For me, walking in a hard Dakota wind can be like staring at the ocean: humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet, my blood so like the sea in chemical composition, my every cell partaking of air. I live about as far from the sea as is possible in North America, yet I walk in a turbulent ocean.- Kathleen Norris, author
The first time I saw North Dakota was when I flew there for a house hunting trip after accepting a position as a USDA Resource Conservation and Development Coordinator in Devils Lake, ND. As I was deplaning, I was focused on juggling my carry-on items so I was halfway down the stairs before I looked up and what I saw stopped me dead in my tracks. The prairie spread out before me in a seemingly never-ending vista. As comedian Red Skelton once quipped, “North Dakota is the only place I have been where I didn’t have to look up to see the sky.” I have never experienced such openness and I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of my future home. As a person who loves forests and mountains I felt bereft in this stark, near treeless environment. It was too late to turn back so I carried on with my house hunting, then returned home to my beloved Maine to begin the painful process of moving my family once again.
My husband Bill and daughter Hannah, along with our two cats and dog, made the four-day journey driving from Maine to North Dakota. It was a journey that started with tears as we left our home, friends and our daughter Julie in Maine, and it was a journey that ended in tears. Awaiting at our hotel in Devils Lake was a message that Bill’s Dad had died in a house fire. I remember lying on the bed, curled in a fetal position, crying my heart out, feeling I had made a huge mistake in relocating to this barren place. That night we went to eat and as we headed back to our room I looked up into the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen. The sky was streaked with red, orange and yellow with splashes of blue and pink interspersed in the swaths of bold color. As I looked at this beautiful abstract it seemed it had been painted just for us and a sense of peace came over me and I knew everything was going to be all right.
I would come to love the wide open spaces and cherished the time I spent in my car traveling to and from the six counties that were in my area. You don’t measure distance by miles in North Dakota, you measure it by hours. Grand Forks is one and a half hours away, Fargo two and Bismarck three. The roads are long and straight and if you get lost, just keep taking right turns and you will come out on the road you started on. You can drive for miles with fields of cheery sunflowers waving at you and every so often an old-fashioned windmill will spin its blades in welcome as it sucks water up from the underground aquifers below waving fields of grain.
North Dakota is the least visited state but I discovered it has much to offer. It has 90,000 buffalo living there, including several sacred white buffaloes. Most of the pasta in America is made there from locally grown durum wheat on farmland covering the equivalent of twelve million city blocks. It is the state with the most churches and not surprisingly, the most church-going people. There are no towns in North Dakota. Each place is a city no matter how small and the smallest has 5 people. North Dakota gave us bandleader Lawrence Welk, baseball legend Roger Maris, news reporter Eric Severeid, author Louis L’Amour and actress Angie Dickinson.
The International Peace Garden straddles the border of the U.S. and Canada. A cairn constructed of aboriginal hammerheads holds a plate that reads, “To God in his Glory… We two nations dedicate this garden and pledge ourselves that as long as men shall live we will not take up arms against one another.” The geographic area of North America lies in Rugby, ND, and it flies the flags of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in scenic splendor in the badlands. Take a drive along the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch of rural highway in the southwest and you will see a collection of the world’s largest scrap metal sculptures, each one giving you whimsical vignette to enjoy. And then there’s Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve, a unique natural area located near Devils Lake where I lived and it would become a favorite spot to visit for a lazy Sunday drive. Theodore Roosevelt designated it as a big game preserve, refuge and breeding ground for wild animals and birds in 1904. You can drive for four miles through woodlands interspersed with areas of grass prairie for up close and personal views of elk and bison herds. A favorite for us was to park near the prairie dog town and watch the antics of the dogs as they chirp and scurry about, popping in and out of holesas they watch you withwary eyes. There are more than 250 species of birds there and hiking trails provide the opportunity to enjoy the woods, a rarity in a state that is only 1% wooded.
I think I was the most content in North Dakota of any state I have lived in. Living in a small town in North Dakota is truly living in a Norman Rockwell picture and I believe it is the most under-appreciated state in the union. It is a very spiritual place and sometimes on my long drives I would catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of the long dead herds of buffalo that once wandered unfettered on the North Dakota prairies. I came to love and treasure the simple beauty of North Dakota and I miss it terribly. It brought a sense of peace in my life when I truly needed it and it gave me the strength to leave it when a career opportunity came along three years later. But I will never forget the majesty of those wide Dakota skies with red and yellow arms that seemed to reach down and embrace me at the close of day, assuring me, “Everything will be allright.”