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TRAVELING JACK

Posted 5/16/17 (Tue)

By Jack Dura
Farmer Staff Writer

Two stone johnnies sat on neighboring hills, just miles from the MonDak line.
Cattle roamed in a vast pasture. Meadowlarks sang along the fenceline.
And cruising along a dusty road on that 85-degree day was me, eyes peeled for Grace Lutheran Church at Skaar.
It’s an uncomfortable yet relaxing feeling being in the middle of absolute nowhere. No phone service. No major roads. No gas stations. No bathrooms. No people.
All alone.
(Cattle don’t count.)
I’ve been there before. It’s when you hope your rattletrap truck doesn’t break down on a grass trail near Chase Lake.
Or when even the radio is touch and go, like cruising between Hamlet and Wildrose, just waterfowl as your only sign of other life.
Like leaving Dad and his bird dog behind to rest in the shade as you go on ahead to a historic rock carving, all by yourself, bike tires racing over a dry prairie trail.
Such was the case earlier this month when we hit the road for Initial Rock, where two Seventh Cavalry privates cut their names into sandstone south of Medora in May 1876.
One month later, Custer’s unit would be wiped out.
Initial Rock is about as remote as I’ve ever ventured in North Dakota. The Elkhorn Ranch ranks a close second, only because of the maze of gravel roads it takes to get there.
A year ago, a friend and I walked three miles to and from the terminal monument of the Dakota markers delineating North and South Dakota.
This marker stands where the Dakotas meet Montana, about 25 miles south of Marmarth, out in the middle of nowhere, largely unchanged from 1892 when the marker was planted on the bald prairie.
Just a fence and some cattle now.
I’m not sure how fiscally responsible it is for a student to cross all of North Dakota to take a picture of a 120-year old rock, but selling my plasma paid for most of it.
On those empty highways and backroads, the thought (and threat) of breaking down is often there.
The low tire pressure signal goes off.
The gas tank reaches its last gallon.
And you’re north of Marshall at sunset, wondering if Halliday even has a gas station (yes, it does).
You pull off at Trotters on Highway 16 to see the old church, and not one vehicle drives by while you’re there.
You stop your car in Orrin amid its empty houses and overgrown lawns, where boxelder bugs inhabit the church. Rose quartz monoliths circle the churchyard, each depicting a scene of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
A Virgin Mary statue stands high on a pedestal with a broken electric halo on her head.
And not a person in sight.
Is this life after people?
Nope.
It’s North Dakota, where the cattle and cars each outnumber the people.