Three weeks ago, Day 8

In which I find out that there’s an oil boom in North Dakota, among other things

Everything looked freshly washed after the thunderstorm the night before, including my car, which had not been smashed by a tree during the night.  I was profoundly grateful for that last bit. 

I got rather a late start, which was fine, as I had another short mileage day ahead of me.  Not the greatest mileage in the world, as not long after I left Poplar I hit the only major road construction snag of the trip.  Fourteen miles of mud and gravel, churned up by the rains the night before.  That mud was slick.  I was glad I’d replaced Kestrel’s tires before this trip, because I suspect I would not have navigated that mess nearly as well as I did if I had not.  But eventually I made it back to the pavement.  Blissful pavement.  And when I stopped for gas in Wolf Point, the car wasn’t quite as muddy as I thought it would be, which wasn’t saying much.  So much for rain-washing.

My next stop was at the North Dakota state line to take a photo of the sign, of course, and my next stop after that was the city of Williston, North Dakota, which, I had found out while watching the local news (always entertaining in a strange place) the night before, is in the middle of an oil boom, its economy growing by leaps and bounds in stark contrast to the rest of the country.  One of the news stories I’d seen the night before told about the difficulties the Williston school district was having hiring teachers to handle the enormous influx of children this wave of prosperity has brought, not because they can’t pay enough, but because they literally have no housing for them to move into.  Another story told how the Walmart parking lot turned into an impromptu campground every night for people who had absolutely nowhere else to lay their heads.  The jobs in this booming economy are pulling people from all over the country and beyond, so it’s apparently worth it, but the city itself is in chaos.  So is the entire region, actually.  No wonder I hadn’t been able to find a place to stay closer than Poplar.

After lunch in Williston, I headed south back from the present into the past again.  My aim was Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.  Fort Union was basically Fort Benton’s predecessor, the head of steam navigation until the 1850s when steamboats that could handle the Big Muddy’s upper reaches were invented.  It sits smack on the modern-day border of North Dakota (the fort itself) and Montana (the parking lot).  It was a trading post, not a military fort, and the exhibits told about John Jacob Astor and his Northwest Company, among other things.  I had heard some of this story before (the town of Astoria in Oregon was founded by the same folks), but it’s always interesting to get another aspect of it.  And the reconstruction of the bourgeois house was interesting.   

Something else that charmed me were the ground squirrels all around the fort, behaving exactly like miniature prairie dogs.  I thought they were prairie dogs at first, but the nice lady in the visitor center set me straight about that.

My next stop was about three miles down the road at another ‘interpretive’ center, the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center,  where I was astonished to learn that the Missouri and the Yellowstone Rivers take so long to get together.  When you think about it, the water from the geysers along the Firehole River, which runs into the Missouri, and the water that goes over the Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, both in Yellowstone National Park, do not actually meet and mix until they reach North Dakota, several hundred miles downstream.  I’d had no idea. 

My last stop that day was a couple of miles further on at Fort Buford, which was Fort Union’s military counterpoint, although built after Fort Union’s demise.  It is now a North Dakota State Park.  I wandered around outside for a bit before I finally figured out that, yes, it was actually open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon.  I wandered through their museum, then went on a guided tour of the other buildings, learning about life on an isolated prairie army post and enjoying myself very much.

My campground for that night was not far at all, part of the state park across the road from Fort Buford, in a lovely grove of cottonwoods.  That night was the full moon, and I took several shots of it as it rose over the trees along the Missouri River.  A really wonderful end to an interesting and surprising day.

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Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures