Road Trip Heads for North Dakota

A Great American Road Trip

Bulletin: Here’s a fabulous mural for North Dakota, created by James Rosenquist for the Plains Museum.

North Dakota Pioneer statue in front of the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck, the state's tallest building at 17 stories.

Destination: North Dakota

Movie: Fargo (1996) Produced by the Coen Brothers

A GUEST POST by Sam Lowe

Author of Mysteries and Legends of Arizona: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained (Mysteries and Legends Series)

KENSAL, N.D. — I return here once in a while even though it no longer looks like the place where I spent my youth. For example, Garfield Johnson’s Tavern is gone. My brothers and I devoted many of our pre-teen hours devising schemes that would fool Garfield into thinking we were weathered old farmers so he’d sell us a beer. Most everything else has also vanished.  About all that remains of the Kensal I knew are my memories of it.
The town never was very big. Maybe 300 hardworking folks back when it was an important stop on the Soo Line Railroad. Today it’s much smaller. All the stores closed a long time ago and even the buildings they occupied are gone.
I thought of this recently, while viewing Fargo, the Coen brothers irreverent cinematic take on North Dakota. It was not a very flattering image of my native land, but one scene produced a chuckle because it was so true. It’s a winter scene. One of the bad guys digs a hole in the snow and buries some loot next to a steel fence post. The camera then pulls back and reveals mile after mile of exact duplicates, an unending line of fence posts silently guarding fields of white.

North Dakota sunset,uncluttered by smog or skyscrapers

Now I go back because North Dakota not only holds the days of my youth, but because there are so many new things to discover. And old things to reflect upon. It is vast. When the sun sets on the prairie, nothing blocks its splendor.
No high-rises. No smoke stacks. No smog. The tallest building is the State Capitol in Bismarck, a skyscraper by North Dakota standards at 17 stories.
So there’s room for other things. Museums, for example. North Dakota has museums that honor firefighters, cowboys, model railroads, Gen. Custer, Norsemen, pioneers, blacksmiths, Lawrence Welk, antique cars, Roger Maris, Victorian dresses, dinosaurs, Lewis and Clark, game wardens, Louis L’Amour and Sitting Bull. In Parshall, there’s even a museum dedicated to polished rocks. Most don’t charge admission to view the history they contain.

The world's largest buffalo is a concrete giant that looms over Jamestown, North Dakota.

And they like big things in North Dakota. The world’s largest buffalo stands in Jamestown; New Salem boasts the world’s largest Holstein heifer; and Garrison is home to a 25-foot walleyed pike. Huge turtle sculptures draw tourists in Bottineau, Turtle Lake and Dunseith. That latter reptile is composed of 2,000 tire rims.  On the northern border, the sprawling Peace Gardens pay tribute to the state’s friendship with Canada. Out west, the ghostly Badlands bear witness to Teddy Roosevelt’s time as  cowboy there.

Salem Sue, the world's largest Holstien heifer, is a fiberglass statue at New Salem, North Dakota.

I like the sounds of North Dakota. The flutter of the cottonwood trees. The rustle of the wheat fields. The moan of a chinook wind. The muffled cluck of the prairie chickens. And the names of the small towns that dot the state — Absaraka, Ypsilanti, Minnewauken,  Alkabo,  Anamoose,  Backoo,  Bucyrus,  Gackle,  Garske,  Makoti, Monango, Omemee, Osnabrock. They roll off my tongue and cause me to smile.
Then, there’s the silence. Traffic noise and other annoyances are routinely swallowed up by the rolling hills and wide spaces between. So I go there because it is a peaceful place, somewhere to go when the big city hustle causes me to wonder if there’s any respite from it a world racing madly toward whatever comes next.

Sam Lowe

Sam Lowe has been writing about North Dakota and Arizona for more than 45 years.  He has also written six books about travel in Arizona and New Mexico.  He now lives in Phoenix.

Sam Lowe wrote a humor column for years in the Phoenix Gazette, and he still is one of the funniest writers in Arizona. Sam took all the photographs here, and he wouldn’t mind if you used them–but only if you pay him, first. Thanks for the introduction to your home state, Sam.

North Dakota is one of the six states I have not yet spent time in. Never thought there was much reason to go, but that silence is sounding awfully good.  Have you been to North Dakota? Check out what music Kerry Dexter recommends for a road trip stop in North Dakota, and let us know what you think about the state and the music.

Vera Marie Badertscher

Travel and lifestyle writer, wife, mother and grandmother. Publisher of A Traveler’s Library and Ancestors in Aprons>. Also co-authored a biography of Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.


17 thoughts on “Road Trip Heads for North Dakota

  1. I didn’t realize North Dakota had so many free museums! That is impressive, and it’s one of the things I miss most about Europe. Intriguing post …

  2. To all of you who responded, North Dakota is beautiful, especially in the summer, so it’s well worth an exploratory trip. Winters are a bit harsh, however, but there are also times during the cold months when the frost hangs on the trees and the chimney smoke rises straight up when it is also a thing of beauty. Happy travels.

  3. So fun to read this description–visiting the Dakotas is such fun. I can add to the list of large, concrete animals, if you head to Huron, SD there’s a 20-foot pheasant not far from the highway.

  4. North Dakota always makes me think not of Fargo, but of the immigrants who managed in such a harsh climate and built sod houses. Interesting post. I learned a lot. Thanks.

  5. Loved the movie Fargo. But more than that, I loved reading this lovely description of the place. Sounds like a place I’d really appreciate.

  6. The trouble with North Dakota (actually, it’s MY trouble) is that it’s in the middle. We take road trips between New Hampshire and Washington state, where we have a son and his family. By North Dakota fanny fatigue and itchiness to arrive are in full flower. I’d really like to take the time to explore off the interstate. The last time a bison herd had been spotted on the loop through the Teddy Roosevelt monument, but it was 36 extra miles, and with another 1,000 miles or so to go, the extra 36 seemed too daunting. Next time. . .

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