The waning days of summer bring stories of summer travels, and this got me thinking a bit about travel across North Dakota. I’ve lived in North Dakota for more than a decade and every trip out of town feels like an adventure as prairie vistas, small towns, and prospering little cities reveal surprises, quietude, and scenes of conflict.
The most famous guide to North Dakota likely remains the WPA funded, North Dakota: A Guide to the Northern Prairie State (Fargo 1938). It’s worth a read and since it’s available as a free digital download, it should be on every phone and tablet of every visitor and resident of North Dakotan!
When I was pulling together articles on Hemingway from North Dakota Quarterly, however, I stumbled upon two articles which fueled my thinking about travel in North Dakota.
The first is by James E. Boyle, who was an economist at the University of North Dakota before making his name in agricultural economics at Cornell. He traveled the state for 30 days in the spring of 1916 and published some of his findings on that trip in the 1916 NDQ (which were reprinted in 1996). Among the more striking (and perhaps immediately relevant) observations is that on his trip he stayed mostly in farm houses, but during his trip they only stayed in three “American homes,” and found a state settled by families from Scandinavia and Germans from Russia who worked the rugged prairie. He described a landscape of almost evenly placed houses, barbed-wired fences, wheat fields, creameries, decent roads, and prosperity: “The farmer with brains and good health is more prosperous than his city brother of similar attainments.”
The second article is by Anne Rathke and it’s titled “The Image of North Dakota in Recent Travel Literature,” and it appeared in NDQ 56 (1988). For Rathke, recent means about 50 years and her article starts with John Gunther’s 1947 Inside the USA and tracks references to North Dakota through William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 Blue Highways. The image presented by Rathke is far from the kind of rustic, prairie idyll that one might expect. Instead, she shows how the North Dakota experience is complex and fueled the imagination of a generation of travelers who perhaps expected little more than an empty block on the map.