The Chief was sick, there was nothing left in him. Coughing and wheezing, we crawled west on I-94. Accelerator to the floor, I watched the speedometer drop lower and lower. Big semis barreled up behind us, then shifted into the left lane to pass, the driver almost always leaning down to give me a thumbs-up or smile. The Chief, an old 60s van emblazoned with an American flag, seemed to engender roadway camaraderie. Despite the friendly waves, I was getting worried. I captained a vehicle I wouldn’t have felt comfortable driving outside the boundaries of LA, let alone nearly 30,000 miles across the country. Flameouts were expected, but they always made me shake my head, wondering at my own audacity when they did.
The sky was a dour gray, the fields appeared dreary. I was in the middle of nowhere. My hope to make it to Jamestown dwindled as I gauged my van’s capabilities; these hopes shrank further till I was desperate to find an overpass, which were few and far in-between, offering a decent garage. I pulled off in Valley City knowing I couldn’t afford another big fix.
Fargo had been my North Dakota entry point, for me the town was inescapably linked to the movie. Some of the characters were there, with thick accents somehow akin those next door in Minnesota, not quite as chewy as those in Wisconsin, but more regionally subtle. I spent several hours packing my 3 daily meals into big breakfast at a KFC buffet across the border. A full day of food for $10 stretched my budget, but it was worth it. There was even a salad bar where I could eat plants.
Freezing out and windy, the weather burrowed through my many layers. Citizens huddled in the cold of downtown Fargo. I huddled too, keeping my legs warm with a fast walk past painted buffalo, blue belle ice cream ads, pro-life demonstrators, taverns, hotels, and a train depot where freight rolled by, its wheel screeching, roadside warning bells clanging. Sidewalks and a bitter breeze carried me to the Plains Art Museum where I sought refuge amid the warm fields of brushstrokes.
Despite the weather, I was optimistic when I returned to the van; I had a full plan for the day. I moved fast. I arranged some Indian blankets over my lap to guard against the frigid air coming up through my door, and kept my hat and gloves on. The iPhone played the same selection of songs I’d been stuck with all year; there weren’t many choices on traditional radio these days. Leaving the city, I chugged past roadside lounges with boots for signs, which ceased with the prairie, and then, as the Chief struggled to break 40mph, I knew I was in trouble.
Did I turn around and aim for Fargo only a few miles behind me? No. As usual, I pushed it. Instead of being smart, I figured I’d try to make it to Jamestown, about a hundred miles away. As distance dragged on, and my predicament became more apparent, a countryside I may have found alluring, vast golden plains and tumultuous skies, became more threatening. I could get stuck out here. I began to calculate my chances and finally made the wise decision to pull off, thus landing at Perkin’s Automotive in Valley City.
My van ensconced in one of their bays, I read most of the day. A busy afternoon meant the staff couldn’t deal with the Chief till around 4:30pm. After a first try we gathered in the office. Randy gave me tips for possible points of interest, and Bill gave me a bag of powered flax to keep me regular. They sent me on my way as evening encroached, but I barely made it to the next overpass. Luckily, as I swung the van around, the town was downhill. Bill returned to the shop, he promised another shot at it in the morning and recommended a motel. The motel had an RV park in the back, much more economical for me than a room. I parked the Chief, cleaned up in the lobby bathroom, and watched “Return of the Jedi” with a bunch of truckers in the bar.
Bridges, Buffalo, and Pelicans.
The next day while the guys worked on the van, I crouched to read again. Bill suggested I explore the town; I’m glad he did. Valley City is known as the City of Bridges. Just a few blocks away were a beautiful park and a small town center. I shivered, my skin still blue from another night at 6 below, but I dutifully walked to several of the bridges, all distinct and unique, crossing the narrow waters of the Sheyenne River. At a used bookstore, I succumbed to the piles of books for $.50 and used part of my daily food money there, the rest I spent on a Taco Tuesday bargain nearby while watching the delay of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the Stratos. Thereafter, the van was ready; my Kentucky friend Kathy surprised me by picking up half the bill with a call to the garage. I finally made it to Jamestown that night, the home of Louis L’Amour, whose books I haven’t read.
A giant Buffalo awaited me the next morning, in fact the largest in the world. The touristy prairie town surrounding it was closed for the season, but the museum was still open. A herd of buffalo, some white albinos, roamed on the property; I didn’t see them. The woman behind the counter went over a map with me, pointing out a giant Cow up ahead named Sioux, as well as a giant Crane. These were bids by small towns to interest tourists in stopping and spending. She also suggested Chase Lake, one of the largest transit points for white pelicans in North America.
I turned off the highway and stopped in the small town of Medina. An older man in a baseball cap named Phil Stoppleworth informed me the pelicans had moved on south, though he’d seen a few stragglers too weak to make the flight. He launched into a story about US Marshall’s shot some years earlier at a cheese factory nearby, an event that had given tiny Medina some notoriety.
Next door in a friendly little bakery I bought homemade chocolate chip cookies from Darlis Reister, who wore an apron emblazoned with corn husks. The wall was adorned with plaques above large freezers. She proudly told me her son was a Grand Champion of Meat, indicating the awards that included top honors in sausage, wiener and beef-stick categories.
The cookies were my breakfast, and I munched on them as I drove up toward Chase Lake, pulling over at a particularly pleasant field full of cows. I mooed and they slowly, curiously made their way to the fence, others following others, until a significant clot pressed the barbed wire before me, nostrils flaring. I saw them on my way back, scattered again. I would see no pelicans. The dirt road to Chase Lake had been swallowed by the much smaller Pearl Lake, whose edges were weirdly white with foam.
Dakota in a Box.
The State Capitol wasn’t far; I could make it by late afternoon. All along the way, in the narrow strip between public and private land beside the freeway were rolled bales of hay. I wondered who owned these cylinders of sod that carried on mile after mile.
Music blaring above the sound of the van, blankets over me, gloves on, hoody tight, I was in the zone. The engine block rested against my leg, that’s where I piled State guides, brochures, and atlases. The passenger seat was reserved for my food choices that day, in the well below I tossed my trash, to be collected in plastic bags I kept from stores to be deposited in a dumpster, then who knows where it goes from there. I should use reusable bags.
Most State Capitol buildings I’d visited were composed of domes: white domes, black domes, gold domes. The State Capitol building in North Dakota, was a box, like a medium-sized Cold War office building. Inside were students on tour, sprinkled among groups wearing uniforms or matching t-shirts, all were following someone walking backwards. The Hall of Fame had portraits of Louis L’Amour, Teddy Roosevelt (although he didn’t spend much time there), Angie Dickenson, and the guy with bubbles, Lawrence Welk. Nearby was the North Dakota Heritage Museum, undergoing a few modifications. I didn’t last long and was soon up at the edge of town in search of a place to sleep.
Enchanted Mandan Dynamic Duo.
Needless to say, I was behind on my taxes. Thankfully the IRS put me on non-collectable status, having been jobless and homeless for nearly 3 years. The bankrupt State of California, after draining my account and then finding an account my parents had with my name on it and draining that, finally agreed to a payment plan. I stopped by a Hilton Suites that morning. They kindly let me use their computer, print out the State tax document, fax them, and grab a bagel on the way out. I was warned to be careful of the big trucks ruling the roads.
One cannot cross this part of the country without running into the trail of Lewis and Clark. The original dynamic duo commissioned by President Jefferson to explore the new territory gained in the Louisiana Purchase. He pushed them to continue on, somewhat illegally, to the Pacific Ocean. They were aided by many Native American tribes along the way.
Just north of Bismarck was the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and north of that Fort Mandan with a replica of the fort and a large statue of the dog that accompanied the men on their journey. Tresses of milkweed swayed from the trees; nearby the slow moving river reflected the steely skies. I took the Scenic Route across that river, past Arroda Lake, to the traces of a Mandan Native American community at a juncture of the Knife River. Imprints of the homes were still traceable by the cold shore. A Mandan earth house, similar to the Hogan I lived in on the Navajo reservation was kept in good shape for tourists. Circular and covered in sod, the dwelling was quite roomy inside with areas designated for various living arrangements and chores. Mandan and other tribes lived on this site, in homes like this, until the growing tide of settlers and disease pushed them out.
Vast husky fields of dried sunflowers erect in endless military rows girded the road from Beulah south to I-94. I was now entering the oil boom region that I’d been hearing so much about. Great semi’s paced over the roads in packs, carrying all manner of pipes and metal and heavy important seeming things, industrial things, the might of human mites changing the earth.
My intent was to take a leisurely afternoon drive down the highly recommended Enchanted Highway. For some decades, a regional artist had welded over-sized sculptures along the route. But the overpass for my turn-off was closed for construction. I looked wistfully down the road as I passed by, mile after mile accumulated before I could turn around; it wasn’t till Dickinson that a switch was possible. By then I’d lost my impetus.
Scrappy downtown Dickinson had “for hire” signs everywhere. In the post office people were talking about jobs, not how to get them, but which ones they were considering. The desperation of what once appeared a desperate country, was no longer so desperate. The Great Recession was neither Great nor a Recession in this area.
A poster of piled cheeseburgers beckoned me into Bogey’s, a retro 50s establishment touting the best burger in South Dakota. I got the Bogey Bacon Cheeseburger and tater-tots, and struck up a conversation with a young oil worker, named Sal from Seattle. He’d been in the fields for three years, was glad for the work and the money. Although not too much seemed to happen in town, he suggested a few neighborhood nightspots. We both tried our first bowl of nefla soup, a dish of German origin popular in the area, composed of potato dumplings. It was filling. Sal graciously picked up my dinner tab and said to contact him when I got to Washington State, he had friends there.
I found a McDonald’s with a nice fireplace to watch the Vice Presidential debates, the words unintelligible as a youth baseball coach attempted to quiet his team with burgers. When that didn’t work, he hustled them outside past a Ronald holding a well-lit “Hiring” sign.
A Strenuous Life of Liesure.
After the rolling prairie and farmland, I was glad for the broken terrain of the northern badlands. Painted Canyon lay below a ridge with a gorgeous view. The walls of the Park Station were full of Teddy Roosevelt books. A rosy-cheeked young ranger in glasses read an open Teddy bio book on her desk. She was full of helpful anecdotes. This area of North Dakota was particularly full of Roosevelt lore because he briefly lived nearby, eventually investing in a cattle concern that failed. But it was in the Badlands where, by his own account, the privileged city boy became a man. Here, as he stated years later, “The romance of my life began…”. The Badlands, their beauty and fragility shaped his views on conservation; their savage ruggedness became part of his philosophy of “a strenuous life.”
The day grew suddenly warmer, and I realized the recent cold made me appreciate this even more. I could enjoy the Badlands without a jacket. I could explore sediments deposited millions of years ago and carved by streams without shivering. I could walk among the buttes and sculptures of stone without being distracted by the weather. It was a beautiful day.
The hamlet of Medora sat right at the entrance of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and elicited a western version of the Catskills family resort in the movie, Dirty Dancing. I could imagine the pods of summer families accruing on their 5 and 10 day trips, the kids in the playgrounds, the romances of teens at night, the tired parents shuffling off to bed for a few moments of privacy after a long day of activities. There’s a summer outdoor musical, horseback riding, golf courses, buggy rides, and the best steak in the west, billed as “steak-fondue” cooked over a fire with a pitchfork. Cooler weather had come, the season changed, the tourists left, and so did most of the workers. Only a few shops were open, handily including a gas station.
I fueled up and took the 30 mile loop into the park. I sat behind a tree to watch a big brown buffalo snuffle through tufts of grass, I passed huge prairie dog towns in areas cleared and pocked like the surface of the moon. I waded into the cools waters of the little Missouri, and climbed high above to see its deep etchings through the valley. There were plenty of white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, and magpies. Stepping over dry buffalo patties, I managed to edge quite close to a herd of over 100 bison, cooing and standing tall as I approached so that they wouldn’t be spooked. It worked; I got right among them. When I left the park I saw a sign that read not to approach the animals…oops!
In Medora, an author named Doug Ellison owned one of the best bookstores I’d visited so far. We talked about legends and stories, of mountain men, like Hugh Glass, John Coulter, Jed Smith, and Jim Bridger. I first became interested in these characters through my father, then later through a professor at UCLA, Roger McGrath who’d later become a commentating historian on cable. Doug recognized his name. Throughout the conversation he recommended books, some of which I bought. I remarked on his fortune to live out here, write, and run a bookstore. He said yes, yet still, sometimes had to remind himself.
The town was founded by a 24 year-old French nobleman in the 19th century. He and his wife built a Chateau, but didn’t last long and moved back to France. The town stumbled on, railroads and ranching fizzled until Teddy recognized the need to protect its vulnerable beauty. Shortly thereafter tourists began their pilgrimages. I visited the Chateau, but failed to set my parking-break. As the Chief rolled toward a ditch, I floundered helplessly on the gravel. A sapling stalled the van long enough for me to squeeze in and pull the break. Taking it as an omen, I returned to town, and gave the Chief the afternoon off. I sat on the porch of the Rough Rider Hotel and read in the sun.
A gorgeous sunset spilled across the skies as the ribbon of river below faded into darkness. I’d decided to camp, built a small fire and set my Indian blankets beneath the stars. White-tail deer bounded in the shadows, and the sounds of oil trucks hurtling down the freeway roared against the hills, until night and the nearness of morning muffled them. An eerie silence descended broken by the howls of coyote packs roaming the bluffs.
I knew it would be cold, and although the stars patterned the skies without the obstruction of a single cloud, I’d forgotten about the dew, which accumulated on my blankets and soaked through to my jeans and sweater and skin. On the outer layer of wool, the dew froze into a sparkling white sheen, inside it was uncomfortable enough to get me up before sunrise. The air was biting cold so I did some sprints to warm up. Poking around the shelving I’d built in the back of the van, I discovered an open carton of milk I’d had for 5 days. It was still good! –one of the perks of traveling in a mobile refrigerator.
As Homer’s fingertips of rose spread over the hillsides, I exited the park and headed south. The formidable confusion of the folded Badlands opened reluctantly to stark prairies and a widening sigh of vigorous solitude, perfectly complemented by a blazing blue sky. I passed the highest point in North Dakota, which seemed small, even at over 3500 feet. I slowed through several similarly small towns which offered gas and snacks, but between them there was nothing for long stretches except the curving heavens, the grumbling of the Chief, and the approaching border of South Dakota.
The buffalo in me kept moving, the journey’s experiences turning into impressions, which turned into memories that scattered on the plains. These memories only made sense when I was back on the road, letting my eyes blur till the world became unfocused in an endless stream around me.