Holten: Staying home is finally OK
I am angry with you North Dakota, because you kicked me out when I was only 17.
Oh sure, you were subtle about it, because much of it was implied and you didn’t single me out. You said it to basically everyone my age, unless they were inheriting a big farm, ranch or some other thriving enterprise.
At that time you said, “You don’t have to leave right now. You can go to college here first and then, unless you want to be considered a failure, you need to get out, go far away and become something more. That’s just the way it is.”
“Really?” I asked. ”You don’t want me to stay?”
“It’s not that we don’t want you to stay,” North Dakota said, “It’s just that we have a somewhat low opinion of our state and we don’t want you to wallow in that. So you need to go somewhere where you can blossom, grow and make us proud. You can come back and visit if you want. But don’t come back here all proud and arrogant, because if you do we’ll chop you down like wheat in the north 40.”
“OK,” I said. ”I’ll go.”
“And don’t worry,” North Dakota added. “You’ll do well because we have a good work ethic here and people around the country know that. So you’ll have no problem getting a good job.”
Thus, I went on to attend the University of North Dakota and then took off, first to Colorado, then California, and then traveled to the rest of the country and then Europe. And it was true that I was a very marketable commodity because of my roots. But that didn’t stop people from saying, “Oh you’re from North Dakota? That’s where Mount Rushmore is, isn’t it?”
After a while I quit telling people that I was from North Dakota. Except when I rode in rodeo, because then, being from North Dakota was cool, especially if you were from western North Dakota.
Because, you see, the rest of the world thinks that North Dakota is Fargo — flat and boring.
Oh sure, the oil boom has put us on the map, but not necessarily in a good way. Even people in the eastern part of the state, who rarely admit that they know us, think that our streets are overrun with prostitutes and derelicts and so many of them have never even been to the Badlands.
For them, everything points east. In fact, were it not for North Dakota, the Twin Cities would have a population of about 364. But since so many of North Dakota’s brightest move to the Twin Cities, that area has blossomed. I mean, who in North Dakota doesn’t know or isn’t related to a bundle of people who live in the Twin Cities?
Author Melanie Hoffert, a North Dakota native from Wyndmere who now lives in Minneapolis, wrote this in her recently published book entitled “Prairie Silence”: “I am often taken aback at my own hesitancy to claim roots in North Dakota. When asked where I’m from I feel unavoidably self-conscious, wanting to immediately say, ‘Well, I’ve moved.’”
Why wouldn’t she feel self-conscious? North Dakota has never promoted the better parts of its state.
Later, showing her love for home, she goes on to say: “When I return to the farm on my own … the land speaks to me in another way. Rediscovering the landscape of North Dakota is like finding a familiar childhood book with soft pages that smell sweet with age. The flat land is not dry, not dark and not lifeless. Instead, North Dakota is a painter’s palette where all of the early colors settle. The light changes minute by minute, following unassuming subjects; a wheat field, a gravel road, a gray grain elevator.”
“North Dakota is actually very beautiful,” is all I will say to my new acquaintances. They’ll look at me with a suspicious eye as if to say, “What could emptiness possibly hold?”
The recent oil boom, for all of its controversies and destruction, problems and tackiness has at least accomplished one thing for the younger generation that it didn’t for me, even in the ’80s: It has made it OK for young people to stay home.
Because, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. once said, “Where we love is home — home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”
Holten is the manager of The Drill and the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. He writes a weekly column for The Dickinson Press. Email him at email@example.com.