If a man wears his riot gear during prayer, will the sacred
forsake him? If a man wears his riot gear to the holiday meal,
how will he eat? If a man enters the bedroom in his riot gear,
how will he make love to his wife? If a man wears his riot gear
to tuck in his children, what will they dream?
Magpie Road is part of the Bakken, a shale formation lying
deep under the birds, the men in the truck, you, this road. The
Bakken is what is known as a marine shale— meaning, once,
here, instead of endless grass lay endless water. You left Standing Rock for the Bakken, and the woodsmoke from the water-protector camps still clings to your hair.
There, just o= Magpie Road, robins sit on branches or peck
the ground. A group of robins is called a riot. This seems wrong
at every level except the taxonomic. Robins are ordinary, everyday, general-public sorts of birds. They seem the least likely of
all birds to riot.
In the Bakken and in all fracklands towns, the influx of
men, of workers’ bodies, brings an overflow of crime. In the
Bakken at the height of the oil and gas boom, violent crime,
for example, increased by 125 percent. North Dakota attorney
general Wayne Stenehjem called this increase in violent crime
“disturbing” and cited aggravated assaults, rapes, and human
tra=icking as “chief concerns.”
When the men in the truck make their second pass, there
on the road, the partridge sit in their nests, and the robins
are not in formation. They are singular. No one riots but the
colors. The truck revs and slows and revs and slows beside you.
You have taken your last photograph of the grass, have moved
yourself back to your car. The truck pulls itself close to your car,
You are keeping your face still, starting the car. You have
mislabeled your imaginary photograph. These men, they are
not father and son. At close range, you can see there is not
enough distance in age. One does sport camouflage, but the
other, a button-down shirt, complete with pipeline logo over
the breast pocket. They are not bird hunters. The one in the
button-down motions to you out the window with his handgun,
and he smiles and says things that are incongruous with his
In the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, a floorhand shuts the
door to his hotel room, puts his body between the door and
a woman holding fresh towels. A floorhand is responsible for
the overall maintenance of a rig. The woman says to you that
he says to her, “I just want some company.” He says it over
and over, into her ear, her hair, while he holds her down. She
says it to you, your ear, your hair. She hates that word now, she
says, company. A floorhand is responsible for the overall main-
tenance of a rig. A floorhand is responsible.
But who is responsible for and to this woman, her safety, her
body, her memory? Who is responsible to and for the language,
the words that will not take their leave?
In a hotel in Texas, in the Permian Basin, you call the front
desk and report on the roughneck in the room upstairs. You dial
zero while he hits his wife/girlfriend/girl he has just bought.
You dial zero while he throws her and picks her up and starts
again. Or at least, one floor down, this is the soundtrack. Upon
his departure, the man uses his fist on every door down your
hall. The sound is loud but also is like knocking, like Hello, like
Anybody home? You wonder if he went first to the floor above
but think not. Sound, like so many things, operates mostly
through a downward trajectory.
At a hotel where South Dakota and Wyoming meet, you
are sure you have driven out of the Bakken, past its edge, far
enough. That highway that night belongs to the deer, and all
forty or fifty of them stay roadside as you pass. You arrive at
the hotel on ca=eine and luck. The parking lot reveals your cal-
culus to have been a mistake—frack truck after pickup after
Two roughnecks stagger into your line of sight, one drunk,
the other holding up the first while he zips his fly. This termi-
nology, fly, comes from England, where it first referred to the
flap on a tent— as in, Tie down your tent fly against the high
winds. As in, Don’t step on the partridge nest as you tie down
your fly. As in, Stake down your tent fly against the winter snow,
against the rubber bullets, against the sight of the riot gear.
The men sway across the lot, drunk loud, and one says to the
other, “Hey, look at that,” and you are the only that there. When
the other replies, “No. I like the one in my room just fine,” you
are sorry and grateful for the one in an unequal measure.
You cannot risk more roadside deer, and so despite all your
wishes, you stay the night. A group of deer is called a herd; a
group of roe deer, a bevy. There is a bevy of roe deer in the Red
Forest near Chernobyl. The Bakken is not Chernobyl because
this is America. The Bakken is not Chernobyl because the Bakken is not the site of an accident. The Bakken is not Chernobyl
because the Bakken is no accident.
On Magpie Road, the ditch is shallow but full of tall grass. With
one hand, the button-down man steers his truck closer to your car,
and with the other, he waves the handgun. He continues talking,
talking, talking. The waving gesture is casual, like the fist knocking down the hotel hallway — Hello, anyone home, hello?
Once on a gravel road, your father taught you to drive your way