Houston, We Have a Problem…   Leave a comment


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Paul and I usually strive to avoid road tripping on the U.S. Interstate system, preferring smaller U.S. or state highways.  This time, considering the time of year, looming flood warnings, mountains, rapidly changeable weather, gray skies and our schedule, the hated Interstate was the best option.

Very high winds – dangerously so – met us traveling northwest through the Twin Cities exurbs.   Too much bluster promised to slow us down.  Only about two hours beyond Bloomington, we stopped for lunch.

Not long after, we stopped in Alexandria, in central Minnesota, for the night.  It was only about 4:30 p.m.  Paul was too tired to constantly deal with the blustery winds.  I don’t know how to pull a trailer.  Moreover, we did not want to approach Fargo/Moorhead in dusk or dark with the Red River steadily rising and approaching flood stage.  We settled in with Des and Carter and got a good night’s sleep.

By noon the next morning, still driving into fiercely dangerous winds again under gray skies, we left the Interstate approaching Moorhead.  The city, across the Red from Fargo, looked like a giant ship with all hands on deck.  Lines of volunteers busily stacked sandbags to protect homes and businesses from the rising river, which promised to crest by the end of the week.

Followers of Minnesota high school hockey know Moorhead well.  Its high school team appears most years in the statewide boys’ hockey tournament.  Moorhead High School is as unforgettable for the unique name of its school teams as for their hockey prowess and devoted fans.  Mysteriously to us, they are the Spuds.

Sandbagging continued on the other side of the still icy river in Fargo.  Driving in, it was easy to see why Paul didn’t want to encounter this part of North Dakota in dim light, nor cross over on I-94.  Eastern North Dakota is like a big floodplain with ponds of water everywhere.  Flood preparations continued all the way to Bismarck in the state’s middle, where the Missouri was set to flood as well.  (By the end of that week, the Red’s waters crested to levels roughly those seen in Grand Forks, ND and East Grand Forks, MN a decade earlier.)

Following a stop in Fargo to dump purged bank and other documents frequently targeted by identity thieves at a secure shredding and recycling facility, we continued to Bismarck.

Only an hour beyond Fargo, one of us glanced at Donovan’s air bag sensor display.  As usual, the driver’s side was on.  The passenger side, where I sat, was off.

Houston, we have a problem…

Near Jamestown (halfway between Fargo and Bismarck), North Dakota transforms into one of the gateways to the West as prairie potholes give way gradually to the plains.  Thousands of migrating snow geese and smaller flocks of tundra swans headed far above us along the Missouri River flyway to their summer homes in Canada.  Spotting a billboard promising bison at the Frontier Fort Bar & Grill at Frontier Village (a tourist attraction), we stopped in Jamestown, the birthplace of famed author Louis L’Amour.

Bison – the perfect lunch fix!  Getting our bison fix before leaving Minnesota was crossed off the “to do” list in the interest of time,  a sin of omission for which we were determined to atone.  Sadly, no bison for us; the restaurant opens only for dinner in the tourism off-season.  Unable to wait, we asked for an alternative recommendation.  Grizzly’s Grill n’ Saloon was suggested.

On the way to Grizzly’s, we encountered the local Toyota dealer.  Certain the passenger side airbag sensor was broken, we asked if the dealer’s service department had time to check it.  A young technician put it through a whole battery of tests.  The verdict:  it worked.

I was the problem.

While in Vancouver the previous summer, Paul and I ate like greedy little pigs at the trough and still lost weight.  Whenever possible, we used public transportation rather than deal with parking in a car-unfriendly metro area.  At least one outing was a 10-mile day on foot; most days featured walks of anywhere from 1 – 5 miles.  We didn’t mind it one bit.  On foot is one of the best ways to see Vancouver.  We returned to Minnesota trimmer and fitter than when we left.

As physical exercise related to packing and stress from the layoff and moving preparations took their toll, my weight dropped like a rock.  Donovan’s passenger air bag sensor is engineered to turn on only when passengers exceed a minimum weight.  My body weight didn’t always trip the sensor.

I needed more poundage.

On the way out of the dealer, we again solicited advice on where to find lunch.  Again, Grizzly’s was among the recommendations.

Paul and I are annoying diners.  Restaurants serving lackluster fare should fear us.  If they don’t, they will see us again if at all possible – or we will suggest it to anyone going remotely near it.  Forays into dining establishments turn into our personal “One Hundred Years of Solid Food” as we order copius quantities and munch happily while trying to figure out the chef’s recipe.

Grizzly’s Grill and Saloon is the kind of place Paul and I avoid – a stand-alone eatery on a shopping mall property.  My hopes for an outstanding treat and maintaining our streak of brilliant road food finds plummeted.  They promise Northwoods cuisine – in a setting resembling Northwoods Gothic (a classic log home on steroids).  In Minnesota, that conjures up images of Swedish meatballs, nowhere to be had on Grizzly’s menu.  Mostly, Grizzly’s sells classic American pub fare.

That pub fare comes with a twist:  all pork products and beef brisket are smoked on-site.  Grizzly’s is not nitrate and nitrite city.  Their bacon isn’t remotely like the packs of Hormel sold in supermarkets; it doesn’t taste vaguely as salty.  Soups and chili are homemade.

I started out with a cup of knopfli – a hearty German dumpling soup made with chicken broth.  This wasn’t the soup they promised.  Its abundance of dumplings gave it a semblance of stew – a perfect starter on a cold and blustery day.  It was good.  Really good. Worthy of a German Oma good.

Grizzly’s offers a bumper crop of good looking burgers.  The Applewood Avocado burger (applewood smoked bacon, avocado and grilled onions) caught my eye until I spotted one of the holy grails of burgerdom:  the half-pound Brown Sugar and Smoked Cheddar burger (house smoked cinnamon brown sugar bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, fried onions, and BBQ sauce.  Tempted by unique burger outrageousness, I had to have it – with a salad substituted for fries.

As I posted later on Facebook:

The craziest thing on a burger menu: a half-pound Brown Sugar and Smoked Cheddar burger made with house-smoked cinnamon brown sugar bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, fried onions, and BBQ sauce served with a side cup of homestyle knopfli (a German dumpling soup). The ultimate gut bomb *and* lighter healthier fare in a single order – a guilty and guiltless pleasure in one!

I snarfed it all and want another.

This ultimate gut bomb wouldn’t go down without a fight.  Gargantuan and messy, it was too big to hold in my hands.  Determined, I forked and knifed my way through it.  Typical of burgers served in Minnesota, the somewhat wimpy, slightly spongy bun was the weakest link.  If topped with a real Kaiser roll like those readily found in Wisconsin, this burger would rocket near the top of my chart.  As is, it’s still in my top three.

Separately, the bacon was tasty, but slightly too sweet for my taste.  Combined with the smoked cheddar and tangy sauce, this was a party for the taste buds.  Grizzly’s did wonders with Paul’s tried and true bacon cheeseburger topped with barbecue sauce; as usual, he substituted Cheddar for the standard offering of American cheese.  Still, I felt kind of bad for him; his taste buds weren’t having the party mine were having.

Grizzly’s should keep a wheelbarrow or hand truck near the register to roll their patrons from the restaurant to their cars.  That was so tasty.  I wanted another, but there was no place to put it.

Upon starting Donovan, voila!  The passenger air bag sensor light tripped on.  The prescription was a big burger!

We spent an uneventful night in Bismarck.  For lunch the following blustery day, we stopped in Dickenson, ND at the local Country Kitchen.  I never had good luck at Country Kitchen, not even for breakfast.  This Country Kitchen served – wait for it – fresh home-fried eggs and omelets with home-style cottage fries.  Simple food, simply cooked, but fresh and tasty.

North Dakota doesn’t leap to mind as a vacationland.  It is blustery, snowy and icy during winter, spring and fall and a blistering hot sauna infested with mosquitoes the size of aircraft carriers in the summer.  The state is best known for its hunting and fishing.  Mostly, it is thought of as a big empty.

For those brave enough to take on the skeeters and cold, North Dakota isn’t too bad.  It’s not quite the North Pole, though scanning hard across its flat and featureless eastern landscape, you swear you can see it and the earth’s curvature from there.  The Lewis & Clark Trail cuts throughout the state.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park, one of the park system’s oldest and least visited units lurks just off I-94 in North Dakota’s uncrowded and lesser-known western badlands.  From the freeway, the park’s ancient rock formations can be glimpsed along with its grasslands and bison herds.

Sadly, we didn’t have time to explore Teddy’s namesake park.  Still battling blustery winds, an 8-hour drive to Bismarck ended up taking us two days.  We had a schedule to keep as Montana beckoned.

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