Rural North Dakota induces city-dweller’s metaphysical crisis

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The sun illuminates a cloudy sky in bright orange on the North Dakota prairie on a cold December day.

Rural North Dakota is probably not the first place most students desire to recover from a grueling semester. Being fifty miles from a bustling metropolis in a state where 15,000 folks makes a city the fifth largest city means that there is little to disturb peace and quiet.

Living in a downtown neighborhood means a constant state of noise and distraction. A car alarm began sounding off when I sat down to write this article (and continued for an hour). Emergency vehicles unpredictably blare sirens. There are drunkards singing while roaming over to the park across the street.

Too often those drunkards are fighting with each other as I am beginning to relax in bed. The worst is when one person can’t be heard, like when they screaming into a mobile phone. If you’re going to make your shit known so boldly, I deserve to hear both sides of the story.

Field of harvest corn from a top of a small hill.

Aside from being treated to a spectacular sunrise on the unobstructed prairie in rural North Dakota, the lack of light pollution is an absolute treat. Last year, I took the opportunity to dip into the challenge of astrophotography. Unfortunately, the weather was absolutely bitter cold. Twenty below zero with sustained wind chills fifty below does not provide much opportunity for experimentation.

I hoped that it would go better on this trip but the winter solstice moon obstructed good astrophotography. The first day was gloomy but the sky quickly cleared so I geared up and headed into the corn fields.

Full moon rise over rural North Dakota

A nearly full moon rises over a prairie in rural North Dakota.

The temperature was not below zero and the mail a half mile down the road needed retrieval. I headed down that gravel road and then into the field. Apparently, I totally forgot the moon project for that astronomy class two semesters ago. The full moon rises with sunset and then stays out all night.

A green wildlife lookout with metal siding sits on a rural North Dakota prairie.

Scouting a good sunset location is difficult when the landscape is virtually flat. There are hills but most of them do not provide enough height to gain a higher environmental perspective. The wildlife lookout that kept me warm for astrophotography was not a great location for a sunset.

Another likelihood is perhaps that the silence and open space is disorientating to someone used to constant environmental disruption. You know, like trying to write about a trip to rural North Dakota over car alarm.

Weather thwarts shooting goals

The sun ignites the sky in orange as it sets behind a farm in rural North Dakota.

In my disorientation, I walked to the nearest farm and silhouetted its buildings against the bright orange backdrop. Let us pretend that the corn stalk placement in the foreground is an intentional visual depth cue. Though perhaps an urban photographer not knowing exactly what to do with a rural landscape is forgivable. The now unfamiliar silence of nature and space left open too many possibilities.

Moonlight reflects on a small frozen lake in the Upper Midwestern prairie.

The plan for the field shoot was to capture images for an article about working with outdoor lighting conditions. Proper execution requires a remote but it of course refused to work. Snagging a handheld shot from a prime moonrise location would have to suffice. The weather might cooperate tomorrow.

Mother nature refuses cooperation

Wind picks up fresh snow in rural North Dakota ahead of a December blizzard generated from Winter Storm Eboni.

Wind ahead of the post-holiday blizzard provided a lovely, if foreboding, textural depth cue. Fortunately, the nine to thirteen inches of snow predicted traveled more easterly than the model first projected. Some places in the Upper Midwest received two feet of snow.

The weather also did prevent eagerly testing out that new drone and filming cool footage without strict rules, though.

Sun dogs encircle a rising sun near the horizon on a winter landscape in rural North Dakota.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

The sky is generally crystal clear following a big winter storm. Alberta clippers also seem to bring in extreme cold behind them. These are prime sun dog conditions, which is a halo caused by sunlight refraction through ice crystals.

All in all, a trip to the country was a nice contrast to busy city life. While absolutely unobstructed stargazing is noteworthy, sometimes the experience is worth more than documentation.

All photos by Benjamin Pecka.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent work. i need to do the same, find a remote place to unwind from the city. Where did you find this place?

    • I was visiting family for the holiday and this cabin is where my dad lives. I lived in a house, which my aunt and uncle now own, not far from there in high school. It is probably not ideal vacationing unless you are really interested in the largest concrete buffalo statue in the world. 😛

      West of Bismarck-Mandan is when the Black Hills begin and it is absolutely beautiful out there. There is a viewing area of the hills and sometimes the “wild” bison herd roaming Teddy park pay a visit. Light pollution is a problem though because of the small metro nearby and natural gas flares from drilling.

      Looks like the best places are the Grand River National Grassland and Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota because they appear to be officially designated as dark sky locations.

      • That’s pretty awesome. I’m really interested in hearing your story now, I’ll have to hit you about that and your move to Minneapolis

  2. The buffalo were awesome, the concrete and the white one. I first traveled to ND 3 years ago. The state is Beautiful, in it’s own right. We headed to TR NP. The badlands of ND are so much more beautiful than the badlands of SD. The colors at different times of the day. The wildlife in and around the park is amazing. The farm fields that go on forever, with the wind rows that keep them in place. The sunflower fields, with the heads following the sun. Have been back twice. Know why Teddy loved it so much. My photography is pretty hit and miss, but do get a lot of really great pics.

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