North Dakota

Tuesday, 10 September 2013 15:30
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Bentonite clay formations (that doesn't come out of your shoes)Western North Dakota is an oil boomtown, which means it's not a great place for a little sports car.


I ended up flipping a coin to decide between going east to the Badlands or north to the Roosevelt National Park. There was an option to do both too, but I decided to go for the coin flip, and it came up Teddy, so I was northward bound.

This is still the Great Plains, so it’s mostly flat farmland out there. It’s also the end of the season, so a lot of that is harvested already, although I did see a lot of corn and sunflowers waiting to get picked still. I kept to the backroads and small towns again, as that’s a lot more interesting than droning down the interstate, but even with that it was still mostly driving through a lot of fields and plains.

I stopped in at the general store for the smallest town I’ve been to yet (Aladdin, WY, population 15) and got myself a sarsaparilla, since that seemed appropriate, what with me being a tenderfoot out here in the wild west. Aladdin used to be a coal mining town, but now it’s all but gone. A little further down the road was the last of Aladdin’s coal tipples, a kind of chute for sorting crushed coal into different sized lumps for different applications. That too was all but gone, and looked like a strong breeze could knock it over.

It was 16 for a few minutes, anyway The old coal tipple I almost went for a fancy drink Probably not the real stuff, but why not


I crossed back over the border into South Dakota again, and turned north at Belle Fourche, which has a marker designating it the geographic center of the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii; the center of the lower 48 is someplace in Kansas.) The actual spot and marker is down a dirt road and out in a field a little northwest of town, but I didn’t feel that compelled to go see the real one, especially as they’d gone to so much effort to make this one nice. I fueled up here, and headed north into North Dakota. 

I have reached the middle

We can add North Dakota to the list of states I’d never been to before (I once dated a great girl from ND, but I don’t think that counts.) North Dakota looked a lot like South Dakota, although it did start getting a bit more hilly and greener as I got closer to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Of course, the weather was doing its on and off rain thing again, but I just drove through most of that. It was also windy as hell; a strong easterly wind moving the car around on the road all day long.

I stopped in at Bowman, ND for a little lunch, then kept going on to the “North Unit” of the national park to grab a campsite. It’s a pretty park, but nothing compared to the others I’ve been to on this trip. To be honest, considering everything Roosevelt did for the national park system, it seems like he got a little shortchanged on getting one named for him. In any case, I grabbed a campsite there, and since I still had quite a bit of daylight left, I headed 15 miles north to Watford City to get some stuff to have a cookout and make dinner with.

What happened to the boys after '00?

Sandstone and clay formations in the park Yes, another rainbow. It's that time of day. A round-ish mineral concretion
More formations and concretions More formations at Roosevelt The one bison I saw there (lower right)


For those few of you who aren’t avid North Dakota aficionados, the state has been having a oil production boom for about the past five years . Discoveries of new sources of both conventional reserves and shale oil coupled with rapid advances in technology like hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and horizontal drilling have caused a massive increase in oil production in the state, and a correspondingly massive increase in revenue and population. The state has a billion dollar plus budget surplus, and the lowest unemployment rate in the country, at somewhere around 3.5%. The downside of all of this good fortune is that the place is a complete mess. The infrastructure can’t even come close to keeping up, so cheap temporary housing for the workers is all over the place, traffic is 90% giant trucks (and terrible), the roads are in pretty bad condition, and there’s dirt and mud absolutely everywhere. It’s like driving around in the world’s largest construction site. 

One of the quickie housing areas Food, truck service, housing, supplies, etc. Day 1: The locals do not suspect I am not one of them yet...
Flare on the horizon New truck, old mud. A lot of them looked like this. The water that comes up with the oil needs disposal

Watford City looks and feels a lot like what you’d think a boomtown would feel like. There’s a lot of guys around who obviously aren’t from there, many brand new pickup trucks covered in mud, hundreds of big rigs hauling around giant pieces of brand new equipment, fresh excavations and land clearings everywhere, and dozens of oil rigs and flares dotting the landscape all throughout the pastures. Some entrepreneurs had set up food trucks all along the roadside, with competing menus of Texas BBQ and Cajun specialties, no doubt catering to the immigrants from the rigs in Louisiana and Texas. Little communities of manufactured and temporary housing were everywhere, including one looked like it had bought about a hundred of the same kind of travel trailer and plunked all those down in a field. It looked like the whole place had just been brought in yesterday, and that there weren’t really any rules for how it got there, where it went, or what it did when it arrived. 

One of the fracking operations They run 24 hours a day Conventional wells in a hayfield

This is not a good environment for a tiny little sports car. I ended up dodging trucks and rocks, bouncing over giant bumps, and trying to stay visible in traffic. After standing in line at the grocery store behind a small army of greasy and muddy roughnecks, I finally got my provisions and headed back to the campsite for a little cookout, then went to bed.

The next morning, I figured I’d seen enough of Watford City and its army of giant trucks, so I went south to Route 200 and cut east from there, which would then take me to north Rt. 22, and through a wildlife preserve and Indian reservation. I thought that’d help me avoid the constant stream of oncoming trucks, but I was wrong.

The Bakken Formation, which is where all the oil is coming from, is pretty big, and there wasn’t really a good way for me to avoid it.  The parade of big rigs and service pickups continued unabated, even on the tiniest backroads I could find. I probably didn’t see more than 10 actual passenger cars the whole time, but there were hundreds of trucks. They must have wondered what the heck I was doing out there.

To add insult to injury, it was also road construction season. I had picked roads marked as “scenic” on the map, but that didn’t seem to matter. They were practicing some sort of very odd construction technique, where instead of resurfacing one half of the road at a time so that traffic could use the other half, they just tore up the entire highway all at once. And not for a short distance—the signs going into it said “Slow—Construction” and “Gravel Surface”, but that was about it. What they didn’t say was that it was really just a pretty nasty ungraded dirt road now, and that there wasn’t just a little bit of it—the first construction stretch went for 22 miles, the next for 16 miles, and the one after that for 18 miles. That means rattling around in a car with 1” of suspension travel  and trying to avoid the biggest holes and bumps for that whole distance, all while travelling maybe 25-30mph and while a line of big trucks gradually piles up behind you, with an equally long line of trucks coming the other way throwing rocks, dust, and dirt at you the whole time. Let’s just say that I was not particularly fond of North Dakota after a few hours of this, plus I had a nice big rock chip in the windshield for my troubles. I was regretting that the Badlands hadn’t won the coin toss.

Scenic North Dakota Route 22 20+ miles of this is not much fun

I did eventually get out of construction hell and got east of oil country, at which point North Dakota actually wasn’t too bad. It was still relatively flat and endless, but it wasn’t populated by giant trucks, and there was a really neat stretch for a while where the landscape was completely perforated with dozens of small lakes (as well as a few big ones.) I also got to visit the geographic center of North America (two geographic centers in two days!), but beyond that …not much.  I don’t think the Great Plains are going to be as exciting as the other spots on the trip so far, but they won’t last long. I reached Grand Forks tonight at the North Dakota/Minnesota border, and tomorrow will be heading into MN and toward the Great Lakes (Superior, specifically) so things should start to get a lot more scenic. 

Center of North America! Plenty of wind for the wind power generators
Lakes everywhere One of those lakes


#1 lectacave 2013-09-11 07:29
Pretty sobering picture you've painted here, even through your reasonable, objective lens. Bummer about your windshield, too! I'm glad this portion is behind you (and that you're safe and sound) and I hope you get that clay off your shoes in MN. :-)
+1 #2 laceytrynn 2013-09-11 07:32
poor you and poor car! glad you're beyond that mess now; maybe next time you should skip the coin flip!
-1 #3 admin 2013-09-11 08:20
It wasn't actually that bad, I'm just being a whiner. :-) The car is OK; lost some paint in the front and the chip is down low in the center of the glass, so it's hard to see. It's also a chip and not a crack, so it shouldn't run.

I also need to start reading these things before I post them at 1am; there's some lousy grammar in there...
+1 #4 Satoru 2013-09-21 00:26
How are you?
Thank you for posting the beautiful photos always.
I have to look forward to.
To be able to see the world that has not been done for me, has always impressed.
I support you in the future.
Best regards.

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