Friday, October 14, 2011

Near Minot (Part II)

A tanker truck rumbled by, and a blast of wind punched me in the side. Its red tail-lights slid ahead on the straight-line of highway two, streaking across the flat grass-land.

One should really never ride at night, but the cool, and calm air was too much to resist after a hot and windy day. I slipped my bottle out of its cage and drank down my last few drops of water. I was still riding with zeal at 10 pm on this mid-July night, the stars starting to twinkle on over-head.

Somewhere ahead–it was hard to say how far–an outpost glittered against the black back-drop of North Dakota night. I decided to make those lights, whatever they were, my destination for the night. I hugged the diminishing shoulder, shuddering each time a vehicle raced by. It was impossible to see the occupants, I imagined they were all single drivers, and each vehicle simply became a hurtling mass of metal, projecting a blinding light in its direction of travel.

Perhaps an hour later, I arrived at a gas station. It had closed for the day, and I wondered how I would refill my water bottles. As one always does when he wishes a business were open, I peered inside and read the hours of operation. Neither was of any help.

Rolling around the side of the building, I discovered a parking lot of idling oil tankers, and humming RVs. I was witnessing my first expression of North Dakota's oil boom. The Bakken formation, buried beneath the states of Montana and North Dakota, contains billions of barrels of oil, perhaps hundreds of billions according to some estimates. With recent developments in fracturing technology, and a state-wide tax break for oil drilling, the pace of oil extraction has sky-rocketed in recent years. North Dakota now has 3.2% unemployment, the lowest in the nation. The infrastructure of North dakota is buckling under the stress of job-seeking immigrants, most notably in the housing sector. So people live in hotels, if they can find them, and, more often than not, they simply live in their cars, filling up the parking lots of gas stations and Wal-Marts. Oil rig drivers frequently sleep behind the wheel, at work 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. Many such workers were dozing in this parking lot.

My housing prospects for the night were equally dismal, and I decided to set up my tent in a field behind the gas station. Before doing so, I found a 24-hour water filling station, contained within a small wooden structure. I thankfully filled up my bottles, and gulped down the water before bedding down.

Sometime during the night I was awoken by the percussive slap of rain-drops against my tarp-tent's rip-stop nylon. I was surprised, given the calm night I had fallen asleep to hours before. Nevertheless, I was still dry and I covered my head in my blanket, waiting for the rain to end.

Then thunder exploded over-head, and a wind began to ripple the side of my tent, blowing its dampening folds into my face. I heard engines in the parking lot rumble to life. The wind became deafeningly loud, and I understood that I was in a bad situation. I felt the rain beginning to blow inside the tent, which was straining to remain rooted in the ground. Then, the strengthening wind began to rip my tent's stakes out of the moist ground. Once the first stake was gone, I was no longer in a tent, but caught up inside a wet ball of nylon.

Amidst this chaos, the scene blazing with flashes of lightning, I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and emerged, bleary-eyed and confused, into the roar of the storm, horizontal rain stinging my face. An oil-tanker shined its headlights meanly onto the side of the gas station, and then pulled out of the parking lot and onto the freeway. My tent flapped, wild in the wind, with only one stake remaining in the ground. In the next ten seconds, my brain now pumping with adrenaline and fear, I disassembled my defeated shelter. Clutching my sleeping bag and my tent, I sprinted, barefoot, towards the water filling station, swerving across the warm and wet asphalt.

The door was difficult to open, locked into place by the steady and powerful push of rushing air. Straining to pull it open, I struggled into the wooden shelter, now groaning and creaking. Inside, the air was suddenly calm, and I stood, dripping in a flickering, white fluorescent light.

I felt sick with fear and with the surprise of awakening. Looking down, I noticed a red pool around my left foot and the smell of blood filled the room. In the preceding minutes, something had sliced open my heel, and I watched the resulting blood intermingle with the water on the floor. The door rattled back and forth as sheets of water swept over the ground.

I crouched down and held my knees, feeling the intensity of the storm surge against the shaking walls. The water dispenser buzzed and vibrated, a strange and vocal machine.

Feeling wasted from my longest day of cycling yet, and the sudden stress of the storm, I collapsed to the floor. I wrapped my quilt around me, making sure that it didn't come in contact with the water or the blood. Outside the storm raged, and overhead, white light bore down upon me. In spite of it all, I fell asleep for some time.

Then I woke up to find that the weather was calmer. So I went out, and walked over to the field to set my tent up again.

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