Further North than Fargo

Grand Forks, North Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

The word “quaint” is thrown around a lot these days. But by God, I’ve found a place so quietly charming that I can’t help but use it anyway. What is this little otherworld? It’s the riverside town of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and it’s not even 100 miles away from the Canadian border. (Yes, it’s further north than Fargo.)

Grand Forks has less than 60,000 residents (it’s the third largest city in the state); 30% of the population consists of students from University of North Dakota; downtown is a single, well-kept string of squat, brick buildings; and the handful of pubs where locals hang out function as all-in-one-sports-bar-mini-dance-club-casinos.

(I did visit one bar much removed from the main strip: a dingy, converted trailer on the outskirts of town that sold $2 shots from one-use plastic cups and offered free DiGiorno-style pizzas to groups of 5 or more customers. It was a Monday night and the round tables were mostly empty except for members of a rowdy adult co-ed softball team celebrating their latest victory.)

Woven into Grand Fork’s backstreets are all the quirks of Small Town America: honest expressions of individuality that break the monotony of daily life and define so many communities spread across America’s flyover states.

A hidden statue garden between apartment complexes boasts a little book exchange and wooden benches. An asphalt parking lot has been made over with bright street art. One optimistic restaurant offers an outdoor patio that can’t possibly be useful between the snowy months of September and April. The stone memorial by the bridge leading into Minnesota marks the height that the river reached when it flooded in 1997 and destroyed most of the historic, downtown area. A traffic light near town center has been out of service for months, the adjacent street blocked off by a plastic, orange barrier. At a locally owned coffee and tea shop called Urban Stampede, students in sweatpants mingle with farmers in blue jeans and dusty work boots. 

Shared smiles are frequent in this oasis of concrete, a cluster of humanity surrounded on all sides by endless big skies and flat farmscapes. The remoteness has fostered an underlying kind of solidarity of the stranded between residents; many locals are are friendly without prompting, welcoming and simply excited to meet visitors.

“So what brought you to Grand Forks?”

The question was never asked as a formality of small talk; people genuinely wanted to know why I was there. And I’m left wondering whether the curiosity flows from breathing in the crisp, unpolluted air of upstate North Dakota or tugging feeling that, when you stand at the city’s edge and stare into the plains of unknown nature before you, that you’re far, far away from the rest of society.

In this age of constant information overload, processed foods, and corporate sameness, it only makes sense that we end up craving the quaint: craft beers, pop-up gift stores with unique trinkets, simplicity, and fresh air. Things happen fast and the ability to slow down and relax is becoming more of a luxury. So when you’re looking to escape the modern rush, to travel far away to a land that will provide a special kind of culture shock, try out a place like Grand Forks.

Elk, Horses and Saturn...Oh My? : The Land Between the Lakes

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, Kentucky

by Samantha Adler

My drive across country was anything but straight; it was filled with loops, turns and zigzags according to where the next mini-destination lay. I had just left Nashville for Kentucky’s Bourbon Country, hoping to reach Memphis in a few days. My road trip buddy and I decided to make our descent back into Tennessee a bit creative by taking I-80 through the Land Between the Lakes.

This epically named plot of land is a long, skinny national recreation area placed between two large lakes, located half in Kentucky and half in Tennessee. If the name wasn’t incentive enough, I found that the area had several campgrounds and amazing wildlife scattered about its 170,000 acres.

We reached the bridge linking the Kentucky “mainland” to LBL around midday. The large metal structure was sturdy but narrow and the only way to access our destination. The car clanked over the metal grid as trucks sped by in  loud gusts of wind.  I held on tightly to the side of my seat as I looked over the metal bars at the large body of blue water beneath us.

The car hit a bump and we were back on solid road, cruising along the two-way I-80. There was little other than wild, green vegetation when we first began driving along the main road. The Land Between the Lakes was lush and wild.

Eventually we came across a sign for the visitor’s center. The signs were government created, and still were drenched in 1960’s style from the area’s inception; dark wood and light brown bold script (think any Disney font).

The visitors center was seated at the top of a hill, with a large dome extension. Children buzzed around us pointing at the taxidermied animals mounted on the walls and chasing each other. While we waited in line to ask the front desk for campsite recommendations, I read the local wilderness facts and event fliers nailed on the wood-paneled wall. I learned the dome was actually a planetarium and research center, and there was a free Saturn viewing party that night.  I tugged on my buddy’s shirt in excitement as he approached the desk. The woman who assisted us opened a brochure and circled a few campgrounds with open sites and campstores (as we were out of food).

The woman then pointed out the Bison and Elk Safari. This was a definite Samantha-approved activity. I had been waiting to see a bison in its natural habitat, to me they were a quintessential part of the american wild. We bought a ticket for our car and planned to head over at dusk, in hopes to catch a glimpse at some of these huge critters.

We hopped back in the car and went over our campsite options. I was all about the names on this trip and picked the most niche sounding one: Wrangler. We took off back down I-80 towards our campground.

At first glance Wrangler seemed quaint, friendly and a good fit for us. Their sign was etched in a western-inspired font and had an image of a cowboy and his horse. The land was mainly flat, with a small entrance hut at the front adorned in a few hanging flowers. The stable was adjacent to the hut, and horses used for tours galloped through their little field. As we purchased a tent site from the women in the entrance hut, a long trailer pulled up aside us. Three horses stuck their heads out in greeting. Thinking this was a rare sighting, I snapped a photo and cooed at the horses as they whinnied a hello.

We drove down the gravelly path towards our campsite. The tent sites were nestled in the back in a tiny little valley behind a wall of trees, beyond the campstore and bathrooms. As the car rumbled along the path, I gazed out at our fellow campers. Every single one had an equestrian companion.

The name Wrangler wasn’t niche, it was literal. We were the weirdos with no horse. Realizing our oddity, we choose a spot towards the back of the secluded valley. After setting up the tent I unfolded a lawn chair and opened a beer, waiting for dusk and bison. Sitting cross-legged facing the open field, I watched as strangers trotted by. 

When dusk hit we got in the car and drove a few miles to the pasture where the deer and the buffalo graze (get it?).  The cashier at the campstore assured us in a thick accent that we’d see bison and that they would probably serve as a lazy road block.

The “safari” was a driving tour of the pasture and a three mile paved road looped in a circle. We began the crawl, slowly inching forward behind a handful of other cars. Head out of the window, eyes glued to the dimly lit brush, I watched closely for any sign of life.

After about five minutes we came across a rustling in the tall grass ahead of us. Using my camera as binoculars I spotted a female elk grazing and popping her head up to check out the noise (noise meaning me squealing).

We continued the crawl around the paved circled and stopped when we saw the red glow of brake lights ahead of us. Two huge racks of antlers appeared from the horizon, gazing at the new vehicle in line. It was a huge male elk grazing close to us spectators.The elk were shy, peaceful and would never mess with the metal beast of a car.

We rounded the loop three more times at my request, seeing wildflowers and a handful of elk having an evening meal, but not bison. It was hard to be disappointed with all we had seen.

As the sun set, we left the elk’s valley and drove back to the visitors center in hope of meeting Saturn. Hopefully he wouldn’t allude us like the bison. We walked around to the backyard of the center where a crowd gathered, staring up at the sky. A back door was swung open to the dome, and a warm light spilled out. The self-identified scientist announced we had about twenty more minutes until we could line up for the telescope.

As my buddy stepped aside to take a quick phone call, I sat in the dewy grass. A grandfather sat on the dark lawn, with his little granddaughter in his lap, both gazing up at the stars. They were two people at very different points of life, with the same hungry curiosity, asking the same questions, with the same look of awe on their faces as they clung to each other.

We were all called in to line up for the telescope. Children scrambled up, and their parents who lifted them up to see, had an equally wondrous reaction. The scientist watching over was stiff and nodded at each group as they left the building.

To reach the massive telescope, you had to climb a few steps and brace yourself on the railing. When it was my turn I wobbled up, grasped the railing for support and narrowed my eye to focus. I was prepared to ask the scientist to point out exactly what I was looking for, but there was no need. Smack-dab in the middle of the lens was saturn, with it’s famous rings visible as day. It looked as though someone just stuck a sticker on the inside of the glass.

I stepped down from the ladder, wide-eyed and smiley. The stiff scientist gave me wink and I stepped back out into the starry yard.

The Kentucky night was hot and sticky, as we settled in for bed. I laid up looking through the tent at the stars, listening to the clicky-clack of our neighbors’ nighttime ride. I might not have seen a bison, but I got to peek into space. You never know what you’ll find when you stray from the ordinary. When you look for one thing, you usually find something much weirder and more extraordinary.


Where Did You Come From, Sand Dunes?

The Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

by Samantha Adler

The farther west I traveled the more awestruck I became with the wilderness of the US. The space was vast, untamed and unpredictable. Here nature was an unstoppable force with a mind of its own. These forces challenge our perception and how we’re used to understanding our home turf; The Great Sand Dunes is one of these wonders.

I was late to arrive at the southwest Colorado park. It was dusk as I pulled into the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance and I sped down the dusty, long road, eager to claim my campsite before the ranger station closed. My laser focus waned when I turned the corner and saw the dunes. I had researched the park a bit on my phone and marked as a must see, but the preparation didn’t make it any less extraordinary.

As the sun set behind the mountains, everything had a misty tinge of blue. Light leaked between the mountains’ peaks illuminating the varying curves of the giant sand dunes at their base. Even in the bewitching glow of twilight, the dunes seemed magically out of place. They resemble those of a typical desert, ones you would find in the Middle East or Northern Africa, but plopped at the base of a mountain range in Colorado. The contrast between the sandy mounds and the sharp mountain peaks was striking.

The Great Sand Dunes is one of the lesser known national parks, located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range in the San Luis Valley of southwest Colorado. Geologists are still studying the dunes’ origins, but believe that sediments and water from the creation of the nearby mountain range fell into the valley. The valley was originally a large lake, but due to climate change only the sediments remain. Wind tunnels from the mountain ranges helped to then create the shape of the dunes we see today (for a much better description and animated visuals narrating the dunes’ creation, check out the NPS geologists' research).

dunes3.jpg

I woke up around daybreak to hike the dunes. While located within the mild tempered Colorado, the dunes hold many qualities of a normal desert. It’s only recommended that you hike in the early morning and early evening, due to the varying degrees of the sand. During midday to late afternoon the sand becomes scorchingly hot from the sun. During the summer the dunes' surface can reach 150°.  The hot sands can burn any skin that comes into contact with it.

Standing at the base of the dunes I felt like I was in the middle of a desert, somewhere across the ocean. Turning away from the mountain range, I could only see the curves of the white sand against a baby blue sky.

This was, to my surprise, the most strenuous hike I’ve ever done. There are no trails on the dunes, it’s a free for all, and you can explore freely like it’s your own huge sandbox. I started up the closest dune at a quick pace and quickly began to realize this wasn’t going to be an easy frolic. Climbing sand is incredibly difficult; your body weight pushes you into ground sometimes causing you slide and swerve. I felt like an eager golden retriever, out of breath in a matter of minutes but starry-eyed and excitable by everything that surrounded me.

I continued on up the dunes, taking many breaks, panting heavily and plopping atop of peaks to take long sips of water. Other hikers bounded on nearby dunes. Some genius individuals brought sleds, to slide back down the slopes when they reached the highest one. As I hiked up and down endless mounds, scaled edges of peaks and slid down sandy mountains this small dollop of sand seemed like an endless world.

The Great Sand Dunes is often shadowed by bigger parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. But don’t underestimate it, the Sand Dunes is one of those wonders that reminds you that you’re a little piece of a much bigger world.

Left to Rot: Exploring a Ghost Town

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

by Cassia Reynolds

An Introduction to the Art of Sweetgrass Basket Weaving

Lowcountry Region, South Carolina

by Cassia Reynolds

The swampy summer humidity engulfed me as I opened my car door and stepped out onto the edge of Highway 17. The sun bore down on the blacktop, radiating a heat I could feel through the soles of my sandals.

I crunched through the rough patches of grass and weeds that lined the road and made my way to the wooden stand on the forest fringe. It was surprisingly cool under the shade of the pine trees; an oasis on the open strip of asphalt between Georgetown and Charleston.

It was the first time I’d ever visited a sweetgrass basket stand. I’d passed them countless times, the open huts sprinkled along the otherwise barren roadside, the intricate, handwoven baskets hanging down from wooden beams and displayed on folding tables. I’d just never thought to stop, always assuming they were tourist traps.

I came across Arthuree Bennett’s stand on a mostly barren stretch of highway, further away from the larger towns where most other vendors congregate. Arthuree was leaned back in a plastic chair, feet propped up on one opposite her. She held a slender palm frond between the index and thumb of her left hand, and with her right she jammed the melted handle of a spoon through a tight loop of woven sweetgrass. Arthuree glanced up as I approached and nodded a hello, her fingers continuing to work.

Throughout the entire time I spoke with her, her hands never stopped moving.

I set up the interview with Arthuree’s back to the woods. After she sat down, she made me swear I’d watch for snakes. She was nervous about them, but thankfully no unwanted critters made any appearances during the 30 minutes we discussed sweetgrass basket weaving, Arthuree’s favorite creations, and the craft’s not-so-secure future.

Arthuree expressed to me a fear other weavers echoed: the knowledge of the art is in danger of dying out. There are two major components to this: 1) younger generations simply aren’t as interested in weaving as their elders and 2) materials are becoming more scarce.

Most of the sweetgrass, pine needles, and other plants that weavers use in the baskets are collected in the swamplands of Bluffton, SC. However, due to recent development of the area, these natural resources are becoming less available. Weavers are forced to pay more for less. The centuries-old tradition is becoming less appealing, less sustainable, and more difficult to continue.

A brief history. The art of sweetgrass basket weaving comes from the Gullah tradition, a pocket culture native to a small area on the southeast. Gullah people are descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to the Americas in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. The Gullah community stretches between the coastal region of Jacksonville, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida, but the most concentrated populations are in the Lowcountry regions of South Carolina and Georgia, including the Sea Islands just offshore.

Gullah culture is a unique mesh of West African and Southern American tradition. It has its own food recipes, dances, singing-style, folklore, and language. The Gullah ancestors lived and worked on large rice plantations together, sharing traditions from many distinct African tribes. Over time, these practices blended. After the Civil War, many Gullah people stayed in the Lowcountry area, moving out to the little islands along the coast and the edges of the swamps. Here, they continued to live mostly in rural isolation, developing their own sustainable, nature-oriented lifestyle. (For more on the history of the Gullah people, check out A Clash of Cultures: The Landscape of the Sea Island Gullah.)

The same recent development of Gullah areas like Bluffton has led to devastation of this people’s hunting and foraging lands. And because their culture is so rooted in plants and animals indigenous to these areas, the loss is catastrophic to their livelihoods. In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Gullah Coast one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

People have tried to raise awareness through documentaries, folklore gatherings, and other fundraising events, but development is continuing. Arthuree taught her daughter the art of weaving in hopes to pass on the tradition. However, one person isn’t enough to stop the deterioration of an entire way of life. If nothing else is done, soon the Gullah culture may be confined only to museums, history books, and the rare basket found on a mantlepiece.

After learning so much about weaving and speaking with Arthuree, I bought a basket. It’s a miniature version of her favorite style, a funky, wavy creation she refers to as the Designer Basket. It’s a hardy, heavy thing.

When I hold the basket, I think about what Arthuree taught me. I know the dark spiral in the center is pine needle, that the palm looped through each layer of material was once a bright green, that all the ins and outs of this basket come from the same swamplands I visited for my marine biology class in high school. It’s a reminder that I share my homeland with many distinct lifestyles and I should take the time to get to know them.

If you’re interested in helping the Gullah people preserve their heritage, check out the Daufuskie Endangered Places Program, which is run by The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation. They have several donation and information programs.

Weird & Wonderful: Flea Markets Finds

Smiley's Flea Market, Fletcher, North Carolina

by Cassia Reynolds

A Hike Through the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

by Cassia Reynolds

Samantha's Hometown

Higganum, Connecticut

by Samantha Adler

The summer before entering high school my parents announced we were moving. We were leaving Middletown for a small town in the woods, called Higganum. Population 1,000. Correction: village within a town. While it was only about 10 miles away, it seemed to be the end of my teenage life (fact: teenagers are quite dramatic).

The real estate agent and I became natural enemies. Her job was to sell our home, and my job, as I saw it, was to foil all her plans. Before each open house I’d leave a trail of brightly colored sticky notes inside closet doors, on bathroom mirrors and stuck on the occasional family photo. Scribbled in messy, supernatural print they politely warned “DO NOT BUY THIS HOUSE. IT’S HAUNTED” and “I’M COMING FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY - GHOST”.  Either the agent caught on or a brave couple decided to proceed with putting down an offer, despite the ghoulish threats.

On the first day of school my history teacher asked us to find Higganum on a map. After ten minutes of not finding Waldo I raised my hand,

“I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s on this map. Maybe I’m looking at the wrong one?”

With a sly smile, my teacher responded, “It’s never marked!”

* horrified expression *

“That’s the fun part! Welcome!”

At the time I didn’t get the “fun part” of living in a place that was so unfamiliar, unrecognizable and tucked away. A quiet, wooded New England town constructed of forest back-roads interlocking occasionally with CT-81 and the traffic lights of our two-block Main Street.

It wasn’t until I moved to New York years later, that I saw the unfamiliar, unrecognizable and tucked away are a refuge. My hometown is a well-kept secret: a web of country roads, in-between a few New England towns. I’m glad I know the roads, how to get to that place where I can take salvage in the quiet and actually see stars in the sky.

Anyways, hope that ghost is being nice to that sweet couple.