In a place where less is more

A residual effect of a recent trip to the VA hospital in Fargo opened my eyes to what I think many people have been misled about in recent years. Instead of driving south to Bismarck and east to Fargo, or east to Grand Forks and south to Fargo, I went southeast to Carrington, followed N.D. Highway 200 to Cooperstown, Finley, and Mayville before coming out on Interstate 29 near Hillsboro.

This wasn’t a completely new route, however, as I used to drive that road often while I was a student at the University of North Dakota in the 1980s. Those were the days, when gas was less than $1, and a college student could actually afford it. But those long trips, like the one last week that took me to Fargo, have always been an eye opener on the rugged beauty of the North Dakota countryside. Because we often take the shortest route from point A to point B, we become complacent as we see the same things time after time, and we get so used to driving to the same destinations that we could drive them blindfolded in a blizzard. This is exactly why I occasionally like driving off the beaten path sometimes.

After watching numerous communities in the west change so rapidly it makes our heads spin, taking a trip in the opposite direction made me realize that not all of North Dakota has been forever altered. It had been 35 years since I’d been in Cooperstown, Finley, or Mayville and all three of those communities, although showing subtle changes, are still the same communities they were in the 1980s. There’s obviously a healthy economy in all three of those county seats, in three different counties- Traill, Steele and Griggs, respectively.

As I was driving and thinking, I wondered how the west can be so dependent on oil when other small North Dakota towns have zero dependence but appear to be doing just fine economically. Farm machinery, grain, a college, outdoor recreation and the like are all flourishing in Cooperstown, Finley, and Mayville - which most likely have a combined population of about 4,000. Maybe someone could explain to me how people can make a living in those communities? What is generating that economy when there is no oil to depend upon? If you say farming, you're right. But doesn’t everyone in the west have that same opportunity as well, along with ranching? Oil should be a bonus, should it not?

I find it really interesting that all these small towns in North Dakota, including Carrington, Harvey, and Fessenden, are making it and even thriving while in the west you continually hear the gloom and doom of economic depression if oil goes away. Driving through Mayville, I spotted a new Cenex C-store, and it was as busy as I've ever seen Cenex in Berthold or Minot. Where are those people coming from and where are they getting money to spend? There isn’t a snowball’s chance in Tucson that oil is driving the economy as far away as Mayville.

Arriving in Fargo, I found people to be friendly, polite, courteous, professional. My first thought was - my, how this has changed, but truth be told, it’s the same as it’s always been. We’ve changed in the west. So many people bad mouth Fargo, but look how it has grown throughout the history of the state? Oil isn’t driving that economy, but it’s thriving in North Dakota. Why? The latest census figures show Fargo’s population grew at a rate of 19 percent, and it won’t be long before the population will be 130,000.

There’s something to be said about good old Yankee ingenuity, and people will tend to seek out a better life despite what they’ve been dealt. But when everything from gas to ice cream goes through the roof in cost, just because of one industry, you have to wonder how long that can sustain itself. Not everyone earns $100,000 a year, but because we are now living in that circle of inflation, too many people are losing too much money. Waitresses, teachers, journalists, retail workers, nurses will either have to leave or find a job that pays $100,000 to make ends meet.

When you’re a nurse living in Williston, earning $24 an hour and struggling to pay rent, there is something seriously wrong with that picture. Those struggling wage earners are starting to realize they can earn more money making $13 an hour than $20 where the cost of living is fair, is based on stability instead of ebbs and floes, and where less is actually more.

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