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Road Trip Journal V: Seattle to Minneapolis

5 Jul

(Part IV)

Day Ten: Reasonable and Prudent

We wake early in Seattle the next morning. My friend goes out to grab a better breakfast, while I make do with mediocre hostel fare. We’re on the road shortly thereafter, headed east on I-90 over Lake Washington and through Bellvue before our final date with the Cascades. The mountains are shrouded in clouds today, with the sky a steely Seattle grey; the lowest of the peaks are lost in white, and some peek out above their airy halos from time to time. The passes here aren’t nearly as extreme as they are along I-80, and it’s a straightforward descent into central Washington, where the sun comes out and the temperatures rise.

Washington east of the Cascades just isn’t a place I’ve ever given much thought, and I’m surprised by how empty it is, its vacant highlands and amber waves of grain none too distant from Nevada or Wyoming. There are a few more towns, and the Columbia River gorge and crossing are a welcome and impressive break from the plains, but a mountain range leaves this area a world away from Seattle. This is the only place on the trip where we see a serious number of Trump signs along the highway, which says something considering the amount of deep red territory we’ve covered. Spokane passes quickly, and we leave Washington behind.

We make our lunch stop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a lake resort town that we’re drawn to by pretty pictures we’ve seen before. Coeur d’Alene, it turns out, is no secret. Just thirty miles from Spokane, it’s packed on the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, with traffic backups and multitudes milling around its high-rise hotels. We eat a quick lunch along some cement steps leading down into the lake as boats buzz by beyond us and a seaplane comes in for a landing. But even if it’s not wilderness, it’s a welcome break. My friend takes a dip at the beach, while I wade in a little and admire the Idaho beach bums and the cartoon moose statuary.

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This is another day of extensive driving, and another one that leaves me impressed by the extent of the interstate highway system. It was a colossal infrastructure project, and while its story has its dark sides—ask anyone displaced by freeways punched through poorer parts of cities—it’s also a triumph of engineering and a marvel for interstate commerce. Even when clogged up by construction or congestion, it moves people with remarkable speed. Its construction radically remade small towns everywhere, as businesses shifted out of the core to little stops at exits. In Wallace, Idaho, we pass one of the towns that refused to bend to these changing tides. The residents of Wallace held out for years to resist the destruction of their historic downtown, and had it registered as a landmark in 1976. It took until 1991 for the government to complete a viaduct around it.

After some crawling traffic due to construction, we enter Montana, where speed limits are an afterthought. So much of one, in fact, that for a spell in the 1990s, speed limit signs along highways simply instructed drivers to go “reasonable and prudent” speeds. When the courts found this too vague for enforcement, the state settled on a poorly monitored 80 MPH limit. We rocket around bends and over mountain passes, though we’re far from the fastest car on the road. We pause in Missoula, where we continue our visits of college campuses and make a loop through the University of Montana.

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Through much of Montana, the road follows the Clark Fork, a river among the many features in this part of country named for Lewis or Clark. If there had been vacancies, we would have camped at the Missouri Headwaters State Park east of Butte, but with our tent long gone, it’s just as well that we’re now forced to plow on. We catch up with a storm near sunset, one that opens up in little spurts here and there in the hazy sky over the mountains, creating little sheets of rain with rainbows here and there along the route. Behind us, the sky is brilliant hue of pink mixed with sinking clouds. Another burst of energy to carry us through the final few miles.

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It’s dark by the time we arrive in Bozeman, where we’re the guinea pigs for a new Airbnb host. He delivers for us, and we grab a quick bite at a bar that caters to the Montana State crowd, one of the few places that still has an open kitchen. It’s too late to see much, and my friend is tired, so our list of Bozeman sights to see goes, regrettably, untouched. This may have been our most relentless day of driving, with few stops and no real thrilling destination at the end. The trip is definitely winding down, but we’re not close enough to the finish that we’ll miss any of it yet.

Day Eleven: Born to Run

We wake refreshed after a comfortable sleep in Bozeman, and Bruce Springsteen serenades us on the way east across Montana. The ranges of the western half of the state give way to craggy badlands and little ridges flecked with ranches. We catch our last glimpses of snow-capped peaks along the way, and pass just a bit too far north for a stop at Little Bighorn. I take over the driving somewhere east of Billings, after we’ve split north onto I-94. Today, I’m in a driving zone, just cruising along without distraction and drinking it all in. As is so often the case in the west, the freeway is in a valley along with a river (this time, the Yellowstone) and a train track, the rivers, roads, and rails all united in the easiest passage through the rough land all around.

We cross the North Dakota border and stop for lunch at a rest area, where we’re greeted by the most North Dakotan of scenes: an endless green plain of farmland, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Things change up a little further along, though, as we come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It wasn’t in the cards for this trip, but it’s toward the top of the list of sites I want to see in the West. We make do by pulling over at the Painted Canyon overlook, where we’re treated to endless marches of painted badlands bubbling up over creeks and gulches. The spotty cloud cover adds to the contrasting colors, harsh and beautiful. Just a long day’s drive from Minneapolis, this park beckons me back in a way others haven’t. I feel that same pull that must have sucked in T.R. over a century ago.

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The badlands peter out shortly thereafter, and then it’s just North Dakota in all its glory. The state is particularly proud of its large manmade objects. We catch a glimpse of the bird-and-eye sculpture at the Enchanted Highway, pause for gas by the world’s largest sandhill crane, and see signs for the world’s largest buffalo. Our only real stop, however, is for the world’s largest Holstein cow, a beauty named Salem Sue, who stands proudly atop a hill outside tiny New Salem. Sue gazes out from what has to be one of the higher points in the state relative to its surroundings, and longs to graze on those endless green fields.

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The original plan had been to spend our final night on the road at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which is just south of Bismarck. Now that my tent is the property of some homeless San Franciscan, however, we’re forced to make contingency plans with my friend’s aunt outside of Fargo. Still, we have ourselves a pre-paid pass to Fort Lincoln, so we stop in for a brief visit. The visitor’s center tells us the tale of the Mandans, who once had a large village on the banks of the Missouri here. A few of their round earthen homes, deceptively large, have been rebuilt for us tourists. We wander down to the river, where a sandbar just out from the bank is overloaded with locals on boats enjoying the water. Opposite the wide Missouri is Bismarck, and the bizarre tower that passes for a state capital in North Dakota lords over it all. On our way out, we drive by the fort’s buildings, their unassuming architecture belying their historical significance. George Custer set out from here on his ill-fated final trek, off to the fields of Little Bighorn in southeast Montana. This outpost was the end of white civilization in the 1880s; now, it’s the end of the West for two travelers.

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The road east from Bismarck is a blur, and my friend’s aunt is ready to spoil us with dinner and drinks and political conversation late into the night. Her town, Casselton, is as sleepy as they come, and a single mother of two Harvard students is happy to pass the night a couple of Georgetown grads with steak and ice cream. It’s late, but I’m up writing anyway. I have a lot left to recount, and the final thoughts for tomorrow are already writing themselves.

Day Twelve: Return to Lake Wobegon

Throughout my childhood, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion was required listening on Saturday nights. We weren’t a churchgoing family, so the News from Lake Wobegon was the closest I got to a weekly sermon. We’d begin dinner sometime around the start of the show’s second hour, and I always sat and listened, even if dinner had ended. I haven’t listened regularly since I left home, and I won’t pretend to enjoy his singing or his seeming exhaustion by the end. But this weekend marks Keillor’s final show, so it’s only fitting that we listen to his final episode as we drive back into Minnesota.

The last morning of our road trip only adds to the above average idyll. Our host for the night, my friend’s aunt, is a Lutheran pastor, so we sit in on her Sunday service before going out to brunch in Fargo. Her homily on her son, who just had his wallet pickpocketed while backpacking through Peru and the kindness he encountered from strangers, resonated with a couple of travelers fresh off their own encounter with theft. We leave Elim Lutheran not to cross the Red Sea, but merely the Red River of the North, back into Minnesota.

At first, the landscape in the western half of the state resembles North Dakota. But slowly there are more towns that seem positively dense after the Great Plains, and more deciduous forests for the first time since we left this state twelve days ago. All is thick and green, and the smattering of the 10,000 lakes that line I-94 are all packed with holiday weekend boaters. As if we need any more reminders of that small-town Minnesotan literary legacy, we pass signs for Sinclair Lewis Avenue in Sauk Centre and the Lake Wobegon Trail just beyond.

The Minnesota myth has its demons, and Garrison Keillor is probably complicit in its creation. I’ve poked at it on this blog before, and I’ll never embrace it fully. But it’s become part of that vague haze of childhood rightness that I’ll never shake, and has a place somewhere in my loyalty to this state, even as I grumble about it. I’m sure I owe Garrison more than a few assists for the novel draft I cranked out between undergraduate life in Washington and graduate life in Minnesota, one focused on a town in Lake Wobegon country, filtered through the eyes of a jaded teenager from Minneapolis. The draft needs some work, but the story it told grounded a drifting kid in this state that a visiting Georgetown friend once labeled “the last bastion of the American Dream.” It allowed me to understand home.

Minneapolis suburbia comes gradually, the woods and freeway walls all but hiding the fact that we’re in a city until we can see the Minneapolis skyline. One last round of construction delays a few blocks from home allows us to get through the final News from Lake Wobegon, in which Garrison reflects on some townfolk who have passed on, and on the anonymity that follows death. My roots here aren’t that deep in years, really, but they’re deep enough to have seen some tragedy. My late brother, on my mind frequently over the past two weeks following what would have been his eighteenth birthday, had the middle name Garrison. A somber note as I end this trip, perhaps, but it’s all part of a broader narrative, complicated and rewarding all the same.

I’ve spent these twelve days as a tourist, a shopper among cities, a consumer of superb experiences. It was delightful, and I’m ready for another trip soon. But no package of fine living and cultural intrigue and and weather can ever define home. The land can evoke a sense of home, but for all its permanence, it isn’t what makes a place. That will always be deeper.

In true Keillor tradition, I’ll close with a poem, with my usual Greek twist on things:

Ithaka

C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pear and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you have reached the island,
wealthy with all you have gained along the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

***

It’s good to be back. On to the next chapter.

A Guide to Minnesota Nice

21 Aug

Minnesotans have plenty of reason to be nice. We’re not in a rush to scrap for spots on ladders for power, as happens out East; we have more space than they do, and lack their extremes and intensity, despite the political affinity. We’re not haunted by history as in the South, or left with much of a Rust Belt legacy like most of our Midwestern brethren. We’ll always be more interesting than the Plains, and do not suffer from whatever it is that afflicts Texans and turns them into Texans. Nor are we restless strivers still on the frontier, like those out West; we’ve tamed the whole state, and like it as it is under our stewardship. Just look at our rather racist flag, with its settler beating off some native to claim his fields. That mostly forgotten episode in the Dakota Wars aside, our history has never been at the center of the American narrative, which spares us a judging past, but we’ve been around long enough to have a cultural legacy that can stand on its own. Things are, simply, nice.

Unless, of course, you dare to find fault in our niceness. A Washington Post article poking fun at some of the nation’s more geographically “boring” counties got zero flak from the other states with a bunch near the bottom of the list, but Minnesotans trashed it en masse, leading to a mea culpa from the author. Perhaps the lack of attention leaves us with an inferiority complex; more likely, we’re just quirky outsiders unaccustomed to much national interest, and ready to defend our turf when someone suddenly tries to drag us in with the rest of the country. For all the champions of progressive politics this state produces, there’s still a deep conservatism at the core here: Minnesotans are proud of what they’ve built, and would rather not mess with it too much.

And we have good reason. We’ve got a white-collar metropolis that has weathered some of the worst trends in cities fairly well. We combine a pretty friendly business climate with a functional state government that, until recently, operated quite independently from the national parties. We have an educational system on par with the nations of Scandinavia. Sure, the winters are cold, but we know how to have fun with them, and they build character. Our summers are gorgeous, our autumns sublime. (Any Minnesotan knows that the one indefensibly crappy season here is spring, that grey void between the end of the State Hockey Tournament and Memorial Day.) We have work-life balance: you’re certainly allowed to enjoy your job, but it does not define who you are, as people who are consumed by their jobs are often not nice. We’re very conscious about the work we do, but at the end of the day, we’d rather be on the lake than anywhere else.

“The lake” defines Minnesota life, and is the place where Minnesotans always go, that one platonic ideal standing in for all 11,842 of them within the state’s boundaries. We have an incredible diversity in lakes, but whether one prefers Calhoun or Kekakabic, Minnetonka or Vermillion, every lake inspires a certain ideal. But the most Minnesotan of lands is the northern realm of the state, where lake life reigns supreme, and even the biggest lovers of the big city will make their way North at least once a summer. Even as its population stagnates and economic role dwindles, the Twin Cities are happy to appropriate the North as theirs. Its appeal reaches both suburbanites in search of space and solitude and crunchy urbanites who have adopted its fashion wholesale. (There were bearded men in flannel drinking PBRs in Bemidji decades before they came to Brooklyn.) The North forever draws Minnesotans back with its more gradual pace of life, inviting one to think both deeply or of nothing. Either way, it cleanses the palette from incessant work and family life. Sit back on the pier, crack open a beer, gaze out across those sunny dancing waters, and lose yourself.

For Minnesotans raised on the sonorous voice of the high priest of Minnesota Nice, Garrison Keillor, that sentiment is never far away. There’s a fair amount of self-hate among Minnesotans of the Lake Wobegon idyll, and not without reason. But even Keillor’s critics often unwittingly embrace the foundations of his weekly news from the edge of the prairie: the need to stop amid the noise of life and succumb to nostalgia, the allure of a carefree childhood of exploration; the freedom to look back from old age and say that one has stayed true to something passed down from generation to generation. Call it the Minnesotan Dream: we may not be able to offer you power or riches, but we can offer you a safe, reasonably priced, spacious house and weekends on a lake. Do you really need much more than that?

For a majority of Minnesotans, this holds true. Not many people leave, and most who come tend to stay. People marry young and settle down, and the people we shared those lake weekends with as children stay friends for life. The result is a dense network of people; even in the Twin Cities, it’s hard to escape into anonymity, and we all know someone who knows someone. (I’ve heard the Twin Cities job market described as “pervasive low-grade nepotism.”) We share enough that we all know how to work together and live together, even if we may not like each other all that much. Hence the famed dark side of Minnesota Nice, the tendency to put on a good face and pretend to like people when, in fact, we hate their guts. It can be tiringly catty and erupt in spurts of passive-aggressiveness, but it also lets everyone get their jobs done with typical Minnesotan efficiency.

Minnesotans expect anyone who comes here to adopt Minnesotan standards: you can share in our nice state so long as you play by our nice rules. It’s a very Scandinavian ethos, which is no surprise in America’s most Scandinavian corner, forever putting the common good ahead individual quirks. This is probably why Minnesota attracts few immigrants save a few strong ethnic enclaves for Somalis and Hmong, and those (especially the Somalis) tend to live in their own separate worlds. It’s also probably why our efforts to educate Minnesotan children who do not look like us tend to suck. Our history with our Native Americans is dark and ugly. It’s easy to claim the high ground when everyone shares a common language, but as in Scandinavia, changing demographics may complicate the tale of Minnesotan exceptionalism.

There’s also the matter of Jante Law, a Scandinavian sentiment akin to that in Appalachia or inner cities in which people heap shame upon those who seem to rise above their perceived stations. (This ambitious, non-Scandinavian kid from the North remembers the two reactions that his college of choice, Georgetown, inspired from a number of local adults: “oh, where’s that?” and “that’s so far away.” Minnesota Nice translation: “you are making a stupid and selfish choice, leaving behind everything you know to go off to some mysterious, no doubt un-Minnesotan ivory tower on the East Coast.”) Foraging one’s own path in Minnesota, unless it is through a literal forest, is not always the easiest thing.

But it can be done. Minnesota transplants must learn to love the lake, and those who leave must show that they still remember it. It need not be the center of life, but it must be a part of it, and so long as we tend the roots of the Minnesota mystique, one will always be welcome. One can even retain some of those quirks learned in the great void beyond, and perhaps even chase some form of excellence. The lake may seem small at times, but its depths can be profound, and sometimes, that respite is something we all need.