Wednesday, September 11, 2013

WARNING! Do Not drive into northern North Dakota

Waking up early we went about the business of breaking camp, which with a Pleasure Way RV takes all of about five minutes. Just enough time to disconnect the water and electricity, coil the cord and hose and stow them away, shut off the propane, and lower the antenna. Before pulling out we walked the animals and as we were returning to the site we ran into one of the members of the fiftieth reunion returning to his rig from the shower facility. We chatted with him for a few minutes and he told us how he had grown up north of this area, but that everything was changing where he had grown up because of the oil boom. He cautioned us not to head north, and said that it was truly chaos in that part of North Dakota, and gave us some tips on things and places to do and see in his home state. We thanked him for the information, and headed over to the dump station to empty the gray and black water tanks. I had to wait behind an RV that was draining it's tanks and I noticed that the license plates were from Washington. I walked up and said “hi”, and asked what part of Washington he was from. He said Vancouver, and I laughed. I said I had run a Meat and Seafood dept in a large grocery store in Vancouver, and he asked me which one. I told him, and he and his wife both said at the same time that they only lived five minutes away from the store and that it was their favorite place to shop in the Portland area. Wow, it really is a small world when you get right down to it. What are the odds of two people lined up in a campground dump station in a North Dakota campground having so much in common? Back on the road we decided to head a little ways north on one of only two scenic byways that our “Welcome to North Dakota” road map showed in the state. 
We figured that we should at least see what few scenic roads this state had to offer, so just about forty minutes after leaving the campground we passed through the town of Dickinson where we would find the bypass for highway 22 which heads north to Lake Sakakawea which offered numerous campground options. (This would turn out to be a very bad decision, one that we would soon learn to regret.) Driving down the side streets of Dickinson looking for the interchange I spied a large self service car wash and pulled off. Our RV hadn't been washed since visiting Jerani's parents back in June, and it was long overdue. I happened to have a fist full of quarters set aside for laundry, so about a half hour later we drove a shiny RV back on the road and headed north on Hwy. 22. Now I'm sure all of you are asking yourselves “didn't the nice man in the campground warn them off from traveling north in North Dakota?” Well technically, yes he did. But in our defense, when he mentioned northern North Dakota, I was imagining the area around Highway 2, which run across the northern part of the state from Williston to Grand Forks. Everything we had heard about the oil crush in ND spoke of the area south of the Canadian border, and mostly confined to the upper northwest corner of the state. The route we were heading off on first of all was designated a scenic byway, and it ended at the largest recreational site in North Dakota, the immense Lake Sakakawea. So with our ignorance came bliss, and off we drove towards one of the longest, most stressful days of our lives. (Nice build up huh?)
About ten mile north of Dickinson we started to run into “road work ahead” signs. Now this certainly didn't set off any bells or whistles since anyone driving during the summer months is bound to run into road construction, especially when driving through states with a very narrow window of decent weather to work in. I can still remember explicitly the first flagger I passed; she was a younger blonde, bored looking and barely holding her sign so it could be read by passing motorist. Little did we know that this would be our first contact in what would turn out to be close to six straight hours of construction hell. Just a bored girl by the side of the road holding a sign stating “slow”, but which should have read “TURN BACK NOW WHILE YOU STILL HAVE A CHANCE!”. 
The road changed from a four lane highway, into a two lane road with oncoming traffic. The speed limit changed from 65mph to a laughable 55mph. Laughable because you'd have to have been crazy to drive faster than 25mph on the scrapped gravel masquerading as a highway. Unfortunately everyone in North Dakota must be crazy because I'd estimate that the average speed on that road had to be close to 60mph, and with the loose gravel, dust and absentee shoulders I was forced to either hold up a long line of traffic or drive way faster than I felt comfortable with. A little over thirty minutes later we came upon a sign after cresting a hill that read, “Road Construction Next Thirty Miles”. What the $@&%#!!! Thirty miles! We had already covered a very slow ten or so miles and the prospects of driving another thirty miles in these conditions really blew. 
The rain had also started to fall turning the ever present dust into mud, and on top of that the makeshift road and our lane in particular seemed to be narrowing with every mile we drove. We had started to notice that the road seemed to be filling with more and more truck traffic, mostly heading towards us in the southbound lane. These trucks all seemed to be painted a similar white and black with some sort of large fuel tanks in the back. Ominously they were all completely covered with red and gray mud which clung to every inch of the huge trucks except for the loose bits which readily flicked off to splatter the windshield and sides of our newly washed RV. The rain continued to fall and the puddles that pock marked the tortured road bed soon filled with a mixture of of water and mud, all of which soon transferred itself to the body of our vehicle. With every passing truck sending sheets of mud across our windshield it became harder and harder to negotiate an already tough route. We both kept waiting for the construction to end. I mean it's not like this could go on forever, right? Right? It was really hard just to figure out just what the actual construction job amounted to. All traffic both north and south had been rerouted to the north bound lanes which were totally devoid of asphalt and had been very roughly graded. Meanwhile the south bound lanes mostly seemed to be a staging area for construction of some sort, with numerous road graders, Caterpillar tractors, and other enormous machines parked helter-skelter all along the route. There seemed to be very little if any construction actually being engaged in and although we passed all those work vehicles, very few if any workers were present. We were now a good fifteen or twenty miles into the construction zone, and we hadn't passed one viable place to pull off and gather our thoughts, let alone an east to west running road to turn off on to get out of this mess. At all times I had at least seven or eight vehicles behind me, almost all of them semi's, tankers, or white construction trucks, while the southbound lanes continued to carry tanker after tanker past us inching closer and closer to our vehicle with every narrowing mile.
The rain fell, the puddles deepened, the mud sprayed, and the road slowly disintegrated into a complete morass. Jerani sat with the atlas on her lap as she constantly checked our GPS unit for any way out of this hellhole. Every side road seemed to have been commandeered for staging areas, or were even more torn up than the tormented landscape we were driving through. My arm muscles were as taunt as piano wires trying to maneuver the RV past so many obstacles, and Jerani and I had become increasingly quiet with every mile. It was already past lunchtime but with nowhere to turn off we just continued driving. Killdeer, North Dakota was just a few miles down the road so we set our sights on stopping there for lunch. We were hoping to find a cafe or restaurant so we didn't have to prepare lunch ourselves since Jerani and I both felt we deserved a treat after a morning spent driving through road construction. We hunkered down to drive the last couple of miles into Killdeer, figuring we could at least get off this damn Highway 22 after lunch and drive east out of Killdeer on Hwy 200. 
Ten minutes later we were mortified when we arrived in Killdeer to find nothing but construction and more construction heading off on in every direction. Every road leading into or out of Killdeer, including our fall back route of Hwy 200 were torn up worse than the road we were on, and they were all teaming with semi's roaring down the muddy tracks. There was just two establishments serving food in town, but neither looked the least bit appetizing. Both cafes parking lots were brimming with the same white construction pickup trucks that we had been dodging for the last thirty miles, and the only vehicles moving around other than our now completely filthy 20ft Pleasure Way RV were tankers trucks and construction pickups. Everywhere you looked there was either mud or construction vehicles. 
Everything was starting to take on a very Road Warrioresque quality, and we felt completely out of our element. This was no place for a recreation vehicle and two out of state tourists and literally not another pedestrian or normal vehicle moved on the torn up roads. Even in the town of Killdeer there wasn't anywhere to pull-off. It was as if this entire part of the state had been hijacked and sold off to whatever insane construction crew had torn up every square inch between here and Dickinson. Taking another road out of Killdeer was out of the question as they were both smaller and even more deconstructed than the one we were already on. At this point we could either continue to drive north on Hwy 22 or we could cut our losses and turn around and return the thirty horrific muck sodden miles in the direction we had just come from. Well the thought of driving back through that hell to the place we had started off from two hours ago was out of the question. (another critical mistake on our parts) We would persevere and press on to one of campgrounds surrounding beautiful Lake Sakakawea. (Not happening either...) Having made our (fateful) decision we continued north on 22 and into infamy. Almost immediately we realized we had made a mistake. We had unknowingly passed some invisible barrier where civilization and humanity ceased to exist. 
What had once been a barely drivable two lane road soon turned into one ten foot wide gash in the earth masquerading as a road. (I am NOT kidding about this, there were actually signs warning the huge semi's and tanker trucks of this fact.) Almost all the banks on both sides of what used to be Highway 22 were now little more than earthen humps, the top soil torn away and being carted off by large earth movers that soon added to this traffic from hell. We would literally have to come to a complete stop and pull off in five or six inches of mud as giant trucks roared past us. 
Every time we came to a stop the half dozen trucks following inches from our bumper would also have to stop and you could just sense the unwelcoming nature of where we now found ourselves. I remember thinking to my self, and actually verbalizing the idea that “We don't belong here! How could they let us enter this construction zone!?! This is insane!” There were no warning signs; nothing to keep innocent tourist such as ourselves from falling into this no-mans-land. It was now nearing one o’clock and we had been driving through construction for close to three hours. Our freshly washed RV was now completely covered in grime and mud, and we hadn't eaten since early a.m., and even that was only a couple of yogurts. We both were getting that hollow eyed trapped animal look about us, and we were both worried about the situation we found ourselves in. This wasn't mere construction anymore, this was insanity and it was getting dangerous. 
At one especially steep grade that was now nothing more than a mud and rock strewn ramp we were faced by no less than six tanker trucks rocketing their way down the hill towards us as we slowly crept up ten foot wide lane hugging the sheer drop off that served as a shoulder as closely as possible without tumbling into the straw strewn ditch that funneled a muddy torrent ten feet below us. Four massive trucks were lined up behind us as we hung on as each truck screamed by an arm length from our RV. “Are you kidding me!?!” I remember yelling at one point. Jerani was silent, she could be in tears for all I knew. It was a tears kind of situation. I am not exaggerating the position we had found ourselves in; in fact I don't think I can put into descriptive words just how out of control the situation really was. 
I have NEVER had a driving experience that was this gnarly. “White knuckles” doesn’t even start to convey how I felt, I had now been driving through hell for close to four hours and there didn't seem to be any let up in sight. Not only were there no roads to escape on, but it looked as if all the small farms and properties which lined the road had been torn up and now served as staging areas and dirt and rock quarries. They had literally been digging into all the land carting away immense amounts of top soil to who knows where. We still couldn't see any true road construction going on, just demolition and deconstruction. 
Fracking sites in Northwestern North Dakota
Whatever was happening here had little to do with road mending. This was part of a bigger picture, and we both knew it was all OIL related. Every vehicle in every direction were part of the same crew, and we were the only thing moving on that road that didn't have something to do with raw crude. We continued driving north through what must have been a pretty dramatic and beautiful landscape at one point, but which now had been reduced to a apocalyptic scene of churned mud, mangled soil, and a commercial enterprise run amok. Why was this allowed? How could this possibly be OK, especially in a state that was so obviously trying to change it's image and remake itself as a tourist destination?! I'll tell you right now, this is not the way to change your image. The message we received was “Welcome to North Dakota; A state only a roughneck could love.” Never in our lives had we seen so many trucks in one place at one time. I am not making that up; there were literally hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of trucks that we encountered along the way that day. I didn't know that there were that many trucks in all of America, let alone squeezed into this little corner of North Dakota. And what the heck were all those photos in the states tourist guide of smiling people riding horses, hiking or fishing in this very region? Had anyone from the tourist bureau actually paid a visit up here in the past couple of years? If they had they certainly wouldn't be recommending that anyone follow in their footsteps. 
How can it be acceptable with North Dakota's governing body to allow these private enterprises to tear up the entrances to the historic “Killdeer Mountain Battlefield” and the “Little Missouri State Park”, leaving absolutely no access to either recreational site. It was frightening, depressing, and it will only get worse. What we witnessed can not be reversed quickly, nor does it look like anyone is working towards healing this land. This area is in it for the long haul come hell or high water. 
What's wrong with this picture? Could it be that northwest North Dakota shows up brighter than Seattle?
As we neared Lake Sakakawea we were sent west on detour on 73 and we held our breath wishfully thinking that things couldn't get worse. At first it looked promising, with the road being made up of actual asphalt, the first we had seen since just outside Dickinson. But that hope quickly was dashed as it became apparent that this was just one more avenue given over to the oil company. Almost every parcel of land along this route had been appropriated and turned into soil excavation sites, with giant earth movers and dump trucks entering and exiting the property. Because of all this dirt movement mud now covered the asphalt, sometimes in depths of close to twelve inches. 
This is not hyperbole. It was so thick that our RV would swerve from side to side as we entered these mud zones, and with large trucks following inches from our rear bumper and with tankers whizzing by in the oncoming lane the driving went from bad to worse. Jerani and I hadn't pulled over or eaten since a little after eight that morning and it was now nearing four in the afternoon. We had been driving in this craziness for five hours and things didn't seem to be getting any better. It just went on and on and on. We were both physically and mentally tired, and we were also truly frightened. This was NO joke, and it only became increasingly difficult the more fatigued we became. We kept checking to see what towns were coming up, hoping and praying that this misery would soon end. But as we passed through Keene and Sanish it was business as usual. 
Every parking lot, mini-mart, gas station and pull-off were clogged with work vehicles. We kept mumbling to ourselves “we don't belong here...we don't belong here...”. We didn't see any other tourists or civilians on the road; did we fail to get the memo?! We were now starting to see the actual oil wells and small refineries which began to dot the hellish landscape. The truck traffic actually increased in intensity, something I didn't think was possible. We were just entering the city of New Town, and we both knew we had to get something to eat, stretch our legs and take the animals for a walk. We had some hope for this town being that it looked to be larger than any we had passed through up to this point, so our expectations were dashed as we entered what was a carbon copy of every other town to this point. 
There wasn't ANYWHERE to pull off with every inch of parking space filled with white and black pick-ups or large construction vehicles. The three or four sad little eating establishments were all packed, and there wasn't a space to be had at the two grocery stores. It was sheer bedlam and being in a city seemed to ramp up the anxiety, not diminish it. It was a scene straight out of “Thunder Dome”. This was a frontier town during the gold rush, a truck stop near the Alaskan pipeline, and logging operation deep in the rainforest of Brazil. This was sheer craziness. I finally found a place to pull over and it turned out that the reason there were a couple of open spaces was that I had parked directly in front of the local police station. I decided to walk over to the police station and see if there was any way out of this no-mans land and Jerani was going to take the animals out to let them go to the bathroom and get a little exercise. Upon entering the tiny police station I noticed that there was nobody sitting in any of the four office chairs. I softly called out to see if anyone was home but there was no answer. As I stood there I noticed several dream catchers and Indian motifs on the walls and I suddenly realized I was on a reservation. I left the empty police station and walked down a little hall where I could hear voices. At the end of the hall I came upon a small library with an older Indian woman sitting behind a desk speaking with a little girl. She seemed surprised to see me, and when I asked her if there was anyway out of all this construction and oil work she sort of took on a defensive attitude and said “no not really, the roads are torn up to move the oil and there's not really anything that can be done about it”. I got the definite feeling that I was the enemy, and how dare I question the Oil Industry. It became very icy in the library so I said “thank you” and retired to the RV. While I was away Jerani had done a great job in turning nuts, cheese, some miscellaneous meats, and crackers into an actual meal. It was disappointing to tell her that I had come away with no new information on how to escape this Oil nightmare. We did start to put together the pieces of how this part of North Dakota was so literally blighted in the search for the all mighty oil dollar. It was an Indian Reservation, and when we looked back at our map we saw the exact boundary where the two lane road turned into a ten foot joke, and that was where the Three Tribes Reservation began. This in no way lets the state of North Dakota off the hook, because we had been driving through obviously oil related construction for most of the day, but all the veils were yanked off dramatically the moment we crossed into Indian territory, and it just screamed ANYTHING GOES UP HERE AS LONG AS YOU WORK FOR THE OIL INDUSTRY. I really feel sorry for whom ever inherits the mess up there once the oil runs dry. Good luck. We left moments after our light meal, and I must admit I was getting a little freaked out and it was showing. With no positive information about when this construction ended all I wanted to do was get back on the road with hopes that I wouldn't be driving this in the dark. I was scared and I'm not afraid to admit it. I felt like my family was in real danger if I couldn't get off these torn up roads soon. We were tired, beat up and completely demoralized. Our only hope was that now that we were heading east that the oil zone would at some point cease. We were driving down 23 with all of our chips riding on the north to south route of Hwy 83. If there was truly a God he had to give us a real road and do it soon. 
We continued to drive amongst tankers, pick-ups and dump trucks and the state of the road was NOT improving. We drove in silence just wishing it would all end when suddenly POOF, the road returned to asphalt and the traffic almost simultaneously was cut in half. 
What the heck?! What just happened. We had now been driving for a little over six hours in this hellish world without end, and just like that everything more or less went back to normal. We were so shell shocked that we didn't believe it for the first fifteen miles or so and we both held our breath expecting a new “Construction Zone” sign to pop up with every turn. Looking at the map we realized that the moment the construction and oil influence ended coincided exactly with the point where we exited the “Three Tribes Territory”. Coincidence, I think not. Completely spent we drove south towards Fort Stevenson State Park, our intended destination for the evening. As we arrived at the park on the shores of the eastern section of Lake Sakakawea we were both pleasantly surprised, especially after such a tough tough day. 
The park was beautiful and huge and almost empty, with large sites that gave you lots of elbow room. After a badly need drink we took the animals on a long walk on one of the many trails this park had to offer. The sun was slowly setting and we were actually happy for the first time in what had been a most tiresome day, the likes of which we hope to never relive. As far as we are concerned that day will go down as a day of infamy, and we hope for other visitors to North Dakota don't have to go through what we did. Live and Learn.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Private Campgrounds Rock!

It's always a bit disconcerting to awaken in a retail parking lot. Jerani didn't sleep a wink and basically tossed and turned all evening. No power equals a hot and sweaty night. Fortunately we have battery powered fans but that only helped to decrease the discomfort marginally. I'm sure the gigantic vapor lights that turned night into day didn't help to lessen her suffering. Oh well, not every night can be fantastical.
We got out on highway 94 early and it was nice to drive on a fairly empty road and since the wind had died down from the night before, the driving was easy. There is little to write about as far as Eastern Montana landscape, it was pretty flat and uninspiring. We had driven about thirty minutes when we started seeing signs to a National Historic site named “Pompey's Pillar”.
Now when you are in Eastern Montana and there's a sign promising any kind of distraction from the mundane you jump on it, and being that both our little animals needed a walk it seemed as good a place as any to pull off. A few miles down the road we started to see the large outcrop of rock that stood out against the flatness that stretched without end in every direction. This must be the famous “Pompey's Pillar” we had heard so much about. We took the next exit and headed towards the Historical Site that was surrounded by a split rail fence with a pseudo-log cabinish check-in booth at the entrance. It was early Sunday morning, and we both were a little taken back by the amount of vehicles that were parked in the lot just past the booth. Just how many tourists did old “Pompey's Pillar” draw anyway? I mean I know there isn't anything else to look at in this God forsaken territory, but this was ridiculous.
As we neared the booth we spotted the ever present dreaded “Day Use Fee” sign that seem to adorn every single road side attraction across this fair nation (is nothing free anymore?), and when we slowed down and read the “Day Fee $8.00 per Vehicle” we were mortified. Eight Dollars to pull off the road in Eastern Montana, you've got to be kidding?! We both started to say what we always say when faced with a “day use fee”, which is “NO %#@* WAY!” when we spied the little amendment written on cardboard and attached to the bottom of the fee board stating “Heritage Day Festival, Free Access Sunday Only”. What do you know, free access and a Heritage Festival to boot, this was truly our lucky day! We drove past the booth and into an already half filled lot. 
The site was very nice by Eastern Montana standards with the large picturesque sandstone rock formation dominating the far end of the park complemented by stately cottonwood trees lining both sides of the pathway which wound it's way down towards the Yellowstone River. As we exited the RV we spotted several Tee-Pees set up at the base of the Pillar, and numerous tables and booths set up along the path. We had actually stumbled ass backwards into some sort of Montana cultural event, and by golly who are we to pass up a free event? We walked Erley around for a few minutes close to the RV but away from the major concentration of people, and then after he had scratched on a few trees and stretched his legs a little we returned him to the Pleasure Way and headed down towards all the hoopla with Max in tow. We passed by a lot of people setting up informative historical booths focusing on early frontier life in the Montana Territory, and Lewis and Clarke’s expedition and it's impact to the region. 
We stopped off at a corral holding two Bison, a full grown female and a little calf, and Max sniffed noses with the baby but in the end decided he was way too forward. We chatted with a couple of Mountain Men who were very nice and asked us about our trip and
posed for a photo. 

We watched a reenactment of a 19th century flag raising ceremony, and listened to a DJ setting up and testing his equipment. It was still only about nine in the morning and this little park was already hopping, obviously this was the happening place in Eastern Montana. 
All in all it was a nice stop off and it was good to be able to appreciate Montana just a little bit. Back on the road the traffic started to pick up and so did the wind; with nothing to block it for a thousand miles in any direction (maybe a slight exaggeration) the wind here arrives unabated to hammer at the side of the RV (it's always a side wind, never a tail wind). It tends to make driving a two handed affair with little time-off from the constant adjustment and readjustment needed to keep Ole Windy on the road. We pulled off and drove through a couple of little towns to get a break from the continual buffeting, and had lunch in Miles City, about halfway between Billings and the North Dakota border. We drove through the sleepy little hamlet and found a cute little city park at the edge of town that was completely empty. We parked the RV and put together a picnic of sliced salami, olives, pepadew peppers, cheese, and crackers and headed out to a picnic table where we encountered a sign nailed to a tree stating “No Dogs Allowed in Park”. What the...?! Not just that all dogs must be leashed at all times, but no dogs at anytime. What is it with the growing attitude to disallow pets from all public places? Am I mistaken or does almost everyone own a pet of some kind or another? Are we getting to the point where there won't be anywhere left to walk your dog or allow it some time out in nature? Well sign be damned. We set up our spread on one of the picnic tables and with our doggy and kitty firmly leashed we sat in the empty Miles City park and enjoyed a nice picnic with our two animals. What rebels we are. That's really taking it to the man. 
After lunch we continued to drive and drive and around five in the afternoon we crossed into North Dakota. 
Almost immediately the landscape changed for the better with the rolling high plains to rolling hills and slot canyons that became more and more impressive as we entered the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 
Very prehistoric looking rock formations and topography surrounded us and we must admit that this wasn't what we thought North Dakota would look like, and that was a good thing.  
The day ended with us finding a site at a Good Sam campground in Medora, North Dakota, a little burg smack dab in the middle of the National Park. It was late and there were no other choices for us being that we needed to do laundry and we wanted electric hook-ups to run the AC. The powers that be stuck us in a site where the people next to us were having a fifty year class reunion. They were drinking and carousing and we were just ten feet away. Ah gad. There were empty sites all over but if you argue about the location of your site you always lose at a private campground. We drank a few beers and turned on the AC to drown them out. I walked over to the laundry and started a couple of loads while Jerani fixed dinner. On the way back I noticed that the owners of the camp had set up a karaoke machine on a low stage built under a disco lighted outdoor lean-to. They had started in on one a country western tune as a couple of portly RV'ers took a seat at one of the benches facing the stage. I just shook my head in amazement. Wow, private RV campgrounds just get better and better. After dinner and folding the laundered clothes, we walked the critters and then locked them back in the RV and walked into town. We wandered around and looked at the old buildings and tourist shops. We bought an ice cream bar at the only tiny store that was open and wandered back to the campgrounds. The fifty year reunion was still in full swing and the neighbor to the other side of our site had brought out a guitar and was singing and strumming away. Wails and caterwauling drifted over from the karaoke party, and to tell you the truth, nothing screams getting away and discovering America more than being surrounded by a cacophony of nettlesome noise. (Ear plugs help to make everything better, believe me.)