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On the road again, we pass domesticated buffalo on a checkerboard range of high yellow grass and brown-black excrement. A metal bridge carries us over a stalled Canadian Pacific engine linked to what looks like two oil tanks. We turn left up a dirt hill where the radio signal range will be greater, stopping before an abandoned power-line post the height of a basketball hoop, topped with frayed wires tangled in knots by the wind. Bunchgrass and knapweed cushion us from road noise. Nick turns on the telemetry equipment and adjusts its settings. Tinny beeps echo slowly from inside the leather case.
"I hear them," Nick says, "but they're far away."
He decides to backtrack. Hay farms recede in the distance, then cattle, a lone tree, and a Winnebago with Colorado plates. At the wooden sign, planted high on a dusty dirt mound, "Community Church of Drummond/Christ Centered," I clear my throat. Still, my voice cracks when I speak.
"Guys," I say. "I want to go to New Chicago."
"Like Chicago?" Nick asks.
"But new?" asks Crow.
We pull off into Drummond, refuel at the Sinclair, and study Nick's road atlas.
"I can't believe it," Crow says. "You're not going to believe it."
"What?" I ask.
"Where is it, man?" asks Nick.
"Drummond is the closest city to New Chicago," Crow says. "Of all the random places in Montana"—a state three-quarters the size of Spain—"you picked one that's a few miles, max, from this gas station."
Fifteen minutes later, we're there.
Chicago, soon the leading railroad city in the world, grew from just over 20,000 residents in 1848, almost 75,000 a decade later, and 110,000 in 1860, to nearly 300,000 in 1870. Two out of every three residents lived in rundown shanties without sewers, sidewalks or paved streets. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 slowed neither the city's growth nor its growing pains. The next year, Union Stock Yards workers butchered, scraped, cleaned, washed, cut, split and cooled twice as many hogs as in 1870. A year after that, amid a fresh financial panic, unemployed poor thronged outside the offices of the Relief and Aid Society, chanting, "Bread or death." By 1880, the population exceeded 500,000. Of Maxwell Street, the first stop for most new arrivals, the Chicago Tribune wrote, "The street may be singled out of a thousand by the peculiar, intensive stench that arises from pools of thick and inky compound which in many cases is several feet deep and occasionally expands to the width of a small lake. Almost at every stop a dead dog, cat or rat may be seen,...the poor creatures (having) undoubtedly died of asphyxiation."
Windows down, we roll into New Chicago. Even by rural Montana standards, the settlement is hardly a city. New Chicago is a dirt road, three clean one-story homes, one Halloween pumpkin, a silo, two sheds, two dump trucks, a granary and a cemetery. In 1883, the newly opened Northern Pacific Railroad bypassed it by three miles.
Nick stops. Crow takes a picture. I laugh. Here I am, 4,000 feet in elevation—three Sears Towers tall—in the ghost of a major metropolis that never was. I'm getting used to Montana, used to it all, yet what remains strange, by and large, I cherish. Recurrent surprise is the closest I come to my initial awe.
The 1890 census recorded 1.1 million Chicagoans, again more than double that of the previous decade. Today, the city population hovers at just under 3 million souls; every year, Chicago hosts 32 million visitors. New Chicago, I think it's safe to say, can count only three. Here at night, however, you can see the stars.
A man appears in the distance, standing on the front steps of the house farthest from us. He wears a worn red baseball cap. He waves.
I wave back. The American dream includes open space as well as skyscrapers, freedom to roam as well as money to build. I know Chicago, I love Chicago, but I don't want to live in or near it anymore, and our country hardly needs a second second city, especially not in Montana, not in the 21st century.
"Is this what you wanted?" Nick and Crow ask me.
"It is," I say. "Onward."
Jeremy N. Smith is the author of Growing a Garden City (Skyhorse Publishing), which comes out in October. He writes in Missoula. This article originally appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org).