Can we talk about “the lake” for a minute?
During my years in North Dakota, I’ve become a student of Hot Dish language, culture, and traditions. I celebrate Syttende Mai, enthusiastically watch Lawrence Welk reruns, participate in Trash Christmas, and say things like “Oh, fer cute,” “Uffda,” and “Oh, I s’pose.” I pretend lefse is a delicacy and teach my children the art of a “Midwest Farewell.”
Even after seven years here, this place still holds some mystery to me. In my opinion, one of the most mysterious and elusive things about North Dakota culture is “The Lake.”
The Lake is where locals spend their summer. If your neighborhood is vacant on Saturday night, or the church pews are sparsely populated on Sunday morning, there’s a good chance The Lake is to blame.
As soon as the snow begins to melt stores fill up with “lake” merchandise. Coffee mugs, T-Shirts, and knick-knacks a-plenty all claim that “Lake life is the best life,” or “The Lake is calling.” I smile and listen while the born-and-raised Hot Dishers tell me of their plans to go to The Lake for the weekend, as if The Lake is a place we can simply look up on a map.
When a local refers to The Lake, there is a casual reverence in their voice. Obviously, this is someplace important, someplace you should know about, someplace you should want to go. It’s The Lake, after all.
I have many questions about The Lake, and very few answers. For starters where, exactly, is The Lake?
My husband and I were raised a thirty-minute drive from the shores of Lake Michigan. To us, going to “the lake” meant going to Lake Michigan. People across the region flocked to the sandy shores to enjoy the cool water, hot sun, and popsicles from the concession stands. A day at the beach could require as little as a beach blanket, a towel, and a water bottle.
Here, The Lake is much more complicated. For starters, “The Lake” can mean many different things. A map of North Dakota will show you lots of lakes. Which one is The Lake? Which are open to the public? Where exactly can you access The Lake from once you arrive?
The locals all seem to have their own preferred lake. Sometimes I ask which lake they’re headed to, but doing so usually leaves me more confused when I’m given North Dakota directions:
“Oh, you know. It’s out by (insert town I’ve never heard of). Kind of by the (insert obscure landmark I’ve never heard of). You’ve gotta go past the old (insert another unknown landmark) to get there,” they say.
By this point in the conversation, I give up and wish them a happy trip.
Another thing that complicates Hot Dish laking is the amount of equipment The Lake requires.
I’ve attempted to go to The Lake with just a towel and blanket, only to discover I am sorely unprepared. As an outsider, it seems like a long list of stuff is needed to truly enjoy The Lake. You’ll need all the basic lake stuff -- towels, bathing suits, floaties, sunscreen, etc. But you’ll also need a camper, boat, fishing gear, and a truck to haul it all out to The Lake. Oh, and don’t you dare forget bug spray. Who knew going to the lake could result in so many ticks?
All this only leads to more questions. Where do you keep all that stuff during the winter? Where do you park it at The Lake? Do you need to own a campsite? Do you leave all that stuff at a campsite all summer? In order to be a true North Dakotan, do you need to buy a camper?
Maybe someday I’ll fully understand The Lake. For now, I’m content to be baffled. I’m content to accept The Lake as one of those adorably local things that will never make sense to us transplants. That’s okay. Life is better with a bit of mystery in it.
For more on my take on NoDak life, and to connect with me further, join me on Instagram @amy_allender, or Facebook @amyallenderblog.