She's Really Friendly: Just don't provoke her (Photo: Tim Murphy).New Salem, North Dakota—North Dakota never gets no respect. Even the friends we stayed with in Fargo came up empty when we asked for suggestions on what to do on our drive through the state. South Dakota at least has Rushmore and the Badlands; North Dakota has two cities(ish) on the Minnesota border, and some nuclear silos, if you're into that kind of thing. Even our road map from the state tourism board was running out of suggestions by the time we got to Bismarck.
But if you want to blame someone for the state's emptiness, don't blame North Dakota—blame the United States Senate, which brilliantly decided to split the relatively empty Dakota territory into two relatively emptystates for political reasons.
Anyways, to compensate for its lack of destinations, North Dakotans have, I think, informally embarked on an elaborate mission to construct the largest sculpture of every animal found on the northern plains. Before we found "New Salem Sue," the world's largest Holstein cow at 38x50 feet, we passed signs for, among others, the world's largest sandhill crane, and the world's largest turtle. It's like Noah's Ark on HGH. And while I'm not suggesting any sort of cause-and-effect, I should also note that North Dakota's the last great place in America to find a job. So it's got that going for it.
Not this one: Some cities do cows. Some cities do bears. Bemidji did beavers. Cue controversy (Photo: Tim Murphy).Bemidji, Minnesota—The most controversial piece of public art in the state of Minnesota sits on the corner of 4th Street and Beltrami Ave., in downtown Bemidji. For now. When I asked for directions at the Blockbuster outside town, I was told it had been moved. When I asked again at the supermarket, I was told it was no longer there. "But it's exactly what they say it is," said the teenaged boy at the deli counter, stifling a laugh.
"To be honest, I don't really understand why it's so controversial," say Christine Lundquist, sitting on a bench with her back to the controversy. "I guess they decided freedom of expression was no longer in the Constitution. That's how Deb wanted to paint it, and that's how it should be."
"I sit out here and read a lot. I eavesdrop—and I've only heard one negative comment. They said, 'That's disgusting!'" She rolls her eyes. "I mean, obviously it's a vagina…"
Duluth, Minnesota—With the Iron Range fading, the Atlantic's westernmost deep-water port has seen its population fall from 107,000 in 1960, to 86,000 today. The best way to see Duluth is to climb to the top of the abandoned ski jump in the Chester Bowl, the city's sprawling, forested central park. But failing that, you could do worse than going to Leif Erickson Park and looking southeast—Lake Superior permitting.
Bemidji, Minnesota—Our route north from New Orleans has more or less paralleled the Mississippi River; at last count, we've crossed the river 20 times and seen river towns in their every make and model—rural Delta towns, abandoned junction cities, manufacturing hubs and distribution centers, gambling ports, and whatever exactly you'd call New Orleans. But all of that ends today, when we'll cross over for the 21st and final time on our way to Lake Itasca, where my sources tell me the Mississippi actually begins.
As it happens, the man who finally figured this out*, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, also kept a blog of sorts, and it's all available for free on Google Books. Check it out; it's what I'll be reading for the next day or so.
*I should say, "the white man who finally figured this out." Schoolcraft could have been spared the considerable stress of the expedition if someone would have just bothered to ask the Native Americans. Or if he'd gotten it right the first time he explored the region, instead of falsely concluding that the river began in Lake Cass. But then he probably woudn't have gotten the sweet book deal, either, so I guess you take the good with the bad.