The Empire Builder
I. Crude By Rail
Heading north and west from Chicago, the train filled up the closer it got to the Frack. You might say the train “filled up on its way to Williston,” but then you’d just be revealing that you didn’t know anything at all about the oil boom, or about North Dakota for that matter. Of course, you wouldn’t be alone in your indifference. Nobody except for Native people and a few German ranchers and Scandinavian beet farmers ever knew a thing about the place.
Nobody cared or even thought about North Dakota except during its three oil booms. Any other kind of knowledge came from the stealing of the territory in the nineteenth century—the taking of land away from the Mandan, the Hidatsa, the Hunkpapa, the Anishnaabe, the Sisseton, and the rest of the original Indigenous people. Otherwise, the state was viewed at best as a sacrifice zone, a kind of wasteland. Some obscure late-night comic once suggested that it should either be given back to Canada or made into a national cemetery. “Wow, just think of all the land we’d get back everywhere else from their cemeteries if North Dakota was turned into an enormous necro-state!” Funny.
Only Indians and animals and birds and grasses had relations with the muddy big river and the sharp scoria lands carved into canyons, ravines, gullies, buttes, mesas, hoodoos, and other geologic forms. The tender little pothole lakes nestled in the long grass remained unseen, and few knew about the black soil in the east, about the soft color of sunset in the light humidity of the air, about the ten-mile-high wildness of the thunderhead clouds that rolled over the prairie in the summer. And then there was winter—sharp and glittering. No one from another place could appreciate winter’s delicate, break-bone season.
Oil, of course, changed that calculus of disregard, and the state was seen. The syllables of its name were on the tongue of every jackwagon who was looking to strike it rich in the oil frontier, to be American, to link up with the snow-white hands of the national dream. And once it was laid open to the corporate eye, everything changed: the river and creek water turned saline, the blackness of the night sky was torn into light by methane gas flares, birds passing over their ancestral migration path were left forever altered—feather conjugated to frack fluid.
The prairie pothole ecosystem of North Dakota has always, until oil, provided a haven for avian breeding and travel. Bird migration always hinges on change in food availability, change in habitat, or change in weather, and sometimes, the journeys are irregular (nomadism, invasions, irruptions), or the movements happen in only one direction. These kinds of migratory shifts also apply to human bodies in need—humans who also take flight.
A good number of those set in motion in the early twenty-first century came out to the Bakken on the flight path made by “The Empire Builder,” the long-distance passenger train that runs from Chicago to the west coast —the route built in 1929 out of the fragments of an earlier project of subduing the land and the people who lived there. Just like a toy train, The Empire Builder had coiled back on it tracks and was moving through a familiar circuit, the new land grab, the new catastrophe, the new wracking of the land, the new Boom.
America repeats itself and sometimes it takes the same train to get to the same station.
II. Observation Car
The voice was loud and straight out of the Deep South, as so many of the voices clamoring in the Frack were—just one kind of tone sounding out of the chorus of the great unemployed of the Recession in the early twenty first-century. The Recession a bust, proceeded by another kind of Boom, and then, a housing bubble burst, collapsing with the pressure of a wind. The cycle. The alternation.
The voice was loud with easy, oily money.
“I told him that I would be god-damned if I would let him drive my new Lariat. I bought that truck for myself out of the money I made hauling fuel to the pads for the C&J. And I’ll be god-damned if he sits his dirty ass down in my rig.”
“It ain’t even registered yet, so I myself can’t drive it. I just take the little dog, Tom-Tom, out to the truck and sit in it and smell the new. Just breathe in all that new.”
“I got that dog, you know, but I also got me a cat that likes to read the King James Bible.”
People walking the aisle back to the dining car.
So many coming to the Boom lands of North Dakota to try again to be American in that old way, in that white way that made money out of other’s bodies and land. Their own bodies themselves becoming fodder for the machine. They just didn’t know they were being eaten, drilled into, becoming oil in their poison injected flesh. The spending, the sex, the drugs, the soul-killing work, the money, the wages always covering over the drill site—the deadly point of entry.
“Like I said, I got me a cat that likes to read the King James Bible.”
It was clearly important to indicate that King James was somehow involved in the business at hand. The cat wouldn’t read other translations of the bible? Maybe it was a cat with a consciousness of Christian denomination. Clearly not a Catholic cat.
“I got me a cat that likes to read the King James Bible.”
“What you talkin’ about?”
They were traveling together. Didn’t they know each other well enough to have had this conversation about the cat before? Seems like a thing that might have come up at some point prior. But it is also true that the time it takes to travel by rail and the odd intimacies it generates among strangers and friends gives rise to story. Story that everyone in the car can hear, if voices are loud enough.
“Every time I open that Bible, that cat, well, he just jumps up on my lap and puts his paws down on the verses I’m reading.”
“Ssshhhhaaa!” An expression of disbelief. “Cats can’t read.”
“Well, this one can, but only if it’s the King James Bible.”
“How do you know he is reading?”
“Well, I made me a test one night. I got a book that was the same size as the King James Bible. Same color and all. I had some me trouble finding one just like it.”
“Pass those potato chips, hey.”
“I opened that book, the one that looked like the King James Bible, and called him over to read. ‘Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.’ Well, that cat just sat there on the floor and looked at me, like ‘What do you want with me, woman?’”
“There ain’t no potato chips in this bag.”
“That’s when I knew I had me a cat that could read the King James Bible. I made the test and the cat knew the difference.”
The sound of the cars rumbling through the eastern prairies of North Dakota provided the undercarriage of all this talk, making the conversation rhythmic in a hectic way kind of way.
In Williston, lots of people got off. The workers going back to the Frack. Workers getting on too, after their hitches. The place was suddenly a cramped kind of cosmopolitan with the un-moneyed coming from Ukraine, from Georgia, from rural China, from Seattle, from England, and from places that you couldn’t find on any map. The train was like the Orient Express during the Cold War, dangerous and full of people who did not necessarily comport well with each other.
Oil was part of the fuel the train burned to run.
III. Dining Car
I haven’t been through this country since the late 80s when Ener-Kel made me into a Landman for a short time. They recruited me out of Williston where I was working at the high school cleaning floors, and they teamed me up with a “Certified Landman.” The guy was white. I mean he knew how to cure titles but couldn’t always get the signatures on the paper, you know? He wanted me along because he needed an Indian smoke screen—the Assiniboines and Nakota from Fort Peck wouldn’t necessarily sign for white boys. Not even if they were careful enough to swap out their shiny new cars for old Ford F-1 50s before they showed up, you know?
Leases for oil rights generally work like this: A company purchases the right to drill for oil underneath an acre of land by paying a one-time upfront payment, called a bonus, and a percentage of the profits earned on the well, known as a royalty. On Indian lands additional laws also apply, dictating who can negotiate for whom and how the government has to oversee the agreements. —Abrahm Lustgarten
We went on a road trip down I-94 from Mandan, to West Fargo, and on to Little Earth down in the Cities. Lots of Indians living there, right? Stan was trying to get the Bird lease done. He’d been like working on it for a couple of years. He had hundreds of signatures already—all people connected to the divided land. We had a few signatures left to get from people living off reservation after Relocation—or living off reservation because Indians like to move, you know? We did get some of the signatures around Poplar, going into mobile homes and old homes along the lake, or going into Williston—places that I knew well, you know? The signature page for that Bird lease was five pages long with 400 or more signatures for the lease of the land at the drill site. 400 signatures. All my relations. All their royalties.
For over a century, Indian families have seen valuable land resources diminish as fractionated ownership increases with each passing generation. As a result of the General Allotment Act of 1887 reservation land was divided up and allotted to individual tribal members. When an allottee died, title ownership was divided up among all of the heirs, but the land itself was not physically divided. . . . . Parcels with fractionated ownership can have hundreds or even thousands of owners. –Indian Land Tenure Foundation
We were looking for three or four more signatures on that lease, even though Stan was always working multiple leases. For the Bird lease there were two women down in Little Earth in Minneapolis and two men along the way. Stan knew where to go. It was always like he had been there before, which he probably had. It took a while to run some signatures to ground, you know? You had to go back more than once. If we got those three, our job would be done and Ener-Kel could begin exploration work on the land, anyway.
Stan was an asshole, right? He was always like “Gotta secure those permissions: the company can’t drill without ‘em.” He worked for Ener-Kel since the first oil boom in the 1950s in North Dakota and Montana. By the late 80s it was just bust—the second boom dried up, right? But Ener-Kel still wanted those signatures. Can’t develop without the leases, and leases need signatures. It all seemed kinda stupid to me then, like the oil was drying up, you know? What’s the point of getting leases on dry land? But, now? The Bakken. You can bet Ener-Kel hit that play running, right? It was like they knew. Get the leases ready for what’s coming.
The first place we went to was a dive bar out on the far edge of Mandan. We got there at noon. There was no sign telling you that it was going to be a bar you’d be walking into. Nothing to let you that it was anything at all, you know? Just a gravel parking lot and a two-story building with garbage cans knocked over out in front. It smelled like skunk beer and cigarettes and no cleaning. Dark inside with green neon. And everyone in there was half-wino, you know?
Stan talked to the bartender about the guy we were looking for, and he pointed to a door. It didn’t seem like it, but there were apartments upstairs, right? We climb these rickety stairs, looking for apt whatever number it was. It smelled like mildew and piss up there. Condemn it or burn it, just for starters.
Most tribal leases now are sold by tribal governments, while allotted leases are negotiated between Indian owners and companies, with BIA involvement. Before entering into lease negotiations with oil and gas companies, Indian mineral owners often do not know the value of their resources. These owners are at a disadvantage when negotiating such critical matters as the dollar amount of the bonus bid, the royalty rate, and time frames for drilling the first well. Once signed, a lease agreement is a binding contract. –US Government, Oil and Gas Leasing in Indian Country: An Opportunity for Economic Development
We finally found the apartment, right? The white woman who opened the door was small and like, round. She wore shorts and a baggy t-shirt and half her teeth.
Stan said, “We’re looking for Cecil Fox. He said that he. . . . ”
“He ain’t here, but he’ll be back. He’s gonna sign.”
I mean, it wasn’t like he wasn’t gonna sign, there was nothing like that. He just wasn’t there, right? She leaned into the doorway and looked us up and down while she took a big bite out of a cold hotdog she had in her left hand. It wasn’t hot, it wasn’t even cooked. It’s just this cold hot dog, right? And she’s half chewing on this thing the whole time she’s staring at us. And I’m watching her mouth. I’m like, “She got enough teeth to eat that thing?”
Stan and I are both, like, fascinated with her eating this hot dog, because it’s something out of a cartoon. I mean, it is. And at the same time, when we’re talking to her, you know, and she’s chewing on this hot dog, this big cockroach just walked up the side of the refrigerator. And Stan and I looked at it like “Jesus.” She didn’t bat an eye. I don’t even know if she saw it, or even cared, or anything.
So, we said, “OK, we’ll be back,” and we just turned and walked down the hall. And we’re walking, and I went, “What if she just grabbed that cockroach and just threw it in her mouth with that hot dog?” Stan busted out laughing. I was, like, “God, that cockroach was huge!” It freaked us both out, you know? The place, the smell, the poverty.
We got in the car, and we headed to this other guy’s house down the road. Stan knew where it was right away once we got to West Fargo—it was five minutes from the highway. We parked in front of this guy’s house, and he’s home. He goes, “Yeah, c’mon in.” There was kind of a dark room where the living room was, and then a kitchen, and then a kind of a dining room off the kitchen. It’s a small house, but the living room had the heaviest, thickest shades you ever saw, you know? They were all drawn. It was dark as the dead of night in there, man. It was a hot day, you know? I mean it’s 80 degrees outside, right? I’m in basketball trunks and a tank top. The guy says to me, “Have a seat in the living room.” Stan sat down at the kitchen table. It was one of those old, classic 70’s tables with the metal legs, and the chrome, and the coffee stains on the top you know, and salt and pepper shakers, on that table. Stan had the paperwork with him . . . and no, no, no, no, no, hold on.
When we got to that guy’s house, he was there. Yeah. We went in, but the guy said he needed to have a drink. He asked Stan to go get him a 6-pack. Well, Stan had done this before. He used to carry that shit in his trunk. He knew. He knew what these guys needed, right? I think we got a carton of cigarettes and a 6-pack of beer out of the car. The guy was like really happy. He opened a beer and a pack of cigarettes right away. He was smoking and drinking, and he looked super rough, man. But Stan signed him. He took the guy through what it meant, and, you know, if they get anything or whatever, you’ll get this amount, and it’s this percentage. The guy put his name on it.
Techniques the AAPL (American Association of Professional Landmen) recommends.
- Speak their language
- Open with an offer
- Know your target price and limits
- Don’t anchor low
- Don’t be adversarial
- Learn to love silence
- Be prepared with a counteroffer
- Never rush it
Stan was a notary too, and he notarized everything that he got signed. Anyway, Stan was in the kitchen getting this paper work signed. I was in the living room sitting on the couch. I’m, like, “Oh there’s coffee table there in front of me and there’s a TV across the room.” I could kind of see that, and there was a like a love seat over there, and then longer sectional couch. I sat in the middle of this couch, kind of sitting on the edge. Like I didn’t lay back on the couch or anything, you know? I’m just kind of sitting there, like, temporary, and I’m listening to them in the other room, and I’m looking towards the light in the kitchen, you know, and then I look around the living room. I look down at the floor, and I’m looking, and I’m going, “Oh, there’s something weird here. Well, this is kind of strange.” I’m looking. I’m going, “There’s something crawling around on the floor.”
Then, I’m, like, “Holy, there are bugs all over this floor. Oh my God, everywhere.” I was like, “God, it’s moving,” and I got the hell out of that living room. Like, right now. It freaked me out, you know? I walked right through the kitchen, and walked out to the car. I mean, Stan was done, he was getting ready to say his goodbyes, or whatever, you know? I said, “Hey nice to see you.” I went right to the car. Stan came out, and he said, “Oh, you musta been ready to go,” or something like that. I said, “Stan, there was bugs all over that couch and all over that floor. I didn’t want to get them on me, and I didn’t want to bring them to the car.” I’m like “Holy, it scared the shit out of me, man.” He just started laughing. The place was infested.
It was absolute poverty. I was like, “Ho, these people in their day-to-day existence live in absolute poverty” which, I know about, right? Or I did back then, anyway. There was no food in those houses. There’s no . . . I mean, there’s nothing, right?
About getting Cecil White Bird to sign, I think Stan said, “I’ll come back for it another time because I want to get to Minneapolis and get those signatures tonight,” and so we kicked ass to Minneapolis, and got some shit done out there.
This Lease shall continue in force and the rights granted to Ener-Kel (LESSEE) shall be quietly enjoyed by Ener-Kel (LESSEE) for a term of Five (5) years (the “Primary Term”), and as long thereafter as operations are conducted on the Leased Premises, or as long as well(s) producing Oil and Gas in paying quantities or well(s) capable of producing Oil and Gas in paying quantities from the Leased Premises or from lands unitized or pooled therewith, in the sole judgment of Ener-Kel (LESSEE).
I didn’t like that job. It made me sick to do it. All those people signing away what they didn’t know they had, you know?
IV. Coach Car: 25 Aisle and Middle Seat
All the people here were so strange, so fat. So alien. And the food so bad. The monstrous brown buns with the liquid sugar sauce. And why so much cheese on all the food?
But the family was here to make its way, to grow and to prosper, to move away from the endless work of the farm near Gaoling, from the failure of the shop in Philadelphia—forget the hunger. The life of their son was most important.
Liu Zhang could feel the roughness of the jacket that he had just bought at the store named “Murdoch’s” where pig supplies were mixed in with work clothes and horse saddles. There was a man in that store buying very tight pants and a big hat. He wore an American flag T-shirt decorated with an evil looking, yellow-eyed bird. Zhang was careful not to stare. He stayed very focused on buying clothes for his job at Earthwell Energy. He was the replacement security guard at their Flat Rock drilling site. The new clothes were grey, stiff, and creased. As he walked to the train, the pants made a sound like an envelope opening. Over and over again.
Huiyin and Fei Hong would go west to Shelby, Montana where Zhang had found a place for them to stay and to be safe, away from the frenzy and the risk. Also, it was hard to find a place to sleep in Williston or anywhere near there. And too expensive. An elderly couple would allow Huiyin and Fei Hong to stay in their farmhouse in exchange for work, and there were already a few other Chinese families, women and children, in the area. Zhang’s cousin, who had worked the oil rigs for several years had told Zhang about looking in Shelby for places where the family could stay.
Today they would say good-bye to each other, but Zhang would go out to Shelby on the train to visit as soon as his hitch was over. Last night the family stayed in a grassy place by the brown river, sleeping in their blankets, as they had been for a week since Huiyin and Fei Hong had come in on the train from Chicago.
Zhang would not bring his wife to the old trailer in the camp where he would stay after they left. There were many men sharing and living in trailers in that camp—workers for Earthwell Energy, Schlumberger, and other companies. It was a dangerous place for women and children. It was a dangerous place for men too. So much drinking.
Huiyin had been so excited this morning. She had made liang pi, cold noodles, for breakfast over Zhang’s little camp stove, and she and Fei Hong would be able to take the food on the train, which left Williston at 11:07 this morning and would be in Shelby at 5:17 that night. She had been happy. But now that Zhang was walking them to the train car and finding them seats, she started to quiet. Other people on the train were looking at them, again, as they had when they traveled from Chicago. He told them he would see them in a month and left them in the top part of the train car.
They could not see Zhang waving goodbye into the windows of their car. He was gesturing on the wrong side of the train, and the sun made it hard to look anyway. Mother and son talked to each other for a while after the train pulled out of the Williston station, but gradually their voices became more and more hushed, until they fell silent altogether. The hum of other languages grew louder, and discussion of a pet cat could be heard.
V. Sleeper Car
The interior of the sleeper cabin was dark.
“We’ll get to Spokane tomorrow morning, and then we got to lay low until the company says go.”
“I don’t give a shit if we aren’t supposed to smoke. I am going to burn one right here, right now. They can come after me if they want.”
“Where are we going after Spokane? I don’t know. L.A.? Vegas? Alaska? Fuckin’ the dark side of the moon? Anywhere hands can’t be put on me, that’s where we’re goin’. It’s not only the tribal cops that are looking for me since they found my own private dumping ground and those hot socks. It’s the Feds now too. Finally doin’ their job now that television is involved. They know it was me that dumped the socks, they just don’t know who I did the dumping for. That’s the question, because that’s where the money for clean-up is going to come from. If it ever does.”
“You say that I fucked up my life? Darlin’ I’m a roughneck, my life was already fucked before this thing here. Don’t you know that the Patch is nothing but full of people who screwed it up the first-time round, tried again and fucked it up again, only this time they got paid a lot more for doing it?”
“The socks? Hauling frack waste? That’s not even a job, sugar, and it sure ain’t no job for a dab hand rigger like me, who knows the crude. I spit sweet light crude and crap frack fluid. I was born to drill, not to haul the left-overs. NO fuckin’ thank you, ma’m. But you know better than me that after that fire on the Rockin’ J and after Buddy’s amputations, I wasn’t going to get hired nowhere that drilled. They said I was partly to blame for that business because of I didn’t know how to call the pressure build up, but I say it was the bad luck that woman rigger brought with her.”
“Hauling those socks, though? Worst work you could get. No one wants ‘em, not the company, not the state, and sure as hell not me. Driving around in a leaking truck with a load of orange, radioactive filter socks looking for someplace to dump them, and then shoveling them out the back end. I’m probably staring down the barrel of some kind of cancer, just about now.”
“But, let’s be honest, there ain’t no job security in rig work. Not here, not in Texas, not in Oklahoma, not Wyoming, not nowhere that is oil.”
VI. North of the Tracks
Wait, Precise Geographical Coordinates: 48 degrees, and 13 minutes, 59 seconds North; 101 degrees, and 17 minutes, and 32 seconds West: 48°13’59”N 101°17’32”W; Less Precise Location, near the Cleetwood Rig—true name the Mouse River Basin
The Gray Tiger Salamander sucked her tail and rocked back on her spine, curling in on herself while looking down on the death scattered in shrunken bodies around the hard, rotating thing that smelled of rotting mud and dead sucker fish left three weeks on the river bank. No salamander liked come up from the burrow unless it was spring or the rain was heavy, but the activity of the upright ones and their life above ground, not-in-the-water, needed to be watched, although almost never could anything be done in that watching.
The days were far behind when the Wahpeton used salamander claws at the edge of their ceremonial lodges and the Mandan put Thunder Beings and Salamanders on their pottery to represent the above and below and the great wheel of life and death. Even their own European stories of the salamander and its sacred fire told in occult wisdom and in the texts of the ancient Greeks had been abandoned, sold by the servants of the turning machine.
“The salamander gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin. The salamander, which renews its scaly skin in the fire—for virtue.” –Notebooks of Da Vinci
The Grey Tiger Salamander looked down at the many of her kind who were killed by the oil well’s wastewater. A flowback accident. A spill into the river and into the water table.
“Flowback will contain the chemical additives used during hydraulic fracturing; thus, flowback is an industrial wastewater that requires proper treatment and/or disposal,” according to Cornell University’s Water Resources Institute.
It takes a lot of water to frack a well. A single shale well may use 2–8 million gallons over its possible lifetime, depending on the geological characteristics of the particular “play,” or formation, involved. Large volumes of fracking fluids are injected underground at high pressure. Much of the injected mixture resurfaces within the first 2 weeks after pressure is released on the well. This so-called flowback tends to have high levels of lead, ammonium, selenium, salts, and other contaminants, like radium, a radioactive element. Some scientists say that it will take hundreds of years for the water table in Western North Dakota to clear, to again be able support life for its native animals and amphibians and fish.
All of the salamanders and frogs and snakes closest to the rig had come out from their burrows and logs and water puddles when the flowback of the fluid had come, in a wave, over them. In their attempt to escape, their bodies lost life, desiccating in the sun on the pad around the rig. They died in the hundreds. Plains Spadefoots, Green Snakes, False Map Turtles, Grey Tiger Salamanders, and their kin the Ordinary Tiger Salamander. All their bodies strewn about the rig in clenched movement stilled by the chemicals in the water.
The Grey Tiger Salamander uncoiled herself. She flicked out her tongue, smelled the dirty air, and began to slide back and forth across the grasses, moving toward the rig with its trailers. In the light of the evening her variegated tail looked as though it was flickering, licked with the smallest of fires, the beginnings of flame. For virtue.
▪ ▪ ▪
Raised in North Dakota, Katie Kane now lives in Missoula, Montana. Kane is completing a short story collection entitled The Deep North, which explores life in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West. One short story from this collection, “Payday Loan,” appeared in Black Warrior Review Issue 37.1, and a second, “Road Kill,” was published in Salvage #6 Evidence of Things Not Seen. An autotheory piece, “Caddy,” came out in Fence Magazine in fall of 2021. Kane was the Arts and Culture Editor of Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-Au-Prince (2017), a volume of testimonials on life in Haiti for the McSweeney’s series Voices of Witness. Follow her on Twitter @katiemkane and on Instagram @katie_kane_.