There’s an urgency to summer in western North Dakota.
Each November, nature begins to do its best to discourage McKenzie County’s residents– to dash their dreams and to put their spirits into a deep, deep freeze. But the farmers and the ranchers and the oil workers and the folks closer to town have learned to approach winter with wisdom, patience and humor.
The winters are harsh and just living through them requires determination. In spite of all the modern-day tools we use to stay connected, it’s easy to lose touch in the dark months.
That’s why the people of McKenzie County celebrate summer. Even after a long day in the hay fields trying to beat a storm or an all-nighter on the rigs, they find time to enjoy themselves under the magnificent North Dakota sky. Like so many things in the Northern Great Plains, time for fun is boom and bust.
Words and photos by Kim Komenich
It’s the time of year when the young ones lie down in the field in the warm sun and watch the rapidly moving clouds pass overhead. Their older brothers and sisters are nearby, roping fence posts, or each other, if that suits their mood.
If there’s a peak to the community’s frenzy for riding and swimming and wringing every bit of fun out of the long summer days, it has to be the week starting with the Fourth of July, leading up to the McKenzie County Fair.
The Arnegard parade kicks off on time, complete with politicians and tractors and the Sons of Norway ship. The Williston Shriners weave their tiny cars along the route. Miss McKenzie County and Miss Fourth of July stand atop a fire truck, waving and throwing candy to hundreds of children.
The crowd winds up at Nelson Park for the annual barbecue. Then, something more magical than any text or phone call or email message begins to happen. The community shares a meal and spends time together. Handshake by handshake, conversation by conversation, the bonds are renewed and deepened.
“How’ve you been?”
“My, you’re getting big. How old are you now?”
Toward sundown the dogs get nervous as hundreds of family fireworks displays begin to illuminate the pale blue sky. A child drops her first sparkler and runs away, but returns to giggle and squeal with joy as her dad lights the second one.
Later, after the last Thunder Kings and Yowzas have exploded and the sulfur smoke subsides, the stars once again take prominence over the prairie sky.
The next morning reality sets in. The McKenzie County Fair opens in two days and the bakers and the ranchers and the quilters are making their final preparations. 4H’ers have been feeding and caring for their steers since November and for the first time they get to see all of their friends’ animals at the weigh-in. They brush their steers while they wait for their turn at the scale.
Across town, Jim and Kathie Konsor of the Bakken Oil Rush Ministry and their volunteers are busy sorting donated clothing and household items for the ministry’s mobile free thrift center, which they open for a few hours a week just north of the airport. The ministry’s fall coat giveaway and gathering place events are often the first stop for newly-arrived families who are often down on their luck and desperate for warm clothing.
Jim confides that the ministry’s startup funding from the United Methodist Church is being reduced and that he hopes to involve other churches and community organizations. “As we became connected to the community we realized that this will be an ongoing need to fill,” he said.
Throughout the county, farmers are trying to cut the last big hay field before the rains hit in the afternoon. Teams load bales on to trucks as flares from nearby oil rigs blaze in the background.
The McKenzie County Fair opens on July 7 with a parade down Main Street in Watford City. Somehow, this 24/7/365 agricultural and oil community finds the time to turn out and showcase the things that matter.
During this hectic week, Janice Sanford and the other volunteers at Meals on Wheels see to it that homebound seniors get their lunches. Afterward, Janice stops by the Good Shepherd Nursing Home and Horizon Assisted Living Center to visit with friends.
The spirit of generosity is everywhere, from the little league fields to the churches to the North Dakota Badlands, where volunteers keep all 150 miles of the Maah Daah Hey Trial in pristine condition in anticipation of one of the country’s most demanding mountain bike races.
The week comes to a close with the McKenzie County Fair Rodeo and one last chance to ride the ferris wheel on the arcade. There’s word that a storm is on the way, so in an instant the lights go out and the fairgoers say their goodbyes. A group of teenagers seizes the moment to dance in the dark to music by a country band as the carnies begin to pack up the rides.
The music fades away as you load your cotton candy-fingered kids into the truck, trying to figure how the week could have been any better.
Special thanks to the North Dakota Humanities Council, The Roosevelt Inn & Suites, The McKenzie County Farmer, the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County and the Long X Arts Foundation for making this story possible.