A Trip to Fargo for No Particular Reason

It’s mid-February, and we decided to make a drive up to Fargo, North Dakota. We had planned this in advance back in January, but it still feels spontaneous as I write this two days into our sojourn. Mainly because we did this without much of a plan, like most spontaneous adventures ought to strive for. And what does one do in Fargo?

Sunset gradient descending on several buildings and a stretch of desolate plain into the horizonImage of Fargo at Sunset from Jasper Hotel

Like most trips, we planned to try a few restaurants, a few bars, and a few landmark attractions. I found more notable landmarks on the way up to Fargo than I did in the city itself, whether this is a good thing or an example of my poor research skills for this city... yet to be determined. We found Ole the Viking in Alexandria, MN a nice, 28-foot tall statuesque creation on the bank Lake Agnes. There was also a great little diner there, too (Jan’s Place).

Fargo, though, doesn’t really have anything like this. Instead, its downtown map signage points out three places to take your picture, one of which is a Super Mario Bros. mural residing in an “alley” off Broadway Dr (literally the main drag of downtown). I posed with my dog hovering over the pipe, which was admittedly kind of funny from the right angle. Otherwise, what the city doesn’t tout but should, is a considerable amount of notable neons and legacy signs adorning its buildings, including notable ones like Fargo Linoleum Co, the Fargo theater, Empire Liquors bar, and for the “best gem in the city” (as the barista at Young Blood told us) brunch spot, Bernbaum’s. Notable landmarks, perhaps not, but I do love good signage, and bonus points if it’s neon. Their water tower had some extravagant art as well.

Glowing red neon light inside bar that reads Licensed Liquor Store No. 32The neon sign inside Empire Liquors Bar

I’ll also note that seeing ‘Fargo’ lettering everywhere has its own kind of gravitas, perhaps because of the cultural associations we impress upon the city (which, I suppose if you sum it up, includes the Coen brothers’ 90s flick, the current FX anthology show, and the erroneously-applied “Minnesota” accent, even though this is North Dakota, which naturally stems from the titular film). This isn’t to marginalize Fargo as merely a poking joke from the vantage of cultural media — it is also an important transportation hub, with Amtrak coursing through it and it seated at the intersection of Interstates 94 and 29. The Air National Guard is there, too. And there is a thematic Nordic undertone to several buildings and naming conventions that we couldn’t quite put our finger on, but I’m sure there’s something there ancestrally. They do have two sister cities (Hamar, Norway and Vimmerby, Sweden).

But overall, there’s kind of the bummer with Fargo — and I don’t say this lightly, because I love a good small city visit, but there’s a lack of character here. You can build up a sumptuous fantasy about its barren location on the edge of the Great Plains, but when you get here, it’s sadly drab. Don’t get me wrong, the people are friendly and the downtown is fairly lively, but its weaknesses in expressing any level of cultural spirit are evident at every turn, and you eventually wish there was something more to grasp. Maybe it’s because it’s February and we’re in the middle of a confusingly boring winter in the midwest (no snow, lousy March-like brownish landscapes, and sunny but shitty 20s temps). But aside from some neat coffee shops (Young Blood and Atomic, as well as the yet-to-try Twenty Below Coffee), a notable hotel (The Jasper), and truly fiendish dive bars (Empire Liquors hits the spot), there just isn’t much to stick around for. Maybe we were hanging in the wrong areas, but I really didn’t get a sense of where to be.

Art deco style sign reading Bernbaums on side of buildingThe Bernbaum's Signage

This is also a driving city, no doubt, so it’s not really walkable except for the downtown area — the neighborhoods are connected by massive suburban-sized avenues buttressed by sparse strip malls that seem unwelcoming to walkability. And sure, I marked a smattering of spots to check out beyond this main drag (really wished we would have tried Sickies Garage), but I don’t know — we didn’t feel the pull of adventure here. There wasn’t enough city-cohesion. And we usually venture out in these places...

Anyway, there were several things we did enjoy, and more featured in my Fargo travel guide map here:

  • Jasper Hotel: Solid hotel with the right vibes, though it felt completely out of place in this city. It towers above nearly all the other buildings, which nets long-drawn vistas in the upper visitor floors. Lounge area is cozy, with a great restaurant on the first floor (Rosewild) serving breakfast through dinner most days.
  • Empire Tavern: Cash-only dive with a long bartop wrapping around to a cluttered rear of tables, slot machines, darts, and oddly arranged restrooms. Ah, but there is more than meets the eye here — we arrived mid-afternoon, and were handed a coupon for each drink we ordered. Then every ten minutes they announce a winner, who gets free drinks with their companion(s). Let me make this clear: any drink you want. We won twice in a row and it was the best feeling in the world.
  • Young Blood Coffee: Inviting spot just around the corner from the Broadway drag. Great, classic coffee menu with a few baked goods, and a comfortable space to hang. They also appeared to roast their own beans (kudos), and the packaging had a sassy artistic lilt, worth picking up if you’re in town.
  • Marge’s Diner: While we also did a good brunch at Bernbaums (order at the counter, get-your-plate-dropped-off-after-picking-a-seat kind of place), Marge’s had marvelous North Dakota charm and an appeal many of the other places didn’t. That warm accent was quietly heard all around us, and while the menu wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, the BLT hit nicely. The decor was also a tour de force of tchotchkes, miscellaneous art pieces, and colorfully mismatched wallpapers.
  • Zandbroz Variety: How can you not visit the local bookstore? This one is a gem, too. It’s a combo bookstore with a section for home decor, and a sneaky around-the-corner mini store-in-a-store featuring rows of old used books with a focus on the Great Plains. My wife picked up a 19th century Statutes of Minnesota tome that looks like something out of a museum. Fantastic.
  • And for a real weird time... there’s this steakhouse called 84 Italian Steakhouse inside the Radisson Hotel, that we were too tempted not to try. The vibe was so completely off we had to stay for a drink and dinner. It was dimly lit with an off-blue glow, with the music turned down to barely inaudible levels, and the seating arrangement (especially the bar location) feels like you’re intruding on the layout of the hotel rooms.
interior of bookstore lined with old books and classics, in what appears to be a hybrid bookstore and restaurant with boothsInside Zandbroz Variety bookstore

In summary, the trip was oddly worth it, but I can’t say it’s a destination unless you’re compelled to check it out for reasons unbeknownst to me (you’re a Fargo film enthusiast?). It’s not a bad weekend jaunt if you like in the Twin Cities, either, since this is only a 3.5 hour trip. It's magical in an overcast kind of way.

Otherwise, if you’re cruising through the plains, definitely take highway 90 through South Dakota instead and head to the Badlands and the Black Hills.

Egg on ball.

Egg painted on black concrete ball, sitting on a tiled sidewalk

Bayfield, WI from a perch on the Madeline Island ferry. Pleasant sojourn at the island for the weekend. Lots of grilled white fish accompanied by wine, Old Fashioneds, and beer.

Sunset with heavy clouds over Lake Superior water, with city of Bayfield, WI silhouetted in distance

Curly’s Bar up in Duluth was the perfect complement to a splendid dinner at New Scenic Cafe.

This is the right move. In this order. 🤌

Pile of pull-tabs on the ground with a stool in lower-half of frameOutside building with neon lettering for ‘Curly’s Bar’

The Tom Bihn Store

When we were planning our Pacific Northwest crawl and decided to head into Seattle for a few days to visit family, it was an inevitability that there would be a stop into the manufacturing facility (plus embedded retail store) of one my favorite bag brands, Tom Bihn.

Located south of downtown Seattle in the Industrial District, Tom Bihn sits inside a long building housing a number of other functions, like Two Beers Brewing Co., Fulcrum Coffee Roasters, and Seattle Cider. It's a quiet little spot amidst the bustle of trucks moving in and out of the area. All of Tom Bihn's bag manufacturing happens here, so there's significant space in the building to accommodate the materials and sewing of products. But they're also open Monday through Friday from 6:30 am - 3:00pm ("more or less") for walk-ins to check the place out and peruse available goods. All the items in the corner shop are the same ones tied to their website inventory, so you know exactly what to expect.

When we stepped inside, a fellow named Cody emerged from the manufacturing floor and greeted us. He happened to the same person who helped my wife get a faster delivery of her new Synik 30 bag in time for this very trip, so it was perfect that he was there the day we visited. The store is really just a few peg walls and a long table cutting through the middle of the space, where Cody brought in and laid out a few items in which we were interested in seeing various colors.

They've also set up a vertical mirror for you to check the fit and style on your person, and covered the border of it with customers' submitted photos of sporting their bags all around the world. Felt very restaurant 90s, and I loved it.

Ashley decided on picking up a Side Hustle in Ursa Ballistic, which ended up as a perfect travel companion as we marauded up the rest of the west coast into British Columbia. If you're a Tom Bihn fan, it's absolutely worth the trip into their HQ, even if you end up just getting a few more of their endlessly useful swivel double-carabiners. And if you're in the area, curious about quality, USA-built bags for almost any context, it's definitely worth the visit. I only wish we had more time to ask for a full tour of the facility and to check out the really neat fabrics/materials they have on deck (like Halcyon).

Winona - Small Town, College Vibes

An impromptu thought earlier last week: let’s visit Winona and check out a coffee shop that is up for sale near the campus. Which campus, we had no idea. We also didn’t know anything about Winona (though apparently the nation’s capitol of stained glass windows, okay). I knew it was down the river near La Crosse (where we had stayed a number of times on the way to Madison going back and forth for Ashley’s grad school), but… we’d never stopped here before.

So we saddled up a room at the Fairfield and headed down Saturday morning — predictably enough, right after a spring blizzard left the roads in absolute shit condition.

Winona is about a two hour drive southeast of the Twin Cities, smack on the Mississippi River (literally looks like an isthmus or island city), buttressed by the craggy hills that ride the water on either size of the Minnesota and Wisconsin border. Which creates a kind of off-kilter valley vibe.

And what a vibe this city is. It’s like one big pseudo-city neighborhood, about 20k in population strong (plus however many attend the three colleges scattered around its geography). An initial drive through the streets gives the impression of a small, rural mill town with a barely-hanging on downtown, but also energized by young collegiate folks marauding around town and keeping the bars up late into the night. Something felt strange about the whole place — it wasn’t as tightly centered as Red Wing, not quite as pretty as La Crosse, or as quaint as Northfield. It felt blasé. Maybe in a good way.

I’ll say this, though — they’ve got some gems here. Notably, one of the Winona State University parking lots has a solar panel yard atop it, the first we’ve seen in the states. Definitely the future — it shades the cars underneath and provides a wide berth for getting perfectly sun-drenched and powering whatever its connected to.

I indulged the afternoon at Island City Brewing, sipping a beer and reading a book outside on a park bench. Also walked the dog along a few avenues and paraded around an inland park for a while before she tired.

Ashley and I then dinner-dined at Nosh Scratch Kitchen, which was… fine — dimly lit, wild Mediterranean dishes, good bar. It adequately set up the night. Afterwards, we slinked into Gabby’s, which immediately made clear it was the de facto college bar. We slammed one drink each and left.

Then… it was to Broken World Records. A gamble. But what a place. Tiled overhang with lanterns above a ground-level bar, pulsing vibe lights, live band, locals nursing beers. Attitude. It was here that we settled into a few drinks and a shot and enjoyed the drama.

Next day wasn’t as kind of this place. The Lakeview Drive Inn was brutally terrible. Microwaved burger. Mushy fries. But great drive-up car service.

The heralded Blue Heron coffee and breakfast spot had the worst burnt latte we’ve ever had, and the peanut butter-topped chocolate cake was extraordinarily dry. We ate the frosting.

Mugby Coffee (the place that is for sale, or so we surmised from the commercial real estate description), was good, though. Nitro coffee, adequate. Latte, significantly better than Blue Heron. Plenty of space to stretch out.

Aside from a nice walk along the industrial river walk (Levee Park) with the dog to wrap things up, that’s about it.

We also didn’t see a single stained glass window. 🤷‍♂️


Scenes from Grand Marais


We did a pleasant jaunt up to Grand Marais for a few days, taking in the quiet small town before it braces for winter. Couple stand-out places:

  • Wunderbar: An earnest bar/restaurant whose campus is home to a glamp-ground with rentable tents/RVs as well. Great lighting and vibes.

  • Grandma Rays: Roomy dive bar. Only realized the clever play on the town’s name itself on our drive home.

  • Angry Trout: A worthy lunch spot; the prepared fish over salads were great, and the soups (chowder and chili) warmed us up. Everything about the place is curated or designed with sustainably in mind.

  • Tre Søstre: A beautiful set of vacation rentals that directly channel Scandinavian architecture. Warm, inclusive interiors, ample views of Grand Marais via windows and balconies, and a great gas fireplace won us over.