Category Archives: ND Heritage

A Weekend in Walhalla, ND: The Pembina Gorge and More

Four years ago I was talking with a Bismarck friend whose job entails traveling all around North Dakota, and I asked him which part of the state he thought was the most beautiful. He answered that it was probably the Pembina Gorge, and ever since then I’ve wanted to visit that far northeast region. I wondered how it would compare to my beloved Turtle Mountains and Lake Metigoshe, just as far north but about 130 miles west of the Gorge. So earlier this summer, my husband Bruce and I decided to plan a weekend trip to Walhalla, where we would stay at the Sanctuary Guest House bed and breakfast and see the Gorge and other local sights.

We left home (Moorhead, Minn.) in the early evening on Friday, August 8. I had been missing the trees and hills of the northern Minnesota Iron Range, having been there in mid-July for a classical music festival, so the timing of our trip turned out well. (Of course, a Red River Valley dweller might feel the need for a bit of topographical contrast at any time of year.)

Scarcely another car crossed our path after we turned off I-29 north of Grand Forks. As we neared Walhalla, wheat fields with scattered shelterbelts rather quickly became more wooded and sloping land. When we arrived at Sanctuary House around 9:15 p.m., I was pleasantly surprised by the four tall, decorative columns supporting the front of the white house. I’m partial to that grand old style. We went inside and met the co-owner Deirdre, who showed us to the Granada room, with décor that seemed Moroccan-influenced and a private balcony. (Now I’ve looked up Granada, and though it’s near Morocco it’s actually in Spain.)

Light Fixture

Over the next two days I appreciated the comfortable, calming accommodations of our bedroom, the shared guest bathroom, and the common rooms downstairs. The house had many decorative touches, like an oak leaf-shaped nightlight in the bathroom and a beautiful light fixture in our bedroom, but didn’t feel cluttered.

We didn’t want to do much after our arrival except wind down for the night, so we took a quick drive around town and then read magazines in the main floor sitting room of the house before going to bed. Breakfast the next morning at 8:30, at the Holly Street Eatery inside the house, was a chicken, vegetable, and egg scramble, peach streusel muffins, mango juice, and good, strong coffee. Even as we enjoyed breakfast I studied the chalkboard menu on the wall in anticipation of lunch.

Towards the end of breakfast, Deirdre brought us several maps and a few brochures and helped us formulate a plan for the day. We came up with quite the schedule for what a few days ago was “hike in the Gorge and find something else to do”: drive a short way to a scenic overlook of the Tetrault State Forest, hike Tetrault for an hour or two, drive to the Gingras Trading Post state historic site, have lunch at the eatery, check out the arts festival at the Walhalla school yard (including a jazz trio performance), kayak the Pembina River, have dinner at the town diner (or the bar, Deirdre said, “if you’re in the mood for fried mushrooms and pizza”), take an evening ATV tour through the Gorge with Deirdre and Mike, the Pembina Gorge Recreation Area manager, and cap the evening with a bottle of wine on our balcony.

Sanctuary House

Columns and the view of the yard from the Sanctuary House balcony

After breakfast, before setting out, we sipped coffee as we wandered around the grounds. It occurred to me as we lingered in the side yard, with wrought iron furniture, lanterns, and a fire pit, that this B&B would be a great place for a multi-family getaway or a girls’ weekend. I’ll have to make sure not to forget my passport next time, though. Canada is only minutes away, and I learned from Deirdre later in the day that Winkler, a Manitoba town of about 11,000 located 17 miles from Walhalla, is a nice place to drive for dinner (her eatery only serves breakfast and lunch).


View from the Masonic Overlook

Elk Sculpture

Elk sculpture at the Masonic Overlook


Flowers along the Tetrault State Forest trail

The scenic overlook and hike through the state forest were pleasant, though we wished the forest trail were a bit longer—it took less than an hour to reach the dead end at a marsh and retrace our path. Next was the Gingras Trading Post, only about 10 minutes away. From a certain point of view, I have to admit, visiting this site feels like seeing two boring buildings in a boring field. But when you imagine what it must have been like in the 1840-70s, when the trading post was active, you can appreciate the experience a lot more. Approaching the post back then, you would have felt a surge of excitement, as Bruce put it, about the chance to get new materials and the latest news.

Gingras house

Scalloped detail on the Gingras house

The interiors of the two buildings, the old house especially, are well maintained and full of informative displays. Jeff the docent was friendly and helpful. At the trading post, they offer some basic complimentary refreshments, and Bruce and I chatted briefly with a resident from the region who had grown up speaking French at home. This was a nice real-life enhancement to the posted information about Métis (largely French and Chippewa-influenced) culture. I appreciated the reminder of cultural diversity in a part of the world, the upper Midwest, that often strikes me as not very culturally diverse on the surface. Before leaving Gingras, we bought a stuffed prairie dog for our newborn nephew.


A map of old trading routes that I found particularly interesting

Lunch back at the eatery was delicious. I had spring pea soup, a side salad with a variety of colorful vegetables, and a coconut cream trifle; Bruce had a BLT on focaccia. There were three parties having lunch besides us. After the meal I walked a few blocks to the annual Rendezvous Art and Heritage Festival and listened to the Sneaky Wild Oats jazz trio while lying back on the grass. The festival was small, with only a few art booths and some children’s activities, but I enjoyed watching a woman assist a young girl spin yarn at a spinning wheel for a while.

Jazz trio

The Sneaky Wild Oats jazz trio performing at the arts festival

Spinning wheel

Spinning wheel demonstration

Our next activity, kayaking, turned out to be intimidating at first. We put in at a spot that was wider and busier with rapids than I had expected, though I’m sure to an experienced kayaker it was relatively tame. Bruce’s seat indentation filled up with water with almost right away when we went over rapids, and the same thing happened to me about halfway through the ride. We passed a few groups of locals tubing but no other kayakers. I was hoping to see at least one turtle sunning itself on a log or rock, but no luck there. We were both glad we took the option of a shorter and more scenic route instead of the less scenic route about twice as long that Deirdre and Mike had originally planned for us. It was good to try kayaking, but there probably aren’t any long excursions of the kind in our future.

Dinner at the Walhalla Inn, which we ended up trying instead of the diner or bar, was serviceable. We had two-for-one cocktails, Bruce had ribs at the buffet, and I had a quesadilla.

Our post-dinner ATV ride through the Gorge on two loops of multi-use trail—Bruce rode with Mike and I rode with Deirdre—was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It was a neat way to see the area, but I think I prefer hiking in general because an ATV ride, turns out, is rather dusty and loud. I was well advised by both Deirdre and Bruce not to shower until after the ride. We did see some beautiful views across the gorge, though most of the trail cuts through woods, and I liked being able to cover much more ground than we would have been able to on foot. The whole excursion, including getting to and from the trailhead, took about two hours.

During the ride, Deirdre—who also works 15 hours a week at the Walhalla Chamber—and I discussed the future of the Frostfire ski hill, currently owned and operated by an elderly couple that wants to retire before long. The state legislature recently rejected a proposal for the state to buy Frostfire. Deirdre’s view is that it would be a much better location for the recreation area headquarters than the current arrangement, and she doesn’t want to see the ski hill become some millionaire’s playground. I agreed on both counts.

We had to get back to Moorhead by midday on Sunday, so after an 8:30 breakfast of waffles we said goodbye to Deirdre and drove a few miles for one last outing, a short hike in Icelandic State Park on one of the trails in Susan Wefald’s book Spectacular North Dakota Hikes: Bring the Dog. I’d like to return to the park—it has a nice interpretive center and apparently a nice beach, which we would have checked out if not for a road detour. Parts of the Shady Springs Trail were lined with wild raspberry bushes, so I ate a couple raspberries as we walked along in the sunlight-dappled shade.

So how does the Pembina Gorge compare to the Turtle Mountains? In terms of scenic beauty, the Gorge may have a bit of an edge, though only a bit. Memories of several Turtle Mountains trips do make it a more special place for me, still, but I do want to go back to Walhalla and the Gorge to make additional memories there. Deirdre remarked to me at one point that the place she lives is one of the most overlooked spots within a state that in turn is one of the most overlooked spots in the country. I hope more people will get to know it, as we’re happy we did.




Not such a blank rectangle these days…

Today I attended the ND Bloggers & Writers Worship (sponsored by the ND Dept. of Commerce) at the downtown Fargo Radisson. I learned a lot and tried to sow a bit of interest in the WAND book, but I was also distracted a few times by thoughts of this blog–namely its name and the concept behind it.

North Dakota as a blank rectangle. Is it these days? Sure, there are still plenty of people around the country and certainly around the globe who conjure up a big ol’ blank at the name “North Dakota.” But from what I have seen since I moved back to Fargo-Moorhead last summer, including at events like today’s workshop, that is changing.


It’s not just the oil development in western ND that’s getting attention. North Dakota seems to be gaining recognition as a great place for entrepreneurs of all kinds, as I see almost weekly at One Million Cups gatherings in Fargo (Bismarck also hosts these meet-ups). People around the state are blogging about rural life and gaining strong followings (Jessie Veeder Scofield, whose photos have appeared on this blog, and Jenny Dewey Rohrich are two bloggers who spoke at the workshop). And now there’s the new Fargo TV series. Whether or not that turns out to be an accurate portrayal (and what would “accurate” mean in the context of storytelling?), it still puts a national spotlight on the city and perhaps the whole state.

The Blank Rectangle. I’ve been in many North Dakota spots that will probably never achieve the faintest amount of recognition outside the state or even their county. Still, “blank” doesn’t seem like the best way to describe what people think of us these days.

The WAND Calendar

Looks amazing. If you think North Dakota ain’t much to look at, this calendar will prove you wrong.

Thanks Tyler, Jeremy, and Cambria for all your work!


We have ordered the calendars for all our $60 and above donors, but Gwen will be making at least one more order in the future.  Please contact her if you are interested in ordering one.

Coming back through the heartland

Can you see the train? It's moving.

“As long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself.”
– D. T. Suzuki

THERE’S A STEADY RUMBLE COMING from under the bus.  It sways gently to its starboard, carving through air as it weaves between the cars, balling straight ahead on I-94 as it reaches across the plains.  77 mph, roaring past farmhouses, abandoned trucks, off-ramps to dirt gravel roads to unknown places, hidden locations.  I’m on my way back to my hometown of Bismarck to see it in a new way, in a strange way, like something I’ve never known.

A harsh contrast lives along here: between the fields, light black and empty, and the short strip of vividly green grass tracing the highway.  The line is marked by tiny fence posts and nearly invisible wire stretched all the way out to the horizon that divides this land into small tracts, a patchwork punctuated by little potholes and lakes.  You are riding just low enough to the ground to see it — hovering six feet above the grey pavement — but running fast enough not to pick out the particulars.  The only trains that run through this state do so in the middle of the night, when you can’t see much of anything out there.  The road is the only way to catch things like this, sights so stark that they appear as an abstraction.

hot wheels rolling by
on the sun-dried pavement —
green grass is waving

This is all familiar territory for me.  The strange thing at the moment are the people next to me: bright blue-jeaned man reading a book with 2nd propeller chapter named “Solo”; thick sweatered and spectacled woman with overly large and frumpled Christmas pillow; the Army t-shirt giant who got on the bus late and mumbled all the way with his great white head of fuzz; the mid-length blonde white hoodie who gave him the seat next to her and scrunched up her nose,  burying it in a fragrant Cosmopolitan magazine.  And all of them, silent, next to each other.  What slice of humanity is this?  Whose America is it?  And here I am, scribbling eccentric notes of no interest to anyone but myself, and not even realizing my belt is unbuckled, fly down.  I guess I’ll defend myself by saying, I’m exposing myself to the world, one person, one place, one moment at a time.

cool heads on strangers
silenced by A/C airflow —
five roadside blossoms

We drop a couple of strangers off at a gas station in Valley City and continue to head West.  The bus driver seems to want to make time, though no one made a fuss when we left 15 minutes late and I’m dropping in and out of sleep.  Conscious or unconscious, I’m just trying to enjoy the ride.  Sometimes it seems like the hardest part of traveling is dealing with all the dead and dying time, waiting to get somewhere you want to go.  This is all different for me this time; even this trip has become a partial adventure: a strange reversal from the time-anxiety of making the plane, catching the train, getting enough rest and all that, before I would go back to the super-static life of eat, work, eat, sleep.  New York interrupts all those things, sometimes blurs them together, makes TIME a hyper-conscious state.  This trip will be quite different on that, with lots of time to kill, and little to get distracted with.  Our time will burn up as the Earth turns its northern head toward and away from the Sun.

It’s bound to be a paradox of both time and space: progressing slowly across the map each day, almost going nowhere at all, perhaps still seeing our previous night’s campsite off our hindsights.  Yet making distance all the time, all day long, and for days and days on end.  And aren’t we all always moving anyhow?  The continents shifting, the Sun circling over our heads, the Earth spinning in space and circling the Sun, within a spiraling galaxy, and in the universe infinitely expanding…wait!  Isn’t traveling just a concept, a metaphor for a metamorphosis of thought?  Even history projects us backwards and forwards in time…all the while, the moment feels like an illusion, an insignificant blip on the radar screen of forever…

riding the spring wind
has the feeling of movement —
sleeping the whole time

We’re in Jamestown already.  I’m tempted to say “we’re on the way home” but I’ve really lost that sense of myself.  Having moved all my personal possessions out of my parents’ house, what I didn’t save I gave away, and most of what’s left there now is baby pictures, man, just baby pictures…and lots books I won’t use.  At one point, I believe I made a catalog of it all, but that’s gone missing somewhere sometime ago.  And I can’t say New York is my home — a city filled with travelers and constantly in flux — and a mighty strange feeling upon leaving that this trip might change me in a way that I can’t ever really return.  I’ve only been gone a day now and I can already see that there’s far more to this world than even New York can offer, despite its claims to possess everything and everyone of importance.

New York springs with life
Dakota, a little less —
no feeling of home

It might be true in one way, but what they absolutely cannot claim to have is nothing.  I mean Nothing.  The streets the people the sounds the stuff the lights the thoughts the sights; it’s been filled, to the brim, with everything; no space left; no room for nothing.

That is what I’m seeking on this journey coming back through the heartland.  You’ll ask, can you ever find ‘nothing’?  Is it really ‘there’ or anywhere to be found?  I once read that, “The right art is purposeless, aimless!  The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.” (Suzuki)  What might it be like to aim at Nothing?  Perhaps it sounds a little confusing, like I wouldn’t even know what it meant to succeed.  Or just a little boring, like who cares?  And perhaps, that means, well, I’m screwed from the outset.  So prepare yourself for failure.  Here we go.  I’m going to walk in the wilderness, where I’m going to find nothing.

Around mile 230 (near Medina, ND), 2011.25.5, 16:30

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