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.
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.
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.
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 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.