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Ryan Johnson, Published November 07 2013

Johnson: Vacation offers chance to reflect on quirks of home

There’s something about America’s 14th-largest city that makes me appreciate the 245th.

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to San Francisco, armed with a California-themed playlist and an impossibly ambitious list of things to do for the next four days.

But my previous visits there made me admire the quirks and perks of life in Fargo even more, and I fully expect that will be the case on this trip, too.

The last time I visited the land of the Golden Gate Bridge, I was a college senior at the University of North Dakota with an unrealistic career plan – why wouldn’t the San Francisco Chronicle want to hire a Midwesterner without so much as a newspaper internship under his belt?

I flew in expecting an unscheduled office visit would land me a dream job. That obviously didn’t happen, and I had plenty of time to kill before my defeated flight home.

During a long walk away from the usual tourist hotspots, I found a newly renovated building with condos for sale and figured this could be my next home. I took the elevator to the top floor, stepped into a studio unit that totaled 450 square feet and started planning where I’d put my furniture.

At least until I saw the Realtor’s fact sheet on the kitchen counter – $800,000 for a tiny box without a bedroom.

I hadn’t thought of my lifestyle in Grand Forks as extravagant before that trip. But I felt like the luckiest 20-something in the world when I got home to my one-bedroom apartment in a prime spot overlooking downtown that I could easily afford, even as a college student.

My first visit to San Francisco was just as idealistic, when two friends and I decided to celebrate our high school graduation by loading up a big boat of a Cadillac and hitting the road, determined to drive more than 5,000 miles in two weeks to see as many cities as possible.

It was somewhere in northern California that I was self-conscious for the first time in my life about my North Dakota upbringing.

We stopped for a quick lunch, and the Mountain Dew addict that I was at the time asked our server an innocent question.

“What kind of pop do you have?”

I felt like I had committed a mortal sin based on the look on her face, and she went on to ridicule this colloquialism that everyone around me had always used when describing a carbonated beverage.

I caved in and decided I would change my vocabulary. “Soda” wouldn’t draw unwanted attention, at least on the West Coast.

At the time, the people we met were amazed when we said we were from North Dakota, an exotic place for someone 2,000 miles away.

I tried my best to explain that, yes, humans can indeed survive the winters there, and then the barrage of questions would come. Did we have electricity yet? Were we even a state? Why didn’t I talk like Marge Gunderson in the movie “Fargo?”

But times have changed in the past decade, and now, thanks to the well-publicized oil boom in western North Dakota and our strong economy, people all over the country are envious of our state.

This weekend, as I try my best not to stick out as a tourist, I expect to face more questions about home.

But I won’t be embarrassed anymore if I call something by an unfamiliar name or pronounce a word in a way that makes it clear I’m not a local.

I live in a state where I was able to land a great job right out of college in a place where I can expect to see familiar faces just about anywhere I go.

In between snapping photos and enjoying the local cuisine this weekend, I can be a cultural ambassador for North Dakota.

By the time I head home on Tuesday, maybe a few San Franciscans will be left wondering if they shouldn’t pack up and head to the Red River Valley, too.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587