The woman who didn’t like to travel — North Dakota
While I was driving for hours in North Dakota, having nothing else to do than watching fields and cattle along the highway, I was wishing to meet one of these farmers who work on these flat, huge and desert lands. I had so many questions : how is it different from farming in France ? How is it to live here so isolated ? How did they see the shale oil rush ? What is their look on the rest of the world ? Do they often meet foreigners ? Why did they vote for Trump (let’s be honest, 80% of them did) ?
In Bismarck, the state capital, I was visiting a very interesting exhibit on Indian ways of life in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum when the miracle happened. The old woman was touching the soft furs that once made the wealth of the territory when we started to talk.
I got my specimen.
She had lived almost her entire life in North Dakota as a farmer with her family. She only left for a few years to live in Colorado but she loved her home too much to stay far from it for too long.
She was from Norwegian descent. Her grand-parents immigrated for Norway at the very end of the 19th century. Exactly what the next exhibit taught me a moment after. All along the Canadian border, from Montana to North Wisconsin, a lot of Scandinavian immigrants settled in these deserted lands. That’s easy to understand why. The climate is about the same : hard winter and cool summers. They could use about the same farming techniques. Once a few of them had come, the others followed to form a Scandinavian community.
Her family had owned the exact same farm for more than 100 years
That’s when we started talking about differences between France and North Dakota. Here, they plant the seeds after the winter and harvest wheat in August or September whereas we do it in July in France. Birth of cows also happened at a different time of the year. After the winter here, in the winter usually in France.
When she told me she lived in the North-West part of the state, I immediately noticed that it matched with the territory which experienced the shale oil rush a decade ago (and still does today following oil prices).
It wasn’t the first rush she had experienced. She told me about others in the 1950s then 1980s. But the last one was definitely the biggest.
She told me how in a few months thousands of workers (mostly males) moved in the region to work for oil companies, and how they were both not ready. Local people couldn’t offer restaurants, hotels, facilities for so many people at the same time. New immigrants from all across the country, sometimes from abroad, were not used to so harsh winters and dust roads.
She told me how they helped them to adapt local conditions. How once a week her parish organized a shared meal to offer the workers real cooked meals to eat. She seemed glad she could help these lost workers. But she also told me she was glad when most of them left a few years later when oil prices dropped. Because that’s how the US work. When there is no more money to do, they just move on to something else in only a few months.
Today, with oil prices going up again, it seems that the region experiences a little resurgence of oil activities. But nothing compared to the 2006 chaos. Today, cities has grown, hotels have been built, roads have been paved.
So despite the fact that she enjoyed welcoming these new people, this woman was happy to see her area quiet again when they left. She seemed to value so much her tranquility. Her small cities and the 16 pupils classrooms at school.
When we talked about Europe countryside, she seemed to feel like even our deepest countryside was too crowded for her. She was addicted to her solitude in these large lands.
“Why did you come to North Dakota ? Nobody comes to North Dakota !”
She was surprised to meet me, a lonely French guy, in her state. Yes, why coming here ? Well, that’s the point of my trip. Because nobody comes here. Because I won’t meet other European people or Asian tourists here. Because I’m here to meet people like this old woman. Because I want to feel like an inhabitant of this region for a few days.
And I think I succeeded to have a good overview.
When she told she didn’t like to travel, I told her :
“I think I get it. You know, we live so far from anything else. Going to the closest small city is already so long. Even going to your state capital is at least a 3 hours drive. There is no trains, no planes, nothing to bring you elsewhere in a reasonable amount of time. So you don’t travel much, you are not used to. So you don’t like it because you don’t do it often and see it like something long and painful.”
She told me :
Heu…I had never thought about it… Maybe.
It was probably one of the first time in my life that I met someone who didn’t like so much to travel. Kind of ironic for a person whose ancestors made a so long trip from Europe.
That brings us to one topic we unfortunately didn’t have time to talk about : politics. Trump may be a nationalist jerk, his voters can be open-minded and welcoming, whatever with foreigners or Americans strangers. They may live in distant lands but they also have a deep humanity. Cities are not smarter because they voted against Trump. They just see things differently.
I may have spoken only 15 minutes with this woman, but I could feel it. She was a nice person.
This echoes so much the current political situation in France. We have the same divides. But it’s not the uneducated versus the graduated, the stupid versus the smart ones. It will never be, in a democracy.
We don’t travel to change of locations but to change of ideas.