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PASS : THE NORTH DAKOTANS / A Diary of One Delegation's
Visit to L.A.

They Strive to Grow Where They're Planted

August 18, 2000|DANA PARSONS

A warm August night, barreling along the 405 in a caravan of taillights out of the Valley and into West Los Angeles, and a young North Dakota man's thoughts turn to . . .

Turn to what?

Turn to what's "out there" and how it's so different and unknown from what awaits back home. Thoughts, in other words, that twentysomething Midwesterners have had for decades once they've heard the siren song from the City of Angels.

So it is with Jeff Hoffman, at 26 the youngest member of the North Dakota delegation to the Democratic National Convention. On this night, the group is returning to its Century City hotel from a garden party at the historic San Fernando Mission.

And in the darkness, Hoffman is churning ideas.

He loves his native North Dakota, where he grew up in a farming town 40 miles west of Fargo. Where once in his life he couldn't wait to escape its confines, maturity has deepened his appreciation for where he's from.

Still . . .

"What it comes down to is I'm deciding if I should stay in North Dakota or move out," says Hoffman, who graduates this winter from North Dakota State University in Fargo. "The big push is to keep people in our state. Family farming is a serious issue. It's not destroying families, it's destroying communities."

If Hoffman left, he likely would not come to L.A. But a week here has done nothing but illuminate the battle within. It's Hollywood, the beach, the Getty, the Strip . . . the choices.

Young adults, he says, "want to go explore. You don't want to sit on the farm, especially now, when times are terrible."

But he wouldn't want to raise a family in Los Angeles. And an emerging call to public service might best be realized in his home state. Thus, the time-honored battle of what to do with one's life.

It's a battle most others in the delegation have left behind. As I've gotten to know them over the last three weeks, they convey an abiding love for their state. They've seen the mansions and the beaches of L.A., and met a celebrity or two, but they've also seen barbed wire atop car lots and iron bars on windows.

Many, however, believe their state must bolster its population to regain its vitality. Re-seed, if you will.

But L.A. is the quintessential example of what happens when you start plowing that field.

Delegate Mary Ekstrom manages an architectural firm in Fargo and is a strong advocate of managed growth.

Yet, she says, when a homeless person recently died in Fargo, there was a palpable sense of community sadness, a sort of "How could this happen here?" Ekstrom says.

Would Los Angeles ask that same question?

As I watched the Dakotans mass behind a Staples Center microphone Wednesday night and cast their 22 delegate votes for Al Gore, I felt a pang. In both a physical and metaphorical sense, they huddled as one, bonded by hope and uncertainty.

If a place doesn't grow, does it die? If it grows the wrong way, does something else die?

An editor assigned me a month ago to "adopt" the North Dakota delegation. Like any parent, I'm proud of my babies.

As they leave L.A. for the often-splendid isolation of their state, I'm reflecting on something delegate April Fairfield told me two weeks ago in Jamestown. She works in that town of 15,000 but lives on a family farm in nearby Eldridge, a community of 50.

"I love great restaurants, culture and the opportunities you have in cities," she says. "I don't have the opportunity to go to the symphony in Eldridge.

"But it seems nowadays that most people have lost their sense of place. That's one thing I'm fortunate to have. I know my roots and my foundation.

"So when I go to any city, I want to soak up every little piece of city life. But I'm always extremely happy to come home to my quiet little house."


Dana Parsons writes a column for The Times' Orange County Edition

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