First Impressions of the Grasslands
As we head out of Minnesota we listen to some history podcasts and learn about the Dakota war. We drive through many historical marks that tell different versions. The way history is told changes, but the desolate plains of western Minnesota appear not to. In these markers old plaques conflict with new ones. Blunt ones glorify the men who fought, captured, and executed more than 30 natives, the largest mass execution in US history. Contemporary ones recognize the government’s deceit and abuse. One of them in New Ulm rises “in memory of all who suffered in the Dakota War,” which seems almost offensive in its neutrality. The metal plaques and concrete structures contrast harshly with their location in parks and prairies where no one stops, and the only noise is the wind.
As we try to drive away from the Mississippi time starts moving slower and signs of civilization are sparse. There’s nothing but grassland all around us, so the wind comes full force, as it’s also trying to move away from this emptiness. We cross the border into South Dakota. A lot of people don’t know this, but highways in this state are actually treadmills. Regardless of their 80 mph speed limit we don’t seem to move much. As soon as we cross the state line the only thing we can see are small concrete buildings with colorful signs that just say FIREWORKS. Nothing more, except a few secluded farms and a large number of anti-abortion signs. It’s so weird to me that areas of this country where freedom is valued so much would bombard the few people that drive through them with such heavy moral indoctrination. If life and freedom are respected so much why are you blindly ignoring the circumstances of the other lives involved?
I hope you forgive me these two lighthearted observations on a very serious topic:
1. “Every life is a little miracle,” some signs say. It may seem that way around here, as seeing any sign of life within 100 miles within any direction must be a joyous occasion. 2. It hurts the pro-choice movement to have its counterpart called “pro-life.” When I first came to the US if someone would’ve asked me if I’m pro-life I would’ve said yes, of course, I’m a fan of the mitochondria! 95% of the time I’m into life. The other 5% has been times I’ve heard “Despacito” on the radio.
We reach Watertown where we visit the county museum. I love these little places that are basically old stuff from grandmas attics from all over town, with some printed pieces of paper in comic sans. There’s always an old iron oven and a weird mannequin staring directly into your soul. Every guide in these museums is trained to start every explanation with “they didn’t have phones back then.”
We’re greeted there by a chirpy blond lady he seem to have been aiting to talk to someone since 1989. We ask for recommendations of things to do in the state and spend the next four days listening to a stream of consciousness that includes great ideas of places to visit, some history of the county, and a little bit of casual racism. Her remarks are just observations of places she has visited. She tells us, for example, to lock our car doors if we enter Native American territory. “But,” she adds, “you should probably be more scared of the white people, they all carry guns and can be violent.” Yeah, people in the reserve could probably attest to that.
Shelter from the Storm in Sheyenne National Grasslands
The sky in South Dakota seemed like an ocean, with its clouds slowly wading around above us. But in our campsite in North Dakota the sky seems like a river. Clouds flow down furiously, coming and going dramatically while the grasslands stand still, waving. We have two rainy days. Rain doesn’t fall, but explodes on top of us. We have our weather radio on, and suddenly an alarm starts beeping. Our phones start vibrating too.
“Tornado warning. Get to safety immediately.” I can tell Autumn grew with these experiences because she immediately jumps up and is ready to act. I’m scared and fascinated. If you’ve heard a weather ready you know the voice coming through the static: it’s calm, clear, and not from this planet. No one should sound so friendly when enumerating the counties that are in danger of being destroyed. The alert switches from the relaxed voice to alarm sounds.
When the alarm goes off there’s little rain and it doesn’t feel dangerous. As we get out of our camper and look up we see a giant black cloud moving towards us. We go to the outhouse, the only concrete building around. You can see the rain as a line, like a moving border that seems so impossible close but still not above us. Birds stop chirping and start flying away, and there’s an intense stillness. Just both of us, standing outside, listening to the radio calmly enumerating the counties and towns that immediately surround us. Wind picks up and it lla turns black. We watch it pass by hat seems to be a quarter of a mile from us. It’s a weird feeling to stand there, at the mercy of this massive dark monster that moves fast and responds to no logic, and just wait to see if we’re unlucky enough to have our things damaged, get hurt or killed by it, or worse, to be forced to stay for a long time in the outhouse. “It seems like a good place to wait for a tornado,” my dad said later when I told him what had happened. “I would shit my pants.” Ten minutes later the sky opens up like a curtain. The color blue suddenly appears, and it brings bird songs with it.
Not so long ago this was the human experience: just stand in awe in front of nature and take your chance. Seems easier to believe in a superior power if every day of your life is ruled by the random strength of natural forces. This primal helplessness may be scary but it also bridges my connection with those frightened, defenseless creatures that were all our ancestors, and that we still are. They must have had the same experience, right here, sans a concrete outhouse filled with single ply rolls of toilet paper. Lucky bastards.
Maybe I’m the scared one. The North Dakota natives were probably as fearless as the only other people in our campsite. When the alarm went off I went there, with the radio in my hand. “I don’t know if you heard,” I said with urgency, “but there’s a tornado warning!” In my mind I pictured Jim and Shannon dropping all their belongings and running to the outhouse, thanking me for their lives. Instead Jim just turned his back to me and said “fun!” and kept going with his business. After the emergency passed and the sky turned blue I went to their campground to see them just as relaxed as I left them. “You must be from around here,” I asked. They nodded with a condescending smile.
There’s Nothing in the Dakotas
After Jim and Shannon leave we have half a day of solitude. We have a tent that attaches to our camper, and completely seals us from mosquitoes. New neighbors come at evening to say hi, Craig and Katherine, and they are our first campground guests into the tent. He’s reflexive and quiet, she’s loud and extroverted. Our shared beliefs in traveling, conservation and politics makes the conversation easy, and we relate to them a lot until they mention their love for Indiana. “Just heading back home and seeing the fields of corn and the hot, humid air of summer brings me so much joy!” she says.
I regularly make fun of Indiana, and how could I not, it’s an easy target. Their motto is “the crossroads of America,” as if they knew people who go there are also on their way out. I’ve driven through it regularly on my drive from Madison to Michigan and if highway signs are to be believed the only thing there is in Indiana is accident lawyers, adult stores, and Jesus. Seems strange that someone who has lived there and traveled away several times can find it beautiful.
I don’t understand it until later, when, during a conversation about a particular park she sits up in her chair and says “that place is beautiful! So many places are beautiful! Every time I go to a new place, it’s so cool. Everywhere is beautiful.”
While Katherine may not be talking particularly about I90/I94, her words resonate with me. The Dakotas are another national punchline. But I can completely relate to Katherine here, in the uneventful grasslands of North Dakota, where nothing happens and everything is beautiful.
Well, well, well, Fargo
In its welcome center the city of Fargo proudly showcases its connection to the movie and TV show of the same name. Posters, t-shirts, a copy of the script, set memorabilia, the original woodchipper from the infamous scene of the film, signed by the directors, and a replica of the woodchipper, which is placed outdoors, in case you come after hours. You wouldn’t want to miss the woodchipper. Next to the woodchippers the welcoming center has brochures on what to do in Fargo, and going to the welcoming center to check the woodchippers is near the top of the list.
I find this incredibly amusing.
Foot note: if you haven’t seen Fargo you need to step it up. I don’t want to spoil the importance of the woodchipper, but imagine a creative way such a powerful tool could be use on a crime/dark comedy film by the Coen brothers and you’ll have a strong foothold on the plot. It’s a kick. End of foot note.
Fargo is a somewhat charming little city, very different from the vibe of the movie, with an interesting history and notable geological characteristics. It’s also somewhat hip and young. Hip cities are measured by the presence of cool murals and amount of craft breweries. However the city happily insists on their connection to a film that projects a dark image of the area and featured the city for less than two minutes. It’s a town built for and by railroad companies. Fargo was named after the same guy in Wells Fargo, who built part of that railroad. “Interesting fact,” I tell Autumn, “Wells Fargo was originally named ‘well, well, well, Fargo!’ but it was too long, so they shortened it.”
I find this incredibly amusing. Autumn doesn’t.
As we leave town we listen to some history podcast that talks about the absurd desire for territory and the federal impulse of pushing west at every cost. Railroad corporations were part of the problem. We hear about the shady deals and coordinated greed of these tycoons with the US government, which resulted in the repossession of lands, armed conflicts, and suffering of the native people. Well, well, well, Fargo. Maybe a dark crime film fits you just right.
Where we are: The Badlands, in South Dakota.
What’s next: The Black Hills, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
First Impressions of the Grasslands