Sep 20, 2023

Driving the Road To Nowhere – North Dakota

When it comes to road trips, I’ve lived most of my life by the motto that getting there was half the fun.  In other words, the travel from Point A to Point B can be just as memorable as the destination.  This is especially true when you’re perfectly fine without having a set destination at all. 

That was my thought process when I set out to choose a route for my first solo road trip in many years.  I wanted to go where few others would think to travel.  I also wanted to have a true sense of solitude on the highway, where I could be alone with my thoughts for hours at a time.  So, after a combination of modern-day Google searching and old-school researching good ol’ Rand McNally, I decided to conquer what has been coined by fellow travelers as the “Road To Nowhere” … or at least most of it.

Officially designated as U.S. Highway 83, the Road To Nowhere stretches from the Canadian border just north of Westhope, N.D, to its southern terminus at the Mexican border crossing in Brownsville, Texas.  Yes, there are zigs and zags along the way, but until the route takes an abrupt turn along the Rio Grande at Laredo, it’s a fairly consistent north-south trajectory. 

How it became known as the Road To Nowhere is pretty apparent if you look at the route long enough.  The vast majority of the highway runs through some of the most sparsely populated parts of the country – the heart of the Great Plains and the Texas panhandle.  How few people live there?  Consider this:  The largest city between my starting point at Minot, N.D. and my end point at Laredo, Texas is Abilene, Texas, with roughly 125,000 people.  The distance on U.S. 83 between Minot and Abilene is about 1,240 miles.  In between, there are just five cities with a population greater than 10,000 – Bismarck, N.D. (74,000), Pierre, S.D. (14,000), North Platte, Neb. (24,000), Garden City, Kan, (28,000), and Liberal, Kan. (19,000).  

I chose my jumping on and jumping off points based on the amount of time I had to not just driver the route, but get there and back. 

So ultimately, I decided I didn’t need to go all the way to the Canadian border to fully capture what the North Dakota stretch of the route was all about. 

Besides, the drive on Interstate 94 from Fargo to Jamestown and U.S. Highway 54 from Jamestown to Minot showed me all of the North Dakota’s flatland I could ever want to see. 

I also decided I wasn’t going to get much out of going past Laredo to Brownsville except possibly frustrated in gridlock and urban sprawl along much of the Rio Grande border.  U.S. 83 takes an abrupt turn east after Laredo anyway, so I would have pretty much completed by “border to border” at that point. 

But why start at Minot instead of perhaps Bismarck in south-central North Dakota?  I suppose the locals there put it best, “Why not Minot?” Plus, seeing some hills for the first time in hours as I approached Minot helped put my mind at ease.   

Welcome to Minot ... I think.

The best rationale for starting in Minot, however, was being able to pass through the heart of North Dakota’s Lewis and Clark country between there and Bismarck.  Even on a rare four-lane stretch of U.S. 83, the surrounding rolling prairie was surprisingly enjoyable. And an hour south of Minot, after crossing the bridge over Lake Sakakawea and passing the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, I finally started to feel a little like I was following in those explorers’ footsteps. 

Or maybe I was just feeling the wear of already having driven several hours just to get here.  I decided to look for a nice pitstop to catch my second wind and have a celebratory drink … OK, maybe two.  After all, my Road to Nowhere road trip was officially underway.  Time to celebrate.

And so I did at the Rusted Rail Bar and Grill in Underwood, N.D. 

I knew I had chosen wisely the moment I saw the greeter/bouncer at the front door.

Rusted Rail, in fact, seemed to be the type of place where all locals eventually wound up if they were venturing out for a bite to eat or a couple of drinks.   Spacious on the inside, kid-friendly during the daytime and seemingly welcome to all strangers, me included.

It’s the type of place I would certainly devote an entire blog post to had I stayed longer and eaten there.  But I did make myself at home at the Rusted Rail's large wooden bar near the entrance and sipped on a couple of Crown Royal and Cokes (I was close to Canada, so it seemed like the right choice) before moving on.

After all, the day was moving fast, and I had planned to do little sightseeing before ending the day in Bismarck.  Fortunately, the drive from Underwood to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center just north of Washburn, N.D. was not long at all.  Just look for these guys, and you can’t miss it. 

My time there and the nearby Fort Mandan State Historic Site will be covered in another post, but I will add that if you stop here like I did, be sure to appreciate the views of the Missouri River when you see them. 

By the time I concluded my exploration of Lewis and Clark landmarks, sunset was approaching.  I had just enough daylight to reach my stopping point for Day One on the Road To Nowhere …

… this conveniently located Quality Inn at the busy intersection where U.S. 83 and Interstate 94 meet in Bismarck.  Sure, it was nothing special, but it served its purpose as a relatively affordable place to stay.  Plus, it was within walking distance of a large Chinese buffet where I decided to have dinner.  It was OK, but …    

Had I known I was going to get restless and head out to explore downtown Bismarck, I would have held out for dinner at the Blarney Stone.  The menu looked authentically Irish, and as the picture shows the beer selection was much more diverse than I expected. 

Maybe the best part of the Blarney Stone was the garage door opening, which made open-air dining (or drinking, in my case) absolutely delightful on a crisp late summer evening.  

A couple of Jameson and ginger ales here turned out to be an excellent way to end a full day on the road. 

So, I may not have planned my evening in North Dakota’s capital very well, but at least I woke up fresh and eager to get back on the highway the next morning.  A short half-hour drive eastward on I-94 before U.S. 83 turns south at McKenzie, which is barely more than a spot on a map.  Plenty of rolling prairie to come …   

…and a seemingly endless sunrise to appreciate.  What was my next discovery on the Road To Nowhere?  Stay tuned.   

No comments:

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...