Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Welcome to North Dakota, the nation’s freezing hotspot


Are you currently down on your luck? Dealing with hard times? Have you recently been fired? Did a bank take your house away? Do you worry your children are no longer safe in your own home?

It’s hard to trust people these days. Everyone seems to be looking out for themselves, and anyone can turn on you as swiftly and unexpectedly as the wind blows.

Here in North Dakota, we know what it’s like to be beaten down. No other state is often made the butt of jokes as we are. We are America’s redheaded stepchild. Every contiguous group has one, and we are it. And that’s normally how we’re known – “Hey, it’s flat and boring in North Dakota, ha!” “In every North Dakota city, you can get anywhere in less than ten minutes – that is, if your horse and buggy don’t break down! Ha ha!” “And in North Dakota, you only have three seasons – cold, really cold, and getting cold! HA HA!”

We know. We’ve heard them all. And we’d fight back at these attacks more aggressively… if some of them weren’t actually kind of true.

But we are other things too. We are a state that works at its own tempo. We have a personality unlike any other state.

We know what it’s like not to trust people. We like our quiet, peace and privacy here. We don’t like being the target of jokes, but we really don’t care. We have more important things going on.

And now, whether we like it or not, we are in the nation’s spotlight. The state that likes to keep quiet and do its own thing is being watched enviously by the rest of the country. Outsiders are flocking to us. Our oil boom, our low unemployment, our low crime rate, our landmark large buffalo and tin families, these and much more are finally proving to the rest of the country that we are more than just a joke.

So if you’re new here, welcome to North Dakota. We like strangers here. We wave hello to you even if we don’t know you, we invite you into our homes, and we strike up conversations with you and walk away feeling we’ve made a new friend. That’s how we do things here. I hope some of it rubs off on you.

And yes, we do get cold here. Some of us spend that frigid time cursing Mother Nature, while others transcend and find ways to make it fun.

We’re also claustrophobic, we appreciate our space here. We don’t really like to be told how to live. We need our liberty to live the way we want.

We are friendly, but we’re also a bit weary, reluctant, practical. And territorial. We care about this land. We’re not all Republicans, or rednecks, or antiquated Germans with funny accents and weird food. We are also liberals. We are progressives, creative artists. We are a mixtape, a breathing garden, blades of grass, snowflakes, an eclectic blend of souls that stretch the latitudes of human-kind’s variety, and are bonded together by this sacred land.

There are those here who won’t say much to you. Don’t take it personally, they really just don’t have that much to say. Many of us are introverted, and few on words.

We have our bad elements too. You can never run from them. If they’re here, they’re everywhere. It’s okay. You can’t always fix stupid.

There is one thing you should know. If you’re going to live here you’ll need to hold out your hands. It sounds silly, but that’s what we do here. Don’t worry, we’re not going to slap them. We do it to wave hello to people, to hold open doors for them, to help them out when they’re in trouble. We don’t wait for solutions to come to us. When we have problems we hold our hands out and get the problem done ourselves. When we faced devastating floods in 2011, we didn’t sit back and wait for others to save us, we held our hands out and got them dirty, and did the best we could to protect ourselves and our neighbors. We didn’t do it for compliments or glory, we did it because it needed to be done, and so we did it. We expect that from people who live here.

So don’t expect praise, because you’re not going to get it. We’re not easily impressed here. You’re not entitled. No one’s any better than anyone else.

That’s not to say we’re hard to satisfy, we just have more important things on our minds. We have children to raise, families to care for. We know a great society starts in the home, so that’s where our focus lies. We work to make a better future.

But there’s something else that makes a North Dakotan a genuine North Dakotan. Something to do with the spirit we carry within, that pride we exude. It’s very internal, and hard to express. It can’t really be described in words, it can only be experienced. And it’s all over, you just need to look for it. It becomes visible when you see old folks drinking coffee at a diner, or children performing Christmas concerts, or teens playing sports while their parents emphatically cheer them on.

I felt it myself right after I returned here upon graduating from college. I was shopping at a thrift store in Mandan, and the lady behind the checkout counter told me she’d run out of plastic bags, and had nothing to place my things in. After thinking for a second, she finally came up with a solution, and said to me, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ll just put it in a garbage bag for you.” I merely laughed to myself and thought, “I’m home.”

It’s about having a lack of pretension. It’s about being true to who you are, and working your way to become the person you want to be, while not worrying what others think of you, which partly defines who we are. We care for our neighbors, and help them when they need it – whether we actually like them or not. It’s about caring for yourself and the person next to you.

And that, I believe, is the North Dakota way.

I can only hope the best of us is something that becomes a part of you. Welcome.