My advice to aspiring humor columnists is: Never make fun of North Dakota. Because the North Dakotans will invite you, nicely but relentlessly, to visit, and eventually you'll have to accept. When you get there, they'll be incredibly nice to you, treating you with such warmth and hospitality that before long you feel almost like family. Then they will try to asphyxiate you with sewer gas.
I found this out when I went to Grand Forks, N.D., in January. I had made fun of Grand Forks and its sister city, East Grand Forks, Minn., for calling themselves the Grand Cities and declaring that they are "where the earth meets the sky." (This turns out to be slightly inaccurate: Between the earth and the sky, there's a layer of really hard ice.)
I arrived at Grand Forks International Airport on a subzero Tuesday night. And that was inside the terminal. Outside it was much worse. I'm pretty sure wolves were stalking me as I staggered across the wind-whipped parking lot, wondering if there could be a colder place on the planet. Unfortunately, there was: the interior of my rental car, which had liquid oxygen on the seats.
The way the North Dakotans deal with this is to leave their cars running. The state fuel-economy average must be around .000003 miles per gallon, because everywhere you go, you see unattended cars with the motors running. Many people start their cars with remote-control devices, but I believe that some of the smarter cars spontaneously start themselves to keep warm.
The thing is, nobody steals the unattended cars, or anything else. During my visit, roughly once every four minutes a North Dakotan would remind me, in a nice way, that they have hardly any crime up there, in stark contrast to my city, Miami, where, as the North Dakotans understand it, you can't hear yourself think for all the machine-gun fire. But I can't argue with them: It does feel very safe up there, and everybody does seem to get along, even though the population is quite diverse, ranging all the way from people whose ancestors immigrated from Norway, to people whose ancestors immigrated from a different part of Norway.
I spent part of a day driving around the Greater Grand Forks area, where you can see many breathtakingly spectacular vistas if you have taken hallucinogenic drugs. Otherwise you'll see a lot of really flat agriculture covered by snow. But the people are very nice, and I saw absolutely no crimes committed, even though many cultivating machines were sitting unattended.
The Grand Cities themselves are more urban, featuring stores and restaurants, with the occasional unattended car running outside. The Grand Cities are trying to attract more tourists and businesses, so I urge everybody to go up there and check it out. There is PLENTY of parking.
My most memorable experience was a ceremony in which a municipal sewage pumping station was formally named after me. I am not making this up. They took me in a limousine to the station, where more than 100 people had gathered, even though the temperature was about 8,500 degrees below zero. The mayor of Grand Forks, Mike Brown, read a nice speech in which he flatteringly compared my work to the production of excrement. Then came the big moment when I unveiled a big sign on the building, with large letters stating: DAVE BARRY LIFT STATION NO. 16.
Words cannot convey what it feels like to look at a building with your name on it - a building capable of pumping 450,000 gallons of untreated sewage per day - and hear the unmistakable WHUPWHUPWHUP of North Dakotans enthusiastically applauding with heavy gloves. It was a wonderful occasion, until they took me on a tour of the pumping station. When they opened the door, WHOOSH, we were engulfed by a cloud of pent-up fumes from the Outhouse From Hell.
Fortunately, I survived, and went on to have several more memorable experiences in the Grand Cities. Some other time, I'll tell you about the sport of ice fishing, which is irrefutable proof that prolonged exposure to cold causes brain damage. Until then, keep your engines running.