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New UND staff writer and Bulgaria native, Dima Williams, shares experience traversing ND

Posted on 8/23/2018

Originally published at UND Today:

Fields of wheat, sunflower and beans blurred together in an amalgam of yellow and green as the bus chugged along straight state highways.

It traversed rural, remote areas - occasionally dotted with small ponds - where my cellphone connectivity disappeared more often than I was comfortable with. I had never seen North Dakota in its late-summer garb or felt its vastness, although I have called it home for more than a year.

University of North Dakota's annual bus tour for new faculty, staff and administrators gave me the chance to do so. The start of the three-day trip coincided with my first day as a writer for UND Today. Even after perusing the itinerary and filling out a voluntary introduction form, I was not certain what to expect.

I knew North Dakota was flat. I knew UND boasts a large impact on the state though its network of noted alumni. I also knew that I am a reserved person and would have to really work on connecting with the other participants, against the urge to just retreat and observe.

The tour, a tightly-scheduled journey through roughly 1,000 miles of southern North Dakota, proved me wrong on most counts - except for UND's place in the fabric of the region. But still, it strengthened my grasp on the institution.

Into the heartland

The first stop along the route that extended beyond an hour was at the Harmon farm, close to Carrington. Among the initial things that Jim Harmon, who tills land that has been in his family more than 130 years, established was his connection to UND. Two of his sons hold degrees from the University, a third is currently pursing one. They followed their great-grandmother's example, who attended UND a century ago.

But there was more to the Harmons than their UND ties. It was their generosity and humbleness, their easy-going personalities and eagerness to show us - around 30 UND newcomers from around the world - their way of life. This included a feast of bison burgers, homemade gelato and chokecherry jelly.

Hailing from Bulgaria, I did not even suspect that chokecherries existed, much less that they are the official state fruit. I had no idea how they look or taste. Raw, they are bitter and make you pucker, several tour participants shared, in what was my growing sense of bonhomie with our group. The next day, in the tiny tourist hamlet of Medora, I got to see a chokecherry bush - lush and dotted with tiny scarlet fruits, before venturing into Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

At first sight

It was here - in the Badlands - that my notion of North Dakota's pancake-evenness shattered on the jagged slopes of hills and ravines formed millions of years ago. As we hiked a trail that meandered to the top of a ridge to reveal panoramic vistas of the Little Missouri River, my thoughts drifted back to my childhood when my family would make short escapades in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria. The terrain in North Dakota is immensely different from the woody landscape of my home country but it sprouted the same feeling within me - one of awe and quiet.

To be honest, I hoped to have some elation too. I was on the lookout for bison, or buffalo, as the locals say. None crossed our paths in the park, however. August marks the peak of bison rutting season, a park ranger informed us, and thus the animals supposedly were huddled out of sight to engage in intricate behaviors.

It was not until 24 hours later and some 230 miles away that I got to spot a buffalo for the first time - albeit from the bus - since settling in North Dakota last spring. A small group grazed on a knoll outside Jamestown, close to the world's largest bison monument.

Experiences to remember

The thrill of the sight quickly faded, though, as we voyaged, literally, through the Bobcat factory in Gwinner. After the first several minutes on the production floor of the company, which has been a North Dakota staple for decades, I was, well, lost. If it were not for our guide, the maze of swirling robots would have terrified me.

While fright is not the right word, my impression of the Falkirk coal mine near Underwood, N.D., comes pretty close to it. As we rocked on a shuttle, wearing safety glasses and blue hardhats, a surreal landscape unfolded. Mounds of dirt and deep hollows painted a picture that could have been the backdrop of a sci-fi space flick.

Amplifying the surreal setting was a gargantuan dragline that easily dwarfed the largest of tractors. Not a person to be intimidated by heights, I clumsily held to the platform railings of the machine as it scooped tons of soil, rotated and unloaded it close by.

By the time I shook off the vertigo, we were already in another section of the mine where reclaimed land stretched into the horizon. A bit of a skeptic when it comes to the impact of the energy industry on the environment, I thought the company did a nice job restoring to its native state. Yet, it sparked some questions that I talked over with fellow tour members.

By that point, my reticence for making new friends had receded. And thank goodness, as this made for some engaging discussions later with UND-grad Supreme Court justices, state leaders and incoming UND students we met along our route. It seemed like everywhere we went, we bumped into a UND alum or heard stories about one.

There are too many fascinating conversations to share here. Several more sites we visited - from the Rainbow Gardens in Mayville to Medora to the State Capitol - would add enough lines to this narrative that I'd be flirting with excessiveness.

Let me just say that after three days on the road around the state, it seemed UND has touched every place we ventured.

I now know: North Dakota, in part, because of UND, is indeed legendary.

-Dima Williams

About the author:
Dimitria Williams is a staff writer with UND Today. She is a graduate of The American University in Bulgaria, where she majored in journalism and political science, and minored in European studies. Williams grew up in the small Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, about 90 miles southeast of the capital city of Sofia, but she has lived in the United States for the past two years. Before joining the UND Today team, Williams wrote and designed for Haute Residence, a national real estate publication.


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