Why North Dakota:
Having been to 43 states, I set my sights on North Dakota, my only remaining state not on the East Coast. Back in the summer of 2016, I asked my friend, Ken, a medical student at the University of North Dakota, what to do. When I suggested a NDSU football game, he countered and said that a University of North Dakota hockey game is the single most North-Dakota thing I could do. After looking at weekends and flights, I booked a roundtrip flight to Minneapolis for Martin Luther King weekend. It was really cheap- only $112 roundtrip.Grand Forks was about a 5-hour drive away.
January 14, 2017: The Fighting Sioux
After flying in and sleeping in my friend´s apartment in a Minneapolis suburb, I woke up early and drove northwest along Interstate 94. It was a beautiful, but cold day. Snow was everywhere- it was a winter wonderland!! After a bit over 2 hours of driving, I reached the town of Fergus Falls and got breakfast there at the Viking Café.
It was described as a “classic Minnesota diner”. The place did indeed seem old-school and the Viking weapons and shields seemed like homage to the Scandinavian heritage of the people of Minnesota. I ordered the omelet- reportedly the best in Minnesota according to a local TV poll.
They added a lot of cheese and it was delicious.
Fergus Falls was a 45 minute drive to the North Dakota border at Fargo. The sign said North Dakota- Legendary. At that moment, I knew it was going to be a good weekend.
The first sign I was going to like North Dakota- 75 mph speed limits!
I went another 80 miles north to reach Grand Forks, population 50,000. After struggling to drive on the icy streets, I ended up at Ken’s apartment in a converted house near downtown.
Ken decided to take me cross-country skiing. We drove over to the University’s rec center and rented skis for free! We then drove across town (all of 5 minutes) to reach the famed Red River of the North.
The Red River of the North serves as the border of North Dakota and Minnesota and was completely frozen over.
While Ken put on the skis with ease, I struggled at first, but eventually caught on. Just a few minutes later, we were skiing on the frozen river. It felt like running.
After 45 minutes of beautiful skiing, including a jaunt over to Minnesota, we headed back to the car.
We then got word that Ken’s other friends were hanging out at the Rhombus Guys Brewery in downtown. We went over and ordered beer. I got the flight.
The sun was now setting and it was time to get ready for the hockey game. We went to another bar downtown. If you spend $5 at the bar, they will let you ride their shuttle to the game. Everyone ordered beers. At 6:30, a yellow school bus pulled up and people hurried over to get a seat. The bus got so full that people were squished while standing in the aisles.
After 10 minutes of rowdiness, the yellow school bus arrived at Ralph Engelstad Arena, arguably the most controversial arena in sports.
The University of North Dakota has a controversial history regarding its mascot. Since the 1930’s the mascot has been the Sioux, a local Native American tribe. In 1999, “Fighting” was added to the nickname and an Indian head logo was designed by an alumnus of Native ancestry. Meanwhile, a wealthy alumnus, Las Vegas casino owner, and possible neo-Nazi named Ralph Engelstad donated $100 million to the school to build a new hockey arena. It was to be the nicest hockey arena ever constructed.
Many people did not like the nickname and the newfound attention to it. A bill was introduced in the North Dakota Legislature condemning the nickname, but it died in committee. Then 21 Native American groups at the school openly condemned the nickname.
With the construction of the arena halfway done, Ralph Engelstad threatened to withdraw his funding from the arena and let the building collapse half-built in the harsh winter weather should the mascot change from the Fighting Sioux.
The mascot stuck and the arena continued to be built. However, Ralph added some modifications to the original plan. First, he installed thousands (no joke) of Sioux Indian head logos into the arena to ensure that this is the home of the Fighting Sioux. The logos were built into the seats, on the scoreboard, and even into the granite floors of the concourses. Additionally, instead of donating the arena to the school, he kept the ownership in a family trust and leased it out to the University for $1/year. This way, he and his family could keep the Sioux logos around and the school could not take them down should the situation arise in the future.
In 2001, the arena was completed and was indeed considered the nicest hockey arena ever built.
In 2005 the NCAA changed its policy on the use of Native American imagery. North Dakota was banned from showing their logo on television or hosting post-season events until they changed their mascot.
After years of lawsuits, the University was given 3 years to obtain the support of both Sioux tribes in the state in order to keep the Sioux mascot. Unfortunately, they were only able to get the support of 1 tribe. The North Dakota legislature then passed a state law requiring the University to keep the Sioux mascot, but then repealed it 5 months later. In 2012, the issue went to the voters in a statewide ballot measure that would change the mascot name in 2015. It narrowly passed and in 2015 after fan voting, the University of North Dakota had a new mascot: the Fighting Hawks.
Ken and I walked into Ralph Engelstad Arena and onto the granite concourse. The Sioux logo and name was indeed everywhere. Additionally, the fans have not been supportive of the new mascot. At least 90% of the fans in the arena were wearing Sioux apparel. Nobody wore Hawks apparel.
One benefit of watching college sports in a non-University owned arena is that you can buy alcohol! Ken’s friends were already at the bar. We grabbed beers and headed to our leather seats in the student section. A few minutes later, we got a call from Ken’s friends that through a miracle they found some extra great seats near the ice. We headed down.
The game was about to start and they announced the starting lineups to the sold-out crowd. Each time the announcer said “Hawks”, the crowd corrected him with “Sioux”. Currently, North Dakota wears green jerseys that simply say North Dakota with no logo.
From the good seats, we watched the exciting hockey game. Despite being ranked as the top hockey team in the Nation at the time and being able to draw from all over the world, 3 out of the 6 in the starting line-up are from the Grand Forks area.
After each North Dakota goal, fireworks went off.
After the 2nd period, I went to the Sioux Shop and bought a logo-less North Dakota hockey jersey.
The game ended in a resounding North Dakota victory. We then left the arena and saw a bunch of school buses going to various bars. This time the buses did not require a wristband. We got on one headed to a downtown bar. The bus was incredibly rowdy and some people were not happy with the noise. Tough luck.
After exiting the bus ride, we got beers at one bar and then a second bar. It was now 1am and we had successfully been drinking all day. It was time to walk back to Ken’s house.
The walk back was so cold, I got a headache.
January 15, 2017: Fargo
I woke up around 9am. I quickly said bye to Ken and headed to the rental car.
From Grand Forks, I headed south down Interstate 29 towards Fargo. On the way, I stopped in Blanchard to see the KVLY-TV mast. I stepped out of my car onto the icy dirt road to take pictures.
At 2,063 ft tall, it is the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere and the 4th tallest on earth- 287 ft taller than One World Trade in New York. It is not classified as a building because it is supported by masts. The TV mast broadcasts NBC to a 9,300 square mile area. Normally, TV towers are placed on hills or higher points of land, but the ground here is so flat that they had to build tall to carry the signal longer distances. Just 5 miles away, there is another TV tower that is 2 feet shorter.
30 minutes after leaving the tower, I was in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city. It was completely dead-granted it was a Sunday in January. There wasn’t much more than 10 minutes of sightseeing in downtown Fargo.
Based on a recommendation, I wandered into a German beer hall where I got a delicious meal.
I then headed north and wandered around North Dakota’s other public university: North Dakota State University. The school is known for their football team- a Division 1AA powerhouse. Their mascot is the Bison and I saw at least 10 bison in my hour-long walk around campus.
The walk eventually led me to the Fargodome at the north end of campus. I bought tickets for the Monster Jam- a monster truck rally- at 2pm.
The stadium was nicer than most college football stadiums, but certainly not at the professional level. It was also completely indoors, which made the concrete concourse seem cold. Some of the highlights of the stadium include the $3 beers and the wall timeline display of all the natural disasters that have happened to Fargo in the last 100 years (about 7 different types).
Walking through the concourse, I witnessed some of the best people watching ever. It was basically a camouflage convention. Since it was the Sunday afternoon show, there were many children dressed in camo. I am willing to bet that 90% of the people here were Republican and excluding the Sioux, there were no more than 2 non-whites out of the 18,000. Part of the reason for this is the event, but it is also the demographics of North Dakota- very rural and white.
I walked over to my section and asked the usher to take my picture. He said “Smile and say ‘Pussy’ on three!”. I smiled uncomfortably.
Around 2:10, the program began. The monster trucks competed in 5 different competitions: straight up race, dune buggy race, wheelie competition, donut competition, and freestyle. It was quite impressive how the drivers were able to control cars this big.
Around 4:30, it was time to go, so I walked over to my car and drove the 3 ½ hours back to Minneapolis.
Legendary it is not, but I really enjoyed my time in North Dakota. The state has a boring reputation, but if you are willing to look, there are plenty of things to do. Next time, I would go further west to check out Bismark, the Enchanted Highway, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.