Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Long before the Coen Brothers made their famous film, the city of Fargo, North Dakota, had developed a reputation for dumbness. I don’t know why, but people who have never been there speak of the town with derision, perhaps for no other reason than because the name sounds a little brutish. The fact that Fargo is the most sophisticated city in North Dakota doesn’t add much luster to its reputation, considering that North Dakota is the country’s most rural state. The fact that Fargo is the coldest city in the United States doesn’t help much either.

We visited Fargo a few days ago, fresh from two or three days of exploring the Leaf Hills of western Minnesota, and we had a very nice time. Perhaps the gently rolling countryside of Ottertail County, with its farm fields, round flat lakes, and beautifully meandering streams, had put us in the proper mood to enjoy the amenities of a Not-So-Big city.


We began our visit in Moorhead, which sits just across the river. Moorhead developed as a transportation hub back in the days when goods were hauled back and forth between Winnipeg and Saint Paul in long trains of large wooden ox-carts, and it solidified its position when it was chosen as the Red River crossing site by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The trains still run right through the middle of town many times a day, and they blow their whistles the whole way through, so that even though the crossings are equipped with flashing lights and descending guard-arms, I found myself looking around a lot, a little unsure whether, at any moment, I was going to be obliterated by a speeding locomotive.

Moorhead’s two chief tourist sights are both replicas. Jerry Aps, a local shop-teacher, spent many years building a Viking sailing ship. The city of Moorhead later built a museum to house it. A few years later retiree Guy Paulson began a decade-long project to build a stave church on the banks of the river alongside the museum, based on the Hopperstad Church in Vik, Norway. Aps died of leukemia before he had a chance to sail the ship across the Atlantic to Norway, but at the museum you can watch a video devoted to his son’s efforts to complete the journey, with the help of a few seasoned Norwegian seamen. Both creations are well worth a look. As for the church, the construction is impressive and the ornamental carvings of dragons and woodland spirits are very pleasing. The Celtic cross in the church yard, on the other hand, looks as if it were carved yesterday. It ought to be removed, or subjected to a few years of heavy mechanical abuse.


Our appetite for history having been satisfied by these impressive wooden constructions, we skipped the county exhibits in the basement of the museum and drove across the river to Fargo. Along a two-block stretch of Broadway we passed a few coffee-shops, an art gallery that had mounted an exhibition of antique Schwinn bicycles, an appealingly divey pizza restaurant, a shop selling antiques and religious statuary, and an upscale bar. The bar is attached to the Donaldson Hotel, which has a dramatic sculpture in the foyer and a European-style walk-up second-floor lobby. We went upstairs to take a look, though with rooms starting at $175, we were not likely to be checking in any time soon. Nevertheless, the amiable desk clerk insisted on showing us one of the suites, and he explained that each one had been carefully designed by a different artist. The one we were shown was equipped with a large flat TV screen with Bose speakers and fine glass tumblers in the mini-bar. The suite’s artistic flourishes, which extended from the pictures on the walls to the shape of the bedstead, were intriguing, though perhaps not entirely conducive to a good night’s sleep. I was finding it difficult to imagine who would book a room in such a hotel in Fargo, and I asked our guide how the Donaldson was doing.

“Oh, we’re holding our own,” he replied. “After all, I’m still here after three and a half years.”

“Well, having an experienced staff is certainly important,” I mumbled lamely.

Back down on the street, we wandered north on Broadway toward the Fargo Theatre, and I was startled to discover they were showing two films that we’d wanted to see in Minneapolis but missed, Avenue Montagne and Into Deep Silence. If they’d been showing Caddyshack III and The Waterboy, our impression of the city might have been entirely different. As it was, we decided to see the two movies and spend the night in town.

We booked a room in the Radisson just down the street from the Donaldson (at half the price). The Monets on the wall were not original, but the mattress had a two-sided push-button adjustment for firmness, the glasses by the ice bucket were actually made of glass, and the views from our eleventh-floor room were fine. A petite convention center stood immediately below us, and we could see bridges and trees and church steeples and other buildings on both sides of the river in the distance. Off near the horizon a continuous stream of white smoke or steam drifted west from a giant smokestack.

The Fargo Theatre is a small, well-proportioned art deco venue with an orchestra pit and an aisle down the middle. A few years ago the theatre received a 2.6 million dollar grant to restore the interior, and the results are impressive. Whether the money was actually well-spent is another matter. At current rates, the same funds would have made it possible for 350,000 people to see a film for free. It’s Mary and Martha all over again.

A stout white-haired man played old-fashioned tunes on an antique Wurlitzer before the start of the second film. As the lights went down both man and organ descended slowly into the pit until they vanished from sight. This dramatic exit was marred somewhat by the fact that it was necessary to raise the organ into full view again to allow the man, who walked with a cane, to leave his post. (As he left the stage I was reminded of the French poet Saint-John Perse, whom I saw once in Minneapolis before his death in 1975). During its darkest days, the Fargo Theatre was saved from demolition by the local Wurlitzer society. Perhaps this very gentleman had been the central figure in Fargo’s grand cultural revival!

Between shows we had time to munch on a plastic container of fresh vegetables at the Atomic Coffee Shop which sits just down the street from the theatre. The thin young woman behind the cash register had homely glasses, and she was wearing a clean but rather old-fashioned calico smock, so that as she slowly swept the linoleum floor of the cafe during her idle moments, she seemed almost to be caressing the crumbs and dust with her broom.
Watching her sweep put me in a fine frame of mind to see the second film on the double-bill, a three-hour descent into the daily lives of Trappist monks in Switzerland. The footage was presented without even a brief description of how these men actually thought about their silent, cloistered lives, or why they had decided to take vows, or what good, if any, they imagined would result from all their prayers and singing and gardening and study.

Back out on the streets of Fargo, we were happy to return to our comfortable room, to our ice bucket and our push-button bed. We watched the light fade from the sky beyond Moorhead, and as the white stream of smoke, or steam, continued to drift westward from that sugar-beet plant (or whatever it is) into the beautiful emptiness of rural North Dakota, I was thinking that small cities are just pretty neat. And I also began to wonder if the reputation of the largest city on the Red River south of Winnipeg might have been a little different if it had changed its name, back in the days of the French-Canadian/Ojibwe Meti ox-carts, to Fargaux.

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