This was my first time in North Dakota and as writer, Annick Smith, said it, here is “…a land as open and mysterious as the palm of God’s hand.” The eastern side of the state is Iowa-lush and green and hilly. It was a pilgrimage to here through a land of vast, green horizons punctuated by fields of sunflowers, alfalfa, corn and wheat.
Combines the size of a small house sat in some fields and in others, the combines were alive as invisible operators harvested the earth’s rich yields. It’s a land that reaches deep in the soul and reveals treasures unfamiliar to the eye of us New Englanders. This is land east of the 100th meridian where rainfall and elevation make the land more conducive to agriculture which so powerfully influenced human habitation. It’s one thing to read about this meridian and another to actually witness its dramatic effects.
As we headed to our first campground in North Dakota, we began criss-crossing the trail of the 1804 Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery whose assignment was to map the Missouri River. Their departure point from St. Louis eventually brought then north to the Dakotas. While here, they met the three tribes (Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa) known in the vernacular as the people of the earthlodges, a reference to the ways they built their dwellings.
We visited the National Park Service Historic Site of Knife River Indian Villages near the spot where the Corp of Discovery spent the first winter on a bluff overlooking the Missouri. They built a fort for themselves and named it Fort Mandan, in honor of some of the neighbors. We learned that this area is the geographic center of North America and was part of native trade routes that spread from coast to coast. Ancestors of these Plains Indians have been in the area for about 11,000 years. Hunters of bison and elk, these people also grew crops in the temperate spring and summers, and stockpiled them for the lean winter months when they moved camp below the wide open prairies to the more protective banks along the Missouri.
The most powerful part of the trip for me came as a surprise. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn had an exhibit of the hand-tinted prints done by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer who had come to the region in 1833 to document the native people. After conferring with Clark (of the Corps of Discovery), he determined that the influx of white settlers and explorers would quickly obliterate the tribal ways and he wanted to capture as much as he could before too much time passed. Like his contemporary George Catlin, his precise renderings give us portraits of a culture in transition. His tints, now in the collection of museums like the Gilcrease in Tulsa, and the Joslyn in Omaha, offer a rare insight to the people of the time. It was powerful to sit in the presence of these detailed and exquisite works and feel the humanity and the lives of those he painted.
As we moved further west of the 100th meridian, the landscape changed. We entered the high and arid plains of the west. This is the Badlands, the place where rock formations have names like hoodoos and capstones. We visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the western-most border of North Dakota in the town of Medora. Roosevelt came here in 1883 and his time here moved him to eventually introduce legislation to preserve this land in North Dakota and create the first national parks and wildlife refuges in the early days of the 1900s. Our campground in the south unit of the National Park was set up along the Little Missouri River where cottonwoods and willows proliferate. A small herd of bison gathered in a nearby meadow and on the east side of the park, wild horses hung out in the improbable terrain.
Our Park hikes took us up the bony ridges of the clay and sandstone cliffs formed when ancient seas receded. This is the location of the Great Inland Sea that covered the continent from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the present day Rocky Mountains over 70 million years ago. We were walking along the bottom of an ancient sea bed and under a sky whose horizon stretches for miles, a wilderness of almost unfathomable proportion.
Wallace Stegner wrote, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in”.
As we continue the pilgrimage, our intention is to remember Stegner’s wise words.