In late 2007, the venerable National Geographic magazine was producing its January 2008 issue. One of the stories in that issue was an "Emptied Prairie" feature that presented a desolate look at rural North Dakota.
During this same time period that magazine was being produced, some other people were involved in a markedly different endeavor. These 155 former and present North Dakotans were sharing their love for their state in essays they submitted in a "Why I LUV ND" project sponsored by the North Dakota Department of Commerce. This project was designed to help tell the stories of people who live, or lived, in North Dakota and their journeys and adventures there.
Many people responding to the negative tone of the National Geographic article used national rankings, statistics and other facts to illustrate the state's quality of life and current economic prosperity. But the personal stories of those who wrote "Why I LUV ND" entries are another perspective about life in North Dakota today.
The following pages share excerpts from some of these entries, along with profiles of other present-day North Dakotans. On this page Justin Data shares his views on what it means to live in the country's most rural state.
North Dakota is one of the few states left in the nation that has a truly rural character. I think many places that have been characterized as rural in the past are slowly being overrun by urban characteristics and are losing their pastoral, laid-back persona. This hasn't happened to North Dakota yet, and I hope it never does happen.
That's the whole point of being here. If the most important thing to you is being able to go to a dance club that opens at 2 a.m., then this isn't the place for you. If you want to be able to work hard, be a part of a strong community, and go home and shower your kids with attention at the end of the day, to me, that's what this place is all about, and that's why I moved here.
There's an old bluegrass song called, "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room." Whenever I listen to it while driving from Bismarck to Grand Forks on a family trip to "Grandma's House," I can't help but think that that one phrase sums up what's special about North Dakota. "On the right hand, on the left hand, 50 miles of elbow room." These words stick in my mind whenever I'm in the great, wide open spaces of the state. Your soul can breathe here. The pressures of more crowded spaces don't apply.
My favorite activity here I couldn't do when I lived in the New York City area is spending ample time with my wife and two young children. In Bismarck I can afford to live close to work. In New York, the closest I could live and afford a house was two hours away. Seeing as how I now spend about 15 minutes a day commuting, that's almost 19 more hours a week I can spend being a dad. No place on Earth can offer me anything better than that.
"Indeed I chose to live in North Dakota," writes Sarah Wilson in her Why I LUV ND entry. Here, in her own words is why:
I grew up on my family's dairy farm in Maryland. I moved to North Dakota to pursue my Master's Degree in Animal Science at NDSU and fell in love with this wonderful state. As a founding member of the Collegiate Farm Bureau at NDSU, I met a young farmer and fell in love with him too. I am now employed by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, and farm with my husband, Jeremy, in Jamestown.
There is an innovative, pioneering spirit that runs deep in North Dakota. I see in North Dakota more potential for the development of agriculture, specifically the livestock industry, than any other state in our great nation. The entrepreneurial creativity that I see in even the smallest town in the countryside is a resource we've just begun to tap. The internet has revolutionized rural America. Having fiber optic access in my home office in Jamestown, along with the job I have, allows me to utilize a graduate degree and maintain a network in the international agriculture community - all while raising a family on our farm. I have the best of both worlds!
After spending a summer studying European agriculture in France, I began to enhance my culinary skills. North Dakota is number one in the nation in the production of 14 different crops - this speaks to the availability of a wide variety of foods.
Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs, move aside. Californian Donald Cameron's retirement dreams are planted firmly on the tranquil shores of beautiful Lake Metigoshe.
After growing up in Fargo and attending UND, Cameron left the state in search of a career. He headed to California to begin his career as a manager trainee for a large financial services company and spent the majority of his career as a computer systems engineer and senior manager in the banking industry.
He often returned to North Dakota for visits, and thought his final trip to the state would be for his grandfather's funeral in 1975. Following the service in Westhope, the town his grandfather helped found, his family drove to Lake Metigoshe for dinner and what he described as "one last look." They were pleasantly surprised to see their former family lake cottage for sale, and arranged for his mother to purchase it the next day.
Since that time, he and his family have returned nearly every summer. Ten years ago, he purchased a second cabin close to the original family lake home. His four daughters, two who are now married with families, still continue their summer tradition of visits to Lake Metigoshes.
While boating several years ago, Cameron and his wife, Joan, noticed a for sale sign on one of the cabins. "I said that it would be a nice place to build a home," he says. "I was shocked when she agreed." Cameron retired last summer from his work as an information technology consultant, and construction recently began on their new lake home. Eventually Cameron and his wife hope to live at the lake the majority of the year and purchase a smaller home in California to remain close to their family.
"My kids think it's wonderful that we're building," he says. "They love it here." The entire family enjoys time on the water and walking or biking the path around the lower part of the lake.
"Most of my friends in California think I am crazy for moving here, but they have never seen the beauty of this place," he says. "Those who have come to visit have been truly amazed. One couple even inquired about buying the place next door."
"My mother used to say North Dakota has four things that are in short supply elsewhere: clear air, fresh water, open spaces and, best of all, friendly people," he says. "Almost everyone you meet would make a great neighbor."
"What a GREAT state to start a business!" writes Sara Watson in her Why I LUV ND entry. "My husband Eric and I both graduated from Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute. In 2003 we were looking at starting our own catering company. I am from Fargo originally and when we started working on our business plan it seemed the most ideal location to move to. My family is here and they provide a great support network that we need to run our business and help with our three kids.
"After living in Minneapolis for six years and Colorado for four, it is with great pleasure I can say how friendly of a state North Dakota is. People are genuine, nice and enjoy life. It is great to be able to have so much available in a city and yet, get to the rural country so quickly. We are avid campers and outdoor enthusiasts, and there are not many cities you can live in and get out to enjoy the great outdoors within 10 minutes. We love the four distinct seasons and the different activities you can do in all of them.
"The community values and support of local business is so evident. Folks here strive to see and help each other become successful. Not only is it a great place to start and operate a business, but it is a great place to raise a family. The streets are safe, the schools are great and people are NICE!
"Our business, Mosaic Foods, is an upscale catering company that began with just the two of us. We now have about six to eight full-time and 20 part-time people on our staff. We operate out of two locations, 69 North 4th Street in down and The Plains Art Museum. We can cater for any size group, from 2 to 2,500. We provide a service needed in the area. Thank you, North Dakota, for helping our business and family life be a success."
"In so many familiar ways, mine is the all-too-common North Dakota 'broken record' story," writes John Zimmerman in his Why I LUV ND entry. "I was born and raised here and left the state for college. However, after spending 17 post-high school years living and working out-state, coming home ended up being one of the most natural and effortless decisions, personally and professionally, I've made.
"Most recently, I'd spent six great years on Wall Street, but when it was time to make a career change, having the good fortune of flexibility on my side, coming home to evaluate my career 'next steps' was the first thing that came to mind. What proved an unexpected and exciting twist to the 'broken record' story was once I was back home, I realized there were numerous opportunities to take my career in a new, different and independent direction - right here at home.
"Initially, I was skeptical I was reading the opportunity accurately. But, I came home to my family, my home and a future largely open-ended. Over the past year as I've worked to build up a business from the grassroots, I've never felt a better sense of place - both personally and professionally. I don't have any crystal ball to tell me how things are going to turn out but I can't imagine doing what I'm trying to do anywhere else but here...in North Dakota.
"North Dakota remains a true diamond-in-the-rough. Many states boast of the 'people' and the 'places' but having traveled extensively and met people from all over the world, I don't think there is a good comprehension of how genuine and special North Dakota and its people are; people the world over crave this sort of authenticity. My passion for North Dakota has always revolved around the purity of the environment, the openness and honesty of its people and opportunities that are there for the taking. Frankly, I'm a bit torn about the secret that is 'living in North Dakota' getting out."
Brent Sanford used to say he was the loneliest guy in the middle of two million people. As a top executive for a large trucking company in Denver, he was spending too much time commuting and working to fulfill another man's legacy. In 2004, when his dad decided to close down the family business in Watford City, Brent and his wife, Sandra, decided to buy the company and move home.
Sanford now employs five people at his Ford dealership, S and S Motors, Inc. He has attracted some of the best talent in the region by offering wages comparable to those in a much larger city. Sandra, a respiratory therapist, started a pulmonary unit at the local hospital and is now serving clients throughout the region.
"Doing business in North Dakota is much more pleasurable than a big city like Denver," Sanford says. "In a large city, a sale is more impersonal and 'stand-offish' because you will likely never see that person again. But in a small town, trust is at the heart of every transaction because, in all likelihood, the customer will turn out to be your best friend's cousin."
Sanford is president of the local economic development board and a city alderman. He swears that, "There is more to do in western North Dakota than in Denver. And, best of all, there's more time to do it. You can just fit more into a day in North Dakota."