I turned 50 and, as I had long planned, I set foot in my 50th state, North Dakota, on my 50th birthday. It’s not far from Madison to Fargo, about 7 and a half hours drive, but I was a little intimidated; it’s been a long time since I drove more than four hours in a day, and I had questions about my 2001 Forester, which went from Madison to California and back in its youth but which is now, by some measures, an old car. But I needn’t have worried! Driving long distances, when you have the company of one of your kids, is not so bad. We listened to a lot of podcasts about the new MacBook Pro.
The first day, we didn’t see much; by the time CJ got home from school and we were ready to go, it was almost 4, so we drove through the familiar landscape of western Wisconsin, stopping for Culver’s in the suburban outskirts of Eau Claire, and stopped for the night at a Hampton Inn in Brooklyn Park. (Thanks to Hotel Tonight, the perfect app for road tripping, which allows you to easily book a cheap same-night hotel room when you feel you’ve got about two hours of driving left in you.) Nobody is wearing masks in Brooklyn Park, even though it’s in greater Minneapolis, not the hotel clerk, not the people in the gas station convenience store, nobody. It’s something you notice if you’re used to Madison (and we wore ours inside, without anybody looking at us funny.) The next morning, my birthday morning, we set out into western Minnesota, as the forests started to peter out into prairie. This part of I-94 is the land of pretty lakes, like Lake Osakis (the “sak” here is the same as “Sauk”)
and of unexpected roadside attractions
perhaps most notably the world’s largest prairie chicken, in Rothsay, MN.
All these pictures are by CJ, by the way. He has taken up photography. We got him a camera, an actual camera, which it turns out they still make, on the repeated promise that he would actually use it, and he’s lived up to that. He knows what all the buttons do. More importantly, I think he has a real sense for how things should look in an image. Well, you be the judge. It takes a tough man to shoot a prairie chicken.
We roll across the Red River into Fargo around 1:00. I’m now a fifty-stater, I’ve known for a while it was within reach; two cross country trips with Prof. Dr. Mrs. Q and family trips to Hawaii and Alaska got most of the hard stuff done. Then Jennifer Johnson-Leung of the University of Idaho invited me to give a seminar in Moscow and suddenly I was at 49.
It turns out I’m not the only person to leave North Dakota for last. It’s such a common thing that there’s a club for it. I’m now a member:
Large parts of Fargo look like any other low-density Midwestern sprawlville but there’s an old turn-of-the-century downtown that gives you some sense of what the place was like when it was old and rich. (It reminded me a little bit of J. Anthony Lukas’s book Big Trouble, about what was going on in Idaho — big trouble, in case you didn’t guess — around the time Fargo was being built.) There’s a building with “Kopelman’s” engraved across the top. Really? One of us, in Fargo? Really. The building now houses North Dakota’s only abortion provider. A few years ago they found that the mikveh was still there in the basement, under a concrete slab.
We had lunch with an old Ph.D. student of mine, Rohit Nagpal, with his wife, who’s a doctor there, and their extremely enjoyable two-year-old. The lunch place, BernBaum’s, is a Scandinavian-Jewish fusion deli, and it is good. Not “I’m surprised a place in a small-to-medium city in North Dakota is this good” good — good good. Why don’t Jews put lingonberries on our blintzes? Because we never knew about them, is the only explanation.
We went across the river to Moorhead, MN to see the Hjemkomst Center. So it seems that Norwegian-Americans sometimes become obsessed and build replicas of old Norwegian things. A Moorhead guidance counselor named Robert Asp built an exact replica of a wooden Viking ship. After his death, his kids sailed it from Minnesota to Norway and back. Now it’s in a museum:
A different Norwegian-American, Guy Paulson, built an exact replica of a 12th century wooden church that stands on the southern shore of the Sognefjorden.
OK, not exact; for it to meet US code he had to use nails. “But it would stand up without them,” the guide assures us. Norwegian wooden faces are thick with feeling.
We cross the river and eat schnitzel and spaetzle at a bar where everyone is watching the North Dakota State Bison demolish Indiana State, 44-2, at the FargoDome. Then it’s time to leave Fargo, because we don’t want to have the full distance to drive the last day. The sun goes down over western Minnesota
People on the internet are saying there’s a chance of seeing the Northern Lights, so we parked on the side of a dirt road in a corn field far away from any light and with an unobstructed northern view, and we stood out there freezing for a long time until it was completely dark, but the promised borealic peak never came. CJ got some good Milky Way pictures, at any rate. And we still made it back to the Twin Cities outskirts to sleep.
Sunday morning we went into downtown Minneapolis. CJ wanted to take pictures. We went up to the top of the Foshay Tower, which I’d never heard of.
Foshay was a Minneapolis industrialist who built this huge art deco obeliskical office building in the middle of town, only to lose his shirt in the crash three months after the grand opening. He was eventually convicted of wire fraud (though not before escaping his first trial with a mistrial, the one holdout juror being, it turned out, the wife of one of Foshay’s business associates, undisclosed.) But he remained a popular figure in town and it seems like his full pardon by Truman in 1947 was celebrated rather than questioned.
CJ wanted to see the new football stadium. Really? But guess what, it’s a beaut and I’m glad we walked around it
He got a picture with no people but in fact, even at 10 in the morning, central Minneapolis was already thick with Cowboys fans in full Cowboys paint, gearing up for that night’s game. We walked across the stone arch bridge, picked up some antelope tacos, sweet potatoes, and bison bowls at Owamni, and then drove down to Minnehaha Park because CJ loves taking waterfall pictures.
From there it was a straight drive home, because CJ had Halloween plans with his friends. We listened to Taylor Swift all the way. CJ is a sophomore in high school and when I was that age I was just starting to have Opinions about Records. I didn’t know that CJ had Opinions about Records, but it turns out he does — not vaguely “notice that I am alternative” stuff like the R.E.M. albums I was opining about at 16, but about Taylor Swift. I try to hold back my tendencies to want my kids to value exactly the same things that I do, but I cannot lie, it warms me that CJ has Opinions about Records. I learned a lot about Swift’s progression as a writer and I was even able to sneak in some older songs (“Fire and Rain,” “Linger”) that I felt helped situate Swift within a tradition. Anyway, I kind of knew Taylor Swift was great but I gained new appreciation for a lot of the non-singles, like “Getaway Car.”
We made it back to Madison in time for CJ to meet his friends and for me to greet some of the masses of kids walking for candy; after a year of distanced trick-or-treating, there was a lot of pent-up demand.
There was one more sunset.