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Following Steinbeck to Fargo

By Rachel Dry
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 4:50 PM

It's a perfect day at the geographic center of North America. The mid-October sky is just the right shade of blue to make the giant white clouds look their suspended-cotton-ball best.

It's the kind of weather that should make a traveler relax, breathe in and think: Right, this is where I'm supposed to be, enjoying unexpected sun and sweeping prairie views.

I can't do that, though. Because I'm staring at a room full of roads not taken.

Once you get to the geographic center of North America, in Rugby, N.D., they take some pains to remind you where else you could have gone. The visitors' center here is full of maps and guide books to the rest of the continent: information on the volcanoes of Hawaii, the dunes of Cape Cod. Here, it says, now that you've made it to the heart of everything, look at how far you have to go to get anywhere else.

I don't need those maps, though. I have a prescribed route already: the one John Steinbeck took.

In 1960, the writer drove a pickup truck fitted with a custom camper, which he defiantly dubbed Rocinante - his friends and family thought the endeavor was Cervantes-level quixotic - across the Lower 48 on a trip that became his 1962 travelogue, "Travels With Charley." (Charley was his dog, "an old French gentleman poodle.")

Steinbeck went because, as he wrote his longtime literary agent in 1954, he felt "cut off" and wanted to take a drive to "listen to what the country is about now." He wasn't confident that he knew what the real story was anymore.

Pretty much exactly 50 years later, I picked up his path in my home state of Vermont and followed it as loyally as I could through to Fargo, N.D. I went because I love cross-country road trips (I'd made the cross-country trek once before) and Steinbeck. I'd latched onto the Nobel Prize winner in college and had studied his work in depth, becoming slowly obsessed with the idea of duplicating his journey.

I don't have a dog, and decided against borrowing one. I brought my mother along with me instead. I also couldn't carve out enough time for the whole voyage, so I picked Fargo as my final destination. Steinbeck went to Fargo because, he wrote in "Charley," he was "curious how a place unvisited can take such hold on the mind so that the very name sets up a ringing." In a letter to his wife from the road, he wrote that he had heard of the place all his life and simply had to go.

And so I did, too.

I planned to leave from Vermont, pick up Steinbeck's route roughly in Rouses Point, N.Y., and follow it west, stopping, for the most part, where he stopped. "Charley" is an exuberant log of life on the road; I wanted to see what Steinbeck had seen, and consider what 50 years had done to the route. After Rouses Point, my stops were Erie, Pa.; a Flint, Mich., detour to see a GM factory, one of the Rust Belt "hives of production" that Steinbeck wrote about only in passing; Chicago; Mauston, Wis.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; and Fargo.

It was a reasonable enough plan, but for the first day and a half of the drive, I was battling doubts. The voice on the GPS device would say, "Turn right," and then I could almost hear her add, under her breath, "Why are you doing this?" and "Steinbeck didn't have a GPS," and some other judgmental things about my life choices.

Then I met Jean at a Stewart's gas station near Philadelphia, N.Y. She tried to sell me a large quantity of discounted ice cream with my bottled water. When I told her that I couldn't take it because I was on the road, she said, "Take me with you!"

The evening's destination was Erie. I wasn't sure that I wanted to go there myself. Why would she want to come along?

"Because then I wouldn't be here," she said. "I'm 52 years old, and I've never been out of New York state."

I was on my way into and out of several states that very day and would hit 11 total in two weeks; I couldn't take her with me, but I could carry the salve to travelers' doubt that she'd given me: a quick reminder of how lucky I was to be able to pick up and drive off on a journey that I'd thought about for so long.

Having a destination selected for me by a literary guide infused all the miles with a strange sort of purpose. The scenery was all something that Steinbeck might have seen: the Upstate New York secondhand furniture store called It-L-Do; the slight hills in Wisconsin, tufted with just-turned red and yellow trees; the eerily empty proto-Main Street of "Main Street" fame, in author Sinclair Lewis's boyhood home of Sauk Centre, Minn. And finally, North Dakota's largest city.

Today, most people don't come to Fargo on literary historical reveries. They come to shop. That's according to Brian Matson of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau. It is, he said, "the largest shopping destination between Minneapolis/St. Paul and the West Coast."

I took in that information and proceeded to avoid the enormous West Acres mall and the checkerboard of wheat fields turned big-box stores entirely.

Instead, I wandered downtown Fargo's Broadway, stopping in art galleries, small boutiques, coffee shops and the uncategorizable Zandbroz Variety for a novelty T-shirt listing key world travel destinations: "Moscow. London. Paris. Fargo."

Broadway is anchored by the Fargo Theatre, and its beautifully restored marquee cheerfully reminded me in bright lights every time I caught sight of it that I had made it to my destination.

It was all pretty picture-perfect, all the more so because I'd been told how desolate the downtown used to be even 10 or 15 years ago.

Most people outside North Dakota probably know Fargo best from the 1996 Coen brothers film "Fargo," a movie that residents insist reflects nothing like life there, except for the dedication of the "hardworking sheriff." Second to that, what puts Fargo on the national radar is the reason Steinbeck had always heard of it: It's a place of weather extremes. The most recent has been dangerously high flooding of the Red River. I was told that to understand what kind of community Fargo is, I should head down to the dike near Island Park, just a few blocks from Broadway, and picture the whole place filled with volunteers and sandbags and water.

First I had to find the dike. On the cross-country road trip we'd taken when I was a kid, I'd tried to pretend not to be a tourist, embarrassed at being a AAA-guide-toting stranger in a strange land. I realized that I've outgrown that completely when I stood on the bank of the Red River and interrupted the quiet contemplation of a trio of fishermen to ask: "Hi, umm. Excuse me. Where is the dike?"

I posed this query while standing probably no more than 15 feet from the sloping grassy hill that I had just walked down - the dike itself. One of the fisherman pointed me back the way I had come and didn't even laugh.

I stood at the top of the incline and tried to picture the river coming all the way up to the 40-foot marker, as it had in 2009. But on this day, it was safely high and dry.

I had a week of weather so lovely that local meteorologist John Wheeler said he was "running out of synonyms for nice." People kept telling me how lucky I was to be in town for these temperatures. And there were other reminders: Several skywalks link the civic center to the main drag, an efficient way of avoiding the elements when the high might hover in the minus-20s.

The cold can be brutal, everyone said, but also character-enhancing. That seems like an awfully chilly silver lining, but it does work out pretty well. On the highway outside Fargo, I'd seen the following billboards:

"Be Grateful."

"Be Kind."

"Be Nice."

They seemed like the most unnecessary large-type imperatives you could put on a billboard in this Zip code. Everyone here is kind and nice.

Amelia Young, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Curling Club, took me to watch the ice being made at the group's indoor rink. We couldn't curl, as I'd hoped to do, but she toured me around, showed me the North Dakota State University campus and told me about life in Fargo for young professionals. My mother took a longer stroll along the river and said that everyone nodded and smiled at her.

It seemed as though, if we had stuck around another few days, we could have found ourselves on a committee of some sort, or preemptively filling sandbags in time for spring.

Steinbeck wanted to go to Fargo for a very unscientific reason: because, he observed, "when you fold a map of the U.S., Fargo will be in the crease." The middle of the continent. So possibly the place to take the pulse of America? I wasn't really pulse-taking, but since I was already all the way to Fargo, we drove the extra 200 miles to Rugby, the Geographic Center of North America. At least, someone at the Interior Department once proclaimed it to be the center, even though the center is actually a few miles away.

And it does feel like you're at the center of something. We stopped for lunch at Rockin' Relics, an antiques store/diner, and enjoyed cheeseburger chowder. That's a middle-of-it-all delicacy. There's a Prairie Village Museum, but that was closed. So with the wind blowing pretty fiercely even on a mild day, knocking over trash cans and dusting the main street with cattail fuzz, I had to imagine how difficult life had been for the pioneers.

Life in the center is a little different from life anywhere else, longtime resident DeeDee Bischoff told me. "I've been to the ocean, and I realize when I'm home that I can take a step in any direction and get closer to the sea," she said.

Either coast does feel quite far away at the monument to the geographic center, just off the highway right outside town. The obelisk stands on a heart-shaped base - they're pretty on-message here - and the flags of the United States, Canada and Mexico flap wildly behind it.

The monument was actually moved a bit several years ago to accommodate a highway expansion, so the definition of "the center" is sort of elastic. Dondi Sobolik, formerly with the chamber of commerce, said that when tourists used to wander into the diner near the monument looking confused, the locals would always help them out. The visitors would say, "I could have sworn that monument was in another place when I was here 30 years ago." And the regulars would smile and say, "Yeah, well, there was a big earthquake in Alaska and part of the state fell into the ocean, so we had to move it." Sobolik reports that the tourists would always nod and agree that that made sense.

We laughed at the silly tourists, and then I piled into my rental car and took off. But maybe the joke was on me. Gullibility is a hazard of just passing through.

Rugby was a diversion from Steinbeck's route, and it opened up a non-Steinbeck-dictated part of the journey. From Rugby, I wanted to get to the tiny town of Alice, near the Maple River, close to where he had camped, and back to Fargo for the evening. The in-between part was a wide-open scenic loop that included the tiny college town of Mayville.

I have trouble with decisions generally, but eating at Paula's Cafe - on the stoplit corner in this one-stoplight town - was the easiest choice of the trip. And the tuna melt and cherry pie offered clear, whipped-cream-topped affirmation of that decision. Bethany Bertrand, who owns the place with her husband, said that the Wednesday lunch crowd we were seeing, with nearly all the two-dozen or so seats taken, was pretty much the usual, though it gets more crowded from 3 to 4, with the 25-cent coffee happy hour.

A North Dakota map takes up most of the back wall, and Bertrand said that people like to gather around the map and talk about farming - beet prices, corn, everything - and news from across the state.

I understood the ice-breaking allure of a map. We studied ours, too, and plotted a course from Mayville through the Sheyenne River valley to a stop at Little Yellowstone, no geysers in sight. The road was marked "scenic," but I actually preferred the larger Highway 2. I loved the expansive fields and the tidy rows of trees that had been planted between the fields and around the houses and barns as some measure of protection against the wind.

I ended my journey by learning about someone else's journey, enshrined at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minn., right across the river from Fargo, where a replica of a wooden Viking ship fills the atrium. I climbed a staircase to peek into the hull, where the cots are arranged so that you can see what it might have been like to cross the Atlantic in a boat like this. (Soggy and splintery, it seemed.)

We watched a low-budget documentary about the ship's 1982 journey from Minnesota to Norway, the dream of Moorhead school counselor Robert Asp. It took him six years to build his replica, working over the summers when school was out.

Before the project was complete, Asp received a diagnosis of leukemia. After his death, his children continued the project and eventually made the trip he'd dreamed about. Watching the film alone in a small room at the center, my mom and I both got a little weepy.

Steinbeck didn't like Fargo, at least not as much as I did. He had expected it to be one thing, a town blizzard-buried in the middle of October, maybe, and instead got just a lovely fall day. It wasn't one of the great mysterious places of the world, as he'd imagined. In "Charley," he recounts driving out of town and camping for the night near Alice to nurse his "mythological wounds."

He decided that what he'd actually seen didn't matter much; it wouldn't disturb his notion of the place. "I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger," he wrote. This is where I disagree with him, or need to make my own addendum.

The reality of the road trip made the romance of the road even stronger, and I was only sorry that I had to leave the road too soon - before I was sick of it, or sick of Steinbeck, or mythologically wounded.

I went to Fargo to follow Steinbeck. Now I want to go back.

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