North Dakota is not a place I hear much about. I was curious about what I'd find. After the running events of this runcation weekend, Traci and I were able to spend a few hours at Bonanzaville USA in addition to having a Viking experience at the Hjemkomst Center in nearby Moorhead, Minnesota.
I am starting to notice a pattern to our travel itinerary when doing these runcation weekends at some of the less populated regions of the U.S.. We normally have a really early flight from a Washington, D.C. area airport to Chicago for a tight connection to our destination city. Our trip to Fargo, North Dakota initially looked like it was going to buck the trend slightly but it managed to align more or less to the pattern. We were originally scheduled to fly from Washington Dulles at 6 AM to Chicago O’Hare where we would have to wait for three hours for our flight to Fargo. A day before our trip, we found out our 6 AM flight from Dulles had been moved to 8 AM. We were initially happy with this change since we would not have to awaken in the middle of the night to get to the airport. This also meant we would only have to wait an hour instead of 3 hours in Chicago for our flight to Fargo. All was good until we boarded the plane at Dulles and the captain announced we would be taking a different route to Chicago to avoid a storm. As a result, we needed to wait for the fuel truck to add enough fuel to the plane so that the pilot could fly the longer route. This delayed our take-off and had me wondering if we would have enough time to make our connection in Chicago. Fortunately, the delay and the longer route still got us to Chicago in time to make our next flight. We actually had a few minutes before our flight to Fargo started boarding. During that time, we chatted with others who were headed to Fargo to check off another state in their quests to run a marathon or half marathon in all 50 states. We met a couple from New Jersey for who North Dakota would be their 49th state. They planned to complete their 50th the following month in Hawaii. Nice!
We also had a surprise meeting with our friend Lisa who was also headed to Fargo. Lisa is the real deal when it comes to distance running. She has done over 100 marathons in addition to completing all 50 states. She runs ultra-marathons - including 100-milers! She has qualified for and run the Boston Marathon. Her accomplishments in distance running go on and on but the most fascinating one for me was that she completed the 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days challenge! You sleep on the plane; wake up on a new continent; run a marathon – wash, rinse, and repeat. Incredible! Lisa was on our flight and would be running in Fargo. We were shocked when she told us she would only be running the half marathon as opposed to her normal full marathon. Besides, she was going to Fargo to attend the wedding of her runner friends who would be getting married before the start of the marathon.
The 1.5-hour flight between Chicago and Fargo was the only flight on which Traci and I were seated together. To save money on her quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, Traci normally books us as “basic economy” on United Airlines which does not necessarily mean we will be seated together. Often one of us ends up sitting in the very last row of the airplane. Although I slept during most of the flight to Fargo, I awoke as we starting to land. Looking out of the airplane window, I saw nothing but miles and miles of flat farmland until just before we landed. This should have been no surprise given 90% of North Dakota is farmland.
Fargo's Hector International Airport is a small airport. We picked up our rental car (black Dodge Charger) from the lot just outside the door and away we went. Our first stop was the Fargodome sports arena which was just a 5-minute drive from the airport. As we were exiting the airport, I saw the strangest cloud I have ever seen. I saw it in the distance of this unbelievably flat land. I was wondering if I was looking at a distant tornado. The cloud was dark gray and shaped like the tip of a large arrow pointing at the ground. As for us, the weather was a comfortable, overcast, mid-60 degree (Fahrenheit) day.
The Fargodome is located on the campus of North Dakota State University - home of the North Dakota State Bison football team. Bison emblems, statues, and paraphernalia are everywhere in Fargo. I was hoping I would see a live bison during our stay but realized that would be really weird to see one roaming on the city streets. The Fargodome was the site of the runners’ packet pick-up and the runners’ expo. Traci would be doing the evening 5K run that Friday in addition to the half marathon the next morning. While at the Fargodome, we spent time visiting the booths of the runners’ expo. I enjoyed this expo mainly because of all the food samples the vendors handed out. In addition to the typical healthy stuff like energy drinks and nutrition bars, there was a good representation of the not-so-healthy such as chips and ‘thanks for visiting our booth’ candy. Our favorite was the man with the bags of licorice. We tried to visit his booth again after making our first round of booth visits but he was gone when we returned.
Fargo is not a huge city. You can get to just about anywhere in the city in less than 15 minutes by car. You are also never far away from the sight or sound of a freight train. In downtown Fargo, you won't find skyscrapers. Instead, you'll find several blocks of small businesses, restaurants, boutique shops, bars, and entertainment venues. One of Fargo's famous entertainment venues is the Fargo Theater. We were sure to take pictures of the famous sign.
It was a Friday afternoon when we visited downtown and the streets we not very busy at the time. In fact, we were able to park on the street in front of the restaurant we chose for our lunch spot - NoBull Smokehouse. I'm finally starting to notice a trend with the food cravings of Traci and me when we travel to a new U.S. city. We seem to crave barbeque as opposed to pizza which we seem to crave when we travel overseas. The NoBull Smokehouse is a cool-looking restaurant with its red-eyed bull head over the bar. I loved the blues recordings playing while we dined. I enjoyed the ribs but was less enthusiastic about the beef brisket.
Traci normally takes the lead on booking flights and hotels for these runcation getaways in the U.S.. She is great at finding deals on flights and hotels. We used two hotels for our Fargo weekend. Both were Marriott properties and thus we were able to use our points for free stays at the two hotels. Our first hotel was Delta Hotels Fargo. Traci booked here mainly because she was intrigued by the picture of the curvy water slide of their indoor pool. The hotel is located in a suburban commercial area across the street from the West Acres Mall. There were many chain restaurants and hotels in the vicinity. The area looked like just about every other suburban shopping area I've seen across the country. In fact, Fargo's slogan is "North of normal". For us, it is the above normal experiences that make our trips memorable. We could see we would have to put in some effort to find something north of normal in Fargo. This was a challenge we were willing to face. But first, we needed to make sure Traci participated in the running events for which she registered.
enjoying the waterslide at Delta Hotels Fargo
Traci got changed into her running clothes and then we drove back to the Fargodome so that she could run the Friday Night 5K that began at 6:30. The race began and ended inside the Fargodome. Traci enjoyed the run on the flat streets of the area. It was a cool, cloudy day. The rain held off for the most part with the exception of a spritz here and there. Leaving the Fargodome after the race was a bit of a headache. With several thousand runners participating in the 5K and other runners coming and leaving to pick up their race packets, we needed a lot of patience getting out of the parking lot. For dinner that evening, we had Italian cuisine at Olive Garden near our hotel.
As is the norm for runners, Traci had to be up really early on race day. Since my job is to take photos and carry her stuff, I had to get up early as well. Some of the women from one of Traci's online running groups were staying at the same hotel as us. They agreed to meet in the lobby of the hotel at 5:45 AM (Ugh!) in order to walk to the nearest pick-up point to catch one of the complimentary shuttles to the Fargodome for the race. We abandoned the shuttle idea when we saw how hard it was raining. No one wanted to get drenched walking in the rain and waiting for a shuttle. Therefore, we used our rental cars to drive to the Fargodome. Fortunately, we left early enough such that we only had a minor traffic delay at the exit ramp for the Fargodome. Other than that, I found a great parking spot.
As I mentioned earlier, a wedding of a running couple was scheduled to take place at 6:30 AM before the start of the marathon events. We were there early enough to witness the nuptials from the floor of the Fargodome with several thousand other runners. The ceremony was also shown on the jumbotrons of the arena. Everyone cheered for the couple.
Like the 5K, the marathon and half marathon began and ended inside the Fargodome. This was great for a spectator like me. It was only a temporary relief for the runners. The weather conditions the runners faced outside were cold and heavy rain. I ventured outside with my umbrella long enough to get a picture of Traci running near the beginning of the course. I spent the rest of the time waiting inside the arena where there was warmth, a band playing, and concessions. One of the jumbotrons inside the arena broadcast live footage of the frontrunners of the marathon. Another screen later showed runners as they approached the Fargodome to finish their race. Finally, the largest jumbotron screen showed runners as they crossed the finish line. I managed to take photos of Traci on the jumbotrons in addition to a live shot inside the arena as she approached the finish line. I was in awe of Traci's determination to slosh through 13.1 miles of miserable cold and rain.
With that, North Dakota became state #19 in her quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. With so many runners working towards the same goal, these running events are starting to become like reunions. We were surprised to run into our college friend Kim (Great to see you, L'il Sis!). She and her friends made the 9-hour drive from Chicago the previous day and would be driving back to Chicago immediately after the race. Wow! We also ran into Traci's cousins Chrystal and Jenny who flew up from Georgia to run the half marathon. Then, of course, there were people from Traci's running clubs - some of whom we've hung out with around the country and internationally. Although I have no desire to take up running as a hobby, I do love the camaraderie of the runners and their love of travel.
Three of the women from Traci's running club rode back to the hotel with us. They invited us to join them for lunch after everyone had a chance to get cleaned up. We joined them and others at a restaurant called Sickies Garage. It is a wings and burgers joint that incorporates an auto garage theme. The place was very busy. I ordered wings and tater tots. I noticed tater tots are a popular menu item in Fargo. Traci ordered the most interesting meal of our table. She ordered a grilled chicken sandwich that is served between a glazed doughnut instead of bread buns. I took a bite out of curiosity. The sweet and savory flavor was a little too confusing for my taste buds but fun nonetheless.
chicken sandwich on a glazed doughnut at Sickies Garage
We had a good time socializing with our new friends but Traci and I had to skip out before everyone else so that we could work on the other goal of this 50-state journey - sightseeing. Traci and I agreed that we would make an effort to see more of the places we visit than just the runners' expo and the race course. Traci leaves me in charge of planning our sightseeing agenda. The rain had stopped by the time we left the restaurant but the temperature had dropped into the 40's Fahrenheit and the wind had picked up causing an uncomfortable wind chill (and this is the month of May!). Given these conditions, I decided to postpone our outdoor excursion until the next day. Instead, I decided we would make the short trip over to Minnesota to check out some Vikings - no, not the football team. We were headed to the Hjemkomst (pronounced YEM-komst) Center located just across the Red River in Fargo's sister city - Moorhead, Minnesota. It was just a 5-minute drive from Sickies Garage Restaurant.
The Hjemkomst Center is run by the Clay County Historical Society. Northern plains states such as North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were where many immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany settled in the late 1800’s. This culture is what really made the Hjemkomst Center an interesting visit for me. One of the main attractions here is the huge Viking ship that stands in the main hall of the center. Back in the 800’s and 900’s AD, Viking rulers were sometimes buried with their ship and other belongings. In 1971, Bob Asp of Moorhead, MN became fascinated by the Gokstad, a burial ship from circa 800 that was unearthed in Norway in 1880. Bob and his brother Bjarne began the time-consuming project of building a full-size replica of the ship. They succeeded and even sailed it from Duluth, MN via the Great Lakes and North Atlantic to Norway in 1982. They donated their ship to the Hjemkomst Center where it stands today. It was really impressive to see the work that went into realizing the dream of building the ship.
The other major attraction at the Hjemkomst Center is the stave church. It is a full-size replica of the Hopperstad Stave Church that stood in Vik, Norway for 900 years. The construction of the replica at the Hjemkomst Center was a labor of love headed by Gaylord “Guy” Paulson, a Midwesterner who was inspired by another stave church replica and wanted to honor the Norwegian heritage of the Midwest.
Traci and I joined the 4 PM tour of the church that day. I loved all the wood carvings of the structure. There is also a nice covered walkway that goes around the exterior of the church. Inside, as I was checking out the altar, I noticed there was some Viking weaponry hiding behind there. Our guide told us that it is used during the annual Midwest Viking Festival that takes place on the premises of the Hjemkomst Center. She let me pick up the sword and shield. Both were heavier than I expected. I imagine a person would be very tired after using them in a battle.
There were other exhibits in the Hjemkomst Center. Not all of them were related to the Scandinavian heritage of the area. I spent time walking through the War, Flu, & Fear exhibit. It focused on the involvement of Clay County residents in World War I. The copies of soldier letters and instructions on surviving gas attacks really brought home the horrors of war.
While I was checking out the War, Flu, & Fear exhibit, Traci was on a different floor checking out the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit. She said it was very nicely done. We did not get a chance to see all four floors of the Hjemkomst Center. We had arrived an hour and a half before closing. The little I had seen during our visit impressed me. The Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County has done a fine job in telling its story.
Before we left the Hjemkomst Center, I just had to try an interesting snack I saw in the gift shop - honey sticks. These are straws of flavored honey. We bought a peppermint one and a cinnamon one. I tried the peppermint. It was very tasting but all the sweetness actually made me feel slightly light-headed for a few minutes.
Back across the bridge we went to Fargo to make our way to our next hotel. This time we were using our Marriott points for a free stay at the Element Hotel. It was not far from the Delta Hotel where we stayed the previous night. It was still in the commercial area but next to a residential neighborhood. I really liked the Element. It is an extended-stay hotel; therefore, our room had a kitchenette along with major appliances and eating utensils.
We did not spend much time in the hotel after checking in. Traci wanted to check out some of the stores in the nearby shopping centers. Along the way, we came across Gigi's Cupcakes. We bought a box containing four types of their delicious creations. We saved them for our after-dinner dessert. For dinner, we ate at the Porter Creek Hardwood Grill. They are known for their rotisserie chicken. Traci and I shared the Fire Roasted Rotisserie Chicken with maple bourbon glaze entree - yum!
Our final day in Fargo started with the hotel's complimentary breakfast buffet and then it was out into the miserable weather to get in our last bit of sightseeing before our flight home. It was raining once again but not very hard. The temperature was in the low 40's but it was the wind chill that had us hurrying to the car.
Our first stop was at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center. In addition to books and souvenirs, there is a wood chipper there from the movie Fargo. I never saw the movie but we took a photo by the wood chipper anyway. I learned an interesting fact from one of the friendly employees of the visitor center when she saw us looking at the "Best for Last" sign hanging there. She told us that North Dakota is often the last state people visit on their quest to visit all 50 states. Well, this is obviously not going to be the case from Traci and me. North Dakota was state #19 for Traci's goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states. Nonetheless, the sign in the visitor had me thinking about what our 50th state will be. Continue...