The ladder to the sodded roof, the roof leading to the empty barn. This is one way to tell the story of abandon. Another is through the ties and the plan of a railroad connecting mining to a failing market. And when the market failed and the mining ceased, the railroad tracks were stripped of their ties and rehabbed into new abodes.
When coal is heated to produce coke, creosote is a side product. A possible carcinogen on the EPA list since 1986. Gardens and water tables, children and fires are at risk as regards ties coated in creosote. Gloves, long sleeves and well-ventilated areas are urged upon the citizen determined to landscape with these ties.
See, that’s the editorial I can’t turn off in my head. Climbing down the highway slope to get closer to snap shots, I want to dial down that impulse to turn everything into a learning moment. Instead of thinking of a mother’s babies breathing in black-goo fumes—and what became of those babies and how sad does the mother feel—I cross the highway, climb down into a marsh of cat-tails to watch Canadian geese slide across the ice.
What we are looking for is gone, my sister tells me when I get back inside her truck. Sometimes there is a homemade sign at the junction of two gravel roads and an unnamed creek: Tacos 25 Cents. Last time she saw the sign, shortly after the flooded reservation had dried up, an orange arrow crayoned on the sign had pointed to a narrow lane weaving its way to the Pryor Mountains.
What sort of taco can you sell for twenty-five cents, the town-girl in me wonders. On the Crow Nation Reservation, the nearest grocery store is forty-five minutes away.
“Factor in the gas, the cooking oil . . .”
I think out loud while I hold my hands over the windshield defroster. We bounce along a rutted dirt road and pass the old shooting range with sandstone cliffs acting as the backstop. One lone juniper tree tops the ridge—my sister’s favorite tree. She wants a photo of the tree, but my camera can’t squint well enough to capture that sort of shot.
“Grain for hand-rolled tortillas.” She offers, guiding me back to the country roots we share. “Onions from last summer’s garden.”
She stops the truck in the middle of the road so I can get out and take photos of three new, bouncing ponies in front of a long-gone house. Once again I find myself sliding down the barrow’s slope as quietly as I can, wanting to hear the sound of something—what? Back door slamming, children running, someone hollering Supper’s on!
“Cilantro from the pots against a southern window. Venison boiled all day until it falls apart.” She picks up our conversation when I get back inside the cab. I’ve taken 166 photos and search for fresh camera batteries while she executes a five-point turn in the middle of the road.
I’m not ready to go back. Not just because we didn’t find the woman who makes tacos—in my mind, I’ve named her YellowRobe—but because I feel by going back to town, I’m leaving this place behind. Another sort of abandon. And while I fiddle with replacing batteries, my sister reaches out and touches my forearm: Look!
Racing toward us on the left side of the road are three winter-coated horses and three teenaged boys riding bareback, thumping on their ponies’ backs and urging them to leap up and over a culvert. Legs flapping wildly, hoods sliding halfway off their heads, the boys grip their horses’ manes and bounce their way past us—and in my mind I name the boys: Goes Ahead, Plenty Rides, and Boy Who Waves to Town Girl.