Notes from the Empty Quarter
North Dakota is rushing forward into the past. By Bill Vaughn

THIS WAS THE BEST MOMENT to walk among them, right after the crash and thunder of their annual orgy, when the bulls have fought and fornicated to happy oblivion, and the cows are pregnant. Grasping a fistful of prairie grass like that shuffling Cro-Magnon in Quest for Fire, I edged toward these wild bison close enough to smell the sage on their glossy coats, and  the musk. Though these behemoths seem ponderous, and in their après-party torpor sleepy and docile, a panicked one-ton bull can accelerate to 30 miles an hour in less time than a quarter horse, as their numerous gored and flattened victims have discovered too late. Plus, you never know what might piss one off. Double-plus, both boys and girls have horns.

So I retreated. But not before getting a hard look into the face of North Dakota’s history, what visionaries contend will also be its future. I’d been hearing that much of my beloved old state—where I spent three gloriously wanton years as a teenager—is marching into its past as the Indian population soars and the white population declines, ranchers turn from cattle to bison, and farmers replace wheat with grass. Imagine it—a vast chunk of a sovereign U.S. state beginning to hum again with the romance and true grit of the frontier.

While I drove the 600 miles from my swampy ranchette in western Montana to the Nodak border I concocted a heroic picture of myself on these brave new savannahs, loping on my mare through stirrup-high bluestem waving narcotically in the wind as I ride out to check on my own personal herd of bison. In this fantasy I looked like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. Only I sat the horse better.

In reality, I had been searching for new digs, a climate healthier than the overpriced acres of buggy floodplain my wife, Kitty, and I owned. Some wild and abandoned place where we could afford to surround ourselves with a serious chunk of turf.

Prairie that looked just like this, I thought. On this golden autumn day in the bluffs above the Missouri River thirty miles upstream from Bismarck, it was easy to experience the illusion of the frontier because the riverscape is nearly identical to the one Lewis and Clark described. The green channels of the artery pioneers dubbed The Misery are still clogged with sandbars made of gray goo. Except for a few strips of corn and sunflowers the floodplain is still an Eden of cottonwood brakes; some of the trees nearby in the Smith Grove are 300 years old, a hundred feet tall, and crowned with canopy 70 feet wide. 

I wandered down a coulee, looking for an old ghost town named Sanger I’d read about, one of scores of vacant village no one has the heart or energy to tear down, places amateur historians like to say are “mute testimony to nature’s grim fury,” or suchlike.

Since no one else seemed to want Sanger I figured maybe Kitty and I could grab it for a song. I pictured us quartering ourselves on the second floor of the former bank, say, or the hardware, stabling our four horses on the first floor, while our buffalo chewed on the green waves of grass surrounding town. 

At the bottom of the bluffs I made my way across a terrace plush with yellow grass as high as a prairie wolf’s eye, mindful of the open wells and basements that hazard these old towns, until I entered Main Street, or rather a game trail that had once been Main Street, lined with deteriorating houses and storefronts. From one of the broken houses a lace curtain flapped madly outside a window like a cheap trick in a theme park, and was sucked back inside. Through the door of another house a shadow fled across the bare lathes of a sun-drenched wall. Something thumped and crashed, and there was a scritch of little feet. In the wind I heard voices singing. Or was this distant song only magpies yelling in a chokecherry thicket?

As the startling hush of night in North Dakota began to fall I decided that Sanger would be perfect, if the price was right, and began planning our big move. Corral here, garden there, bison pastures on the terraces, beehives on the bluff. But the next morning I realized my search for a little house on the prairie had just begun. As it turned out, the Nature Conservancy owned Sanger, and had its own plans for the town’s future, one that didn’t include immigrants from Montana. Well, better the Conservancy than some rat bastard of a subdeveloper, I thought, some greedball who didn’t understand that what is unique and compelling about North Dakota are its grasslands and its bison.

But who am I to cast the first stone? In my ancient Ford Bronco, I planned to crisscross the state, from the Badlands in the west to the Red River Valley in the east, and north from Canada to that other Dakota, across what was once 68,000 square miles of nearly treeless grassland, searching the emptied, down-and-out spaces between Nodak’s little cities for that sweet thing every American covets—a killer bargain in real estate.

PLACES LIKE SANGER are one of the reasons I love North Dakota, the Halloween State, a haunted land crowded with ghosts, suffering from an acute inferiority complex. Plagued by doubt and low self-esteem, it’s isolated, confused, and alienated, stumbling forward with no clear idea of where it’s going or how it’s going to make ends meet, described by one of its famous natives, TV journalist Eric Severeid, as a “meaningless rectangle” on the “cold, flat top of the country.” Cold and flat, to be sure. But for me, frought with significance. When I crossed into North Dakota a few days before, I’d been exhilarated instantly by the drama of abandonment I found, the pageantry of forced marches in the direction of zero, the comedy of vines pulling down walls.

The Census Bureau reported that 25,590 Native Americans lived in North Dakota in 1990, two-thirds of them on the state’s five reservations and most of the others in neighboring counties. Ten years later the Indian population was 31,329. Meanwhile during the 1990s the white population declined from 601,592 to 593,181, while the small black and Asian populations remained about the same, at just under 4,000 each. Of Nodak’s 53 counties 47 of them lost population in the 1990s. Most of this depleted landmass qualifies as the true frontier of six persons or less per square mile, as defined by historian Frederick Jackson Turner, and adopted by the Census Bureau in the 1800s. And some of the state has declined even further into a condition federal demographers once defined as “vacant.” 

When you get to the webpage for counties in North Dakota, the 2000 census reads like the parish registries of French villages during the Black Death: Bottineau lost 862 souls since 1990, almost 11 percent of its population; Cavalier, minus 1,233, a 20 percent decline; Renville, down 550 for a net loss of 17 percent. In 1990 there were 5,383 people living in LaMoure; in 2000 only 4,701. In 1950 Hettinger boasted 7,100 names on its rolls, in 2000 a mere 2,715. In 1918, when the state sent three Congressmen to the House of Representatives, the census counted 647,000 residents. In 2000 that number had dropped to 642,000 (although only around 500,000 if you subtract Cass County, which contains the burgeoning city of Fargo in the relatively prosperous Red River Valley). And North Dakota is now allowed only a single vote in the House.

Old people die in North Dakota, of course, just as babies are born. What accounts for most of this staggering loss of humanity is the chronic illness of the farm economy, especially in the western parts of the state—the river country called the Coteau du Missouri—and across the Drift Prairie covering Nodak’s midsection. The decline in agricultural income is due to depressed prices for cattle and grain, a reduction in federal subsidies to smaller farmers, coupled with the rising cost of fuel, equipment, and fertilizer, and a lingering drought that in some parts of the state has entered its sixth year.

More for me, I thought as I drove toward Slope County in the state’s parched southwestern corner, feeling only a small twinge of guilt for lusting after land in a place where people are losing theirs.

SLOPE IS THE WHITEST COUNTY IN AMERICA, or, depending on your level of political correctness, its “least diverse.” Among its 750 residents, spread out in an area the size of Rhode Island, is one young Lakota boy, Slope’s only citizen of color. According to my guidebooks, Silent Towns on the Prairie and Ghosts on a Sea of Grass, the county seat, Amidon, is a ghost town. Because it lies inside the Little Missouri National Grassland and just north of the appropriately named White Butte, at 3,506 feet the state’s highest point, I got excited: Here was protected range, and presumably embarrassingly cheap real estate. But on the cold and windy day I drove into town I was disappointed to discover that the joint was jumping.

“Do I look like a ghost?” a cattle rancher asked me outside the courthouse after I showed him my books.

Doris Price, the deputy county treasurer, whose brother is the mayor, told me that she’d heard rumors of Amidon’s death, but they were exaggerated. “None of our houses are empty. Well, yes, we’re losing people all the time. I’m 68 and one of the youngest in town. But then there are also people like Lynn,” she said.

Thirty-something Lynn Holloway, the deputy county auditor, moved to Slope with her husband from Seattle, where he’d been a shipfitter and works now as a welder commuting 50 miles north to Dickinson. They bought 40 acres outside town with three barns, a four-bay shop and a solid four-bedroom house, all for $75,000. Then they moved in some horses.

“Although everything’s brown this year we’ve got snapshots showing our place in July a couple years back as lush and green as anything in Seattle,” says Holloway.

I hoped she didn’t see me salivating. Once Kitty and I sold our Montana riverfront we’d have $300,000 to shop with. Kitty was eager to leave our bottomland because the sun rarely appears in the winter and the air is smudged by the puke belt surrounding a paper mill upwind, pollution which aggravates her allergies. I began calculating the number of acres you’d need to surround yourself with to eliminate the friction that causes neighbors on abutting 10-acre ranchettes to despise one another. Fifty? Probably something more like a hundred.

“North Dakota is a well-kept secret,” Holloway told me. “You don’t have to lock your house when you go on vacation. You can leave your car running on cold days in front of the stores in Dickinson. You can buy houses in Slope built before World War One, well-maintained, with original oak paneling and floors for $30,000, and move them wherever you want. People are always moving houses around.”

That’s the good news. But there’s no getting past that this is no place for wimps, I reminded myself as a drove out of town. The summers are hot and the winters will break your balls (the recorded high is 121 at Steele, and the low was minus 60 degrees at Parshall). On the upside, the only recorded earthquake in the state struck in 1968. And on another high note, Dakotans like to believe that their long winters encourage reflection and reading, and the open view across the prairie inspires a liberal and broad-minded intellectual armature. The Ojibway Indians, according to University of North Dakota anthropologist James Howard, found their spirits lifted and a new swagger in their step when they were forced from their dank forest heartland in the Midwest and out onto the shiny plains.

However, on the downside again, the state is past due for a Biblical shitstorm like the Blue Winter of 1886, when a bulge of Arctic air strangled the northern plains for six months and gale force winds called Alberta Clippers piled snow into drifts so deep that cattle ranchers such as Theodore Roosevelt came across their dead beeves the following spring suspended 30 feet off the ground in cottonwoods. The Blue Winter put an end to the fenceless, open-range era of cattle ranching and bankrupted Roosevelt’s operations around Medora, North Dakota, where as a squatter he never owned legal title to the land. Still, as he wrote later about his character-building years here, “I would never have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”

I LOOKED AT a couple of small cattle spreads in Slope whose prices were right, but restoring these overgrazed, treeless and browned-out pastures seemed like more work than I wanted to take on. On the way to the next county I stopped at a 480-acre wheat operation owned by Ernie Holzmer. The buildings were cocooned by more than five linear miles of ash and elm trees planted in dense shelterbelts to combat soil erosion, giving the place the gentrified appearance of country club golf course. Because Nodak is sprinkled with thousands of these islands, like the archipelagos of the South Pacific, I decided to add abandoned farmsteads to my quest.

Holzmer, 47, has fabricated his own golf course, four holes in the strips of wheat between the shelterbelts, with another two holes planned, galvanized poles in the cups bearing pennants waving in the wind. He is a self-taught golfer. “I bought my clubs,” he told me, “at the Salvation Army.” Well, why not prairie golf, I thought, adding the sport to the other inducements for a life on the prairie. A few rounds of smallball every morning after the chores followed by a martini and lunch at the clubhouse. Sweet.

The next morning the sun finally drilled a tunnel through the smother of clouds that squatted on the plain so low I stooped when I got out of the Bronco. As I headed south from Interstate 94 toward the berg of Regent the ground haze evaporated, and a stunning flatness became grandly illuminated. What the state calls 100th Avenue SW (as if a mighty city might someday stand here in these windblown fields of Stark County) is a 32-mile stretch of what locals call the Enchanted Highway.

Installed here and there along this remote two-lane blacktop are enormous and striking metal sculptures standing against the unsheltering sky. Here’s a covey of gaudy ring-neck pheasants on a hillside, featuring a rooster 60 feet long, the World’s Largest Grasshopper, 40-foot whitetails bounding over a mammoth barbed wire fence, a tin family whose huge propeller-hatted boy grasps a lollipop. They were created by sculptor and retired schoolteacher Gary Greff to attract visitors and to counter what they call the “dire depopulation predictions” of the national media. “Spunky North Dakotans say ‘bite me’ to out-of-touch urban doomsayers with their weepy laments of prairie beauty,” Greff’s website maintains.

Much as I admired Greff’s work, what was beginning to absorb all my attention was the ultimate product of North Dakota throughout most of its history: the bison. Converting gnarly, low-protein, drought-resistant prairie grasses—food we can’t digest but what the Sioux called the “chief of all things”—into high-protein, low-cholesterol steaks and burgers, the American bison is a biochemical wonder of efficiency. Eric Rosenquist, the manager of the 6,000-acre Cross Ranch, the Nature Conservancy’s model preserve and stock operation sprawled across the bluffs above Sanger, admires the animal because of its heroic ability to thrive in the worst storms North Dakota can throw its way. “We never feed them hay in the winter. They’ll dig through two feet of snow to get at the grass, which is dormant six months of the year. Then sometimes you’ll see them standing on the tops of the hills looking right into the face of the blizzard. It just doesn’t faze them. At the same time you’ll see our cattle huddled in a gully trying to get out of the weather.”

According to Paul Thomas, executive director of the North Dakota Bison Association, there are 30,000 animals in North Dakota and some 300,000 across the West. Rosenquist said that the animals, along with fire, are the perfect tools for restoring abused grasslands and keeping them healthy so all of the hundreds of varieties of plants growing on North Dakota’s epic lawn have a chance to thrive. “These grasslands are dynamic,” he explained. “They need to be constantly disturbed.” Because it’s the nature of bison to graze a patch of prairie right down to the nubbin, eating every kind of plant, and then to move on to another patch, giving the first piece a chance to rest and recover, all the competing varieties of native flora are compelled to play fair.

I pushed on to a town called Sterling in Burleigh County that would have met my evolving real estate requirements except that of the thirty or so buildings in town ten of them were occupied. And the post office was still operating, sort of. Further east, near the James River in LaMoure County, I suddenly pulled over because of the way an abandoned wheat farm caught the late afternoon light. There was something about the rise on which the buildings had been erected, or maybe it was the hedgerows of trees radiating from the once-elegant multi-eaved house built in the 1920s, that reminded me of farms I’ve seen in France, earthy and gracefully at ease with the landscape. On the lawn was a velveteen couch that looked like it had been dragged out of the house so someone could gaze at the stars in comfort. Since the windbreaks concealed me from all directions, I built a campfire, warmed up the buffalo burger I’d bought earlier, and sat down to enjoy it. When you dine on one of these wild, grass-fed and hormone-free animals, you’re struck with how dense and dark and rich the meat is. And its low fat content is one of the reasons why three of the state’s Indian reservations, whose members have among the highest rates of diabetes in America, are building and managing their own herds, in part order to combat the diabetes

After I finished dinner I decided that this particular area wasn’t quite right. For one thing, there wasn’t much grass, only fallow fields plowed for grain. Well, yes, you can restore acreage that’s been tilled, but it’s expensive. The Nature Conservancy sells prairie grass seed for $300 a pound that’s harvested with a special mechanized picker. And Thomas said that he spent $75 an acre reseeding a quarter-section of grain fields on the Missouri that his family owns, but it won’t be ready to support bison for two or three years. I decided to concentrate my search on land that had never been bludgeoned by a plow.

RIVING NORTH FROM FARGO, I didn’t bother looking for bargains because the Red River Valley is one of those national sacrifice areas that have been unconditionally surrendered to industry. In this case the industry is intensive sugar beet and grain farming performed by enormous implements in a thirty-mile-wide floodplain of deep black soil largely controlled by corporations and dynastic families. Although the grass here once stood to a horse’s withers, 95 percent of it has gone under the blade, and most of the acreage in this river corridor costs more than we could afford. The only reason I ventured onto this rockless and relatively lush edge of Nodak was because I wanted to revisit Grand Forks, site of the most exhilarating years of my life.

We lived on McKinley Avenue in a federal trailer court called Presidents Park, scraped from a cornfield, while my old man planted the prairies with Minuteman missiles tipped with thermonuclear howdies. Although I was enrolled at least on paper at Central High School (go Knights!), the school was so overcrowded with military brats that it was operated in shifts. If you weren’t in class you were supposed to hit the streets, the malt shops, anywhere but the halls. Piloting a tractor-sized 1948 Chrysler sedan that was always packed with classmates, and which I bought by delivering the Minneapolis Star and Tribune on foot in the snow, I woke up every morning believing I’d ascended to heaven. Presidents Park was a largely parent-free zone operated under the strict control of teenagers.

But the place is now a low-rent island of retirees in a sea of condos and apartment buildings without a stalk of corn in sight. I drove north on Belmont Road to check out the devastation caused by the 1997 flood, when the river inundated the downtown, which caught on fire, supplying the media for days with astonishing images of what appeared to be some war-torn city overseas, symbols of North Dakota’s anguish. But I was comforted now that, except for a few bare lots, it didn’t appear to me that much of anything had changed, especially not Central High.

Then I drove west through Rugby, which lies at the precise geographical center of North America. I was thinking that for urban paranoids who don’t feel safe unless they’re in the deepest part of their apartments North Dakota is just what the doctor ordered. Pushing farther on through congealed fog in McHenry County, I pulled into the alleged ghost town of Berwick. Sidewalks from busier times had been torn asunder by roots and frost heaves, and none of the thirty buildings along a few sweet tree-lined streets seemed to be occupied. I got excited again. Maybe this was the place. I checked out a brick one-story, a former bar called Holmes’. But what really caught my eye was an abandoned Lutheran church in excellent shape, its 80-foot whitewashed spire rising out of sight in the gloom. Although Berwick was surrounded by grain fields, there was some native prairie here and there that might be coaxed to expand while we converted the church into a place to live. We could stable the horses on one side of the nave and live in the other. Keep chickens and warbling Egyptian finches in the spire, and ride every warm-season day from one end of the empty horizon to the other.

“Some rancher beat you to it,” I was informed by a man who rode up on a lawn tractor. This was Bob Forrest, a retired construction worker who invited me into his house down a lane I hadn’t yet explored. “They bid $600 for it,” his wife, Jeannie, said. She showed me her school albums from the days when Berwick had been a bustling little farm center where country people came on Saturdays to sell their cream to the long-gone creamery. “Now there’s just us three old couples,” she said wistfully. “Oh, and Moose. Moose is a farm hand.”

“It sounds like a close-knit place,” I allowed.

She looked away. “We don’t socialize.”

THE NEXT DAY I DROVE through the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation, much of which was flooded when Garrison Dam backed up Lake Sakakawea in 1940. At the time it seemed to the Three Tribes—the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikira—like insult added to injury. After all, more than 80 percent of the Mandan, who had befriended Lewis and Clark, helping Jefferson’s predatory henchmen through the winter of 1804, were wiped out by smallpox introduced by whites in 1837. But like the bison, tribal people have not only held on, they may yet enjoy a sort of sweet demographic revenge. Their birth rates are far higher than those of whites, and unlike whites, more Native Americans are returning to North Dakota than leaving. Among the Fort Berthold tribes, the Chippewa people on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, and bands of Sioux on the Standing Rock, Spirit Lake, and Lake Traverse reservations, more than forty percent of Nodak’s Indians are less than nineteen years old. In comparison, the white population is only 25 percent young, and has a higher percentage of old people than the national average. 

Gary Bell, a 31-year-old Mandan-Hidatsa who wears his hair in a long black braid, works in New Town as a disc jockey spinning country-western and native tracks for KMHA, the tribal FM radio station. As we stood outside a traditional circular Mandan earth lodge, in which Kitty and I could live pretty comfortably, and have plenty of room left over for our dogs, he said that like a lot of Indians he has connections to relatives in big cities all over the country, but decided to raise his little girls right here. “I want them to know who they are. I want them to live here where we’ve always lived,” he said.

Marilyn Hudson, who’s also Mandan-Hidatsa, worked in the San Francisco Bay Area beginning in the 1960s before returning to her reservation to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and later, to administer the tribal museum. “Many Indian people are coming home after they retire,” she said. “It’s just easier to live here than in a city. You have more independence. It’s cheaper. The roads are straight, and it’s not as hard to get around.”

While old-timers are welcomed home there’s an undying distrust among North Dakotans for out-of-state opportunists (like me, I suppose). Resentment among farmers about their subservience to distant monied classes—which controlled the railroads, paid low prices for wheat and charged high prices for flour—spawned the Nonpartisan League. This confederation of hayseeds captured control of North Dakota before World War I and again during the Depression, established a state bank and state-owned grain elevators, and transformed the government into the closest thing America has ever had to a socialist state.

The modern incarnation of this paranoia about outsiders has resulted in a law requiring nonprofit organizations such as the Nature Conservancy to get approval for any purchase of farm or grazing land directly from Governor John Hoeven and a board of advisors that includes the state agriculture commissioner and the head of the Farm Bureau. This 1984 legislation was fueled by fear that crumbling North Dakota would be overrun by rich environmental organizations hammering down local competition for the best land, withdrawing money-making acreage from production, and banning hunters. And because nonprofits don’t have to pay state property taxes local bureaucrats were fearful that their revenue streams would dry up as those rich hippies in the SUV-and-Birkenstock crowd bought up North Dakota and made it their personal playground. (Gerald Reichert, the Nature Conservancy’s North Dakota field representative, told me that his organization gladly pays its local taxes on the Cross Ranch and its other land, and has established public hunting programs.) 

Luckily, Nodak’s xenophobic legislation wouldn’t apply to me, a private citizen. And I’ll say it now, people. I have no intention of planting any damn wheat here. Nor barley either. I had seen buffalo all over the state, from the Logging Camp Ranch in Slope County to the Sheyenne Delta Bison Ranch south of Fargo, and had been convinced of the importance of the beast in restoring this battered land to health.

I HAD PUT 3,000 MILES ON MY BRONCO in a state that’s 300 miles wide, and had looked at dozens of ghost towns and buildings in dysfunctional towns, vacated farmsteads mildewing in the rain, gorgeous, melodramatic sweeps of land wrapped in shelterbelts crying out for someone to adopt them. There was a bank building in Merricourt, a school building in Palermo, the Masonic Hall in Ambrose, a two-story hotel in Hixon, 150 acres for $150,000 in the rolling prairie next to the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Sakakawea. Everything was good, but nothing struck me as exactly right.

Then I drove a few miles east of Minot to check out some land for sale in Gassman Coulee. I parked in the stubble of a wheat field that was part of the property, and hiked down into the coulee. Every step took me farther away from the wind. When I descended to the pastures in the flats on the floor of the draw, where an intermittent creek meandered, my heart began to thump.

The place had never been tilled, and the hillsides all around were washed with that healthy reddish blush of little bluestem grass. Thick stands of bur oak and hawthorn marched up the draws. As I strolled along a heavily used game trail a covey of wild turkeys fled before me and hid in a thicket of wild roses. I stopped to sweep my hand through a thick, waist-high carpet of grass. Although the ground was matted with the tangled unnatural mulch that fire and then grazing buffalo would quickly groom, it was easy to imagine that I was peering down at the canopy of a rain forest, there were so many species of grass. I looked away, certain that every blade was numbered.

And of course, the place was haunted. Perfect. The clapboard house had caved in, and surrendered itself to saplings and vines. There wasn’t another human habitation in sight, and if I had anything to do about it, never would be. Hold on, I told myself, I think someone’s about to say Eureka. 

I looked at the price again on my printout. When I called the realtor from my cell phone she assured me that it was accurate: $70,000 for 112 acres. The reason it was so cheap, she said, was that farmers didn’t want it because most of it was too hilly to plow. But it was an ideal place to raise bison. And ride horses, at least from April to November. Because from December to March the average daily low here was two degrees, a good temperature for killing insects but too cold to burden the lungs of horses with heavy effort.

A minor matter, I thought. I was suddenly seized with an image of spending the winters here like the mad Norwegian writer Jon Norstog, who penned a score of epic Old Testament passion plays in the early 1900s, setting them in type by his own hand and printing them himself in a shanty on the prairie.

I dialed Kitty, imagining the expression on her face when she heard the good news. I figured that, like North Dakota itself, she could be coaxed into seeing the wisdom and rewards of making old things new again. •

Copyright © 2009 Bill Vaughn


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