North Dakota

Part one: Trains

When I think of New Salem, North Dakota, I first think of the trains. 

The trains that gave the slow town breaths, each exhalation of fumes a reminder of North Dakota’s excavated landscape; rolling plains, prairies, and badlands previously treasured by the indigenous Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes (among others), now a place for the teeth of capitalism to sink its dirty roots into. Still, life has found a way to make this violent greed pretty. 

Growing up, I could tell the time of day in New Salem by the trains that came rumbling through the town, shaking the doors and windows of every 100-year-old house like an angry wind that demanded to be felt. 

Each time my brothers and I visited my aunt Carol who lived in town we would take pennies to the railroad tracks and set them on the metal rails. Then we’d wait by the steps of her porch until the train came, which thundered by with such a ferocious intensity that it seemed as if the world itself was being flattened. After the train finished crossing we’d come and collect the newly rolled-out pennies —with elongated faces of Abraham Lincoln and stretched out words “in god we trust”— faded on the side of the track. Such curious souvenirs. Sometimes I still wonder if the conductors ever knew they took a small part in making art. 

The last time I went to visit, it was just me and my mom. We got cheap Chinese food in Bismark and ate it while watching the sun set on my aunt’s porch, the train disappearing over the never-ending horizon.

Every time I see a train now, I think of New Salem. The trains that rumbled by as my cousin and I would take the sap from pine bark rub it on our lips —the sticky sour gumming our lips together as we giggled—, the trains that shook the wind chime on the back porch and gave the lonesome midnights a quiet song, the trains that swirled the lukewarm water my aunt mixed the bright red powder of kool-aid into.

The trains, a constant reminder of movement through time.

When the world ends, I can imagine the trains still running. Graffiti-covered cars still crawling along the long-faded horizon, rusted engines forever caught in their whirl of motion.

Part two: Salem Sue 

New Salem has, and has always had, a population of a thousand people…but don’t quote me on that. It’s not “technically 1,000 people”; people come and go, are born and then die. But when the most exciting thing happening in the town over the last decade is the installation of a new grocery store, there’s a thousand people living there. A small, painfully small town.

But even in towns as small as this, residents find a way to draw tourists in. Introducing Salem Sue: World’s Largest Holstein Cow. According to a coffee mug my mom has that lists all of the fast facts about Sue, she was built in 1974 and stands 38 feet high and 50 feet long. Sue towers on a hill that overlooks the interstate, the only hill in miles and miles of flat grasslands and hayfields. I remember excitedly pressing my face up to the rear-window of my mom’s minivan to see as much of Sue as possible before we pulled off the interstate to visit my aunt and uncle’s house.

So New Salem decided to surround its town identity in cow culture. They had cow themed memorabilia line the gas station shelves, called the high school sports team the Holsteins, and created a festival they celebrate every summer called the Cow Town Hoe-Down.

As I only have the memories of childhood from the lens of, well, a child, I don’t remember what the Hoe-Down had to offer adults. Probably something like beer, bingo, and cow themed knick knacks. But as a kid, the weekend-long Hoe-Down had everything fun you could ask for. A bouncy house with a slide that practically begged kids to get rug burn from sliding too fast down its cheap nylon fabric, an egg toss in the middle of the main street where partners would see how far apart they could stand and throw an egg to each other before their egg dropped and broke, and a parade where participants of the dairy farmers or firefighters float threw excited little kids (like me) way too much candy. 

And, if you got bored with all of the festivities, right down the road was the playground, with a rusted and wobbly merry-go-round, a silver metal slide that burned hotly if you slid on it during the daytime, and large metal sea creatures on thick springs that squeaked as you rocked on them.  

While I didn’t grow up in North Dakota in the same way much of my mom’s side of the family did because we only visited my aunt and uncle once every year or two, New Salem holds many of my most formative childhood memories. Whenever my family drove up the windy trail on the hillside to stand beside Salem Sue, I’d peer up at her 38 feet tall body in awe, my little body barely even the size of her hoof. And I grew up with her. Over time, she became a piece of my home.

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