The Mid Midwest, Some Intensely Inspiring People

Fargo

Peggy and I did end up hanging out at Itaska State Park for a few more hours.  It was a beautiful day and we hiked along the lake while Hank napped in the trailer.  Then we hit the road.  The Midwest is becoming midwestier as I go.  The land gets flatter, the fields get larger, and the equipment driving down the road gets larger.  Clearly some of it is designed to shred my truck and trailer.  Other vehicles appear to be so large that I could drive under them like a bridge.  They’re about 100 feet wide with, generally speaking, 723 wheels each.  It’s all very Suesian.  You have to be careful driving down these long straight narrow roads.  They are breathtaking, but you can be following an 18 wheeler at 65, he’ll suddenly zip around one of these things, and you find yourself needing to immediately react to a slow moving brick wall right in your path.  Leave lots of space!  Thankfully the road is so straight and easy to drive.  My head was on a swivel.  I was awe struck by the sheer scale of it all.  These fields look to be miles across.  You might be able to walk all day and not reach the other side.

Fargo does not put its best foot forward as you enter on State Rt 10.  It’s industrial, sparse, low slung, like the least attractive parts of Boston but less cool.  However, that is not at all what I found when I began to explore.  It’s a little like New Jersey.  It’s so much more than the smelly ugly turnpike.  The first thing I did was find a rest stop for the night where I watched Fargo, the movie.  Whatever.  Don’t judge me.  I loved it!  The next day I went to the Fargo Moorhead Visitor Center to see the movie exhibits including the wood chipper.  It was very cool.  The folks there were very helpful in giving me suggestions on what to do see.  Bonanzaville was a must just because of its ridiculous name, and hell yeah I’ll go see a Viking ship!  Before I get to those, I’ll share that I found very cool people in Fargo.  There’s a trendy main drag / area with shops, bars, an excellent record store, and a top notch bike shop.  The first thing I saw inside the record shop was a poster for the new Murder By Death album, the band I saw in Cincinnati with Emily.  They had many cool albums prominently displayed there.  At the bike shop, I got new peddles for the bike I was given and found out where to go donate my old one.  Although, I never really found it.  I asked a guy for directions to it and he asked if he could have it.  He was very excited.  He’d just moved to town, was looking for a bike, and money was tight.  It really seemed to make his day so I felt pretty good about it.  I had dinner in a pub called HoDo, unrelated to but reminding me of Game of Thrones.  The waitresses Kate and Tessa had very interesting stories.  Both are single moms, have travelled extensively, and returned to the area.  I don’t think either is in love with Fargo, but it works for them.  Kate has great taste in music.  Tessa owns an amazing home for about ¼ what it would cost in Massachusetts and has a degree in art if I remember correctly.  They were both super cool.

Inspiring People

Shawna, from my last post, seems to have been the first in a string of people I’ve found truly inspiring for one reason or another.  In her case, she wanted to change her life dramatically and did it.  Traveling through North and South Dakota, I’ve come across 4 more compelling stories.

There is a full scale fully functional Viking ship and a Nordic Stave Church at the Hjemkost Center in Fargo.  These were built by different men at different times, and both are now exhibits.  The ship was built by a professor of Nordic descent in the 70s.  They show a heartwarming movie telling the story.  He intended to sail it to Norway, but died of leukemia too soon.  He did see it completed and did sail it in Lake Superior.  There’s a long story of the family completing substantial modifications, forming a crew, and facing challenging circumstances getting across the ocean, but they made it!  The vessel was shipped back home afterwards.  Decades later, a different man, also of Nordic descent, built a Nordic church on the museum site.  It is Catholic but not consecrated and generally only used for weddings.  What an elaborate creation!  Both stories are deeply inspiring.  In both cases, these men had a passion for something.  They had a vision.  Rather than just dream of it, they took many years, nearly a decade in both cases, to see their dream made reality.  It took hard work and dedication.  They were relentless with singular focus, and the product of their work was of the highest quality.  Both were perfectionists and refused opportunities to cut corners.  Incidentally, the Hjemkost (Home Coming) center is amazing.  You should definitely visit these exhibits if you’re ever in the area.

The first 2 inspiring stories deal with regular people accomplishing great things.  I find them compelling.  However, the next 2 are people who have made deliberate and calculated decisions to live a simpler life, the life they want to live.  These men did not accomplish great things in the traditional sense of the word, but they are living happy and full lives without a hint of regret.  I met Mark at Bonanzaville, which I’ll describe later in this post.  He’s a square dance caller amongst other things.  He was just cleaning up from having given a lesson to some school kids on a field trip.  Mark donates his time in the entire month of May for this purpose.  He’s a Vietnam war hero who never earned much money.  He owns his small home outright and feels that Fargo is getting too big.  I ended up talking to him for quite some time covering a wide range of topics including politics, religion, tolerance, etc.  I have to admit I was a bit surprised.  I had a preconceived notion of people in rural communities living intentionally simple lives.  I figured they were probably not well informed on broad world issues.  Mark proved me dead wrong.  What a pleasure talking to him!  Mark is very happy in his life.  He is very active in the square dancing community and with his veterans groups.  He has other hobbies and interests as well and just seems like a really nice guy.

Dale, by contrast, earned a lot of money.  I met him when I stayed on his farm, Hebda Produce, which I found using Harvest Hosts.  I stayed for just one night, but we hung out in the evening for an hour or two and we talked a lot.  He had worked in farm insurance, and also owned a 50 acre farm.  The farm was focused on produce but did include a few animals.  Dale sells some of his produce directly, but also cans and pickles things as well as makes a variety of jellies and salsas.  I’m truly amazed at the range of products he can get out of a farm this size.  While not certified, its all organic.  Dale has a thorough understanding of creating nutrient dense foods and the negative impacts of pesticides, GMOs, and other unnatural food processing practices like ripening gasses.  We discussed this and the pharmaceutical industrial complex as he gave me a tour of his property by tractor.  It might seem like Dale has it made, but there were issues with selling the business, and the farm has yet to turn a profit.  He’s fine, but not in the position he expected to be.  Does he stress about it?  Absolutely not.  He adjusted his lifestyle to match his income and kept on doing what he loved.  He enjoys owning and operating the farm, and things will work out.  I bought some of his products and can personally vouch for their deliciousness.

As a kind of hybrid of some of these is the story of Terry Redlin.  Terry changed his life and also accomplished great things through perseverance.  He began his career as a corporate artist making advertisements and the like.  After 25 years of that, he decided to focus on his own paintings.  He had no idea how that would work out, but he ended up being a nationally recognized artist who’s paintings sell for hundreds of dollars each.  His son was instrumental in creating the Terry Redlin Art Center in South Dakota where his originals are on display and there are some items for sale.  It’s free by the way, and totally worth stopping in at.  He became a huge success by striking out on his own and leveraging his existing skill set.

Taking all 6 stories together, we have 2 people who wanted to change their life and did, 2 people who had a vision and stopped at nothing to bring it to reality, and 2 people who intentionally chose a simpler life at the expense of luxury.  All of these deeply resonate with me, and yet they are no help!  I want to do all 3 things!  They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they don’t necessarily go hand in hand either.  The focus is different, making a change, accomplishing something great, or letting go of accomplishment as a goal in order to achieve greater peace and happiness in life.  There’s no rush.  I’m learning not to stress too much about the future and getting better at living in the moment.  It’s a work in progress though.  The consistent theme here is that these people were true to themselves.  They live(d) totally different lives, but they were happy in what they chose.  There’s no right or wrong career or lifestyle choice provided that you chose one that you can be happy in.  Chose happiness.  And be smart about it.  Know where your strengths lie and go with that.

Bonanzaville

Well, clearly I headed south out of Fargo.  My next real destination was Omaha to go to Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s restaurant called Modern Love, but before I get to that, I just have to describe Bonanzaville in Fargo.  Apparently, Fargo and large parts of the upper Midwest was settled by Norwegians and Swedes taking advantage of the homestead act, hence the Viking ship and Stave Church connection.  These settlers were farmers looking for land and a new life, escaping economic woes at home.  They created what became known as Bonanza farms.  When someone tries to describe bonanza farms to a non-farmer, it just sounds like they’re describing any old farm, but I guess there are specific things a bonanza farm has that others don’t.  Well, Bonanzaville started as a small museum to these farms, but it grew, substantially.  This place isn’t silly at all.  It’s a monument to an era on par with and in many ways exceeding things like Plymouth Plantation and Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.  They’ve brought in real surviving buildings of the time and created a proper village here.  There are homes, a barber shop, stores, a police station, and it’s all highly interactive.  You can go in and out of the buildings, touch the tractors in the tractor exhibit.  Old and new, large and small equipment, vehicles, and even airplanes are there for you to climb up on and inside of.  I won’t say a bad word about Bonanzaville.  Go here.

Between staying at Dale’s farm and Bonanzaville, I’ve got a real itch to try farming.  I think it falls into the same bucket as brewing.  I’ve gardened successfully, but that doesn’t make me a farmer any more than even somewhat advanced home brewing makes me a master brewer.  As I think about the myriad life path options that lay before me, one option I consider is engineering contracts to make money with alternating jobs where I get to sample totally different careers.  The first pays the bills, the second enriches my life.  These could even be in different cities.  Part of that is deciding where I want to live and how stationary I want to be, but that’s a conversation for another time.  For now, I’m just excited about working outside and with plant based food production.  That seems like a rewarding and noble profession to me.

Corn Palace

Leaving Fargo and heading south, I crossed into South Dakota and stopped at the visitor center.  That’s where I learned about a few interesting attractions on my way south.  I decided to hit the Redline Art Center, of course, and also the Corn Palace.  I missed Sioux Falls and the Little House on the Prairie house but that’s ok.  The Corn Palace was more on my way to Dale’s farm and Omaha.  It was cool, but probably not worth going out of your way to see.  It’s in Mitchel, SD, which definitely has an old timey western style main street.  I could decide if it was intentional to help attract tourists or if that’s just how it is.  There were real shops in these store fronts of the sort that gave the impression of authenticity including a number that were vacant.  Some tumbleweed blowing in the wind would have fit right in.  I’ve never really been on such a street.  It looked like a movie set or amusement park façade.  The corn palace takes like 5 minutes to see.  I’m glad I saw it.  It’s cool, but quick.  I had over an hour to kill to avoid getting to Dale’s farm before he did, so I had a local beer in a bar.  I talked to 2 bar tenders.  Briana is a traveling thespian who is in town for a while but moving to Cincinnati soon.  Jake, or was it Joe … Josh?  I’m terrible with names I only hear once.  Jake is a 5th generation South Dakotan.  He has also travelled, but like Kate and Tessa, returned home.  It just goes to show you there’s something good and worthwhile about anywhere.  Jake’s ancestors were the furthest west Caucasians at one point.  They had thousands of acres and were an influential family.  As happens all too often, people let their ugly side out when relatives die, and it was all lost a couple of generations ago in the squabbling.  People can be horrible.  When you find yourself in that situation, and you probably will, please behave yourself.

Omaha

There’s a campground right on the Missouri River, just 15 minutes outside of town that costs only $15 per night including electric.  It’s a perfect place to recharge my batteries metaphorically speaking.  I’ve spent weeks in a few different places on this trip, but it’s only been a day or two at a time since Cincinnati.  I needed a break from the road, so I decided to stay here through the weekend.  It’s true that leaving great people behind can take a toll, but so can leaving a great place.  I’m still glad to be traveling.  It’s fantastic and I’m thrilled to be able to continue, but it’s also more taxing than I expected.

I arrived the afternoon of Thursday, May 19 and just relaxed.  On Friday I took a scenic drive through the Loess Hills of western Iowa.  Loess is fine silt from when the entire area was at the bottom of a prehistoric sea.  It has blown in the winds, compacted, and been stabilized by vegetation.  It’s actually a source of local debate whether or not to preserve it.  It is pretty to drive through.  The regional landscape is more interesting generally speaking than I expected.  The stereotype is that it’s completely flat.  It’s not.  There are lots of gently rolling hills and formations like these loess hills.  I tried to tour a national forest, but there were no roads into it so I just drove around the hills for a while, continuing my relaxing stay.

After that, I finally found my way to Modern Love, Omaha’s one vegan restaurant.  Isa Chandra Moskowitz owns and operates it.  She’s a famous vegan chef.  I have a couple of cook books that she co-authored with Terry Hope Romero.  I’ve met Terry a couple of times at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary and have some of her solo cook books as well.  I was looking forward to trying the food at Modern Love and was hoping I’d get to say hello to Isa.  As it happens, she was working as the hostess that night.  There were many reservations, so I sat at the front window bar near the door and got to chat with Isa during my entire meal.  She’s super cool.  People are pretty curious about my trip, but we also got to talk about her move from Omaha to Brooklyn and opening the new Modern Love there.  We exchanged information and ended up hanging out again on Sunday.  I went back to Modern Love for brunch and she joined me.  Other friends of hers joined us briefly as well.  They all seemed great.  After brunch, we hung out for a couple of hours.  It was pretty low key, exactly what I was looking for during my time there.  Isa is a very interesting person, but since she’s a public figure, I’ll share less than I might normally do in the blog.  We connected well, and I hope we stay in touch.

Omaha, like everywhere I’ve been, has a lot to offer.  It’s another great example of an incorrect preconceived notion that it’s all just boring farm land out here.  Sure, it’s no Boston, NYC, or LA, but it’s still cool.  There are parks, art museums, music.  I had no idea that famous bands and band members live here or were originally from here.  The band I saw with Casey in New Orleans, 311, is from here.  Members of bands I currently listen to and have seen live as recently as last year live here.  I checked out a few more things on Saturday, but then just packed up and left on Monday.  I’m getting excited to see some of the bigger national parks coming up soon on my trip and to visit the west coast.  I’ve spent enough time in the Midwest now, especially if you count all the way back to Tennessee.  I get the gist.  It’s all really nice.  There are kind people and interesting culture.  Naturally, everything except the farms is on a smaller scale than the big cities, coasts, and mountainous areas, but I get why people live here.  I’ve enjoyed the culture, and the quirky oddities as well, like the worlds largest ball of stamps right here in Boys Town, another truly inspirational place by the way.    Old Market in Omaha was also lots of fun with cool record shops, labyrinthine vintage toy and candy stores, and cool bars, too.  Omaha, and the Midwest in general score higher in my book than I ever thought they would.  While I can’t say that I’ve exhausted any city’s or state’s offerings, I do feel as though I have a clear understanding of the region as a whole and am ready for the next part of my adventure to begin.

Sand Hills & Transition

Leaving Omaha, the last thing I wanted to do was get on the highway for 7 hours and head west.  Often, the highways make the most sense.  In certain parts of the country, I can’t trust GPS to take me on RV friendly rural routes.  Unexpected low bridges and narrow winding roads are a real concern.  It’s a different story out here.  I had heard about the Nebraska Sandhills, a left over from the bottom of the sea here or perhaps just an ancient desert, I’m not sure.  A wide open scenic byway passes straight through it.  About 300 miles west of Omaha, there’s a National Forest preserving part of the region.  It’s apparently our nation’s largest continuous grassland, about 20,000 square miles.  The sand feels just like beach sand, different than loess, with seemingly tougher grasses stabilizing it.  An unending sea of these green dunes extends to the horizon.  At times, they’re relatively uniform in size and spacing.  Elsewhere, they are less uniform and rise hundreds of feet into the air.  It’s a strange sight to see, stunning and peaceful.  The land unsuitable for crops, but appears to be widely used for grazing.  I passed almost no cars along Nebraska Rt 2 with small towns spread far apart.  End to end its hundreds of miles long.  The campground at the national forest is nice and also very cheap.  It’s a quiet restful place, so rather than blow right through the Sandhills, I spent the night.  I’m writing this now from the campsite picnic bench.  It’s a beautiful 75 degree day under clear blue skies, and the birds are singing.  Peggy is standing guard and Hank alternatingly hunts and naps under the trailer.  I went for a swim in the Middle Loop River and took Peggy for a wade across its wide, flat, sandy bottom.  The current is a bit swift, so we didn’t venture into the deeper center.  Rt 2 follows the path of this river for the most part, along side the train tracks I mentioned.  Riding to the western part of the state, you see more freight trains and coal than cars and trucks.  The river adds to the scenery in varied ways, pooling in small ponds, large lakes, and creating wide flat flood plains with the occasional swamp.  What a perfect day for a drive.

As I got to the western edge of the state, the Sandhills ended abruptly, almost startlingly so, returning me to the expansive flat farmland you might expect, but here, in the distance, there seemed to be some kind of ridge.  As I approached, towering eroded buttes and bluffs came into view, the sort you see in Sedona.  I had no idea Nebraska had such features.  I headed for Scottsbluff National Monument to check it out before heading north to the South Dakota Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and more.  This feels like a real transition point in the trip, the start of a leg of the trip full of famous national parks.  This is some of the area I’ve been most excited about seeing, and I’m greatly looking forward to it.

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