Bjella explains the man walked the tracks each day for the two miles into town, did this year after year. One day he apparently did not hear the train and was killed. Bjella pauses, lets the tale float almost weightlessly in the air with its whisper of suicide. Self-destruction is not a forbidden subject in North Dakota, and people easily tick off cases in their neighborhoods. One woman came across a death book compiled in the early decades of the 20th century. She says the records show a remarkable number of people killed by trains.
The ground itself reeks of life, the endless sweep of grassland and wheat fields, cattle feeding in place of buffalo. South of the Missouri River, the Badlands stab the eye with bands of color rippling through the eroded slopes. North Dakota is a rarely visited state and surely one of the loveliest and most moving. The land swallows anyone who walks out into it. Everything begins as a promise. A young Teddy Roosevelt on a buffalo-killing holiday from New York in 1883 decided after a few days he would become rich as a cattleman and handed a $14,000 check to two men he barely knew so they could begin his great and doomed enterprise. The Marquis de Mores, a Frenchman with family wealth and a title, in that same year plotted a meatpacking and cattle empire and also lost his shirt, but left a town, Medora, and a château on the hill.
Slope County just to the south has a little over 700 people and a county seat of 24, Amidon. The only other town, Marmarth, was once a railroad head of 1,300 and now has 126 souls. Patti Perry, the economic development officer of the community, has lived here all her life and is third generation. She sits in the town’s bar and café and tries to explain. “The hardest part of living in a declining town,” she offers, “is trying to figure out how to stop it. Things happen so slowly, you really don’t notice at first—five leave one year, then six the next—and you wake up one day and wonder what happened here.”
What happens is that some people cash in on their property and move someplace warmer and easier. The rest grow old and die. There are constant funerals: One guy leaving the bar stops by and Perry asks him if he is going to a service, and he says, “No, I’m all funeraled up this week.” Church attendance dwindles, congregations become mixtures of various denominations, and when those numbers fall too far, the doors shut. Sometimes a congregation decides to burn the building to end the pain.
Tom Rafferty, 59, is the third generation of his people to live in Havelock, and now he has the run of the town. He and his wife are the last residents. The place once had about 250 people, a lumberyard, stockyard, railroad, two banks, three grain elevators, a grocery store with a pool table and liberal hours on serving liquor, and his grandfather’s general store. It was surrounded by seven coal mines. He’s looked through his granddad’s diary from 1908 and notes, “a lot of the entries are about wind.”