Oil. Black gold. Texas jitterbug juice. It seems like in today’s society, all of us are greatly effected in almost invisible ways by this sludge, whether it makes us yell at coworkers because, “The price of gas went up another 4 cents! It used to be cheaper than cola in my day! Grumble grumble gr!” or simply because we can’t live without imported mangoes year round. But for some of us, the effect isn’t just in the back of our heads; it is always palpable. One of these places where the entire landscape has been changed drastically because of recently accessible oil is in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
Otherwise known as Murder Alley.
Murder Alley is a term my friend, Hannah, and I invented right before we were embarking on a road trip through the region. See, it turns out that when an oil boom starts, a lot of young men with few or no family ties go where the money is. This influx of young men means there will be a lack of women, children, and elderly permanent citizens who actually care about establishing a community. It’s basically like the cast of Animal House, only replace John Belushi with a disgruntled guy that works out all day and has no real incentive to be decent.
And thus we have the term Murder Alley (alternatively, you could call it Rape Lane, Arson Road, or Pushing-Old-Ladies-Down-Wells Boulevard).
As you could guess, my friend and I were super excited to go through there.
I was going to visit my then boyfriend in Fargo-Moorhead (Moorhead is the town in Minnesota that’s basically integrated into Fargo) — because long distance relations were in vogue back then, and I always stay trendy — and my friend was visiting family in Bismarck, so we both had great conviction when we embarked on this journey. We had a plan: we’d drive for nine or so hours, I’d drop her off, and then I’d complete the last two or three hours alone. Nothing could go wrong!
Unfortunately, apparently there was nothing good on cable that day, so God/Gaia/His Supreme Lord Spaghetti Monster decided it wouldn’t be that simple.
Five hours into the trip, we entered the outskirts of this aforementioned Murder Alley when my oil light mysteriously came on. My friend and I pulled over off the side of the road, which happened to be next to a dead end running perpendicular to the highway. Because we had left after work, it was already pitch black by then. Stars illuminated the sprawling plains eastern Montana and North Dakota are so famous for, a chill immediately hitting us as we exited the car. Hannah and I bundled up against the brisk Montana winter air and went out to check the oil level, but as I took out the dipstick Hannah whispered something.
“Greg,” Hannah quietly muttered next to me, warily looking behind us.
“Hrm?” I asked nonchalantly, focused on getting this done with as soon as possible.
Out of the corner of my sight I noticed her eyes wide as small cookies (which are, you know, wider than most eyes). “There’s a car there.”
I turned around, confused, when I saw it: forty feet from us, dimly illuminated by my headlights, was a dark car. No one stirred within it, no noise coming from the ghostly vehicle. In a time when you hear rumors of uncouth people feigning help only for their scraggly gang buddies to lunge out at potential helpers and steal their vehicles, seeing this deserted car off the side of the street seemed like an omen of doom — especially in a place we’d jokingly said would result in our untimely deaths. So Hannah and I did the only natural thing and pissed ourselves.
“Fuck shit!” I yelled as I put the dipstick back in and closed the hood, bolting back into the driver’s seat. Hannah was already in the passenger’s side, having deftly translated my exclamation of terror into its intended signal to flee.
We drove off back into the highway, catching our breath and trying to avoid cardiac arrest, when I noticed an acrid smell in the air.
“Do you smell that?” I asked my companion.
“Uhh, yeah,” she weakly said, her adrenaline beginning to pump again after it’s 4 second reprieve.
Before we could exchange anymore commentary, I noticed something else: ebony smoke, billowing forth from the front of my car. Quickly following this succession of terrible smell and terrible sight was a terrible sound, as my car’s engine imitated a dying hoard of kittens, a series of hissing mewls and grunts escaping its metal maw. The car stopped accelerating and I pulled off the side urgently, Hannah yelling a string of expletives rivaled only by Game of Thrones dialogue.
On account of the smoke, potential burning, and barely-avoided dismemberment, we forewent leaving our seats and checking the hood once more, opting instead to simply call a truck to take us to the nearest town (or maybe it’s more appropriate to call it a village), Glendive. Then we waited.
We waited in my car for three hours, and it was quite apparent that, with my car’s engine going super nova, that we wouldn’t reach North Dakota anytime soon, much less our destinations past Murder Alley. So when the truck came, with a jovial, stereotypically small town driver, we had him take us to a hotel that still used faxes as their primary form of electronic communications. We restlessly fell asleep, ready to spring awake and defend ourselves from rapscallions at any moment.
The next morning we waited as Hannah’s father came for us, and Murder Alley was almost behind us by midday. But when we finally got to Bismarck, I looked for another way to Fargo, only to discover the buses between Bismarck and Fargo were cancelled due to one of the blizzards so common in the area.
It seemed like I was doomed to fail, and my entire trip had been in vain. In fact, not only had I inadvertently blown up my mom’s car’s engine, but I was now almost-certainly stranded in Bismarck as the sixth wheel in my friend’s family get together. There remained one chance at salvation, though: two friends who lived in Fargo-Moorhead. I pleaded with them, begged them, to come and bring me back to Fargo, despite the danger. Ah yes, infatuation truly makes people super smart and selfless.
They acquiesced, persuaded by my pitiful cries and offer to buy them dinner at a North Dakota staple, Space Aliens — basically Pizza Palace from Toy Story. After dinner, we set off into the raging blizzard, and I look back thankfully that I was blinded by love’s rosy shades, ’cause otherwise I would’ve been blind with pure terror.
If you desperately need to make a bowel movement, I suggest you drive through a blizzard in North Dakota. There are few times of extended horror that match driving in a North Dakota blizzard, where spectral semis appear next to you as you glide down the highway, only becoming visible as you get so close you could reach out and touch them. The flat plains of North Dakota turn into a never ending, time-sucking vortex during a storm, where the road seems to continue on and on forever. There are no turns, no stops, just a line that, after hours of silent snowfall, seems to extend infinitely.
We managed to arrive in Fargo safely, and I was dropped off in front of my boyfriend’s door. There was a moment of tired ecstasy; despite the blizzard, and the car engine melting, and the ever present danger of being taken prisoner by maligned miners, I had gotten to where I needed to. Soon I would be in the arms of my love. I had escaped Murder Alley!
He broke up with me as soon as I saw him.