A Few Things I Have Learned About Going Outside In North Dakota In Winter

Photo by Tod Seelie, who definitely did not take this while driving because that would be unsafe
Photo by Tod Seelie, who definitely did not take this while driving because that would be unsafe

On Sunday, I arrived in North Dakota and headed to Oceti Sakowin, one of the main camps where Native water protectors are peacefully blocking the planned path of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I did some interviews. The photographer accompanying me took photos. It was icy cold and very dark and once or twice I fell down and tested out the durability of my hips and elbows. Then, a little before 2 a.m., we made a fatal mistake: we left.


On Monday morning, I awoke at a hotel in Bismarck, some 50 miles away, and realized, in the parlance of our times, that I had played myself. A blizzard had come in overnight and turned the roads into a low-rent skating rink. Snow accumulated unpleasantly, blown across the road in enormous gusts. Nonetheless, we thought we’d try to drive back to camp and do the work we came here to do. Ha ha. Hahahaha. Please picture me here, laughing grimly at myself and my plans.

There’s a hotel in there. Photo by Tod Seelie.
There’s a hotel in there. Photo by Tod Seelie.

An hour or so after getting in the car, we’d gone roughly 20 terrifying, white-knuckled miles down mostly unplowed roads. On tribal land, a police officer was standing in the middle of the road, looking miserable.

“This is going to get 100 percent worse,” he told us, wincing. We turned around.

Since then, in the past 20-ish hours, I learned a few things about extremely cold weather. Allow me to share them with you now.

  • Nine degrees isn’t that bad. A windchill that makes it feel like negative three or so: that is very bad. It physically hurts. It’s like knives stabbing you in the face and penetrating your brain.
  • The knives in your brain will give you a vicious headache, which will somehow come as a surprise.
  • If you don’t wish to spend a lot of your afternoon camped in a snowbound Walmart parking lot, don’t go into the Walmart parking lot, even if you really need to pick up more socks and a headlamp to replace the one you stupidly forgot. When you end up living in the Walmart parking lot, making a life there, raising children, growing old and burying yourself in the shopping cart return lane, you have only yourself to blame.
  • If you must travel in these conditions, try to do so with a hardy, Midwestern-bred photographer, who will calmly drive down the skating rink roads with one hand while occasionally snapping photos with the other, chatting cheerily about the electoral college as though nothing terrifying were going on here. You will be unable to hear him through the roar of blood in your ears and the panic alarms going off in your head, but it’s nice gesture.
  • Your earwax: it’ll freeze. It’s like snapping melted, hardened wax off a dripping candle. It’s kind of fun. You’re grossed out now, but when you find yourself in this situation, you’ll take your joys where you find them.
Contemplating eternity. Photo by  Tod Seelie.
Contemplating eternity. Photo by Tod Seelie.
  • When you realize that you’re about to be snowbound in a hotel, go get beer. I repeat: get the beer on your return trip back down the skating rink roads. Do not wait until you’re back at the hotel and then cheerily volunteer to walk across the four-lane road on foot to the Shell station. You will not be able to make it. You will stand there, the knife-winds stabbing you in your earholes, staring across the road, realizing it’s too icy to run across and the snowdrifts are too large to make it down to a crosswalk.
  • This is how people die, you’ll realize, from the long-buried sensible part of your brain. Even if you really want beer, you will picture headlines like “Journalist Killed In North Dakota In Painfully Stupid Roadside Accident While Trying to Buy Beer,” and you will turn back.
  • If you insist on waking up in the predawn darkness the following day to try again, things will be even worse. You will get stuck in the goddamn hotel parking lot. The photographer will be forced to get out of the car, shove the floormats under the front wheels, and shove the car violently backwards while you gun it in reverse.
  • Also, several of your doors on your vehicle will freeze shut. Just another fun obstacle once you manage to dig the car out!
  • Should you miraculously make it one block in the car to get breakfast, it’ll look like you’ve made a trip to the Arctic. You’ll keep looking up from your omelet to notice that all the buildings across the road, and the road itself, have disappeared.
Illustration for article titled A Few Things I Have Learned About Going Outside In North Dakota In Winter

Finally, while you’re stranded in a hotel room in Bismarck, downing Advil and watching ice form on your window, here’s one last thing to think about: Right-wing news sites have repeatedly and persistently claimed that the people demonstrating against the Dakota Access Pipeline are “paid agitators,” citing extremely reliable sources like Craigslist ads. A widely-circulated editorial written by a guy with ties to right-wing, “pro-business” think tanks made the same claims. So did the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.


And yet somehow, in literally deadly blizzard conditions, many of the water protectors are not planning to go anywhere until they’re assured Energy Transfer Partners is going to stop drilling, for real and for good, even as Standing Rock’s chairman urges them to go home. “Paid agitators” would go where it’s warm and safe. Instead, some of the water protectors have hunkered down, dug in, and prepared themselves.

“It’s just a little blizzard,” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard told me yesterday by phone, in an interview for another story. She’s the owner of the land that the Sacred Stone Camp rests on and a former tribal historian for the Standing Rock tribe. Her family has been here since the 1800s. She’s been readying the camp for winter since July: blankets, sub zero-grade sleeping bags, tipis, yurts, Chippewa-style lodges, a school, a medical center, and a nearly-completed kitchen. This is what grit looks like. Energy Transfer Partners might have equipment, and they might stand to make a lot of money, but they don’t have this.


“We’ve been here for thousands of years,” Allard said calmly, before hanging up to attend to a house full of people, including her 18 grandchildren. “A little bit of winter is not going to make much difference.”

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.



For you, being trapped in a hotel in North Dakota during a blizzard in subzero temperatures will be a story you tell for the rest of your life. For midwesterners, it was Tuesday.