Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

Just Like Lewis, Clark and Teddy

A recent publication in the Bismarck Tribune stated that according to Continental Resources, Inc., the Bakken and Three Forks formations together contain an estimated 7.38 billion barrels of recoverable oil. This new estimate is double the estimate from 2008 and 50 times higher than the estimate in the 90s.

No wonder I sometimes feel like I can’t see western North Dakota through the trucks, flares, wells, drills, and hastily-constructed buildings. And trucks.

There is a place where western North Dakota still shines through, however, untouched by oil and its progress. This place is one of my favorites in the world, and I go there when I need an escape. I just escaped there a few days ago. This place is the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located only about 25 miles southeast of our farm. It’s similar to its more popular counterpart, the South Unit containing Medora, Painted Canyon, and other more well-known attractions, but the North Unit is more isolated and less traveled, so of course I like it just a little better.

If you haven’t been there, you need to go.

You need to go hike a few miles of the Maah Daah Hey trail, bike the roads, camp in the grove of trees next to the river, canoe the Little Missouri, see the bison, or just enjoy the views free of trucks, flares, wells, and drills. The North Unit is North Dakota at its best and most beautiful.




I think one reason I love it so much is my secret wish to be the early explorers, Lewis and Clark, seeing landscape after landscape in untouched beauty and solitude. Wouldn’t it be amazing to canoe down open rivers and hike over wild mountains only guessing at what might lie over the next hill? What did America look like back then? Or to be Teddy Roosevelt, ranching in the badlands, escaping Eastern urban and political life — he knew western North Dakota at its freshest and wildest, too.

Going to the North Unit is kind of like that. Ok, not quite, because there is a paved road and little parking spots for your pickups and campers, but it’s still open and undeveloped and, most importantly, untouched by progress like the oil field.

When I went a few days ago, the North Unit didn’t disappoint. Four of us canoed several miles down the Little Missouri River on a breezy, sunny evening. This is something you can only do in late spring and early summer, because after a few weeks of dry summer heat, it will be a winding snake of mud and sandbars without enough water to carry a canoe. But right now, after all the spring rains, the Little Missouri is flowing along at a brisk pace, just perfect for canoe trips.


And it was a perfect canoe trip.

We had excellent views…


Good company…


The sun and the breeze were just right…


We saw wildlife…


And the turkey vultures even kept their distance this time. Thank goodness because they still give me the willies after my last experience


Sometimes, I just had to stop paddling and take it all in…


Ok, this actually happened quite a bit, because my canoe partner was a better paddler than me, and I admit I may have slacked here and there.

But whatever.

It was perfect.

I almost felt like Lewis and Clark, out there exploring the wilderness. I suppose the big difference would be that our pickup and trailer waited for us at the end of the trip. Also, I had bug spray and cold drinks in a cooler. Also, I got to go home to a soft and comfortable bed. But even if I won’t ever see my beloved landscapes quite like Lewis and Clark and Teddy Roosevelt did, it’s as close as I can get, and I’ll take it.

Seriously, you need to go there.

Musings, North Dakota Living

That’s Why I’ve Got My Dad

I have a lot of things to share this week with summer finally in swing. I have oil field stories, outdoor stories, food stories, and farm stories, and also, more North Dakota stories: My friend E., a fellow English teacher and North Dakotan who is now teaching in Asia, has a blog called A Nonstirdownable Cerebral Sphere. I love travel almost as much as I love anything, so her stories about life in Asia fascinate me. Her latest post, however, turned the focus back towards home. “North Dakota, Keep Singing,” is definitely worth a read, so check it out! (After I finished reading it, I thought, “I wish I would have written that.” That’s when I know something has really struck a chord with me!)

Today, though, I’m going to skip all my other stories — just for now — and say a few words about my dad in honor of Father’s Day.

My dad, Mike, is perhaps the most unique person I know. Most adults have one full-time job; my dad is a lawyer, farmer, basketball coach, and somehow still has time for his family. Even though he has been a successful lawyer in Bismarck for many years, he still drives around junky Buicks that have the mirrors duct-taped on and parks an assortment of farm equipment and trailers in front of our Bismarck house, to the chagrin of my mother. His greatest joy when we were growing up was lining up all six of us early on Saturday morning for a full day of chores (all of those crappy jobs “build character,” you know), then taking us to the local Sta-mart afterward to buy us slushies. After I left home, he ensured that I kept up that early morning work ethic by calling my college dorm room around 7:00 a.m. and leaving messages for me and my roommate still asleep in our bunks, just making sure we were “making hay while the sun shines.” (This happened even if we didn’t have class until 10:30). He is also a master of efficiency: He liked to save room in the cupboard by mixing Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios together, which greatly annoyed all of us. Then, he would save room in the fridge by mixing milk and chocolate milk together, which greatly annoyed all of us. That didn’t stop him. He isn’t afraid to tell us who to vote for, who to date, and what car to drive, and then he laughs when we tell him to mind his own business, although, often, we don’t. I think we can all admit that he does, in fact, seem to know quite a bit.

I’ve had the privilege of being my dad’s only daughter out of six children. I know he loves all his five sons just as much, but he also says often, “Every dad needs at least one daughter.” He used to buy me Nerf guns and plastic swords for Christmas, just like my brothers, and he showed me how to drive a combine when I was 12, just like my brothers. But he treats me “special” too: He buys me pink tool sets for Christmas, and he showed my prom date in high school the shotgun sitting inconspicuously behind the front door. I assured my worried date that my dad was joking, so he laughed, perhaps a little nervously. I think he still kept one eye on my dad during the social hour.

But if every dad needs at least one daughter, then I say that every daughter needs a dad, too, if she is fortunate enough to have a good one. I thought I would share a poem I wrote several years ago because I think it sums it up pretty well. Here it is:

Me and My Dad

A girl like me won’t ask for much
Perhaps a shoulder when I’m sad
And when I need that very thing
That’s when I need my dad.

A girl like me is pretty good
At solving problems when they’re bad
But still, the times I need advice
That’s when I call my dad.

A girl like me is on my own
Through all life’s lessons that I’ve had
But girls, they need protection too
That’s why I’ve got my dad.

A girl like me don’t need a boy
For after all, they drive you mad
But all girls need one man in life
So me, I have my dad.

He’s honest, smart, he’s strong and brave
I sure am lucky and so glad
God knew I’d need a hero here
That’s why I’ve got my Dad.


Musings, North Dakota Living

My Home in North Dakota

I braced myself for the comment that usually comes after I say I’m a local, one of the few with roots in the area before the oil boom: “Wow, I’m sorry. What a sorry place to call home.” And it did come, sure enough. “Wow, I”m sorry,” the young man said sympathetically in the clinic waiting room while I was waiting for my weekly allergy shot.

I tried not to narrow my eyes at him. “Because I’m from here?” I was readying myself with an exposition extolling the beauty and peacefulness of North Dakota and its wide open spaces.

But then he surprised me. “No, because I bet it’s tough to watch such a beautiful place get taken over by the oil field. I’m from a small town myself, and I have to say, I would be pretty sad to watch all this happen to my town.”

I almost got tears in my eyes. I must have been tired. “Yes,” I said finally. “It is. But you take the good with the bad. I love it here anyway.”

I just can’t help myself. I love my home in North Dakota.

Is it just because it is “home”? Maybe. It is because I’m a girl just made for wide open spaces? Maybe. Is it because of the people? Surely that has something to do with it. It’s a whole bunch of things. I’ve never been able to make myself leave for good. After college, I watched friends move to cool places like New York City and Denver and Seattle and Arizona. I thought to myself, I should do that. I should move somewhere just to prove I can.

Then I thought, nah. What if I miss the summer sunsets?


What if I miss hunting season?


What if I miss the winter? I mean, real winter?


What if I miss lilacs in the spring? Do they have lilacs in Arizona?


What if I miss our annual camping trip at Lake Sakakawea? What if I miss my nephew’s birthday? What if I miss all of the hamburgers in the park on Saturday nights? What if I miss hiking in the badlands? Then the list got too long. The truth is, I love it here too much. I love many of the places I visit, too — I love the mountains, I love the coasts, I love Europe and Canada and the Bahamas and New York City. And I’m sure most of the people living in other places could write their own blogs about their own homes, and I’m glad. We should all have a place we love so much that we don’t want to leave. Maybe it’s home; maybe it’s somewhere else, but I think humans like to connect to places.

Next fall, actually, a brother and I are planning to go overseas to work in an orphanage for a while, providing everything falls together. I will write more about it later once I know more details. I’m very excited about our adventure. But when I’m done, I’m coming back home.

This week in Boomtown Diaries, I’m going to give a shout-out to my cousin Adam, who wrote a song that explains it perfectly and which is aptly titled “My Home in North Dakota.” We play it sometimes in Dwaylors shows and Adam always gets compliments. A while back, he and his brother Nick created a music video, which now has almost 50,000 hits on Youtube. That’s because it’s awesome. Here it is:

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

The Zoo, 22 Years Later

This week, I escaped the oil field and the turkey vultures and experienced something equally as wild: watching my 2-year-old niece Dahlia and 3-year-old nephew Jesse while their mother is out of the country. After being cooped up for 3 days of rain, on Thursday we piled into the car and took a trip to the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck. I hadn’t been there in years, but I remember my mother packing up anywhere from four to six of her children and taking us on trips to the zoo several times each summer. We would feed the goats, eat cotton candy, fight with each other, and ooh and ahh at the otters (my favorite) and grizzly bears. My mom must be a saint disguised as a mother. Just look what she had to put up with back in 1991:

Danny and Rachel at the Dakota Zoo, 1991
Danny and Rachel at the Dakota Zoo, 1991

I don’t know how my mother did it all those summers, to be honest. You don’t really realize how much work it is until you are the one trying to keep the little guys out of the street, out of the puddles, and away from each other’s throats. This week we were only watching two of them, and in my case, only for five days! My mother had six for, oh you know, a couple decades.

I just have to say, these little guys are lucky they’re so cute.

So on Thursday, off to the zoo we went, my brother Joey, my mom, myself, and the little guys.


I learned a few important things while we were there.




(However, the quarters are not just for the little guys):


2. Fork over the three dollars to rent a double “tiger” stroller. It’s worth it.


3. Also fork over the buck-fifty for popcorn. It’s also worth it. But maybe buy two popcorns, because there WILL be fights over the popcorn box. Vicious fights. I didn’t even know 2-year-olds were capable of that kind of ferocity.


In fact, I saw a very strong resemblance between the fight over the popcorn box and these two young fellas here, except the bears were probably a lot gentler:


4. Don’t forget to ride the train! (It’s even better when you are sitting next to Grandma.)


And finally, 5. The little girl you are with may literally shake with excitement over every “kitty-cat” and “guck” (duck) that you see, which makes the whole thing pretty darn fun.


My trip to the zoo this week, circa 2013, was a little more work and responsibility for me than it was back in 1991. That’s ok, though. As adults, sometimes we forget how exciting it is to feed the goats, and we don’t usually shake with excitement when we see a tiger. But why not? We should probably do those things more often. These little guys reminded me.

And they also gave me a new respect for my mother, 22 years ago. Thanks, Mom 🙂

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

Ticks and Turkey Vultures

There are two things my Canon camera and I can never resist when we are together.

The first is flowers: wildflowers, garden flowers, apple blossoms, really anything remotely related to flowers, including clover buds and even golden wheat stalks. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the gentle lilacs rank on top of the list: a sweet but fleeting signal of spring. There has been a lavender-colored explosion around the Midwest in the last week or so, enhanced by the large amount of rainfall we have patiently suffered through. My camera and I have been itching to get out of the car every time we drive by. It’s not just the lilacs. All the little pops of color coming to life all over the countryside are too irresistible to ignore.




Even a dandelion can be almost as pretty in the rays of a spring sunset, don’t you think?


The second fascination my Canon camera and I have is for old abandoned buildings. I cannot leave them alone. If I don’t have time to get out and actually photograph the old farmhouses and barns I drive by, then I at least take time to imagine the stories behind them: Who lived there? How many people were crammed into how many bedrooms? What did they do? Could they afford wallpaper? What dreams did they have for their homestead, and for themselves? At what point did they close the door and never look back?

Or did they look back?

I wish the old buildings could tell their stories.

Since they can’t, my Canon and I take photographs and I let myself imagine. Who knows if I will do something with the photos someday. Maybe I will publish a book; or maybe when I’m old I will just dig them out of a box and remember the satisfaction I got from my imagination and from the wide open prairie, whispering of the pioneers who lived there, who struggled to make a living there, who built houses there, who died there.

But lest I get too poetic, I must give you all a warning about photographic urges like mine. Last week, Boyfriend and I were on a hiking date at Cross Ranch State Park next to the MIssouri River. It was a beautiful evening; the park was peaceful and hardly occupied by other humans. It would have been romantic, really, were it not for the 1500 wood ticks that we continued to pick off of each other and ourselves for the next day and a half. I’m really mad at the one that I found on my neck at 5 a.m. the next morning. Needless to say, he ruined my sleep, considering every tiny tickle I felt after that was surely another one. I rolled around in the covers for an hour, imagining ticks crawling all over my body, and finally got up at 6 to do another thorough check. I’m pretty sure I’m still feeling ghost ticks after that infestation.

So anyway, we were driving home from Cross Ranch when I saw the abandoned building. Naturally, I had to stop and hike through the prairie grass with Canon camera; Boyfriend was on the phone so he stayed in the car; I was dreaming of the building’s inhabitants and vaguely noticing a very loud rustling coming from inside the structure.


That’s when it happened. Only feet in front of me, the hugest winged creature I have ever encountered in close proximity burst out of the house, nearly knocking me over on her way out. Surely it was a flying dinosaur! But no. A dinosaur would have been better-looking. The red, naked head and hooked beak gave her away. A turkey vulture. A black monstrosity of a bird. I thought she would fly away, but instead, she scared the bejeebers out of me by swooping back to cycle over my head. And continuing to circle more and more closely over my head. I’m pretty sure she was protecting babies in the house. Guys, she was huge.

So what did I do? I took pictures, of course. I began to envision myself lying in a field, murdered by a turkey vulture and served as dinner to her babies. I wanted evidence of the last moments of my life, cold hard proof right there on my Canon camera.

She cycled closer.


And closer.


And closer.


I decided to give up the search for amazing old abandoned building pictures momentarily and hightailed it back to my car, looking back over my shoulder all the way. The Bird of Death was still following me, but veered off when I reached my vehicle and threw myself into the driver’s seat.

You know what? Boyfriend was laughing. I couldn’t believe it. Here he almost witnessed my untimely death in a North Dakota pasture, and he was laughing. So much for romance. Ticks and turkey vultures were third wheels on our date, and I can’t say I enjoyed their company much.

I have a confession though: If he was the one getting chased by a turkey vulture, I’m pretty sure I would have been laughing even harder.

And taking pictures, of course.