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.


About redmitten

author of Cracking Geodes Open, Making Good Use of August, and The Peppermint Bottle. poetry editor for IthacaLit. website:

16 responses to “decommissioned

  1. I’ve been dancing around the theme of abandonment for a long time now. Years. Notes in my head but not enough jotted down. Your writing makes me want to jump into the mosh pit.

    Abandonment comes in so many forms, and I fully understand you not wanting to leave that quiet place. And what mother wouldn’t spin the “babies breathing in black-goo fumes” editorial?

    • redmitten

      i’d love to read some of the notes in your head. what is abandonment and how does it reach out and cause a ripple effect and how can we say no to those ripples?

      there used to be a back way into the mountains, which have ice caves and wild mustangs, but that back way in involves a barnyard and i understand now that the farm has fenced off the road. but yes, that quiet place is something hard to leave.

  2. you didn’t score a taco but you managed once again to lasso inspiration by its delicate ankle.

    i’ve got two creatures nicknamed in my neck of the woods: the boy who loves his dog, and the dog who eats poop.

    • redmitten

      oh wow, two creatures with good nicknames. and that dog must be related to the one we call chew here because…well, she thinks all the world is a buffet.

  3. Sweet Sherry — You brought tears to my eyes. And the photos are amazing. The final one looks like a painting. I kept staring and staring. Hugs!

    • redmitten

      karla, thank you m’dear. i wanted that last photo to turn out “better”- the contrast between the new yard ponies and the uninhabitable house, the vastness and the loss of time. i am glad you felt what i felt when i stopped to take a photo and spend some time near the place.

  4. wuffda

    I want to meet Boy Who Waves to Town Girl.

  5. Sitting here waiting for goosebumps to subside, I am once again so moved by – and feel so oddly connected to, at such a distance – this state, this country in which you know every wrinkle, stream and name. Those not known can be guessed at. xo

    • redmitten

      you and i connect on some wave length and it is good to hear from you. montana is so vast and so empty. for those of us who love this space, we worry about the emptiness filling up. my siblings and i grew up with family whose past time was/is spent on the back roads.

  6. Love the three horseys in the last photo. Also love the way this post stimulated so many feelings from the words ‘decommissioned,’ and ‘abandonment.’ I feel the moisture and melancholy in this post.

    • redmitten

      you are filled with empathy. and i am glad the many ways abandon could reach you. what i’ve had to work at over the years is how to not let this pin me down, because it did. the past and the abandonment kept me from being “here”. and so eventually i’ve learned to let go…another sort of abandon(ment). but not without feeling it just the way you said.

  7. this is one of my favorite red mitten posts so far – astonishingly beautifully written

  8. Rose Hunter

    This is the rehabbed! 🙂 The photos are gorgeous…a 25c taco, huh, here it’s tough to get one for less than 50c…what I am looking for is gone too…. Now, just too remember that. Thank you. 🙂 And another sort of abandon – I wrote that down….

    • redmitten

      this summer maybe i can go back and find the 25 cent taco lady. and i keep thinking that if i would realize what i am looking for is gone then i’d quit looking, but no. i look anyway. thank you back. 🙂

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