Along the Red River, North Dakota city is quirky, col­or­ful and full of sur­prises

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - TRAVEL - By Me­lanie D.G. Ka­plan

For­get “Fargo.” Don’t get me wrong — I loved the Coen brothers’ dark crime com­edy. But 22 years later, if you’re still think­ing only about the movie when you hear that word, it’s time to re­wire your brain. I’m here to tell you that this North Dakota city is not a god­for­saken frozen waste­land of wood­chip­pers. Fargo’s a slice of Oz on the eastern edge of the Great Plains — quirky, col­or­ful and full of sur­prises: a Scan­di­na­vianJewish lunch counter; a gay men’s cho­rus; a thriv­ing im­mi­grant com­mu­nity; a win­ter Fros­ti­val with a mo­bile sauna; an artsy boutique ho­tel; Mi­crosoft’s third-largest cam­pus; and a cham­pi­onship foot­ball team.

More than that, it’s the peo­ple of Fargo and Moor­head, Minn., its sis­ter city across the river, who have drawn me back mul­ti­ple times. Lo­cals are quick to credit their fore­bears — the Scan­di­na­vian set­tlers who de­pended on each other to raise barns, har­vest crops and re­cover from floods. That same work ethic, dy­namism and com­mu­nity sup­port help a new gen­er­a­tion of mak­ers, en­trepreneur­s and artists who dream big and of­ten suc­ceed. When I showed up in June, I ran into a friend be­fore we’d even had a chance to make plans — down­town’s that small. That af­ter­noon, I heard that driv­ers get a friendly writ­ten warn­ing be­fore their first park­ing ticket — lo­cals are that nice. When you go, chat them up. See the wood­chip­per at the vis­i­tors cen­ter if you must. Then, get ac­quainted with the real Fargo.

What to do

On au­tumn Satur­days, take your team spirit to the Far­godome, which houses the home foot­ball field of the North Dakota State Bi­son. Tail­gat­ing is a sight to be­hold: It be­gins at 4 a.m., and you’ll find cus­tom-wrapped buses and mo­tor homes, propane­heated tents and vans don­ning bi­son horns.

I love step­ping into places where you mo­men­tar­ily for­get what state — or coun­try — you’re in. For ut­terly sur­real, try Sons of Nor­way Krin­gen Lodge No. 25. The lodge is among the largest in this Nordic her­itage fra­ter­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion, and the build­ing, an old Buick deal­er­ship with red car­pet and walls, is dec­o­rated with Nor­we­gian folk art, Vik­ing carv­ings and rose­ma­l­ing. (The lat­ter is a tra­di­tional paint­ing style made up of scrolls and flow­ers; even the dump­ster is rose­maled.)

Out­side Fargo, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to men­tion the city with­out peo­ple com­ment­ing on the movie, so hats off to the Fargo-Moor­head Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Bureau for treat­ing vis­i­tors to a lit­tle “Fargo.” The CVB dis­plays the screen­play and a pro­mo­tional ice scraper, but the main at­trac­tion is the orig­i­nal wood­chip­per with a leg pok­ing out.

Where to eat

I had to smile when I walked into Brett Ber­nath’s Mad­haus, which has largely been taken over by the fab­u­lous lunch counter run by his wife, An­drea Baum­gard­ner. The Scan­di­na­vianGer­man and Jewish fare, re­flect­ing the pro­pri­etors’ her­itages, in­cludes potato latkes, knishes with mus­tard creme fraiche, cheese blintzes with lin­gonberry sauce, chicken matzo ball soup and brisket with ramps schmear and pick­led rhubarb. You’ll prob­a­bly see Baum­gard­ner cook­ing on her 1948 four-burner stove be­low the “Shalom” sign.

The own­ers of Wild Terra Cider and Brew­ing ac­knowl­edge the com­plete lack of com­mer­cial ap­ple or­chards in North Dakota. But that didn’t stop them from open­ing Fargo’s first cidery in De­cem­ber. Most of Wild Terra’s dozen of­fer­ings, which change daily, are from the Pa­cific North­west or Michi­gan. But it does craft some of its own ciders with ap­ples from small lo­cal grow­ers.

Where to stay

When I first stayed at the Ho­tel Don­ald­son in 2015, I was blown away by the 17 artist-inspired rooms, daily wine-and-cheese happy hour, rooftop bar, turn­down truf­fle and com­pli­men­tary morn­ing pas­tries de­liv­ered to my room. The boutique ho­tel is con­ve­niently lo­cated within walk­ing dis­tance of the river, shops and restau­rants. Rooms start at $184 per night.

Ex­plore some more

Here’s a fun fact: The Red River flows north! This slow-mov­ing wa­ter­way me­an­ders 550 miles from Breck­en­ridge, Minn., up to Lake Win­nipeg in Man­i­toba, and most of those miles form the bor­der be­tween North Dakota and Min­nesota. From down­town, walk across Veter­ans Me­mo­rial Bridge, where you’ll find sig­nage with more trivia: “The Red River Val­ley is one of the flattest land­scapes on Earth.” Stroll north along the river to nearby Hjemkomst Cen­ter, home to a replica Vik­ing ship. You can rent kayaks there or far­ther south at Lin­den­wood Park on the Fargo side — which also rents bikes and has a pedes­trian bridge to Goose­berry Mound Park in Moor­head. To re­tire by the Red at day’s end, head to Lin­den­wood Camp­ground, where tent sites cost $30 a day.

Far­goans are se­ri­ous about their North Dakota State Bi­son. And bi­son in gen­eral. In the city, the two of­ten go to­gether.

Fresh ap­ples are ready to be put to good use at Wild Terra Cider and Brew­ing, Fargo's first cidery.

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