The minute I cross the state line from Iowa into Minnesota on Interstate 35 and I pass the very tall Welcome to Minnesota stone marker formed in the shape of Minnesota everything around me seems cleaner and greener and the landscape takes on a gentle roll whereas in Iowa just moments earlier I hadn’t noticed that. Even the crops look more vibrant, like they have been tended with extra care, which is not possible really because it’s well established that Iowan’s do know a thing or two about farming.
One of the first buildings of note near the interstate in southern Minnesota, just past the ranch where large elk feed on the prairie grass, is an historic Lutheran church, and every time I pass by it I think of Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion. I’ve been admirer of Mr. Keillor’s for some time. I read his newspaper column faithfully and I often listened to his radio program on Saturday if I happened to be in my car when it came on. I read one of his novels years ago, Lake Woebegone Days I think was the title. Lutherans figured prominently in that story, as they do in much of Mr. Keillor’s writing and storytelling about Minnesota. He seems like a sensible man to me, Mr. Keillor does, grounded you might say, which seems to be a common trait and a source of pride among the states’ natives. He is a Minnesotan for life apparently, even wealth and fame could not entice him to move away. I believe he lives on the hill that overlooks downtown St. Paul where wealthy fur traders and railroad magnates built homes more than a century ago.
I worked in Minnesota for the first time in 1998, because of a large and destructive hail storm. A co-worker who lived in Burnsville at the time assured me the storm was a fluke and I would never be back. “It never hails in Minnesota”, he said. And so of course it has hailed in the Twin Cities almost every year since then, and I have considered it my good fortune to make several extended trips there, and also to Rochester, Duluth and once even to Moorhead. This most recent visit is my eighth, and I am happy to say that as far as my feelings go about Minnesota the bloom is still on the rose.
It was another hail storm that brought me back to Minnesota this June; this time Coon Rapids and Blaine were the ravaged communities. I spent twelve fine days in The Cities, which is how the locals economize the name Twin Cities to something more efficient, efficiency being another respected trait shared by the native peoples, and I feel like I have earned the right to do the same because over the course of my career I have worked in Minneapolis and St. Paul often enough, when added together, to qualify for residency.
Wednesday night is Bingo Nite at the Chanticlear Bar and Grill in Maple Grove, a suburb of northwest Minneapolis, and I can testify the desire to participate in the game overcomes all natural feelings of resistance. On this particular night my bar mate to my left won the second round of Four Corners, but the jackpot had to be shared with another winner and he was noticeably disappointed. By the time we got to Cover All his lady friend had arrived and she assailed him so with her non-stop chatter that the man couldn’t concentrate on the eight cards he was playing. He eventually distracted her with a handful of pull tabs he bought from a girl in a glass-walled booth in the corner of the bar. It was a stroke of genius and I silently saluted him for his quick thinking. Then I ordered another beer.
The Chanticlear is known for pizza, but I had the walleye on two different nights because when you’re in Minnesota it just seems natural to order walleye. They serve it broiled and fried at the Chanticlear, and it’s good, but not nearly as good as the walleye tacos I had in Stillwater on Sunday, with a Finnegan’s amber ale. The best walleye I ever tasted was a few years ago at a dive bar in Eagan, MN. called the Valley Lounge. The Valley has cracked plastic booths and dank bathrooms and the dirtiest indoor-outdoor carpet you are ever likely to see, but the people are friendly, sometimes maybe too much, and the beer is cold and sold at working man’s prices. Walleye is not normally on the menu at The Valley. In fact I’m not sure there is a menu. I had never seen them serve anything but microwave pizza on previous visits, but on this Friday night a mess of freshly caught walleye was somehow procured, and they fried them and sold it with potatoes and a vegetable for $9. It was as close to a spiritual experience as I have ever come eating fish; even bad karaoke couldn’t spoil it.
In summertime it is impossible to find a mid-range hotel in America that is not overrun on the weekends with kids who belong to sports leagues, with their parents and siblings in tow. In most places the teams play baseball or soccer, however this is Minnesota, and so I was not surprised when I wandered down to the lobby on Friday afternoon and found it full of junior hockey players from Fargo. They do love their hockey in Minnesota, and Fargo too, I suppose. A few years ago I went to a Minnesota Wild pre-season hockey game at a large arena in downtown St. Paul and the building was packed to the rafters. People were rabid with passion for a game that didn’t even count. It made me a little nervous, I have to say, much like my father said he felt when he and my mother visited a beer hall in Munich a few years ago and the Germans started singing patriotic songs. It was a movie he’d seen before, he said, and he found it unsettling. Anyway, the hockey kids from Fargo were generally well behaved, and so were their parents, which is saying something, considering the volume of beer and wine they consumed.
In the late 1990’s I worked in Moorhead, MN, across the river from Fargo. It was a year of record snowfall and when the forty-foot snow drifts melted in the warm spring sunshine the Red River left its banks and spread slowly for miles over the flat plains of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. It was a flood of historic proportions to the dismay of many, especially the residents of Grand Forks, ND, which took the brunt of it. I did a lot of driving around in both states that spring, and I liked to listen to AM radio to see what the locals were up to. You hear things on rural AM radio that you won’t hear anywhere else: gardening tips, someone has a stove for sale, amateur baseball games, a swap meet at the fairgrounds, pheasant season dates, new books at the library, spaghetti supper this Friday, car care advice and the ubiquitous farm report, always at noon. What you hear on the AM dial is usually dull as dishwater but at the same time it’s hard to resist listening.
On this particular day back then the northern folks were excited about the flooding, as you might expect, but they were downright pissed about the way they were being portrayed in the movie Fargo, which had been released a few weeks earlier. They were most deeply wounded by the accents spoken by the movie characters, which they claimed sounded nothing at all like them. The “you betcha’s” and the “doncha knows” were flying fast and furious as one chagrined caller after another claimed offense. But to me they sounded exactly like the characters in the movie. Holy buckets, the whole thing was as absurd as it was hilarious. Yah, the Coen brothers themselves could not have scripted it better.
When my business came to an end on a Friday I left Minneapolis before dawn to avoid the rush hour traffic. This time of year dawn breaks at around 4:30 am, which is annoying because the sun doesn’t set the night before until almost 10:30. Okay that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I crossed the Iowa state line before 7 am, and even in the glow of the forgiving early sun things looked a little bit scruffier, a little less well kept than they had just a couple of miles behind me. It could be my imagination, but I really don’t think so. Adjo Minnesota. (That’s goodbye in Swedish.) I’ll return again someday, your crazy weather virtually guarantees it.