Note: This post reflects my travels from May 2017. I am currently living the grad student life in the good ol’ South Bay. Prior to that, I spent a good 5 months travelling. My first endeavor of my funemployment period was an ambitious 2-month roadtrip to visit all the (US) states I had never been to and everything in between. Yes, it’s been a while, and I’m slowly documenting my travels (keyword: s l o w l y).
When I was younger, I was a big fan of The Baby-sitter’s Club like no one’s business. 90s-era #squadgoals — what’s not to love, right? In one Super Special, BSC in the USA, the girls embark on a cross-country road trip, and while they’re in the Badlands, they run out of gas and are stranded in what feels like the literal middle of nowhere.
If anything, I can blame that book for making me think that South Dakota was the epitome of the middle of nowhere.
In reality, the Badlands are pretty dope, but I’d highly recommend going with a full tank during the day when you can actually see stuff. Because you will not be stressing over gas and instead you will be gifted with rugged landscapes like this:
While the terrain is so rugged that it looks like some higher power decided to take the desert and implode the ground to oblivion, it’s flat and makes for great (albeit very sunny) hiking.
However, like I mentioned eons ago, South Dakota is a mix of nature at its most breathtaking and rugged …. and tourist kitsch at its most egregious.
On the drive out of Badlands, it’s impossible not to notice the 43892485 billboards for Wall Drug.
Wall Drug Store claims to have everything under the sun, from ice cream to 5-cent coffee to every material object you can think of to dinosaur replicas. An onslaught of Western kitsch in South Dakota, it’s unmissable and you’re inundated with so many billboards that you’re practically compelled to check it out.
In BSC in the USA, Claudia Kishi buys a painting that looks awfully Georgia-O’Keeffe-esque, only to find out by the end of the book that it’s — SPOILER ALERT — a real Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Unfortunately, I didn’t get so lucky, but I only went for the milkshakes (listen, I was hungry!) and braced myself for the long drive through North Dakota.
Just the facts:
STATES: North Dakota
NICKNAME: The Peace Garden State
FOOD EATEN: Whatever we could find in Medora (aka CLIF bars from the C-store and taffy from the Taffy Shop) and later, knoephla soup and milkshakes at Kroll’s Diner
GOOGLE MAPS ILLUSTRATION: A beekeeper
Driving through North Dakota was something else, though.
First of all, there were no lights. When it’s the evening and you’re driving into a void of nihilist-level nothingness with only your car lights for assistance, IT IS SOME NEXT-LEVEL BLACK HOLE SHIT.
I literally had no idea what North Dakota looked like until I woke up the next morning in Medora, a quaint town and centerpiece of Theodore Roosevelt National Park:
JK, this is what T-Ro actually looks like (click for a larger view):
And here’s a replica of Teddy Roosevelt’s crib back in his Rough Rider days, when he called the park home:
Secondly, when you stroll into Medora during the park’s off-season, you’ll find that most businesses, from the saloon-like restaurant to the convenience store (aptly named the C-Store), operate on severely reduced hours, if they’re even open at all. Hell, when we walked into the taffy store, we were asked if we were looking for employment, as opposed to buying a bag of saltwater taffy (which we did!).
Even the park rangers were surprised to see visitors, especially out-of-state visitors.
If the morning was spent wandering town and figuring out which businesses were actually open in May (answer: Very Few. Medora is very much a Bring Your Own Food locale in its off-season.), the afternoon was spent mountain biking! MAD-MAX STYLE. The Maah Daah Hey Trail is not a mountain-biking trail engineered for the faint of heart. The trails are unforgivably thin and winding and you will turn into a human jackhammer as you jump over rocks and careen downhill.
The actual trail connects the north and south portions of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and extends for 144.7 miles (there’s a great NYT writeup here on biking half the trail), but given that I only had an afternoon before we needed to haul ass over to Fargo, I rented a bike from Dakota Cyclery, and my wonderful guide Jennifer took me out for a spin.
As we pedaled up the mountains, my attention was gripped by the unspoiled landscapes above. I’m such a sucker for the color palette of the Maah Daah Hey: pale blue skies, splotches of dark green sagebrush, dusty prairiegrass, and light brown earth. The landscape goes on for miles and miles, with little end in sight, as if to speak to the immense size of the state.
Isn’t nature the best?
We even made friends with this little buddy below (also known as a short-horned lizard):
The ride was the pick-me-up I needed before the five hours of driving from Medora to Fargo. As somebody who has yet to discover the appeal of podcasts, I was limited to the bleakness that was radio in the middle of North Dakota. This might be the origin story of my hatred for “Shape of You”. Either that, or I was inundated with religious sermons. After hours of listening to nonstop NPR, we whizzed by Bismarck and the majority of ND and finally made our way to Fargo by midnight.
Tired from yesterday’s one-two-punch of mountain biking and driving, we slept in the next day alongside this adorable doggo:
Because we were hungry and we hadn’t really eaten much in North Dakota other than whatever snack foods we managed to scrounge up at C-stores and rest stops, Bailey took us to eat some good ol’ North Dakotan comfort food at Kroll’s where we indulged in knoephla (aka the Lumpy Yellow Soup), which is like the culinary equivalent of a warm hug. Listen, chicken noodle soup doesn’t hold a candle to this.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), no lutefisk was had, but if the HECK NO license plate was emblematic of South Dakota, then I’m going to humbly nominate this T-shirt as Peak North Dakota.