Have you hugged a “Nodak’ today?

Tell them you understand they’ve escaped hell on earth. Tell them it’s going to be fine in the Twin Cities.

John Hoff

There is a group of students on this campus who are hiding dark, secret roots of emotional pain. No, they aren’t anorexics or Muslims offended by cartoon caricatures of Islam. They aren’t students waiting until spring to replace a stolen bike. They are residents of North Dakota, sometimes known as “Nodaks.”

Few notice their pain and discomfort when, for example, this month’s issue of The Rake describes their beloved home state in terms of ghost towns, bleak frozen flatness, population loss and desperate economic development plans to, for example, turn the entire state into a “four-seasons war games zone.” (Pick up this month’s Rake on magazine racks everywhere; it’s the one with a cover story on Minnesota nudists.)

Nodaks have a fierce, defensive loyalty to their home state, kind of like certain children of abusive and alcoholic parents who also commit incest. Many Nodaks feel pained when somebody like me says things like: The five years I lived in North Dakota seemed more like 25 years. In prison, I mean.

From an early age, Nodaks are brainwashed with an idea that their state is both filled with untapped potential and, simultaneously, in a crisis because its youths keep leaving. Some of that alleged untapped potential includes, um, WIND POWER. Oh, yeah, North Dakota is just full of wind power potential. Why, it’s the Saudi Arabia of wind energy hurruph, hurruph. And you can support yourself in North Dakota on a dream like that, sort of like you can support yourself on a stiff breeze by having faith in your heart and leaning against it.

So while students who grow up in Minnesota (or most places with a future) feel free to live and move as they choose, Nodaks, who deal with a lifetime of brainwashing, face an agonizing decision when it comes time to go to college. The Twin Cities is an overwhelmingly popular choice and, indeed, the Twin Cities exerted a strong influence on North Dakota even prior to statehood. But fleeing for the Twin Cities means, in effect, shrugging off North Dakota’s long and ugly list of problems and the hallucination of all that pipe dream potential.

Oh, yes, so very much potential like… like … uh, OK like this plan Rep. Earl Pomeroy has for supposed “clean” technology to burn up the state’s “800-year supply of lignite coal.” (Due to a lack of warm bodies, North Dakota has only one U.S. representative. Pretty weird, huh? Like when your father and grandfather are the same person.)

Despite the shocking tendency of North Dakota media to slant and shade the awful truth, still the undeniable facts about their home state somehow seep through various thought filters and register in the brains of college-aged youths. Either right before college or by graduation, critical numbers of these youths quietly figure out that joining the mass exodus is the only way to have a decent life and career. Many still swear they’ll come back to raise their children. They say this to keep their parents from weeping in open despair.

They are like economic refugees even though they resemble average Americans, except with dorkier, more agrarian clothing. They hail from towns that have never had a stoplight and senior high school classes of 20. Minneapolis is a scary place to them. A columnist in The Dakota Student at University of North Dakota wrote about a road trip to a dive bar in Minneapolis, which took “five hours, a cup of coffee and three Red Bulls.” Despite being with a group of friends, she says “I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to get my ass kicked for looking at someone the wrong way.”

The big city is scary, but the pain of life in North Dakota can be dulled only by binge drinking. Nodaks at the University need and deserve help, not only with alcoholism but also to obtain affordable housing and assistance with careers so they won’t have to go crawling back to America’s rural ghetto, the economic hurt bag of the nation.

Nodaks might not share their pain and you might have to draw them out, ask a few pointed yet tactful questions. It might take weeks for a Nodak to let loose because of upbringing. Spilling the beans about what they’ve endured is like telling dark family secrets. (Regarding spilled beans: Those edible legumes are just exploding with economic potential in various untapped world markets.)

Eventually, with careful prodding, the truth will come out; probably while they’re heavily intoxicated with complimentary drinks you should buy. Then the tears will flow, perhaps in raging torrents like the Red River bringing destruction, or maybe only a few bitter tears… like just enough rain to grow a certain hardy strain of spring wheat between deadly droughts. But with tears sweet emotional release will come. Maybe it only will be a bit sweet, like a sugar beet, but when you’ve kept feelings inside for years, boarded up like an empty, paint-bare house in a flat frozen field, crying feels good.

Hug them, love them, tell them it’s going to be just fine. Tell them they’re in the diverse and prosperous Twin Cities now, and their future is bright, and you understand they’ve escaped from hell on earth, with its 800-year supply of lignite coal.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]