• Jie is still traveling in China, till the end of June.  She is making some very interesting church visits while there and I look forward to hearing more about them when she returns.
  • While she is away, I've had time to travel (see essay below) and visit my daughters.
  • Some good reading while I've been away:  The Nix:  the Novel, a suspenseful novel by Nathan Hill,  Excellent Women, Barbara Pym's delightfully comic British novel, written two years before I was born, and Little Fires Everywhere, a novel by Celeste Ng (one I had trouble putting down.)

June 10, 2018
The Least Visited State in the Country
Things I did not realize when I decided to take a solo camping trip to North Dakota:  1) the western sections of the Dakotas are the windiest parts of the United States,  2) I would need to tie my tent to  two  picnic tables to keep it from blowing away, and 3) western North Dakota averages 15 inches of rain a year, and about half of that came down during the four nights I camped there.  But all is well with my soul.
When Jie goes to China each year, I try to spend some of my time visiting places that tend to bore her, like baseball parks, state capitols, and presidential homes and museums.  It works out fine, because when she gets back and hears where I've been, she's never jealous.  

My effort  this year to not make her jealous led me to select North Dakota for my trip.  But it turns out that not only is  Jie not jealous, but nearly  everyone  I told about this trip is not jealous .  

"What are you doing while Jie's away this year?" they ask. 

"I'm going to go camping in North Dakota" I respond.  

Then there is silence for a brief moment, before politeness kicks in, and the other person usually responds, "Oh, that's nice."  And then he or she will then change the subject.

Apparently the world as a whole feels so-so about North Dakota, as it is the least visited state in the U.S:  last place when it comes to tourists.  But North Dakota is not going to settle into last place without a fight.

One brochure tried to lure tourists by bragging over North Dakota's soy bean production.  Among the states, North Dakota ranks fifth in bushels of soy beans produced in 2017.  According to this brochure, crayons are made from soy beans, and North Dakota produces enough beans to make 574 billion crayons...if there were ever a market for them.  (Of course, Illinois ranks first in soy bean production and we could produce a trillion crayons.) 

Another way that North Dakota is trying to be less boring to the rest of the world is by hosting the National lawn mower racing contest.  North Dakota mowers reach speeds of 60 mph.  I have not personally attended any of these championship contests, but I am assuming that these are not push mowers.  I am also assuming that they are not trying to cut grass at such high speeds. 

If speeding lawn mowers is a bit too intense for you, let me recommend Turtle Lake, North Dakota, where you can take in their annual National Turtle Racing Championship.  
The people I met in North Dakota were not unfriendly, but they seemed a bit reserved.  This is probably because they are not used to seeing actual  humans .  North Dakota has the third lowest population of people of any of our states.  And by the time you factor in that hardly any tourists from the outside ever visit there...PLUS... the factoid that there are three times as many cattle as people in the state, well...no wonder folks there may not be exactly sure what to do with you when you arrive. 

But there is this:  folks living in North Dakota are happier than the residents of every other state in the country, except those who live in Hawaii.  This may be due to one of four reasons:  1) because North Dakota has the highest per capita consumption of beer of any of our 50 states, or 2) North Dakota has the highest per capita number of churches of any of the states, or 3) North Dakota has the highest number of introverts of any state in the country, or 4) North Dakota grows more sunflowers than any other state.  I know that sunflowers always make me happy.  

The thing is though...with all the beer being guzzled, it seems a little ironic that the official state beverage is milk.
While I have no regrets about driving 1000 miles each way to enjoy the natural beauty of the state, I would not drive 10 miles for its cuisine.  Some states are worth the journey just for their fine dining. I have no trouble driving all the way to Alabama for its soul food, Oregon for its seafood, New Mexico for its Mexican restaurants, or Wisconsin for some German fare.  But in North Dakota you get lutefisk, a dried white fish cured in lye and molded in gelatin.  Even the chain restaurants in North Dakota seem a cut below the rest of the country. I think the lutefisk is a bad influence on all the state's cooks.

The state has tried to overcome its culinary reputation:  they hold the world record for the largest hamburger (3,591 pounds that fed 8000 people in 1982,) AND the largest pancake feed in the U.S. (in 2008.) And they are the country's most prolific producer of honey.  

The honey part surprised me at first, as I saw wild horses, pronghorn, bison, and prairie dogs...but no bees while I was there.  But on the way home, passing through Minnesota, I felt a buzzing in my shirt pocket.  Thinking it was my cell phone vibrating, I started to reach for it...when I realized that I was wearing a shirt with no pocket.  Then I felt the sting.  I whipped my shirt off...right there in the middle of Minnesota...and a bumblebee fell out. I thought it was a bumblebee.  But maybe it was one of North Dakota's grand honeybees... blown into my clothes while I was camping.

North and South Dakota were originally only going to be one state: Dakota.  But then folks got into a fight over where the state capitol would be. Some wanted Pierre, someone wanted Bismarck.  Eventually the federal government got tired of the argument and just split the territory in two and made two states out of them.  So now we get  two  Dakotas.  

While in North Dakota this year, I enjoyed visiting the state capitol building in Bismarck, learning about Theodore Roosevelt's time in the state, and wandering the roads and hiking trails of the National Park in his name.  

In 1884, Roosevelt's wife and mother died, on the same day (February 14,) in the same house, in New York.  He was devastated. So, he journeyed west, taking the railroad line that had been newly completed.  In his months in exile there, he became a new man, healed, and restored.  And he returned to New York to embark on one of the most remarkable political careers of anyone in our nation's history.  I wanted to spend time in the place that had so nurtured and affected him.

South Dakota gets most of the tourists:  with Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills and the Corn Palace.   

But North Dakota gets those of us looking for peace, and solitude, and space, and beauty...and balm for the soul. I recommend it.  But if you camp, take some extra rope.  Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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