17/50: White Butte, North Dakota [3506’]

West of the Missouri, North Dakota is all grasslands, badlands, ranchlands… and oil boom towns, newly built brassy suburban homes like someone scooped up an entire planned community and deposited it onto the dusty rumpled surface of the state.  The roads here are too new to be on a map, the men here all strangers, transplants from across the country and world, arriving in droves to carve out the stomach of the state.  They live in the crisp new houses on freshly pressed roads, but they don’t bring their families– they’re here for the work, old-fashioned honest hard work that comes with a generous paycheck, and after they’ve made enough they’ll disappear, back to their families and their more modest homes in small towns across the country, settling into their easy chairs with only scarred calloused palms and less worry about paying the bills. I was a little apprehensive about this part of the trip, but every Bakken man I talked to just wanted to show me pictures of his kids.

I wonder what will happen to these houses when the boom is over.  Will people move in to this ready-made shell of a community perched over hollow ground, will they build factories and schools?  Or will all of this become a gaudy, haphazard ghost town?

I didn’t take pictures of it.

North Dakota

There are just prettier things in this sparse state.

North Dakota buffalo herd   Burning Coal Vein campground North Dakota   where the deer and the antelope play North Dakota   Enchanted Highway North Dakota

South of the Bakken, south of the badlands that made Teddy Roosevelt earn his legend, White Butte rises out of the rolling grass like a shark fin cutting through placid waters.  Set against a monochromatic landscape, the pale bentonite gleams dully in the late-spring sun.

White Butte North Dakota

After navigating a few miles of unpaved unnamed roads, I park on private property, and after slipping a donation in the owners’ mailbox I head up an overgrown snow-dusted tractor trail towards the butte.  Tall spiny grasses whip in the wind to scrape my shins, whistling with a constant and surprisingly loud hiss.

hay bales North Dakota      abandoned farm White Butte North Dakota

It’s a scramble up the chalk-white butte, the sediment crumbling underfoot like damp flour.  My chosen path plateaus, disappears, and then rises more gradually up a darker slope.  I mistakenly follow two cattle tracks, one to a fence and one to a jagged cliff edge, before choosing what I hope to be the ad hoc trail.  Coarse weeds cling to the ground desperately, stapling themselves to the windswept clay with a line of thorns along their dry creeping stems.  From this vantage point the pale divot-pocked landscape resembles the surface of the moon.

White Butte North Dakota    cracked mud North Dakota    White Butte North Dakota

I finally find an obvious trail, the white trodden path shining through the dark sharp grasses.  It circles around a low hill and into a ferocious wind.  I bend my head down into it, deafened by the high-pitched roar.  Fine silt and snow burn against my face and scour my sunglasses.

White Butte North Dakota

At the top of the ridge I can see forever through the cell bars of my eyelashes, clamped into a tight squint against the blowing dust.  I lean forward into the wind further and further, finally stretching my arms wide and falling into the gale, allowing the wind to hold me aloft, frosting my clothes and face with a delicate lattice of white chalk; and for a moment at the top of North Dakota I am flying.


About the beer: 

There aren’t many craft beer options in North Dakota, and only Fargo Brewing Co.’s Woodchipper IPA made me snortlaugh in a liquor store, thanks to the wink-wink Coen Brothers reference.  I opened it on the summit and the wind immediately tore the foam into the sky.  It’s hard to describe this one honestly through the clay glued to my lips and nostrils, but the parts that didn’t taste like dirt or aluminum seemed to be a solidly drinkable midrange IPA, sort of a woody leafy hop bite with a soft butterscotch maltiness, and I jealously fought the wind for every last sip.

Fargo Brewing Co. Wood Chipper IPA North Dakota


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