North Dakota, I Hardly Knew Ya

I flew through North Dakota like there was a storm chasing me… which, as has been the case for most of this trip, there has been. You see, I’ve been anxiously checking the forecasts for the last several weeks, in anticipation of my arrival in Canada. I had good reason to be concerned. One of the primary reasons I decided to reroute my trip was because of the weather. Looking at the latest forecasts shortly before I left home, I discovered that the weather was going to turn to crap towards the end of August in Canada and, of course, Alaska – right around the time I would be arriving.

I confess that this put me in a bit of a bind. I may live on the West Coast now, but I still take pride in being born and bred a New Englander, and I’m quite capable of managing the occasional storm or cold snap. I grew up with thunder and lightning; they don’t frighten me the way they do people in the Bay Area, where several years might pass between thunderstorms, and the natives literally start screaming when one does occur. I don’t mind walking in the rain, or even trudging through the snow. But I really, really dislike having to drive in bad weather; I always have. Gosh, I remember one nasty snowstorm when I was living in West Springfield in which I literally walked the two miles to work in my snow gear rather than having to drive over those slippery, frosted streets. The hour of walking was an adventure. The twenty minutes of driving would have been a nightmare!

Anyway, when I first began planning this trip, I was willing to take my chances that it wasn’t going to snow before the middle of September up north, which, although not a sure thing, isn’t a terribly risky bet. But spending weeks driving around in the rain with temperatures in the upper fifties doesn’t exactly sound conducive to relaxing and enjoying myself. That’s what the weather is like in the Bay Area in the middle of winter. Pretty comfortable for midwinter; not so much for late summer.

It was my own fault, really. I delayed my trip too long; I should have gone in July, as I had originally planned. But I didn’t. I’m not particularly sorry about it, because I got some things done that desperately needed to be done, and now I at least have slightly less stress while I’m away. And that is the beauty of the driving trip, after all; I can change my plan whenever the heck I want. Good thing, too, because I did!

It was a good plan, though. I had originally figured on going straight north through Oregon and Washington, then up through British Columbia and the Yukon and Alaska. Then I thought I would head east into the Northwest Territories (now that is nowhere-land!) before cutting south into Alberta, then Montana, and finally wending my way home.

It would have been a long trip. A good eight thousand miles, if not more. Not so shocking when you realize that the driving distance between Whitehorse in the Yukon and Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories is sixteen hundred miles:

Yukon II

Some pretty rugged territory, too; far from an easy drive. Yet there was something about it that appealed to me – so much so that I found the idea very difficult to let go.

I literally waited until the day I left to make up my mind. Even as I was getting on the freeway, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do. Even as I began heading towards Sacramento, I debated with myself about whether I wanted to take I-5 when I got to the capital, or head east into the mountains.

It was South Dakota that finally decided me.

Somehow I felt very strongly that I wanted to go to South Dakota, and it was doubtful, if I went up to Alaska, that I’d be able to make it back that far east on my way home before autumn came to the mountains, because even if I avoided the Rockies, I’d still have to cross some mountain range on my way home.

There was something else appealing about going that way, too. If I went back to the Dakotas, then I could head up into Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where I’ve never been before. And when I studied the maps in my road atlas, the idea became more and more exciting. You know what’s in northern Manitoba? Nothing!

Northern Manitoba

It isn’t really nothing, of course. Most of northern Manitoba is occupied by Lake Winnipeg, and Lake Manitoba, and dozens of other lakes – so many, in fact, that one might consider it a rival for Minnesota’s honorary title of Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.

I’m presuming that the few villages that exist in the upper reaches of Manitoba exist primarily for fishing. It must be quite a vacation destination, some obscure lake in some obscure region of Canada, a hundred miles from anywhere. To me, of course, fishing doesn’t hold much appeal. I’ve already seen enough dead fish to last me a lifetime.

But I liked the look of it, this vast region containing many bodies of water and few bodies of humans. It suited my theme of skirting the edges of civilization that I’ve taken this trip. No, it wasn’t what I had originally planned. But it was a darned good alternate plan. When would I have the chance to make that trip again, either?

However, a few days ago, once again consulting the forecast (amazing how important weather becomes when you’re traveling, isn’t it?), I discovered that my weather problems were far from solved by changing my trip. In fact, it looks as though by Sunday, the day before Labor Day, storms will be rolling in all over the countryside. And I don’t know that I need to be driving hundreds of miles through the middle of nowhere in a foreign country on the edge of some long, cold, foggy lake when it’s pouring rain.

So I hurried. I suppose I didn’t really need to spend much time in North Dakota, anyway. I’ve been here before. It isn’t really much different from South Dakota; just a bit colder. Otherwise, it has very similar features. Fields of hay. Fields of cattle. And not a heck of a lot in between.

I did learn one thing about the state, though. All these years, I’ve had two main memories of North Dakota. One, the incident with the local sheriff that formed the basis for this flash fiction story. And two, how many times I had to clean my windshield just driving through it. North Dakota had the biggest, most numerous bugs I had ever seen, worse than Texas even! The kind that when they hit the glass, their multi-colored guts splatter in visible circles all over your windshield, enough to make you duck instinctively, in case you got splattered, too. But this time? Nothing – or nothing out of the ordinary, anyway. In fact, I would say that North Dakota, compared to some of the other places I’ve been, was comparatively bug-free. Perhaps you only experience the full brunt of them if you travel east-west across the state. Or perhaps they’re only really prevalent at certain times of year. I don’t know. I suppose now I never will!

At any rate, I decided to try to get in and out of the really rural parts of Canada before the storms hit. And if I circle through Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I can duck down into Montana and backtrack to Yellowstone before I head home. This will work out great because I think I’ve decided to make this trip a little shorter than I had originally planned, too. Instead of one long road trip, I think I’m going to try to do a series of shorter ones. If I took a month off around December-January, I could travel across the South, where the weather should be passable. I haven’t done much traveling in the winter. My first year of college, I went down to San Diego to see the solar eclipse – not that January in San Diego can really be termed “winter.” And one year I made a trip to Arizona in December to visit a friend of mine who was working in Globe on a temporary assignment. Funky seeing the Grand Canyon dotted with snow in the winter, and much less crowded, too. Who knows? It might be a neat change, provided I stay out of the frost zone. Might be nice to experience the Gulf Coast when it isn’t blazing hot and sticky humid, and the Southwestern desert when it isn’t as dry as a… um, desert.

And then I think I’ll try to make the trip I had originally planned next summer, earlier in the year, preferably while there’s still midnight sun. That’s one other advantage of postponing it – the day-long daylight, bright enough to read by, even in the middle of the “night.” How I loved the look of it – the way the sun dipped just beneath the mountains on the horizon around two a.m., then popped right back up again. Shouldn’t be too hard to make it, either, if I do it then. I definitely found when I was up there last that thanks to all the daylight, I hardly needed to sleep at all.

No, I may have changed my plan, but I’m not giving up on it – not yet. But I suppose I won’t count my miles until I’ve driven them, just in case. A lot of things can happen in a year. I might not be able to get the time off, if that congressional appointment comes through. There could be a massive revolt among the polar bears, who may finally decide they’ve had enough of the ice melting. Perhaps the Sorbonne will offer me a full scholarship if I finally agree to pursue that doctoral degree in accounting… nah, forget it. I still wouldn’t do it!

But a girl can dream, can’t she? And that’s one more beauty of all that emptiness – plenty of room for dreaming. It takes a lot of dreams to fill up all that big, open space. But I’ve got ‘em.

 * * *

If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

4 thoughts on “North Dakota, I Hardly Knew Ya

  1. jan

    You’re a brave lady! I was born in Palmer Massachusetts, just outside of Springfield. My mother’s family has lived in Monson Mass for at least two centuries! My father’s family is from Fargo. Small world!

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  2. pennylanethoughts

    Hi Lori. I know you are a little disappointed, but better safe than sorry!
    Your trip to the Pacific Northwest will be worth the wait, I promise you! I spent 34 years in that area and I miss it terribly! It is SO beautiful in some places, that for me, it is a physical ache, the longing I have to be in that area. If you want to pick my brain about the area before your next trip, I would be happy to share information and give you tips about some amazing places to visit.
    Be careful girl. Get home safe!

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