American Road Trip: North Dakota & Black Gold

I first got interested in visiting North Dakota after passing over it many times on Virgin Atlantic flights between London and the West Coast.  It was always a few hours before landing, about the time they serve a snack and you wake up from a fairly pathetic attempt at sleep to find ways to pass the time.  I’d often look at the flight map and then out the window to see what appeared to be a fairly barren landscape below.  I could never make out towns and saw very few roads so I often wondered what it was like down there, thus how this region ended up on my bucket list.

Despite this interest I hadn’t really done any homework.  I didn’t know what landscape to expect, what the region was known for or even the names of the biggest cities.  So I drove over the state line from Minnesota into North Dakota with no expectations or preconceived ideas whatsoever.  That made what I found all the more wonderful and shocking.

I started my drive along US2 in the northern part of the State, following a pretty direct east/west course.  The first thing I noticed was that I was suddenly in the Plains.  The hilly forested areas of Minnesota were quickly replaced with vast lush green prairie.  The biggest surprise was the volume of water.  North Dakota is part of the Great Plains but based on what I’d seen from the air I expected it to be a bit more arid, instead I was driving through wetlands.

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There seemed to be no end to small ponds and lakes that were teeming with birdlife.  I decided to Google what I was looking at and it turns out that these are Prairie Potholes, depressions in the landscape formed by glacial activity thousands of years ago that now fill with snowmelt and rain in the spring.   The really interesting part is that because many of them aren’t filled by any other constant water source such as a stream, they aren’t permanent so can appear, disappear and reappear over the years.   Whilst these aren’t unique to North Dakota they did seem to be more prevalent there than anywhere else I’d seen so far and really stood out on an otherwise unchanging prairie grassland.

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There was an incredible amount of birdlife in these wetlands to the point that driving down the road involved a lot of cringing as they constantly swooped towards the car then darted out of the way at the last possible second. The sheer volume of bird roadkill showed that they weren’t always successful so as much as I was loving the landscape I was never able to really relax.

Due to straight roads in great condition, the huge spaces between towns and the 70mph speed limit, I made much better time than I expected.  So after a few hours of beautiful scenery and a quick stop in Rugby for a photo of the geograpical center of North America, I turned left to head towards South Dakota.

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This sign was a somewhat satisfying find as I’d visited both Neah Bay and Lubec on this trip.

Although the scenery stayed the same I began to sense something wasn’t quite right.  Whilst private traffic remained light, there was a growing presence of huge trucks speeding down these remote roads.  There was a lot of road construction going on and the pretty landscape began to look scarred with various tracts of development and land clearing in remote areas.  Turns out I had entered a region that was at the center of the North Dakota oil boom.

As I mentioned, towns were few and far between so there was slim pickings for accommodation.  The only place I could find with cheap motels was Watford City, a tragic and depressing place that essentially had to sell its soul to boost its economy.  The story of Watford City is a long and sad one, and so incredible that it has been the subject of two documentaries.  What was once a tiny and pleasant rural town of just 1,700 people at the 2000 census became a booming oil town of almost 8,000 by 2010, estimated to be a much higher population just a few years later.  The town is now essentially a huge construction zone, reminiscent of the huge Dubai boom but on a micro scale.

Telling the full story would take me a long time so you can click here for a great article about it from Atlantic Magazine.  But to sum up a very complex problem in a few sentences, the huge influx of workers combined with a shortage of housing all but destroyed the culture of this place and drove up crime to such a degree that just a week before I arrived the FBI opened a field office in a nearby town to try to address problems that covered everything from sex trafficking to drug running.  The FBI don’t normally open offices in far flung prairie towns.  To compound matters, the price of oil has decreased in the past few years so many workers are already leaving meaning that before it even managed to thrive the town is declining again, yet remains an ugly mess of construction.

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My whole time there was a bizarre experience.  I stayed at a lovely brand new hotel that had rooms as nice as any city 4-star property for $80 a night. Some poor designer had gone to a lot of effort to ensure the entrances and hallways were decorated beautifully yet taped everywhere were signs printed by hotel staff reminding guests to remove their muddy work boots before entering.  The parking lot was full of mud-covered pick-up trucks.  I don’t care that I was sharing the hotel with oil workers that night, in fact I remember thinking how great it was that they got a nice comfy place to stay, it was just a strange situation that didn’t seem to make economic sense.

Also there were no big chain restaurants that are a feature of every small town or large city in America.  Instead there was the original downtown that was struggling to keep its culture then right next to it a huge ugly strip mall with a whole lot of brands I didn’t recognise.  I went to the grocery store only to find more bizarreness.  It was a cross between a wholesale outlet like Costco and a deli, obviously targeting the families and the huge number of single men that only had a microwave to cook in.  There was a whole aisle just dedicated to microwave meals and single-serve deli salads with another selling toilet paper and diapers in bulk.

At 3am I woke up with a start to feel my room violently vibrating with the windows rattling and the bed shaking.  At first I thought it was an earthquake and jumped out of bed to find some cover.  But I soon realised it was too consistent and going on too long to be anything natural.  It lasted for almost 10-minutes then I fell back to sleep only to be woken by exactly the same thing at 5am.  Google searches revealed nothing and I never found out what it was but I did know I wanted to get the hell out of that depressing place so by 6am I was on the road to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and into the Badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (henceforth referred to as TRNP) is divided into three different sectors.  This was one place I had actually researched before I left New Zealand and whilst the Southern Sector is the most visited due to its proximity to the interstate, the Northern is supposed to be the most scenic, has the most wildlife and a convenient road through it that takes about 1 hour to drive.    So that was where I was headed for and as soon as I got out of the endless construction zones of Watford City the scenery dramatically changed for the better and it was obvious this was Badlands territory.

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Thanks to my early start I entered TRNP before the rangers had arrived and excitedly made my way onto the park road.  I slowed down to the 25mph speed limit and took the first corner only to find my path blocked by four absolutely huge male bison.  If you haven’t seen bison then it will be hard to impress on you just how big they are.  My car suddenly felt like a puny mouse.   I was raised on a dairy farm that had a few resident bulls, one of which was an angry bastard we called Henry that used to scare the living daylights out of me if I ever had to cross through his field when I was a kid.  I also had an ongoing relationship with a huge long horn bull in New Mexico I used to frequently cross paths with on my way to Spaceport America.  I used to refer to him as ‘my nemesis’ due to our regular showdowns on the road.    So when one of the bison started staring at my car I immediately recognised it as the bison/buffalo/bovine version of the death stare I give screaming children on planes.

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Not a great picture as just as I went to snap it the guy on the left started giving me the death stare and I had to back up.

I was still quite a distance away but he wasn’t happy and started to raise his tail and paw the ground.  I’ve never reverted to that behaviour on flights but I knew that something bad was coming if I didn’t take action.  I slowly reversed up which calmed him down, waited about 15-min and when they showed no signs of movement and he wouldn’t stop staring (I swear he didn’t even blink) I returned to the TRNP Visitors Center where the rangers had just arrived for work.   I waited another 10-minutes and ended up chatting for a while to one of them.  He told me I’d done the right thing but if I went back in a few minutes they would likely be gone.   As we chatted he told me that they may be extra agitated because on the weekend some parents let their kids out of the car to chase some bison calves for fun.  The female bison got stressed, as did the calves and the same males I encountered were in the vicinity.  Suddenly it all made sense when it really hadn’t before.  There was no reason for him to get the shits with me when I was so far away and at a stop, but he had probably now come to associate cars with danger or just annoyance.  In spring the male bison are already a little frisky as they are getting all fired up to start mating so that just compounded the situation.

I returned to see if they had moved but they hadn’t and he became threatening again.  Cursing that stupid family and all the others like them that confuse National Parks with private playgrounds, I reversed up and headed for South Dakota.  I just didn’t have time to wait for these guys to move on.

By now the oil traffic had thinned out a lot and the vistas were stunning.  Here and there oil drills were still searching for the famed black gold but they hadn’t found it yet so other than that the landscape was in its natural state.  I was driving through something I didn’t even know existed, a National Grassland.  It may not have had big mountains, pretty lakes or roaring waterfalls but it had its own very special beauty and I was glad it was legally protected.    The earth was an amazing red color and the fields a luminous green that made for some amazing sights.

DSC04598DSC04600DSC04601DSC04606DSC04609This unique landscape made the presence of the huge noisy trucks carrying pipeline materials and digging equipment all the more sad.  Shortly before I crossed into South Dakota I passed through a charming little town called Amidon that has a population of about 20 people who no doubt enjoy a laid back lifestyle in this beautiful sleepy corner of the US.  I wondered if Watford City had been a little like this, albeit a lot bigger, back in the early 2000’s.

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I didn’t know much about North Dakota before I went there because nobody really talks or writes about it.  It is almost a forgotten state yet I thought it was beautiful, underrated and overlooked.  I hope it doesn’t sell all of itself to oil.  There are many beautiful places in America but few that have remained so uninhabited.  It is heart breaking to think that much of it might be destroyed and that those crazy birds will be running out of places to live all so that I can do simple things like drive my car and take a plane from London to Las Vegas right over this very place.   The sooner we find a replacement for fossil fuel that doesn’t involve destroying our planet the better.

Highlights:  North Dakota Wetlands  | Badlands  |  Theodore Roosevelt National Park  |  Little Missouri National Grassland

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