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Thomas Michalski
North Dakota is not for everyone
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Photo by THOMAS MICHALSKI
Many tiny North Dakota towns such as Warwick are falling to the wayside as people move to find better opportunities.
North Dakota is one of the uppermost states in America. It is also the middle of nowhere.

It’s a dreadful place in the winter when temperatures drop to 50 below zero … without the wind-chill factor.

It’s where people dress polar bear warm, where cars are plugged in to prevent motor oil from freezing, and where people hunt and fish to put food on the table.

One pickup truck I saw had a bumper sticker that read; “If it flies it dies, if it hops it drops.”

I was driving through the Flickertail State … that’s one of its nicknames … and was both impressed and astonished at what I witnessed in this place whose motto is “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”

North Dakota conjures up impressions of cowboys, long horn steers, cornfields and Little League baseball games that are snowed out in August. Kids in some towns really are excused from school for deer season, and freezing weather and snow is normal any time of the year.

“Sure, it gets cold here, but it’s a dry cold,” explained Sharon, a Walmart supervisor in Devils Lake, a place that has its own unique challenges. “The cold is not damp and penetrating.”

Damp or not, Sharon’s idea of normal winter weather is in the below zeros. As in 50 or 60 below, with wind-chill factors that can drive temperatures down to almost –100.

“I was born and raised right around here,” Sharon explained. “You get used to the cold.”

No you don’t.

I wondered how people survive during North Dakota’s winters. I heard one rumor that women keep warm by not shaving their legs. North Dakotans name their blizzards like we name our hurricanes.

Sharon is very protective about her home state.

“People make fun of us because we are so rural and our winters are so long and frigid,” she said. “But we love it and wouldn’t change a thing.”

But not everyone feels that way. A young woman named Linda, who looked to be about 20, and her infant daughter were waiting to climb abroad a Greyhound bus for the long journey back home to South Carolina.

“I gave it a shot,” she said. “I moved here to start a new life and it didn’t work out. There is absolutely nothing here for young people.”

I assumed that she didn’t ice fish, hunt or nurse a cute pink piglet to 450 pounds of a snorting, grunting hog as a 4-H project.

Driving along Route 2 from Michigan through to Montana was an experience in itself. Along the way hamlets with names like Plum Tree, Mapes and White Earth routinely boasted populations around 100.

One town in particular is Minnewaukan, one of many communities in the Devils Lake region. It is marked for eventual extinction due to ongoing lake flooding that already has drowned out zillions of acres of land, buildings and highways.

Minnewaukan has less people in the entire town than some streets in Tampa Bay have residents. The town’s three blocks of Main Street boasts a post office, a liquor store/bar, a convenience store and the municipal building that doubles as the library and senior center.

It also has dirt roads. Even Main Street is unpaved.

Minnewaukans, as in many other rural settlements, take pride in their community. They love their grain elevator, hay roll dotted fields and small town Norman Rockwell lifestyle. They are just plain folks who attend church on Sundays, raise their kids and try to make a living on ranches and farms that raise cattle or grow corn, wheat and, what else, winter squash.

Residents celebrate Bird Walk Day in May and Fun Day in July. Visitors can stay at the Reel ’em Inn, a converted social service center.

Like many small towns, Minnewaukan’s population is spiraling downward. About 20 years ago 450 people called it home. Today it’s only 318. The average annual income hovers around $30,000.

Ironically, the rising waters of Devils Lake that is slowly taking over the land mass provides a rejuvenation of sorts by creating jobs for the water sport industries. People arrive from surrounding areas and even states to hook Walleye, Perch, Northern Pike, and Muskee. Huge white pelicans and seagulls, more at home along Pinellas beaches, have settled in and around Devils Lake.

Who ever guessed that pelicans and sea-gulls live in North Dakota?

The state has been described as laid back and boasting a good economy where people still have old-fashioned values. But it really does get arctic enough in winter to watch a thrown pot of boiling water vaporize before it hits the ground.

I was happy to visit North Dakota in August.

I’m glad I will not be there in January

Thomas Michalski is a retired Tampa Bay Newspapers editor. He can be reached at thomasamski@yahoo.com.
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