On the Road in North Dakota

“The true West — the dry West — is usually said to begin at around the 100 [degrees] W, which is the line of longitude that corresponds with an average rainfall of fifteen inches.”
— Jonathan Raban, “Homestead,” from Driving Home: An American Journeym

North Dakota field

“[North Dakota is] the spot in our national geography where the Midwest becomes the West: distances expand, the sky gains dominance over the earth, and the wind arrives unimpeded from beyond the sere edge of the world, a herald of how vast and empty it really is.”
— Reed Karaim, Winter in Anna

It was in North Dakota that I crossed into the Central time zone and emerged from the West into the Midwest region of our country.  It became gradually greener as I drove farther east. Yellow wildflowers lined long stetches of I-94.

It was hazy.  The sun rose red in the morning.  I believe the haze was from wildfire smoke moving down from central Canada.

Sunrise along I-94 in North Dakota

I saw what looked like little flocks of butterflies in the air — could they be migrating?  I passed a few fields of sunflowers — so cheery.

Sunflower field, North Dakota

Like Montana, North Dakota appears almost unpeopled — you drive long distances seeing nothing but land and sky and the ribbon of highway going off into infinity.  You wonder what kinds of people feel at home here.  I think I would feel too isolated, but I admire those who find inner strength in this seeming solitude:

“The land itself becomes a place of worship, in which to rest and meditate, and perhaps escape to, from the complications and noise of our fast-paced modern lives.”
— Michael Kenna, Form in Japan

“Ironically, it is in choosing the stability of the monastery or the Plains, places where nothing ever happens, places the world calls dull, that we discover that we can change.  In choosing a bare-bones existence, we are enriched.”
— Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography



South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt NP

The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is right along I-94 near the Montana/North Dakota border, so it is easily accessible.  My first stop was the Painted Canyon rest stop and overlook at exit 32. There was one buffalo at the edge of the parking lot!  I took a short 1-mile loop trail down into the canyon.  As always, it was good to stretch my legs.

It seems that driving is the thing to do in Theodore Roosevelt NP.  The dry badlands were not my ideal environment for hiking — treeless, shadeless, and hot (temps were in the low 90s).  This was one park where I found myself “just” driving and stopping at various viewpoints to look and take photos.  I drove a 36-mile scenic loop drive accessed from the Medora entrance to the park.

The scenic drive held its own rewards.  The badlands scenery was otherwordly — hills and rock formations in striated bands of subdued colors.  I saw wild horses and a couple of huge prairie dog towns.

Scenic drive, Theodore Roosevelt NP, South Unit

Prairie Dog

“The prairie dogs . . . sit at the mouths of their burrows with their usual pert curiosity.” — Theodore Rosoevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

Little Missouri River, Wind Canyon overlook

It was nearing sunset when I arrived at the Wind Canyon overlook.  I ate a quick picnic dinner in the shade of my car, and then walked over a rise to a short 1/4 mile trail to the edge of the bluff.  Below, the bend of Little Missouri River glittered in the low light.  Some wild horses raced down to the water in the far distance.  Down the other side of the bluff was a green valley with a herd of about 75 bison grazing, calves and adults mixed.  It was a bucolic scene.

As I waited for the sun to sink slowly, by degrees, toward the horizon, I noticed that the bison herd was making marked progress across the meadow.  They covered a lot of ground quite quickly.  It wouldn’t be long before they reached the road — and just up the road was the parking lot/trailhead and my car.  I recalled all the danger signs I had seen warning to keep your distance from these wild animals, and the conversation at the campground the previous evening about people who had been attacked.  The sun was falling so slowly, and the bison were progressing through the grazing ground quite fast.

I decided to leave the sunset viewpoint and walk at least halfway back down the trail so I would be closer to my car for a quick exit.  I lost sight of the buffalo herd, but I did finally see the sun sink below the horizon — another red sunset in the hazy atmosphere.

North Dakota sunset, Windy Canyon overlook, Theodore Roosevelt NP

Then a young man who was also photographing the sunset at the viewpoint came running past me — “The buffalo are on the road,” he said.  I followed closely on his footsteps.  Coming up over the rise to the parked car, I saw that there were already some bison in the parking lot!  Thankfully I had parked at the far end.  I raced to my car and shut the door.  Safe!

Bison along the road, Theodore Roosevelt NP

So I ended the day with a little bit of excitement, an encounter with buffalo.  Something to remember about my trip to Theodore Roosevelt NP.

North Dakota Sunset: An Experience of the Holy

“Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.”
— Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

Sunset, Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Unit

“All that sky and horizon around you, there almost always is some atmospheric event to keep track of.”
— Ivan Doig, English Creek

One of the rewards of practically living out of your car on the open road is that you get to experience sunrises and sunsets in a more direct way than from a house.  I had been enjoying them along the way, but the sunset over the grasslands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit was by far the most extravagant and beautiful.

I could see why Clay Jenkinson said, “If you live in North Dakota, you perforce have a relationship with the sky.”  (For the Love of North Dakota and Other Essays).  He is in good company:

“A person could stand and watch this changing land and sky forever.” — Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

” . . . at evening I love to sit out in front of the hut and see hard, gray outlines gradually grow soft and purple as the flaming sunset by degrees softens and dies away.”
— Theodore Roosevelt

As I watched the entrancing sunset show, I thought that the skies were God’s watercolor paintings.  What artistry and glory:

“You don’t know what light feels or how its thinking goes.  You do know this is where it’s most at home.  On the plains where you were born, there are no mountains to turn it back, no forest for it to shoulder through.  A solitary tree marks its comings and goings like a pole sunk in the shore of the ocean to measure its tides.  Here, light seems like another form of water, as clear but thinner, and it cannot be contained,”
— Lorna Crozier, “First Cause: Light,” from Small Beneath the Sky



Armchair America: North Dakota through Books

Vintage postcard of North Dakota

I asked the librarians at the Bismarck Public Library for book recommendations, and here are Sarah’s suggestions:


  • Anything by Louise Erdrich
  • Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman


  • The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart
  • Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman


  • Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
  • P is for Peace Garden by Roxane Salonen


And here are the books I actually read in my armchair travels through North Dakota:


The Bones of Plenty by Lois Phillips Hudson.  This is the portrait of a North Dakota farm family in 1933 in the midst of the harrowing Depression.  We see a good farmer as he struggles against the loss of his small savings in a bank failure, drought, grasshoppers, wheat smut and rust to make a living one more year after a string of hard ones.

The farmer, George Custer, loves the land and growing wheat:  “It took an austere climate to create that kind of [hard spring] wheat — wheat that grew hard and full of protein under the withering semidesert sky.  It was the kind of durable, determined grain that could survive and flourish on the smallest possible margin — very much like the men who grew it.”

The economics of the time made making a profit, even a small one, virtually impossible — absentee landlords, Wall Street speculators, foreclosures, surpluses and falling prices.  This book is as compelling as The Grapes of Wrath in evoking the hardships of the Great Depression.f

The Round House by Louise Erdrich.  This novel was the 2012 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.  It takes place on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota near the fictional town of Hoopdance.  When Joe is 13, his mother is brutally attacked and raped.  The attack took place in the reservation’s Round House, which was traditionally a safe haven and sacred site.  Finding the attacker is a legal challenge because it involved three jurisdictions — tribal, state and federal. The legal maze contributed to injustices because crimes committed by non-native people on the reservation often were not prosecuted.

To Joe, the search for the attacker goes too slow, and he fears his mother’s attacker will not be brought to justice.  So he and his friends investigate on their own, and Joe crafts a plan to bring justice on his own.

I liked the straightforward narrative told from Joe’s point of view.  Some of Erdrich’s other books jump around in time and point of view, and I can’t always get into them.  But The Round House was a well-told story and brings to life the “tangle of laws that hunder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations” even today.

The Badlands Saloon by Jonathan Twingley.  This novel felt autobiographical.  It is about an art student who, after spending one year in New York city, returns to his native North Dakota for a summer job at a bicycle shop in the fictional town of Marysville.  Marysville seemed to be patterned after the town of Medora in the Badlands of western North Dakota.

Ollie is figuring things out, especially how to make a living as an artist drawing and painting.  He is not disenchanted with NYC; in fact, he liked the fast pace of the city as well as the country:  “Both places made perfect sense to me, and I loved both places for different reasons.  When you grow up in wide-open, prairie spaces, dreaming becomes a big part of reality.  And New York City itself was a dream, a real-time movie set where my life — at least for a little while — felt newborn-baby new.”

Ollie has no trouble adjusting back to life in a small town after his first year in NYC:  “The town felt familiar in a general sort of way because North Dakota was home for me — ground zero — and though the towns in North Dakota each have their own specific flavors and feelings, there is a wonderful sort of sameness to the all, too, and not in a generic, limiting sort of way, but in more of a tribal sense:  When you’re from a place like North Dakota, you’re a lifetime member of the tribe.”

Business at the bike shop was slow, especially in the heat of those summer months, so Ollie had plenty of time to draw between the trickle of customers.  The novel is about the people he meets — tourists and locals — and the story is interwoven with Twingley’s art.  “Drawings are funny, because when you look at them later you remember exactly where you were when you drew them, the way the weather was, what people around you were saying at the time.  It’s almost like the act of drawing itself burns the memory into your mind, a split-second event where your senses are all cranked up to their highest levels and everything is crystal clear, like remembering the second you were born, a vivid memory of what coming into this life felt like.”

“Drawings are diary entries.  That moment when the pen touches the page, every thought you had that split second is somehow preserved in the drawing when you look at it again . . .”

Illustration from Jonathan Twingley’s The Badlands Saloon

The Winter in Anna by Reed Karaim.  Eric, a 20-year old college dropout, lands a job as the sports editor for The Shannon Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in a small town in North Dakota.  He is asked to step up to editor on the same day that a man sat down on the railroad tracks to get run over by a coal train:  “It felt like I had been playing at being a journalist, covering high school sports but nothing that mattered, taking part in some sort of harmless game that had, without warning, become too real.”

Anna was another writer on staff, a single mother of two, someone who “found comfortable invisibility in the least inspiring work,” the bread-and-butter articles and stories that filled the newspaper’s middle pages.  She had a mysterious sadness about her:  “This is Anna, whose attention to the world around  her so often seemed to come with a wistfulness at the perpetual disappearance of the now.”  Her sadness was tied to her past, which Eric discovers piecemeal over many weeks of conversation and working together.  She married young, had an abusive husband, and was negligent in the death of her oldest daughter, who walked out of their trailer during a winter storm and froze to death while her parents slept after drinking and partying.

Anna and Eric are good friends.  She most likely loves him, but still she advises him to move away:  “You’ve done what you can with this little newspaper.   You’ve done all you were meant to do here.  You don’t want to get stuck.”  Eric follows her advice, moves away, and they lose touch.

The novel opens with Eric learning about Anna’s suicide, many years after he left the little town.  In the rest of the novel Eric looks back on his memories and tries to understand Anna, how and why she might have ended her life.  “So often we don’t see the things that matter to the people who matter to us until too late.”  He says, “We would like to think that we will recognize the people who come to matter to us at first sight, but of course that’s absurd.  They often slip into the corners of our lives, unnoticed, then taken for granted, until one day, if we are lucky, we see them anew with startled comprehension . . .”

This was a poignant story about friendship, love and life.

The Grass Dancer by Susan Power.  Power is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux.  Her story takes place on a North Dakota reservation.  Each chapter goes back in time, interweaving the history and lives of various characters.  Themes of love, unrequited love, loss, vengefulness flow through the years like ghosts or wind through the grass.

One of the elders explains the role of the grass dancers in Sioux tradition:  “You have to remember, there’s two kinds of grass dancing . . . There’s the grass dancer who prepares the field for a powwow the old-time way, turning the grass over with his feet to flatten it down.  Then there’s the spiritual dancer, who wants to learn grass secrets by imitating it, moving his body with the wind.”

Each generation relies to some degree on traditions to prepare their way in the world.  It’s a complex business.


A Free and Hardy Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Sojourn in the American West by Clay Jenkinson.  This is an over-sized book with quotes from primary sources, historical photographs, and scholarly commentary by Clay Jenkinson.  From 1883 to 1887, Teddy Roosevelt spent significant time in the Dakota badlands as a hunter and ranch owner.  This time was instrumental in shaping Roosevelt’s character and views on conservation.  “Roosevelt believed that an unmediated encounter between frontiersmen and wild nature had been the core of the American experience, that the vanishing of the frontier experience from American life (ca. 1890) could not be good for the American character and — be that as it may — he was going to get as big a gulp of that experience as he could before it was too late.”

At age 42, Roosevelt became the youngest president in history when he assumed this post upon the death of McKinley in 1901.  He was an advocate for national forests and national parks — he created the first national wildlife refuges, named five new national parks, and signed the Antiquities Act which gave presidents the authority to designate national monuments and historic landmarks.  (He used this act to save the Grand Canyon, for example — only later did it become a national park.)   Today Theodore Roosevelt National Park preserves the parts of North Dakota that captivated Roosevelt as a young man.

For the Love of North Dakota and Other Essays: Sundays with Clay in the Bismarck Tribune by Clay Jenkinson.  Jenkinson is a North Dakota native who moved away, only to return after 25 years.  These essays explain what he loves about North Dakota (“I am returning for the meadowlarks — the purest sound there is, the signature sound of the Great Plains”), what it is like to live there (“everyone is shockingly friendly”), and some frustrations.  Jenkinson is a lyric writer with a keen eye and grounded feeling for the landscape.  Reading his essays makes me want to travel in his footsteps!

“The representative sounds of Dakota — the meadowlark, the croon and whoop of the coyote, the train whistle on the horizon, the breeze moving through the cottonwoods until it rises in growing waves to a jangle, and then very slowly subsides until it almost, but not quite, goes still.  We live in paradise.”

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris.  This memoir was written in the early 1990s and tells about Norris’s “counter-cultural choice” to move from New York City back to the house where her mother grew up in Lemmon, South Dakota, near the border of North Dakota.  The western Dakota landscape she writes about encompasses both states:  she was an artist in residence for the North Dakota Arts Council and she became an oblate at a Benedictine monastery in Richardton, North Dakota.  She says, “writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.”

Parts of the book remind me of Carol Bly’s Letters from the Country.  Norris writes about the resistance to change that she sees in rural Dakota and in its shrinking small towns.  She often hears, “We don’t need change.  What we need, as my friend suggested, is to turn back the clock to the way things were twenty years ago, when the town was booming and the world made sense.  There was nothing that couldn’t be judged by the values we all shared.  But she may find, as Gatsby did, that disconnecting from change does not recapture the past.  It loses the future.”

Norris writes about the influences of the Dakota landscape on her spiritual growth.  “The severe climate of Dakota forces us to see that no one can control this land.  The largeness of land and sky is humbling, putting humankind in proper perspective.”

She says, “A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in the land and sky.”

“I understand that my faith comes from my grandmothers.  It was in moving back to the Plains that I found my old ones, my flesh and blood ancestors as well as the desert monks and mystics of the Christian church. Dakota is where it all comes together, and surely that is one definition of the sacred.”

“The sense of place is unavoidable in western Dakota, and maybe that’s out gift to the world.”

The Horizontal World:  Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart.  Marquart was the youngest of five children growing up on a large farm in North Dakota.  Her father was a third generation farmer, and she writes about the desire to flee her roots while at the same time acknowledging their powerful pull.  “But we, the surviving generations who were raised on the slim margins of the place, have been forged into a hardy breed, requiring little, expecting less, able to survive anywhere.

And no matter how far from that uncompromising land we drift, a long, sinewy taproot summons us, always, home.”

Marquart wrote this book as she was nearing 50 years of age and living as a professor and writer hundreds of miles away in Iowa.  Of her childhood she says, “all my associations with the land are of hard work, the incessant wind, chores, lifting, sweating, feeling exposed in weather that was too hot or too cold.”  She tells some interesting stories about bailing hay and butchering chickens.  My favorite was her story about running into a deer on the highway.

Mar quart’s only brother took over the farm, so the homeplace still exists.  But she wonders, like Thomas Wolfe, if one can really go home again.  “But another reason you can’t go home again is that the shape you made upon leaving does not match your shape upon return.  Not even for a weekend is it comfortable to step through the ill-fitting hole that your exit created and take up residence in your old life.

But return you must, if only in imagination.  For if it’s true that you can’t go home again then it must be equally true that you can’t not go home again.  Your home ground has left an indelible imprint on you.”

Set the Ploughshare Deep: A Prairie Memoir by Timothy Murphy, with woodcuts by Charles Beck.  This is a memoir in verse, poetry and woodcuts about living and farming along the Red River in North Dakota.  I have long loved the woodcuts of Charles Beck and have framed three postcards of his art to hang in my bathroom.

Murphy writes about the risk, unpredictability, boom and bust of farming:  “We hazard all each spring, maybe for the last time.”  Ruins and abandoned farmhouses attest to the “temerity of dreams.”  His poems sound out trippingly on the tongue.  Here is one:

Harvest of Sorrows

When swift brown swallows
return to their burrows
and diamond willows
leaf in the hollows.
when barrows wallow
and brood sows farrow,
we sow the black furrows
behind our green harrows.

When willows yellow
in the windy hollows,
we butcher the barrows
and fallow the prairie.
The silo swallows
a harvest of sorrows;
the ploughshare buries
a farmer’s worries.

Now harried sparrows
forage in furrows.
Lashing the willows,
the north wind bellows
while farmers borrow
on unborn barrows.
Tomorrow, tomorrow
the sows will farrow.


Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich.  Erdrich says that this novel is “an attempt to retrace my own family’s history.”  It tells the story of an 8-year-old Chippewa girl over the course of four seasons on an island in Voyageur country (based on Madeline Island on Lake Superior where Erdrich’s ancestors once lived).  Young Omakayas life revolves around her baby brother whom she adores, another younger brother who is annoying and always seeking attention, and an older sister whom she admires and tries to live up to.  Omakayas also has chores that contribute to the family’s survival — stripping birch bark to build a summer house, protecting the planted corn from foraging crows, gathering and drying berries, helping to prepare skins for clothing, etc. — all under the guidance and tutelage of her mother, grandmother, and other elders.  The story takes place at a critical time for the tribe, when smallpox devastates their population, and the grownups talk about moving west for survival on tribal lands in the Dakotas.  The book is a loving and realistic portrait of Chippewa family life.

Chickadee by Louise Erdrich.  This is book four of the Brichbark House series of novels.  Omakayas is now an adult, married, with twin 8-year-old boys.  One of the boys is named Chickadee.  Once he wished that he had a fiercer spirit animal, like his brother Makoons, who was named after the bear.  But his grandmother tells him that small things have great power:  “The chickadee stays awake all winter in the cold. . . . He survives on the smallest seeds.  He is a teacher.  The chickadee shows the Anishinabeg how to live.  For instance, he never stores his food all in one place.  He makes caches in various places.  He never eats all of his food at once.  We do that too.  The chickadee takes good care of his family.  The mother and father stay with their babies as they fly out into the world.  They stick together, like the Anishinabeg.  And there are other things.  The chickadee is always cheerful even in adversity.  He is brave and has great purpose, great meaning.  You are lucky to have your name.”

Chickadee grows into his power after he is kidnapped by the Zhigaag brothers, two ruffians and trouble makers.  They steal him in the dead of night and take him west away from familiar hills and woods to the flat, treeless Plains.  Chickadee’s family follows their trail to recover their son.  In the Prologue, Erdrich says, “Only an act so shocking would bring them away from all they knew, onto the Great Plains.  There they would learn how to survive in a landscape of harsh charms and brutal winds.  They would learn the ways of the horse, the oxcart, and their new neighbors, the Metis.  They would build their life anew and change forever.”

Wild Life by Cynthia DeFelice.  Twelve-year-old Erik’s life is suddenly interrupted when his parents, both Army Reservists, are deployed to Iraq.  Erik is sent to stay with his maternal grandparents in rural North Dakota — two relatives whom he knows only through their signatures on birthday and Christmas cards.

Erik is unhappy with the move.  He runs away with a stray dog, Quill, that he befriended.  They set out across the country on the wide, unfamiliar prairie: “Erik was profoundly grateful for the warmth of Quill’s body and the comfort of her company.  Alone out here, he might have been overwhelmed by the hugeness off the prairie.  He might have felt defeated by his own smallness in the face of it.  But with Quill, he felt anchored to the earth, part of it all.”

This is more than an adventure story about a boy and his dog.  Erik manages to survive a few days by hunting pheasants, but he is still hungry.  He scrounges for food at abandoned farms and even shoots a hen pheasant, which is protected by game laws.  He is troubled by the poaching, trespassing and stealing.  “Doubts about what he was doing crowded his thoughts.  Was he really living off the land if he was eating Doritos and slugging down Mountain Dew?  Did the fact that he was trying to survive make it okay to do things he knew were wrong?”

The book is also about losing what you love and finding ways to keep on living, staying open to finding new things to love.