I began in Fargo, home of the cultural center known affectionately as the Fabulous Fargodome and namesake of the recent movie that does a nice job of depicting life and the local accent in North Dakota, even though it mostly takes place in neighboring Minnesota. The small-town city regularly shows up on lists of the country's best places to live. But just because it's a nice place to live doesn't mean you'd want to visit there, said Kevin Zeppers, the first North Dakotan I met.
"This is the middle of everywhere," he said, somewhat hopelessly. "You can see 30 miles in every direction. Some people find that interesting."
Closer in, amid downtown Fargo's quartet of 100-year-old railroad depots and handful of newly minted coffee bars, I eyed the cement handprints of the city's own eclectic Walk of Fame (Marie Osmond . . . Oliver North . . . Dr. Ruth Westheimer . . . The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) on the sidewalk in front of a printing shop. Around the corner was Duane Johnson's used bookstore, where I watched the frequent, endless freight trains--the biggest things in sight throughout the state--add bursts of breeze to the gusts ruffling the ceiling-high stacks of paperbacks through Johnson's open door.
"Wind," Johnson noted, "could be the state's greatest crop."
Johnson, who has the distinction of having sat down by mistake on Roger Maris' coffin when it arrived at the Fargo airport, had information about the state piled in his head like his stacks of books. Some of his Saturday afternoon customers proved to be aficionados as well.
"People here think it's boring, but it's not," said Todd Allen, who comes up from Texas with his wife, Bonnie, each summer to Jamestown, where he flies a crop duster and she photographs the landscape. "It's fascinating. History's all over here. History's sitting by the side of the road."
Over the next few days, in fact, I would track the paths of Lewis and Clark, Gen. George Custer, Sitting Bull, Theodore Roosevelt and, according to one commemorative plaque, "North Dakota's pioneer dentists."
My first historic stop was at the tourist attraction called Bonanzaville, USA, a pioneer village in West Fargo, where the town's oldest log cabin, used as a hotel in 1872 and as the city jail three years later, is preserved along with a couple dozen historic buildings collected from around the state. The real surprise, however, was the fur-trading reenactment, where I shared buffalo stew with men actually nicknamed Digger, Lodgepole and Stumpy, who tried to explain the comparative merits of black-powder hunting rifles.
I pressed on: In Casselton, the home of three former governors including "Wild Bill" Langer, I looked over the preserved downtown, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, stretching from the Spare Time Lanes to Mane Street Hairdressing. Outside the former Grosvenor Mansion, built by the man who owned the original town bank, Inez Woell was touching up the wood on a side deck, part of the renovation since she and her husband bought the house last year.
She proudly showed off the grand rooms to a complete stranger, including the pool table they'd set up in the center of the cavernous third-floor ballroom. Heading west, then south after a night in the Tower City Bed and Breakfast, between a horse farm and the Lutheran church, I swooped along the emptiest, straightest back roads in America, driving and stopping, driving again and stopping again, unable to view the scenery just through the car window.
I visited orderly little towns dominated by grain silos and church steeples while Anita Bryant sang "My Little Corner of the World" on AM radio. I photographed the ruined barns of Ransom County and watched the endless fields of grass wave across what must be the world's largest lawn. I felt a little like Clint Eastwood running around Madison County a couple of states over--if Clint Eastwood toured his covered bridges wearing beige tennis shoes and driving a Dodge Neon.
Swinging north again to Jamestown, I reached the World's Largest Buffalo, a 60-ton behemoth with surprisingly soulful eyes. The official state brochure, somewhat defensive about one of its main attractions, sternly warns about the 26-by-46-foot cement monument: "It is a tribute--not a novelty."
I took another swing south through the farm fields just to be able to drive up the Missouri Riverbank along Lewis and Clark's trail, still almost the way they found it except, of course, for the road itself and a few odd pieces of threshing equipment.