Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Flat Fargo August 24, 2012

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This water tower is located in West Fargo, an area of shopping malls, restaurants, Big Box stores, hotels, etc. The tower is a rare vertical structure, breaking the flat, horizontal landscape of the Fargo area.

I THOUGHT I KNEW FLAT having grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie where the land seems to stretch far and unbroken into flat infinity.

But not until this year, when my family traveled thrice nearly 300 miles north and west to Fargo, North Dakota, and back did I truly understand the definition of flat.

A train rumbles through the northwest side of Fargo near the airport and the campus of North Dakota State University. No, this is not a hill. I simply did not have my horizon straight as I photographed this train while traveling along a city street.

I doubt I have ever seen a city as flat as Fargo. You know, when you spill a glass of milk on the table how the liquid flows fast and free over the edge of the table. Well, that table would be Fargo. The milk would be the Red River of the North. I totally understand now why this city is so prone to flooding each spring.

A herd of buffalo photographed along Interstate 94 east of Fargo, which places them in Minnesota.

I swear, if I had driven to the western edge of Fargo, I would see the world’s largest buffalo—26-foot tall, 60-ton concrete Dakota Thunder sculpted in 1959 by Elmer Petersen—90 miles away atop a hill in Jamestown’s Frontier Village. I saw the buffalo about 20 years ago while en route to a Helbling family reunion in Mandan/Bismarck, cities which actually do have hills. I think.

Inside the NDSU Memorial Union, I photographed this sculpture of a bison, the university’s mascot, in June.

About those buffalo… The flat and forever Dakota plains provide ideal grazing grounds for these massive creatures, or at least once did. Dakotans are proud of their native bison as evidenced in business names; art like “Herd About the Prairie” in Fargo; and even a bison mascot for North Dakota State University where my son is now a student.

A bus bench and sidewalk in West Fargo draw the eye west toward the horizon and the setting sun.

My apologies for momentarily edging away from that flat land issue. Even I, a girl of the prairie, find the Fargo flatness somewhat unsettling. I’d like a few more mature trees, especially on the sprawling growth west side of the city, upon which to rest my eyes. I’d like a few rises in the land, other than the rare man-made ones, to break the monotony of a straight horizontal line.

I expect that if I lived in Fargo, I’d adjust and think nothing of the flat landscape. But when you’re a visitor, you notice things like the lay of the land and the wind, oh, the winds of Fargo.

Just off Interstate 29 a flock of sheep graze pastureland as part of North Dakota State University’s Sheep Experiment Station.

Throughout West Fargo you’ll see open patches of land like this clover field next to the Fairfield Inn, where we’ve stayed twice. The hotel has strong horizontal lines like most structures in Fargo.

A fenceline and cornfield in Fargo, near (or part of, I’m not sure) the NDSU campus. More horizontal lines…

Paradise in Fargo, the Paradiso Mexican Restaurant, that is.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling