On Thursday morning, August 21, way, way before first light, Linda drove me to National Airport and I flew west to Chicago, arriving just after 7:00 in rain and storm. Hopped on a connecting American Eagle flight north to Minnesota – time for the third recurrent trip of the month, to the Minnesota State Fair – but things derailed, to change transport metaphors. After taxiing around O’Hare for an hour, we returned to the gate and the flight canceled, because of bad weather northwest of us. I was on standby for the next flight, at noon, and I whooped noisily when the gate agent called my name, hopped on, and took off. The plan was to spend the afternoon at the fair with pals Rick Dow (my amigo from SABF in Argentina) and high-school buddy Bob Woehrle. But with a 2:30 arrival we scrubbed that mission, opting for an early start Friday morning. Unhappily, Bob had other plans, so it would be just Rick and me.
I picked up a Hertz car and headed to a Dairy Queen in suburban Richfield for a late liquid lunch, an enormous chocolate malt, then headed to Southdale, a shopping mall. Say what? Rob in a mall? I didn’t buy anything; it was a pure nostalgia trip, back to a place we frequented when we were young. Indeed, we were there the day it opened in July 1956, my mom, brother, and I, admiring what was the first indoor shopping center in the nation. Any mall 58 years old will have gone through waves of renovation, and I was curious: were the two large, abstract brass trees still in the center atrium. Indeed they were, as was a huge, 1950s-style wall clock. Way cool!
I motored around my hometown, Edina, an affluent place (and looking more so in recent years), and by 4:30 was in the driveway of Murph and Rick Dow’s cool Edina home. They lived in Minnesota for some years, raised their three kids there, but for more than a decade lived in an analogous suburb of Chicago. Murph opened the door and it was so great to see her – I see Rick quite a bit, but for her it had been eight years. Rick was running errands, so Murph and I sat in the kitchen and got caught up. It was great fun.
An hour later, we were sitting on their deck enjoying a drink and some really fine hors d’oeuvres that Murph made. An hour after that we were tucking into a seriously large and delicious salmon dinner and an Oregon pinot noir. And a lot of great conversation, some focused on the outstanding folk art that Rick collected on his many trips through the South. After dessert I was plumb wore out, and was asleep not long after nine.
Up early, fair time. I was so excited. Said goodbye to Murph, and Rick and I motored around traffic, only to get stuck in a massive jam waiting to park at the fair (I made a silly decision to divert from my usual parking area; won’t do that again). But we were in the gates by eight, and made fast for a sit-down breakfast. The fair is filled with on-a-stick-food, but we wanted a traditional start, and found the old-school (“Since 1937”) dining hall of the Robbinsdale Order of the Eastern Star. Robbinsdale is a Minneapolis suburb, and the OES is the women’s part of the Masons; on the napkin holders at table was a short description of their good work, and Rick and I felt good about the meal and their charity. Volunteerism at its best.
Regular readers know that my fair visits – haven’t missed one since the mid-1980s and I guess I’ve been nearly 50 times – are formulaic. Five or six stops and were done. So we ambled up to stop one, the fine arts exhibition, where for nearly 30 years we’ve bought wonderful art. We got there early, and had a nice yak on a bench in front about Rick’s mom and dad and other kin; he’s a great storyteller, and it was a pleasant wait. At 9:00 we headed in, and I was again reminded that it pays to get to the show the first or second day, because I found an absolutely outstanding oil, entitled “Making Concessions,” by Jennifer Horton. Sold! Rick also bought art, a way-cool photograph.
On our way to stop two, the Creative Activities building, we paused and had a nice chat with Bob, a 92-year-old former small-town newspaper publisher (Rick shares my zeal for Talking to Strangers) staffing the small Minnesota Newspaper Museum, then walked through the 4-H building. As it is every year, the diverse stuff on view in Creative Activities was eye-popping. Layer cakes, cookies, knitwear, woven rugs, woodworking, stuff by men, by women, by kids. The aggregate hours spent making all of it were close to infinity, or so it seemed. As always, people were demonstrating their skill, and I chatted with a young woman who taught herself bobbin weaving.
Stop three was the Horticulture Building, a splendid WPA-era building with six or eight wings showcasing all sorts of stuff. Crop art for starters, then flowers, then something I had not seen in all my years at the fair: an exhibit of the Minnesota Mycological Society, mushroom people. Two true-believer volunteers explained and answered questions, and one of the pair wase delighted to meet a couple of curious souls. Like a sea-siren, the Minnesota Craft Brewers’ Guild beckoned, with its opportunity to sample from dozens of small producers. It was only 10:30, but the opportunity could not be passed, so we shared two “flights” of four small glasses. There were some weak brews, but some splendid stuff, too, especially from the up-and-coming (and curiously named) Surly Brewing Co. More T-t-S while we tippled.
Final stop, for more than 90 minutes, were the animal barns. For the first 4 days of the 12-day fair the 4-H kids hold forth, and they were all great fun. We began with chickens, ducks, and geese, then rabbits, then into the sheep barn, where judging of the large, solid Columbia breed was underway (for a city guy, I know my animals). We watched the final winnowing, saluted the blue-ribbon winner, and moved on. By ritual, I paused at the table where visitors can help themselves to newly-shorn fleece and picked up a chunk, squeezing it for the lanolin that protects the beasts in rain and snow, and smelling the earth in the fiber. Domestic animals are such a gift, and the chance to see, touch, smell, and hear them each year is a true blessing, and a nice reminder that long before the supermarket there are families willing to endure a lot of uncertainty and hardship to bring forth food and fiber.
In the cattle barn, kids were hosing down their beasts in the “shower stalls,” and in the aisles they were prettying their best, spray-painting hooves, drying, trimming, shining. Time was running out, so we zipped quickly through the hog barn, admiring the sow with a litter of 12, then heading out. Rick had a call at 1:00, so we hugged and parted. I grabbed a corn dog, then headed to the car. It was one of the better fair visits ever, I think largely because Rick and I are so simpatico and share a lot of values.
In no time I was zipping northwest on Interstate 94, then U.S. Highway 10, then Minnesota Highway 25, through Foley, Buckman, Pierz, and Genola. Past Brainerd, and onto Crow Wing County 3 through Crosslake to my pal-since-1963 Tim McGlynn’s cabin on Big Trout Lake. Got there at 4:30, hugs and smiles. I missed him in 2013, so it was great to be back. We yakked a bit, then I jumped in the lake to clean off the road dirt. Grabbed a beer on the dock, yakked some more, then hopped in his boat and motored a mile east to a big dinner of walleye, a wonderful Up North fish, at a local lodge.
I woke Saturday to the cry of the loon, one of my favorite. It is the sound of the North Woods. Had a cup of coffee and more chatter, then borrowed one of Tim’s cool mountain bikes for a ride into Crosslake and breakfast with George Rasmusson, a former colleague from Republic Airlines and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. We had a great meal and a better yak, laughing hard. It had been three years. To keep busy, he’s become an excursion boat captain on Pelican Lake, and had some great stories from that job, and the airline biz before that. He’s a character.
Rode back to the cabin, hopped in Tim’s new, scaled-down motorhome (his house in the winter, which he spends out west, skiing and snowboarding), and headed north and west to look at a building lot he’s considering. He wants to downsize to a summer-only place, in a quieter location. The lake district in central Minnesota was always pretty built-up, and the retirement of baby boomers is making it more so.
At three we got back in the boat and headed through a chain of lakes to Bill and Sally Terry’s cabin, picked up four passengers, and headed to Moonlite Bay to listen to the Elements, a rock band of older guys and one of their kids. Way fun. Drank beer, met old pals, danced a bit (my knees felt in for days), carried on like we were young again. Not! At 6:30 we motored home, washed up, and headed by car to the Terrys for dinner – it’s a traditional annual event, and it’s always big fun, with plenty to eat and drink. I had to be up early the next day, so we were home by 11.
I planned to take a bike ride at dawn Sunday, but a storm came through at four, so I packed up, had a cup of coffee, hugged Tim, and headed back to the Twin Cities in driving rain. I took a different, more interesting route home, skirting the shore of the vast Mille Lacs Lake, third largest in a state of big lakes. It was still stormy, and the water looked angry. It was a cool sight. Stopped for breakfast at a small-town café, K-Bob’s in Princeton, then headed into town. I had just a bit of extra time, to I parked at Lexington and University and hopped on the new Green Line light rail, riding seven stops west to Stadium Village, in the shadow of the new University of Minnesota football field. Nice system, and well-planned new development along the line, on a street long in need of fresh blood.
At 11, I met another decades-long pal, Bob Woehrle, for a cup of coffee near our old house in St. Paul. Had a great catch-up yak, plenty of laughs, then zipped back to the airport and flew home.