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'Perfect Place for Fantasy'? Great Plains

December 06, 1990|PHIL THOMAS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Ian Frazier is a young man who not only went West, he stayed there for nearly three years.

Weary of New York's high costs--"I got tired of sweating the rent"--Frazier, now 39, climbed into his van and drove to the Big Sky country, eventually setting down in a small town in Montana where he rented a two-story house "with a beautiful view for $225 a month, compared to the $700 I was laying out in New York."

From there he would cruise out into the Great Plains states, looking for the material he would eventually include in his entertaining and educational book, "Great Plains" (Penguin).

His van was equipped with bed and writing table, so when Frazier set out on his long, searching drives he could be gone for weeks at a time.

"I'd sleep in the van for three or four nights and then I'd get a room, because I'd be pretty grungy by then and I had to wash," he recalls with a laugh. "I always ate in restaurants. The longest I'd go out would be about 17 days, and then my concentration would lag, so I'd go back to the house and work on the book."

For many people, the plains are an area you fly over while going to California, but to Frazier they are "the perfect place for fantasies. They're so big that you could never know all there is to know about them--your fantasies could never wear them out. Even the plural in their name seems to make them extend further into a distant romantic haze."

In 1982-85, Frazier, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, estimates that he drove about 25,000 miles as he crossed and recrossed the plains states.

"The Great Plains are about 2,500 miles long and about 600 miles across at their widest point," he says. "The area they cover roughly parallels the Rocky Mountains, which make their western boundary. Although they extend from the Southwestern United States well into Canada, no single state or province lies entirely within them."

The plains states are: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

"I'd leave town and make a big loop, going all over the place," Frazier says. "I took it as it came. I set up no interviews. However, there were certain places I made a point of going to, like Crazy Horse's birthplace (probably at the foot of Bear Butte, near where Sturgis, S.D., is now) and Lawrence Welk's hometown," Strasburg, N.D.

Another site he sought out was Mondak. Now mostly ruined and gone, it was once a most popular place. The reason: drink.

"In 1889, North Dakota went dry," Frazier says, "so several men founded Mondak. It straddled the Montana-North Dakota state line, and the half of the town in Montana (which was wet) had nine saloons.

"A railroad line ran through the town, and it's said more people were hit by trains in Mondak than anywhere else along the line. It's also said a spark from one of those trains set a building on fire, and the whole town burned down. Now, other than a couple of rows of concrete cells which used to be part of its jail, there's nothing there. It's not a ghost town, it's a ghost site.

"There's lots of ghost sites on the plains," he says. "Often, you'll be driving along and you'll see a big historical marker with all sorts of detailed information about a town that used to be there. So, you look at the area indicated and there's nothing there--just a grainfield."

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