I received quizzical looks when I announced to my New England colleagues that I was going to North Dakota for a vacation. One even asked—“Now remind me—where is North Dakota?”
On the other hand, I can still hear my Minnesota Grandmother refer to North and South Dakota collectively as “Dakota,” as in “we are going to Dakota,” perhaps hearkening back to the Dakota territory prior to the formation of the states of North and South Dakota.
Geographer John Borchert, who studied the regional patterns of the upper Midwest, placed the Dakotas in the functional region of Minneapolis/St. Paul. A functional region is an area of circulation with a central node. The functional region of Minneapolis/St. Paul extends a very small distance east of the Twin Cities, where it encounters the pull of Chicago, but then extends hundreds of miles to the west incorporating North and South Dakota and much of Montana. I have family who grew up in the far reaches of this functional region and many have migrated to the Twin Cities.
Reflecting this pull of this regional central node, my Grandmother would say—“We are going to the cities,” as in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I began my journey to North Dakota in the Twin Cities where various members of my extended family live.
I decided to approach the journey through addressing questions that those from the Northeast might ask, as well as viewing the region through the lenses of comparing and contrasting New England and this upper Midwest region, including North Dakota, in hopes of educating my New England friends and reducing stereotypes of this region:
I suppose the first question is—do they have stores with food there? We packed our van with supplies before heading out from the Twin Cities. Someone from New England might have thought this was out of a concern over the availability of food. Actually it was because we wanted to eat some apples along the way. And drive-through espresso was found in all places, though at different scales.
Clearly trees diminish as you go west from the Twin Cities to the Dakotas. New England has big trees. The Dakotas have big sky. This illuminates another difference. As you drive across the open land of the Dakotas, trees are planted in shelter belts on the west and north sides of homesteads. This is because winds primarily come from those directions. In New England, the strongest winds come from the northeast during a Nor’easter.
Transportation is modern in both regions. North Dakotans do not use horses for transportation. They may be more likely to drive a truck or larger car than a New Englander because of the straight open roads that are all aligned North/South and East/West. We drove one 45 miles stretch with no curves and few vehicles. It was beautiful.
Railroads are prominent in both New England and the Dakotas. They are primarily used to transport people in New England. In North Dakota they are primarily used to transport grain for export to world markets. Or used to transport oil from North Dakota oil fracking fields to population centers. Dakotans and New Englanders are economically tied to global markets.
Both New England and the Dakotas have buildings. In New England you might find the church as the tallest building in a town. In the Dakotas, grain elevators dominate the landscape. And in the fall, soybean or corn piles can be seen adjacent to the elevators waiting to be loaded onto trains. You can also see water towers in the Dakotas. I have never seen one in New England—how do they create water pressure in New England?
In spite of the image of the Wild West, county courthouses exist in both places. And the police give tickets in both places. However, in New England you can get a $35 ticket for just parking your car to go to a restaurant if you fail to notice the “only local resident parking sticker” sign. In North Dakota, you may get a speeding ticket for going 35 in a 25 mile an hour zone and be charged only $10. It is hard to go slow when there is such a low population and the roads are straight. But it is easy to pay the $10. And parking is always free.
Regretfully, guns are part of American life in both places. In the Dakotas everyone knows that fall is hunting season. Communal groups of hunters are out with rifles enjoying company and the great outdoors to shoot pheasants, ducks or geese. Home décor reflects this autumn obsession. In New England, guns tend to be used against people rather than for gaining food and fellowship.
Dogs are loved in both New England and the Dakotas. In both places they are often allowed to sit on couches with those they love. However, in North Dakota they have a variety of dogs that are in camouflage to disappear once they are on the furniture.
Along with dogs come children. Children are found and loved the world around. Like children in New England, North Dakota preschoolers know how to use i-pads and TV remotes. The children of the upper Midwest, including the Dakotas tend to be blonde, reflecting the Scandinavian heritage of the region. Perhaps this same background makes them especially clean. They like to dust the furniture.
I found two elements of the Upper Midwest that are absent from New England. Upper Midwest towns are often known by the phrase—Home of the… (fill in the blank). An example, is the town that is home to the largest ball of twine collected by one person.
The other element of the Dakotas that is absent from New England is something called a “cell phone tower.” This amazing invention allows you to get cell phone coverage anywhere. I could only wish that my Boston suburb could be this progressive and up-to-date.