You may have seen Charlie Rose’s interview last week with noted demographer and social scientist Joel Kotkin, a favorite of Site Selection and IAMC. At the end of their intriguing conversation, Kotkin spoke of how Americans need to resuscitate their faith in their country, and of how you can still build a future in New York City, L.A. or even North Dakota.
I watched that interview in my hotel room in Bismarck, N.D., after a day that included a delightfully impromptu conversation with eminent humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, tours of a coal-fired power plant and a coal gasification complex, and two hours in a Piper Navajo in 40-mph winds, swooping over the badlands and very good lands of northwestern North Dakota, where oil drilling activity on the Bakken Shale has been heating up.
Even without a headwind, the sensation of flying this vast country approximates the sensation of driving it: You know you’re still moving, but the horizon keeps on stretching just beyond your reach. The mounded, riven terrain unspools in all directions, with big squares blocked off for crops, small squares for the oil rigs, and farmsteads ducking the wind in their nests of trees.
“It is a very, very big state,” the historian Jenkinson told us, with the fourth lowest population density in the nation. He would know best: The Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt scholar is the author of “Message On the Wind,” which chronicles a spiritual awakening in the land some would call “flyover territory” but others regard as a sacred corridor. In 2006, the native North Dakotan hiked 173 miles in 17 days along the Little Missouri River. That’s about a month more than Lewis and Clark spent in Mandan and Hidatsa tribal territory, by many accounts the happiest days of their legendary journey.
“I just drove the state the other day, and saw things I’d never seen in 50 years,” Jenkinson told our small group of reporters, including a Chinese journalist learning about Lewis and Clark from perhaps the best source available. “The badlands are really extraordinary … pristine. If Theodore Roosevelt could be airlifted back today, there are some places where you couldn’t tell the difference.”
And there are others where the difference is emerging, with every white plume of dust sent skyward by an oil truck.
(Watch the June Site Selection Energy Report for more on what I learned about the people, places and energy assets of The Peace Garden State.)