I'm not sure what I expected from my first trip to North Dakota but a few days in Bismarck made me realize that it's a different kind of place. Yes, there are shopping malls and chain restaurants and stores just as there are everywhere else in the U.S. But then there's a local concoction called knoepfla soup that turned up first in a well-known local diner (where people "buy it by the bucket") and then in the cafeteria in the State Capitol. It's basically a chicken broth base with small dumplings. The dumplings are solid and pretty heavy. No feathery gnocci here. This was something the pioneers needed on the frozen northern Plains.
And then I learned that some towns have Sauerkraut Day when they bring out vats of the stuff. There was also a Reuben soup, with, yes, corned beef, cheese, and sauerkraut, or maybe it was bacon instead of the corned beef. It made me recall the Army--where cookbooks are based on the use of bacon as a garnish.
I had heard of the famous Hall of Honor in the State Capitol where there are portraits of famous North Dakotans. Most know that high among the honored are Lawrence Welk and Roger Maris. I had not heard about Peggy Lee or Phil Jackson being North Dakotans, but they are. It turned out that you didn't have to be born there to qualify, well, at least not if you were Teddy Roosevelt, who ran some ranches in the state in his early days.
Next to the Capitol, however, is a fine museum called the Heritage Center. It has superb re-creations of dinosaurs and mammoths from bones found in the state as well as extensive exhibits about pioneer days and Indian tribes. There are several reservations in the state and one occupies an entire county. I especially liked the exhibits on how people fared in the 1930s, which don't seem all that long ago right now.
North Dakota, to point out something you may not have heard, is one of the few states running a surplus these days. This is mostly attributable to the significant oil deposits being extracted in the northwestern corner of the state known as the Williston Basin. Williston apparently is the closest place there to a wide open town, with lots of oil workers coming up from Texas, Oklahoma, and the Southwest. So the state runs a surplus but the legislature is very conservative and is not appropriating much to support state operations.
The Capitol is by far the tallest building in Bismarck. Things were quiet inside as the legislature convenes only every other year and was not now in session. The building is about 12 storeys high. Bismarck is on the Missouri River, which crosses the western part of the state from northwest to south central on its way from Montana to the Mississippi in Missouri. The Missouri is fairly wide at Bismarck and was the route taken by Lewis and Clark in 1804-05, well before permanent settlements arose.
The population center is on the eastern border with Fargo at its center and Grand Forks, 80 miles north of Fargo, is where the University of North Dakota, the Fighting Sioux of college hockey fame, is located. While I was in Bismarck--named after the Iron Chancellor in order to encourage German financiers in the 1870s and 1880s to invest in the state--the weather was delightful, hitting 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which I was told was most unusual for this time of year. As I was waiting to leave at the airport (four gates), there was a brisk breeeze and it was clear that when the wind and other elements pick up, there's nothing on the flat plains to get in their way.