Stepping Twice into the River: Following Dakota Waters

Stepping Twice into the River: Following Dakota Waters - Reviews

216 pages, $19.9r paper, $55 cloth, University Press of Colorado

Linda Hasselstrom (author of Between Grass and Sky):

"King introduces a year-long exploration of nowhere—that is, North Dakota—and deftly leads us from reflections on the past of the entire Great Plains to reflections on the future of the area. Nowhere is also Everywhere; this writer’s thoughts subtly encompass the history of decline and growth in the plains, and their relevance to the future—and this is the main topic of discussion everywhere in the West at this time."

from The Bloomsbury Review, July-August, 2005, Ron Steffens

In his exploration of North Dakota history and mythos, King begins at the hard-to-find headwaters of the Sheyenne River and follows it through glacial till, abandoned homesteads, and agro-industrial fields, a world that is Nowhere… a blank for some because it’s too far inland, too far to the north, and lacks the instant icons of other states—no Liberty Bell, Disneyland, snow-capped Rockies…. But Nowhere can expand itself to Anywhere…. The same winds of climate and politics blow across the plains, and the same human nature contributes to progress and blocks it, praises it and complains about it—especially in the highway café.

This is a world where café philosophers pin our country’s hope on the success of wildcat militias and yet many here dream of bison reinhabiting the prairies. Here folk can claim that “civilization arrived in Wells County…/in exactly 1882 with the first social dance and the killing of the country’s last buffalo. It’s Nowhere but also Everywhere, a place where King can camp along a river and remember his favorite line from a Cheyenne song: “My friends, only the stones stay on earth forever.”

Booklist (2005)

King undertakes a classic river journey, not in a land exotic to him but in North Dakota, his longtime home. And instead of traveling a fabled river, he follows the meandering Sheyenne, an "intermittent," even "ephemeral," waterway that threads across glacier-carved terrain that feels, as King notes in his low-key yet resonant way, remote even "when you're in the midst of it." His journey across the sparsely populated prairie inspires musings on why North Dakota's population is decreasing, and forays into little-known corners of the region's somber history. As he ponders the struggles of homesteaders and the cruel war waged against Native Americans, he captures the aura of a profoundly elemental place afflicted by both drought and flood. Although he's thwarted in his plan to canoe on the Sheyenne when he finds after a few days that more portage than paddling is involved, King absorbs "the silence of the open land and mute river," and acquires fresh understanding of the North Dakotan character, the life of a modest river, and the nature of change. Donna Seaman, 2005
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved (2006)

Every place has a story, even when the place in question seems to be the middle of nowhere—along the Sheyenne River in North Dakota.

But from the beginning of Robert King's memoir cum natural history tale, we are told that this place is indeed the middle of somewhere—the whole continent, in fact—and even if it weren't, it would still have a story worth sharing.

King chronicled the natural and cultural history of the Sheyenne during his last year of living in North Dakota, where he lived for 23 years.

Beginning with the headwaters, which were nowhere anyone really knew, King traced the river through ghost towns, boom towns, bedroom communities and lots of land where no one lived at all, sharing stories of those who used to call the land home and those who still stake their survival on this unpredictable but beautiful land.

While the book, like the river itself, takes a while to get going, ultimately it ends up as an engaging tale of a rugged land and its inhabitants, people who most of the book's readers will likely have a hard time understanding. What would draw someone, hundreds of years ago or today, to leave their home and travel west to a desolate, lonely and wild place where people are truly at the mercy of the land and each other?

The answer, at least for settlers of old, was cheap land and promised bounty that only occasionally came to pass. Perhaps the deeper question is why have the descendants of those settlers stayed? Of course, many have not stayed. The population of the state peaked in the 1930s and almost every town King passed through has lost population since then.

Still, many call this harsh land home. This book gives us some idea why as King shares the beauty of the river, the comforting sameness of the prairie and the variety of the changing seasons. The stories of people who call Dakota home, even the downright strange ones, are shared with the compassion and heart of an observer who also cares deeply about his subject.

This kind of story—part history, part ecology tract, part socio-economic study—could truly be told of any river in the world, proving rightly that every place has a story if only someone would take the time to discover it.

from North Dakota Quarterly, Winter/Spring, 2006, Robert W. Lewis

Here Robert King tells the story he made out of his riverine voyage enlarged by his gentle (not high-powered, befuddling) research into the culture, present and past, of the Sheyenne River, a modestly small river of east central North Dakota along which American Indians and then European Americans came to swell in the 19th century: possession, dispossession, and repossession. He has read well in this area’s past—military, political, social….he both pleases and instructs.

[He] alludes to the ancient Greeks from which he takes Heraclitus’ admonition: “You cannot step twice in the same river for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on”—meaning “that there is no permanent reality but the reality of change.” By both [traveling] the Sheyenne one year and historically reconstructing the cultures of the valley, Robert King’s fine book gently qualifies Heraclitus:

Heraclitus spoke of flux and change, but he also spoke of the unity binding these changes together. Permanence might be a relative term; that everything changed was a half-truth.

from Grand Forks Herald, 2005, Doreen Yellow Bird

"Reading Robert King’s Stepping Twice Into the River: Following Dakota Waters is stepping bravely into the past and seeing the true face of the North Dakota prairie…His journey starts in the center of the state, where many towns reached their zenith in the early 1900’s. Today, some are ghost towns. In these small, surviving communities, King pulls up a stool in small family cafes or friendly local bars and listens to the stories. King’s book is recommended to those who like to experience the land from a fresh point of view as he did. But it is also for those who don’t travel those off-roads in the middle of the state or stop at a small sign that outlines a battle. His adventure is beyond a hike in a reclusive land, it is understanding the mind and heart of the Prairie and seeing it come to life. It is well worth reading."