This is a strange land, full of strange sights, and people. Between Portland and Devil Lake there is a lot of nothing. Lots of mountains at first, deep forests and high peeks, snowing in April with no appearance of spring anywhere. The wind blows across the flatscape of the remainder of Montana, then the hills and flats of North Dakota go on and on. Mountain towns have lodges or small cabins situated into the trees while as the elevation drops to the flats, the settlements are far between, a lot of abandoned shacks, perhaps where families would stay in the summer harvest before pickup trucks allowed for an easier commute to and from the fields, larger houses and farms left behind when the grandparents died and the kids had moved away. Abandoned churches, out in the middle of open space, we also passed a country school left behind by history.
I could tell when we were coming upon a reservation, the trash would be blowing all over and the town itself a heap of trailers with a few stores, lots of people loitering about considering the weather wasn’t pleasant. A reminder of the damage done by pushing people onto reservations and expecting them to thrive without support, as if ship crews were marooned on inland islands rather than out to sea. The other settlements differed from those on the reservation only in the absence in the trash blowing in the wind, the working delis, and the age and condition of the trailers.
On the train a biker-looking dude was reading the Bible. A few kids came on, the girls wearing dresses and white bonnets looking all the world as if they stumbled off of Little House on the Prairie, the boys had suspenders and bowl haircuts. Two of the kids had a kid of their own. Yes, babies having babies. But that’s the far right for you, that stuff ain’t just for the money shot, you can apparently make kids out of that too if everything is aimed in the right place. I guess the happy couple is 19 or 20 and the rest younger, unmarried kids. The small group read books looking all the world like students on a school trip, yet reading the trashy shit, a detective novel, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (wait, isn’t that atheistic?) except that later in the evening they were fast at reading the Bible, each kid taking turns minding the very quiet baby (after 30 hours with a welfare mom and her kiddies, I appreciate the quiet baby) and somehow getting to rest in the coach seats without mussing up those white bonnets that for all the world reminded me of the paper serving cups one gets when served coleslaw in a diner.
Then, the black hats got on. Amish Mafia, maybe, that’s what the TeeVee told me these people are like. One dude had a straw hat and what looked like Ray-Bans – he must be the ringleader. The women had on black bonnets and dresses, except for one in brown (are they Dominicans and one Franciscan?). This was full on Little House, the boys with beards and large black hats, the girls the colour of paste under layers of black, and an older one that I mistook at first for being a women in a hijab, which I thought would have given me bonus points in my religions on a train bingo card. Damn it. So close. We passed more old abandoned houses, even an entire town that seemed to have only three houses still lived in before moving in to oil country where the few buildings were newer, the derricks here and there and the fires from the towers releasing a faint black trail up in the sky marking the presence of our complex carbon chain civilization.
In the observation car a small group was talking about permaculture and seemed either interested in or were part of the Catholic Workers organization, a radical Catholic group that has all but died out in New York City. They were talking about service, inclusion, growing some community and the importance of rooting a community in faith first then permaculture since putting permaculture first, in the opinion of the speaker, was not sustainable since it put the focus on tinkering and not on the connections between the people and the longer issue of building ties to a land. One of the women (both less attractive than the Amishy women, why do people who eat organic food have such bad skin conditions?) was finishing her vegan burrito and gnawing on carrots and pondered the difficulty of moving about with a child, and the other one produced the child from a bundle and sat down, unclear if this was a family unit or just another form of collective childcare, but they all seemed nice enough, the baby with its wide eyes content and quiet. Maybe someone has been drugging the babies on this train, I thought to myself. I have read a bit on permaculture, and some criticism of it too, but this was the first time I had actually seen folks involved in this subculture, even if all I was doing was creepily eavesdropping.
Sprinkled among all these different types of orders, Amish, Mennonite, Catholic Workers, dudes in trucker hats reading the Bible, conservative family all wearing plaid, were different alternative orders. The dude with the ear gauges who had learned to be a bicycle mechanic in Portland, the chick with the ruin tattoos playing the miniature guitar, the girl who for some reason written across her breastbone was the legend “Well We’ll Get it Right Next Time.” Huh? The message on my body is what? Sitting next to the white-hat group were two women covered in tattoos, one with a child and this baby was not drugged into submission. The girl with the more tattoos of both of them was wearing a baby doll shirt, and from what was sticking out in some places and full on spilling out in others it seemed that she was the mother of this young child. She and her friend were sipping a little beer now and again. No harm in that, they had formula for the baby, so why not party on this rather stuffy non-party train. I didn’t want to stare, but I did want to see what kind of looks would be exchanged, if any, between the modest women of Little Woman and the women of Betty Page and what may have crossed the mind of each about the other. I assume something like:
“Wow, how sad, look at how oppressed she is.”
The men were not to be outdone. They had their tats and were drinking beer and counting down the time to the next smoke break stop on the line due to their additions. Some talked about cars, others about friends who had been shot. Outside passed more grassland, more sky, more wind, but little else to distract or entertain. Cell phone service was spotty so those with preloaded games or films took to watching them. In all, outside of the Mennonitey kids, no one was reading a book (full disclosure, neither was I).
It is interesting to see this mixture, these layers of religion sit next to one another as we pass through the upper reaches of the Bible belt. These costumes differed greatly than those of the South and the Sunset Limited where we passed through dry counties and saw tin churches rusting away in the sun. The philistines were the same, however. Tattoos mark them for the most part, but there are devout believers who still carry them. However, it was strange to see the divide up north between the pious communities and those more of this world. The kids playing cards and talking about college, playing with their iThingamajigs and talking endlessly about music, junk food, and travel, the same people I met all over the country, different only in skin ink. A world away from the carrot nibbling do-gooders, and another planet from the white or black bonnet kids sitting there reading about private eyes solving crime or Jesus on the Mount.
The Religious Right it has been said the cause of so much that is wrong with our current state of society, economy, and governmental policy. The radical Left it has been said the cause of so much that is wrong with our current state of society, economy, and governmental policy. There seems to be no lack of the devout, and those communities today I assume are growing fast since if one starts having kids at, say, 18 and doesn’t stop until one wears out, that could be 12-15 kids per female. In the less devout communities, there still could be 3-5 kiddies before they call their pastor and then call it quits. So today, the vast steppes of America are empty, but perhaps not for long. We may yet see a future where the country is divided up in some crazy way between Lubavitcher, Amish, Mennonite, Catholic Worker, Tazo, Jehovah Witnesses, Rue Paulists, Mormons, Muslims, and Scientology-ists.
Wow, I would love to see that Final Battle in the Culture Wars.
My money is on the Amish. They’re the ones the TeeVee tells me have a Mafia.