By Michael Black
We were somewhere around Buffalo on the edge of the desert when the prairie began to take hold. It had been years since I had ridden this straight-as-an-arrow concrete ribbon across North Dakota. It hadn’t changed much. A monstrous blob of grey concrete rose up on the approaching horizon and all manner of silos and elevators and gangways came into slow hazy focus. “Barley plant for Budweiser.” Makes sense. Go to The Source. We were traveling West to Napoleon to perform something called a Cultural Resource Management (CRM), a stilted name only a bureaucracy could love. Under the aegis of the North Dakota State Historical Society (NDSHS) and guidance of Dr. Richard Rothaus (RR) of Trefoil Cultural and Environmental we were to photograph and categorize the structures of the town for possible consideration by the National Register of Historic Places. I later saw it called a “Reconnaissance” which I much preferred. Much better to say you were on “recon” than “management”. I was riding with The Distinguished Professor Dr. Thomas Isern (DP) and a fellow student with a difficult name. Let’s just call him Chris. At the time, going into a weekend in close contact with two PhDs hadn’t raised a red flag; more on that later.
This was the kick-off of Spring Break 2013, such as it would be in Napoleon ND. When asked I was telling people I was “going south” for the break. Well, south of I-94 anyway. I then began adding onto and elaborating my Magical Made-Up Spring Break Fantasy by further saying that MTV was hosting (not) one of their bacchanals there and some people actually believed me. It just may be marketing genius for MTV to do just so; “Hutterites Gone Wild in Wishek”, something along those lines. You know, in an ironic, snarky way (memo to self: contact MTV).
The day was waning and there was no differentiating where the grey snow white land ended and the grey snow white sky began. Why try anyway? Just go with it. I It was nebulous and mysterious and beautiful and I wondered what it would have been like moving over this same plain 150 years ago on a horse. As the silver sun drifted North and down, glistening irregular geometric patches of wind-polished snow sparkled and shone in an ever changing kaleidoscope on the fields. Remarkable. I don’t remember seeing it in my youth. I grew up on the eastern edge of the Great Plains but left for over 30 years. As a teen I recall a handful of drives through the Dakotas. A fanciful Road Trip with my pals to Belle Fourche SD, the summer drives to golf tournaments, infrequent family vacations. But in your late teens you don’t notice things like you do in your late decades. You are pretty much focused on yourself. Of course there is that knowledge thing too. Who knew at 16 you were tramping on the same lands where dinosaurs and bison and Indians and Custer had?
We pulled into Napoleon and went straight to the 1904 House the DP had booked. A Grandma house in every sense of the word that had become what is known as a “hunter house” (HH). These are homes in small Dakota towns that are unoccupied but for groups of hunting parties that migrate through the respective seasons, using it as their Base of Operations for shooting pheasants, walleye, deer, each other, whatever. The Volkswagen sized hot-tub in the garage gave that away. Otherwise it was like walking into Grandma’s house. Family photos in the upstairs hallway with heavy rimmed eyeglasses and old timey soldiers, carpet on the landing of the stairs running three feet up the wall, lots of paper plants, the usual. Cozy though, very comfortable. The DP got first pick on the bedrooms (of course) and I lost a Roshambo throw to Chris for the second choice. Now that I think of it there was malfeasance. I should have protested. He blew the first throw (on purpose?) and said “Oh I messed up” as he looked down on my scissors choice. He then threw a rock next toss to break that same scissor. RR was somewhere between Sauk Rapids and Bismarck so he had no say in these matters. Still he made out. He ended up with what appeared to be the Grandma Suite on the main floor. Then we headed for the Downtowner Bar Restaurant and Hotel. We gnawed on rib-eye steaks and watched the semi-finals of the Class B basketball tournament. As in most small towns it is fairly obvious “you’re not from around here” so we were ogled by the locals before beating a hasty retreat to the HH for the second game.
RR rolled in sometime later and we made a quick run through of his game plan for tomorrow. Photograph, Categorize and Move. There were 120 odd structures not counting the downtown commercial area and a massive stand of elevators and silos along the train tracks. He thought we could get maybe 1/2 of them done over the two days set a start time of 0800 the following morning.
After a nice, big breakfast we were on it. We split into two teams of a shooter and a writer, me with RR and Chris with the DP. This would be my high point of Architecture in Napoleon. Of our first six homes we had four for consideration by the NDSHS: Moderne, Prairie, Craftsman, Mansard. At noon we met at Reuben’s for lunch where I inadvertently insulted the Pulitzer Prize Committee and, by proxy or association, both of the Good Doctors. Apparently my naive disdain for a movie version (CHICK FLICK!) of Willa Cather’s book “O Pioneers!” and demeaning of “Wolf Willow” by Walt Stegner was justifiable cause for verbal abuse by the academics at the table. Whatever. RR did, however, take an unexpected liking to my description of the “Genesis” chapter in Wolf Willow, “…Stegner devolves into a bad Louis L’amour…”. Back on the street we switched mates and I rolled with the DP. The day had gone from brisk to chilly-windy to sideways snow flurries and we worked into the early evening. Then back to the HH and some of the DP’s bison chili. Apparently the cold had frozen brain synapses so I had to reboot (literally) and go beer hunting. Bagged some Grain Belt and life was good. Delicious chili with home canned bread and butter chilies and Fritos as croutons. Structure Tally for the day: 80!!!
Final game of the class B pitted the Indians versus the Germans. I watched from the garage near the vat of human stew, smoking a cigar and sucking The Grain. Somehow it got to be midnight and time to Go Out. The Doctors were down (and I don’t mean “…I’m down…”) so it was left to Chris and me to represent. And we did. We held an informal taste test of Jim Beam, Johnny Walker Red, Crown Royal and, because of a girl, Jagermeister. That girl was married to a young local man we spoke with who was part of a multi-faceted family company ranging from concrete aggregate to house framing to material supply. Before you knew it the Magic Hour came and we were turned out into the cold for the two block walk back to HH.
With the “spring ahead” hour lost, our start was not near as crisp and focused. 0900 found RR and me stalking the downtown commercial area while DP and Chris set off for the far flung NE quadrant on our satellite map. Cold, dang cold, windy and bright sunny. We found some interesting brick buildings with mysteries to solve. RR wove a deductive tale like some Sherlock Holmes of Architecture. I demurred. Before we knew it we were back at The White Maid for lunch. Tater Tots? Cannot even remember the last time I had those but I did and nummy. The young couple from the bar earlier that morning sauntered in around 1400 and we chatted a bit more. Small world, er, town. Indeed.
Another team split and we were back on the streets. As the DP and I worked the neighborhood north of the bowling alley a Sheriff’s SUV pulled beside us. A grumpy Wilford Brimley-type with hands the size of baseball mitts gave us the Third Degree, recorded our ID’s and told us the Old Ladies of the town have been giving him fits about people taking pictures of their houses. I commented that if we WERE up to no good we weren’t very good at it. Standing around in the street in full view for two days snapping away and writing on clip boards is not exactly a high crime nor an efficient way to “case the joint”. He was not amused. I told him there was another team and that they were the ones he should be interested in.
A May/December love couple, both known felons and heinous sex offenders specializing in Blue Haired Spinsters and Barnyard Animals. But RR had been buying the Grain Belt and lunches so I didn’t actually say that.
We were nearing completion of the survey and the mind numbingness of it was setting in. Napoleon ND would not make a shining example of historic and diverse architecture. We rolled back to HH, packed up and got out of town.
Close outside of town on State Highway 34 the DP abruptly veered off onto a snow covered hill. I was concerned about sinking frame deep into a ditch but the DP reassured me: “I’ve been here before.” In front of us was a line of threshing machines dating back into the early 1900’s. They were randomly (?) scattered and semi-lined up the side of a steep hill, forming a sort of ant parade of steam powered technology. I grabbed the camera and followed the DP out onto what I would find to be very dodgy, slippery and threatening snow that I had waxed so poetic about earlier. Kaleidoscope my ass! That shiny beauty could be treacherous to old people trying to simply walk across it (me). As I whimpered and cursed with nearly every (mis)step and near calamity, the DP was scampering, nay, flitting over and across it like some lithe snow fairy nymph. No small accomplishment for a 6 foot five, 250+ pound beast. I marveled at his balance and grace and stood stock still in front of the first machine. We got a series of pictures and then slip-slid (in my case) back to the truck.
The road stretched out before us, empty and endless. At times it was a band of grey receding into the distance thread thick, a small black line disappearing, reappearing, rolling up and over and around the couteau formations. Cattle stood in the waning sunlight staring vacantly, herds of deer worked the stubble fields and pheasants made good use of the proximity to grain farms. We wanted pie so we pointed towards Gackle to no avail. Then Jamestown. Closed. Gas station coffee for the DP and Chris took over driving the I-94 back to Fargo. I rode.