Yes, the terrain was as flat as a sheet of paper, and about as colorful. Yes, it was cold, with nothing to get in the way of that biting wind. And yes, the people were friendly in a small-town, wide-eyed way (including the server at the HoDo who repeatedly called me "Dear," despite being about 30 years my junior, and the server at Zest, who wondered – when I asked for a glass with my beer – if I would also require ice).
But everything else about Fargo was a surprise. It was thriving, it was hip, it was arty, it was fun. I liked it! This I had not expected. Even more of a surprise: I want to go back.
My trip to North Dakota was whirlwind: in on a Sunday evening, out on a Tuesday afternoon. In between, I had obligations at a college in Moorhead, Minn., just across the Red River of the North.
But Moorhead has no downtown (it fell victim to misguided "urban renewal" back in the 1960s), so I slept, ate and hung out in Fargo. This, I was told, is pretty common.
Fargo doesn't have much to do with the river; the heart of downtown stretches along five or six blocks of Broadway, about a half-mile inland. But what a fun five blocks! Coffee shops and galleries, yoga studios, a couple of bakeries, the Art Deco Fargo Theatre, restaurants and bars. At night the stretch glows with funky neon.
Fargo is North Dakota's largest city, with 118,000 residents, and when you add in the population of Moorhead it swells to more than 230,000. There are three main colleges – North Dakota State University in Fargo, and Concordia College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead – which means coffee shops, an alternative weekly, film festivals and art shows.
The city, named for William Fargo of Wells-Fargo fame, was founded in 1871 and burned to the ground 20 years later. (And then, voila! Rebuilt.) It was established at the confluence of the river and the railroad tracks, and while I barely glimpsed the river while I was there, the railroad tracks still define one edge of downtown.
The city had perhaps no national reputation until it became the butt of a million jokes after the Coen brothers' movie "Fargo." But the citizens of Fargo have a good sense of humor, and a good sense of marketing; upstairs in the lovely, refurbished circa-1920s Fargo Theatre, whose blinking lights and neon are the heart of Broadway after dark, stands a chainsaw sculpture of the lantern-jawed Marge Gunderson from the film. "Wood-Chip Marge" is 8 feet tall and formidable.
A SAMPLING OF FARGO
Over three days, I wandered up and down Broadway in my spare time, peering into art galleries (so many!), boutiques and coffee shops. A sampling:
Hotel Donaldson: When I mentioned on Facebook that I was headed to Fargo, a zillion people said, "Stay at the HoDo!" I ended up at the perfectly fine Radisson a couple of blocks away, but when I peeked inside the Hotel Donaldson, I understood their passion. Built in 1893, the hotel fell into disrepair during those misguided 1960s but was rescued in the early 2000s. It is now a boutique hotel with each room (and the lovely brick-and-wood bar, and the restaurant) decorated with works by North Dakota artists. One wall-length mural has, if you squat down and look, a very small door: Open it. Inside there are treasures, such as Legos and jewelry (hoteldonaldson.com).
Plains Art Museum: The former Red River Art Center moved from Moorhead into a beautifully refurbished International Harvester warehouse on the edge of downtown Fargo, with soaring ceilings, large, airy galleries and a small gift shop. Sadly, the coffee shop has closed, but that just gives you all the more time to wander the galleries, which feature paintings, sculptures and photographs by North Dakota and Indian artists. "Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley" runs through Sept. 2. Bradley, who grew up on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, creates large, colorful and amusing paintings that feature cameo appearances by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tonto and the Lone Ranger (a recurring theme) and other celebrities (plainsart.org).
Wurst Bier Hall: A pleasant place for a meal on a chilly evening when I convinced myself that, in order to stay warm, I needed extra calories. And so a dinner of German brats, German potato salad and North Dakota beer, all consumed at a long wooden family-style table by the plate-glass window (wurstfargo.com).
Atomic Coffee: You will not find a better cup of coffee – maybe anywhere (facebook.com/Atomic-Coffee-61810349823).
Spirit Room: This art gallery and yoga studio is up a steep flight of stairs right on Fargo's main drag. It opens into a couple of galleries – big, high-ceilinged rooms with wooden floors made from a reclaimed basketball court. The exhibits change monthly and feature local and regional artists. When I was there, gorgeous, meticulous pen-and-ink drawings of trees by Bulgarian artist Milena Marinov were on display, as well as an illustrated poem by Moorhead poet Thom Tammaro (who was also my guide to all things Fargo). Oddly, this is not the only art-and-yoga gallery in town: Across the street and down the block is Ecce Art Gallery and Yoga Studio. Such a centered town (spiritroom.net).
B.D.S. Books: This big used-bookstore on the edge of downtown is just a couple of blocks from the Plains Art Museum. It's open weekdays and Saturdays and other times, they say, "by accident" (downtownfargo.com/index.php/dt-fargo/b.d.s-books).
Fargo Theatre: After refurbishing the Art Deco theater, the city added a second, smaller theater in 2009 and now the Fargo shows two films a night and hosts live concerts. Dwight Yoakam will be there June 18 (fargotheatre.org).
What a lovely town, I thought, ducking into Insomnia Cookies, the franchise that sells (and delivers) warm cookies until 3 a.m. I could live here.
But when I emerged with my warm, cinnamony snicker–doodle, that prairie wind hit me sideways.
No, I couldn't, I thought, teeth chattering, clutching my coat. But it sure is a nice place to visit.