At mile 260 on I-94 going westbound at Jamestown there is a billboard for a gas station and travel plaza on mile 200. If you are traveling on I-94 in North Dakota, you may not think much about that. But before too long, you will be. This billboard is trying to tell you something, and that something is that you will be stopping at this gas station, you just don’t know it yet. As it happens, I was driving in the area to visit a fort (more on that below) and still had between 1/4 and 1/2 of a tank in the car, so I was not particularly looking for gas at that moment. But by the time I was approaching mile 200, I was definitely looking for gas, as not a single exit between those two points had a gas station at the exit. It should be noted that some of them, very few of them, had gas stations several miles away (up to 20 miles away), while the rest had no services whatsoever offered on those exists, or even roads names for most of the exits. And so it was that with about 1/8 of a tank left by the time we hit mile 200, we were definitely stopping at that gas station, which had quite a large setup, cars waiting in line for gasoline, about 20 pumps worth of both diesel and gasoline, and a large staff of people to take care of the massive amount of customers that they had for food and gasoline. Of particular interest is the fact that this gas station was not overcharging in any way for this particular service, thus discouraging potential competition in a very labor-scarce area of North Dakota.
This story, as short and as humorous as it is, hints at a large variety of the themes that I saw over and over again in the course of my day driving from Mankato, Minnesota to Bismarck, North Dakota. For one, I think Google Maps likes routing me through the middle of nowhere. Even when one is driving on I-94 in North Dakota, one is mostly in the middle of nowhere, with a stiff continual wind blowing over the empty and grassy plains. But more than this, the shortest route between Mankato and Fargo, ND appeared to go along a dusty gravel road where we encountered one shy doe and one timid muskrat and no other vehicles. It also included a detour around the outskirts of Jamestown when Google Maps had a nonexistent back entrance into Fort Seward. And even where Google Maps was working correctly, a lot of the routes had puzzling features including strange transitions from divided highway to two-lane road. Once Google Maps even felt it necessary to tell me that this was the shortest route to avoid road construction on another, paved road.
Another of the repeating themes of today’s journey was the theme of logistics. This is not a surprising or new series of adventures. But whether one is looking for nonexistent gas stations which reminded me of the more traumatic driving experiences in Eastern Oregon, or whether one is eating at restaurants that all are short on staff all the time, there is a great deal to be said about the fact that logistics matters a lot in a place like North Dakota. There are simply not a lot of people to be found, and not a lot of ways to get from one point to another with full services like restaurants and hotels and gas stations. Even in the 19th century, as one could see from a visit to Fort Seward, logistics was the major driving effort in the settlement of various towns near reliable water sources (namely rivers) as well as the fortresses that guarded these towns from hostile plains tribes like the Sioux. And the continual help wanted signs demonstrate that logistics in terms of the labor market are still serious issues in the area.
As far as the explorations today, I decided to visit two fortresses from the 19th century. Fort Ridgely, located in rural Minnesota, happened to be along the road that Google Maps had routed me on anyway, and it is a beautiful camping area (albeit a bit spendy) that happens to be in the transition area between the farms of southern Minnesota and the Big Woods area in the south-central part of the state. There is a further area of glacial lakes and hills to be found towards northern Minnesota that we also saw a bit of while traveling north on the eccentric US-71. Fort Seward, on the other hand, sits on a dominating bluff overlooking Jamestown, North Dakota, a town perhaps best known for being the childhood home of the awesome Western author Louis L’amour. This fort was only in existence for five years because a railroad being built north through North Dakota ended up stopping at Bismarck instead of going all the way to Canada, thus making the fort superfluous for logistical requirements of supporting the troops in even more distant border forts in the area. Be that as it may, it was still a lovely site with a quaint small museum and some historical reenactors. If the driving was a bit rigorous, the trip was a lovely one through beautiful country sprinkled with gorgeous small towns with a rich and diverse tradition of local architecture. And that is always worth seeing and appreciating as one flies by beet fields, cornfields, prairie grasses, and the like.