A 3800-mile cross-country roadtrip from Wisconsin to Glacier National Park, retracing portions of the routes of Lewis and Clark, and the nation’s northernmost transcontinental railroad.
“No sand or heavy mountain grades,
Mosquitos as scarce as hen’s teeth,
No bad creeks or rivers to ford,
Plenty of water, no sand storms,
Eighty tourist camping grounds, all free as the air,
Real live Indians and crying papooses”
From “Theodore Roosevelt International Highway: Guide To Montana”, 1921
Day 1: Amnicon Falls State Park, Superior, Wisconsin
To journey across the northern Great Plains in a brand-new 1921 Model T, jouncing along roads described as “Slightly improved dirt and gumbo”, must have been an epic roadtrip indeed, fraught with hazards and great discomfitures. These days we are thrown into a rage when our smooth highway journey is spoiled by a blundered drive-thru order. “I didn’t order Diet Coke …!”
So this morning as my traveling partner, Lorie, and I drive our 1983 Volkswagen Camper away from the edge of Lake Superior and climb US Route 2 up the steep bluffs behind Duluth, Minn., we embark on a roadtrip that will soon join the path of many earlier westward explorers who went before us.
Over a century ago, railroad magnate James J. Hill began laying track for his Great Northern Railway along this same route, the nation’s fifth and northernmost transcontinental railroad, linking the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River with the Pacific Ocean. Our journey also marks the bicentennial of the 1804 outbound leg of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which followed the Missouri River up to the Continental Divide and beyond. And long before that were the Sioux, Hidatsa, Arikara, and other native Americans who for thousands of years had used the water highway of the upper Missouri as a route for trade, hunting, and warfare.
We motor along through the dense northern forests of Minnesota with a light rain falling and gray skies. At Bemidji we swing in off Route 2 to pay homage to Paul Bunyan, mythical king of the lumberjacks. Legend has it that the famous ten thousand lakes of Minnesota were formed by the oversized feet of the giant Paul, along with his bovine sidekick, Babe the Big Blue Ox, as they stomped around in the thick northwoods, a’choppin’ down trees.
Local Native Americans find that quite curious, as they seem to recall there being plenty of lakes here before the guys in flannel shirts showed up, so who knows? In any case, looking at Paul’s misshapen and uncomfortable footwear, I wonder if he shouldn’t have been called Paul Bunion.
US Route 2 has been called the Great Northern Route, in honor of Hill’s railroad. Locals along the western portions of this highway applied the same nickname they used for the railway, “The Highline,” since it closely parallels the Canadian border, sometimes veering within eighteen miles of our northern neighbor. Nearby Interstate I-90, though perhaps offering a smoother and faster drive west, unfortunately suffers from the same maladies as most Interstates: seemingly endless superslab monotony, eerily identical ‘travel plazas’, and dense clots of glaze-eyed motorists. Completely unsuitable for the fine art of Westy touring.
Instead we cruise along the smooth and sparsely driven two-lane highway through these green forests, Robert Frost’s evocative “road less traveled by.” We shall see if that indeed makes all the difference.
Toward evening, we roll into Devils Lake, North Dakota, and decide to stop for the night. I passed through here once a couple of years ago, and I know there’s a campground nearby, so we turn south to find it.
There is definitely something odd going on in Devils Lake, and like the first time I visited here, we are soon struck by a pervasive sense of death, impending doom, and nature gone wrong. The Sioux who lived here before white immigration called the place Spirit Lake, but the spirits seem disgruntled now. Above-average precipitation in recent years has caused the lake to rise more than twenty-five feet, and to nearly triple in size, from seventy square miles to over two hundred.
Needless to say, this has gobbled up lots of farmland, hundreds of homes, highways, railroads, and other infrastructure, and is threatening to consume the city of Devils Lake. In recent years, more than three hundred fifty million in federal dollars have been spent to relocate people, raise roads, and build levees, and everywhere you look there are giant earthmovers and great piles of rip-rap. Side roads turn off and promptly disappear beneath the waves, standing forests of dead and blackened trees line the shallows, and abandoned farms poke up out of the water.
The local Chamber of Commerce has tried to put a smiley face on the matter, enthusiastically calling themselves “The Sportsman’s Paradise!”, but everyone is still sandbagging. Indeed, the place has become renowned as a regional fishing hotspot, but we didn’t see many other pleasure craft like water skiers or sailboats. You wouldn’t want to snag your keel on someone’s submerged silo or windmill, I guess.
We drive around looking for the campground for over an hour, the map directing us down roads which no longer exist, and I swear our compass spins in circles. Great swarms of insects the size of sparrows hurl themselves at our windshield, and local landmarks appear to have been uprooted and transplanted five miles away from their original locations. I don’t know exactly what the citizens here did to anger the spirits or Mother Nature, but something is definitely amiss.
We finally stumble upon the state park, and gratefully settle in for the night.