Further North than Fargo

Grand Forks, North Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

The word “quaint” is thrown around a lot these days. But by God, I’ve found a place so quietly charming that I can’t help but use it anyway. What is this little otherworld? It’s the riverside town of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and it’s not even 100 miles away from the Canadian border. (Yes, it’s further north than Fargo.)

Grand Forks has less than 60,000 residents (it’s the third largest city in the state); 30% of the population consists of students from University of North Dakota; downtown is a single, well-kept string of squat, brick buildings; and the handful of pubs where locals hang out function as all-in-one-sports-bar-mini-dance-club-casinos.

(I did visit one bar much removed from the main strip: a dingy, converted trailer on the outskirts of town that sold $2 shots from one-use plastic cups and offered free DiGiorno-style pizzas to groups of 5 or more customers. It was a Monday night and the round tables were mostly empty except for members of a rowdy adult co-ed softball team celebrating their latest victory.)

Woven into Grand Fork’s backstreets are all the quirks of Small Town America: honest expressions of individuality that break the monotony of daily life and define so many communities spread across America’s flyover states.

A hidden statue garden between apartment complexes boasts a little book exchange and wooden benches. An asphalt parking lot has been made over with bright street art. One optimistic restaurant offers an outdoor patio that can’t possibly be useful between the snowy months of September and April. The stone memorial by the bridge leading into Minnesota marks the height that the river reached when it flooded in 1997 and destroyed most of the historic, downtown area. A traffic light near town center has been out of service for months, the adjacent street blocked off by a plastic, orange barrier. At a locally owned coffee and tea shop called Urban Stampede, students in sweatpants mingle with farmers in blue jeans and dusty work boots. 

Shared smiles are frequent in this oasis of concrete, a cluster of humanity surrounded on all sides by endless big skies and flat farmscapes. The remoteness has fostered an underlying kind of solidarity of the stranded between residents; many locals are are friendly without prompting, welcoming and simply excited to meet visitors.

“So what brought you to Grand Forks?”

The question was never asked as a formality of small talk; people genuinely wanted to know why I was there. And I’m left wondering whether the curiosity flows from breathing in the crisp, unpolluted air of upstate North Dakota or tugging feeling that, when you stand at the city’s edge and stare into the plains of unknown nature before you, that you’re far, far away from the rest of society.

In this age of constant information overload, processed foods, and corporate sameness, it only makes sense that we end up craving the quaint: craft beers, pop-up gift stores with unique trinkets, simplicity, and fresh air. Things happen fast and the ability to slow down and relax is becoming more of a luxury. So when you’re looking to escape the modern rush, to travel far away to a land that will provide a special kind of culture shock, try out a place like Grand Forks.