It's a perfect day at the geographic center of North America. The autumn sky is just the right shade of blue to make the giant white clouds look their suspended-cotton-ball best.
It's the kind of weather that should make a traveler relax, breathe in and think: Right, this is where I'm supposed to be, enjoying unexpected sun and sweeping prairie views. I can't do that, though. Because I'm staring at a roomful of roads not taken.
Once you get to the geographic center of North America, in Rugby, N.D., they take some pains to remind you where else you could have gone. The visitor center here is full of maps and guide books to the rest of the continent: information on the volcanoes of Hawaii, the dunes of Cape Cod. Here, it says, now that you've made it to the heart of everything, look at how far you have to go to get anywhere else.
I don't need those maps, though. I have a prescribed route already: the one John Steinbeck took.
In 1960, the writer drove a pickup truck fitted with a custom camper, which he defiantly dubbed Rocinante -- his friends and family thought the endeavor was Cervantes-level quixotic -- across the Lower 48 on a trip that became his 1962 travelogue, "Travels With Charley." (Charley was his dog, "an old French gentleman poodle.")
Steinbeck went because, as he wrote his longtime literary agent in 1954, he felt "cut off" and wanted to take a drive to "listen to what the country is about now." He wasn't confident that he knew what the real story was anymore.
And off we go
Pretty much exactly 50 years later, I picked up his path in my home state of Vermont and followed it as loyally as I could through to Fargo, N.D. I went because I love cross-country road trips (I'd made the cross-country trek once before) and Steinbeck. I'd latched on to the Nobel Prize winner in college and had studied his work in depth, becoming slowly obsessed with the idea of duplicating his journey.
I don't have a dog, and decided against borrowing one. I brought my mother along with me instead. I also couldn't carve out enough time for the whole voyage, so I picked Fargo as my final destination. Steinbeck went to Fargo because, he wrote in "Charley," he was "curious how a place unvisited can take such hold on the mind so that the very name sets up a ringing." In a letter to his wife from the road, he wrote that he had heard of the place all his life and simply had to go.
And so I did, too.
I planned to leave from Vermont, pick up Steinbeck's route roughly in Rouses Point, N.Y., and follow it west, stopping, for the most part, where he stopped. "Charley" is an exuberant log of life on the road; I wanted to see what Steinbeck had seen, and consider what 50 years had done to the route. After Rouses Point, my stops were Erie, Pa.; a Flint, Mich., detour to see a GM factory, one of the Rust Belt "hives of production" that Steinbeck wrote about only in passing; Chicago; Mauston, Wis.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; and Fargo.
I was on my way into and out of several states on the first day and would hit 11 total in two weeks; knowing how lucky I was to pick up and drive off on a journey that I'd thought about for so long.
Having a destination selected for me by a literary guide infused all the miles with a strange sort of purpose. The scenery was all something that Steinbeck might have seen: the Upstate New York secondhand furniture store called It-L-Do; the slight hills in Wisconsin, tufted with just-turned red and yellow trees; the eerily empty proto-Main Street of "Main Street" fame, in author Sinclair Lewis's boyhood home of Sauk Centre, Minn. And finally, North Dakota's largest city.
Today, most people don't come to Fargo on literary historical reveries. They come to shop. I proceeded to avoid the enormous West Acres mall and the checkerboard of wheat fields-turned-big-box stores entirely. Instead, I wandered along downtown Fargo's Broadway, stopping in art galleries, small boutiques, coffee shops and the uncategorizable Zandbroz Variety for a novelty T-shirt listing key world travel destinations: "Moscow. London. Paris. Fargo."
Broadway is anchored by the Fargo Theatre, and its beautifully restored marquee cheerfully reminded me in bright lights every time I caught sight of it that I had made it to my destination.
It was all pretty picture-perfect, all the more so because I'd been told how desolate the downtown used to be even 10 or 15 years ago.
Most people outside North Dakota probably know Fargo best from the 1996 Coen Brothers film "Fargo," a movie that residents insist reflects nothing like life there, except for the dedication of the "hard-working sheriff." Second to that, what puts Fargo on the national radar is the reason Steinbeck had always heard of it: It's a place of weather extremes.
Yet I had a week of weather so lovely that local meteorologist John Wheeler said he was "running out of synonyms for nice." People kept telling me how lucky I was to be in town for these temperatures. And there were other reminders: Several skywalks link the civic center to the main drag, an efficient way of avoiding the elements when the high might hover in the minus-20s.
The cold can be brutal, everyone said, but also character-enhancing. That seems like an awfully chilly silver lining, but it does work out pretty well.
In the crease
Steinbeck wanted to go to Fargo for a very unscientific reason: because, he observed, "when you fold a map of the U.S., Fargo will be in the crease." The middle of the continent. So possibly the place to take the pulse of America? I wasn't really pulse-taking, but since I was already all the way to Fargo, we drove the extra 200 miles to Rugby, the Geographic Center of North America. At least, someone at the Interior Department once proclaimed it to be the center, even though the center is actually a few miles away. And it does feel like you're at the center of something. With the wind blowing fiercely even on a mild day, knocking over trash cans and dusting the main street with cattail fuzz, I had to imagine how difficult life had been for the pioneers.
Life in the center is a little different from life anywhere else, longtime resident DeeDee Bischoff told me. "I've been to the ocean, and I realize when I'm home that I can take a step in any direction and get closer to the sea," she said.
Either coast does feel quite far away at the monument to the geographic center, just off the highway right outside town. The obelisk stands on a heart-shaped base -- they're pretty on-message here -- and the flags of the United States, Canada and Mexico flap wildly behind it.
Rugby was a diversion from Steinbeck's route, and it opened up a non-Steinbeck-dictated part of the journey. From Rugby, I wanted to get to the tiny town of Alice, near the Maple River, close to where he had camped, and back to Fargo for the evening. The in-between part was a wide-open scenic loop that included the tiny college town of Mayville.
We then plotted a course from Mayville through the Sheyenne River valley to a stop at Little Yellowstone, no geysers in sight. The road was marked "scenic," but I actually preferred the larger Highway 2. I loved the expansive fields and tidy rows of trees that had been planted between the fields and around the houses and barns as some measure of protection against the wind.
Steinbeck didn't like Fargo, at least not as much as I did. He had expected it to be one thing, a town blizzard-buried in the middle of October, maybe, and instead got just a lovely fall day. It wasn't one of the great mysterious places of the world, as he'd imagined. In "Charley," he recounts driving out of town and camping for the night near Alice to nurse his "mythological wounds."
He decided that what he'd seen didn't matter much; it wouldn't disturb his notion of the place. "I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger," he wrote. This is where I disagree with him, or need to make my own addendum.
The reality of the road trip made the romance of the road even stronger, and I was only sorry that I had to leave the road too soon, before I was sick of it, or sick of Steinbeck, or mythologically wounded.
I went to Fargo to follow Steinbeck. I want to go back.