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Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 6

Day 6:  Many Glacier Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

Many Glacier Hotel

Many Glacier Hotel

We amble over to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn this morning for breakfast, and are reminded again of the deceased founder of Glacier National Park, for one of the breakfast entrees offered here is the Frittata ala Grinnell, an Italian omelet with diced vegetables and meats. Hardly a fitting tribute for “the father of American conservation”, but actually it sounds pretty tasty so I order it, just to hear the old chap take a few spins in his grave. In fact, if my own friends can’t find a mountain or a glacier or a lake to name after me when I’m dead, I suppose an omelet would be okay too.

Where Swiftcurrent Lake flows over a steep ledge and into Lake Sherburne sits the Many Glacier Hotel, a lovely old Swiss-style chalet built in 1915 by the Great Northern Railway. The stories of Glacier National Park and J.J. Hill’s great railway are intricately interwoven: Hill needed a glorious natural wonderland to attract profitable passenger traffic for his railroad, while the movement to preserve the park certainly benefited from the public’s awareness of its beauty. Yet both had to tread a fine line between preservation and over-commercialization. It is a struggle that continues today, but with new commercial interests.

Swiftcurrent-mountainsIt is cold and wet today, a forty-mile-per-hour wind whipping in across the lake, making the old lodge creak and groan. The jagged peak of Mount Grinnell slices open the bellies of the low-moving clouds, spilling their contents of sleet and snow and rain. Camped out around the grand fireplace, the centerpiece of the lodge’s great hall, there is already a big pack of old folks, crocheting and doing crossword puzzles.

We carefully edge a little closer to see if we might find a spot to warm ourselves by the fire, but the oldsters scowl and hiss at us like a pack of wrinkly iguanas defending their big flat sunning rock. We hastily retreat, and decide to brave the elements and board the boat for a ranger-guided cruise and hike up to Grinnell Lake.

Swiftcurrent-lakeThe reluctant sun makes alternate appearances between the light showers now as we motor across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes, then hike through the woods up to the lake. The water here is icy-cold, and as I reach in to examine some colorful stones, my hands are immediately infused with an aching pain. Perched high above, just below the knife-like edge of the Continental Divide, Grinnell Glacier melts and flows into the lake, beginning its journey of thousands of miles to Hudson Bay nearly seven thousand feet below.

On the hike back to the boat, I ask the ranger why she occasionally sings out loudly to alert any passing bruins that might be on the trail, instead of wearing the silver bear-bells popular in all the finer park gift shops. Don’t they work, I ask? “Around here,” she smiles knowingly, “we call them dinner bells.”

Back at the hotel, Lorie and I hurry to take in a ranger presentation, “After the Party: Winter in Glacier”. We finally return to camp and turn in for the night.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 5

Day 5:  Rising Sun Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

Virginia Creek fallsAfter a big breakfast in camp, and dropping off my surly note at the ranger station, we drive west along the Going-to-the-Sun Road to a trailhead just past Sunrift Gorge, then head down the trail to St. Mary Falls.

Unlike the vast open prairies of the Great Plains, or even the relative flatlands of our home in the upper midwest, weather can really sneak up on you here in the confines of mountainous terrain. No sooner do we get a half-mile into the woods than rumbling thunderclouds suddenly swoop in over the crest of the Continental Divide, spewing lightening and spitting rain. We take shelter under a cedar tree to wait out the storm, and are glad the storm blows over just as quickly as it arrived.

The St. Mary River falls spectacularly over a redrock ledge here before being later joined by Virginia Creek, finally emptying into St. Mary Lake. Hiking up Virginia Creek, we find two more sets of falls, the upper of which is by far the most dramatic, plunging over one hundred feet to crash upon a broad flat ledge.

Along the trail we see several other people, most, like us, wearing small packs and boots and carrying hiking sticks. Some, however, don’t seem to belong out here in the woods—with their polyester slacks and shiny loafers, big dangly earrings and clouds of perfume—but rather in a poolside bingo hall at a condo in Orlando. There are small mobs of shrieking children, running along the trail and whacking trees with sticks.

But one pair we encounter does not fit in anywhere: two guys, one middle-aged, the other about nineteen, wearing dirty jeans, torn and sweaty T-shirts, and steel-toed work boots. They are trudging along the trail, the older one leading the way with an expression of grim determination. They have no gear whatsoever, but the older one clutches a small paper sack held out in front of him, his fist tightly wrapped around its neck as though he’s trying to choke it to death. It almost appears the bag is leading him up the trail toward the falls. There is a frightful fire in his eyes as they approach, and instead of the customary smile or ‘hello’, they both just grunt in Neanderthal fashion.

Virginia CreekAs we continue, feeling lucky to have gotten out of their way in time, we speculate aloud on their mission here in the forest, and on the contents of the paper sack. Perhaps they are a father-and-son construction team who built a faulty footbridge over the falls, and have now been ordered by the National Park Service to hike back in there and add some more lag screws. “You brought the wrench, right?”, I can imagine the father growling to the hapless kid.

Or maybe the bag contains the cremated remains of a deceased family member or beloved guinea pig, now destined to be cast upon the cascading waters.

“I never shoulda promised to do this.”

Or perhaps something more sinister is afoot …  “I told ya we shouldn’t have cut ‘er up in such little pieces!”

We hurry on, hoping that if they follow us, we are able to find a large bear to hide behind.

Rolling back down to the edge of St. Mary Lake, we pop the Westy’s top and enjoy a pleasant lunch on the lakeshore, then motor farther north along the park’s eastern side, taking a campsite at the Many Glacier campground.

In addition to the usual warnings and signs, there is another notice here: “Bears have killed and injured people in this campground!” Indeed, a short stroll through the campground to the parking lot of the nearby Swiftcurrent Motor Inn reveals a handful of grizzly and black bears browsing on the lower slopes of Mount Henkel, less than a mile away.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 4

Day 4:  Shelby, Montana

We opt for another early start to beat the daytime winds, and we enjoy a beautiful drive toward the mountains. This morning dawns so crisp and clear that the Front Range of the Rockies, yesterday just blue mounds in the hazy distance, are now so near that we can almost touch them. When uninitiated roadtrippers ask why we don’t just fly someplace and take a cab, this is one of the magic moments that springs to mind, and it’s difficult to explain.

Capt. Lewis' Camp Disappointment

Capt. Lewis’ Camp Disappointment

We stop at a memorial marking Meriwether Lewis’ Camp Disappointment. On the expedition’s 1806 return journey from the Pacific Ocean, Lewis ventured up the Marias River from the Missouri to determine if its origins lay somewhere north of the 49th parallel, which would mean moving the Canada-United States border farther north, significantly increasing US territory. Turned out it was about twenty-five miles short, hence the name.

Blackfoot delinquents from nearby Browning and Cut Bank have liberally defaced the granite obelisk with spray paint and markers, leaving names like Alex Bull Calf, Kathy Spotted Eagle, and Jim Bird Rattler. Never an advocate of vandalism, I’m not sure if I blame them for crudely scrawling their names over those of the white invaders who came and made monuments to themselves, but it seems a shame nonetheless.

At Browning (highest per-capita number of stray dogs), we turn northwest and begin climbing into aspen forests just beginning to turn an autumn gold. We are surprised how abruptly the Northern Great Plains—nearly flat and featureless since the Mississippi—suddenly yield to the steep granite faces of the Rocky Mountains, and we downshift to make the grades. Some of the valleys here are so deep that the mid-morning sun is just now beginning to warm them, and we drink deeply of the crisp air as we descend into St. Mary at the easternmost edge of Glacier National Park

St. Mary River

St. Mary River

St. Mary is perhaps the most dramatic approach to Glacier, offering a broad vista of morning-lit rocky peaks, green valleys, and icy-blue lakes even before entering the park. A stop at the visitor center here offers a good overview of Glacier, with a short introductory film and exhibits of local flora, fauna, and human history. At the gate we buy our park pass, then motor a few miles up to Rising Sun campground to select a cozy site among the cedars.

After more than three long days and over fifteen hundred miles of driving, most of it over a landscape with as many terrain features as your average coffee table, we are glad finally to be here, the Westy dozing in the cool shadows of these magnificent mountains, with our name on the little slip hanging on the numbered post. We have indeed arrived.

It can safely be said that Glacier National Park might not exist today were it not for the diligent efforts of George B. Grinnell, a young outdoorsman and explorer who first came here in the fall of 1885. Editor of Forest and Stream magazine, and a big player in wildlife preservation and conservation movements, he hunted, hiked, and camped in the region for many years, and was instrumental in seeing it set aside as a natural sanctuary. Grinnell and his preservationist ideals also had the ear of a young New York State Governor by the name of Theodore Roosevelt, for whom Grinnell would later serve as presidential conservation speechwriter.

We stroll over to the dock to take in a boat ride on St. Mary Lake. It's a leisurely cruise along the long and narrow glacier-carved valley, over emerald waters made milky by finely pulverized rocks up on the mountains.

We stroll over to the dock to take in a boat ride on St. Mary Lake. It’s a leisurely cruise along the long and narrow glacier-carved valley, over emerald waters made milky by finely pulverized rocks up on the mountains.

Grinnell considered Glacier’s preservation one of his greatest achievements, and referred to the place as the “Crown of the Continent”. There is a mountain, a lake, and a glacier all named after him here, and when he died in 1938 at the age of eighty-nine, the New York Times called him “the father of American conservation.”

On the southern shore of St. Mary Lake one can still see the crumbled remains of a personal lodge built for Louis W. Hill, son of J.J., founder of the Great Northern Railway. It was a real swanky joint in its day, with hardwood floors and chandeliers and stuff. Problem was, there were no roads to this remote, wilderness location; the only access was by boat, similar to the one on which we ride today, and poor Louis was deathly afraid of water.

So in order to enjoy his private little slice of paradise he—get this—held a contest to select fifty lucky Eagle Scouts from around the country. Their reward: the opportunity to come and hack out a nine-mile path thru the woods to his mansion. You can still hike the trail today, and if you do, be sure to take a moment to reflect upon the dainty Louis riding comfortably in his horse-drawn buggy, thanks to the  efforts of the young Eagle Scouts. I hope they at least got their Misguided Servitude merit badges  …

Wild Goose Island, St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park

Wild Goose Island, St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park

After our boat ride, and a bit of needed shopping in St. Mary (after yesterday’s Ice Cream Incident, I need a new pair of sunglasses), we head back into the park and see a hitchhiker waiting at the gates. Lanky, with long red hair, he wears shower flip-flops and holds a little hand-scrawled sign that reads: “Rising Sun”. That’s our campground, and I seem to recall seeing him camped there earlier, so we pick him up.

On the short drive to the campground, we learn that his name is Geert, he is originally from Belgium, and is currently in the midst of backpacking most of the Continental Divide from southern Canada down to Mexico. When winter finally settles in for good, he will rest somewhere in South America for a few months, then return to hike the American Southwest portions of the Divide.

He tells us of his travels so far, his perceptions of our country, and the unfortunate fact that due to the Bush administration’s dismal diplomacy, Americans are increasingly unwelcome in so many places abroad.

“People at home, zay vorned me about Americans,” he says in heavily accented English. “But everyone who stop to peeck me up ees very nice, and generous. And zay are all Democrats.”

After dinner in camp, we stroll over to take in a ranger presentation on wolves, which have re-introduced themselves into the far northwestern corner of Glacier, having immigrated from Canada. We intend to spend a day or two in that remote area later during our trip, and hope to hear their evocative calls in the night.

Returning to camp, we find an official warning notice waiting for us.

“When not in immediate use,” the slip of paper scolds, “all food, beverages, coolers, stoves, grills, cooking utensils, food and water containers must be kept in a closed hard-sided vehicle, day or night! Violation of these regulations will result in a $50 fine and/or confiscation of these items.” And the additional handwritten warning: “Put your jug away, inside your camper, and make sure there’s nothing that smells like food in the big green duffle bag.”

It is signed by Howard, The Camp Host.

 "Food and Odors Attract Bears"

“Food and Odors Attract Bears”

Having just arrived this morning, we’ve only made one meal here, and have been impeccable in our housekeeping habits. Searching around our tidy campsite, I cannot see what on earth Howard is upset about. His mention of my green duffle bag, and emphasis of “food and water containers”, draws my attention to the Westy’s rooftop luggage bin, where I spy our spare fuel can. He must have hastily determined that it contained water or Kool-Aid or something else tempting to bears and imperiously written me the warning.

On two separate occasions, that night and the following morning, I attempt to pay Howard a visit to explain myself, but he is either away from his campsite or napping inside his giant RV. So on the way out of camp the next day I leave the warning slip for his superior officer, the real ranger, along with the following note:

“I presume Howard the Campground Host refers here to the standard, yellow plastic five-gallon fuel can stored in my rooftop cargo rack, and which is clearly marked “DIESEL” and “DANGER”. Common sense and many state laws prohibit carrying such a fuel container inside a passenger vehicle.

“I suspect bears are generally not attracted to diesel fuel, nor can they probably read, but I would hope that most camp hosts are smarter than your average bear. Especially when issuing warnings and citations.”

On the reverse side I add: “P.S.: Howard is a loose cannon in this campground, and with his unpredictable temperament and poor eyesight, perhaps represents a greater threat than do the bears, who, after all, are only trying to feed their families, and don’t go around handing out tickets, nor requesting a free campsite with full hookups. If Howard’s erratic behavior cannot be corrected, it is perhaps best for all concerned that he be darted and relocated to a more suitable habitat, where he will not pose a threat to himself or others.”

I sign it “Campsite 47”.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 3

Day 3: Williston, North Dakota

Fort Peck Dam Powerhouse

Fort Peck Dam Powerhouse

We hit the road at sunrise to beat the strong daytime winds, eager to make progress along our westward route. Since leaving the lush forests of Minnesota, the terrain has grown considerably drier and more austere, but near the Montana border the landscape takes an almost imperceptible turn for the bleaker. The desiccated rolling hills are bald and barren, everything sun-baked to a crisp.

Here Route 2 joins with the Missouri River, and for the next 140 miles we retrace part of Lewis and Clark’s path to the Continental Divide and beyond. We pass through countless tiny towns, just whistlestops on the Great Northern Highline, now sleepy grain-elevator burgs whose only claim to fame is proudly declared on the wooden signs at their city limits: “Home of the 1974 Class-D Junior High School Basketball Champions!”, or some such thing.

By mid-morning we arrive at Fort Peck dam. The colossal undertaking that was achieved here, and the impact of it on the landscape and on the people who accomplished it, is truly mind-boggling. Even the numbers become almost meaningless in their sheer scale: 11,000 men working for 84 months to build a steel and earthen dam measuring 21,000 feet in width and 250 feet high, holding back nearly nineteen million acre-feet of the Missouri River in order to generate 185,000 kilowatts of electricity.

Fort Peck DamFort Peck dam is the result of what many might call “wasteful big-government spending”, but it is difficult to ignore that that is exactly what got the US out of its twelve-year-long Great Depression. Where big business had failed to pull the nation out of a deep and prolonged economic downturn, large federal projects such as the construction of Fort Peck Dam got things going again.

Everything at Fort Peck Dam—and I do mean everything—has a bold and streamlined art deco design about it.

Everything at Fort Peck Dam—and I do mean everything—has a bold and streamlined art deco design about it.

By now the westerly winds have resumed their relentless assault on the nose of the Westy; as we struggle to make headway we leave a dense trail of diesel smoke across the eastern third of the Big Sky State, and it can probably still be seen today.

Somewhere between Fort Peck and say, Malta, Mont., we make a wrong turn. It’s not that we don’t intend to go there, but simply that we will later regret it.

It had been highly recommended by a handful of tourist guidebooks—always a dubious distinction—so we pull off the hot and windy highway to pay a visit. I won’t mention the name or precise location of the place, for fear of spoiling the surprise should you find yourself in the neighborhood someday, but suffice it to say that we soon vacate the premises for fear of contracting some dreaded bacterial infection or unsightly dermatological condition. But having loitered for a few minutes and chatting with the lonely gnome-like proprietor before politely declining his services, we feel compelled to buy something, so we leave with a pair of badly freezer-burnt Klondike Bars and hit the road.

With the afternoon sun beating directly through the Westy’s windshield on us, the ice cream treats begin a rapid descent to their natural liquid state and are soon on the verge of spontaneous combustion, so sitting in the passenger seat I hurriedly slurp mine down without too much fuss. For Lorie however, being behind the wheel, it is entirely another matter, and as her foil wrapper develops a catastrophic leak and the white foamy mess begins dripping out at an alarming rate, she thrusts the dribbling thing at me and tells me to toss it outside.

Not wanting to discard the wrapper along with it, I thrust the oozing mass into the slipstream outside my open window and have just grasped one corner of the foil betwixt forefinger and thumb when Lorie cries, “Wait, not now! There’s a cop!” Grimacing, I hastily bring my hand back inside, clutching the mess, where it proceeds to enthusiastically drip into my lap.

open road montana“OK, now!” Lorie says as the state trooper whooshes past, so I thrust it back out and unfurl the fluttering wrapper. The rapidly disintegrating Klondike Bar falls away, globules of warm airborne foam trailing behind like the tail of a soft-serve comet. I squish the foil wrapper into a ball and toss it onto the floormat, where it continues to quietly ooze. And here is where the diligent care and maintenance of one’s Vanagon can be taken too far.

Worried that I have soiled and sullied the shiny flanks of my beloved Vanasazi with splatters of ice cream, I next thrust my head out into the slipstream to survey the extent of the mess, whereupon my eyeglasses, along with a very nice pair of clip-on UV Blue Blocker sunglasses, are immediately sucked off my head and follow down the path of the ice-cream meteor into the hazy distance.

“Stop! STOP!” I holler, and Lorie brings the Westy to a sudden halt along the roadside. I leap from the cab and run back along the shoulder of the road, squinting and searching for my wayward specs.

Big Sky Country WestfaliaI must admit that while blessed with many admirable qualities from my mother’s end of the gene pool, hawklike vision is not one of them, and I am damned near blind without some pretty hefty chunks of glass in front of me. My squinty eyes now scan the blurry green swath of roadside sagebrush and grass, searching for a glimmer or a glint which might reveal the location of my vital eyewear, and I am inutterably struck by the prime paradox: looking for my eyeglasses while nearly unable to see anything at all without them. Think about it.

I walk nearly a quarter-mile of that seemingly endless sunbaked highway, cars and trucks roaring past unconcernedly, stepping in the tiny puddles of ice cream which dot the edge of the pavement, before Lorie shouts and I can vaguely make out her distant and blurry figure excitedly waving something at me.

I hurry up to where she has indeed found my eyeglasses, perfectly intact but for a tiny stone chip, and she points to the spot right in the middle of the road where she discovered them. It is a miracle they haven’t been crushed by a passing pickup. Sadly, the clip-on sunglasses have met a more deadly fate, and have bravely given their life that my glasses might live; their hundreds of glittering golden shards now lay strewn across the asphalt, and there is no evidence whatsoever of their silver frames.

Solemnly, we hike back up to where the Westy sits at the roadside with emergency flashers going and prepare to resume our journey, when my newly re-spectacled gaze happens to fall on the side of the van. And you know what? It turns out the ice-cream spatters aren’t all that bad after all.

As we make our way to the west and the landscape grows even more open and horizontal, we begin to catch dusky glimpses of the front ranges of the Rockies. On May 26, 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed to the top of a riverside bluff and “from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time … these points of the Rocky Mountains were covered with snow and the sun shone on it in such manner as to give me the most plain and satisfactory view … but when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterballanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them.”

I’ve always greatly admired Lewis’ sense of pragmatic optimism, even in the face of “sufferings and hardships”, and I think that every Westy traveler would do well to inscribe on their dashboard Lewis’ next line: “As I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils, I will believe it a good comfortable road untill I am compelled to beleive differently.”

Late in the day, near Havre, Montana, I notice the fuel gauge getting, oh, a tad low. Though I resolve to get fuel at the very next chance, I say nothing, but just grip the wheel a little tighter, lean forward hopefully, and push on into the stiff prairie headwind.

This is all you need to know about most of the so-called 'towns' along the Great Northern Highline. This is actually a relatively metropolitan one …

This is all you need to know about most of the so-called ‘towns’ along the Great Northern Highline. This is actually a relatively metropolitan one …

Turns out this is yet another geographical region which bears little resemblance to the maps which represent it. Usually, a tiny dot with a name next to it indicates a town or a village of some sort, with some houses and people and trees. And the opportunity to purchase fuel.

But along this lonely stretch of the Highline through the vast spaces of eastern Montana, there are really only about three or four actual towns. All the other dots on the map—Devon, Chester, Dodson, Hinsdale, etc.—are in truth little more than a grain elevator and a railroad siding, perhaps a dilapidated mobile home, and an ambiguous sheet-metal shed, none of which seem to be open for business.

As I watch these little dots fall back behind us, and the fuel gauge needle fall ever closer to the much-feared orange zone, my concern grows to alarm, and my alarm to a festering sense of internalized panic. Town after town roll by, none appearing to boast running water, let alone diesel fuel. My shorts are really starting to get bunched up when finally, gratefully, a cloud of dust billowing up around us, we pull into a tiny cluster of gas pumps in Hingham. Only to discover that they serve only gasoline.

Desperate, I dash into the combination bar-general-store-and-gas-station, a smoky and noisy place filled with the scents of beer and food-service antiseptic cleansers, and the sounds of country music and burly guys with sunburned necks discussing the finer points of combines and various other farm implements. And it all comes to a grinding halt as I belly up to the bar and stand there in my retro silk bowling shirt and khaki shorts. But I think it is my sandals-and-socks ensemble that really make them swallow their cigarettes and stare. I may as well be wearing bib overalls and red sneakers to an evening at the symphony.

After waiting for what seems an eternity while the bartender generates a customer’s lottery tickets on the electronic dispenser, furtive gazes and disapproving stares making the backs of my ears burn, I am finally able to ask him if he knows someplace nearby where I might find diesel fuel at this hour.

“Hey Roger,” the bartender says to one of the now-silent crowd seated along the bar, “they got diesel over in Kremlin?”
A tightly wired guy in a plain white T-shirt and agri-business ball cap considers the matter for a moment. “Rudyard,” he replies gruffly. “I think they got onroad diesel at the Cenex in Rudyard. Six miles west.”
“Thanks,” I say, turning for the door. “Thanks a lot.”
“But don’t take my word for it,” Roger cautions. “Don’t come back here mad.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, clapping him on a dusty shoulder in a friendly way, “if they don’t have diesel in Rudyard, I won’t make it back.”

The crew along the bar erupts in laughter, and I think that for a brief shining moment these sons of the soil empathise with me, identify with my plight, recognize our common humanity across a vast cultural chasm. Perhaps even like me. Even with my ridiculous footwear.

Driving the Great Northern Highline

The old Great Northern Highline—now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe—is our near-constant traveling companion from Lake Superior to the Continental Divide, the two often separated only by a narrow strip of grass and sage.

We limp the final six miles to Rudyard, the next grain-elevator town along this lonesome stretch of Route 2, where the card-lock pumps at the Cenex farmers cooperative indeed dispense diesel. In the shadow of a westbound grain train flying past on the Highline, I gratefully deliver fuel to the thirsty Westy and, for good measure, half-fill the five-gallon fuel can in the rooftop luggage bin.

We cross the tracks, turn right, and chase the train across the golden prairie into the setting sun.

Great Northern Roadtrip, Day 2

Day 2: Devils Lake, North Dakota

We leave pretty early, eager to flee this doomed and demon-infested place, and as we pause briefly for coffee we are given a hint of the town’s accursed nature: from where we sit, the first letter on the municipal water tower cannot be seen, so it reads “EVILS LAKE”. Without even stopping for fuel, we head out on Route 2.

Geographical Center of North America

Geographical Center of North America

I hope the citizens of Devils Lake can mend their ways and make their peace with the spirits that bedevil them, I really do. If not, they could easily go the way of Gardena, Omemee, Lostwood, and other ghost towns we search for on the wide open North Dakota prairie, to little avail. Even this year’s edition of the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer seems not to have been updated since sometime shortly before the Great Depression, and boldly depicts roads and highways which are in truth mere tractor lanes petering out in seemingly endless fields of yellow sunflowers. Our task is further complicated by the fact that nearly all of the roads themselves are unmarked by signs; I suppose the highway department figures if you don’t already know where you are, you don’t belong here.

Depending on how you measure it, Rugby, N. Dak., is the self-proclaimed “Geographical Center of North America.” A tall fieldstone obelisk marks the spot, near the junction of US Route 2 and North Dakota Route 3.

north-dakota-sunflowersWe finally manage to spiral inward to the junction of two rail lines, where there once stood nine grain elevators and a soda factory. Seven hundred people used to live here in Omemee, but most packed up and moved to nearby Bottineau, and now all that’s left are some overgrown sidewalks and a single ramshackle house that most recently was home to small livestock.

There is something sadly poignant about this abandoned little town, and we can only wonder about the people who lived here, and what compelled them to literally haul their houses away down the road to start new lives elsewhere.

Omemee, North Dakota

Omemee, North Dakota

This sidetrip to look for towns that time forgot has led us astray from our main route, so we catch Hwy. 5 here, then US-83, the “Road to Nowhere”, once the only entirely paved highway running all the way from Canada to Mexico. We try to make up some lost time, but are bucking a strong headwind now. Toward evening we finally pull into Williston, North Dakota, and take a site at the Buffalo Trails Campground.

Ready, Set … Q: What's the only thing slower than a diesel Westfalia? A: A giant turtle, riding a snowmobile. Tommy the Turtle, mascot of Bottineau, ND, marks the entrance to the nearby Turtle Mountains where, among other activities, you evidently may drive a snowmobile …

Ready, Set …
Q: What’s the only thing slower than a diesel Westfalia?
A: A giant turtle, riding a snowmobile. Tommy the Turtle, mascot of Bottineau, ND, marks the entrance to the nearby Turtle Mountains where, among other activities, you evidently may drive a snowmobile …

The place is filled with behemoth motor homes and fifth-wheel campers—a disturbing campground trend lately—and hardly any tents. Or people, for that matter. I suppose with the lush shag carpet and satellite TV channels found in most large RVs, who needs to go outside and see the world? Heck, with full bathroom and shower facilities onboard, you don’t even have to visit the campground restroom to pee and to meet your fellow travelers. All of which serve to make the place one of the loneliest on the planet.

Sitting outside at our campsite picnic table, eating our dinner alone while the suspicious neighbors peer out their RV windows at us, we feel as out-of-place and incongruous as someone clipping his toenails in Aisle Three of the local supermarket.

After dinner we, like everyone else here, hide away in our own mini-motorhome and get some sleep for an early start.