North Dakota

Most people think of North Dakota as the end of the end of the world, a flat and featureless landscape oppressed by an arctic climate. They wonder why anyone with cultural pretensions would choose to live in so windswept and isolated a place. I’ve had airline clerks sincerely ask me if Bismarck is in the United States. People I respect routinely ask me what possessed me to choose to return to North Dakota.

I regard moving home to North Dakota as the best decision I ever made—except to become a father. In Thomas Friedman’s flat world North Dakota is as good a place to call home as any, from an economic point of view, and the quality of life in Dakota is extremely high, if you don’t require a temperate climate or boutique cuisine.

All I can say is: come visit. Some who think this a good idea ask when is the proper window of opportunity for such a visit, believing apparently that North Dakota is frozen solid nine months per year and hospitable for only a few weeks in mid-summer. It is true that the annual average temperature is 42 degrees, that it is often 25 or more degrees below zero for short periods in the winter, that the wind often blows like a sonofabitch, and that a state with a population of 640,000 people has neither the diversity nor the critical mass of places like Massachusetts or Texas. But there are compensating virtues—mighty ones.

The vistas are endless. The sky is magnificent and you are made aware of it, and the weather it carries, every hour of every day. The stars are stunning and seemingly close at hand. I need hardly say that there is an abundance of open space in Dakota du Nord. You can get out of any town, city, or conurbation within minutes and walk across the circle of land and sky. North Dakota has no proper mountains, and the highest point is 3502 feet above sea level, but it is the continent’s premier platform for buttes, and host to one of the two best badlands in America. You can count on seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) a dozen times or more per year. The thunderstorms are stupendously powerful and beautiful. The quality of light will break your heart. Dusk in the summer lingers for hours. The Missouri, the Little Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Heart, the Sheyenne, the Cannonball, and the Grand rivers are glorious to gaze upon, particularly the first two. And the people are as clean, efficient, friendly, helpful, civil, and decent as any in America.

The one place I insist you visit is little Marmarth (population 125) in extreme southwestern North Dakota. It is my adoptive home town. It’s nestled in an oxbow of the marvelous Little Missouri River. It’s as improbable and delightful a place as exists on the Great Plains. For lovers of paleontology, it is North Dakota’s (and one of America’s) supreme dinosaur alleys. For lovers of unusual landscapes, it is an American gem. Look up Patti Perry (my friend, the former mayor) and spend some time talking the issues with her. She’ll tell you I’m a damned fool and a nitwit and a person with more book than good sense. And she’ll set you straight on any number of issues.