ONE FINAL DETOUR
Last we spoke I was lying on an air mattress in an empty house contemplating the future. Now I’m curled up in a leather recliner cradling a streaming cup of black coffee in a rugged, wood hewn coffee shop along Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota warding off the chill of a northern summer as I eagerly embrace the glorious present tense.
Granted, Duluth is slightly beyond the reach of the Mississippi River—the alpha and omega of my journey –but anyone familiar with my life knows that I’m always susceptible to a delightful detour. In fact, One Final Detour could serve as my epitaph!
THE WATERFALL AND THE FLAT HEAD
Exorbitant rental car rates made flying north impractical so the morning after my dining room dissertation I packed my truck so full you would think I were charting undiscovered country and spent two days hauling romantic aspirations north to Minneapolis to stay with my friend old Jesse. Although I hung out with Jesse when he visited New Orleans over New Years, I hadn’t seen him since not long after our stint working at Camp Easter Seals in the mid-nineties where he sold me on the advantages of a career in Occupational Therapy. Now we’ve met up twice in six months. Funny how life’s cycles flow.
Tomorrow Jesse will accompany me for two days to Lake Itasca to witness the soon-to-be Mighty Mississippi’s humble beginning; however, my adventure actually began in Minneapolis on Friday. I considered waiting to post about the city in geographic rather than chronological order, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed fitting to begin my story here, for in regards to American history, industry, and civic consciousness the Mississippi River begins in Minneapolis and St. Paul. To the north it extends beyond the Twin Cities in the academic sense only, meandering as merely one of thousands of narrow streams forming the vast water web that connects Minnesota’ 10,000 Lakes.
In fact, I’d be willing to bet even most Minnesotans couldn’t trace the river’s course between Itasca and Minneapolis. It took me multiple Google searches and a half hour (during my third attempt) of combing a large welcome center map to discern the narrow question mark the Mississippi cuts north from Lake Itasca (not south as I assumed) to the waterfall (the only naturally occurring one of note along its course) that lured eastern capitalists west to build water powered mills, thus giving birth to a great city.
So, while the river humbly wanders a few hundred miles through the northern Minnesota wild, for all intents and purposes the river begin at its first major city; thus, so will I.
OPPOSITE ENDS, OPPOSITE CITIES (ADJECTIVES NEVER USED TO DESCRIBE NEW ORLEANS)
Let me start by saying I’m impressed as hell with Minneapolis (and Minnesota in general.) The people are friendly, helpful, genuine, and committed to the civic good. Bike lanes, walking/bike trails, and parks and green spaces are ubiquitous. Moreover, drivers are polite and deferent to pedestrians and bikers rather than openly hostile. There are good jobs, low unemployment, clean and safe streets, efficient public transportation, effective government services, and—egad—still a middle class! Perhaps I’m just buzzed by altitude and culture shock, but the city on the opposite end of the Mississippi from New Orleans is its opposite in many ways. It may not be as unique and culturally rich as New Orleans, but it’s by no means generic and devoid of character. Yet, well, as much as I love New Orleans you will NEVER hear the above adjectives used to describe its virtues!
A JUNGLE ADVENTURE WITHIN CITY LIMITS
I arrived too late Thursday to venture downtown, though there was still enough daylight to admire Jesse’s attractively suburban neighborhood along Minnehaha Creek. Each house I passed was unique, yet their quaint Scandinavian gingerbread style created a harmonious unity. The small lawns were bright green, well manicured, and dotted with picturesque seating areas meant to make the most of the limited summer. The streets were lined with shade trees and generously imbued with green space despite being within city limits and within biking distance of downtown (along dedicated bike trails). It’s an impressive neighborhood for a therapists employed by the public schools!
After spending the night swapping old stories, Jesse’s girlfriend, Amy, and friend, Janio (John-yo), joined us Friday morning to bike the paths smothering the city’s south side. My arrival, however, coincided with some of the worst flooding in recent history, but thanks to the green buffer mostly parks and trails were affected. The detours and flooded vistas only augmented the sense of adventure. At one point, though, I chuckled and paused for a picture as we passed a flooded ‘Wetlands Restoration’ placard. Mission Accomplished!
When we reached the river we paused at a park to play 18 holes of Frisbee golf. Eager to finally glimpse the river I’d trekked fourteen hundred miles to follow, I snuck off to snap a selfie. Afterwards, we ate at a wonderful open-air seafood restaurant located in the park and then climbed down past gorgeous Minnehaha Falls to follow the creek back to the Mississippi—normally a short and easy trek. After a few hundred yards, though, the path was flooded.
Undeterred, we climbed the rocky embankment and pushed through the overgrown hillside following a barely discernible trail. Our five-minute stroll soon stretched into a half hour quest as our flip-flops skidded along the muddy rocks (for when I asked Jesse “Tennis shows or flip flips?” he’d replied: “Frisbee golf practically demands flip-flops!”). Several times we thought we hit dead ends, but persevered until we reached the river’s edge where gazing north revealed downtown but turning south revealed unobstructed shoreline. If my neck only swiveled to the right I would have sworn we were in the middle of the wilderness! It was quite impressive jungle adventure for within city limits.
POIGNANT PLAYS & THE POWER OF POLKA
Although known as a great outdoor city, Minneapolis also has a thriving cultural scene and burgeoning urban core. I was eager to explore along the river so Jesse suggested we go to the Guthrie Theater along Mill Ruins Park. Every city these days seems to have a restored historic theater, though, so I was unprepared for the large, blocky, bright blue modern design of the Guthrie. Although not beautiful, we decided that ‘interesting’ and ‘thought provoking’ best described its unique appeal.
Inside, however, the five-story structure was stunning, housing 3 theaters of various size. Most impressive though, was the view of the river from the cantilever—the large unsupported arm projecting outward. I could have sat there for hours sipping a drink and gazing at the waterfall and old stone bridge
Then, of course, there was the actual play.
I love live theater, but often don’t get a chance to catch it, so was excited as we rushed last-minute discount tickets for, Our Country’s Good, a play about the founding of the penal colony that would become Australia. The plot centered on the progressive governor’s attempt to humanize rather than degrade and punish his charges by allowing them to rehearse and perform the first play in the soon-to-be nation’s history. Many of his enraged junior officers, however, were more interested in harassing and hanging what they viewed as inferior beings, and the play fluctuated between riotous comedy and poignant tragedy. Both the set and acting were superb, and the production could proudly stand alongside any in New York.
Afterwards, we wandered a downtown loop around the waterfall. Placards along the path through Mill Ruins Park explained how Minneapolis sprung up around the waterfall to dominate flour production from 1880 to 1930 while a second city coalesced just down the river at the northernmost navigable flat water on the Mississippi. St. Paul would eventually collide with Minneapolis, but learning this distinction finally satisfied my curiosity as to why Minnesota is anchored by Twin Cities and not a single metropolis.
Mill Ruins Park houses multiple ruins but is anchored by the fractured shell of a mill destroyed in an explosion that now serves as the Mill City Museum. Unfortunately it was too late to visit, but its haunted shell loomed romantic along the river at night.
Next we wandered across the picturesque stone arch railroad bridge preserved as a pedestrian park, and on the opposite shore passed a Pillsbury mill still going strong despite most of the industry moving elsewhere. Next we passed a string of upscale bars before turning a block inward for a drink in Nye’s. This dive bar plays nightly host to The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band and was anointed Best Bar in America by Esquire Magazine. Oh, the power of polka!
After a quick beer we looped back across an island containing a quaint inn and restaurant as well as a banquet hall popular for weddings. But before we returned two things on that opposite shore caught my attention and highlighted the city’s dualistic nature.
PEDAL & PROWL
I marvel marveled as we passed a public metered bike station where you can swipe a credit card, take a bike, and drop it off in any other location in the city. I have heard vague reference to such initiatives but never really gave it much thought. Suddenly, though, I wanted to rent a bike just to do it. This seems like a brilliant way to reduce traffic and emissions as well as promote public health.
Yet, mere yards before passing this progressive urban innovation I spotted I a shadow prowling through yet another park on the river.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It doesn’t look like a cat,” I responded, shooting Jesse a skeptical glance.
We watched it a moment more before realizing it was a fox, just as curious of us as we were of him.
A fox on the prowl in downtown. Remarkable.
FROM TERRIFIC TWINS TO MIDWESTERN HOLY TRINITY
I’ve always been a fan of Chicago, having visited since I was a child. As an adult my best friend from West Virginia moved back to be near family in Wisconsin. In recent years he has helped me cultivate a love affair with Chicago’s smaller twin, Milwaukee, too. I had only been to Minneapolis once, however.
In 1997—at the end of the second summer Jesse and I worked together—I took the largest road trip of my life, making it from D.C. to the west coast and back to Tallahassee (where I stayed for two years). While crossing the Midwest I spent an afternoon wandering downtown Minneapolis without guidance or direction, not even realizing the Mississippi River was blocks away. (I assumed it ran further east). It was a nice city, but by no means a highlight of my trip.
After having as gracious a host and cultural ambassador as Jesse acquaint me with its breadth and depth, however, my Terrific Twins have morphed into a Midwestern Holy Trinity. I will be back. (If I didn’t despise winter with the heat of a thousand suns I would even consider moving to one of them!)
I am sad to go but excited to reach Lake Itasca and the Mississippi’s source. After my detour. Jesse and Amy had planned an overnight camping trip to Duluth to catch local string band and rising stars Trampled By Turtles and convinced me to come along. I love music and have never seen Lake Superior, so so what is a couple more hours north?!? Apparently a different season!!! I’ve driven so far north that I’ve made it all the way to late November….