A CHAT WITH THE GUY WHO HAS SEEN IT ALL (IN NORTH DAKOTA)

I’m all about collecting. In my years I’ve collected cards, comics, video games, stamps, coins, movies, passport stamps, ticket stubs, those nifty little black brochures the National Park likes to print out for each park. You name it, I’ve at least been obsessed with it for a week.

I also like to “collect” my travels and have jotted down most of the towns I’ve passed through (at least the ones I can track on my Tripadvisor map). So when I read about one man’s journey to all 873 named places in North Dakota, I had to seek him out! (Thanks to Twelvemilecircle for picking up this great tidbit)

His name is Andrew Filer and he’s a photographer from Seattle with an obsession for small (and I mean really small) places. Filer’s tackled all of North Dakota, but has also taken out a healthy chunk of a few neighboring states and provinces. Many of you have heard of county counters (visiting every county in each state) but how on earth does someone possess the strength and commitment to seek out every little dot on a map? Read the interview to find out…

Want to see the pictures for yourself? You can find a handy list of links to photos of every place in the Peace Garden State. You can read more on Andrew’s work on his personal blog.

Roady: How did you gain the inspiration (and patience!) to visit every place in North Dakota? 

AF: I’d been taking trips from Seattle to Minnesota to see family a couple times a year, and I started taking different routes for variety. I’d photographed a few places in ND in the past, and somehow my trips became more and more consumed by the photography the longer I did it. And once I could see that I was making real progress towards getting to every place, that spurred me on to work even harder at it.

Roady: What do people think when you tell them you’ve been everywhere in North Dakota? 

AF: The first thing I usually hear after mentioning that I’ve photographed every place in North Dakota is “Why?”. Most people don’t imagine a person would do that willingly. Once they actually see a few photos, I think most people understand.

Roady: Most outsiders might consider North Dakota flat and boring. It’s one factor that leads to its status as the least visited state. What do you say in response?

AF: North Dakota is the landscape equivalent of “slow food”. It took me a while to really get a good sense of the place, but once I did, I felt like it had the sort of beauty that couldn’t be summed up in a single photo.

Roady: What are some of your favorite places in the state? Any that particularly stuck out or surprised you?

AF: I will admit that just about any place that I’ve visited just as the sun is setting makes for some great photos, so my preferences are a bit biased towards places that I visited at just the right hour. That said, I found Kenmare, North Dakota to be particularly beautiful when I visited it. I don’t think any one photo really captures it well, but it’s a little town set in beautiful hilly country, right along a lake. Most of the businesses in the town surround a 1 block square park. Coming down the hill towards downtown just as the sun was setting made for a beautiful sight in what felt like a cozy place.

Roady: Were there any places particularly difficult to get to or access?

AF: A few places were long-gone railroad towns and so didn’t have any good access via roads. I walked a half mile through tall grass along the railroad to get to Petrel, for example. A few others seemed to just be a spot in a field, so sometimes I just took a photo of the field rather than walk half a mile to get a close-up of what was either a rock pile or an old building foundation. Most towns in the badlands were right on the railroads, but Walser Crossing was a difficult place to even get close to. After a number of miles on dusty roads I got to a cattle gate with a sign marked “Private Road”. I decided to stop there and take a picture in the direction of Walser Crossing, as I didn’t figure there could be much of a town beyond that to photograph.

Roady: Is there any part of North Dakota you haven’t been to (i.e. have you driven every mile of road)?

AF: I would imagine there are stretches of highway I haven’t traveled, especially north-south highways. North Dakota is built on railroads that basically radiated from the Red River Valley, and so you can follow highways westward from there, hitting towns at least every six miles or so. But you can go 30 miles on some north-south highways in the western part of the state without hitting another town. I may still have driven all of these roads, but I took a lot of back ways too, so I can’t be sure.

Roady: Did you ever get and weird looks or questions from people, especially in the smaller towns?

AF: No, North Dakota’s not really that kind of place. A few times people did ask what I was up to, but they spoke to me the way they’d speak to a neighbor, and it usually led to new ideas for photographic subjects. For example, I learned in Antler that Antler, Maxbass, and one other town (I forget which right now) all had identical bank buildings built in the center of town. In Sykeston, a nice woman named Marian took me on a tour of the town in her golf cart. Most of the time, though, I did my business, and everyone else did theirs.

Roady: Do you think someone could legitimately visit every “dot on the map” in the USA? Would you ever consider that?

AF: I’ve considered that. Doing a quick database query, I see that there are 194,997 entries for “Populated Place” in the USGS place name database. That would mean that I’m about 0.75% done with the US. I really enjoy small places though, so I’d definitely focus first on getting the smallest and most-likely-to-be-forgotten places before I worked on the rest.

Roady: Where else have you traveled to? Do you have any long term travel goals?

AF: I’ve spent a lot of time photographing all over the western US and Canada. I’ve visited the east too, but I find it more crowded and somehow harder to photograph. I’ve also visited Berlin and Auckland, New Zealand, both of which I really enjoyed photographing. I’d like to visit southern Argentina, because, well, it looks like the same sort of landscape I’ve seen North Dakota — great plains, small towns built on the railroads a hundred years ago.

Roady: Talk about your projects, not only involving North Dakota. What can we expect to see from you in the future?

AF: I’m Kickstartering a new project called Small Places, where I’m photographing just tiny, tiny places. So far, I’ve shot places in South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. I’ll be producing a book of these places, as well as a book with every town in North Dakota. The next place I photograph everything in will probably be Nebraska, South Dakota, or Saskatchewan. I’ve also built a kit to rapidly scan slides using a slide carousel, a digital camera, and some electronics and other hardware. This can scan at up to 1 slide per second, so the average slide carousel can be done in less than two minutes. With this, I’ve scanned about 3,000 of my grandfather’s slides, and a few more thousand from the archives of the Museum of Communications in Seattle. Either the slide scanner or a book on planned-but-not-built Seattle subway system from a hundred years ago will be my next Kickstarter project.

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