Howdy friends, and welcome back to Crapitols! My unexpected summer vacation has now come to an end, but I ended it in fine fashion with a few quick trips to further me towards my life's mission. Upon my early return from Europe back in May, I immediately began researching cheap flights to various capital cities, as well as other possible summer adventures. I could have easily gone overboard and taken 20 trips in those three months, maxing out several of my credit cards in the process, but I did the responsible thing and limited myself to just six: Minnesota, my previously-planned trip to Iowa, my quick road trip to Cheyenne, Bismarck, North Dakota, and Madison, WI (stay tuned for that one).
As I've mentioned before, Frontier airlines serves many of the 50 state capitals, and many of them for incredibly low prices. If your schedule is flexible, and especially if you can fly Tuesday to Thursday, you can fly dirt cheap. I found just such a flight in early August for $168 round trip, and that included the extra legroom stretch seat that I always splurge for now that I'm a grown-ass man. On top of that I found a $40/night room on AirBNB that was just a five-minute walk from the capitol.
I boarded an early Tuesday morning flight in Denver and landed in Bismarck around 11:30 AM. After a long string of 90+ degree summer days in Denver, I was met with clouds, wind, and a high in the low 60's when I emerged from the quaint Bismarck airport. I immediately went back inside and dug my hoodie out of my backpack, grabbed a cup of airport cafe coffee, and summoned an Uber.
After a laughably brief ride into town, I dropped my stuff at the AirBNB, and began the short walk over to the capitol grounds. After briefly stopping to help a young lad of about ten who had slipped the chain on his bike (I'm such a good guy), I found myself on the extensive capitol grounds. As is my wont, I meandered about the campus while sipping my coffee for the better part of an hour both to explore and to work up the 'urge' to enter the building. As you can see, the North Dakota capitol is one of the four US capitols that feature a tower, along with Florida, Louisiana, and Nebraska. Highlights of the capitol grounds include a massive (freshly mowed) lawn, a cool bison sculpture made of steel rebar, and a statue of Sakakawea, commemorating the legendary Lemhi Shoshone woman who played an instrumental role in the 1804-1806 Corps of Discovery Expedition.
The first North Dakota capitol was built in 1883 and was expanded several times until (capitol cliche alert!) a fire destroyed it in 1930. Construction of the new building began in 1931 as the Great Depression had just begun. A skyscraper design was chosen to maximize the usable space for the state government. Initially the plans called for a much more ornate exterior, but those plans were scrapped to save on costs, and the result is a wonderfully understated Art Deco facade. Nicknamed the "Skyscraper on the Prairie," at 241 feet tall it is the tallest building in the state, visible from as far away as 30 miles.
I entered the ground floor and was surprised to see a security guard and a metal detector. As I've noted, the security measures at the different capitols vary widely, and I just wouldn't have pegged North Dakota as a state that would guard its civic temple so closely. I was greeted warmly by the state trooper who pointed me towards the information desk. The next guided tour would begin in 20 minutes, which gave me time to peruse the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Awards, North Dakota's Hall of Fame for any noteworthy personages who spent any amount of time in the state. Named for the 26th POTUS, who spent a few brief years ranching in ND, it features the likes of basketball legend Phil Jackson, Lawrence Welk, and Bobby Vee. One can only assume that Chuck Klosterman and Whiz Khalifa will one day take their place among the favorite sons and daughters of the state.
It wasn't long before Cindy showed up, our lovely tour guide. By, "our," I mean myself and the one other guy on the tour. Cindy had a perfect North Dakota accent, straight out of Fargo, and as you may well know, I love it when people live up to regional stereotypes (see also: Virginia, Wisconsin). She guided us to the main hall on the first floor, which is an Art Deco masterpiece. Brass columns, black marble, and chandeliers designed to look like heads of wheat each weighing 1000 pounds; it could have easily been the set of Gotham City Hall in Batman.
Cindy explained that the main entrance to the capitol has been locked ever since 9/11, which seems a bit overly-cautious to me. I mean, come on, don't flatter yourself North Dakota.
Adjacent to the capitol tower is the west wing where the Senate and House of Representatives chambers are located. Interestingly, the legislative bodies of North Dakota meet biennially in only the odd-numbered years, unless something urgent comes up I presume. The ceilings of both chambers feature neat-o recessed lighting designed to resemble sunrise in the Senate, and sunset in the House.
The legislative hall is lined with these classic Deco nooks. One can easily imagine the thick cigar smoke and handshake deals that must have once filled the hall.
Cindy then took us to the opposite wing of the building and into the Supreme Court chamber, which was completely lined (even the walls) in velvety burgundy carpet.
We stopped briefly outside the Governor's office, where alongside the Stars and Stripes and the ND state flag, the flags of the five Native American tribes of North Dakota stand: the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation; the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate; the Standing Rock Sioux; the Spirit Lake Tribe; and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
Then it was time to take the elevator to the 18th floor observation deck.
The view from the top is, well, a view. Being smack-dab in the heart of the Great Plains there aren't too many interesting features on the landscape. I was, however, able to see my AirBNB from the East view, and parts of the Missouri River are visible to the West. The observation deck is furnished with original wicker furniture made by residents of the nearby Jamestown Mental Hospital in the 1930s. To be clear, this furniture was made therapeutically, not punitively.
Another notable feature is the South lawn, where in February of 2007, nearly 9,000 North Dakotans set the world record for most people simultaneously making snow angels.
Now as you well know, I prefer to find a restroom as high as possible in any capitol building, but sadly, there are none on the 18th floor observation deck. Having completed the tour, Cindy gave us our leave to explore the building at leisure. The time was at hand, so I took the elevator back down to the ground floor to find the Men's Toilet.
After moving my bowels and washing my hands, I emerged triumphantly from the Men's Toilet to find my attention immediately drawn to the middle of the hall, where several North Dakota State Troopers stood with their newest recruit: AN ADORABLE BLOODHOUND PUPPY ON HIS FIRST DAY OF TRAINING AND THEY LET ME PET HIM AND HE WAS SOOOOOOOOO CUTE!!!!!!!!
That, dear readers, is what I call icing on the cake. I bid farewell to the friendly folks at the capitol and made my exit.
Once again, I had completed the main objective of my trip within mere hours of landing, so I set about seeing what the rest Bismarck had to offer. Right next door to the capitol is the North Dakota Heritage Center, an excellent free museum covering the natural history of the state, Native American culture, and pioneer history. Most importantly, they have a souvenir penny machine. Even better, I got a penny actually depicting the state capitol, which is rare indeed.
That evening I found a nearby movie theater and saw The Lion King, which I had very mixed feelings about. For some reason I had my fingers crossed that they would leave out the music. In retrospect, I have no idea why I thought this possible other than mere wishful thinking. I mean, it's Disney. There's gonna be music. I just found the CGI characters too eerie and expressionless, rendering much of the dialog (and especially the singing) flat and hollow. Also, Jeremy Irons should have been brought back as Scar.
The following day I walked all over town. I first stopped at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Library for coffee. A kindly librarian helped me get a guest pass for a two-hour computer session, which I used to write the bulk of my previous Crapitols post about Cheyenne.
At an antique mall downtown I found this cute little robot from 1977 for $5. I named him Otto. Fun fact: in 1873 the Northern Pacific Railroad renamed the town Bismarck in honor of the master statesman, diplomat, and Chancellor or Germany Otto von Bismarck, in hopes of attracting German immigrants to the area.
I walked over nine miles that day, eventually crossing the Missouri River en route to a sunset cruise aboard the Lewis and Clark, an old-timey riverboat. The names Lewis and Clark are everywhere in Bismarck, as the 1802-1804 Corps of Discovery Expedition built Fort Mandan a short way up the river. There is an excellent Ken Burns documentary film I recommend if you'd care to learn all about it. I stood on the riverbank as the 6 PM cruise pulled in, and shortly thereafter embarked on the 90 minute sunset cruise.
I found a spot on the crowded cruise near the prow of the vessel, and we set off upstream. The sunset was gorgeous as we drifted in figure-8 patterns down the river. A short audio program explained some of the history of the area and river transportation on the Missouri, and was followed by a solid hour of what I assume is the "Contemporary Country Hits" Pandora station.
When we returned to shore I disembarked and summoned an Uber, as I was exhausted and several miles from home base. I spent the rest of the night with my feet kicked up in bed watching videos of Woodstock '94 on my phone, as it was the exact 25th anniversary and the social media algorithms knew I'd be a sucker for such content. Definitely check out the legendary mud-soaked Green Day set.
I departed for the airport the following morning and found myself once again lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me on my flight home. It was a smooth trip, aside from an aborted landing attempt in Denver just a few hundred feet from the ground, forcing us to circle back around to take another crack at it, and causing me to hold my bladder an agonizing extra 10 minutes.
And that was that. I'm very pleased to have crossed North Dakota off the list, since it's rather an out-of-the-way place to get to. That is now Crapitol number 16 in the books.
I had one more trip to bookend my summer vacation. Next stop: Madison, WI.