Fargo, North Dakota & Minnesota

One of my main goals before leaving the Midwest was to hit a couple states I otherwise wouldn’t get back to – so far, I’d been successful in reaching Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and, of course, all across Illinois. I’d been to Minnesota before as a child, but really wanted to ensure I could hit a state I knew I’d otherwise be unlikely to get to – North Dakota. Somehow, I convinced a good friend to spend a weekend with me, flying from Chicago to Minneapolis and then driving up to Fargo the first day, driving from Fargo to a variety of “the world’s largest” sites the second day, and enjoying a bit of Minneapolis before returning to Chicago.

So – here it is: our great, North Dakotan vacation. I will say, I was impressed. I’d watched a couple episodes of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives to prepare and otherwise figured my expectations couldn’t be lower. Fargo frankly exceeded all expectations and I’m so happy I was able to make the trek up.

As mentioned, we flew from Chicago to Minneapolis, where we proceeded to drive north to Fargo for ~4 hours or so. Upon arrival, we were desperate for sustenance, so we took a quick picture with the mural and headed for Pounds, one of the places Guy Fieri visited on his DDD review of the town. We were super impressed – I got the chicken sandwich with the ranch “flight” (four different types of ranch) and it was incredible. My friend got the bbq chicken sandwich (the same bbq featured on the episode) and it was a hit as well. Despite being late May, the weather was bone-chillingly cold, so ducking inside was a fantastic choice.

After lunch, we decided to explore a couple of the sites around the Fargo / Moorhead (the area in Minnesota just across the state border) area. We first visited the “visitor’s center” where of course the wood chipper from the eponymous movie resides (and, as we’d find out, the “stunt double” wood chipper, too!).

After visiting the woodchipper, we wanted to see a bit more culture and headed for the Hjemkomst Center which houses the region’s cultural sites. Especially of interest were the Viking Ship, which local townsfolk built and sailed from Duluth, MN to Norway and a beautiful exhibit showcasing modernized paintings / photographs of Indigenous Americans (many of whom were local to the land that is now in upper Minnesota / North Dakota).

I found it especially interesting that the cultural center tried to ensure all viewpoints / historical perspectives were incorporated in the presentation.

Outside of the ship and exhibits, my absolute favorite site (and, tbh one of my favorite sites in the entirety of the United States, because I’m a nerd!) was the replica stave church. Only accessible via a tour that leaves on the hour, the church was built by a retired professor of architecture at NDSU who wanted to reconnect with his Norwegian heritage and had completed his woodworking certifications. He apparently traveled to Norway several times over the ~5 years or so that the church was being built and copied the design so specifically that they can point out even minor imperfections in the replica’s design.

I absolutely loved it – the church was such an incredible example of modern craftsmanship and the desire to harken back to a different era. I loved it.

After the cultural center, we went to check into our Airbnb, which was… an experience. Suffice to say, my friend and I were slightly traumatized, ended up requesting a full refund, and checked into the nearest hotel instead.

Not to be deterred too quickly, we regrouped and decided to explore downtown Fargo and find someplace for a drink. We were shocked by how much appeared to be available downtown – cute little bars, an experiential exhibit at the local theater, a couple boutique hotels with clearly popping bars, lots of space for outdoor art expositions. Somehow Fargo is one of the most intriguing places I’d never been!

Ultimately, we ended up at a great little beer hall called Wurstbar, which offered a variety of local sausages, beers, and mixed drinks. We were especially impressed by the soft pretzels.

On our second day, we decided to make a roadtrip out of returning to Minneapolis before flying out the following morning. One of my goals was to see a variety of the midwest’s (and the US’ more broadly) “world’s largest” items. According to my dad, who visited many of these sites as a child in the 1960s, they used to be places to camaraderie, with lemonade stands, visitor’s centers, and a spark of interest around them. Unfortunately, most of them today are set off the back roads in tiny towns that don’t even have the infrastructure to offer a visitor’s center experience even if they wanted to. That being said, I’m very happy we ventured afar, even if it did take approximately twice as long (more, honestly) than our initial route between Minneapolis and Fargo.

First on our stop was the World’s Largest Prairie Chicken, located just across the border from North Dakota in Minnesota.

Apparently Prairie Chickens became prevalent after settlers brought them to the region, the reproduced wildly on the prairie and many of them became feral and continued to reproduce for generations. Next, we continued on to our next site, passing through some absolutely gorgeous Minnesota farmland (lots and lots of gorgeous open spaces out in this part of the United States!).

Next up was the World’s Largest Catfish, located in a random fishing / recreation area (incidentally, this site had the nicest bathroom of anywhere we stopped – it reminded me of a spa, with cedar-lined walls and a gorgeous facade despite being in the middle of absolutely nowhere).

The catfish was legitimately the most impressive stop of any on our tour – it was truly huge (for privacy, I haven’t included a photo of either one of us, but picture a 5’5″ human next to a ~60 foot long x ~30 foot tall catfish and you’ll be around accurate). Wahpeton, ND doesn’t have a whole lot of attractions (other than an Army facility we saw), but it was worth the trip!

Next, we trekked towards Minnesota via the South Dakota border – only a few miles out of the way, we figured we’d hit another state to help my friend check more off his list. We did hit South Dakota, but we ultimately encountered some tire trouble that led us onto the Lake Traverse reservation and to a “world’s largest” item we actually thought we’d skip – the world’s largest mallard!

Next, we continued way, way out of our way towards the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (by a single person), which ultimately ended up being really, really out of the way compared with the remainder of our trip. At this point, we started to experience a bit of exhaustion, a definite sense of uncanny valley, and got a little spooked by the deserted nature of most of the landscape we saw (include a train that was quite literally miles long – we were going probably 75ish, and this train took ~10 minutes to overtake).

We did finally arrive at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine and it was… slightly underwhelming for how long the drive was. I could definitely appreciate the legacy and Americana appeal of the site, which still had a cute little mailbox that used to offer a “visitor’s log” (seemed to be a guest book for visitors) and a variety of signs sharing how and when the ball had been moved to this location.

After this, we headed straight to Minneapolis, eager to recoup a bit of the day and make up for the eight hours we’d spent in the car by indulging in some culture. We beelined for the Mall of America, which ended up being both a treat and a super overwhelming spot (I didn’t realize that when people said it was huge and had a theme park inside, it was HUGE and truly had a THEME PARK inside).

After exhausting ourselves at the Mall of America, we headed to our Airbnb in a nice, residential area of Minneapolis. We decided to head downtown for dinner and checked out the view from the Foshay building (amusingly located within what is now a W Hotel), the “music mural” located relatively nearby.

For dinner, we went to the Monte Carlo on the advice of a friend who has spent a lot of time in Minneapolis – it definitely hit the spot and had all the traditional, old world steakhouse vibes we could have hoped for on our last night! Then we were off very early and not-so-bright the following morning for Chicago!

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