Thursday, January 9, 2014

The North Dakota Spirit

by Floyd Gardner

Retirement gave us an entirely new understanding of the word “independence.”  With the responsibility of children and a job lifted from our shoulders, RVing gave us a freedom we didn’t know existed - suddenly the entire continent was within our reach.  But we didn’t think about that when we bought our first RV.  We actually bought our first motor home to use for work rather than travel. 

After retiring from many years of public service positions my wife and I found a retirement job that required us to travel a great deal. We worked for a company that brokered health screening assignments for big box stores nationwide.  Travelling by air with equipment and supplies proved taxing for us and we often found the hotels near the workplaces to be less than desirable.  It soon became clear that working from a RV would be the easiest way to carry a lot of supplies and move every couple days from one city to another. 

We found a Class C with huge storage space to be the perfect solution, and we settled into work related travel that often kept us on the road for weeks at a time.  This was an exciting and interesting job and we loved it, but after a seven year run the chain in which we worked reached its goals and decided to discontinue the free screening clinics. 

Worried that we would have a very hard time to make the payments on our RV without additional income, we began to look for ways to find RV related jobs. Someone told us about Workampers and we joined.  Life got better almost immediately.

We worked in sales positions, acted as docents in a railroad museum in the mountains of southern California, worked security in a Yuma RV park, and spent two 3-month stints as oil well and oil pipeline gate guards in south Texas.  All the work came through Workampers and each job was exciting and interesting in its own way. And, of equal importance, the work helped us meet our financial needs.  As an added benefit, being on the job also seemed to restrain the aging process – for some reason we always seemed to have fewer aches and pains at the end of a series of jobs than before we started the trip.

My father was a man who loved to read.  He was especially fond of history and a bit of that attitude rubbed off on me - I love to read, and history seems to me to be the most worthwhile of all stories.  So it was with great excitement that I answered an ad in the Workampers Hotline seeking an Archivist for the North Dakota Parks Department.  The position required an RV to travel from state park to state park to digitalize slides, photos and documents for preservation.  What more could a history buff with a RV ask?  I quickly submitted all the required material and my luck held; I reported for work July 10, 2013. My first assignment was at Turtle River State Park near Arvilla, North Dakota, 20 miles west of Grand Forks.

Here I met Ranger Steve Crandall, Park Manager, who would be my trainer and  who would eventually assume the burden of supervising me as I travelled the length and breath of this great state.  Blessed with both patience and perseverance Steve eventually got me tuned into the computer side of scanning and we set to work doing his park as a part of my training.   Each North Dakota State Park has a particular attraction it does better than the other parks. Turtle River’s specific expertise was in serving as a North Dakota collection point for the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Those of us old enough to remember World War II may also remember the CCC.  This service was initiated as an economic stimulus at the depth of the Great Depression.  It’s purpose was to hire the nations unemployed young men who would otherwise be a drag on their families and communities.  The  men were hustled into camps organized and operated by the U S Army and trained in a variety of jobs while building public structures.  These enthusiastic young workers built dams and bridges and a variety of public infrastructure, including state and national park sites. I found the CCC to be especially interesting because my oldest brother served in the corps before joining the Navy at the outset of the Second World War.  The information I found in the Turtle River collection gave me insight into what life must have been like for a farm boy away from home for the first time.  Each of the young men received a salary of $30 per month, however, they were allowed to keep only $5.00 while the rest was sent home to the family.  One North Dakota farmer had five sons serving in the CCC. That must have seemed like a gold mine in the darkest days of the depression.

My next assignment was Graham’s Island State Park on the shores of Devil’s Lake.  The Indian name for this body of water is Spirit Lake, which reflects the lake’s peculiar nature of being a lake one day, and not much more than a pond the next.  However, for the past 20 years the lake has been rising steadily and now covers many thousands of acres. This park hosts regional and national fishing tournaments, and with good reason – the lake teems with fish and is heavily stocked every summer.

Beaver Lake State Park is in an isolated area and left me without television, cell service and computer air card service.  Beaver Lake is among the oldest of North Dakota State Parks and I had the luck of finding the minutes of the very first meeting of area people who gathered to pursue state park status for their lake. This document was precious if not valuable, and steps were taken to more carefully preserve it as part of the State’s history.

Located in the rich farmland of southeast North Dakota, Fort Ransom State Park hosts farm related events each spring and summer in which a large number of area volunteers gather with horse drawn equipment to plant, cultivate and harvest the rich bottomland donated to the park some years ago. My wife joined me here and accompanied me through the remainder of the job, providing much appreciated companionship and improving immeasurably the quality of the my food.

Lewis & Clark State Park is in the heart of the oil boom country and is one of the busier parks in the system. Well known for boating and fishing, Lewis & Clark has a comfortable RV park and a couple charming cabins on the shore of the Missouri River.

Fort Stevenson, Lake Sakakawea, and Cross Ranch State Parks are also on the Missouri River and cater to fishing, boating and camping.  To those of us not from North Dakota, Sakakawea is better known as Sacajawea - the young Indian mother who guided Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean during their famous exploration of the northwest.  Lake Metigoshe State Park actually shares it’s lake with Canada and Icelandic State Park has to have one of the best collections of pioneer history to be found outside a state sponsored museum. Fort Lincoln State Park, near Mandan, North Dakota was Custer’s base when he rode out to the Little Big Horn.  Some of the original buildings of that time are preserved and can be inspected with a tour guide during the summer months. 

There is a unique cooperation between the State Parks of North Dakota and the state’s Historical Society.  This makes a visit to one of their parks not only relaxing, but unusually interesting as well.  And it isn’t just North Dakota history that can be explored.  The national impact of the Lewis & Clark journey can’t be overstated and something new about this team of voyagers appears time and again in the various park visitor centers bordering the Missouri River, the Lewis & Clark highway to the west.

A person who enjoys both history and RVing couldn’t ask for more than our 2013 summer experience.  In travelling to the state’s ten parks we enjoyed some of the most varied scenery in the United States.  Since retiring we have travelled most of this country and I can’t recall another state where the landscape changes as often and as quickly as it does in North Dakota.  This state’s parks system has better fishing, offers a greater variety of family activity, and the visitor’s centers are more interesting than any other parks we have stopped at in our nation-wide travels.  

The state’s license plate suggest that people should Experience the Spirit! That’s an absolute truth – there is a special spirit to North Dakota and it’s easy to fall under the spell of this state’s exceptional sense of hospitality, its genuine friendliness, and its commitment to family togetherness in all seasons.  

And we have only the Workampers concept to thank for this adventure.  Workampers certainly works for us!

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