Believe it or not, for some godforsaken reason, I actually went on vacation to Minnesota for a week. Yes, an entire week. Whenever a man makes a rash and foolhardy decision like that, you can usually expect that there's a woman behind it. My case was no different. I went with my girlfriend to stay with her brother in St. Paul, the less famous half of the infamous twin cities (the other half being, if you didn't already know, Minneapolis). His 27th birthday was coming up, and she wanted to spend some quality time with him. My purpose was to act as an unwitting half-wit buffer between herself and the boredom native to long train trips and cold, rainy Minnesotan days. Accordingly, she had me pack a rabbit to pull out of hats, and without telling me, stuck sundry tricks up all my sleeves, which made for some awkward situations. But that's all a subject for another time. This isn't about my girlfriend or her brother. It's about Minnesota.
Starting off, I didn't know what to expect from Minnesota, the hollowed land of 10,000 lakes and the source of the mighty Mississippi River. I knew it was going to be flat and largely undeveloped, but that's it. The first mistake I made was not packing a winter jacket. Sure, it's Minnesota, I thought, but it's also about to May and I live in Michigan. If I could get by with just a hoodie here at home this time of year, why would Minnesota be any different?
Wrong, wrong, wrong. From what I can tell, Minnesota, from February to June, is one to two months behind most of the rest of the United States. Further research reveals that Minnesota finally joins the rest of the nation in July and August as a brief tease, only to decouple again in September. But this time they go two whole months ahead of time, only to synchronize back with the lower 48 states in December and January, the worst months on the calendar. Basically, Minnesota has all of the pain of a typical U.S. climate with little to none of the pleasures. And I thought Michigan was bad!
Yet, somehow, despite the climate, Minnesotans are some of the most physically active people, on average, in the country. No matter how bad the weather is, you'll see some joggers and bicycle riders out. I even saw someone by the dark blue waters of Lake Calhoun sunbathing without a shirt on after a jog in cloudy, 55 degrees fahrenheit weather. They're denial of physical reality can be, at times, transcendent.
My other mistake was thinking that Minnesota would be a backwaters hick state. Well, maybe parts of it are, but the Minneapolis/St. Paul area is surprisingly progressive. You could accurately call it the San Francisco of the Midwest. Don't get me wrong, it pales in comparison to San Francisco, but just creating a pale facsimile of a city that renowned is a great accomplishment in a place like the Midwest. Minneapolis/St.Paul has a large gay community, a million Indian and African restaurants, co-op grocery stores, mini-skyscrapers, a taxpayer funded hipster radio station, and the most theaters per capita of any city. That's the upside. The downside is that the twin cities actually resemble generic, overgrown suburbs more than cities, and that they have the most traffic lights per capita of any city. There's also the small fact that the locals have nicknamed parts of Minneapolis "Murderapolis", but given that I live in the Metro Detroit area, I didn't worry much about that. No matter what the locals say, Minneapolis feels unbelievably safe when you compare it to a rough neighborhood in Detroit.
Overall, my time in Minnesota went by pleasantly enough, even if it was kind of boring and cold. One highlight was The Minneapolis Institute of Art, a very respectable art museum. To my amusement, some of the staffers and visitors even had Canadian accents, a surer sign than any of its dubious geographical location. Nowhere else in the United States can you go to an major art museum and overhear comments like "how aboot this Van Goo, eh?" or, "this Warhool was a real hoser, eh?"
Of course, I had to make a trip to that most exulted mecca of shopping, The Mall of America. I'm sad to say this, but it was a little underwhelming. The mall portion of it reminded me of a couple of Michigan malls nailed together. The grand excesses I was hoping for were, for the most part, nowhere to be found. There weren't any stores dedicated to magnets or miniature train enthusiasts like I was promised by friends or misguided television shows. They just had a GAP, a couple of Starbucks, and all of those other stores (like Sears) that you associate with a mall. Yes, there was the indoor theme park, with roller coasters, a reproduction of Spongebob Squarepants's house, and things like that, but indoor theme parks are almost a commonplace thing to find these days. Massive indoor parks (water parks in particular) have become a fad in the northern parts of the U.S., where construction workers build one after another, unfazed by the country's economic recession. Now that I think of it, I guess grand excess is the new normal.
The only thing that truly impressed me were the oversized Lego displays. Oversized Lego displays might not be unique to Minnesota, but it was the theme of the displays at The Mall of America that got me. I think I'll let my journal entry finish off this topic:
"The mall of america is a hallucinatory roller coaster ride of hippie beads & confederate flags, where time has no meaning. Accosted by extra plus sized army recruiting mannequins in the latest women's summer fashions, I had no choice but to give them my wallet. An oversized lego display chronicled the entire history of man's progress, from the primordial to the future, from the sabre tooth fighting caveman to the mechawarrior. I'm suddenly inspired to buy rectangular lego blocks."
Note: I didn't end up buying any lego blocks.
That's about all there is to say about my time in Minnesota that's worth saying. I did see the Mississippi River, but it just looked like any other river. Nothing to write home about. I guess I could tell you about the train ride there and back on Amtrak. That was kind of interesting.
There are two indisputable facts about Amtrak you learn real quick. One is that the even though the trains almost always pick you up on time, they're usually an hour or more late getting you to your destination. Don't ask me how that works logistically. It just does. Another fact you learn is that if their trains were a little bit faster, taking Amtrak would be the ideal way to travel long distances in the United States. The seats give you lots of breathing room, you can buy beer or wine on the train (or, bring some yourself), and you can walk around whenever you feel like.
But, like I said, that's all negated by how slow Amtrak is. Part of this is can be blamed on the United States antiquated passenger rail system. The tracks are too winding, which forces trains to travel below their maximum speed out of safety concerns. The other part is that Amtrak trains have to slow down in populated areas and completely stop and give up their right of way to passing freight trains.
That being said, the one advantage of Amtrak's slow speed is that there's plenty of time to enjoy the countryside from the large windows of the train's scenic car. With our journey taking us through a decent swath of the Midwest, I got to see a lot of old factory towns. That led to another inspired journal entry (well, at least I always think I sound inspired, but your mileage may vary), which I'll close this off with:
"The crumbling facades of factories, unlit signs, shuttered windows, rusted machinery... riding through the petrified arteries of what used to be America's heart. they used to billow smoke, proud & fearless... grin & grimace as the doors of great furnaces opened and closed... our forefathers made us what we are there. On the plus side, a traveller noted how wisconsin has fascinating rock formations. Passing The Dells, I saw a torture museum & a wedding chapel side by side. Saloons & wisps of gunsmoke from centuries ago, and SUVs that looked like black stallions. 5 hr train rides with mennonites/amish people that don't believe in deodorant - not even old spice swagger - can make anyone delirious. There was a british couple looking to spot buffalo in the woods. Didn't have the heart to tell them."