Dirt Roads to Downtown: The Mark Fox Story

Written by: Geneva Nodland

Ask almost anyone from the state—most will agree there is an unexplainable pride for North Dakota. Maybe it stems from family stories, photo albums passed around during the holiday, or maybe it’s the honor of endurance built from those winter days—long, cold, and dark. However, you’ve been through it year after year and can’t imagine going 365 days without the season. Maybe, for years you’ve admired the rolling plains, the lone bare tree in the midst of them, and out of nowhere, you realize you miss it since you’ve been surrounded by concrete. Whatever your reasoning, you find yourself joining in on the joke when your neighbors say “It’d be nicer without the wind,” but you’re the first person to defend the northern state when it spreads across a national debate.

Cando, ND, native Mark Fox is no different in his love for the state. He expresses it in a unique way—a way that has the s this 66-year-young entrepreneur creating beautiful works of art.

Rural ND native returns home to honor his state the way he knows best—through his camera lens

Water skier that Mark captured in Big Coulee Recreational Area and Dam near Bisbee, ND in Towner County

In the 1970s, Mark ventured from near the center of the state to the east, where he attended NDSU, and after a few years, went a bit further south to NDSCS and graduated with a degree in graphic arts in 1979. Like others who grew up in the state tend to do, Mark claimed his degree and, despite his deep connection to his home state, ventured west in pursuit of more adventure.

Mark moved to Colorado and filled his time bartending, landscaping, and working at a local newspaper before returning to school to attend the Art Institute of Denver. He got his first taste of what would become his lifelong career and passion— photography.

With more experience under his belt, Mark moved further west to California to work with a newspaper. For a few years, he gained experience as a photojournalist before heading back to Colorado and moving into the mountains.

He spent decades honing his career in photojournalism—something that is rooted in his photography style. He captured the rugged beauty of the peaks of Colorado and those who dwelled there—working behind the lens to capture and tell the stories of life in the Rocky Mountains. For years, he immersed himself in the landscapes of the state, documenting the awe-inspiring vistas, the resilient
communities, and the untold stories within the summit.

Although miles and miles away, Mark kept his home state of North Dakota in the back of his mind, as well as through his front window as he made the trip to visit often. During these trips, Mark would cherish the soothing familiarity of his home state, and each visit had him exploring more of the state’s landscapes and the character of its people—camera in hand. But at the end of each trip, he returned to the higher altitude he’d become familiar with, not without a promise to explore even more of the state next time—he figured he could hit just about every county if he tried.

With so many years of experience under his belt, you’d think that Mark would have more of a trace online, but besides a few articles from the last 20 years by those trying to learn more about the photographer—there’s not much. However, what you can find are three published books. Two books that contain collections of his best photojournalism work from Colorado, and the other, his newest, all about the state he hails from.

Did You Know?
Mark’s two works from his life in Colorado, “Colorado’s High Country, A Photojournalistic Collection” and “Colorado’s High Country, Volume II, A Photojournalistic Look at Life in the Mountains,” can be found and purchased at pediment.com

Turns out that the idea to explore each county in the state had something to it after all—Mark would go on to visit and photograph each and every county in the state of North Dakota, all 53 of them. In 2016, he began the project that would take approximately five years to complete.

Q: How did you map out your travels?

A: I kind of used my hometown as a base, I had family and friends in Minot and Fargo and so I’d do a little bit seasonally… [There’s] just no particular rhyme or reason, I mean, there was and there wasn’t.

Mark’s snapshot of a bison grazing in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park by Medora, ND in Billings County.

Determined to create a visual testament to his home state, he embarked on this project to capture the essence of each county through his lens—unsure if the task of photographing every county in the state had ever been done. Regardless, he didn’t think it had been done with a photojournalist’s eye, and above all else—it hadn’t been done by him.

With his camera as his constant companion, Mark ventured north, east, south, and west, many times over. He traversed the vast expanse of North Dakota’s rolling plains, bits of badlands, charming small towns, and everything in between for about five years. All working toward something larger than just a post for his Facebook followers, but those friends, old and new whom he met along the way, followed along online and eagerly waited to see what county Mark would visit next.

Q: What was it like walking into a new county that you’d never been to before? Did you have a list of what you wanted to photograph?

A: Some counties I spent more time in than others, but every county has something to offer. You just have to see the beauty. Seasonally, I tried to get photos from each season the state has to offer. I spent most of March one year traveling around, which worked out pretty well, getting a little crossover between winter and spring.

As he worked his way down the roads—pavement, gravel, and sometimes ice—he found himself considering what the focus or theme of his project would be. He thought, in a state like North Dakota, you can have both worlds. Mark could be on a backroad one hour, and pull out on the main street of town the next. He was traveling around the state, exploring both gravel roads and city streets— which brought him to coin the phrase, dirt roads to downtown.

Q: What’s your favorite county?

A: That’s like asking somebody their favorite child! I’ll say, whichever [county] I’m in at the time.

Mark finally checked the last county off his list, but he wasn’t done yet.

“Once I hit every county, I went back and got some more where I felt like I didn’t quite get what I needed,” Mark said. “And I could probably keep doing it for the rest of my life, getting more and more.”

Mark’s photographic exploration became more than just a documentation of North Dakota’s beauty; it became a personal pilgrimage. His images portrayed the soul of North Dakota, by capturing its people, lands, and even history with unmatched authenticity. His work stands as a testament to the profound bond he felt with his home state and the enduring love he has for its every dusty or snow-packed corner.

Q: What was your last county to photograph?

A: I think it was Oliver County, as I was driving back down to Colorado, it was on that route I was taking.

As Mark traveled from one county to another, his images became a tapestry of North Dakota. His artistry and particular eye touched the hearts of those whose homes he captured, whether they were from northwestern Divide or southeastern Richland counties. With his camera and a traditional paper map as his guide, Mark’s journey became a celebration of the land that had shaped him and the people who called it home.

After putting in the miles, he was able to bring something to life. Mark published his declaration of love for the state of North Dakota through his book, “Dirt Roads to Downtown” about a year ago.

Find, “Dirt Roads to Downtown” all over the state! Check it out!

Main Street Books – Minot, ND
Ramsey Photo Lab – Devils Lake, ND
Neumann Drug – Cando, ND
The Dakota Store – Jamestown, ND
Hairetage Hallmark – Wahpeton, ND
Pioneer Museum – Watford City, ND
Western Edge Books – Medora, ND
Zandbroz Variety – Fargo, ND
Hector International Airport – Fargo, ND

In his note from the author, at the beginning of his book, Mark says this:

“With two books already under my belt, I understood that this type of project seems never-ending. Some areas needed to be covered again. Hundreds and hundreds of images had to be culled and sorted. But, once I reached the point where I felt that I had done my home state justice, with the encouragement of others, the pursuit of these pages began and what you hold in front of you is the result of said pursuit.”

“The miles covered have been memorable, people met unforgettable and with pride I can say I will soon once again be a resident of North Dakota. This project has tugged on my heartstrings. I am moving back to Cando. Yes, you can go home again.”

About two years ago, Mark made the decision to permanently return home. Since returning home, he has been promoting his book. It’s no surprise that the response has been positive, most North Dakotans are more than excited to page through a book all about their beloved state.

Q: This was your first venture with your own photography outside of work from your career in photojournalism. Were you nervous to go that route?

A: No, I don’t think nervous is the right word. You always get a little anxious, thinking, “How is it going to be accepted?” You don’t want to embarrass yourself, the people, or the state. So in that respect, it [can make you] a little anxious or nervous. I guess, we all have a little bit of ego and pride comes along as well.

For both a shared love of the state and an admiration for the work, Mark has found success and support right at home. He not only stocks his book at Zanbroz Variety for sale, but they have worked to coordinate book signing events that help give exposure to Mark and his book. Other supporters are spread across the state; you can find and purchase “Dirt Roads to Downtown” at Hector International Airport as well as all the way west at Western Edge Books in Medora.

Mark and his testimonial to North Dakota even sparked Doug Burgum’s attention—the governor bought several copies of the book for himself and his team. Even those who don’t reside in North Dakota have shown Mark’s work love. Last March, he drove down to attend the annual North Dakota Picnic in Mesa, Arizona. Those who attend may not live in the state any longer but still consider it home and hope to get a taste of the prairie in the desert. What is a better way to celebrate your home state than by visiting old friends and thumbing through a book to look for your home county? Mark thought the same thing.

For most who pick up his book, the first thing they do is find a connection. People start to flip through pages to find their county, spying an iconic landmark on the page. If you flip to page 62, you’d land on a page sporting “Emmons” at the top, and underneath a beautiful snapshot of a herd of horses running through the prairie. The caption of that photo says, “A portion of the herd of horses with the Nokota Horse Conservatory east of Linton in Emmons County, July 2019.”

One of Mark’s favorite encounters on his 53-county journey was Emmons County. There he met Frank Kuntz and explored his Kuntz Nokota Horse Ranch.

Not only did Mark get to experience and photograph the ranch, but he also befriended Frank along the way.

Meeting the Nokota horses is one of the many stories Mark has from his journey through the state.

Q: I’m assuming you met some people in the communities you visited, right?

A: Pretty much. I keep it on the down low because when people know what you do, it changes how they can react. But some I did tell and sometimes I would just go through [the county]. I did meet some fun people. The Nokota horses were probably the best [find]—Frank’s a good guy.

Did You Know?
The history and lineage of the Nokota horses date back to the 1880s and the time of Native American chief and leader, Sitting Bull. Nokota horses are descended from the last surviving population of wild horses in North Dakota, inhabiting the Little Missouri badlands. In the 1950s, when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created, some of the horses were fenced in. In the years following, due to legal reasons, there were many attempts to remove the horses. During the 1980s, Frank and Leo Kuntz began purchasing horses to shelter them, named them “Nokotas,” and started to create a breed registry “Depending on how this one goes as far as sales, next year maybe there will be a Volume Two,” Mark said. “We have a lot of photos left over and we can add on too, or do more of a downtown [perspective].”

A photo of the Nokota Horses at the Nokota Horse Conservatory where Mark met Frank Kuntz, executive director of the conservatory in Emmons County

Q: Is this a book just for people from North Dakota, or does it have a broader reach?

A: I’d like to think it has a broader reach. First and foremost, North Dakota people gravitate towards it, [but] I have friends who have bought it and read it so if it can reach other people, [that’s] great— show off the state.

What’s equally as exciting as seeing what Mark didn’t include in “Dirt Roads to Downtown,” is imagining what he could find next.

Mark’s journey is one of rediscovery of the state that he loves, recrafting his connection to North Dakota by capturing the plains through his lens. It was in the familiar embrace of his home state that he found again at an age where most are preparing to retire, but he embarked on a heartfelt passion project. Through his photojournalistic skill and curiosity, he painted a vivid picture of North Dakota’s diverse landscapes, its people, and their stories. The result was a remarkable book that stands not only as a testament to his artistry but as a tribute to the unyielding spirit of a land he once called home and recently came back to.

Proudly owning the phrase, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” Mark will always be a North Dakotan country boy at heart, and he’ll continue to show it through his camera.

A look down one of the city of Fargo’s iconic downtown alleyways that Mark shot during one of his visits to Cass County
“Railword tracks at the intersection of Broadway and Main in Fargo near the Depot Plaza, July 2018.” – From “Dirt Roads to Downtown” by Mark Fox

Support Mark Fox

Get your own copy of Mark’s book, “Dirt Roads to Downtown” at Zandbroz Variety in downtown Fargo, Hector International Airport, and Ferguson’s Books in West Fargo.

For book signings or media inquiries, please contact Amanda Shilling [email protected]

Facebook | /Mark Fox Photography

You can also purchase the book directly from the publisher’s website here!

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