Zipping to Zap

In an earlier blog entry, I spoke of a 1997 road trip from my then-home of Dickinson, N.D., to the tiny municipality of Ismay, Mont., which became famous when it accepted an invitation from a Kansas City, Mo., radio station to rename itself Joe. I got a comically illustrated “Don’t pass up Joe, Montana” souvenir T-shirt, which very well could be gathering massive amounts of mothballs in my basement.

That may not have been my favorite trip that year, however. While the most notable drive took place that January — when I moved 1,436 miles from Silver Creek, N.Y., to Dickinson — my favorite had to have been a 75-mile roadie to the North Dakota community of Zap, which had a 2010 population of 237 and couldn’t have been any bigger 13 years before.
Perhaps the trip carries a little more nostalgia today because of what my wife and I experienced this past summer while vacationing in the Peace Garden State. Thanks to a double dose of road construction and heavy oil industry-related traffic, getting from Belfield to Watford City, normally an drive of a little less than a hour, took close to two and half hours. So much for wide-open spaces to simply cruise.

Going to Zap 15 years ago was easy, and almost scenic because of how sparse the landscape was. Taking North Dakota 22 north from Dickinson to Killdeer, my traveling companion and I passed through Manning, the county seat of Dunn County despite its population of a mere 49 residents at that time. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Manning was not the smallest U.S. county seat in 1997. That honor, I was told, went to an even smaller community to the southwest, Amidon (population 24) — Slope County’s government center.

About nine miles from Manning is Killdeer, north of which lies a small (and pretty scenic) mountain range. To get to Zap, though, you miss the mountains, as you turn east on North Dakota 200 toward a series of small, fairly funky towns. Passing through, in order, Dunn Center, Halliday and Dodge, then catching a quick turn to Golden Valley out the passenger-side window, Zap eventually arrives about 40 miles or so of traveling on 200.

There’s not much to Zap, but there is some intriguing history that made us want to see the place. Ironically, it is a spring break destination of sorts.

In 1969, so the story goes, a North Dakota State University student by the name of Chuck Stroup, unable to afford a spring trip to the more traditional spring break locale of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., came up with the idea of “Zip to Zap a Grand Festival of Light and Love.” An  advertisement in the NDSU student newspaper followed, and before long word began to spread across the country.

“Zip to Zap,” though, turned out to be a zero, at least from a law-and-order standpoint. A large gathering lead to a high demand for beer, and the two local bars elected to double the price. This didn’t sit well with some, and when all was said and done a substantial riot — one big enough to lead the May 9, 1969, “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” The National Guard was eventually called in to restore order.

Twenty-eight years later, Zap seemed to have a sense of humor about its past. A visit to the Lignite Bar on Main Street netted an “I zipped to Zap and had a blast!” T-shirt, and a tasty home-cooked meal with friendly service was enjoyed in a downtown cafe.

If I’m ever in the neighborhood again, I’d gladly zip (with Zachary, perhaps?) back to Zap.

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