, but only if your body is not considered a general-public body.
Because you’re a Métis woman.
Because you and they and we misunderstand the danger at Standing Rock, the danger of this pipeline going in there or elsewhere or everywhere. Because you and they and we misunderstand the nature of danger altogether.
Because each person in Flint, Michigan, for the foreseeable future, is rationed four cases of bottled water per week. Because you can see this future upriver or down. Because everywhere is upriver or down.
Because your first memory of water is of your father working to drown your mother. Because you are four or five, and you need to use the bathroom, but instead, find yourself backing out the bathroom doorway and down the hall where you sit on the rust-colored shag. Because you wait for your father to quit trying to drown your mother. It seems crucial in the moment not to wet your pants. It seems crucial to hold the pieces of yourself together. If you make a mess on the carpet, if your father doesn’t kill your mother, then she will have to clean the carpet. It seems crucial not to cause any trouble. So you sit. You wait. You hold yourself together.
Because all roads used to lead back to that house, and it is a measure of time and hard work that they no longer do. Because all roads lead to the body and through it. Because too many of us have these stories and these roads. Because you carry theirs and they carry yours, and in this way, there is a measure of balance. Because you are still very good at holding yourself together. Because these times make necessary the causing of trouble, the naming of it.
Because to the north and west of Magpie Road, in the Cypress Hills of southern Saskatchewan, in 1873, when traders and wolf hunters killed more than twenty Assiniboine, mostly women and children in their homes, the Métis hid in those hills and lived. Because they lived, they carried the news. Because they lived, you carry the news. Because the massacre took place along the banks of a creek that is a tributary that feeds into the greater Missouri River.
Because these times and those times and all times are connected through land and bodies and water.
What were you wearing, there on the road?
Not riot gear.
Why didn’t you call the police?
See the water cannon on the bridge at Standing Rock. Listen to the sheriff’s department men call it a “water hose” like this makes the act better. See also: Birmingham, Alabama. See the dog cages constructed outside the Morton County Sheriff’s Department to hold “overflow.” See the overflow—the water protectors, Dakota and Lakota women and men in cages. See it all overflow. See the journalists arrested for trespass and worse. See the confiscated notebooks, the cameras they will never get back. See the woman struck by a tear gas canister. See how she will no longer be able to see through her right eye. See the children whose grandmothers and grandfathers are hospitalized with hypothermia. See the elder who has a heart attack. See how science newly quantifies what some of us have long known—how historical and cultural trauma is lived in our bodies, is passed down, generation to generation, how it lives in the body. See the fires that elders light to keep warm. See the water extinguish those fires. See the children seeing it.
Why were you by yourself?
On a road like this, you are never alone. There is grass, there is sky, there is wind. See also: the answer on historical and cultural trauma. See also: Cypress Hills. See also: the everyday robins who are in formation now. See also: their ordinary, general-public bodies in riot.
What did you do, after?
You drove north and west and sat in rooms with friends, old and new. You hiked and ate good meals and talked about art. You wrote things down. You began the work of stitching yourself back together. You did this on repeat until the parts hung together in some approximation of self. In Livingston, Montana, you made use of the car wash. You left the tall grass there.
Further questions should be directed toward: Proceed to the Route. Upon arrival, pick up loose, roadside threads. Use them to stitch shut the asking mouths.
photo by Toni Jensen
At Standing Rock, the days pass in rhythm. You sort box upon box of donation blankets and clothes. You walk a group of children from one camp to another so they can attend school.
The night before the first walk, it has rained hard and the dirt of the road has shifted to mud. The dirt or mud road runs alongside a field, which sits alongside the Cannonball River, which sits alongside and empties itself into the Missouri.
Over the field, a hawk rides a thermal, practicing efficiency. There on the road, in the mud, three Herefords block progress. The cow snorts to her calves, which are large enough to be ambulatory, young enough for the cow still to proffer protection. She places her body between you, the threat, and her calves. She stamps her hooves into the mud, and they stick in a way you imagine unsatisfactory.
In that letter to the Standing Rock Tribal Chairman, the Army Corps Commander wrote that the people must disperse from camp, “ due to the concern for public safety” and because “this land is leased to private persons for grazing and/or haying purposes.”
A cow holds public hooves whether stuck in mud or otherwise. A cow is not a concern to public safety. But what of these children? Are they considered public or private? If they don’t graze or hay, if they cannot be leased, what is their value, here on this road, in this, our America?
That day, there on the road, once the mother cow allows safe passage, you walk on. After school but before the return walk, the children and you gather with hundreds to listen to the tribal chairman speak of peace, to sit with elders to pray, to talk of peace.
On this day, it is still fall. Winter will arrive with the Army Corps’ words—no drilling under Lake Oahe, no pipeline under Lake Oahe. The oil company will counter, calling the pipeline “vital,” saying they “fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe.” The weather will counter with a blizzard. After the words and before the blizzard, there will be a celebration. A gathering of larks is called an exaltation. Even if it wasn’t so, you like to think of them there, like to think of their song, there with the people in the snow, there, alongside the river.
Back in the fall, you walk the children home from school, there on the road. You cross the highway, the bridge, upon your return. This bridge lies due south of the Backwater Bridge of the water cannons or hoses. But this bridge, this day, holds a better view. The canoes have arrived from the Northwest tribes, the Salish tribes. They gather below the bridge on the water and cars slow alongside you to honk and wave. Through their windows, people offer real smiles.
That night, under the stars, fire-lit, the women from the Salish tribes dance and sing. Though you’ve been to a hundred powwows, easily, you’ve never seen this dance, never heard this song. You stand with your own arms resting on the shoulders of the school children, and the dancers, these women, move their arms in motions that do more than mimic water, that conjure it. Their voices are calm and strong, and they move through the gathering like quiet, like water, like something that will hold, something you can keep, even if only for this moment.