Strange Places

The author comments on Ancient Shores

Pembina is in the northeast corner of North Dakota, tucked in the angle between the Minnesota state line and the Canadian border. Residents claim it to be the coldest place in the country. It may be. During the winters, smoke occasionally sticks to chimneys. Inhabitants try not to die between Thanksgiving and the start of spring training because the ground is simply impenetrable. Most people make it a point to stay home over the Fourth so they don't miss summer.

The town has a population of about 600. It's walled off from rolling prairies by a screen of trees. Looking out from the west side of this screen at night, one can see no artificial light anywhere. The landscape is dark all the way to the horizon.

It's all lake bottom. Ten thousand years ago, Pembina would have been 300 feet down at the bottom of Lake Agassiz, a vast inland sea whose surface area exceeded that of all the modern Great Lakes combined. Including Champlain. But the glaciers retreated, northern drainage points were uncovered, and the water went away. On the west, especially near Walhalla, the ancient shoreline still lives, a spine of hills and ridges running into Canada.

To live in Pembina is to understand about transience. It is to feel a little of the weight of geologic time. It is also to acquire a sense that if there is a place on earth where the laws of physics might temporarily be suspended, where a phantom might solicit rides on a two-lane, where a UFO might actually land, it is here. It is the place where a radio station is supposed to have accidentally broadcast a signal that woke the dead, where a wheat farmer discovered a schooner of curious design buried in a hillside.

When I decided to begin recording these odd events in its history, or reported history, I was of course aware the accounts would have to be fictionalized, not only because of the mythical content, but also because stories need conclusions. The Pembina tales tend, like the prairie itself, to wander toward the stars. And since I was going to do a little embroidering, I thought it only fair to protect the inhabitants from the idly curious, so I replaced Pembina with a fictitious town: It became Fort Moxie.

Pembina/Fort Moxie has a lot of secrets. Residents will tell you it owns a library specializing in curiosities thought by the mainstream reading public to be lost, like Homer's other epics and Shakespeare's Nisus and Euryalus, never performed (and eventually mislaid) because it dealt with homosexual love.

There are rumors that one of the local customs officers, some years ago, was gobbled down by a T-rex. A local merchant insists that the town is watched by an incorporeal presence, a creature not of this earth, that lives in the windscreen. But I suppose the strangest of all the tales is the one about the schooner.

That's the one I tried to tell in Ancient Shores. And if you push me I'll admit, yes, I did embellish it. But only a little.

I've seen the schooner. Touched it. Looked at the odd symbols stamped on its instruments. Searched vainly for a Coast Guard registration number. Its decks and gunwales still gleam in the sunlight, and its owner is willing to show inquisitive visitors the hillside from which it came.

As to the thing found a few miles away, on Sioux land, the thing that caused all the trouble, the government insists it never happened. Doesn't exist. So do the Sioux. But there are reports that the devils Lake reservation is losing population at an inordinate rate. Coincidence? Sure. What else could it be?