North Dakota - Bismarck

Right out of Huckleberry Finn


When it comes to carbon footprints, whether you’re leaving a dinosaur stomp or a newborn bootie print, you have to admit, America is designed for the motorcar. Back in August we decided to revisit our plan to see America’s Great Plains. First stop, the Dakotas…

In the 1870s a small town was forged in North Dakota and given the name Bismarck. The name was chosen with great care to attract Germans who would hopefully invest in the Pacific railroad (to my dismay, the rail network in the US shrank after the motorcar became king, note to carbon footprint crusaders – resurrect your abandoned train lines).

This small burgeoning town with its Germanic nom-de-plume was also home to 100 saloons and gambling houses. Call me verr├╝ckt, but maybe the town elders could have lured Germans with the talk of 100 pubs, nevermind the railroad or Deutsche name.

Word of the pubs must have filtered through because the Germans came in their droves. In fact, after the colonizing British and prolific Irish, the Germans were the next biggest immigrant population in America. By 1910 10% of Bismarck’s population was born in Germany.

Modern day Bismarck was bigger than I expected, the 100 saloons have been replaced by strip malls. But thanks to the low rise buildings, and relatively small population, the sky felt like it stretched for miles. Beautiful colours bled from the sun as it set. It was quite remarkable, we were constantly flicking our eyes upwards at our own personal art show. When the sun finally set and the enormous moon popped up, Roisin was delighted that she could finally (and repeatedly) say goodnight to the main character from her favourite bed time story.

The locals were friendly and asked us on numerous occasions what part of Canada were we from?! I assume it’s because most ND tourists are also their next door neighbours.

The land of the Dakotas was largely home to the Sioux tribe of Native Americans (before such atrocities as the ethnic cleansing Massacre at Wounded Knee) but thankfully they are still part of the community and I really felt their contribution as we explored the city.
"Are you lookin' at me?"

I heard wind of a side-wheeled steamboat heading out for an evening spin along the Missouri river. Ever since we missed a chance to hop on a steamboat, when on a trip to Memphis (read here), it was top of my nautical wishlist. We booted it down to the port but to my bubbling rage it was all booked out. Hopes dashed we took refuge in a little park that fronts the river. The park stop was worth it as we came face to face with spectacular Native American art, 4 massive stone thunderbird eagles all facing in different directions. It was to become the first of our roadtrips roadside art. It was one of the most impressive creations I’ve ever seen.

"Oh no! I just missed my train!"

Back in town we fell in and out of pockets of bygone days. We lost a lot of time in the well preserved Camp Hancock. I got irrationally sentimental about the adorably quaint “US Weather Bureau”, Dom got manly sentimental about an old locomotive steam train, and Roisin got happily sentimental about her soother.

Near our digs there was a restaurant with an alien perched on top of the building and a sign that read ‘Welcome Earthlings’. I knew we were in for some fine dining… American style. Sometimes Space Fries and a Martian Milkshake is exactly what the doctor (Who) ordered.

Just outside town, a modern War Memorial sits on the side of the highway. It commemorates those who lost their lives in the fight against terrorism. It reminded me that a lot of youths from the Mid West join the army; maybe fueled by patriotism, maybe because it's one of the few job options, maybe it's a way out of a small town, maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

Talk to anyone in the Dakotas about Dakota and it won’t be long before you’re talking about Lewis and Clark (not to be confused with Lois and Clark – aka Superman, just sayin’). Lewis and Clark were famous American explorers who were sent by President Jefferson to find the Northwest Passage. Following the Missouri River brought them to the Dakotas.

Fashion fast forward
We got chatting to a nice local lady about Lewis, Clark and other superheros when it dawned on her that we couldn’t leave Bismarck without visiting the Heritage Center, she wasn’t wrong, it’s a must-see. It’s devoted to the people, the history and the future. I marveled at the Martian spacesuit the University of North Dakota is helping NASA create (perhaps the alien restaurant wasn’t so out of place after all!).

I humbly read about the 1880s tough immigrant homesteaders who came to farm and settle. I was surprised to learn that immigrants still pour into North Dakota attracted by the energy industry. A significant number of modern day immigrants come from South Sudan and other war torn countries. Even in 1880 it was one of the most ethnically diverse states with households usually speaking 2 languages (Sprechen Sie Deutsch?).

A slab of the museum was devoted to the draw of North Dakota’s energy industry. The emphasis is on oil, coal and wind. Did you know if you power a dishwashing machine and a computer game by coal, the amount of coal for one wash would power a computer game for 3 years! I guess the important message from that for the kids is… eat takeout while playing Nintendo.

Right in the rib, yeee-ouch
The center also has an incredible display of dinosaur (and Dino frenemy) fossils. The most incredible part was that they were found in North Dakota, pretty sure growing up in Dublin, Ireland's fossils were more prehistoric snail than woolly mammoth.

Opposite the center is the state capitol building, and much to my pleasant surprise it was not like every other state capitol edifice. It’s tall and modern, in a place where everything is generally small and usually old, it became known as ‘the skyscraper on the prairie’.

The guts of downtown Bismarck falls into a grid of walkable streets. Main Ave has lots of restaurants and a dinky record shop. I nearly lost the run of myself in Eco Chic a store that sells reclaimed and prairie rustic furniture. I am a fan of retro furniture. When I started enquiring about how to enroll in their decor classes Dom had to confiscate my purse and strong arm me out the door with reminders that we were on a road trip. I did manage to snag a rustic sign on my way out that had been handpainted by a lady in Minnesota about Hay rides and Pumpkin pies. Cute, kitsch, Americana – that’s what a US roadtrip is all about!

No nonsense eatin'
Stephen Fry’s book about roadtripping across the States in his London cab sits pride of place in our living room. So when we whizzed past Krolls diner we did an emergency u turn and took a seat in the spot where Stephen had chowed down when in ND.

We feasted on the usual American fodder and Dom got his German bratwurst, which he felt was part of the Bismarck experience. Being annoying Californians we asked for a side of fruit and we're told politely fruit was not an option. A bunch of locals (yokels?) sat behind us ordering various manifestations of a heart attack on a plate. I eavesdropped expecting them to talk about cow tipping and the size of their trucks, but they were talking about triathlons and vacations to Hawaii, shame on me and my previous misconceptions. I could have been in a diner in California (minus the fruit!).
The prairie
It was time to hit the prairies and make our way cross country to South Dakota.
That's tiny me on the bottom left
Not far along the road we came across the very reason for middle America Road trips...Americana Road art! It was an accidental detour that brought us through the Enchanted Highway, 32 miles of wrought iron fashioned into skyscraper sized animals. It was the brainchild of a high school teacher as a way to lure people to his out of the way town.
It was like nothing I had seen on earth before. I absolutely loved it, World's Biggest Grasshopper, come on, you can't make that up. Brilliant!

100 foot hopper

What happens if you mix New World road art with Old World ancient wonders, we were about to find out…

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