Wednesday, July 8
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when somebody says “North Dakota?” I think of prairies, sod houses, buffalo, and the movie Fargo. Apparently, from what I’m gathering– and I’m still on the plane– the reality is kind of different. Granted, we’re simply going to Bismarck (via a flight to Minneapolis and then an 8-hour drive in aunt Bunny’s SUV) for Kirk’s family reunion, and that’s all wonderful– Kirk’s family has never been less than stellar– but I am getting the impression that I’ll have to be buck up and act like a cowboy rather than like the over-indulged spoiled brat that you have come to know and love. And this has nothing to do with the family reunion; after all, I’m Tusacn, and the blood of nefarious Medicis and Borgias courses through my veins, and we all know what they were like. Instead, my mind is akimbo at the prospect of a trip to Medora.
Medora is even further west than Bismarck. Bismarck, after eight hours’ driving, will seem like Ultima Thule, but there’s a lot more beyond that town and we’ll be driving towards it. Medora is almost to Montana, which is almost to China. Do you see my point?
In Medora they stage a Broadway-style revue which, via music, dance and yodeling, covers the history of The Flickertail State. I’ve looked it up online, and it’s very well done– I’m sincerely looking forward to it– but it’s the meat and the horses that are beginning to give me pause. (Even if I am well into my second gin and tonic up here in Business Class. Don’t you love it? In those halcyon pre-politically correct days, the seat I’m comfortably lolling in used to be known as First Class, which is exactly how one feels after two gin and tonics.)
In Medora there is also a big feed involving steaks that have been mounted on the tines of pitchforks and then plunged into boiling oil. It’s called “Steak Fondue.” Thousands of people line up for this culinary health challenge, which is accompanied by mounds of starch and a few balancing vegetables. You sit at long tables with strangers (possibly the same people who coughed on you during your flight) and heartily dig in until the cows come home; apparently, we get to eat those, too. I was telling my friend Martha about this, and she and her husband were appalled, he being a nutritionist-dietician. Can you blame them? Why not just swallow a tub full of Snickers bars coated in strawberry-flavored trans fats? I asked Kirk if I could get a salad instead, and he replied with that stoic sense of Midwesterness that gets him through things like overflowing toilets and hurricanes: “Cowboys don’t eat salad. They eat meat. You have to act like a cowboy on the prairie.”
Then there are the horses. There is a slim chance that I may have to climb up onto a horse and have my picture taken while wearing the family reunion tee shirt. Now, horses and I aren’t exactly the best of friends– they have big teeth for biting, and big legs for kicking, and if I need to go anywhere I hop into my Ford Focus rather than onto the back of a horse. They’re large and frightening, okay? I admire people who can deal with them, but I’d rather not. Suppose the horse bucks and sends me into the next county? No thank you. The only horse I was ever on was actually a pony. An old Italian man would bring it to our block in Brooklyn and give rides to us children; for a dime his poor sick animal would be led around a manhole cover a few times while he spoke to it in his dialect. What was he saying? Who knew? “Hey, little horse, why don’t you reach around and chew the foot off this frightened little boy? Why don’t you bare your teeth at him? Come on, little horse, don’t disappoint me or it’s the glue factory for you!” Lois, remember how he smelled? Didn’t we cry? [If Lois is reading this, she will post a reply– ‘No, YOU cried, you big baby! And the horse didn’t smell… that was you from when you messed your pants!” I love my sister.] Maybe there’s a behavioral guidebook I should read first before setting out? (About people like ME, not about horses.)
Thursday, July 9
Settling in, mainly, and a drive to downtown Minneapolis with Aunt Bunny. I found a favorite used bookstore and bought an item (a Latin Missal from 1954) and was unusually impressed by the sheer numbers of people working in and running around downtown. There was a huge farmer’s market occupying Nicollet Mall, and office workers raced by carrying bouquets of flowers and bags of beans. You definitely get the sense that Minneapolis is a city on the move. And as big as it is, it manages to nourish a very welcoming, small-town aspect. Mary Richards would be so proud! In fact, there’s a statue of her that you can pose with while throwing your hat in the air.
Friday, July 10
Well, here we are in Bismarck. We drove today from Minneapolis to the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, which is very nice. (The woman who checked us in is a dead ringer for Sarah Palin– the hair, the glasses, the smile.) We just finished a great meal, a perfect ending to a genuinely wonderful day. The nine-hour drive was beautiful– the countryside here is green and prosperous and peppered regularly with small farm towns with names like Tappen, Mapleton, McKenzie, and Ayr. Interstate 94 slices through this breadbasket, and it’s satisfying seeing how much land is under such good care. From the SUV, silos and cows and sheep and wheat and alfalfa fields raced by, and bales of hay in orderly lines gave a sense that all is well in the heartland. Of course, the caffeine in Diet Coke and the two Snickers bars that I’m enjoying may have much to do with my sense of well-being, but still; I’m just saying. But it really IS beautiful: a thousand shades of green and gold rest under a blue sky interrupted here and there with enormous storm systems.
A stop in Jamestown at the Frontier Village presents us with a statue of the world’s largest buffalo, which we obligingly pose in front of. (This time, I am proud to say, I did NOT administer the “cough test” while standing beneath the beast, like I did in 2000.)
Luke, our waiter here at the Ramkota’s restaurant, was a Viking swimmer who was honestly interested in the ingredients that went into the Manhattan I ordered. And he wasn’t unusual– everyone in these parts is just so damned friendly, the only exception so far being the counterman at a Subway who grew impatient at my lack of ordering expertise. I’ve never ordered a Subway before, but the choices are mind-boggling. How did Jared manage?!? Anyway, Kirk went upstairs to wind down, and I stayed behind to settle up with Luke and order a couple of drinks to bring back up to the room. He asked if I wanted something carry them with, and I said yes, and he gave me a circular tray draped with a white cloth, crowned by my (second) Manhattan and Kirk’s (second) glass of Merlot. I signed the check, picked up my tray, and left the restaurant.
Now, the Ramkota Hotel consists of two buildings which are mirror images of one another, connected by a check-in area and a commons. Do you already sense trouble? Calm down! Calm down, everyone, because this architectural fantasy is the simple explanation for what went awry– it’s a rabbit warren, this hotel. Just checking in involved negotiating a series of hallways and elevators, and it was like reaching Candyland when we finally located our room. (And we weren’t the only ones involved in this prairie version of Lost.) Try doing that fueled by a Manhattan, and the stakes are different. I couldn’t find our room in the correct building, and carrying a tray with two drinks perched on it only added to my consternation. I went up staircases and down strange elevators; I traversed hallways I knew nothing about, and four times I walked through a wedding reception that had spilled out of its designated banquet room and into the adjoining common area, thereby further confusing my progress. Soon I was asking gowned women if this was the Manhattan they had ordered. Being polite Midwesterners, they simply said “no, thanks,” but there were plenty of people whose eyes lit up as I came near them with my tray. “Room service,” I explained. “Coming through!” After my fourth pass they must have decided I was either crazy or from New Jersey. I ended up on the sidewalk between the two identical buildings (one of which didn’t even contain my room number) and encountered Uncle Jerry, who was cruising by on his scooter. He had no idea where I was going, so I called Kirk for directions. While he was explaining how to get back to our room, a train went through town, complete with horns and whistles, and I couldn’t hear a thing. I almost broke into tears, thinking that I would never get back to Kansas again!
Eventually I arrived at the proper third floor, drinks in tow, without having spilled a drop. (The bartender had thoughtfully stretched a piece of Saran wrap over each glass.) And here I sit, quite tired, and ready for bed. Tomorrow is the reunion picnic at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Think I’ll survive? Stay tuned.