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North Dakota is Still on My Bucket List


Top: Would somebody please tell us just what in the hell is going on? Bottom: We gawk at the perp's car, noting the South Carolina license plate. Bob Janiskee photos.

Do you believe in omens? I do. They help you to stay out of trouble. They even help you to stay out of North Dakota.

For as long as I can remember (which at my age is a highly malleable phenomenon) I've wanted to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The problem is, it's in North Dakota, a state that is, to put it charitably, somewhat off the beaten path.

It is North Dakota's remoteness that mostly explains why I have never set foot in that Canadian border-hugging state. I say "mostly" because I have visited all of the other states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and have several times passed within 50 miles of the North Dakota border. Something -- call it fate, if you will -- has prevented me from adding North Dakota to my life list.

An incident that happened last fall got me to re-thinking this whole business of visiting North Dakota. I am, as I've told you, a guy that believes in omens. Let me tell you about it and you can judge for yourself.

On October 17, 2009, I was in Atlantic, Iowa, ensconced for the night in a decent enough motel not far from Interstate 80, the highway my hunting buddies and I were taking en route to a three-day pheasant hunt near Dimock, South Dakota. The evening was wearing on, and although it had been a long haul from Indianapolis, the previous night's stop, I wasn't quite as sleepy as I wanted to be. Before turning in, I stepped outside to walk off some of the huge dinner we had eaten at the Amana Colonies.

The air was cool and crisp and tinged with wood smoke. I reflected on how great it was to be alive on such a fine fall night, how fortunate I was to have affable traveling companions, how nice it was to be 1,095 miles from Clemson University, the college that all of us University of South Carolina sports fans love to hate.

Standing in the motel parking lot -- the space closest to the motel office, to put a finer point on it -- I turned my gaze to the night sky and searched out Orion. One of the lesser known vital facts is that those three beautifully aligned stars point to the two ends of the Rainbow Bridge. Like most people who have ever mourned the loss of a beloved pet, I want to go there when I die. And so I make a mental note of Orion's location as often as I get the chance. This night I found Orion right away, and it gave me comfort.

Now, let me make it clear that I don't pay a lot of attention to the other constellations. In fact, I can name only five and find only three. This night, something unusual happened. For no apparent reason, I found myself reciting lyrics from a ditty I had not given a thought to in over 30 years.

When the sun comes back,
And the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is waiting,
For to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

Now, why on earth would I be repeating -- aloud in a lonely motel parking lot -- lyrics from a pre- Civil War Negro map song? I found this a bit perplexing.

Wait a minute. Could this be an omen? And if so, does it portend happiness or disaster? One has to consider such things very carefully.

This particular map song once had a profoundly important purpose. Escaped slaves bound for freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad had to make sure they were headed North when they traveled at night. Follow the Drinking Gourd provided a constant reminder of how to do that. The "drinking gourd" is the constellation you and I call the Big Dipper. It points to Polaris, the North Star. If a slave on the run followed the drinking gourd, never mind if he didn't know exactly where Polaris was, he'd be headed generally North.

Hmmmm. North. I turned my gaze to the Big Dipper and found it more beautiful than I had ever before seen it. It was so perfect that it nearly took my breath away. Suddenly, it hit me like a thunderclap. Of course! This was an omen that only a fool could fail to see. A hidden Something was telling me that fate awaited me to the North. North, as in North Dakota.

I had it all figured out within a few minutes. When we finished our hunt, the rest of the guys would head back to South Carolina, but I would rent a car and head for North Dakota. There I would eat lutefisk and fleischkuekle, see prairie earth stretching to the far horizons, and of course, visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I went to bed a happy man.

At about 1:30 in the morning there came an urgent knocking on the door. As I struggled to wakefulness, the knocking evolved into loud banging. That's got to be my hunting buddy Ernie, I thought, and this is his idea of a practical joke. He's going to tell me that the place is on fire. He wants to see me flee into the cold night air wearing nothing but my PJs. I am not amused.

My Remington 1100 was tucked under the bed, so I briefly considered putting a couple of rounds of high-base 5's through the door at about head height. I decided not to do that. There might be repercussions.

I groggily made my way to the door, yanked it open, and found Ernie standing there wearing a fake deputy sheriff's uniform. Wait a minute. That's not a fake badge on Ernie's chest, and that's not a fake Glock 17 on his hip. More importantly, that's not Ernie.

"You have to leave your room right away," said an earnest-looking deputy. "Don't waste time getting dressed. Leave NOW! Move down to the end of the hallway as far from the motel office as you can get. Wait there for instructions."

What happened next was almost surreal. All of us motel guests, about 50 in all, were gathered up, loaded on school buses, and taken to another motel. There we were assigned rooms and told to wait. We did that for several hours.

Meanwhile, back where all this started, an incredible scene unfolded. Interstate 80 was closed and nearby streets were barricaded. The gathering at the vacated motel soon included fire engines and ambulances, what must have been every law enforcement vehicle in Cass County, and great phalanxes of troopers and deputies. Also present was a bomb squad from Des Moines with a remote control robot thingie and some other paraphernalia. I think they had an explosives-sniffing dog, too.

It seems that an oddly-behaving young man had shown up at the motel office in the dead of the night and then worked himself into a frenzy when he couldn't get a room. With his dander up, this whacko announced that he had a bomb in his car and intended to blow up the building and kill himself, the clerk, and every man, woman, child, and pheasant hunter on the premises. Just to be on the safe side, the clerk called the cops, who were genuinely delighted that they would finally get an opportunity to use their obscenely expensive Homeland Security-financed training and equipment.

Rumor has it that the EOD guys handcuffed the nut job to his car while they searched it for explosives, but I rather doubt it. No bomb was found, of course.

After the all-clear was sounded, we were transported back to the motel so we could shower, dress, pack up, and leave. As I left the bus and trudged across the parking lot toward the room from which I had been so rudely rousted, I stopped to examine the perp's car, a Lexus with two bikes perched atop it. It suddenly dawned on me that the car was parked in precisely the place where I had received the Drinking Gourd Omen.

All became clear. The Drinking Gourd Omen wasn't a harbinger of good things to come from a trip to the North. It was a warning to stay the hell out of North Dakota until further notice. And so I have.

Postscript: If you want more details, read this Iowa Radio News Network article about the bomb scare. Be sure to scroll down to the part where the reporter reveals that the nut job was a Clemson student. It seems that 1,095 miles was not enough.

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I assure you that Theodore Roosevelt National Park is worth risking a visit to North Dakota. Be sure to make the long drive to the North Section of the park as well as the south. But beware that even though ND is off the beaten path you will still find rowdy college students there as well. A huge party across the freeway from our motel kept us awake much of one night! Here's a link to my photos of the park:

You also may want to consider that the omen is about Clemson University... !

-Jess Stryker

Bob, let me encourage you to follow your wishes and get to North Dakota. In 2008, my wife and I traveled westward the entire width of North Dakota on I-94. There were miles & miles of prairie as far as the eye can see. There was the National Buffalo Museum, Frontier Village and beautiful Jamestown College (not to mention the world's largest buffalo) to see. There was also Fort Lincoln State Park with its Custer era buildings, the State Capital and the heritage center and also the College of Mary. But as you approach the western border just past Dickinson, all that endless prairie ends with a surreal landscape that looks as if a giant child with his shovel and pail had been turned loose. This is, of course, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The landscape is breath-taking and the wildlife extensive. We saw bison, elk, deer, prairie dogs, all kinds of birds and wild horses. This is the land where TR came to get away from it all. It helped shape his adult years and helped make him become the conservationist that he was. His Maltese Cross Cabin is located at the visitor's center. I regret that we only had about a day to spend there; I would have liked to have had two or three days. This is truly one of the under-appreciated jewels of the NPS. I have posted a few pictures on my website for those interested:


Thanks for the inspiration of visiting all 50 States. I'm heartened that you're writing it down. I can only hope that some of this is making it into your All 50 Journal too.

Stephen Martin
All 50 States Journal

Well, if you don't want to go to North Dakota, you should definitely stay out. I escaped from California(and every day I thank God!) 11 years ago, and you learn the following about North Dakotans:

1. They are almost alien like polite. Even when they get riled, they do it in a polite way. They open doors for you, look you in the eye, say please and thank you, wave to you regardless of whether they have ever or will ever see you again on the road, and if you break down it won't be a serial killer who stops to help you, it will be every North Dakotan who passes you on the road.

2. They will welcome you warmly while you are here, but frankly, they don't particularly care if you come. We know it's cold. We know it's remote. We really don't need some big city slicker thinking that we don't know it and they need to do us a kindness in telling us. If you truly want to see a North Dakotan riled, infer that you are doing a "favor" by visiting, tell them they make the state better, or, and God forbid NEVER do this, ask them about the movie Fargo with a "you betcha" thrown in. NEVER! The movie wasn't filmed in or about North Dakota, it was about Minnesota, thus the Minne-sooooooota accent.

3. Perfect strangers will welcome you in their home w/o a background check. The honor system is alive and well. I have a housekey I am sure, I just don't know where it is, and my police officer father from CA was appalled that people leave their cars RUNNING in the winter while in a store. Nobody takes them. That would be rude.

I live in the badlands now(about a 45 mins from the North Unit of the park), and my family from CA, who mocked us when we decided to retire from the Air Force, in ND, when we could have moved anywhere we wanted, cannot wait to get here next week and hit the park. The badlands give them peace they say, and it is nice to be able to breathe clean air and see the stars; all of the stars, not just the few that outshine city lights.

I hope you consider visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is a beautiful place! If you don't, that is okay too. Somebody else will and enjoy it :)

Have a nice day!

Good Lord, man, what a bag of madness!!! I don't have a travel anecdote that even comes CLOSE to that one!!

TR NP is my favorite NPS unit, hence a pic I took there is the header of my blog. :-)

I loved it because it's off the beaten path, you can truly just "walk out there" and not have to deal with a lot of people. Also, it's really beautiful through-and-through.

The one and only problem? ND has terrible coffee! To this day, I think they all pulled a mean little trick on this East Coast boy. ;-)

My wife and I just returned from TR NP. The north and south units are both worth your time and offer subtle differences. As we returned from a 7 mile out and back hike in the south unit, we returned to discover that a herd of 150 bison had moved over the trail separating us from our vehicle- only 200 yards away! It was the beginning of the rut season and the males were bellowing, wallowing, and posturing to impress the ladies. We waited patiently for a few minutes with a family before realizing that they were hunkered in for the afternoon. We set off on a bush walk through creeks and over hill and dale. We eventually made our way back to the vehicle. A 30-40 minute safari that should have been a 5 minute jaunt! What an adventure!

I encourage you to visit the state. This is a game and fish lovers paradise. The state features a surprising amount of diversity and I-94 goes right through the southern corridor. There really is no excuse if you are heading anywhere in the upper northwest!

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve was one of the first 10 national parks and is now administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Located on the south shore of Devils Lake, we offer a unique experience and stopping point for those traveling through the NE part of the state. Please look us up when you are in ND!

Tom Ibsen, Refuge Manager

Bogater's right, there's plenty to see and do in North Dakota. Some things I would add to the list: Knife River Indian Village, Ft. Mandan and Ft. Union Trading Post, where the parking lot is in Montana and the Post is in North Dakota. Thete's a Lewis and Clark Center near Ft. Union that's supposed to be interesting. It was closed by the time we got there. In addition to the large buffalo, you can also see a huge Holstein cow and a super-sized sandhill crane, all along the interstate. Haven't seen it, but the Enchanted Highway sounds like it's worth a look.

I think you misunderstood the omen. I think it was telling you to get yourself to North Dakota now. You never know when the door will close on the opportunity to go.

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