Go west

April 23, 2006

While Maryland was basking in sunny spring weather last week, a blizzard hit the northern Plains and left drifts of up to 5 feet of snow in North Dakota. That came just as AAA announced that North Dakota is one of the two cheapest places in the country to take a vacation. There's something about this that just fires the imagination.

There are fewer people in North Dakota than there are in Baltimore County, even though North Dakota is more than 100 times larger. Wow, if you think about it.

The sad truth is that a lot of us have never been to North Dakota, which is too bad because some of the most striking impressions are made by some of the most unlikely places. Life can land you where you least expect it to - say, Newark, N.J., or Mountain Iron, Minn. - and surprise you with small satisfactions, as long as you open your eyes and hear with your ears.

They built an apartment house in New York and called it the Dakota because it was so far uptown it might as well have been out in Indian territory. (It's where John Lennon lived.) Dakota, as a word or as a totem, still has some of that appeal, at least for Easterners. It's a vast and impossibly distant place, maddeningly undefined by the specificity of a mountain range or a coastline. More Marylanders have been to Minsk than to Minot. (Just guessing on that one.) The Great Plains, the Missouri River, prairie grass, ghost towns, the wind. The April snow. In the mind's eye, North Dakota is remoteness, perfected. And if you've been there already, there's someplace else you haven't been, and that's your North Dakota (it might be Nebraska, which was tied for cheapest in the AAA survey).

Bismarck is 1,535 miles from Baltimore. You could get there on about five tanks of $3 gas. The reality would prove different from the ideal; the mind's eye would have to adjust. Lucky travelers would find satisfactions both large and small in the unexpected, though you might have to work more in North Dakota just to find the unexpected. We're not sure, because for now we can only savor the idea of it. It's a place we're just never likely to get to - but then who wouldn't want to make an effort to get to a place, if it takes an effort to get there? There's a North Dakota waiting out there somewhere, for anyone who has the gumption.

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