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WELCOME TO AMERICA’S LEAST-VISITED STATE

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I've landed in a place you'd never think to go: a prairie mecca of sauerkraut pizza and buffalo hot dogs, of bull-a-ramas and pitchfork fondues; where sunshine and hailstorms take unpredictable turns blasting the fascinating but wind-swept landscape - and the fascinating but wind-swept people.

I'm in a place where, out back at Bonanzaville in 102-degree heat, off-duty wheat researchers and auto mechanics are spending their Saturday re-enacting the pioneer fur trade, wearing handmade clothes, brain-tanning deer hides in a teepee - and chomping on Dilly Bars from the local Dairy Queen.I am in a different world, and I'm only in North Dakota.

It has been fairly called America's Outback; it has been unfairly called America's Siberia. But never, ever, despite a mesmerizing, eerie landscape split between endlessly flat farm fields and dramatic desert buttes, has North Dakota been called America's Vacationland.

I have come here because almost nobody else does. This is the state visited by fewer people than any other. Not only does it come in way, way behind Florida and Hawaii; it comes in behind Delaware. Behind Rhode Island. Even behind South Dakota.

This is the state the guidebooks forgot, the Last Frontier of American tourism: Go ahead, try any big bookstore travel section and search for even a mention. Go west of Minnesota and east of Montana, and you might as well be in Canada. The best I could do for guidance was a disturbingly fleeting passage in a 50-state guide that describes North Dakota as "somebody's quiet afterthought... a place to pass through... charming, picturesque and a bit maddening."

This is the state where the governor, Ed Schafer - who you can easily meet on a free tour of the state capitol - calls its most outstanding characteristic its "nothingness."

And it is the state that endured humiliation on national television last year when the satiric documentary series "TV Nation" visited in the middle of winter, aired endless footage of snowstorms and frozen breath and asked Schafer why people would ever want to visit. "It's a place where you can still get lost," the governor answered, carefully adding that he did not mean lost on a map. He meant, he said on national television, "lost. ... mentally."

Actually, he has something there. A trip around North Dakota turns out to be the essence of travel; it is not the destination that matters, but the journey. It is not just a state you're exploring; it is a state of mind.

"For us that live here, it's like, `Why would anyone come?' " said Saundra Perry, who runs the White Lace Bed & Breakfast in Bismarck, but who would rather be in Montana and is continually surprised that anyone ever asks to spend the night in her single guest room. "It's too far between every place."

But ultimately, that is North Dakota's powerful appeal. Montana is already over-trendy with the nouveau ranches of Ted Turner, Meg Ryan, and their ilk. This is still undiscovered country, and some people know it.

"My wife and I, on the weekends we put a Thermos of coffee in the car and some sandwiches and go driving," Marlin Kunze told me as he took a cigarette break under the grand stairs of Bismarck's capitol. "When we see a gravel road I hit the brakes. Whichever way the car pulls, that's the way we go."

That is the wisdom of the neglected plains, and that, more or less, is what I did for five eye-opening, tire-spinning days that mixed the bizarre with the beautiful. I traveled a thousand miles - and would have liked to have traveled two thousand - without ever leaving the state and breaking the spell.

I was transfixed by the impossibly flat, wind-swept landscape of North Dakota's eastern half, where the country's most constant winds ripple the endless fields of grass like the sea. Here and there a ruined barn sat under flaking coats of faded paint, its roof buckling like the back of an old packhorse and the far-off horizon peeking through its empty door and window frames like a ghost world.

I looked into the painted eyes of the "World's Largest Buffalo," stood beneath the fiberglass hoofs of the "World's Largest Holstein Cow" and walked the surreal shores of the country's largest man-made lake, where the water's edges are formed by desert bluffs.

I stood atop the buttes in the western badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park - one of the smallest parks in the system, and of course, the least visited, though it seems to go on forever. Rows and rows of buttes, what seemed like billions of buttes, spread out until there was nothing else, like one of those stereoscopic pictures that suddenly pops into three dimensions.

I clambered over clay-streaked bluffs to come upon bison, and river bends, and wide-screen vistas that defied logic - and that the rest of the country hasn't appreciated.

"They don't know what they're missing," said Theresa Halstead, leading a Pentecostal church group from nearby Williston on a hike through the seemingly empty park. "And don't tell them. We like it this way."

Sorry.

I began in Fargo, right across the Red River from Minnesota and home of the cultural center known affectionately as the Fabulous Fargodome.

Over the next few days I would track the paths of Lewis and Clark, Gen. George Custer, Sitting Bull, Theodore Roosevelt and, according to one commemorative plaque, "North Dakota's pioneer dentists." I swooped along the emptiest, straightest back roads in America, driving and stopping, driving again and stopping again, unable to view the scenery just through the car window.

In Bismarck, the North Dakota Heritage Center was a delight, and not just because of the box of buffalo chips with a sign inviting visitors to "sniff here." Towering above the museum and, in fact, above the plains for miles around, is the incongruous 19-story art-deco state capitol building, a sort of stripped-down Rockefeller Center of the prairie that tour guide and lifelong North Dakotan Beverly Schlenker calls "very plain and ugly" on the outside.

Also part of the tour was the governor, who could be seen gazing at his computer terminal in his first-floor office, and who later took the time to explain what he had really meant on TV about getting mentally lost.

He really had been talking about the state's western badlands, he said, where he grew up: "It's really a place to go and get in touch with your own internal ... spirit isn't it," he said, after pausing for a while. He paused a while longer. "Introspection," he came out with, finally.

During my last dusk in North Dakota, I clambered down the edge of a soft sandstone bluff overlooking a river bend - the same one Gov. Schafer had pointed out to me in his office - and was alone at the edge of a field where buffalo were on the move. I counted 20, then 50, then almost 100, adults and fawn-colored calves, making their way up from the river in the gathering dusk.

I am not sure how long I stood there, as the sky turned colors behind me and the buttes threw longer shadows across the plain.

I was getting lost ... mentally.