Living North of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo

This is my second winter in Overland Park, Kansas, after twenty-two years of living in the Red River Valley of the North, where the river snakes along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota into Canada. The weather in Kansas is much milder, which I love. For example, this morning when I checked the weather app on my iPhone, it was 30 degrees in Overland Park and felt like 23, but in Grand Forks, North Dakota (my prior place of residence), it was -1 degree and felt like -14. I’m thankful I no longer live with the bitter cold and 3 to 4 months of snow cover that are part of life in the Red River Valley of the North, but I also have fond memories of those winters.

Which brings me to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Many people in that region aren’t too fond of the movie. They think it pokes fun at them and doesn’t represent who they are at all. That’s true in many ways, but I have had the privilege of hearing accents of long-time residents that are similar to those in the movie. And one thing the movie definitely gets right are the long, straight stretches of roads that cut through snow-covered plains. The Red River Valley was once covered by an ancient lake called Lake Agassiz formed by receding glaciers. Once it drained, the rich sediment created flat prairie grasslands, and the only hills are small ones near the Red River and the Red Lake River that cut through the area. Most trees that exist outside of towns were planted as windbreaks to shield farmhouses, farm buildings, and fields from wind and snow, although many spring up voluntarily along rivers and other water sources.

This combination of flat land and rivers keeps everyone on edge each spring when the snow melts. The towns are sheltered from the rivers by dikes that until recently when they were rebuilt required frequent sandbagging brigades during miserably cold and wet weather. And some communities and homes still require this. I participated in sandbagging on the dike beside my house and elsewhere. I also helped my husband carry our furniture, books, and other possessions upstairs while we watched the river rise and hoped for the best. As you may know, in 1997, Grand Forks had a devastating flood. My husband and I missed that by a couple of years, but it is always present in the minds of the people who experienced it. A memorial monument by the river marks the level of that flood and others that occurred before it.

This time of the year is hard in the Red River Valley of the North. During the fall, I taught an online class for the University of Minnesota Crookston and received notifications when the campus was closed for blizzards or extreme weather, and I remembered those days of temperatures below zero with wind chills much lower, of driving twenty miles to work or home, hoping I would make it to my destination.

Despite the challenging weather, there are some neat things about the winters there. When I drove home from work, I would regularly see a herd of 15-25 deer digging through the snow for food. Snowshoe hares hopped through our yard and along the roads, and we once saw a snowy owl sitting on the railroad tracks. Then there are the sundogs, rainbow-colored circles or arcs, on each side of the sun that can make a drive anywhere seem not so bad. A person can see halos, light pillars, and the northern lights, too. Friends and neighbors often shared their sightings of the northern lights. I was never fortunate enough to see them, but I kept looking and hoping.

Despite the snow and cold, the people in that region find interesting ways to pass their time. Snowmobiles use the frozen rivers, lakes, and snow-covered fields for their highways. A 20-mile groomed trail follows the highway from East Grand Forks to Crookston. It was a strange sight to see a group of snowmobiles racing along beside me as I drove to or from work. Ice fishing huts populate the lakes and rivers. And outdoor and indoor ice hockey rinks host day and night games. In Grand Forks, there’s a sledding hill on the dike beside the river, cross country skiing on the golf course, and a snowshoeing trail, too. There’s a skating rink downtown, and bicycles designed for travel in snow traverse the bike trails beside the rivers. And, yes, there’s a Grand Forks Curling Club.

Here’s a link with pictures of the sundogs, halos, and light pillars that appear in the winter. And if you haven’t seen the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo, I highly recommend it. It will give you a little glimpse of what life is like in the Red River Valley of the North.

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