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Edge of the West: Great Plains touring in North Dakota

June 18, 2013

Story and photos by Alan Paulsen

Flaming tridents speared the earth. Rain and wind lashed against the tent fly. Thunder rocked the ground.

I had arrived at the Butte View Campground outside Bowman, North Dakota, seeking a restful night. Instead, I became an involuntary witness to natural warfare on a titanic scale.

At dawn, I parted the tent flaps to assess the new day.

Ohmigod!

The BMW R1100RS lay on its side. Struck by lightning? No. Hasty inspection revealed that the cursed narrow-footed sidestand had sunk into the soft ground. Fortunately, mud had cushioned the fall, and no permanent damage was done.

Thus was I welcomed to North Dakota, land of meteorological extremes. Over the next several days, I would observe dramatic shifts in the weather, culminating during a slashing rain and hail storm when I looked back to see a sunlit rainbow sparkling against black shreds of angry clouds.

From blizzards and 80 below in winter to 100 degrees and drought in summer, nearly all of Mother Nature’s excesses seem to be inflicted upon this stretch of the Great Plains, discouraging the riffraff from settling here. So it is that the state’s population has remained steady at three-quarters of a million, mostly descendants of Scandinavian immigrants, for decades. That means North Dakota still has plenty of open spaces to explore on a motorcycle—as long as you ride well prepared.

At Bowman, an Indian archer’s silhouette points the way down Main Street with his bow and arrow. The image is not as appropriate as it might seem, though, since the town was named for a prominent territorial legislator, not a native American warrior.

Fortunately, the truth-in-advertising quotient was considerably higher at the little restaurant where I stopped for breakfast. The food was good, the prices reasonable and the waitress hospitable in spite of the mud-spattered appearance of both myself and the Beemer. I left town well-fed, if not well-rested, and headed north to explore North Dakota’s hinterlands.

A half-hour later, I slowed upon entering Amidon after noticing a police car parked alongside the road. As I passed, I could have sworn that the trooper inside was sound asleep. When I remarked on the local constable’s apparent lack of watchfulness at the only gas station in town, I was greeted by a round of laughter from the cashier and a few customers.

“If she ever wakes up,” one man noted, “that’ll be news!” It turns out that the town’s police department, in lieu of a stop sign or light to slow down passing traffic, decided years ago to dress a female mannequin in full uniform and station her in an old squad car at the edge of town.

The gas stop was informative in other ways, too. I commented on the weathered-wood front of the building, which looked like it belonged in the Dodge City of Marshal Dillon. Surely, I said, the building must date from the late 19th century.

The young lady behind the counter said that the wood for the building was indeed over 100 years old, but the structure itself was much newer. The wood, she explained, was originally part of an old silo. On the treeless plains of North Dakota, it’s common to recycle salvaged lumber from abandoned structures into new buildings.

State Route 21 took me generally east from Amidon through several small towns and many isolated miles in between. The road softly undulates with the open terrain, drawing you toward an endless horizon that seems almost reachable—perhaps by your next gas stop, perhaps even before you have to put a foot down at a stop sign.

Sometimes it seems that the only witnesses to a motorcycle passing through this landscape are the silver silos that cast long shadows across the land. The silos you can see are filled with grain. Others, hidden below ground, store a more ominous product: North Dakota holds three-fourths of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

In the town of Mott, I cruised the main street, looking for a suitable diner for lunch. The Pheasant Cafe fit the bill, serving up fleishkuecle, a German dish popular in these parts. Fleishkuecle is deep-fried dough filled with spiced meat. Some claim it’s the forerunner to the hamburger.

I was just beginning to devour this delicacy when the sheriff walked in, sat down beside me and started to talk about bikes. He told me he owned a Harley FXRP that was “all hopped up.” While he chatted, I pictured him, with his pro wrestler build and his Fu Manchu mustache, donning engineer boots, jeans and a cutoff denim jacket for a weekend jaunt on his scoot. The bike fit him.

North Dakota’s capricious rain began anew for the 95-mile run to Mandan and Bismarck, sister cities cleaved by the Missouri River. Between the two lies a geographical seam that demarcates the Midwest from the West, a boundary shift that startles the unsuspecting traveler. John Steinbeck noted it in his 1962 memoir, “Travels with Charlie”:

“I came on it in amazement. Here is where the map should fold. . .On the Bismarck side it is Eastern landscape. . .Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure West. . .The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart.”

I observed this abrupt transition from the Fort Abraham Lincoln infantry post four miles south of Mandan. Here, several re-created blockhouses rise on a breezy bluff, affording views of Bismarck’s high-rise art deco capitol building across the river.

On the grounds of Fort Lincoln you’ll find Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s house. Custer was the fort’s first commandant, but he didn’t enjoy the position for long. He and the 7th Cavalry departed from here in May 1876 for the Little Big Horn and destiny.

The road numbers on each side of the Missouri are reminiscent of an earlier chapter in the area’s history. On the east side of the river, you travel on state Route 1804, named for the year in which Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed up the Missouri on their historic Western expedition. On the west side is Route 1806, signifying the year of their return.

As I rounded a bend in the river, I watched the sidewheeler riverboat Lewis and Clark float like an apparition out of history. Boats like these, plying the wide, lazy Missouri, were once the lifeline connecting this territory to civilization back East. To Lewis and Clark, Custer, Sakakawea, John Jacob Astor, James Bridger, Sitting Bull, Theodore Roosevelt and thousands of others, this was the first North Dakota expressway.

North of Bismarck, Route 1804 becomes an elevated, ambling route with vistas of the Missouri bottom lands and gambrel-roofed barns. You’d swear you’re looking down on a scene out of the 1920s, with a few jarring exceptions.

One of those exceptions is located outside the town of Underwood, where a huge boom crane dredges up enormous mouthfuls of lignite—a soft coal that can be processed into synthetic natural gas. A little way farther north, you can cross massive Garrison Dam, one of North America’s largest earth-backed water control structures.

Those modern images just heighten your appreciation for historic sites like Knife River Indian Village, several miles south of the dam. This Mandan tribal village is one of the oldest inhabited sites in North America, and it was here that Lewis and Clark met the teenage Shoshone girl, Sakakawea, who led the explorers on their search for a water route to the Pacific.

Knife River is well worth a stop, but you can skip Fort Clark, another historic site nearby. This fort, named for explorer William Clark, was established in 1831 as a major fur trading post. Nothing remains today but markers and a caretaker who’ll tell you there’s nothing there. According to his records, some 5,000 visitors hear that message from him each year.

I turned west on North Dakota Route 200, which ripples over glacier-scoured land, occasionally dipping into a prairie hollow. The road follows every contour of the rugged landscape, a refreshing change from modern interstates that tame all but the most stubborn geographical features.

Within one of the hollows, I came upon the town of Zap, its crude but charming billboard declaring: “Zap—A little town with a big heart.” I’m not sure about the town itself, but there’s a farmer just west of Zap who has a big sense of humor, and maybe a heart to match.

Throughout North Dakota, I had seen rows of enormous round hay bales amidst farm fields. And I was constantly on the lookout for a perfect hay bale photo, the one defining image that would instantly recall North Dakota in my mind.

As I crested a hill outside of Zap, I slammed on the brakes and pulled off the road. Before me stood immense hay bale statues—a couple and their child, wearing smile-button faces and waving. It wasn’t exactly the image I had expected to sum up North Dakota, but it was too good to pass up. As I pulled out my camera, the sun even obliged me, peeking through the clouds to light up the hay bale forms.

From there, I dropped south to Dickinson, self-proclaimed Queen City of the Prairies, and then turned west to Medora, headquarters for Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Medora was founded in 1883 by a wealthy French nobleman, the Marquis de Mores, who named the town for his young bride. Soon, greenhorn Teddy Roosevelt arrived from New York on a hunting trip. He ended up staying and establishing a cattle ranch.

The marquis was quite the dandy, entertaining Roosevelt in a villa full of servants who filled crystal glasses with Bordeaux and Ming china with tea. Both men, who came from more cultured backgrounds, apparently found renewal in the limitless spaces of North Dakota. Later in life, Roosevelt said: “If it had not been for what I learned during those years in North Dakota, I would never in the world have been president of the United States.”

Ironically, the Marquis de Mores and Roosevelt both became victims, financially at least, of the land they loved. Blizzards during the winter of 1886-’87 all but destroyed the Dakota cattle industry, including Roosevelt’s enterprise. And the failure of the cattle ranchers led to the collapse of the marquis’ meat-processing venture.

But the legacy of each lives on. In Medora, you can visit the preserved Chateau Marquis de Mores, with its original furnishings still in place, including empty wine bottles lining a pantry shelf. The marquis’ meat-packing plant hasn’t aged as well, but you can still see the chimney and foundation of the building.

Meanwhile, Teddy Roosevelt left behind his Maltese Cross cabin, named for the brand he put on his cattle. That building is just one attraction of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is divided into two units, one located along Interstate 94 at Medora and the other some 50 miles north on U.S. Route 85.

The South Unit features the striking landscape of the Dakota Badlands—tortured ground that has been shaped by wind, water and fire. Over the centuries, those forces have transformed the clay, shale and sandstone earth into a red, brick-like rock known as scoria. And the late afternoon sun paints it with unearthly colors.

“As the sun angled,” John Steinbeck said of this land, “the buttes and coulees, the cliffs and sculpted hills and ravines lost their burned and dreadful look and glowed with yellow and rich browns and a hundred variations of red and silver gray, all picked out by streaks of coal black.”

A great rim of badlands outcroppings frames the town of Medora, making it look just like a set for a Western movie. Adding authenticity are the town’s reconstructed false fronts and wooden sidewalks. St. Mary’s Church, built by the marquis, still perseveres, but Medora’s big attraction is the Burning Hills Amphitheater, built into a natural bowl of the badlands. Each year, the Medora musical revue recruits regional talent for a Broadway-style extravaganza that honors Teddy Roosevelt and Western heritage, with a couple of Vegas lounge acts thrown in for variety.

West of town, off I-94, adventurous riders on dual-sport machines can tackle the scoria road winding up Sentinel Butte, North Dakota’s second highest point. I headed north on state Route 16, another undulating byway paralleling the Little Missouri National Grassland. Distances between homes are measured in miles on this high, lonesome plain, and at some crossroads, signposts point the way not toward the nearest towns, but to individual families.

I passed solitary one-room schoolhouses and a few steepled Lutheran churches. As I stopped to examine one, all the cows in the pasture across the road lined up to watch. Even the cattle, it seems, are curious about travelers passing by their remote pastures.

In the town of Alexander, I dismounted at the only cafe and sat down to a double-thick hamburger with a plateful of fries. There was no traffic in sight, yet I was joined minutes later by a local BMW R80 rider who pulled in to chat, drawn by the new R1100RS I had parked out front. It was the first he’d seen and he was full of questions.

After lunch, I continued north, crossed the Missouri River near Williston and again picked up Route 1804, which I followed west to the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers, practically at the North Dakota-Montana border. In the morning, I would head west, leaving North Dakota, but that left me one last night in the state.

I found a patch of grass along the river and set up my tent. Appropriately enough, dark clouds were already building on the horizon as sunset approached. By dark, the first spears of lightning appeared, and soon, the patter of rain on nylon lulled me to intermittent slumber. North Dakota was making sure I wouldn’t leave without one more chance to appreciate its varied climate.

Or maybe it was a plot to keep me from leaving at all. In the morning, I discovered that the rich river bottom land where I had pitched my tent had turned into a quagmire of slick gumbo. After I succeeded in walking, sliding and pushing the BMW onto a nearby gravel road, I pulled out a screwdriver and scraped the worst of the muck from around the wheels. In spite of my best efforts, I could hear clods of mud slinging off the tire for the first several miles of my day’s ride.

It was that noise, and the pattering rhythm of light rain against my helmet, that ushered me out of North Dakota, three days after a violent thunderstorm had welcomed me to the state. But I really didn’t mind. It seems North Dakota has always tested her visitors this way. Those who can see past that stern face are well rewarded.

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