As I explored the eastern edge of North and South Dakota last week, never wandering far from Interstate 29, I thought a lot about Iowa. About how most travelers drive straight through the state – either east-west along I-80 or north-south along I-35 – or worse, fly right over, and either way, never see what Iowa has to offer.
The Dakotas, as I was reminded on my travels, would make more geographic sense if they were East and West Dakota, dividing the states into the “wild west” – home to Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the Badlands – and the flat, agricultural, eastern side that’s prone to powerful blizzards.
I spent one night each in Brookings, S.D., Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D. (all three interstate towns, two of them college towns). Each of the cities far exceeded my expectations.
We started out in Brookings, home of South Dakota State University. It’s a nice campus…not beautiful, but tidy and well laid out. Brookings has excellent signage and seems to have a good sense of community. It’s the fourth-largest city in South Dakota but only has a population of 22,000, so it’s not huge. There’s the usual highway chain restaurants and motels, but there’s also a nice downtown. I was taken by the number of theatre/arts/cultural/museum offerings, both in town and on campus. There’s a cool-looking children’s museum, where I snapped this photo of a dinosaur peering over the trees. There’s also a garden and arboretum on the campus.
The next day we drove the rest of the way to Fargo, a total of about 7 hours from Ames. We were headed there for work on our VISIONS Across America project. Fargo is the state’s largest city.
We arrived on a Sunday, and the downtown area was pretty quiet. We walked up and down the main street and I peered into a lot of shop windows, wishing they were open. Even most of the restaurants were closed, so I guess we were there excessively early.
Downtown Fargo is filled with retro neon signs and historic architecture. There’s the Fargo Theatre, a restored 1926 movie palace with an original vaudeville stage. The Coen Brothers’ 1996 film “Fargo” had its debut at that theatre. (And the infamous woodchipper from the movie is on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center.) We ate lunch at Atomic Coffee because it was the only place open – but it was charming and offered good coffee, sandwiches, and desserts.
By the time we finished with our work and returned to the downtown area, it was a little livelier. (I wish we had been there on a day other than Sunday, because I missed the shops entirely.) We had a couple of beers and a good cheese plate at the HoDo Lounge inside the historic Hotel Donaldson. It was there I learned the meaning of the word “pescatarian” – it describes a vegetarian who also eats fish and seafood. I learned this from a fellow diner, who offered, when I jokingly said I was raised Presbyterian, that perhaps they eat only Jesus fish. People in Fargo seem to have a heightened sense of humor.
The weather in Fargo was lovely the day we were there, but Fargo is often voted the Worst Weather City by the Weather Channel viewers. Winters there are long and cold, with powerful winds and snow, making for serious blizzards. And in the spring, all that snow melts and the river floods.
Fargo is home to North Dakota State University, a really lovely campus with some great architecture and a cool bison statue at the entrance. Like Brookings to the south, Fargo and the NDSU campus seem to provide a mecca for art, theatre, and culture in eastern North Dakota.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.
We left Fargo the next day to drive back south to Groton, S.D., to meet with an Iowa State alumni couple. Groton is a very small farming community with, from what I could tell, one restaurant/bar, the requisite Subway (does every small town in America now have a Subway?), and one grocery store. I was tempted to drive 15 miles out of the way to Aberdeen because it has an attraction called Storybook Land, which includes The Land of Oz. Apparently L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, lived in Aberdeen from 1888 to 1891. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? I’m also sort of disappointed that we didn’t stop at the International Vinegar Museum – “the world’s first and only museum that is dedicated to the wonder that is vinegar” according to its website – in nearby Roslyn, S.D. I’m serious! It sounds really cool.
But we wanted to get to Sioux Falls. There’s plenty to do there – you could make a weekend of it.
First and foremost, there’s Falls Park, 123 acres of rocky waterfalls, open spaces, and historic structures. (Each second, according to the promotional brochure, an average of 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the course of the falls.) There are walking trails, remains of the Queen Bee Mill, the Falls Overlook Café, and a five-story viewing tower.
In nearby downtown Sioux Falls, you’ll find SculptureWalk, an art project that began in 2004. There’s also shopping, dining, nightlife, and entertainment all within easy walking distance. We peeked into Minerva’s restaurant and deemed it a little too spendy, but tempting, and we walked through Zandbroz Variety store, which is far more artsy and eclectic than its name implies. We settled on a local tavern called Skelly’s.
Summer in Sioux Falls is filled with events, much like Des Moines. There are street musicians Friday and Saturday nights from June through August, First Friday celebrations, Restaurant Week, loft tours, downtown block parties, moonlight movies, horse and carriage rides, and a Hot Summer Nites festival. And there’s a free Sioux Falls Trolley to take you where you want to go. Everything you’d want to know about “DTSF” (downtown Sioux Falls) is at http://www.dtsf.com/
On our way back to Ames, we zigzagged through northwest Iowa, stopping in LeMars (disappointing) and Cherokee, population 5,900 – a town I’ll have to go back to visit for two reasons. The first is the Sanford Museum and Planetarium, which has exhibits on archaeology, art, astronomy, geology, history, natural history, and paleontology, all in a very small space. The second is the Cherokee Mental Health Institute, formerly known as the Cherokee Lunatic Asylum. It’s super historic (built in 1902), has fabulous Kirkbride buildings, and looks like every psychiatric hospital you’ve seen in the movies – complete with the long, winding, tree-lined drive. The south wing is surrounded by razor wire and holds criminally insane and violent patients. Tours of the facility are apparently available, and a museum of original asylum artifacts and history is kept in the basement and is open to the public by appointment.