Friday, May 28, 1999
It’s unfair to say North Dakota is simply flat. Though I hate to lie. How did it compare to eastern Montana? Is there’s a border?
We started the day at The Trapper’s Kettle, a theme restaurant aimed at “maintaining the Authenticity of the Trapper’s Era (1820-1860).” The boxy room was decorated with All Things Trapperesque: paddles, snow shoes, pistols, knives, stuffed pheasant, pelts, and—of course—traps. Used every which way—like door handles. Careful what you touch.
And while the place was full of luxuries alien to folks back in the days when bear grease was cologne, perhaps the oddest was flute concertos floating through the rough-hewn john. Dainty Mozart. Big copper sinks. Plus a history lesson on the newspaper-style menus: The Trapper’s Kettle Post-Dispatch. Free—Take one.
Fearless Trapper Story One: a man who’d been wounded, captured, stripped, then given the chance to escape. He outran his captors, then hid under some floating logs to slip back to civilization.
Story Two: different guy, mauled by a bear and left by friends to die—great friends. Lived on berries, water, and dead buffalo meat (yuck) while dragging himself two-hundred miles to the nearest fort. Lived, but only briefly. Soon killed hunting again.
Story Three (fortunately not from the hopefully-appetizing menu; this one’s from a book I stumbled on in college): third guy, captured, routinely stripped, being slowly roasted over a fire. But being tortured so ineptly, he demands to show his captors how it’s properly done. Sadistically, they agree. He neatly toasts off his privates, so astonishing his captors with his courage, they nearly set him free. Then they kill him anyway—’cause he’s “ruined” as a man. Proving, don’t count your prairie oysters.
The heros of Trapper Time were Lewis and Clark. “We camped in the plain,” Clark wrote of Dakota territory in 1805. “One of the most beautiful plains I ever saw.” Today, he wouldn’t recognize the place. Corporate farms have replaced wilderness, and only on narrow highway shoulders—labeled Do Not Mow: Wildlife Protection Area—do you see birds. No doubt the grass also shelters small crawly things, like mice. But anything larger grazes, fenced-in, and intended for dinner.
Other history: Fort Union once had log walls twenty-feet high, and thirty-foot stone towers. In 1910, Devil’s Lake was as busy as London—The Great Northern Railroad reigned, and farmers gathered daily to trade wheat. “Now it’s mostly a place for old people,” a woman hauling a shopping cart told us. The once grand Great Northern Hotel’s a Senior Center. The famous Opera House is apartments. The marble Post Office, a museum. “There are too many bars and bingo games here,” the woman complained. “And I’m not interested in either.”
I couldn’t blame her. Downtown Devil’s Lake at six on a Friday night—and the start of the Memorial Day weekend too—was empty, its historically-registered buildings lost under flaking facades. A few high school girls drew scratchy chalk pictures on the sidewalk, advertising a clearly-doomed espresso bar. On its men’s room wall—Tom favors coffee and desperate charities—among other mournful pleas, was scribbled: ” Novice, new to area. Need to make contact.” The scratched-in answer: “Find a new area.”
What happened? Well, maybe Lewis and Clark “opened” the territory, but they quickly moved on. And tribes who’d been there long before the trappers stayed only seasonally, following the herds. Even the bison rambled by, well before becoming lap blankets.
It took us the afternoon to cross the state—not pushing it, driving easy. Stopping to walk the dog. Stretch. Snack. We happily would have explored more. Honest. But there was nothing to see.
I wouldn’t nap. That would’ve been rude to Tom and undercut every reason for traveling. Besides, why compete with the pup? Instead, I studied my guidebooks hoping for something undiscovered. Several reportable facts:
Fargo is named for William George Fargo, of The Wells Fargo Express.
Bismarck was once called Edwinton, but was changed to attract Germans.
Teddy Roosevelt claimed his years in North Dakota transformed him. In return, he got a national park.
Sacajawea met Lewis and Clark here. She got a lake. They, a river boat.
George Armstrong Custer left for Little Bighorn from his flashy home in Mandan. At parties, his wife wore wigs made from his curly locks.
The biggest natural lake—Sacajawea’s is man-made—is named for the devil: technically, minnewaukan seche or Spirit Waters. White folk mangled it to Lake of the Evil Spirit, then hacked that.
The land was once given to Spain, to repay debts. They gave it back.
The Federal Fish Hatchery is the pride of Valley City. Less so, the Burning Coal Vein.
I-94 runs dead east-west.
State Routes 1804 and 1806 are named for the years of Lewis and Clark’s exploration.
You can see the Northern Lights.
APeace Garden spans the Canadian border.
The Geographical Center of North America—in Rugby—is marked with a fieldstone cairn. Fronting a gas station.
Fort Totten hosts an annual alcohol-free Powwow.
Minot (My-not) brags the country’s largest Norwegian Festival.
It’s illegal to pick the prairie rose.
The tallest building has only has 19 floors.
Locals spells it Bad Lands.
Home of that Red River Valley.
First colonized by evicted Scots.
Frank Amidon invented Cream of Wheatin Grand Forks.
Lawrence Welk was a native.
LaMoure is a cow town.
Pershall boasts a collection of 680 polished rock spheres—all buffed by one ol’ duffer.
Beulah is the Energy Capital of America.
New Salem flaunts a 38-foot-high, 50-foot-long Holstein cow.
Albino buffalo roam.
The biggest rec. area’s mascot is Wally Walleye.
In 1997 the entire state was declared a disaster area.
We’d planned to stay overnight in Devil’s Lake, but it was too depressing. Nearby Grand Forks, reported “outdoorsy” by our guidebooks, was more precisely gritty—and a huge billboard of Whoopi Goldberg greeted us, peddling milk. Instead, we scrambled on to Minnesota, and settled on a branch-university town with a name only a politician could love: Crookston.