Fargo, North Dakota
We were loaded in Navajo Nation territory in New Mexico under brilliant sunshine with a refreshing breeze. The next 2,000 miles would be on two-lane highways, over mountain passes, across rolling hills, through fields of sunflowers giving their shoulder to the wind. North to the land of the Long Dawn and Dusk.
Chatting with shipper guy, who was checking serial numbers on the freight, Fargo, North Dakota came up.
“I just came back from Fargo,” he said. He lived there five years. His family wouldn’t move, so he returned and was lucky to find this job even though he drives 76 miles to work every day, 152 round trip. There are only minimum wage jobs where he lives, he said, pointing southwest to a ridge of mountains. His friends who had worked construction in Phoenix, Arizona have been scraping together a living for a few years now. North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
I told him the ribs at the Alien Grill have been highly recommended. He was impressed I knew a local favorite. “It’s nice to talk about Fargo with someone who knows it,” he said. “It’s a good place. I liked it.”
Once loaded we drove north through the Colorado foothills on the Eastern edge of the Rockies, climbing close to 11,000 feet. Past Denver and into Wyoming, where we left the Interstate, I-25, beyond Guernsey following two lane highways through South Dakota and into North Dakota by bumper-to-bumper traffic in Watford City, a boomtown thanks to oil or natural gas or water or something we haven’t been able to get an answer for yet and finally Saskatchewan, Canada.
The farther north we drive the longer the light lingers. Glorious sunrises and sunsets, shifting colors and reflections lasting up to two hours. The sky is wider, no mountains for relief, the sun travels farther up and down, more time for it to cast its brilliantly colored spell on the landscape.
The pewter clouds dappled with Cotton Candy pink bring to mind the Impressionists, Monet and Cezanne and sunset recreates Van Gogh’s vibrant palette. I know these painters because of our years in New York City, where residents can visit the museums on certain days by donation.
When we met Salena, of the Daily Rant and Eddie in Baltimore, Maryland in early August for a “business” conference where we exchanged information on trucking, tractors, trailers and investing, Salena presented me with my own color wheel. She had cut more than a hundred color samples into three inch squares, punched a hole in each one and threaded them onto a ring. It was a labor of love. I was touched and thrilled.
On my first visit to Saskatchewan, the sky rewarded me with a sunrise that started before 0500 local time, a tumble of pink azalea, modest magenta, orange sherbet, sun kissed apricot, ripe pumpkin, tangerine, platinum, steel blue and gunmetal gray over toasted sesame fields.
The roads, however, disappointed me. We’d wondered why Canada limits the size of a big truck wheelbase. Big houses like Salena and Ed’s Freightliner Coronado cannot go to Canada. The distance from the center of the steer axle to the midway point of the two rear axles is longer than 244-inches. While provinces limit the wheelbase of the tractor, Saskatchewan is allowing tractors to pull two, 53-foot trailers in tandem and triples, three, 27-foot pup trailers between Regina and Saskatoon. A train really, and I feel, dangerous on any road — it happens on I-90 in New York, I-80 in Nevada and the Florida Turnpike — including a four-lane divided highway where four-wheelers turn into jittery Chihuahua’s if held up for a few minutes and prevented from passing.
The tractor size is limited because it only benefits the driver. There’s no revenue in it. But the limits on the length of the trailers is being extended in Canada and the U.S. because that benefits corporations, shippers, with increased profits, which both Canadian and American governments are most sensitive to.
We were surprised to see the roads from the view of a tractor. They are small. The ramps are small. The shoulder and passing lanes are almost non-existent. We now see Canada as a little country in a big space. Yes, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have much larger road networks, but once outside the three major centers, where the big trucks travel to the commodity fields, the roads are small. There are virtually no truck stops.
Between the Peace Bridge in Ontario and Toronto, we saw one truck stop, an UltraMar. Between Peach Arch crossing at Blaine, Washington and Vancouver, Canada there is one place to park trucks, in Blaine, not even in Canada, at Yorky’s.
There are few places to park or squeeze in a 53-foot trailer, but absolutely no place to comfortably put a truck-train, 125-feet of tractor and trailer. No readable signs from the highway in Saskatchewan pointing to parking and the diesel service stations were all closed in the wee hours of the morning.
We passed Chamberlain, Saskatchewan, reminiscent of an Arctic town, a one-kilometer (half mile) strip of dilapidated, one-story buildings housing cafes, a convenience store and a couple of gas stations, across the street, a dirt lot, packed with big trucks. But no washroom facilities, except the businesses, which said “washrooms for customers only.”
The three rest areas between Regina and Saskatoon said no trucks.
Canada’s Census reported a few years ago that the most common occupation in Canada is truck driver — a resource-based economy depending on commodities — so where do drivers sleep. Canada has Hours of Service rules and mandatory breaks for commercial drivers just like the U.S. Where do they stop? Where do they use toilets?
My truck driving adventure has been a huge eye-opener. Before trucking, I too sneered at the lumbering monsters, a mountain beside my red, Miata, never giving a thought to where they stop, how long it’s possible to drive before feeling like you will drown in pee. They were terrifying to me, big, slow and clumsy.
It is troubling to see the lack of infrastructure for the Canadian and American economy’s primary distribution method — big trucks. It is barbaric, allowed to continue because drivers are individuals and the industry is controlled by a few large, corporations. Individuals, who by the nature of their business, cannot band together to force political change and corporations with deep pockets, who buy favorable conditions.
The Journal of Commerce recently reported that U.S.-Canada surface trade in June reached $46.1 Billion and t
rucks accounted for 70% of the freight. Trucks need drivers.
Big trucks are the most efficient way to transport many goods. They will not go away soon, if they do, we will return to the early 20th century where the only affordable goods are locally sourced, which may not be an entirely bad thing for our economic future, but it will mean increasing costs. Manufacturing will return to the local level, we will no longer truck the pulp to a factory to make the diaper linings, then truck the linings to another center to put into diapers, and truck them again to distribution centers and finally truck them to the store.
There is a huge concern among the public for safety, but no recognition among policy makers that meeting basic human needs are an essential, yet ignored component in the safe operation of these giant trucks. To be safe, to rest, drivers must have a place to stop. A safe place with lights and toilets and running water.
Unloaded near Saskatoon, we were dispatched to Minnesota for a Tuesday pickup. The route took us through Fargo, having driven by many times, in the dead of winter, we decided to stay the weekend.
We found a blue heart in a red state. Our Navajo friend was right, this is a great place with some intrigue. Next to the Petro off I-94 is the Alien Grill, of ribs fame, a few minutes walk is Dunn Bros Coffee, an upscale coffeehouse, where my barista, with his Big Apple Red fingernail polish served up a non-fat latte.
This city of 105,000, which swells 25,000 each fall with students attending three local colleges and universities, is an urban delight. It has a pedestrian and cycling infrastructure equal and greater than most larger cities. Sidewalks. Everywhere. In the residential, commercial and industrial areas. Every corner has a drop curve, with yellow rumble strips. The overpasses have pedestrian activated lights, most intersections also have audible signals for pedestrians and a button to get the walk sign.
The downtown, growing with the help of Renaissance legislation, has reclaimed its heritage train stations, and turn of the century brick buildings, a mix of early 1900s architecture and Art Deco. We peered through the window at the HoDo wine bar in the Hotel Donaldson , originally built with a “working man’s” wing, with its charming mix of rustic and modern decor and several restaurants.
We stopped at Rhombus Guys for pizza, a homegrown success story. The store opened this week and the pizza is some of the best we’ve eaten. From the creative menu we selected the Happy Pig, on thin crust, with al dente sweet red peppers, pepperconcini, red onions, pineapple and pulled pork and the Roasted Garlic with fresh basil and parsley. Neither pizza was greasy or salty, my two cardinal sins of food. The crust was chewy and crispy. It’s the owners’ second location, a couple of college guys who started with a mobile smoothie cart, the other is in Grand Forks.
Forbes magazine says Fargo is the seventh best place in America to start a business. We hope they do well.
We’ve put Fargo on our list of great cities worth visiting.