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Tag: fargo

Badlands? Or cream puffs?

The Badlands? They weren’t so bad. In fact, thanks to a premature winter blast that left them lightly dusted with snow, they looked more like cream puffs when Ace and I passed through Thursday, making it as far as Beach, North Dakota.

Finally freed from Fargo, we whizzed from one end of the state to the other, eventually passing through the terrain that the Lakota tribe named ”Mako Sica,” which means “land bad.”

Forbidding as it sounds, the pockmarked terrain looked more like a bakery shop, as if powdered sugar had been sifted from above, turning buttes into bundt cakes and craggy pinnacles into cream puffs.

We whizzed from on end of the state to the other, sticking to I-94 and stopping only for coffee, gas, bodily functions and to take a picture of Salem Sue, the world’s largest cow.

On a mountain top in New Salem, whose high school sports teams are named the Holsteins, Sue, who  was erected in 1974 to honor the area’s dairymen, overlooks the interstate and is visible from miles away.

Tourists can drive up the mountain’s gravel road and, should they so choose, drop a donation into a milk can. They help pay for her maintenance — and a 38-foot-high, 50-foot-long, six ton fiberglass cow does need maintenance now and then.

I-94 also sports what are touted as the world’s largest metal sculptures, created by artist Gary Greff. Greff, a former school teacher, started fashioning as a way to bring people into the small community of Regent, home base of The Enchanted Highway.

The Enchanted Highway is about 20 miles east of Dickinson, North Dakota, and runs along I-94 for for 32 miles, with the sculptures, including “Geese in Flight,” spread out along the way.

Of course, North Dakota’s landscape is art in itself — both before and after harvest. In late summer, there are fields of sunflowers blooming for miles. By then end of October, only their dark brown stalks remain, curled up and shriveled.

Hay bales dot the roadsides, boxy ones and coiled ones, stacked sometimes higher than houses. On this day, they too were sugar frosted — looking like they belonged in a really big cereal bowl. Just add a little of Sue’s milk, and breakfast could be served.

We didn’t pass through any heavy accumulations of snow — mostly, despite predictions of a blizzard, just a light dusting, but it was enough to draw Ace’s attention. Usually, he only bothers to look out the window when he feels the car slow down. On this 300-plus mile leg of the trip, he spent a long time looking at the scenery, and when we made a pit stop, he was eager to traipse through the snow that was left.

We didn’t stop and camp in the Badlands, as John Steinbeck wrote that he did in “Travels with Charley.” In the book, Steinbeck described how the “unearthly” landscape lost its “burned and dreadful look” as the sun went down, and took on a glow; and of how, in the night,  “far from being frightful, (it) was lovely beyond thought …

“In the night the Bad Lands had become Good Lands. I can’t explain it. that’s how it was.”

I too didn’t think the Badlands lived up to their ominous name, probably because of the light snow-coating. Instead they left me with the song “Candy Man,” stuck in my head, and with a strong urge for some bundt cake.

All the world’s a stage — even Fargo

John Steinbeck, as he tells it in “Travels with Charley,” didn’t stop in Fargo.

He kept Rocinante rolling another 40 miles until he stumbled upon a more idyllic setting — yet another riverside camping spot, this one along the Maple River, near the sleepy little farming town of Alice. There, he just so happened to run into what would turn out to be one of the book’s more colorful characters, an itinerant Shakespearean actor.

Steinbeck would break out the coffee, and the whiskey, and listen as his flamboyant fellow camper explained that he performed Shakespeare around the country, in tents, in high schools  … “wherever two or three are gathered together … With me there’s no question of doing something else. It’s all I know — all I ever have known.”

Steinbeck recounted the meeting in great detail — including how the actor unfolded a packet of aluminum foil to reveal a note he once received from John Gielgud. After that, explaining the importance of a good exit, the actor makes one.

Was the Shakesperean actor a dramatic invention in Steinbeck’s classic work of non-fiction? We’ll probably never know. But indications are, just maybe, something is rotten in the state of North Dakota.

From all existing clues, it appears Steinbeck didn’t actually sleep in the town of Alice on the night of Oct. 12, which can only lead one to wonder if the actor was real, or if, like Tom Joad in ”The Grapes of Wrath,” he was artfully concocted by the author, most of whose works were fiction.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first discrepancy between Steinbeck’s account in “Travels with Charley” and what his papers and other sources reveal about his 1960 trip.

Many of those are now being brought to light by blogger Bill Stiegerwald as he retraces Steinbeck’s route. (Bill, who we met at the begining of our trip is a good two weeks ahead of me.)

“Contrary to what he wrote so nicely and in such detail in ‘Charley,’ Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight near Alice on the Maple River or anywhere else on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960,” Stiegerwald concluded on his blog, Travels Without Charley. “He stayed at… in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west.”

This, along with some of the recent stops on our own retracing of Steinbeck’s travels with Charley, brings us back to our discussion of the truth in fiction, and the fiction in truth.

We’re all for the former, but have some problems with the latter. We have nothing against using the techniques of fiction writing in non-fiction – in portraying the innate suspense of a situation, or the turmoil raging inside characters; or in skipping over the boring stuff.  (Otherwise, a writer might end up boring readers with something as mundane as tossing french fries to his dog.)

But we’d argue that a reader of books, even a reader of blogs, deserves — like an eater of food — to know what he’s consuming. What sort of liberties an author of non-fiction has taken in processing the facts is information to which a reader should have access, much like a diner should be able to find out what sort of oil a fast food restaurant uses to cook its french fries.

The line between fiction and non-fiction, it seems, is becoming a difficult to define boundary. Then again, maybe it has always been so.

Earlier this week, our “Travels with Ace” took us to Sauk Centre, or as Sinclair Lewis called it in his 1920 novel “Main Street,” Gopher Prairie. “Main Street,” while labeled fiction, exposed many truths about small town life — more, at least initially, than some Sauk Centre residents cared to be exposed, proving that not only does the truth hurt, but fiction can as well.

Our next, and latest, stop was Fargo, which most people know through the Coen brothers movie of same name. The movie starts off with the words: “This is a true story …  At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

But “Fargo” — whose characters were mostly portrayed as dull-witted sorts, living in a frozen wasteland — wasn’t a true story at all; rather it was a concoction of the wonderfully degenerate minds of two brothers from neighboring Minnesota.

Both the movie “Fargo” and the book “Main Street” brought some unflattering notoriety to the towns they were depicting — much like Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” offended some Oklahomans.

In addition to criticism that “The Grapes of Wrath” was too political, didn’t accurately describe the migration of farm families from the dust bowl to California, and some nitpicking that Sallisaw, the town it opens in, was not actually part of the Dust Bowl (a fairly major nit), there were those who thought the novel portrayed “Okies” as illiterate hicks.

(Possibly, that’s why when he was traveling with Charley, Steinbeck sidestepped the state of Oklahoma.)

In each case, though, once the dust settled, there was something close to a happily-ever-after ending – some acknowledgement of the truth beneath the fiction, or at least some evidence that any perceived slights were forgiven.

Sauk Centre, where Main Street now intersects with Sinclair Lewis Boulevard, has embraced Lewis, its most famous son, with an annual festival.

In Fargo, chamber of commerce types proclaim there has been “a renaissance” — not so much due to the movie itself, maybe, as to the efforts to show the world there was more to Fargo than the movie portrayed. In 2006, on the movie’s 10th anniversary, it was projected on the side of the Radisson Hotel, the city’s tallest building as part of the Fargo Film Festival.

And even Sallisaw, on the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth, started a “Grapes of Wrath” festival, though it was short-lived. It has since been replaced with the annual Diamond Daze Festival, which isn’t Steinbeck-related at all.

All of which, in addition to just being interesting, serves as proof that — as the maybe real, maybe not Shakespearean actor in “Travels with Charley” might have said — all the world really is a stage.

Flinging French fries in Fargo

There are things to do in Fargo, North Dakota.

There’s the Celebrity Walk of Fame at the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, where Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, Debbie Reynolds, Jesse Ventura and others have left their signatures, handprints and footprints in cement.

There’s the Plains Art Museum, the Fargo Air Museum, the Red River Zoo, and just across the way from my motel, a big mall.

Yes — despite the stereotype of it as a place where boredom reigns, where temperatures lean toward the bitter extremes (and we won’t even go into woodchippers) — there are things to do in Fargo.

We’re just not doing any of them. Instead, we’re holed up in a Motel 6, where I’m flinging french fries into Ace’s mouth.

Why? Because it’s so damn cold.

Just as John Steinbeck, on his trip west with Charley, worried about getting across the northern states before winter set in, we’re beginning to fret as well; only we have ample reason — predictions of a October blizzard.

All night long, the wind rattled the windows of my motel room. The three-to-five inches of snow the local weatherman predicted hasn’t fallen — at least not here, not yet — but the warnings were enough to get me to book another night.

Just walking to the Burger King next door yesterday was bone chilling. Ace thought so, too. As eager as he was to get outside, he was even more eager — once experiencing it — to get back in.

Back in the room, for entertainment, I set aside half of my French fries and, in what’s become a habit during our travels when I get fast food, tossed portions to Ace. He gets the discolored ones, and the pointy ended ones. For some reason, I don’t like my fries to have pointy  ends. Though he was on the bed, four feet away, he missed but one fry, snagging each of the rest with a snort.

So far I haven’t seen much of Fargo, and that which I have has been through fast-flapping windshield wipers. The night I arrived, after checking in, I went off in search of downtown Fargo. On my only other trip here, three years ago, I didn’t explore at all. I did, during a stop for lunch, ask a waiter where downtown was, and he informed me there was no downtown. Maybe he was new here, or it was his way of saying Fargo’s downtown didn’t meet with his standards. Maybe he was having fun with tourists.

But I can report there is a downtown, and that the road to it, at least from my motel, is lined with pawn shops. Once there, I couldn’t see much, because it was so dark and rainy, but I sensed tall buildings.

It has remained grey since then. That alone normally wouldn’t keep me inside, but the wind is downright cruel, and the rain is a stinging one and the one time I did go out in the car — to buy dog food — my car door, powered by the wind, attacked me both when I got out and when I got back in.

Even the wildlife thinks it’s too cold. Tonight, when I went downstairs for ice, I saw a rabbit huddled between a trash can and the wall by the motel’s side door, seeking shelter from the wind and rain.

I was going to offer to share my room with him — invite him up for a discolored French fry, maybe suggest he consider relocating to warmer climes – but he ran off when I approached the door.