Having been warned that we will lose cell and online coverage as we enter the mountains portion of our trip over the next couple of days, I’m writing my next set of “Observations from the road: The prairie edition” from my outpost here on the front porch of the historic Fort Peck Hotel in Fort Peck, Montana. (The beautiful and flat part of Montana, as their website describes it.) You can catch earlier parts of the “Observations” series here (the Central Time edition) and here (essentially the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana edition).
Fort Peck dam was built in the 1930s as a WPA project, and this building was originally constructed to house the workers. It was converted into a hotel in the 1930s, and has served sportsmen, patrons of the Fort Peck Summer Theatre Playhouse, and wayward travelers like Claire and me ever since. The rooms are small and simple but the lobby (where I wrote last evening’s post) is down home and friendly with a well-stocked bar. The only disappointment was that the dining room doesn’t serve dinner on Thursday evenings. Essentially — for those of you old enough to remember — think of us staying at the Shady Rest Hotel in Petticoat Junction…but with a Montana theme. Claire was marveling at the size of the moose head on the wall.
As always with these observations, take them or leave them (or don’t even read them). You’ve been warned.
Lewis and Clark slept here — We have been traveling through Lewis and Clark country, and as a result I’ve had the chance to discuss our country’s relationship with Native Americans with Claire. We stopped at the excellent Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Fort Mandan yesterday, thanks to the recommendation of my colleague Barb Pahl. They have done an excellent job with the museum, and the interpreters are very upfront about the limitations of the reconstructed fort (shown above). But you certainly can begin to understand the hardships faced by Lewis and Clark and their men as they endured their first prairie winter. Claire noted, as we were touring the exhibits, how much the perspective of the people who have assembled the exhibit and tell the story plays into our understanding. Bingo! This is one of the first things all historians and preservationists must learn, if we are to truly capture the richness and layers of history in this country.
You don’t begin to understand the devastating impact of our country’s insatiable thirst for energy until you have driven through the northern parts of North Dakota and Montana — We headed north from Bismarck up to Minot (pronounced MY-not by the natives, although the internet will give you three or four different options), and then west on Route 2. Barb had warned me that this was the “industrialized” section of North Dakota, and man was she right. The oil and gas boom has turned this landscape upside down, with heavy trucks jockeying for position on highways that shouldn’t have cars on them for miles. About every ten miles there is a “camp” made up of trailers and manufactured housing – some of it stacked on top of each other – for the workers. North Dakota public radio had a report the other day about the worker shortage in the state, due to the boom, and I believe it. We passed under a pipeline that spanned a four-lane highway, saw more oil rigs than I’ve seen since driving through Texas, and basically saw that we, as a country, have sacrificed this haunting and beautiful landscape so that we can waste energy at amounts unseen in human history. Unlike West Virginia, where they hide the raping of the mountains for coal off the main roadways, there is no place to hide it in a landscape where you can see for miles. We did pass through one large wind turbine farm, and while the impact on the landscape there was certainly visible, when put into the context against the extractive industries, I’ll take the wind turbines every time. Claire talked about her readings and discussions in her environmental class at school, and noted that we will always need some coal, which I understand. But I shudder to think what the rest of our country could look like if northern North Dakota is the future of the oil and gas industries.
Thank God for the sunflower fields — North Dakota (and to a lesser extent the part of Montana we’ve been through) has an extraordinary agricultural landscape. All you have to do is look out the window (or listen to the agricultural reports on public radio) to understand that this is big business in this state. Without getting into the impacts of “Big Farming” – which is certainly evident here — the fields of wheat, corn, and other crops are stunning in their beauty. And none more so than the fields of sunflowers.
The first sunflower field we passed by almost caused us to wreck the car, as we gawked at the endless view of these distinctive beauties. After the tenth one, we decided we had to get a picture. So somewhere between Bismarck and Minot we pulled off the road so Claire could capture the scene at the top of the post. The rural postman came by as she was taking the picture, and told her that the heads turned to face the sun, which explains why all the fields on our side of the road (going north) were facing east yesterday morning. He also said that in another week or so, this field would be a total mass of yellow. We Googled sunflowers in North Dakota when Claire got back in the car, and found out this was a crop for the seeds — with some plants yielding up to 1,000 seeds. So the next time you see a baseball player spit out sunflower seeds, think of this picture and the North Dakota farmers who grow them. As a Southerner now living on the east coast, I’ve never seen such a sight.
You can find Nats fans all across the country — When I first started wearing my Nationals hat several years ago, I would often get strange looks. Today, Nats fans are everywhere – including the Big Time Bistro in Minot, North Dakota. Claire and I walked into this historic downtown eatery (remember, we have a “no chains” policy on eating), sat at the bar (because all the tables were filled), and looked up to see the cook working next to us wearing a Nats cap. We struck up a conversation, and it turns out he is a Nats (and Redskins, and Capitals) fan from Virginia Beach, who is in Minot to be with his brother, sister-in-law, and his niece and nephew. By the way — did you see that Bryce Harper finally got his home run stroke back yesterday, with a walk-off in the 13th no less?! Go Nats!
That’s enough for today. I have to go and see if Claire is awake so we can hit the road. We have 5+ hours ahead of us as we land tonight at the foot of Glacier National Park. I’m not sure when you’ll hear from us next, but we’ll be certain to keep the memories and pictures coming…just on a time delayed basis.
More to come…
Image: Field of sunflowers (by Claire Holsey Brown)
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