We’ve got a thing for back roads…and our dirty vehicles show it.
And we have a thing for “yesteryear.” Highway 16 south fulfilled both of those “things we have” a few days ago.
North Dakota Highway 16 is the first highway in the state – or the last, depending on which way you’re going. It follows the western border of North Dakota. To the north of the Interstate, North Dakota Highway 16 is a smooth clean good-surface state highway. We’ve driven it often. To the south, well, it’s an adventurous exploration. That’s where we were headed this March morning.
Highway 16 to the north is one of our favorite highways; it’s a slow ride, easy curves, and hills. If you’re in the mood, the rhythm is right. No one goes too fast,. Maybe that’s why the mid-point is called Trotters. Or maybe it is because of the abandoned town of Trotters.
Starting in the dark
We got up at 3:30, and were on the road by 4:15. It was a dark and stormy night. Well, not stormy, but certainly dark. A cool prairie highway.
Warm smell of coffee, rising up in the air
Up in the distance, we saw a shimmering light,
Sunrise on Sentinel Butte, prairie on the right.
We got off I-94 eased through the town of Sentinel Butte, headed west on old Highway 10 (that’s another story) toward Beach. The morning was still blue, the sun had not warmed the horizon. At least not until we got west of the North Dakota “mountain the top chopped off,” Sentinel Butte, the one that the town is named after. Who knows how tall it once was. Now it rises 3350 feet above sea level.
The eastern glow got brighter. Here came the sun. Spring always comes,but it also seems like it had been a long cold lonely winter. It felt like years since we’d been here. The promise was for it to be a warm day, maybe 50 degrees. That’s warm in North Dakota in March, and probably the warmest day for weeks to come.
A few frozen muddy roads gave us multiple photographic vantage points. First one, then the next and the next.
Ahhh…the morning golden hour. That hour after sunrise, (or the hour before sunset). We’d wanted to catch the morning golden hour. It was worth it. We caught a bit of the Butte called Sentinel Butte, and then we were groovin’ on Thelan’s shadows on the horizon.
Thelen. Groovin’ on North Dakota Highway 16
There’s not much left of the town of Thelen, just one abandoned grain elevator, glowing in the “golden hour” of the light of sunrise. A couple of warm weather explorers we are. We turned off Highway 16 to catch the golden glow of the elevator. Snow and cold prompted us to stay inside; we didn’t even get out of the pickup. So, we drove past the elevator in one direction, then the other. You might say we went groovin’, down a not so crowded avenue.
Golden Valley County is one of our favorite wide-open counties. Its population is low, about 2 people per square mile, mostly cowboys –ranching is the main economic force. Railroad expansion helped propel the settling of the county and it was born in 1912. Four years later, Thelen was born. There probably was never much happening in Thelen. At its peak, in 1920 it had 15 people. By 1930, it had four people, then it died.
On to Golva the last stop before the end of North Dakota Highway 16
Drove by Ekre in our hurry to get goin’ to Golva. Ekre is one of at least seven historic, unincorporated towns in Golden Valley County.
Our immediate goal was Golva. Strange name. According to legend, Golva’s name was derived from the first three letters of “Golden” and the first two letters of “Valley.” It was born about the same year as Thelen, but it’s done much better for itself than did Thelen. In fact, it almost became the county seat of Golden Valley County, but that distinction went to Beach.
The town boasts itself as the Biggest Little Town on the Prairie. Population 70.
A quick tour down main street and back – under the watchful eye of a, um, a, er…well, a dog? On top of the bar?
It wasn’t too much further south of Golva and *POOF* the end of North Dakota Highway 16. The state highway ended and left us with a gravel road. In fact, some maps show that what once was “North Dakota State Highway 16” is a dirt trail. That’s not too far off. We hit some rugged trails, muddy and empty.
Floods, ice, llamas, and geezers
Oh, and unusual sites, too were ahead of us. Cattle, floods, ice, llamas, gourmet meals and geezers were waiting for us the closer we got to the South Dakota line.
But that’s the next story. Make sure you subscribe to get a notice when Part 2, Golva to Three V is published.
People we met, once we got to civilization, had plenty of stories about the road, North Dakota Highway 16. What’s your memory of Old Highway 16 south?
Here’s another exploration of a long-lost highway that led us to the water’s edge. Highway 8, the highway broken by a lake.
Did you know that Highway 16 follows a route traveled by tens-of-thousands of cattle who walked both the west side of the Little Missouri River and the East side? On the west side, they followed Highway 16. Read more about longhorns here.
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