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MARILYN HAGERTY: Good summer reading: ‘15 Months of Winter’

Pickerel Lake is the same as it was back in the 1950s. As I looked out over the water, I thought only the people have changed.

Pickerel Lake is in South Dakota. You turn off Interstate 29 at Peever. And then you are on your own as you travel generally west 25 miles or so over hill and dale and past herds of cattle.

So I went to South Dakota. I sat on the shores of Pickerel Lake and read the book about North Dakota. It’s entitled “15 Months of Winter.” It’s a story with the subtitle, “My Year in North Dakota.” John Bayer, the author from Arizona and California, writes his commentary on North Dakota. While here he worked for The Journal out at Crosby.

His commentary includes these excerpts:

  •  Bars. Women in North Dakota are obsessed with bars. Not the buildings with liquor in them. I’m referring to the kind you make. There’s nothing in the world that gives a North Dakota woman more pleasure than pressing oats covered in peanut butter into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, drizzling chocolate over it, baking it at 350 degrees for 25 minutes and then cutting the resulting confection into smaller rectangles.
  •  Sakakawea. Pronounced “Suh-KAK-uh-way-uh.” This is the real name of the woman who served as a guide for Lewis and Clark. The rest of the world calls this Native American history maker “Sacajawea.” The rest of the world is wrong! Ask any North Dakotan. If you’re caught in North Dakota carrying a Sacajawea dollar coin, you’re publicly flogged.
  •  Spice. Culturally speaking, it seems the closer you are to the equator, the more heat and spice you like in your food.... North Dakota is about a million miles north of the equator. Norway, where many North Dakotans trace their roots, is on the planet Saturn — approximately 1.2 billion kilometers from the earth’s equator.

A good North Dakota spice rack contains salt, pepper, and some mysterious thing called chicken flavoring. Oregano, basil, cumin and cayenne pepper are like witchcraft or the occult — something you shouldn’t mess with or even joke about.

  •  Rhubarb. Rhubarb is the quintessential dessert vegetable in North Dakota.... I’ve have had rhubarb in pie, in a milkshake and even in cake. Why is it in everything here? Sure, if you add enough sugar to whatever you’re making, it’s palatable. The leaves of the rhubarb plant actually are poisonous to human beings — do you think God might be trying to tell us something?
  •  Going out. This is a place that’s accustomed to folks going out rather than coming in. On the great seal of North Dakota are inscribed the words, “Sorry to see you leave already.”

But oil has changed all of that. There are people everywhere and no place to stick them.

  •  Ole and Lena. The most famous name ever to come out of North Dakota probably is Lawrence Welk. That sounds like the set-up of a joke, but it’s not. This is North Dakota. In North Dakota, we don’t joke about Theodore Roosevelt, we don’t joke about hail storms in August, and we don’t joke about Lawrence Welk.
  •  Theodore Roosevelt. He once said that if it weren’t for his time in North Dakota he never would have become president.

This is another reason I feel so blessed to be in North Dakota. People seem very straightforward and honest here. I don’t get the impression everyone is looking over their shoulders to see if what they are doing is approved of by the cool kids. I guess you don’t have to when you’re in a state where the coolest president resided.

  •  A good thing. Here’s my guess: the reason all of those people who had to leave came back is because they knew there’s no place better than North Dakota. And they’re right. Of all the places I’ve lived, North Dakota has the strongest sense of family, the strongest sense of community, the strongest sense of its identity than anywhere else.

Life in North Dakota is simpler — not easier, just simpler.

.....So you wonder why John Bayer left. And his final thoughts have to do with the endless winter.

Reach Hagerty at or (701) 772-1055.