Over the long weekend, I immersed myself in William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map). (1991). I didn’t know this book until a conversation with a few graduate students this summer after my tortured attempts to explain my tourist guide to the Bakken project. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the term “deep map,” but as I explored PrairyErth, I came to realize that Heat-Moon’s project with this work, which explores a single county in Kansas, was fundamentally similar to what I wanted to do with my tourist guide. The biggest difference was that Heat-Moon was a kind of story-teller, ethnographer, and oral historians where my speciality was in things.
So, the base map for the deep map that I want to prepare for the Bakken is the tourist guide (which should appear next year from NDUS Press). It provides a route through the space of the Bakken which runs across US Route 2 before turning south at 13-Mile Corner to trace US Route 85. This inverted L forms the main artery of the Bakken both from its origins around Tioga to its current heart in William and McKenzie Counties. Our anchors are the towns of Ray, Stanley, Tinga, Williston, and Watford City, but we recognize that the Bakken is also made of places like the abandoned town of Wheelock, the depopulated township of Manitou, the area called Johnson’s Corner, and the numerous nameless agglomerations of tanks, unit yards, mobile workforce housing, and gas plants. This is the framework for a deep map.
When we submitted the original draft of the guide to new Heritage Guide series editor at the NDSU Press, he suggested that we add more people to our work. I begrudgingly did this, thinking all the while, that tourist guides aren’t really about people but about places, monuments, and stories. If people do appear, they’re past people or individuals who make short cameos (like the kindly priest who has the keys to the historic church or the vivacious merchant who will offer you tea while you browse his wares). Complicating matters more is that our guide is not about a landscape forged in the distant past but about a dynamic contemporary space. In other words, historic personages who populate traditional tourist guides played a relatively small role in our work because our primary focus was on the present. While I don’t regret the decision of inserting a few people in our guide, I think the object-oriented approach to our guide limits how one can encounter the Bakken landscape.
Heat-Moon’s deep map is, in contrast, all about people. Most short chapters, even those with a rather more empirical bent, focus on the people from Chase County, Kansas. In fact, he uses the ugly word “countians” so many times that I am almost comfortable with it. For the Bakken, we have hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews that could populate our deep map and we received a small grant from the University of North Dakota to publish these interviews next year.
Heat-Moon’s deep map is more than just people, though. He uses people to tell the geological, the historical, the political, the cultural and the economic story of the county’s various landscapes and places. We’re fortunate for western North Dakota to have not only an outstanding (and new) geological history, but also have an intriguing (and growing) body of literature about the region and some solid historical treatments of the places.
As I continue to turn the idea of a deep map over in my head, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that guide to the Bakken is just a beginning for a deep map.