Its 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.
Its the kind of weather that should make a traveler relax, breathe in and think: Right, this is where Im supposed to be, enjoying unexpected sun and sweeping prairie views.
I cant do that, though. Because Im 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 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 youve made it to the heart of everything, look at how far you have to go to get anywhere else.
I dont 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 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 in 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 wasnt 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 (Id made the cross-country trek once before) and Steinbeck. Id 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 dont have a dog, and decided against borrowing one. I brought my mother along with me instead. I also couldnt 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.
On the road again
I planned to leave from Vermont, pick up Steinbecks 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 didnt have a GPS, and some other judgmental things about my life choices.
The real Fargo
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 Lewiss boyhood home of Sauk Centre, Minn. And finally, North Dakotas largest city.
Today, most people dont come to Fargo on literary historical reveries. They come to shop. Thats 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 proceeded to avoid the enormous West Acres mall and the checkerboard of wheat fields turned big-box stores entirely.
Instead, I wandered downtown Fargos 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 Id 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: Its 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 wed taken when I was a kid, Id tried to pretend not to be a tourist, embarrassed at being an AAA-guide-toting stranger in a strange land. I realized that Ive 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 didnt 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.
Smack dab in the middle
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 wasnt 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 youre at the center of something. We stopped for lunch at Rockin Relics, an antiques store/diner, and enjoyed cheeseburger chowder. Thats a middle-of-it-all delicacy. Theres 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. Ive been to the ocean, and I realize when Im 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 and the flags of the United States, Canada and Mexico flap wildly behind it.
Rugby was a diversion from Steinbecks 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 Paulas 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 and news from across the state.
Another manís dream voyage
I ended my journey by learning about someone elses journey, enshrined at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minn., 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.
We watched a documentary about the ships 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 was diagnosed with leukemia. After his death, his children continued the project and eventually made the trip hed dreamed about.
The journey ends
Steinbeck didnt 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 wasnt one of the great mysterious places of the world, as hed imagined.
I went to Fargo to follow Steinbeck. Now I want to go back.