“The High Plains, the beginning of the desert West, often act as a crucible for those who inhabit them.”
– Kathleen Norris
Last month, I called up my best friend and we headed west, deep into the hauntingly beautiful landscape of western North Dakota. We found so many stories, more than I could have dreamed of when we set off.
On a whim, I decided to re-read “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography”, a still and quiet book by Kathleen Norris that provides a meditative look at life in western North and South Dakota. It turned out to be the perfect companion for a trip through the wide open plains and breathtaking Badlands of North Dakota’s western edge.
We met monks and cowboys, artists and shop owners. We stared at dinosaur bones, rode in a stagecoach and made it to the theatre twice in two days. We bought fresh bread from a monastery, jewelry and pottery from local artists and enough coffee to fuel women twice our size.
We ate bison burgers in Medora, incredible steaks and giant shrimp just outside tiny Sentinel Butte and had lunch in a church turned coffee house, a surreal experience where we found ourselves eating panini in a place where Teddy Roosevelt once worshipped.
We found art, good pizza and, at one of our hotels, several sets of antlers on the ice machine. And beauty. So much beauty.
There will be other posts about the adventures we had, the places we stayed, the people we met and the scenic byway we explored on our way west. But this post is just about the beauty we found, about reveling in the striking scenery of western North Dakota.
All the quotes in this post are pulled from Norris’ “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography” — I found myself nodding emphatically and scribbling notes on every available surface as I read — so if the images or words strike something in your heart, this book will be good for your soul.
Here are some big thoughts about North Dakota’s western edge, from writers much more eloquent than I am.
“Here’s the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure west with brown grass and water scoring and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart.”
– John Steinbeck
“For me, walking in a hard Dakota wind can be like staring at the ocean: humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet…I live about as far from the sea as is possible in North America, yet I walk in a turbulent ocean.
Maybe that child was right when he told me that the world is upside-down here, and this is where angels drown.”
– Kathleen Norris
“A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky. The beauty of the Plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch to sentiment or romance. The flow of the land, with its odd twists and buttes, is like the flow of Gregorian chant that rises and falls beyond melody, beyond reason or human expectation, but perfectly.
Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.”
– Kathleen Norris
“The sky is full of blue
and full of the mind of God.”
– A student from the Minot Air Force Base, quoted by Kathleen Norris
“One night, I sensed not only the curvature of the earth but its size and gravitational pull. This feeling is no doubt what holds people to the prairie, what leads prairie people to feel claustrophobic in more cluttered environs, with their trees and mountains and tall buildings obscuring our view, our sense of planet.”
– Jim Lein
If, like me, you can’t get this book out of your head, you might like to meet Kathleen Norris. North Dakota and South Dakota are celebrating their 125th birthdays with a “One Book” campaign, where they’re featuring “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography” and bringing Kathleen Norris to Sioux Falls and Yankton in late September and Bismarck on October 4.