Arriving in the city of Bismarck after driving through the grasslands of North Dakota for a couple of days is a slight shock to the system. And though it only has a population of 55,000, Bismarck's big streets and noisy traffic are as far removed from the quiet solitude of the prairie as one can get in these parts. All of a sudden I have to pay attention to traffic lights and cars again.
The city grid is easily navigated and I quickly drive us to the tallest landmark here, the capitol. The art deco building, also called the "Skyscraper of the Prairie," represents quite a departure from the dome design traditionally used for legislatures. Sitting in the park in front, we enjoy a great view of the 19-story white limestone building that can easily be seen from 20 miles away on a clear day. Next to us on the capitol lawn is Leonard Crunelle's "Bird Woman," a majestic statue of Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide who traveled with Lewis and Clark.
From there I steer the Gold Wing through the small business district to the Missouri River. The River Road leads us to Keelboat Park, under the Grant Marsh Bridge, where we visit the 55-foot wooden keelboat replica of the boat Lewis and Clark once used on the Missouri River. Another more modern interpretation of Sacagawea, grouped with her traveling companions Lewis and Clark as large, painted metal figures, can be seen "exploring" near the bridge. In midsummer, the 150-passenger Lewis and Clark Riverboat is a popular attraction for tours of the Bismarck riverfront, but the scene is relatively quiet today. A few girls are lying on the riverbank trying to get a tan and, out on the water, zipping around on jet-skis and motorboats, others are enjoying a perfect summer day.
From Custer's Home to the Grave of Sitting Bull
Across the river in Mandan, Bismarck's sister city, the residential neighborhoods are almost completely hidden by the foliage of huge trees. Seven miles south of town, Fort Abraham Lincoln features 5 Nations Art, a store displaying the works of 200 local artists, and tours through the reproductions of the General George A. Custer home and the earthen lodges of the Mandan tribe. Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-05 in the region, near Washburn, north of Bismarck, where they built Fort Mandan. That was where they met Sacagawea, who turned out to be a vital member of the "Corps of Discovery" after they set out from the fort in the spring.
As we leave Bismarck the next morning, some of that pure-prairie feeling we had before we hit the "big" city quickly returns. I take a look at the map and decide to let the Honda roll on Highway 1804, so enumerated to commemorate the year when Lewis and Clark traveled through the region. Back then the Missouri River was a wide, wandering, shallow stream until 1948 when the US Army Corps of Engineers began dam construction. Then, in 1962, after President John F. Kennedy dedicated the dam, the river had officially become Lake Oahe, in honor of the Oahe Mission to the Lakota Sioux in 1874. The fourth-largest manmade reservoir in the US, at a length of 231 miles, it links Bismarck and Pierre, the two capitals of the Dakotas. With its 51 recreation sites, including many well-developed campgrounds around the 371,000-acre reservoir, Lake Oahe is a sporting paradise, especially prized by anglers for the Walleye fishing.
After traveling for 90 miles along the lake, we pass from the Roughrider State into South Dakota, and a few miles further on we reach the town of Pollock, which had to be moved half a mile in the fifties to avoid being flooded once the reservoir filled. Another 50 miles down the road, we roll into Mobridge, the "Oasis of Oahe" and also, as the Lakota Sioux claim, the final resting place of Sitting Bull, their warrior chief who annihilated Custer and his 7th Calvary troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.