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Dear Travelers to North Dakota: Please Don't Come Until You've Understood These 10 Things

North Dakota
by Alicia Underlee Nelson Jun 21, 2016

1. It’s cold sometimes. Have fun with it.

Yeah, it gets cold here from November through February. Get over it. You can either head south for the winter or quit your whining, throw on some extra layers and hit the snowmobile trail for a little adrenaline rush or go ice fishing with your buddies and a few cases of beer.

We like to warm up in busy bars and cozy restaurants when the snow falls, but sometimes we need to shake it up a bit. So, we’ll go cross country skiing by candlelight in Garrison and Grand Forks, dance in the streets and sip artisan hot cocoa in downtown Fargo and book a room in the Hotel Donaldson just so we can sit in the rooftop hot tub and watch snowflakes fall on our hair.

2. There’s plenty of room to roam.

North Dakota is a mostly flat state. The prairies and rich farmland that drew people here once sat at the bottom of a glacial lake and that soothing expanse of land and sky is something we feel deep in our bones. There are just 10.5 people per square mile, so there’s plenty of space to explore.

We build out, not up, since too many buildings — or even trees — make us feel hemmed in. We’re used to seeing the stars spread out above us, watching the sunset and monitoring weather systems as they move in from miles away.

Take time to get your bearings if you’re new here. Standing alone under an ocean of sky can be every bit as disconcerting — and exhilarating — as standing at the edge of the sea.

3. But just because it’s open, doesn’t mean it’s empty.

North Dakota is a major agricultural producer, exporting 597 million dollars in agricultural products in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. So just because that land you’re driving by isn’t covered in buildings doesn’t mean it’s not being used. That’s a whole lot of money you’re flying by at 70 mph.

4. New neighbors = a constantly evolving food scene

North Dakota leads the U.S. in per capita refugee resettlement with 135 refugees for every 100,000 people. Since we have a small population, immigrants have a major impact on the local food scene, just like the waves of immigrants before them.

You can still find kuchen and lefse like grandma used to make and order stellar curry, pho, ramen and tamales from established Indian, Asian, and Mexican chefs. But you should also try Somali stewed goat with malawah, spicy Liberian fufu, and Ethiopian flatbread. Then shop for Nepali and Bhutanese staples and halal meat at specialty stores that have sprung up around Fargo.

5. Sunday shopping is a little tricky.

Want to buy new shoes or a skateboard on a Sunday morning in North Dakota? It’s not gonna happen – at least between midnight and noon, anyway. That’s because it’s straight up illegal (as in, a Class B Misdemeanor) to operate a retail store during those hours according to the North Dakota Century Code. (Unless you happen to celebrate the Sabbath on a day that doesn’t fall on a Sunday.)

Restaurants and grocery stores escape the state-sponsored “go to church” message, so if you’re planning a little Sunday shopping, sleep in and plan a nice, leisurely brunch. You’ll have to wait until at least 11 to order that Bloody Mary or mimosa, though.

6. Nature is right there for the taking.

Getting outside is easy in North Dakota. Nature isn’t something confined to pristine, gated attractions you have to drive miles to see; it’s wild, raw, and right there in front of you. You can walk to The Greenway and explore 2,200 acres of green space after a three-course dinner in downtown Grand Forks or spend a lazy afternoon fishing in Fargo. We do yoga on paddleboards on the Red River in Grand Forks and canoe it in Fargo. And the boats are out cruising on the Missouri between Bismarck and Mandan the second the weather allows it.

Don’t miss Theodore Roosevelt National Park for gorgeous painted canyons and badlands bluffs. Then straddle the border between the U.S. and Canada among the fountains, roses, and winding forest trails of the International Peace Garden. And 63 wildlife refuges and 13 state parks offer hikers, cyclists, and paddlers a tempting array of terrain, from pristine lakes and winding rivers to dense forests and rolling tall grass prairies.

7. We love to party.

You’ll almost always find North Dakota and its cities ranked high on lists of the biggest party places. We’re totally cool with that. We like to have a few drinks at Bison tailgating, during a UND hockey game, at the lake or sitting in a lawn chair in our front yards for no reason at all. We’ll grab you a cold one, too.

If you’re going to drink with us, you should know that our clubs and bars are closed by 2 a.m. (even earlier in some cities) and you can’t buy alcohol in grocery stores or gas stations. We like to see these restrictions as a party challenge.

8. We did local and handmade before it was cool.

Farm to table just makes sense here, since just about everybody has or knows someone with a garden. If you don’t, there are a ton of CSAs to join and farmers markets to shop. You can get exceptional meat, eggs, and milk from the farmer or Hutterite colony down the road, just like grandma and grandpa.

Handmade, artisan goods are cool with us, since we never stopped producing them in the first place. We can appreciate hand-tooled leather belts and delicately embroidered quilts, because someone we know probably made something similar. We like savoring local wine, beer and spirits, because it gives us new ideas about how to improve on our family recipes.

9. There’s an invisible line between east and west.

College campuses and a thriving entrepreneurial scene give eastern cities like Fargo and Grand Forks a distinct energy. They are decidedly urban, a bit more diverse than the rest of the state, and people on the street can name more restaurants and attractions in Minneapolis/Saint Paul than in the state’s capital, Bismarck. Somewhere around Valley City you start to see more cowboy hats and Wranglers than beanies and skinny jeans and the energy in the cities and towns has more in common with the wide-open spaces of Montana and Wyoming.

10. We’re a mostly red state… and we’re cool with socialism.

While eastern North Dakota is more liberal, the state as a whole is very conservative. But it’s also home to the Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck (the only state-owned bank in the nation) and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks, the only state-owned mill in the U.S. – and the largest, too.

This isn’t as counter-intuitive as it sounds. Most people here don’t see state-owned properties as something political at all, just a reflection of the state’s values. North Dakotans stick up for the little guy and both of these entities were created to exert more local control against big business and outside interests.

It’s totally normal that when we want something done, we do it ourselves, from the very first barn raising to the state’s many electric co-ops that were formed by citizens who wired their own cities and homes instead of waiting for contractors. We’re still banding together to create new food co-ops and co-working spaces today. So the fact that thousands of people waited in the cold to hear Bernie Sanders speak in North Dakota came as a surprise to everybody but us.

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