FARGO - The rainy morning Thursday, July 19, at the Downtown Fargo Street Fair was not going to get Pat Gerlach down. He's had to deal with more than just a little rain.

"I actually kind of dread the perfect day," he said under his tent, surrounded by his photos of wildlife. 'I've found on a perfect day, a sun-shining, 70-degree day, all of my people, the people who like what I do, they're all out doing something. They're not going to canoe today or go hiking."

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He looked out at the rain from his stand north of the intersection of Broadway and Fourth Avenue.

"The rain pretty much summarizes what it's been like for 40 years, always at the mercy of the weather," he said.


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For four decades, he has crisscrossed the country, making photographs and selling his work from Florida to California and Washington state to Washington, D.C.

And then, just over three years ago, he heard the gloomiest forecast - he had terminal cancer. He was able to keep working until recently, when he decided the time was coming to get off the road. He scheduled 11 dates with arts and crafts shows in North and South Dakota, the first to be over the Fourth of July in Mandan, 47 miles southwest of his home in Wing, N.D.

As he was making his trip into Mandan for that event, he got a call. A storm had come through overnight and destroyed his tent and all of the work he had in it, about a $30,000 loss.

He didn't want to deal with finding a new canopy or replenishing his stock, so he called off all of the other shows.

It was his idea, but his kids wouldn't hear of it. They arranged for another canopy and helped gather enough works for one last show, in his hometown of Fargo.

"We've had 40 years without anything like that," says his wife, Berni. "I'm just happy we were able to pull enough work together to do this."

Gerlach first exhibited at the Street Fair in 1978, when his stand was made of wood. He remembers being one of the first artists to take credit cards as payment.

"It's pretty fitting for this to be the last one," he said.

'A wonderful trip'

The Fargo show is shaping up to be a reunion of sorts, with old friends stopping in to say hi.

Gerlach was born and raised here and learned photography from his father's business, Acme Printing. He would go on to work at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Detroit Lakes Tribune. In 1977 he was ready for a change, so he took the summer off, drove out to western North Dakota and photographed wildlife.

After that, his office became the outdoors and the darkroom.

"I never made a decision, it was just one year into the next year into the next year and here we are," he said from his seat, surrounded by pictures of grouse, pheasants, bison and the wild horses of the Badlands.

"My favorite time of the year is that first snow," he said. "The early winter stuff. Animals are at their prime. To me it's a very exciting time to be out there. You can feel the change of the seasons ... I always try to hit that first snow, but as you know, it's unpredictable here. A lot of time it's keeping an eye on the weather and getting up at 3 in the morning to be there at first light."

In his tent, he has an image of a horse and an explanation that this is his final show. The horse is a wild stallion he photographed in the Badlands, one that he had come face-to-face with on more than one occasion.

"You have these intense moments where it's just you and them," Gerlach said. "Those moments are so powerful, when they're done you feel drained. It's a humbling experience to be out there with wild creatures in their domain." While he doesn't like to personalize horses, preferring to respect their wild nature, he talked to the stallion the last time they met.

"I said to him, 'We're not going to be around here forever. Which one of us will be around longer?'"

The horse died a little over a year ago.

He doesn't see a sadness in that or in his own limited time. "The last three and a half years have been the best, and happiest time of my life," he said. "It's been gratifying and humbling and so many different things watching it all grinding to a slow-motion halt," he said. "I'm sad to see it come to an end. I wish I could keep doing it for years and years. But I'm so grateful for the time I have had. It's been just a wonderful trip."


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