The Methane Fields

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We’d been driving for three days straight when we got to the checkpoint. My friend and I were tired, and we were still half a day from the next border, according to the map we had with us. We were trying to drive to an extremely hostile country, but to get there, we had to pass through a highly bureaucratic country. We’d made good time across the western lakes, the central mountains. It was only when we came down the long pass into the wild eastern hills region that our journey came to an abrupt halt: a long, tall, chain-link fence, a ditch full of barbed wire along the bottom, concertina wire strung along the top for good measure; a lone soldier napping in a guard booth, arms crossed, feet propped up on the counter, an intimidating machine gun leaning against the wall; a heavy barrier gate blocking the road. We pulled up and tooted the horn.

The soldier opened his eyes, got up, picked up a clipboard, and ambled over to the car.

We told him where we were headed.

He told us they would hate us there.

We said we knew that, we were part of a special program our country’s state department had set up, a tourist corps, through which our young people travel to extremely hostile countries, places where our lives are on the line, where we spend a healthy government stipend and generally live it up, while simultaneously being respectful of local customs and traditions, which the state department gives us a primer on before we leave.

He sniffed, flipped through some pages on his clipboard. He said we weren’t scheduled for a crossing here.

We said our map didn’t show this area to be restricted.

He shook his head, only slightly, but nonetheless indicating his low opinion of our country’s organizational skills. He said our consulate would need to send the proper forms to the methane department, which would then have to be forwarded to the internal checkpoint department.

We asked what a methane department was.

He said they handled the methane fields.

We asked what those were.

He looked offended at first, then quickly gestured with his hands at the snarled hills on the far side of the fence, a deathly patchwork of ochre and ash, as if to say, isn’t it obvious?

My friend posed the question I was too proud to ask: “What is a methane field?”

The soldier rolled his eyes.

My friend said we really wanted to know, we didn’t have them in our country. An encouraging curiosity was part of our tourist corps training.

The soldier opened his mouth confidently, as if he was about to launch into a familiar speech, but then nothing came out. He hesitated. He held his clipboard to his waist, jostling the ammunition belt he had slung over his shoulder. He told us, slowly and unsurely, to imagine a giant underground sea of cattle.

We asked if the cattle were alive or dead.

He said, “No, scratch that.” He told us to imagine a rancher who is also a farmer, except he’s harvesting a crop planted at the beginning of time.

We asked if he meant by a divine hand or by chance.

“That’s your prerogative,” he said.

We all looked out at the hills. They curled and coiled to the horizon. The landscape looked barren, ravaged, and grim, like no one but a madman would ever plant anything there.

“It’s fertilizer from the center of the earth,” said the soldier, “the ghosts of every supper ever eaten.”

We said it sounded fascinating. “It’s harvest season, but made out of space, not time,” he said. “Or perhaps,” he added, “it’s the cloud formations of the devil.”

We said he clearly knew his stuff.

“That’s not quite right either,” he said. “It’s the collective unconscious of eagles.”

We told him he’d convinced us, we were now die-hard enthusiasts. But we were wondering if we could maybe drive around the methane fields.

The soldier looked taken aback. Then he said that yes, there was a southern route, but it meant a detour through yet another country, one known for being madly inefficient.

My friend and I looked at each other. Yes, our visas were in order. I gave a cordial nod. My friend smiled graciously. The soldier saluted us, crisp and sharp. We turned the car around.