Tolkien wrote: “not all those who wander are lost.” Full time RVers, Ed and Rachel Barnhart, are this sentiment sprung to vivid life. As children he was drawn to the road not taken and she longed to see the world. Life, as it often does, postponed those dreams. Ed became an educator and Rachel an office manager, but their love for the other side of the horizon never waned. Now retired, living full time in their Alfa Gold fifth wheel, the Barnharts are on a mission to see “all that God created and man constructed…and find the best pizza in the USA.” From the beaches of Seattle, Ed and Rachel set their sights on Maine. From there they would turn south toward the sunshine, only to be greeted by the worst Mother Nature had unleashed in decades. Undaunted, the Barnharts headed off into the sunset, through the southwest and across the Rio Grande to the shores of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. From sea to shining sea and back again, all in one trip around the sun. In Chapter 3 the Barnharts change some perceptions, discover some relations and bask in warm welcome of Dakota’s farming communities.
Before visiting North Dakota, we had the negative preconception that we would be crossing a desolate, barren land with little to see or do. Boy, were we wrong! North Dakota was beautiful! With miles of grasslands and the venerable Badlands, the entire state looks like a huge park. Sure, time of year is a factor, but in spring and summer it is well worth the trip!
We paused just outside Billings to get a closer look at Pompey’s Pillar. This amazing structure, named by Lewis Clark to honor the son of Shoshone guide, Sacagawea, still bears Clark’s signature.
At one of our campsites, we noticed we were not the only folks who appreciate camping along a river. A family of beaver was living in a lodge just off the shore. Along with the beaver, we were sharing our little spot with deer, geese and ducks. We enjoyed watching these beautiful, busy animals. Less welcome was the robin, which seemed to be following us from Washington offering daily 4:30 a.m. wake up calls. Doesn’t he realize we’re retired!
From Billings we traveled to Glendive, home of the largest state park in Montana, Makoshika State Park. This is a terrific place to explore dinosaur fossils and study the effects of nature on the landscape. Most of the unusual geologic formations here are the result of erosion, and the various layers are easy to see. One point
of caution: the soil can get very slick. One of us – who will remain nameless – nearly did a split trying to get to the mouth of a cave just off the trail.
Beaver Lodge Near the Campsite
Heading east out of Glendive we passed through Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Stopping here allowed us to get a look at free roaming bison backdropped by incredible rock formations. A nearly-extinct Western motif brought to life before our eyes.
Fort Mandan at the Lewis and Clark Center
Our next stop was the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn. The Center offers an overview of the L&C expedition, emphasizing the portion spent in and around Fort Mandan during the winter of 1804-05. You can see Native American artifacts, try on a buffalo robe and a strap on cradleboard. In addition, the Bergquist Gallery rotates the prints of celebrated watercolor artist Karl Bodmer seasonally. To learn more about the Interpretive Center call 811.462.8535. A short drive up the road you can actually tour Fort Mandan and imagine what life may have been like for Lewis, Clark and their team during the difficult North Dakota winter, when temperatures dipped to 40 degrees below zero.
But our time in North Dakota wasn’t all about retracing the footsteps of strangers. While there we set out to fulfill one of my (Ed’s) longtime dreams.
Nearly a century earlier, in 1911, my great grandfather left his farm in Egeland, North Dakota and migrated to Wenatchee, Washington. Armed with this information, we headed north out of Bismarck and then east on Highway 2 almost all the way to Devil’s Lake. Our destination was the Towner County Courthouse in Cando, North Dakota. A patient and exhaustive search back through nearly a century of county records – aided by the tireless efforts of Cindy and Dine, two assessor’s office employees – led to a breakthrough. We had an address and a map of a homestead in Egeland once farmed by my great grandfather, Isaac Barnhart. The document search took all day, so we set up camp on the edge of town and settled into our bed like kids on Christmas Eve.
The next morning we set out for Egeland hoping to find something – anything – that marked my family’s time in North Dakota. This was no typical tourist historical jaunt, but instead, a search for a remnant of my own pioneer heritage. We followed the detailed and accurate map provided by the courthouse files and could not believe our eyes…there it was in living color, not some abandoned, century-old ruin but, instead a vacant but well-tended farmhouse surrounded by fields that had been under the care of the same family for six decades.
Isaac Bernhart's House
Back in Egeland we met members of the two families who have been farming the land and maintaining the house and outbuildings. One of these folks also opened the Egeland Museum – an impressive display comprised of the original Egeland Soo Line Depot, a blacksmith shop and the town jail.
One piece of advice about these rural, farming communities: watch the weather. Rain turns dirt and clay roads to impassible mud quicker than you can imagine. So, be careful.
We were touched by the generous welcome we received from folks in both Cando and Egeland. Everyone we met went out of his or her way to be hospitable and helpful. Because of their genuine benevolence, we were able to gain access to places ordinarily off limits and fulfill my dream of discovering my Midwestern roots.
Now, you may be wondering: “does North Dakota qualify as Middle America?” In his “Travels With Charlie”, John Steinbeck said: if you fold a map of the U.S. in half, touching the east coast of Maine to the west coast of Washington, the crease will bisect Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota. We tried it and ol’ John was right!
We marked our halfway point between Washington and Maine with a stop along the fold in Fargo. The weather was windy and rainy, so our plans to visit the Museum of Fargo’s favorite son, Roger Maris, would have to wait until we “passed this way again.”
The stormy weather followed us across the Red River into Minnesota, so we decided to ride it out at a camp near Moorhead. The rain kept coming, not in Biblical proportions, but enough to keep us cooped. So, we cozied up inside the fifth wheel, listened to the rhythm of the fallin’ rain and talked of wandering forebears and what tomorrow would bring.
Read previous chapters by selecting one of the links below.
Chapter 2 - A Trip Around the Sun
Chapter 1 - Pacific in the Rearview, We Wave Goodbye
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