Growing up in North Dakota, I can’t say that I truly appreciated the beauty of the prairie.
Oh, I loved being outdoors, and I regularly explored the acreage of my family’s farm. But to say it was beautiful? I’m afraid I didn’t go there. “So flat.” “No forests.” “Hardly any rivers.” “How far is the nearest beach?” – These were among the laments of my growing-up years.
As I matured, of course, I came to realize the truth of that old adage: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And when it comes to the prairie, I can now say that I – the beholder – find a wealth of things to appreciate.
It’s been 30 years since I have lived in North Dakota, and although I’ve visited from time to time, those trips were usually more about seeing family than exploring the countryside.
So, as my 40th high school reunion was approaching this summer, I decided to make my return a road trip, with plenty of time to revel in the things I so blithely overlooked as a child and young adult.
And what I found was as legendary as the state motto claims. Here are a few of my (re)discoveries:
The farm landscapes
Grain fields were just starting to ripen at the time of my mid-July visit. The prairie grasses were a rolling sea of green-gold. Even the thistles – the nemesis of my childhood – were blooming a vibrant lavender.
A jaunt through time
Once a thriving little village with a grocery store, a post office, a bar, an elementary school, and a couple of churches, my old hometown of Alfred is now mostly deserted streets with a church, a scattering of homes, and a handful of residents. Even so, it’s pure pleasure to visit. Even the cemetery at the edge of town appeared more peaceful than ominous.
The skyscraper of the prairie
As I headed west, I made a quick stop at the state capitol in Bismarck – my place of employment one especially frigid winter in the 1980s. On this warm July day, though, the site was in its summer glory, with the massive green lawn and colorful petunias framing the 21-story tower. Impressive!
The back roads
Everywhere I went in the state, my eyes gravitated to the country roads – some gravely and straight, some red and twisty. I loved them all.
This one took me by surprise. I don’t remember being particularly fascinated by old bridges before. But I crossed some great ones in North Dakota, and I couldn’t help but stop and marvel.
Regardless of where I went, it seemed, I found chokecherry bushes bearing fruit. I found out later that the chokecherry is North Dakota’s state fruit, and I can see why. In all stages of ripeness, the berries are gorgeous. I never did acquire a taste for the tart fruit as a kid – even dressed up as jelly – but I can now appreciate the pretty clusters of glossy berries.
The German food
When my son agreed to join me on my trip to North Dakota, it was on one condition: That we would do a veritable dough tour – sampling as much of the food common among the Germans from Russia of southcentral North Dakota as humanly possible. That meant knoephla and sauerkraut, cheese buttons, fleischkueckle, and knoephla soup. Luckily, we arrived in the Bismarck/Mandan area at dinnertime, and we were able to get to both Kroll’s Diner and Frieds Family Restaurant – both of which served up some pretty epic North Dakota comfort food. (Photos courtesy of my son, @cwbarks 🙂 )
And of course, the people
Even though the sights were important, this trip was once again about the people. I was able to reconnect with dozens of cousins, old friends, former coworkers, my mom, sister, son, and of course, my classmates from Gackle High School, class of 1976. Even though I had pledged to view the state with new eyes, some things don’t change.