Prairie Lights: A long-overdue adios to North Dakota


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

South Dakota does have its share of big skies, we will admit.

Five hundred trips later, I may have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

The number could be an exaggeration. Maybe I’ve only driven between Montana and the Twin Cites 70, 80 or 90 times. However many it’s been, we will be making the drive a lot less often. Our daughter and her husband and their daughter will be moving to California this summer.


Ed Kemmick

Goodbye, North Dakota. I do have a few good memories of that vast and virtually empty state, but mostly I have only wanted to get through it as speedily as possible without dying in a blizzard, or of boredom.

We barreled through it last week, and then, just to drive that coffin nail deeper, took Highway 12 across Minnesota and South Dakota on the way home yesterday. We passed through a patch of North Dakota late in the day, but only a small patch, and one that looks pleasingly like southeastern Montana.

We have taken Highway 12 so few times that while the lower speed limit and the slowing down through countless towns was a bit tedious, it was also interesting, which, I have to say, North Dakota has not been in decades.

There was so much to see, and it’s all easier to see from a two-lane highway. For starters, I had forgotten that South Dakota is having something of an energy boom of its own. For at least half our drive across the state on Highway 12, we saw huge industrial operations every half hour or 45 minutes.

At first I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing. There were huge silos, smokestacks, outbuildings, ducts, pipes, conveyor belts and long lines of waiting railroad cars. Finally, after about a half dozen of these complexes, we saw a sign on one of them, announcing that it was involved in “biorefining.”

Ah, ethanol. It may be that all the state’s ethanol refineries are located along Highway 12, but whatever the case, the industry must be huge. How many of those plants dot Iowa and Nebraska? I hope I never find out, at least not by firsthand observation. Life is too short to spend any more of it driving in the Midwest.

What other marvels did we see on our drive? Well, in Litchfield, Minnesota, we saw something called the Factory Outlet Cheese Store. Mrs. Kemmick refused to stop there, and she was driving then.

In Big Stone, South Dakota, where we stopped at an interesting little antique store, Mrs. Kemmick, making small talk while paying for her purchase, told the clerk that we were on a rare drive through the more interesting Dakota. It was a little after noon and she asked the clerk how far it was to Montana.

The clerk slowly cleared her throat and made a little humming noise while she considered the question, then finally responded by saying, “I imagine you’ll arrive sometime this evening.” That was good news, I guess.

She also recommended another antique store down the road, a store inside an old three-story school in Bristol. That sounded promising, and it looked promising when we spied it from the highway. Looks and reputations, though, can be deceiving.

I don’t want to make fun of a business owned by hard-working people. Fortunately, I didn’t see anyone working, just reading magazines and such, when they should have been going from floor to floor and cleaning out the garbage. It was like a terrible, giant garage sale where, in place of a small collection of useless items, there are 1,000 of each kind of item.

One thousand porcelain bells, 1,000 pumpkin-shaped ornaments, 1,000 ugly baskets, 1,000 diner-reject coffee cups. There might have been several thousand books, though if there was one single book worth more than 50 cents I did not see it. It was as if they had hired an expert who made an intense study of every book that came into their possession, culling any volume that appeared likely ever to find a reader.

I’m sorry to be so critical, but we love a good secondhand store, and though we weren’t in a great hurry, we had already been advised that we weren’t likely to get back to Montana before an indeterminate time in the evening.

And so we proceeded on, finding it much easier to ignore billboards for secondhand stores, having experienced Bristol. We did want to stop in McLaughlin and ask how in the world their athletes became known as the McLaughlin Midgets, and how the schools had managed to hang onto the name in these enlightened times, but by then we were in a hurry.

Once we left the ethanol plants behind we began to see hills in the distance, which lifted our hearts. There are some beautiful parts of South Dakota, and a stupendous abundance of water, but something about a horizon demands a hill or a mountain.

The point is, despite my road-weary crankiness, that it was glorious to think throughout that long drive that we might not travel through North Dakota again for years.

Why don’t we fly? Well, I spent most of my career in the employ of the newspaper chain that just laid off, for all intents and purposes, two of the best reporters in the region, in a bid to save a few bucks. So what do you suppose they paid me? I’m not complaining, because I always enjoyed my job, but I wasn’t part of the jet set.

And now I work for myself and I pay myself even less, out of necessity, though I have my hopes. Did I mention the granddaughter we visited in Minneapolis? I would walk across North Dakota just to watch her eat breakfast.

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