When the Lewis & Clark Expedition departed Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, Lewis noted in his journal, “we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.”
Welcome to Boomtown
Jeff Arpin, my granddaughter Kayla, and I are happy to be finally heading due west. On the advice of several long-haul truckers at a refueling stop, we have forsaken SR1804 for U.S. 2 due to the former being clogged with vehicles and in a state of considerable disrepair.
Crossing the rolling terrain of western North Dakota, we see amber waves of grain swaying in the prairie wind. Towering clouds of wheat dust chart the progress of combines harvesting ripened crops. We pass a caravan of trucks transporting outsized harvesting machinery.
Thousands of feet below this glaciated expanse of prairie is the Bakken shale formation where vast reserves of oil and gas are being extracted—thanks to new horizontal drilling technology and a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Some 200 drilling rigs form the epicenter of this black gold rush in the modern-day boomtown of Williston, ND.
Motorcycles & Gear
Two 2012 Can-Am Spyder RT Limiteds
Workers have migrated here from all over the country to partake in the bounty. But it’s not an easy life working long hours outside in extreme weather and sleeping in all manner of temporary, dormitory-style housing. One trailer has a sunroom constructed of clear plastic tarps, 2x4s, and a liberal helping of duct tape.
Riding into town, our Can-Ams are dwarfed by oil field monster machines. Thankfully, we arrive at our overnight accommodations without getting squashed by the swarming colony of gigantic vehicles.
Big Sky, Big Land
A chilly 47-degree, mid-August morning numbs my navigational senses. Without noticing, I zoom right by the turn-off for the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Flying along U.S. 2, we’re soon welcomed to Montana and the Mountain Time Zone. The Can-Ams have the proverbial bit between their teeth and clearly don’t want to turn around.
Although our elevation is 1,900 feet, the topography is flatter. Trees are becoming a scarce commodity. U.S. 2 is arrow straight, and the only sentinels of civilization are the towering grain elevators clinging to the rails of the Great Northern Railway.
Having missed Fort Union, we’re anxious for a break and find one at the Culbertson Museum and Visitor Center. The facility is devoid of other guests, and I can almost hear the greeters exclaim to each other, “We’ve got visitors!” The inside exhibits depict life here from 50 to 100 years ago. Outside, I’m fascinated by an extensive collection of antique tractors, including a large steam-powered model.
One of the things I find mesmerizing about traveling on the plains is the ability to spot thunderstorms miles away. In the distance, dark, low hanging clouds periodically disgorge shards of lightening. We miss the most intensive part of the storm, though, as we head south on SR 117 toward Fort Peck Dam.
I don’t notice puddles in the pavement depressions until my Can-Am starts hydroplaning every which way but loose! This event has roughly the same degree of stimulation as drinking a double espresso in one gulp while riding a roller coaster. Needless to say, we slow way down!
Riding along the top of Fort Peck Dam, we witness a panoramic view of Fort Peck Lake unfolding. Historians believe that at least 11 Corps of Discovery campsites lie beneath the massive lake’s surface. The 3.5-mile-long earthen dam was a New Deal project to help control floods and generate electricity. By the time we reach our overnight destination in Glasgow, MT, sunshine is breaking through a clearing sky.