The stubble from last year's wheat crop still stretches like an endless, awkward crew cut along the flat Red River Valley. Any day now, the farmers who have sat through this wet spring will begin seeding the prairie again.
This is the breadbasket of America and the military zone. Less than a hundred miles north of here is another huge crop planted in the soil of The Peace Garden State: nuclear missiles.
Sooner or later, almost everyone I meet offers me the same odd tidbit from their state's identity. If North Dakota were to secede from the union, they say, it would be the third largest nuclear force in the world. I cannot figure out whether it is said with pride or irony.
Brian Palacek, a nuclear freeze organizer, who lives over in the state capital of Bismarck, says that North Dakotans suffer from "place-ism, a sense of inferiority, like racism or whatever." A native son once described this as the biggest blank rectangle in our national consciousness. A Louisville, Ky., newspaper created a storm last fall by suggesting that we could solve our economic problems by selling North Dakota.
There is something perverse in this place-ism. Lois Trapp, a writer and grandmother whose family owns some of the last bit of virgin prairie in Enderlin--"forty acres that have never felt a plow"--notes that she lives in a state with the power to destroy the world, and "nobody knows where we are."
In some ways North Dakota is like all of America. It's a land-based territory of plowshares and swords, giant combines and huge ICBMs, with resources to feed the world or destroy it. But it's more obvious here.
The North Dakotans, 630,000 of them, are scattered across country that stretches from prairie to badlands. Like the rest of us, they have finally become conscious of the craziness of the arms race. Last fall, this ground zero, this prime target, voted by referendum to send a nuclear freeze message to Washington. Yet they have learned to live with the missiles in their own backyard. Like the rest of us, they bury their fears.
Driving along route 94, past exits with names like Kindred and Buffalo and Wheatland and Bonanzaville, Alice Olson, a lawyer who ran for state attorney general in 1980, says that North Dakotans don't feel more vulnerable in their territory than elsewhere. Even those who have been next-door neighbors to concrete bunkers surrounded by fences since the 1960s complain mostly about the problem the missile sites present for weed control.
Over breakfast at the Tower Truck Stop Cafe, Lois Trapp says that "people feel that if anything happens everyone will go." She and others speak with outraged frugality about the days when the government built the ABMs and then immediately negotiated them away.
In Casselton, Bill Sinner, who runs a 3,100-acre farm with his partners, a farm with wheat on the land and a computer in the office, says, "We're far enough away that we don't think about them much. It's like everything else in life. You learn to live with it."
Sinner lives "with it" about a hundred miles from the missiles. But then, I live with it about a mile from a target called MIT.
The legislature that meets in Bismarck, for about three months every other year, is just coming to a close. The other day someone rode a tractor up to the capitol to remind everyone that law time has to give way to planting time.
The legislature that meets in Washington, 1,300 miles back east, spent last week debating a mutual and verifiable nuclear freeze. Even if it votes for a freeze, if we negotiate a freeze, we will still be living with nuclear weapons for a long, long time. And we'll live with them pretty much the way they do in North Dakota.
"Most people here," says freeze advocate Brian Palacek, "think the arms race is insane, and they don't feel that any government, including their own, has been spending any serious time resolving the question."
But as another native mused, it's still hard to relate this global terror to a nuclear force that sits smack in the middle of wheat country. In the land of the third largest nuclear force in the world, she said, "We keep an awful lot buried under ground."