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TRAVELING JACK

Posted 1/24/17 (Tue)

On a chilly, sunny April day last year, my pal Sabrina and I were hurtling west along a gravel road near Hamlet, N.D., when the car radio went dead.
It was our last means of communication with the outside world.
A glance at a map will show you that Hamlet, N.D., sits far away in northwestern North Dakota, where conveniences like cell phone reception, mobile data and yes, even radio signals can be spotty.
Sabrina’s Volkswagen Jetta rambled along to Wildrose, the next town over from Hamlet, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Human contact. Again. We’re safe for now.
But not for long. After snapping our photos of Wildrose, we continued rambling on, hitting towns like Corinth, Alamo, Hanks and Zahl, because that’s what we do.
We travel North Dakota’s backroads and unseen parts, and in two years, I’ve been able to photograph 299 towns in the state.
Of course, 2015 Jack Dura thought what he was starting was unique and original, but nah. A Google search comes up with a picture book by a couple who visited “every town on the map and more” in North Dakota, so this is nothing new.
Still, it’s invigorating.
Where I’m from, Fargo, is starkly different than a lot of the rest of the state in many ways.
For one, there’s a six-digit population in Fargo. No other city comes close.
So when you visit little places like Raleigh, N.D., population: 7, it’s a different experience.
Especially, when both bars have closed and one of the remaining residents said, “It’s all goin’ ta heck.”
Still, other towns parallel Fargo in their own ways.
Pekin, N.D., population: 66, is probably the artsiest place in the state with its Pekin Days Art Show every June, the largest judged art show and sale in North Dakota, put on by the Nelson County Arts Council.
Personally, Pekin is where my mother’s family has hunted ducks for years, but not since 2013 owing to my grandfather’s retirement from the sport at age 81.
Marmarth is one of my favorite North Dakota towns, probably because of its wonderful steakhouse (with $12 Long Island teas), its downtown structures (a single, silvery jail cell) and the local scenery (beautiful badlands).
Jamestown is a fun place too. For years, my dad’s family parked their campers in Grandma’s empty back lot, dubbed “Grandma D’s RV Park,” hosting Fourth of July fireworks, boarding for hunting dogs and summer fish fries.
As a little kid, I confused Jamestown, N.D., with Jamestown, Va., the 17th century New England town, getting it in my head that my dad’s mother was an original settler and therefore over 400 years old.
When I was even younger than this, my mother’s parents were two of thousands of Grand Forks residents whose basements were inundated by the 1997 Red River flood.
One of my earliest memories is of a bearded man cleaning up after the water in their basement, where the only surviving items were two tables and a glass cake plate.
Of course, we in Fargo had our own troubles years later, especially in 2009 when the Red River reached its highest crest in recorded history. That was a fun spring.
But I digress. Two years on the road in a state like North Dakota, where the average Earth dweller will never visit, shows you a lot.
For a Fargoan like me, you learn right away not all of North Dakota is flat. It’s a tabletop to about Tower City, but then you end up in places like U.S. Highway 85 15 miles south of Watford City, where signs tell you to watch for falling dirt and bighorn sheep.  
Bighorn sheep? A bit exotic for a Fargoan used to city-dwelling deer.
Some of these towns’ names too.
Ypsilanti. Alkabo. Zap. Such odd names, but I hear Zap is a good place for spring break.
From Abercrombie to Zeeland, North Dakota has some special places on its (mostly) flat landscape.
Like the tiny town of Hamlet, proving that in this day and age, you can still go off the grid, whether you like it or not.