At 6 PM we took the turn onto Highway 12 toward Gascoyne, North Dakota. We'd been driving across the Midwest for a week.
"Do you think we'll make it?"
"We'll make it."
The sun faded into the kind of gold prairie sunset you see in Marlboro ads or Reagan fan fiction. We would have found it beautiful if we weren't worried about not seeing the Keystone XL Pipeline that day. Our phone signals died. I was hopeful; Pete was determined.
We drove through the town center and over the ridge.
"Should we turn around?"
"After the next hill."
Our 12-passenger van was empty except for Pete and me and the ghosts of rowdy rock tours past.
And suddenly there it was, below the rise of the highway: miles and miles of pale-green pipes 36 inches in diameter, stacked four high and spreading out for hundreds of yards. The tranquility of it was both striking and underwhelming. For something so expensive and intensely debated, you'd think there'd be protesters, propaganda, even a small sign. But the lack of pomp was fitting. So much of the conversation and hand-wringing is dominated by those who speak loudest, eliminating any middle ground. Up close and in person, the pipeline was less frightening.
It wasn't the metal stacked there that would tell the story of the Keystone. Instead, it was the farmers and workers we met on our trip. For people like Bill Scheele, the mayor of Steele City (population 61), where the pipeline links up to other pipes that will take the Canadian tar-sand oil to the refineries and ports of America's Gulf Coast, it means work, food on the table, tax revenue, easement payments from TransCanada, and ultimately the survival of their towns.
In York County, Rick Hammond and his family of Nebraskan steppe farmers have fought the pipeline every step of the way for six years. The risk of a spill, which would contaminate the Ogallala aquifer that provides water for his family and the crops that are their livelihood, weighs on his mind. Like those on the other side of the debate, Hammond views the pipeline in terms of survival.
Farther north, in Stuart, Nebraska, the streets were empty because the local girls' basketball team was competing in the state playoffs. The players' names appeared on big placards as we rolled into town. Main Street's Central Bar didn't seem like the kind of place where one would find people who agree on anything with our current president. Playful signs hung behind the bar: welcome to america, now speak english and we don't dial 911, with two revolvers painted beneath. "You wouldn't happen to know Lloyd Hipke?" I asked the bartender as I finished my catfish lunch and Budweiser with tomato juice. Patrons spoke up immediately, denouncing the pipeline and giving me phone numbers to call.
Half an hour later we pulled into a farm belonging to Wynn Hipke, Lloyd's brother. The Hipkes are farmers who have united against TransCanada's pipeline. Wynne, in his Stetson hat and pickup truck, drove us across his land, exasperated. "It's so political, so money-driven. There's no common sense to it," he said. Down the road at his brother's place we met his sister-in-law, Vencille. She pointed to her well, which the pipeline will go through. "They said that this is gonna have insignificant impact. Well, we're the insignificant."
In the news, the pipeline was dead. Vetoing a point of pride in the Republican-held Congress was a victory for the Obama administration. But in the farms of Nebraska, reservations of South Dakota, and oil towns of Montana—in the communities that view the pipe as both their demise and their savior—there was a rare consensus from both sides. Administrations change and leaders come and go, but there's too much money, too much pride, too much politics wrapped up in the pipe in Gascoyne, the oil in Fort McMurray, and the water in the Ogallala for this to be over.
-Gabriel Luis Manga