Having spent the night in Fargo, that was where our day of exploring Dakota while driving across it began. North Dakota is my 33rd state and Mr Pict’s 48th. Mr Pict has not “collected” a new state in decades so this represented a significant leap forward in his tally.
We popped along to the Fargo-Moorhead Visitor Center. There was stuff to see before we even set foot inside. There was a vibrant bison statue and a large lump of petrified wood. There was also a Walk of Fame. This had been relocated from central Fargo to the tourist information site and was a collection of cement slabs signed by various celebrities who had passed through Fargo, the whole thing the brainchild of a local businessman named Mike Stevens. Possibly most significant for movie nerds, there was a replica of the woodchipper from the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie ‘Fargo’. My kids have obviously never seen the movie but somehow they still had the idea to pretend to be disposing of the youngest sibling in the woodchipper.
There is no word of exaggeration when I state that this was the best tourist information centre I have ever been to. It was warm and welcoming, with free popcorn and coffee, a free colouring book and crayons for our youngest, and all very spick and span. Best of all (again, for movie nerds) the centre housed the actual woodchipper from the movie. There were other props and memorabilia showcased too but obviously the Eager Beaver woodchipper was the star. The lady staffing the centre was very friendly and not only agreed to take a photo of us all with the woodchipper but even provided us with hats to wear as props. That was fun. Less fun was the fact that my 9 year old decided to embark on a wooden map puzzle that had no picture for guidance. I thought we would get it done quickly when I believed it to be a map of the united states. What it turned out to be, however, was a map of North Dakota’s counties. Completing the puzzle was arduous and I learned more than I ever intended or needed to know about the geographical boundaries of North Dakota.
The next stop was at the National Buffalo Museum. It was a neat little museum, informative but very focused, not outstaying its welcome, and with plenty to engage the kids, including a whole room full of toys and books. We saw the skeleton of an ancient bison and the more modern skull of Leo, a bison who was shoved off a cliff by a rival during a breeding battle at the age of just 24. We learned more about the importance of the bison herds to the indigenous populations’ way of life, about the devastating over-hunting of the bison by white people, and about the efforts that brought the bison back from the verge of extinction and which now protect and conserve them as a species. We also saw the stuffed body of White Cloud, a white bison who had been a celebrated member of the museum’s herd. They have a new white bison in the herd, named Miracle, but unfortunately the herd was too far away for us to see them. We had spotted them when driving to the museum but we could not even catch a glimpse of them when we were on site.
By now, long time readers will have recognised that I can never resist a claim of World’s Largest Whatnot. I will take detours just to see some random thing that is on a colossal scale. Adjacent to the Buffalo Museum was the World’s Largest Buffalo. At 26 feet tall and 46 feet long, it is indeed pretty vast. A display inside the Museum had informed us that Dakota Thunder, as the giant beast is now known, was constructed out of a scaffolding of steel beams and mesh which were then coated with cement and stucco.
It transpired that Jamestown – where the Buffalo Museum is sited – is a fascinating little place. It turns out that Jamestown is the birthplace of Peggy Lee and of Louis L’Amour, one of my Granddad’s favourite authors. L’Amour had a very colourful life which led him to meet many interesting folks who inspired his characters. One building in Jamestown, therefore, represented L’Amour’s studio and was filled with memorabilia and information about his life. The author had had an idea to create a faux frontier town which had never come to pass. In many ways, however, that was precisely what this particular little corner of Jamestown had become. Various authentic period buildings had been relocated to the town in order to create the impression of what a 19th Century pioneer town would have looked like.
As such, the place turned out to be a massive hit with the Pictlings. They thoroughly enjoyed wandering from building to building, trying on costumes, acting out various old timey western scenarios, and hopefully learning something about frontier life by accident. For instance, in the print shop, I was able to teach them about typesetting. The whole place is a bit cheesy and shabby but that is just the quirky sort of place we love to stumble upon when travelling.
Our route took us past Bismarck, the state capital, and over the Missouri. There was not, however, much to see on this route which might then explain why I went nuts when I spotted a gigantic cow on the horizon, sitting atop a hill. Obviously we had to make a detour! The cow turned out to be Salem Sue. A sign at the beginning of the steep dirt track road urged us to “Enjoy the view from Salem Sue!” She is the World’s Largest Holstein Cow and was apparently built as a celebration of New Salem’s dairy industry. At 38 feet tall and 50 feet long, she made the World’s Largest Bison look like a shrimp.
We stopped for a late lunch in Medora at a hipster, farm-to-fork place called the Farmhouse Cafe. We all ordered random things – I had a delicious veggie burger – but Mr Pict decided to try something different, a dish called fleischkukele. It is apparently quite a North Dakotan dish, having been imported by German immigrants. Mr Pict found it to be tasty enough for a decent lunch but not interesting enough that he would bothering ordering it again. We all enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the cafe, however, and the deliciously refreshing lemonade. It fortified us for the next leg of our journey.
Theodore Roosevelt was our first National Park of the vacation. Roosevelt was very fond of the area and took solace in a cabin there when his wife and mother died on the same day. His cabin is still within the park boundaries. We didn’t get as far as that site but instead took a driving loop tour through the park hoping to spot some of its wildlife. We were not disappointed. Within minutes we had reached a bustling prairie dog town. I can appreciate that prairie dogs can be the bane of farmers but oh my goodness they are adorable. We loved watching them scuttering around, popping in and out of holes, and standing to attention. The kids loved it when we reached another prairie dog town where we could pull of the road and actually walk among the prairie dogs. We also encountered a couple of herds of wild horses, which was pretty cool.
I also spotted my first ever wild bison. I have encountered captive and domesticated bison many times over the years but had never before encountered a wild one. It was standing on the horizon line as a perfect silhouette. I was ecstatic. You can, therefore, imagine how thrilled and excited I was to encounter, later in the park, an entire herd of bison. They were near the roadside so we were able to pull over, clamber out of the car, and observe them to our heart’s content. It was pretty exhilarating to see these hulking beasts in the wild, interacting with each other, lazing in the sun, shaking the dust and dirt from their coats, looking after their calves. It was very cool indeed to fulfill a long held travel bucket list item.
After a very long day of trekking across North Dakota, we crossed into Montana at 6pm – and that was with having gone back another hour. Montana was almost instantly more undulating and tree covered than North Dakota had been. I had hoped to cram in a visit to Pompey’s Pillar. This is a rock covered in Native American petroglyphs and the carved signature of William Clark. The pillar was named for Sacagawea’s son and is the only physical evidence along the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Alas, the National Historic Landmark had closed its gates three hours earlier. I could see it from the entry station and could easily have slipped through the gate and tried to get a squizz in the dark but a) I am too law-abiding a person and b) we were bone tired and just needed to get to Billings and our hotel beds. We arrived at the hotel at 10pm, the kids swam for an hour, and then we all collapsed into our fatigue.