Fargo Dispatch

August 2009, adobeairsteam.com

While getting a decent martini anywhere is a godsend, finding one in Fargo, North Dakota – a spot not far from what is literally the center of the continent – ranks as true deliverance.

At the Hotel Donaldson, a once-fine-then-seedy-now-fine-again hotel on Broadway, a street in the middle of downtown Fargo currently undergoing a revival that reveals a rare glimpse of this city’s Wild West heyday, the HoDo Bar serves a brutally cold, utterly crisp Stoli martini with the confident élan of a watering hole that knows it’s your drink, not the bar, that needs to be taken seriously.

No surprise that North Dakota understands hard liquor.  The state has one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the nation.  And who can blame them?  Winters are long and achingly bleak.  Once snowfall sticks in mid-autumn you can pretty much kiss the sight of green goodbye for at least the next five months.  Bartender, another round!

And little surprise that the HoDo lacks attitude.  North Dakota really doesn’t do attitude.  Modesty rules.  The JCPenny clothing, rudimentary architecture, unadorned byways, and humdrum sedans of North Dakota don’t make a show because making a show is not their thing.

The state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, have oodles of seniority and power in D.C., to give a perfect example, but you rarely see them showboating like their creepy Republican counterparts from South Carolina, a pair of relative newcomers who would fling their mothers headlong into a gigantic blender if it got them on TV.

The television stations in North Dakota buzzed throughout the month of October with ads arguing all sides of the health care issue, appealing to the state’s entire population of 641,000 residents (about equal to Poughkeepsie and its ‘burbs) to contact Senators Conrad and Dorgan. The two will probably vote for whatever the Democrats put together for health care legislation, but in the meantime their fetishistic desire to maintain an aura of moderation, in perfect reflection of the folks back home, makes them look like people open to persuasion.

Don’t be fooled.  The quiet demeanor, the unassuming stance: it’s all just a front for people as determined and committed as a loudmouth pounding on a deli counter demanding that he’s next in line.  It’s just done with a different style.

That’s not to say they’re all folksy and warm.  Say what you will about Fargo, it ain’t friendly.  Not unkind, mind you.  They’re as decent as anyone.  They mean you no harm, but more to the point they mean you no nothing.  Don’t expect them to hold the door for you because they won’t – you take care of your business, I’ll take care of mine – a mentality born of scratching out an existence on an unforgiving stretch of plains where everyone is expected to carry their own weight.

Even though HoDo’s is the swankest bar within a 200 mile radius (Minneapolis is the next big berg), the staff is cordial and fast, the lounging areas are dreamily plush and prices rival an Applebees. 

Still, some locals shrink at the notion of paying $7 for a cocktail.  To these fine people, it just doesn’t make sense to hand over that kind of dough when you can get a longneck bottled beer for $1 at the Teamsters Hall in West Fargo and when you tip 25 cents, the waitress (ask for “Fluff”) says thank you.

Doing the sensible thing, like wearing shoes for comfort not fashion, rules in North Dakota.              No need to romanticize it, though.  The common sense attitude that keeps roads in good repair and snowplows humming also limits cultivation of anything beyond the essentials including, alas, aesthetics. 

As in much of America, urban sprawl creeps out from Fargo’s old downtown in relentless collections of big box stores, chain restaurants and parking lots chockablock with oversized four-wheelers and drab sedans.  Because of no natural impediments – not even a hill – and a commitment to get from point A to B without any fancy-shmancy, the thoroughfares to the outlying areas lie ramrod straight, crisscrossed by precisely perpendicular streets numbered, not named, that lead to soulless housing tracts with sidings of grey, off-white or other non-offensive tones.  Wouldn’t want to call attention to oneself. 

Square after square, mile after mile, an ugly suburban checkerboard steadily expands ever deeper into the former lush checkerboard of wheat fields, their erstwhile shelterbelts now serving as backdrops for countless rows of tacky, cookie-cutter constructs, an eerie echo of the former farmland’s endless horizon. 

Not a fountain, sculpture, mural or any other thing of beauty for beauty’s sake for as far as the eye can see – and in this pancake of a state that’s a long, long way.

Yet, beauty is nonetheless commonplace thanks to nature eking out its rightful due.  The huge sky occupies half of any view no matter which way you look thanks to the low-slung buildings – Big Sky Country doesn’t stop at the Montana border.  Rippling hills of tawny fall crops carpet the Sheyenne River Valley, a winding, fertile region about an hour west of Fargo. 

Four blocks east of HoDo’s, where the tumbling Red River divides the city from it’s cross-state sister city of Moorehead, Minnesota, a fly fisherman can find solace and possibly a nibble amid the sparkling wide waters. 

If you want a spot to see the river, don’t try making reservations at a restaurant overlooking it.  There aren’t any.  In fact, hardly any buildings at all are within eyesight of the river save for an ugly brick high-rise, public housing perched between the river and the rough edge of downtown.  Unless you cross one of the many bridges to Moorehead, a city akin to Fargo’s baldspot, you’ll likely not see the river at all.

Those who do venture there, however, will find one long, uninterrupted, winding greenspace that runs the entire river’s length in Fargo.  Much of it is below the level of the dike (which was sorely tested during flooding earlier this year), so it is possible to walk there and forget that you are in the middle of a city.  A broad bikepath stitches together the long series of parks.  Though you don’t see a lot cyclists in Fargo, there’s a wealth of new paths to choose from, including many miles into the new developments.

And while the state may be short on grand concert halls and art museums, almost every North Dakota town, from big ol’ Fargo to tiny Fort Ransom (pop. 70) in the middle of the Sheyenne River Valley, has a senior center as well as a VFW, Teamsters Hall or similar refuge, places that take care of their own and offer a gathering spot for friends and neighbors to have a beer, pull tabs and, once a week, hold a meat raffle (repeat, raffles for meat, with typical prizes ranging from 15-lb. slabs of bacon to frozen cuts of beef the size of a propane tank).

Maybe they’re on to something.  Let’s be honest: if it came down to a museum or a readily available stash of cold Busch, next to which public amenity would you choose to live?

Aerial Fargo