Last week Tony and I had the opportunity to give a presentation at the North Dakota Bloggers and Writers Workshop, an annual event sponsored by the North Dakota Departments of Tourism and Commerce. We were assigned the topic “Passion with a Purpose,” and spoke about our adventures from the summer of 2012 when Tony, Gio and I embarked on a quest to discover as much of North Dakota as possible in one season.
Every single weekend that summer we loaded up our car, checked our handy state map and chose a new part of North Dakota to learn about. We called our project “Lost on the Prairie,” and blogged about our travels as we went along.
I’m a lifelong North Dakotan, a member of the fifth generation of North Dakotans in my family. Giovanni is the eldest member of the sixth generation, and my hope for this experience was that he would grow up knowing and loving North Dakota, so that one day he might choose to raise a seventh generation of North Dakotans.
On Monday we shared our story with a room full of North Dakota bloggers and writers, all with their own unique North Dakota stories. Beth Kaylor, host of the gorgeous food blog “Rhubarb and Venison,” was there, this time using her mad skills as a communicator to act as the moderator for a panel of talented writers. I first met Beth at last year’s conference, and have followed her blog ever since. Beth’s husband is an avid hunter and she features a wealth of stories and recipes centered around the wild game he brings home, in addition to a variety of other foods. Not only is she a talented writer, cook and photographer, but rumor has it she even knows how to prepare wild turkey, feathers and all.
One of Beth’s panelists was the charming and delightful Jenny Dewey Rohrich, also known as the Prairie Californian, who met her North Dakota sunflower farmer via Twitter. Jenny moved to Ashley, ND from Chico, California, married that farmer last fall and has never looked back. In October of last year, Jenny wrote an epic blog post titled “10 Ways Marrying a Farmer Will Change Your Life,” which went viral in hours and was even featured on the Huffington Post. She is completely self-taught with her writing and photography, and she’s kind of amazing.
Also on the panel was the uber-talented Jessie Veeder, a writer and singer-songwriter who hails from her family’s ranch located on the edge of the badlands in Western North Dakota. Jessie hosts the blog “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch,” where she chronicles life in the state’s oil patch and all that this oil boom brings with it. We felt like we knew Jessie already through her weekly column in the Sunday Forum, but she’s even cooler and more lovely in person.
We made many great connections with other North Dakota writers, too, and I’ll be linking to their blogs on our North Dakota page soon so that you can discover and enjoy their work.
On Tuesday, Tony and I were invited to attend a luncheon at the North Dakota Travel and Tourism Conference in Fargo. We were surprised and honored to be called up on stage, along with Jessie Veeder, to receive the North Dakota Ambassador Award. This recognition is so special to us, almost like a nod to let us know that yes, we can stake our claim as North Dakotans. We will display the license plate with pride, and look forward to using the beautiful piece of cookware from Davy Pottery in Burlington, North Dakota.
You see, as a girl growing up in Fargo, with all my family living either in the city or out of state, I felt a stronger connection to the lakes country of Minnesota than I did to my own home state. I know there’s a perception that Fargoans have a general apathy toward the rest of the state but, after talking with other Fargoans and taking time to really reflect on this, I’ve come to believe that this separation is oftentimes purely circumstantial.
Unless our parents or grandparents lived west of Fargo, owned a farm or were once farmers, most Fargoans simply don’t have the same natural connection to the land that nearly everyone west of us does. All four of my grandparents lived in Fargo when I was growing up, so we never ventured west for holiday visits.
Being on North Dakota’s easternmost border, in such close proximity to Minneapolis as well as some of Minnesota’s best lake country doesn’t help our cause, either. Within forty minutes, Fargoans can head east and be at the lake, with our bare feet up on the deck or in a pair of waterskis. Within three and a half hours, just a little longer than it takes to get to Bismarck, we can be in downtown Minneapolis, or at the Mall of America. Let’s be honest: if you lived in Fargo, this would be probably be your reality, too.
A future in North Dakota was never part of my plan. In fact, I worked really hard to pursue a life far from my home state. I attended college at the University of Alaska followed by a decade-long career working on cruise ships. I married a foreigner (he loves it when I call him that), who hailed from the thriving metropolis of Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
The vision I had for my adult life did not include the (once) sleepy burg of Fargo, or any other part of North Dakota. If anyone had told me twenty-five years ago that I would one day receive a North Dakota Ambassador award, I would have told them to get lost. I might even have used more colorful language.
But life is funny that way. My lost Italian fell in love not only with me, but also with my family and Fargo, and in 1996 he convinced me that we should buy a house here to enjoy during our two-month breaks from life at sea.
Once we opened our restaurant in 2000 and later welcomed our son in 2004, I had comfortably settled into the reality that North Dakota was our destiny. But I never expected that it would also become our passion.
During our nearly ten years at sea, Tony and I were lucky enough to visit all seven continents and see the world in a way few people get to. As a small-ship Cruise Director, I was even luckier because my job description included fun duties like driving zodiacs and accompanying expedition adventures to explore some of the more remote parts of the world like Antarctica, Svalbard and the Amazon. To say that we’ve had some amazing travel experiences would be an understatement.
But the summer we spent as a family traveling around, learning about, and getting lost on the prairie of North Dakota was one of the very best travel experiences of our lives. We gained an even deeper appreciation for North Dakota life, especially outside of Fargo, out there on that wide open prairie where life has its own set of challenges and blessings.
We reconnected with our history, visiting my grandmother’s hometown of Danzig, long gone now but the old grain elevators are still there to mark the spot.
We crossed all four state lines, visited countless small towns, drove down dozens of gravel roads (a first for Tony) and made many new friends along the way.
We enjoyed unique experiences like being able to pet a real live bison, feed milk bottles to hungry little calves, and go horseback riding (another first for Tony).
We were able to attend a Native American Powwow, be in two countries at the same time, and take in the Americana 4th of July celebrations in both Bismarck and Mandan.
We also drove down the Enchanted Highway, toured a brick-making plant, visited a Benedictine Abbey, played golf in the heart of North Dakota’s Badlands, and attended our first rodeo, to name just a few of our favorite North Dakota experiences.
We thought that once the summer was over, our quest to discover North Dakota would end and we would move on to a new family project. But I don’t think we’ll ever tire of getting lost on the prairie. There are so many places we still have to visit, so many people to meet, so many stories to tell.
This summer we’re going to do it again, this time with an emphasis on food and its place in our state – where it comes from, how it gets to our markets and tables, what it means to be a farmer, or as Tony says, “the rock stars of the world.”
We’d also like to discover some of North Dakota’s best foods – we’re already familiar with the amazing pie at the Tower City Cafe, but we hear that the famous Juneberry Pie at Lund’s Landing is pretty good, too. We know that Wishek, ND is known for its sausage, but who makes the best kuchen? The best burger? The best honey? Who has the best food truck out there on the Bakken?
We’ll be launching a feature on the blog soon to highlight our Lost on the Prairie 2014 adventures, and are planning our summer itinerary as I write. We would love to include your stories.
There has never been a better time to be a North Dakotan, and I’m so glad that my lost Italian helped me find my way home. It’s never too late to get lost on the prairie.