Phase One of our North Dakota Summer Adventure, “Lost on the Prairie,” began at noon on Sunday, May 27, 2012. The car was loaded and ready to go, and we were all looking forward to getting Lost on the Prairie together. We were heading west to Valley City, with no lodging reservations, no set itinerary, no agenda but to get lost in North Dakota.
With no idea what to expect, we left our familiar setting at 10th St. S. in Fargo and within moments we were westbound on I-94, heading for Valley City and unknown adventures. The weather was warm-ish and hazy: 73′F with a thick cover of clouds. But we didn’t care. The three of us were almost giddy with excitement, which might sound ridiculous considering we were only going 60 miles away from home; however, getting away from Fargo as a family unit is an all-too-rare occurrence, and we were overdue for some bonding time together. Besides, we’d been talking about our Lost on the Prairie adventure since last fall, and now it was finally here.
About 15 minutes outside of Fargo we were met with our first wildlife sighting: there, heading west in the field just north of the highway, was a moose, just lumbering along. We were so surprised (and unprepared to spot wildlife – no cameras ready, no binoculars out…) that we drove 4 miles to the Casselton exit, headed back east for 8 miles to the Mapleton exit, where we resumed our westward momentum in pursuit of the moose.
When we reached the moose again, we pulled the car over onto the shoulder so we could get a better look. He/She did not disappoint, and soon there was another car behind us, also enjoying the view. We took our pictures, thanked the moose, and sped past him on the highway to continue our journey.
Upon arriving at Valley City, we were stunned by the natural beauty of this town. Valley City is truly in a valley, surrounded by craggy hills and beautiful, lush greenery. As we entered the city, we stopped at the Rosebud Visitor Center and met the very helpful and pleasant Lila Bemis, who gave us a terrific amount of information about Valley City and the area before sending us on our way. As expected, the Scenic Byway of the Sheyenne River Valley was one of Lila’s top recommendations. FYI – the Rosebud Visitor Center is a great resource for anyone planning to explore this area, and should definitely be included on the itinerary.
Pamphlets, maps and magazines in hand, we thanked Lila for her help and said our goodbyes. Taking a cue from our grumbling stomachs, we opted for lunch at the Broken Spoke on Main Street, one of Lila’s recommendations. With its western name and exterior, we figured we would definitely get a taste for the local flavor. The inside was even more rustic, with knotty pine walls and carved animals throughout the venue.
As we were waiting for our food, the elderly couple next to us seemed to recognize that we were visitors, and cordially struck up a conversation. This was such a North Dakota moment – when envisioning our adventures in North Dakota, I have always believed that the heart of our itinerary will come through connecting with people: either through our friends in Fargo or on Facebook and Twitter, who connect us with someone they know in other parts of ND, or through the people we meet along the way.
We chatted for about ten minutes until our food arrived, and while we didn’t learn their first names, we did find out that he is a Haugen, of the Dazey, ND Haugens. They were great ambassadors for the area, and gave us a lot of advice about what to see and do, once again emphasizing the Scenic Byway.
After our late lunch, we decided to cruise around Valley City and learn the lay of the land. We immediately understood the city’s slogan “City of Bridges,” as they are everywhere, criss-crossing the curvy Sheyenne to provide access wherever possible. We stopped and parked near the Valley City State University campus (VCSU), which is nestled into the city almost as if it was from another time. We walked around the small campus, which is very pretty and home to historic buildings, bridges, flower gardens, and a proliferation of butterflies, much to Giovanni’s amusement.
Side note: Tony and I wondered how far away VCSU pulls its students from. Today I received an email today from my aunt Carol in Fairbanks, AK, who randomly shared that they have had several students from the local high schools who received football scholarships to attend VCSU!
Walking on campus put us in the mood for more foot-discovery, so we decided to check out Medicine Wheel Park, which showcases two solar calendars that were created by a VCSU professor and his students in the early 1990s. The calendars are actually rock sculptures which depict the solar system and the cycles of the sun and moon. While we didn’t have time to explore the entire 30 acres of the park and its trails, we did get in a mini-hike along a concrete path dotted by large rocks, each one representing a different planet.
Here we passed a couple who were out with their dog, and they later came by with an offer to take our photo. Once again, we found ourselves telling strangers about our plans for the summer, and they were immediately forthcoming with many recommendations of area activities for us. Their top advice was to take the Scenic Byway (notice the theme here?), and we told them that we planned to explore the southern portion of the scenic byway on Monday. As it was already late afternoon, we asked for recommendations on what to do with the rest of our day. They encouraged us to visit the area around Baldhill Dam, and felt that we had plenty of time left in the day to make that possible.
Before we continued our walk, we discovered that he is the Communications Director for VCSU – I told him that he was doing a great job communicating and we thanked them for the tips. Turns out he is also on the Board of Directors for the Valley City Area Chamber of Commerce, and while we didn’t get the opportunity to go shopping in Valley City due to the holiday weekend closures, we plan to make up for that on our next visit! (We did do our part by patronizing the local motel and restaurants.) Later, after our meeting, I did a quick Google search and discovered that the name of our friendly stranger in the park is Doug Anderson.
By this time, The Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway was calling our name, and we decided to take Doug’s recommendation and head north to Baldhill Dam. I’m sure that I will start to sound like a broken record, but the natural beauty of this area is breathtaking, and such a startling contrast to the flat, flatness of Fargo. People often ask Tony and me if we miss working on cruise ships (we worked as hotel officers together throughout the 1990s), and I always reply that the one thing I truly miss is being somewhere beautiful every day.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Fargo. It’s a terrific city rich in cultural arts, restaurants, parks, museums, sports and many other attractions, and the downtown is experiencing a wonderful renaissance. But, it IS flat, and that makes for a challenging landscape. In 2001, Fargo made local and national news for being voted the “Least Photogenic City” in the nation, in a survey conducted by Fuji Film. Dead last out of 190 cities surveyed. *Sigh.*
We made the 12 mile drive north to Baldhill Dam, and by this time in the day (4:30 pm), the sun was finally breaking through the haze of clouds, making the journey even prettier. We passed the impressive Highline Bridge, one of the longest and highest single-track railroad bridges in the nation. Along the Byway route, Giovanni spotted a “really awesome-looking bird” perched on a fence post. Tony and I didn’t see it, and I regret that we didn’t turn around to get a better look. We continued on until we reached Baldhill Dam, which turned out to be really cool and dramatic.
On the north end, there’s Lake Ashtabula – wide and long, with no end in sight. Baldhill Dam spans across it, and then at the south end, there’s the Sheyenne River, looking almost insignificant next to the height and stature of the dam. But focus in a little more, and you’ll find a wonderful surprise – my little birdwatcher/wildlife spotter could not get enough of the beautiful White Pelicans floating serenely on the river at the base of the dam.
After taking in this sight, we ventured to the other Points of Interest located along this stretch of the Byway: the Mel Rieman Visitor Center, where Giovanni spent about 30 minutes playing on the beach of Lake Ashtabula; and Faust Park - small, but home to two great-looking fishing holes. There was also a brief guide to some of the local bird life, and we discovered that the bird Giovanni had spotted on the fence post was a type of grouse.
After a couple of hours along the Scenic Byway, we drove back to Valley City and decided to take up residence at the AmericInn, located on Winter Show Drive. The front desk attendant, Steven, was very helpful and offered to show us the rooms he had available. After being shown the King Suite with a Whirlpool and Fireplace for $135/night, Giovanni and I were sold…but it was Tony’s voice of reason that brought us back to the reality that we hoped to spend very little time in our room. (Gio and I are hoping that Tony will find the extra features more appealing when we return for Valley City’s famous Winter Show!)
We selected their King Suite for $104/night, and it was a great find. We enjoyed a spacious living area with a pull-out sleeper sofa, microwave, refrigerator and large flat-screen TV, and a nice-sized bedroom with a king bed and another large flat-screen TV. In between the two rooms was a generous vanity and sink area, with a small bathroom/shower area just off of it.
I’d made a post on Facebook earlier in the day, and two of my friends commented that dinner at the Pizza Corner was a must. Steven, our new friend at the front desk, echoed that sentiment, and since Giovanni is a veritable connoisseur of pizza, we set course for Main Street and the Pizza Corner.
We ordered a large pizza with pepperoni, sausage and green peppers. While we were waiting for the pizza, Giovanni enjoyed the large playroom they have available just for kids. When our pizza arrived, we immediately understood what all the hype was about. Piping hot, it looked terrific and smelled even better.
What the Pizza Corner lacks in ambience (very simple decor), it more than makes up for in flavor – this pizza was great! And, as food people ourselves, we would always rather have the focus be on food over ambience.
We finished our pizza and realized that sunset was not until 9:20 pm – we had just under an hour of daylight left before we had to call it a day. With a promise to Giovanni that he could have a solid hour of uninterrupted pool time once we returned to our hotel, we managed to coax him back into the car for another scenic cruise. (True to our promise, he swam for over an hour upon our return and even made some new friends!)
We decided to take a drive westward on I-94 to recap our day and see if we could get a good photo of the sunset. We were all grateful for the events of the day: the surprising beauty of the area, the friendliness of its people (no surprise here in ND, but so welcome), and the thrill of finally having started our Great North Dakota Adventure.
Giovanni fell asleep, and Tony and I fell into a comfortable silence as we drove on toward the falling sun. At one point, Tony turned to me and said, “Maybe we live in the one part of North Dakota that isn’t naturally beautiful.” We laughed, realizing how much our perception of this great state had already changed.
There is nothing like a North Dakota sunset (only an ocean sunset can come close). By now, the hazy cloud cover had disappeared, Giovanni was awake, and we all looked forward to a great prairie show. But on this evening it seemed even more spectacular, maybe because the three of us recognized that something special was happening. We were at the beginning of a new and exciting relationship: our love affair with North Dakota had begun.