The Center of the Nation

Devil’s Tower is a fascinating place and I’ve always loved it here.  As Richard Dreyfuss realized in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the science fiction movie from 1977, there’s just something special about this place.  But alas, I had to make tracks, so after a quick trip to the Visitor Center (which wasn’t even open yet), I left the park and headed east to Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

 
 
Above:  After leaving Devil's Tower, my first stop was the geographic center of the 50 states, north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  From there I drove up to North Dakota and visited Dickinson, where my Dad did his Naval Officer training during World War II, then I arrived in Bismarck in the early evening.

 

The town of Belle Fourche (pronounced “Bell Foosh”) claims that it’s the geographic center of the United States.  But wait, you might say, because you probably thought Lebanon, Kansas, which I’d visited a few days earlier, was the geographic center.  Well, Lebanon is the center of the Lower 48 states and prior to the admittance of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959, it was the center of the entire United States.  But after Alaska and Hawaii came along, the torch passed a bit north and a bit west and landed here in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

I drove into Belle Fourche around 9 a.m. and stopped at the "Center of the Nation Visitor Center" to find out where the exact center was located, but darn if the Visitor Center was closed, so I took out my cell phone and Googled it, then discovered that the center of the 50 states is located about 20 miles north of town.  I got in my truck and headed north on U.S. 85 until I passed a little sign off to the left that said “Center of the Nation. 7.8 miles,” then spun a U-turn and headed back, turned off the highway and traveled down the empty dirt road.  Sure enough, 7.8 miles later, I saw a U.S. flag waving a few yards off to my right, so I pulled over onto the windswept plains. 

Someone had painted a colorful sign here that said, “Center of the Nation” and there was gate in the fence, which I went through, then I walked about 40 yards to the U.S. flag waving in the breeze, figuring this was it.  Nope, not quite.  But there was a marker by the flag that pointed to the left, and THAT’S when I saw it:  a brass survey marker indicating the exact center of the entire United States. This site, in a dirt field eight miles from the nearest paved road, wasn’t quite as elaborate as the geographic center of the 48 states in Lebanon, Kansas, which is set in a nice, grassy park with a gazebo, chapel and picnic tables.  But still, I was glad that whoever owned this land was kind enough to mark it with a flag and provide gate access for all of us crazy Extreme Geographers who love visiting places like this.  So many thanks to you, kind sir (or madam)!  And to show my thanks, I've posted a panorama photo here.

I hadn’t seen a soul since I’d pulled off Highway 85 a while back, and there was certainly no one to be seen here on the high plains of South Dakota.  This is a pretty remote place and takes more of an effort to get here, compared to the Lower 48 center point near Lebanon.  But then again, it’s only been 57 years since this site came into prominence, so give it time.  Who knows?  A few years from now, there might be a big amusement park here -- or at least a Taco Bell.

From Devil's Tower to the Geographic Center of the U.S.

 

Dickinson:  Where my Mom Met my Dad

After the thrill of visiting the geographic center of the United States wore off (it took a while), I got back in the truck, headed back to U.S. 85, and continued on my northbound trek.  I crossed into North Dakota a couple hours later, where I hit Interstate 94 and turned east towards Bismarck.  Around 3 p.m. I pulled off the freeway and drove into the city of Dickinson (pop. 22,322), because Dickinson is where my Mom met my Dad.  They both passed away many years ago, but Dickinson has always had a special place in my heart.

Back in July 1943 during World War II, my Dad enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Dickinson to enroll in the U.S. Navy Office Training School here.  There was a Teacher’s College in Dickinson, which nearly closed during WWII due to a lack of enrollment, but they opened it to the U.S. Navy, where future officers (like my Dad) took several months of college classes before they were sent to Midshipmen School in Chicago to hopefully be commissioned as an Ensign.  Remember the 1980s movie “An Officer and a Gentleman,” with Richard Gere?  Dickinson, my Dad once told me, was kind of like that.

My Dad had arrived in town with the rest of the group on the Fourth of July weekend in 1943 and my Mom, who’d just graduated from Bismarck High School, was visiting a girlfriend of hers in Dickinson that weekend.  There was a USO dance for the newly-arrived recruits and my Mom reluctantly decided to go, and that evening my parents met.  My Dad graduated as an Ensign a while later, was in the first group of Navy SEALs, and fought the Japanese in China towards the end of the war.  Then afterwards, they raised five kids, including me, the youngest.  But it all started here in Dickinson back in 1943.

I found the Teacher’s College, which is now Dickinson State University, and bought a t-shirt at the bookstore.  I was the only person in the bookstore other than an attractive cashier, and I told her that Dickinson used to be a Naval Training Center during World War II.  “That’s really fascinating,” she said with genuine interest, “I had no idea.”  I’m sure most students here didn’t either.

Afterwards I walked up to May Hall, the oldest building on campus, and recognized it immediately from old photos that my Dad had from when he was here in the 1940s.  As I was taking some pictures outside the building, a middle-aged security officer walked by and said, “Can I help you?”  I told him about my parents meeting here back in 1943 and he got pretty interested.  “You should go inside.  There are several old photos of the college from the early 1900s,” then he wished me a good day.   I walked up the same steps that my Dad had, then walked inside the mostly-empty May Hall and took some more pictures.  It was great being here and trying to imagine my parents during the early days of their relationship. 

Speaking of that, they got married just a few weeks after they met (marriages were quick during WWII, my Mom later told me, because people didn’t know what was going to happen).  One weekend they took a bus and crossed into Montana, where they found a Justice of the Peace, who married them in a very "impromptu" wedding (i.e., the Justice of the Peace was hungover from drinking the night before and was wearing dirty long underwear).  It wasn’t quite the glamorous wedding that my Mom had dreamed about, I’m sure, but at least they were married.  Being married, however, was against the rules of Officer Training School and my Dad could’ve gotten kicked out of the Navy, but the commandant at Dickinson gave him a break.  Nice guy, that commandant.

After spending an hour at Dickinson State, I got back on I-94 and headed towards Bismarck.  I pulled into my favorite North Dakota state park, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, just across the river from Bismarck, and had dinner at my campsite, just a few feet from the gurgling Missouri River.  The Missouri was a lot wider here – like maybe a quarter-mile – than the six inches that I strode across near Lemhi Pass just a week earlier.  What a difference a week makes.

Into North Dakota