In North America

Gateway to the Land of Legends: Things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota

I was invited up by North Dakota Tourism to talk to a group of writers about my career and thoughts on digital storytelling. Besides officially somehow crossing the threshold of “person worth paying attention to,” I was excited for the opportunity to explore a new state. Not to mention this was my first stop in my return from Costa Rica.

What’s in North Dakota anyway? Land? Yes, lots of land. 183,272 square kilometers worth. Sure, that’s only 19th in the nation, but it’s made to feel all the more overwhelming when you consider the lack of density — 3.83 North Dakotans per square kilometer, 47th in the country. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t take long in North Dakota to find yourself staring over a vast, quiet horizon, which I did many-a-time.


National Legend Turned Butter Saleswoman

Fort-Mandan Things To Do In Bismarck North Dakota

The state capital, located just about in the middle of the state, is surrounded by an incredible amount of early pioneer history, namely the now legendary Lewis and Clark whose famous expedition to the Pacific Ocean opened the West and eventually inspired dysentery-style entertainment in The Oregon Trail. Fort Mandan, just outside of Bismarck, was the duo’s last stop before heading out into the unknown*. It was here where they met and hired Toussaint Charbonneau, a Quebecois trapper, as an interpreter for their journey. You might not recognize his name, because he’s very much overshadowed by his infinitely more popular wife, Sacagawea. It’s even believed that Lewis and Clark basically used Charbonneau to get to Sacagawea, who spoke Shoshone — a language they knew they needed in their arsenal in order communicate with the tribe of the same name at the head of the Missouri River. Years later, we for some reason continue to honor Sacagawea’s contribution to the history of this continent by making her a butter saleswoman.**

After touring the fort, I decided to spend a little time wandering around Downtown Bismarck. Like most U.S. cities, Bismarck is experiencing something of a renaissance.***  A short stroll through Main Street and Broadway Avenue showed promise for a charming downtown with new restaurants lining the streets, like Humpback Sally’s — a small plates joint specializing in cocktails. I visited during a walking tour of downtown with attendees of the event I was speaking at, and I thoroughly enjoyed everything I was able to shove in my face. Then there was Laughing Sun Brewing Company, satisfying the craft beer-need that seems to come with every downtown revitalization. You’ll hear no complaints from me. This was a great place to hangout with locals, listen to some live music, or sit out on the patio and order pizza from next door’s Fireflour Pizza.

“A Giant LEGO Piece in the Ground”

North Dakota Capitol Things To Do In Bismarck North Dakota

On my second day I connected with Mike Jensen, Outdoor Promotions Manager with North Dakota Tourism, whose absurd height meshed nicely with his warm and welcoming personality. Mike took me up to the North Dakota Heritage Center, a truly fascinating and easily digestible display of North Dakotan history from unearthed beings of a meteor-destroyed era to the Native people that continue to call this region home, including the Sioux and Mandan tribes. Here I met a local curator and Sioux writer who was able to blow my mind by speaking in and explaining some of the Sioux language. For a linguistic nerd, it was incredible.

Mike then took me and Jenna Cederberg, editor of Montana Magazine who was also speaking at the aforementioned writers’ event, over to the state capital building. This is a building famous for being the most efficient of statehouses in the country. After seeing it, how could it not be? It quite literally looks like a giant LEGO piece in the ground, art deco style. This was by no accident.

After a fire started by a careless janitor and his oily rag claimed the first statehouse, a handful of representatives were tasked with selecting a new design that could come in under a very tight budget. As you can see, they very much succeeded in that task.

Missouri River Cycling Things To Do In Bismarck North Dakota

The next day, after chatting with fellow writers at Fort Abraham Lincoln, I hopped onto a bike and over to a gentle Missouri River for a light paddle with some of the event’s attendees. I started to see how a young Teddy Roosevelt, North Dakota’s claim to fame whom we’ll discuss more later on, became so enamored with this wild and untamed region. There’s a romanticism in the quiet of the outdoors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a city guy who’s terrified of prolonged silence and being too far from a selection of craft breweries and bike shops. Point is, I get it now thanks to North Dakota, especially after spending the last two days of my trip out in the Bad Lands of the Roughrider State near the old west town of Medora.

Read part two on the Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, and the Maah Daah Hey Trail.

*”Unknown” to all but the native folks who had already settled the continent for thousands of years.

**She’s also on the dollar coin, but don’t lie and tell me you thought of that before butter.

***Renaissance: The world’s most overused English word to describe any city better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. My apologies for using it.


Disclosure: This visit was sponsored by North Dakota Tourism. As always, all opinions are my own.

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