On occasion we’ve been asked if we know how many miles we’ve driven in pursuit of North Dakota ghost towns and abandoned places, but we’ve never really had an answer because we didn’t really start keeping track of our mileage until a few years ago. We did, however, have a metric we used to keep track of how much driving we’ve done… the number of vehicles we’ve gone through. We’ve driven about ten different vehicles, and worn-out three of them on the backroads of North Dakota, and two of them actually gave up during a trip to shoot abandoned places.
As of 2017, our best estimate is that we’ve driven about 65,000 miles inside the borders of North Dakota in pursuit ghost towns and abandoned places, and if you include the places we’ve photographed for Ghosts of Minnesota and Ghosts of North America, the number is probably closer to 90,000 miles. At any rate, this story is about that time our vehicle went to the ghost town in the sky.
It was early winter of 2005, and even though we don’t usually go out shooting in winter, it had not yet snowed and we decided to go on a trip to the Devils Lake area.
We had several places on our agenda with the ultimate goal of visiting Silva and Fillmore, North Dakota. It was planned to be an overnight trip, during which we would shoot some places on the way to Devils Lake, spend the night in a hotel, and photograph a few more places on the way home the next day. (As a sidenote, I’ll say this was at a time when we were each working full-time jobs, but not making a lot of money, and we were driving some beater cars. Thank you, Jesus, that we’re in a little better place these days and driving more reliable vehicles.)
It started out fine. As we approached Devils Lake, we stopped along the highway to photograph the home shown above. It was abandoned due to the rising waters of Devils Lake, just a short distance from the former road to the casino, which was also inundated by the rising water. Terry was taking the photograph above while I was standing in front of the car shooting something else, and I thought I noticed the car, a used Ford wagon, making a funny noise. It didn’t seem like anything major, it just sounded a little different than usual.
We continued down the road, checked in at our hotel, and although the weather was gloomy, it was good enough that we could keep shooting, so we headed out for our next place.
It started to drizzle on the way to our next destination, the former Grand Harbor school. Actually, it was more of a mist than a drizzle, and we waited in the car a few moments when we arrived at the Grand Harbor school to see if it would stop. It didn’t. Instead, the mist became a fairly steady light rain, so we got out and photographed the school building quickly, and then headed out for Silva and Fillmore with the hope that the weather would be better by the time we got there.
We were heading west, about 15 minutes from Fillmore when the rain turned to snow. We were on a back road, a pretty rough dirt road, and it wasn’t long before the snow started to accumulate on the road, which was already a little muddy from the rain. The car started to slide around a little bit, and even though I slowed down quite a bit, it was one of those North Dakota weather situations where we decided to let the conditions win. We decided we would go back to the hotel and come back the next day.
We were finally back on the pavement and headed for Devils Lake when, suddenly, the car just died. I looked down and all of the dash lights came on. Engine light, oil light, everything. We rolled to a stop on the side of the road, at the end of a farmer’s driveway, and I tried to start the car again. It made a groaning noise and I suspected it wasn’t going to be starting again. Ever.
So, we called Devils Lake for a tow and we were informed it would be about an hour and 45 minutes. People were sliding off the road all over the place, and they were pretty busy.
While we waited for the tow truck, a weird thing happened. Right behind us, Terry noticed another car roll to a stop on the shoulder. The driver got out and walked away from the car as steam poured from under the hood. Another car had broken down in the exact spot where our car had given out. We made jokes about how maybe this was the Devils Triangle for cars or something.
The tow truck arrived and we had the car towed back to the hotel while we figured out what we were gonna do. In the room, we picked up the phone book to call a few places about the car, and… cue the Twilight Zone music… the phone book said “Durum Triangle” on the cover.
Seriously though, we eventually concluded that the car was done, like, forever. It had likely lost oil pressure and the engine was seized up entirely. We had to call an end to our adventure for that day, and we needed to get home.
Enter my cousin Brad. Actually, he’s my ex-wife’s cousin, but I never got out of the habit of calling him “cousin”. He’s the kind of friend who will help you fix a leaky pipe, cut down a dying tree that’s threatening your roof, or rescue you when you get into trouble, and never make you feel bad about it. Everybody needs a friend like Brad. He lived back in Fargo, and when I called him and told him what happened, I heard him say “Hey. Chris, you wanna go on a road trip to Devils Lake?” Within ten minutes, he was on the road with his friend Chris to come pick us up in Devils Lake.
They arrived just before nightfall. We packed up all our stuff and loaded it into Brad’s new Subaru, which was all-wheel drive, with plans to have a local salvage yard pick up our dead car the next day. Brad and Chris sat in the front, and Terry and I were in the back.
We were heading east on US Highway 2, and conditions were getting really bad. If you’ve driven in North Dakota for any length of time, you’ve likely encountered a snow storm like this. It was hovering around freezing, and a light, wet snow was falling. The wind was blowing the snow horizontally across the highway. Brad slowed down a little bit, but the Subaru seemed like it was handling the slippery road surface fine. Suddenly, we hit a section of highway where the grade rose a little bit. We felt the car squat down on its suspension a little, but when it hit the crest of the rise and started to come down the other side, all four tires broke loose. The road surface in that spot was glare ice. There was a queasy feeling as the car started to rotate clockwise, with the nose pointing toward the ditch.
Time seemed to slow down. There was a moment, a split second really, when Brad was calculating what to do. Then, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well…” then stepped on the gas slightly and drove the car right down into the ditch. Our first lucky break was that this happened in a spot where the grade down into the ditch was at a very shallow angle and the ditch was a wide one with a fairly flat bottom. A moment later, we were in the bottom of this ditch going about 50 miles per hour, with prairie grass sticking up through the snow, pelting the bottom of the car.
Very gingerly, Brad turned the wheel back to the left and started heading back up the grade to the road. Terry and I were in the back seat, leaning toward the middle of the car so we could see what was happening through the windshield. I remember thinking, just for a moment, “Is this it? Is this the end?”
The car popped back onto the highway, fishtailed a little bit, Brad wrangled it under control, and continued driving like nothing had happened. It was dead silent in the car. Then, I said the only thing I could think of to say.
“Nice driving, Brad.”
“Thank you,” he said.
A moment later, the car exploded in laughter and excited chatter. We couldn’t believe that had just happened.
We made it home without any further trouble. Brad swore us to secrecy on our off-road adventure, lest his wife find out what had happened in their brand-new Subaru (she knows, now. He confessed.) Our car in Devils Lake was picked up by a local salvage yard, and we managed to make it to Silva and Fillmore in the summer of 2006.
Thankfully, we haven’t had another trip as eventful as that one.
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy