Plains Folk

American Highway


Stew Magnuson, a mild-mannered editor from Virginia, is pulled to the prairies by two lines. The first is a line of descent, as he takes pride in his ancestral roots in western Nebraska. The second is a red line on a roadmap, the one designated Highway 83. Magnuson is a self-described “highway buff.”


His plan is to explore this red line of Highway 83 from Westhope, North Dakota, to the Mexican border, writing about it in a series of three books, the first being the volume here under review:  The body of the book is divided into two parts, North Dakota and South Dakota.


Stew’s book is not exactly a guidebook. It’s more of a travel narrative, and like most good travel narratives, in embeds within itself the stories of others.


As he drives along the highway, Stew takes an interest in everything he sees: sunflowers, beehives, intercontinental missiles, monarch butterflies, and custom harvesters. What really revs him up, though, is a good story, often a good story wherein an underdog comes out on top or someone unrecognized finally gets his due.


For instance, the story of Erick Ramstad, the underdog Norwegian homesteader who got rich from the townsite of Minot. Or the story of Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher, and how Neil Churchill, a car dealer, recruited him as a ringer for the Bismarcks.


Stew takes delight, too, in characters and conversations. After recounting the story of how Garrison Dam inundated the heartland of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation, he finds Don Dickens, a Vietnam veteran taking care of the Arikara Scouts cemetery. Don says the big dam not only forced relocation of the historic cemetery but also “destroyed a way of life.” And yet here he is, a symbol of native resilience.


Heading on south, Stew is enticed by the scent of bread into the Model Bakery, in Linton, and makes the acquaintance of a great baker and businesswoman, Mary Tschosik. This is en route to Strasburg and the homestead of Ludwig and Christina Welk, the boyhood home of television star and North Dakota Roughrider Lawrence Welk.


Here Stew highlights the story of the $400 accordion that was a ticket away from the homestead and on to the bright lights for Lawrence—a variation on the story of every boy or girl who left a prairie farm behind, a narrative that perhaps resonates within Stew’s own family line.


More stories await in South Dakota, including the murder of schoolteacher Ada Carey in 1937, the spectacular rise of the flamboyant rodeo star Casey Tibbs, and the quiet courage of Spotted Tail, the founder of Rosebud Reservation.


This is a great book for travelers of either the motorized or the armchair variety. I want not only to praise it but also to encourage Stew in his highway buffery, for two reasons. First, because we still lack a due appreciation for our Great Plains landscapes, and their investment with narrative is what cultivates that due appreciation.


And second, because Stew exhibits an honest and unmistakable love of the prairies. At one point in the journey he glances west toward the Rocky Mountains. “I can still appreciate their beauty,” he writes, “but nowadays, mountains bore the hell out of me.” If you see this guy out there on Highway 83, buy him a Coke.

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