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In Defense of Flyover Country

Sunflowers and corn fields make a quilt of yellow and green across North Dakota, especially noticeable when you drive west on Interstate 94. Enormous pump jacks that suck oil from thousands of feet below the ground to the earth’s surface are scattered among these quilted squares. If you drive after dark, you can see the flicker of natural gas flares dotting the land, a strange sight if you don’t expect it. 

People love to hate North Dakota. As the fourth least-populated state and third-flattest (behind Florida and Illinois), it meets all the criteria for “flyover country.” North Dakota, people say, is the state to skip. 

I have flown over this state many times en route to the Midwest from Montana or Oregon. I flew just last week for the first leg of a trip to Minnesota, but decided to drive back home; a three-day, six-state journey. North Dakota’s wide open spaces are still pressed inside my eyelids.

The difference between Minnesota and North Dakota is stark: pretty much right after you cross the border, Minnesota’s forested, damp swamp-scape makes way for the fertile, flat bottom of what used to be glacial lake Agassiz and is now the Red River Valley. The valley’s rich soil and temperate climate make it the ideal location for root farming, especially sugar beets and potatoes. 

Drive further west and you hit rolling plains sculpted by glaciers, the remnants of which created shallow prairie potholes that pockmark the land. The world’s largest bison monument greets you atop his hill in Jamestown.

Soon enough, you’ll see even more bison, this time real, grazing on the estimated 80 ranches that still raise bison in North Dakota. Once, bison roamed the land unimpeded by fences. This still happens, albeit in a slightly different form, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the crowning glory of western North Dakota. 

Wild horses and a (very managed, but sort of wild) herd of bison wander the park’s badlands, which are a series of steep, rocky plateaus and deep drainage channels created by fast-moving water that comes seasonally with the summer’s flash floods. When the area was first proposed for national park designation, lawmakers scoffed at the idea, arguing it didn’t possess the necessary qualities. It took decades of debate before legislation finally passed in 1947. 

Even though it’s solidly in the middle of the country, North Dakota feels like the first taste of the “west” when you’re coming from the east. The rugged individualism – for better or worse – that built the West as we know it is prominent here. Medora, the small town at the mouth of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is western in the same ways Virginia City, Nevada, and Butte, Montana, are western: the gun-toting, chaps-wearing, cowboys that swagger through the streets aren’t wearing a costume. The sidewalks are made of boards and there are definitely ghosts in the local hotel. History is important in these towns. Stay awhile, or don’t. The West doesn’t mind either way. 

I have a soft spot for flyover country, if you couldn’t already tell. I like the places that seem harder to love; I think most rural people do. Because the thing about flyover country, about the places that some folks can’t imagine holding value or interest, is that the more you learn about a place and its history, its people, its land and its wildlife, the harder it is to hate.

So why not take the long way home?

Rural Reading List

Dark Forest: A Look Inside Controversial Wilderness Therapy Camps

Using nature to clear the mind is a tried-and-true technique. But rural-based “wilderness therapy” camps often employ controversial practices to treat troubled teens that may do more harm than good, according to former campers and child welfare advocates.

Wells Are Running Dry in Rural Communities of Color. Is a Fix in Sight?

Many rural communities of color lack access to safe drinking water. This year’s Farm Bill could finally change this.

Experience with Domestic Violence Prompts Nurse to Train to Care for Rural Trauma Victims

Nurse Leslie Copp is seeking advanced nursing degrees with the help of the Pat Tillman Foundation. Her goal is to fill a gap in trauma care in rural Indiana.

One More Thing: Community Wildfire Defense Funds

Grant applications for the U.S. Forest Service’s second round of community wildfire defense funding is open as of July 31, ending October 31, 2023. The grants, which will fund individual projects up to $250,000, are meant to create or update community wildfire protection plans and wildfire resilience projects. 

Communities that have high wildfire hazard potential, have been previously affected by a severe disaster, or are low income will be prioritized in the grant awards.

Learn more about the program and apply for funding here.

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