Sunday, April 15, 2007

Lake Bemidji State Park, Minnesota

Not quite as momentous as reaching the Equator monument in Ecuador, or Tierra del Fuego, the Geographical Center of North America located in Rugby, North Dakota seemed to warrant a photo nonetheless


Awakened at 6:45 by the gay chatter of hundreds of birds. It had been another cold night in which I slept half-aware of muscles constantly working to generate some warmth. It's amazing that I haven’t destroyed the sleeping bag and air mattress from all the movement. Got up to make some coffee. A hazy sky, dampening the weak sun. "Too cold!" I climbed back into my sack. Dozed another hour, until I began to register my feet were warm.

At a faucet outside the latrine, I sponged my body down with ice-cold water. Invigorating, though there are less painful ways to achieve that state. Next, I turned my attention to the BMW, giving it a much-needed bath as well.

On the lawn beside the picnic area, I found a new bottle of Joy(!) dish detergent. That will come in handy, and this little "gift" eased the pain of the $10 camping fee.

On the road, just northeast of the State Park, I passed through some hills and began seeing new oil wells scattered across the landscape. That wonderful feeling of being out in the wilds, in a land where I might like to buy some property, quickly faded. A roadside monument states that on April 4, 1951, oil was discovered in this Williston Basin of North Dakota by Amerada Petroleum Corporation (now Amerada Hess.)(10/18/11 update: listen to the Marketplace news story "North Dakota, land of jobs".)

On the outskirts of Minot, I followed signs northward toward Minot Air Force Base. I had for years heard of this important northern outpost of America's defenses. From miles away, I spotted the distinctive tails of B-52s in formation along the "flight line". Before reaching the base entrance, I turned off on a dirt farming road that led through a field paralleling the base perimeter. Drove slowly along, standing up for a better glimpse of the still-awesome warplanes. (A little off-road riding!)

There was an unusual amount of activity around the flight line, with many people, some dressed in civilian clothes, apparently searching the tarmac and grassy buffer zones. I stopped to watch. Within moments a jeep left a nearby road and quickly approached the fence, bouncing to a stop a few feet away.

Two soldiers climbed out, one cradling a battered old M60 machine gun. I noted the belt of live copper-clad ammunition.

“How did you get out there?”

“There’s a road,” I said pointing to the ground behind me.

They asked for my identification. I politely handed over my driver's license. One of the men wrote down the information, then seemed to wonder what next?

“What do we do?” he asked his partner.

“He’s outside the perimeter…”

While they were busy being confused, I asked “what’s going on today?”

“I can’t talk about it.”

They seemed satisfied with their policing action and left. I returned to the highway.

In Minot, I found the downtown streets slippery with road sand, left over from recent snows. Hazardous riding for motorcycles. Drove through the quiet central business district, refueled and quickly left. I was trying to make up for the rather slow progress today.

On to Rugby, and the "Geographic Center of North America". A rather modest monument at a crossroads there reminded me of the equator monument in Ecuador. Not nearly so momentous an occasion, I would nonetheless take a photo.

“You made it!”

A bicyclist rode up and stopped beside me. He was wearing an Australia riding shirt. “Kurt” introduced himself.

He said he likes to talk to visitors, has spent time in California, visited Arcata and was really drawn to the culture there (especially it's permissive attitude toward marijuana, one of his personal passions.) He’s interested in finding similar communities around the world and referred me to one of his favorite websites,

I joined Kurt for a sandwich at the Subway franchise across the street. An odd character to find in Rugby, North Dakota of all places, he's vegetarian and also practices Buddhism.

I mentioned wanting to visit North Dakota to confirm if it's really as inexpensive as people say. Kurt pays only $250 rent for a two-bedroom duplex downtown, with garage. A few years ago, he said he could have bought a house in Rugby for $500. But, he says he needs "to get out of here." It's too hard an environment.

From experience, he told me that many towns, especially in the Midwest welcome campers in their city parks. He has camped in them many times, and even stayed in Rugby's city park for the first two months following his arrival. This is news to me, but I had to admit, I've never inquired.

I learned he had also been an ensign in the Navy, aboard the U.S.S. Norton Sound homeported in Port Hueneme, California. Coincidentally, I had been aboard that ship in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets (maybe even at the time he was an officer.) I couldn't recall for certain, but my "division" may have even been called the "U.S.S. Norton Sound Division."

We discussed spirituality, but I said I really didn’t feel much like talking about my personal beliefs. (Which is true. Speaking of spirituality seems to "cheapen" it.)

Discussing the "cost of living", we turned to the Subway employee and asked how much he was paid: $5.75/hr. “The grocery (where he previously worked) only paid $5.15/hr.” As a Certified Nursing Assistant (CAN), Kurt was earning $9.00/hr.

Kurt was very interested in the impact of substances. Given my wine industry background, he asked which provides the best "high" (in terms of "quality"): spirits, wine or beer? I didn't feel qualified to answer.

He suggested that on my way out of town, I stop at the Dakota Hills Winery a few miles to the east. ("North Dakota has a winery???")

What a funny perspective, I thought. But a fascinating conversation in Rugby, North Dakota.

Heading east, I looked down a side road toward the winery, but didn't turn. The day was running away.

11:00 p.m.

Lake Bemidji State Park

It's about 40 degrees and I'm huddled inside my tent. There's plenty of snow on the ground. Most of this park seems to be a marshy, partially-flooded mess. I don't even know if it's open, but the entrance was not barricaded. A sign posted outside the office says the fee is $20! Let's hope not.

I was accompanied by a south wind all day. In eastern North Dakota, the land is dotted by lakes and ponds, most still icy. The wind coming across these bodies of water feels just like a blast from a huge refrigerator. Late in the afternoon, I passed along the 40-mile-long north shore of Devil's Lake. It was so frigid, I was anxious to escape it's influence.

Crossed to Grand Forks, Minnesota at sunset. A dearth of campgrounds in the region. The next one at Bemidji, about 110 miles east.

All the dangers of riding at night played in my head. Moose and deer (most of the deer I've seen have been dead.) Fatigue and slow reactions, exacerbated by the cold. The blinding high beam game with other drivers. The invisible nature of road hazards at night. Potential for ice on the pavement. The difficulty of locating a campsite and setting up in the (freezing) dark.

I considered a motel, but "that’s a cop-out." I hate spending the money for a few hours in a motel.

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