I had almost reached Montana when a haunting green glow illuminating the western North Dakota night demanded my attention and pulled my eyes away from the road. With the weight of a twelve by six-foot trailer, filled with everything I owned towed behind it, my poor Subaru Outback whined for a break each time it met even the slightest hill. But I was eager to reach the border and didn’t want to give-in. Trying to ignore the trick my tired eyes seemed to be playing, I kept driving.
I was leaving North Dakota for the last time and was determined not to delay my departure any longer. I had left Montana nine months earlier to help protect North Dakota’s land, water and wildlife from the oil boom that was in the process of transforming it from a quiet, pastoral relic borrowed from a previous century to a semi-industrialized landscape forever to be scarred by the pockmarks of adolescent ignorance. I was only supposed to be there a year, but a combination of dubiously constitutional laws backed by big money politics had forced my early departure. On one hand, I was happy to be returning to Montana, my adopted home, but I couldn’t shake a deep-seated anger and resentment that my time in the Peace Garden State had bred in me.
I tried to keep my eyes trained west towards the border, but the growing intensity of shimmering green light drew my eyes northward. What could it be? My first instinct was to dismiss it. After many hours driving at night in the western part of the state where more than one million barrels of oil were being extracted each day, I had grown accustomed to the sight of strange light. Between well pads and the endless flaring of natural gas, light pollution plagued the state’s night sky as much as fracking had its land and water. Even so, something about this seemed different. The light stretched across a huge, unbroken expanse of sky, and the bands of iridescent green waves reverberated along the horizon.
After a few minutes of compulsively alternating my gaze between the road and the horizon to the north, it hit me – Northern Lights! As soon as this thought entered my mind, the lethargy that had settled in after five hours of driving on cruise control evaporated. I couldn’t believe it. Northern Lights! I had only seen them twice before – once in Alaska and once outside my childhood home in New York. In both instances, the experience seemed like a dream. Once the lights had dissolved back into the black of the night sky, I struggled to convince myself that they had been real. And this was no different.
It would be just like North Dakota to play a one last trick on me. The state had hardly made a good first impression, but after the excruciatingly long winter slowly gave way to spring, I started to appreciate its subtle splendor. As I wound my way along back roads and county highways, geese passed overhead and mallards and pintails filled the drainage ditches along the sides of roads that had flooded with the spring melt. Yellow-headed blackbirds whizzed between clumps of dead grass on the edges of wetlands, and pheasants strutted through the stubble of last year’s harvest that had not yet been plowed-up to make way for the coming year’s crop.
But as I was learning to embrace the slow pace of the prairie, endless news stories of oil spills, illegal wastewater dumps, train derailments, and development in proximity of cultural and historical landmarks continued to mount, and I became disheartened by the widespread apathy that allowed this status quo to persist. It was a cruel trick. Just as I had begun to appreciate the magnificence of a flat horizon accentuated by the stark contrast of brown grass against a blue sky, the same circumstances that had brought me there forced a realization that this bucolic remnant, which for most of the country had long since passed from collective memory, was finally being conquered by the industrial world.
I pulled over along the side of the highway, stepped out of my car and strained to decipher, definitively, the allusion my tired eyes had suggested. My body shuddered every time a tractor trailer thundered past, but I kept my eyes focused northward determined to solve this mystery. I wanted desperately to believe the eerie light was that of the aurora borealis, but no matter how hard I stared, I couldn’t answer this one, final question. I lingered a few minutes longer, but Montana beckoned. Upon reaching the border, I stole one last glance in my rearview mirror. The light was gone, and the night was black. I kept driving.