After leaving Devils Tower, we pointed our rig toward Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Driving across the Dakotas is notoriously boring, so I was pretty excited to find a few different points of interest to visit along the way.
Geographic Center of the Nation
Our route northeast from Devils Tower brought us right through the small town of Belle Fourche, South Dakota, which has a major claim to fame. You can be excused if you’ve never heard of it and can’t imagine why the place is notable – it’s one of those completely arbitrary facts that make for the best roadside attractions. Belle Fourche, SD is the geographic center of the United States, as officially confirmed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
This is a relatively newfound distinction for a town that was historically a commercial center of the Dakota cattle industry. It only earned the title after Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, shifting the nation’s center much further north and west from the prior center in Kansas. We of course stopped to see the flag-bedecked compass rose that commemorates the town’s unique status, and took a few obligatory selfies (which were all horrible, so here’s a normal photo).
Next up on our tour of Americana was the Enchanted Highway. This attraction in southwestern North Dakota consists of more than a half dozen monumental metal sculptures placed along a 35-mile stretch of a small road leading south from I-94 at the Gladstone, ND exit. The project was the brainchild of a local man with no art or tourism experience, but with a vision to draw visitors into his hometown of Regent at the southern terminus of the Enchanted Highway.
Since we were headed in a northerly direction, we started in Regent, where the artist is still working on new pieces in the yard of the now-abandoned town school. I can’t believe that the art pieces are doing all that much for the economy of Regent, ND, at least judging by the deserted Main Street we encountered on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon. Although perhaps the town would be even more bleak without the two gas stations and gift shop that seem to cater primarily to the Enchanted Highway crowd.
Even if they are not actually saving a town from ruin, the sculptures are pretty great. They are enormous, and the primary components are repurposed metal from agricultural operations (think lots of barrels). Each sculpture has a very different style and theme. Some even have parts designed to move in the wind. And because the surrounding landscape is a vast treeless expanse, seeing these pieces rise from the plains is really arresting.
Since we were not due into Teddy Roosevelt until the following day, our plan was to take a leisurely trip up the Enchanted Highway, stopping to enjoy each sculpture, and camp overnight in one of the large parking areas in front of the sculptures. We knew that a thunderstorm system was on the way that afternoon, so we wanted to be sure we were snugly parked before the rain and lightning arrived.
We were just getting settled in to our camping spot in front of the pheasants, when…..
We were nicely leveled in a spot that had some wind protection in the form of a small rise. I was going through the normal setup routine of opening window shades, including the shade over the skylight in the main living area. I had some trouble processing what I was seeing when I first opened that shade. Then I realized, to my complete astonishment and horror, that part of our roof was missing! The domed plastic skylight cover had apparently decided to part ways with us somewhere along the drive from Devils Tower.
Approximately one millisecond later, my phone started buzzing with notifications from my weather apps telling me that a severe thunderstorm was headed our way. Ack! We immediately got to work on two things: creating some sort of temporary cover, and booking a spot for the night at an RV park in the nearest town so we would be within easy reach of parts and supplies.
The good news is that we are from Florida, so we know exactly what to do when part of your roof blows away: stick a blue tarp up there. The bad news is that our gear on hand did not actually include a blue tarp. (That has since been corrected, in the spirit of always responding to the last crisis.)
Ken and I quickly reviewed all the items we did have with us that could potentially give us some weather protection, and our conversation cycled through garbage bags, emergency rain ponchos, space blankets, and more, until eventually hitting on the single most versatile item in the universe: an IKEA blue bag. We cut one to size (to the extent possible) and secured it across the roof opening with a ridiculous amount of duct tape.
Then we raced 30 miles down the road to Dickinson, ND, where we got parked just as the storm was starting to roll in. We added some additional weather protection on the roof in the form of the lid from a plastic storage bin – secured with more duct tape, of course – and hunkered down for the night. Fortuitously, the heaviest rains stayed away from us and our temporary roofing kept us dry throughout the night.
We were up bright and early the next morning in search of the parts to make a repair, by which I mean we were in the parking lot at Menards at 6:31 a.m., one minute after they opened. And by that time we had already shopped at the 24-hour Walmart in town. Nothing like a little sheer panic to get us out of bed in the morning!
We ended up getting exactly what we needed to make a replacement top for our skylight. We bought a sheet of acrylic and cut it to size, and we added foam weather stripping tape all around the top of the skylight to create a watertight yet flexible joint between the skylight base and the new acrylic piece.
To secure the new roofing material, we upgraded from duct tape to the magical Flex Seal tape (as seen on TV!). The infomercials for that stuff are pretty compelling — if it can hold together a sawed-in-half boat, then it had better hold a piece of lightweight plastic onto our roof. If not, the manufacturer can expect to receive a strongly worded letter from me.
So far at least, our repair is working out great. Frankly, it seems more secure than the skylight dome ever was. While I was not happy about the unexpected need for a repair, which naturally came at the worst possible time, I’m really proud of our ability to both manage the immediate emergency and come up with a quality longer-term solution. All those years of DIY projects on our various homes left us with some basic construction skills, which definitely came in handy on this occasion. Our next visit to an IKEA will of course involve purchasing several more blue bags to replace the one that made the ultimate sacrifice for us. And if anyone finds a skylight dome blowing down a road in the western Dakotas, you can keep it – we have upgraded!