Our Reluctant Embrace of North Dakota


Driving Madge the Van is a cheerful, tactile chore. You plummet down along with the nose of the van under hard braking. Tight turns require cranking the wheel hand-over-hand like you’re closing a submarine door. RPMs jump around the tachometer with a flex of your big toe on the accelerator. And out the windshield, an IMAX film features winding mountain roads and arrow-straight prairie highways.


Chugging west, the view out the window transitioned from the rich greens of northern Minnesota to the burnt yellows of North Dakota. By the time we crossed the Mississippi—not so mighty close to its headwaters—Madge had seen a lot of miles over the past month. Grueling miles, at that: thunderstorms, washboard dirt roads, and occasional 200 mile days—conditions likely taxing on a new car, certainly exhausting for a machine that is working on its tenth circumnavigation of the Earth’s equator.


Out of Grand Forks we drove into the open, the straight two-lane road oscillating up and down with the farmland in front of us. For the first time, the sky seeming to bend overhead, stretching from one shoulder of the prairie to the other. The novelty of the new landscape, however, was lost on Madge. A protest: thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk.


For the second time (third, if you count the engine problems that delayed our departure...fourth, if you count the loose starter lead that prevented her from starting night one at a campsite in Pennsylvania), Madge needed a break. (For the record, outside of Marquette, Michigan, we snapped a throttle cable.) Years of use eroded the protective rubber boots around the CV joints, allowing Mid-Western rain and dust to foul up the bearings. Unlike the snapped throttle cable in Michigan, which I repaired in the back lot of a repair shop, fixing the CV joints required more than a fresh part and an hour of roadside wrenching. Our visit to North Dakota—Devils Lake, North Dakota, specifically—would be extended a few days.


Looking back, after two weeks of making right turns across North Dakota, it was, in fact, a good place to seek an expedited repair job. As a South Dakotan we recently met derisively described her northern neighbor: “it’s very…utilitarian.”

Indeed, during our visit, I struggled to embrace the rough practicality of North Dakota. Despite the warm summer sun, the charming rolling hills to the east, and the photogenic canyons to the west, North Dakota felt cold and emotionally barren. Each square inch of the state felt used: rolling hills parceled into rectangles of land, stripped of any character by relentless farming; canyons brutalized by oil derricks, their pendulums pounding the earth like clenched fists. The remaining personality of the land seemed like an accident—the miles of shining yellow sunflowers solely a vehicle for profit—or like a hand forced by federal land ownership, as in the gorgeous Theodore Roosevelt National Park. To use a phrase from land use law, the “highest and best use” of North Dakotan land seems robotically interpreted as “highest and most profitable use.” On multiple occasions, locals justified their community’s shortcomings on “the fluctuating price of [insert some commodity],” as if there was no alternative.


Yet the state’s seemingly unyielding utilitarianism helped quickly fix Madge’s mechanical maladies. The first mechanic I approached about the repairs—Dana, friendly and quick with a “you betcha”—appreciated our circumstance and made quick work of the job. No frills or fluff; in and out as soon as possible with a smile and a firm hand shake.


In Garrison, a small town in the north central flats of the state—like all towns, boasting a grain elevator and a Cenex gas station—we met an old friend and youth mentor of mine who relocated from Pennsylvania to the Peace Garden State a decade ago. Always vivacious, in North Dakota Janis’s lively personality earned him the nickname “Tie Die Man” around town. Janis provided a different perspective on the state’s brash pragmatism. Over local steaks, Janis lauded how the small community rallies together to overcome the struggles of limited opportunities, resources, and physical isolation. He boasted of the sense of place and belonging that comes with sharing a sense of ownership over your work, destiny, and community that comes from this effort.


As we headed due south out of the North, as the farmland yielded to rangeland, and as Madge sported new legs, Angie and I recognized that, despite its flaws, North Dakota delivered what we’re looking for on this adventure: a reminder to go with the flow and an opportunity to get to know a new place—especially one so radically different than home.






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