In my hometown, most people kind of just stuck around the area after college. At my university, we have Homecoming each fall where hundreds of alumni return for a weekend of reminiscing and events. In Znojmo, many people, myself included, come back to wander the streets for the annual wine festival each September. In North Dakota, I was introduced to the annual celebration that brings the entire community, past, present, and future, together—the Grant County Fair.
As I mentioned back in November, Carson, ND is my stepmom’s hometown. About one hour from the capital, Bismarck, Carson is home to about 280 people. Yet, it is the official county seat and therefore home to the annual fair.
Compared to life at my American home, the entire weekend was full of new experiences. We started off in the Fair Building walking around the 4-H Club award winners for everything from woodworking to the best waffle to scrap booking to the highest stalk of corn. Overall, everything was amazing and made me feel pretty unaccomplished for the little I actually physically create anymore. Plus, there’s no way that at the age of seven I could have built a table.
Throughout the weekend, there were many events that involved animals and demonstrated an entirely different relationship between children and animals than is typical for me at home. First, was the animal judging competition where different categories of livestock were evaluated in various categories. This involved pampering of animals—including watching a chicken get a blowout after the rain– careful inspection and thorough description by judges. A child or teen owner, who had been working with it throughout the year in preparation, presented each animal. The next day, the child again showed off the animal this time to be auctioned and eventually slaughtered.
Right before going to North Dakota, I went to go see the film Captain Fantastic (2016) that presented a similar style of parenting that involved more honesty about the realities of the world, emotions, and relationships. In suburban New Jersey, the only animals seen are pets and the occasional deer, and hunting is most definitely taboo. The thought of playing with a “pet” all year and then having to walk around a ring with them as they get bid upon to be killed sounds horrific for a child. However, these North Dakota kids did it with grace and with their minds already focused on their pet for the next year.
Some other highlights of the fair included the morning parade of many floats, trucks, tractors, and most importantly, lots of candy! Next were events, such as boxcar races, minnow races, the antique car show and ultimately, the rodeo. As I was sure to tell some exchange farmers in the town rodeos are not common everywhere in the United States. In fact, it was only my second one ever. The energy of the rodeo truly impressed upon me just how different the lifestyle is and an entire community can exist with such relevance in one place, and is totally foreign in another part of the same country. The language, customs, knowledge and rituals just don’t translate without explanation.
This feeling only continued when visiting some family land and a friend’s cattle ranch the next day. They were generous enough to let us hop on to combine the fields, driving up and down, harvesting the wheat and depositing it into the truck. Then in the dark we sped in an ATV through the fields chasing the cattle in the middle of nowhere and learning about the calendar year according to a cattle rancher. Rather than paying attention to holidays, school breaks, or the fiscal year, the year revolves around the life and birth cycles of cows. Probably most horrifying was learning about the birthing process and envisioning the sounds, smells, sights, and sense of urgency to rescue both the mother and calf from an unsuccessful or frozen birth.
From the ranch, we also went to the local casino on the Native American reservation South of Bismarck. Earlier on our flight from Minneapolis, we had seen the actress Shailene Woodley heading to the protest there against the new pipeline proposal on the reservation. Although we did not see the protest village first-hand, there was plenty of buzz across the county about the issue and the rapid oil development up North in North Dakota.
At night, the fair turned into a big party between the two Carson bars with a band playing on the street in between. With some country and classic rock hits, I found myself being flung around the “dance floor” with aggressive swing dancing and laughing all the time.
On the way to our next stop, we stopped at Fluffy Fields Winery—a brand new winemaker and one of the few in the state. Most Fluffy Fields wines are fruit based, so we were sure to sample the special North Dakota chokecherry, aronia berry, haskap, and currant varieties.
For the end part of our trip, we visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the town of Medora. I hadn’t been to a national park in a large number of years, so it was special to visit this one on the 100th anniversary of the national park system, named after its founder. The landscape is truly remarkable with the mountains rising out of the plains. Seeing it and learning about the life of Theodore Roosevelt made me truly grateful for the National Park System as a way to preserve things that are unique about our country and environment. In addition, we were able to see a lot of prairie wildlife—bison, prairie dogs, wild horses and deer—roaming freely around.
Medora is a preserved town that acts as the gateway to the national park. One of its most famous features is its annual musical featuring singing, dancing, talent acts, country music, and a lot of patriotism. Set against the backdrop of the park, the musical is a spectacular spectacle and strong tradition.
Once again, visiting North Dakota was an exciting experience and made me reflect a lot about how different it would have been to grow up in different parts of the United States. As I return to teaching for a little while, it’s definitely always necessary to clarify that the country is huge and states, regions, and counties can differ so much.