The Stark Beauty of Western North Dakota

“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.

North-Dakota-Prairie-By-Sentinel-Butte

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.

North-Dakota-Fence-Posts-in-Sentinel-Butte

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.

North-Dakota-Grasslands

“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

North-Dakota-Sentinel-Butte-2

“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

North-Dakota-Painted-Canyon

“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

North-Dakota-Sky

“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

Sentinel-Butte-Road

“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.

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17 comments

    • prairiestylefile

      Yep! Every photo on the site is mine, unless it’s a Polyvore collage or if I say otherwise. I credit guest photographers under their work if I’ve used one or two images or at the bottom of the post if I’ve used several.

  1. Tracie B.

    I’m so glad you had a good trip! Another book that’ll have you looking at the land of North Dakota differently is The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart. She grew up near my hometown of Wishek, ND, and whenever I drive home now, her words come back to me, about how this land shapes you in ways you don’t understand.

    • prairiestylefile

      I had no idea she was from North Dakota! And I’d never heard of that book either. Thanks so much for the suggestion. I’m always looking for books by local authors and local musicians to listen to as I go road tripping. They totally add a new dimension to the experience.

  2. Gary

    I find it interesting that with all the complaints about “all that flaring” you still get beautiful pictures without them in the background.

    • prairiestylefile

      Hi Gary: The places I was photographing were mostly on protected land, so the oil industry seemed far away…until we pulled back on the highway. But this trip made me really think about how we find a balance between industry and conservation. I don’t envy the communities that are in the thick of it. They have their work cut out for them.

  3. Lynne Greenwood

    I’m just back from Grand Forks & visiting my 92 year old mom. Once again I marveled at the endless sky, and the tabletop flatness of the Red River Valley. I live in Minneapolis but I remain a Daughter of Dakota, born & raised there by parents born & raised there, whose parents were born & raised there. Dakota is a state of mind, a way of being, humbling in its immensity and ferocity yet also gentle in the swaying grasses and sweet birdsong. Thank you for this beautiful post. I just dug out my copy of “Dakota” and will be meditatively re-reading it this week.

    • prairiestylefile

      Lynne, this may just be the loveliest comment this blog has seen yet. I hope you enjoyed your trip and that you’ll love re-reading “Dakota”. Every time I pick it up, I find something new in it.

  4. Paula

    I grew up in western ND and I still call it home. I left ND almost 20 years ago and I still miss its beauty – especially in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. The Winter – not so much!

  5. Jessie Veeder

    Beautiful musings on my home. I rediscover its beauty every day, but it’s so fun to hear the perspective of our guests. It’s full here, full of stories, art, inspiration, people with plans and hope for the future. Can’t wait for your visit to the ranch! Thanks for spreading the word.

    • prairiestylefile

      You’re absolutely right, Jessie. Just because a place is vast doesn’t mean that it’s empty. And just because we feel small beside all that rock and grass and horizon and sky doesn’t mean that we’re insignificant. There are so many stories in your part of the state. I can’t wait to see it!

  6. Mavis Wold

    We left N D 50 yrs ago . It is still home . To all our city friends we call it GODS country. We go to Medora area almost every yr. the beauty of this state is breathtaking beautiful !!

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