Where Have All the Sunflowers Gone?

"Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you"


State 13: North Dakota - August 26, 2017


We woke up early at a Mandan, ND Walmart feeling very blue. Today was our last day in North Dakota, and we were sad to be leaving the state. First item on the agenda for the day was a 72 mile drive to Beulah, ND to visit the Cross Country Couple's chosen “Made in the USA Factory Tour” for the State of North Dakota: The Dakota Gasification Company. Energy is the 2nd largest component of the State’s economy, but we didn’t just want to just visit just any old oil well for our factory tour. We wanted to visit a plant uniquely North Dakotan, and that is exactly what we found with The Dakota Gasification Company.

Founded in 1984, The Dakota Gasification Company is the only commercial scale coal gasification plant in the United States manufacturing synthetic natural gas. The synthetic natural gas is produced via converting solid coal into a gaseous state. Coal has fallen out of favor due to environmental concerns specifically related to CO2 emissions. However, the process of gasification falls into the category of clean burning coal. According to a North Dakota Department of Public Health, the Dakota Gasification Company is the cleanest energy plant currently operating in the state of North Dakota. It’s refreshing to see the words clean and coal used in the same sentence. Lori and I know absolutely nothing about how synthetic natural gas is produced, so this was certain to be an interesting day.

We made our way to the administrative offices, signed in, obtained our visitor badges, and met up with our tour guide, who then gave us bad news. Per the US Department of Homeland Security, a security clearance is required to step foot on the actual gasification plant, which takes 60 days to obtain. However, there was a scaled down model of the entire plant available in an upstairs conference room she would use to explain the gasification process. We were first lead into a room to watch a 30-minute movie about the history of the company. Next, we went down a narrow hallway, and stood outside of a metal double door where we were told to wait. Our guide entered the room, turned on the lights, swung open the double doors, and we were in absolute shock at what we were witnessing. Please see the pictures below.

Now, when we were told we would be viewing a model of their plant, I was expecting a display perhaps the size of a conference table. What laid before us was a 1000 square foot room, 20 feet in height, with a massive model encompassing the entire space with the exception of a walkway around the perimeter. The model we were viewing was the exact one used to construct the actual gasification plant. The model of the plant cost 2 million dollars to construct, and took a team of engineers 2.5 years to build. We had never seen anything like it in our entire lives!

I would need to be a chemist to explain exactly how the process of gasification occurs, and you would also need to be a chemist to understand what I am explaining. However, our guide did a superb job of explaining the complex process of coal gasification in an understandable manner. The process begins within the plants 14 gasifiers. In order to differentiate between each gasifier, the plant gave each a unique name. Seven of the names are female names, and the remaining seven are male names, which we found very cute. Within each gasifier, coal is mixed with oxygen and steam at a high temperature and high pressure. This process produces synthetic natural gas, which is then shipped via a pipeline for national distribution. The main benefits of this gasification process is combustion of the coal does not occur. Instead, the state of the coal is transformed from a solid to gas state. In addition, almost all of the bi-products of the gasification process, are re-purposed into other industrial products. The most interesting re-purposing is the CO2 which is shipped via a pipeline to an oil field in Canada where it is used to propel the oil from beneath the ground.


When one thinks of North Dakota, people typically think of oil, wheat, bison, and extremely cold weather. Sunflowers are probably one of the last things one would associate with the state. However, we were shocked to learn North Dakota is the largest producer of sunflowers in the US. Apparently, the Spanish have an insatiable appetite for sunflower seeds, because ND exports 50% of it's annual sunflower crop to Spain. Many falsely believe the sunflower is named because it's appearance mimics that of the sun. However, the sunflower is named such, because each day it turns to follow the rising and setting of the sun. Even on the darkest and coldest days, the sunflower will always turn its head to seek out the sun no matter how faint the rays of light may be. It is for the above reasons; the Sunflower is my favorite flower!

The best time to see the North Dakota sunflower fields in bloom was in August, and we were fortunate to be in there during that time. However, throughout our entire week in the state, we had yet to see a single sunflower. Today, we would be heading south to exit the state at the Southwestern corner, and we couldn’t help but wonder where North Dakota was hiding all of their sunflowers! About 5 miles outside of Gasification Plant, the prairies erupted with acres upon acres of blooming sunflowers painting the horizon with magnificent streaks of yellow and black as far as the eye see. I was in awe of its beauty! Please see the pictures below!

Next, we headed 68 miles to Gladstone, ND to visit the Cross Country Couple's “Roadside Attraction” for the state of North Dakota: The Enchanted Highway. It is no secret small town America is dying a slow and painful death. On our cross country journey, we have had the misfortune of front row seats to this disturbing phenomenon. The once thriving and bustling small town USA, now lays abandoned and crumbling into oblivion from sea to shining sea. However, very occasionally a motivated town citizen, a visionary, and a patriot stands up, and refuses to allow their hometown to go quietly into the night. Gary Greff is an example of such a person! With his hometown of Regent, ND with a population of 160 on the verge of becoming a ghost town, Greff developed an ingenious plan to drive traffic from I-94 to Regent, ND 32 miles away! Greff would take scrap metal, and construct them into massive works of roadside art at specific intervals along the 32-mile stretch of road from I-94 leading into Regent. Thus, the Enchanted Highway was born! The Enchanted Highway is the largest collection of outdoor metals sculptures in the world, and at the time of our visit, 7 of the sculptures stood completed.

1st - Geese in Flight

Completed in 2001, it is located right off the Gladstone exit on 1-94. It is the first of seven metal sculptures, and the largest outdoor metal sculpture in the world!

2nd - Deer Crossing

Completed in 2002, it is located 5 miles away from the previous sculpture.

3rd - Grasshoppers in the Field

Completed in 1999, it is located 12 miles away from the previous sculpture.

4th - Fisherman's Dream

Completed in 1999, it is located 5 miles away from the previous sculpture.

5th - Pheasants on the Prairie

Completed in 1996, it is located 4 miles away from the previous sculpture, the body of the pheasants are made with window screens, which gives the appearance of feathers on the birds.

6th - Teddy Rides Again Completed in 1993, it is located 2 miles away from the previous sculpture. It is a 2 dimensional sculpture honoring our 26th President Theodore Roosevelt. In front of the sculpture is a toy stage coach constructed with wood. I took a pic of this sculpture while sitting in the back of the coach.

7th - The Tin Family

Completed in 1991, it is located 4 miles away from the previous sculpture. It was the first sculpture completed and features: A mommy tin man with barb wire for hair, a daddy tin man with pitchfork, and a kid tin man licking a lollipop and wearing a propeller hat.

5 miles later we arrived at the town of Regent, ND. We decided not to stop, because it appeared a bit too touristy for our taste. However, the Enchanted Highway was a superb idea, and successfully breathed new life into this dying small town. This is the exact reason we visit a road side attraction in each state. All across America, ordinary people are engaging in extraordinary efforts to spare their small towns from extinction. Their inspirational stories display their selflessness, creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and provides us with a glimpse into the culture of a potential home state.

For geographical convenience, we spent the night at a campsite in the tiny town of Hettinger, ND right on the North and South Dakota border. The campsite featured water, electric, showers, a beautiful lake all for $10 per night, and we had the entire campground to ourselves. Please see the pictures below!

Our time in North Dakota had come to an end, and Nate and I both had a great time. From the beauty of the badlands, to the state's endless rolling prairies, to the diversified economy, the cheap cost of living, ample job opportunities, and the most fiscally responsible state government we have come across thus far, there is A LOT to like about the state. Will North Dakota make the cut to be considered as our potential new home state? We can’t wait to vote, to see how North Dakota scores.

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