On Saturday, August 29, I flew from the beach to my home state, landing in Minneapolis/St. Paul at 4:15. Picked up a wonderful, made-in-Michigan Ford Focus (anyone who still thinks U.S. automakers haven’t figured it out ought to drive one of these cars: quiet, zippy, sips fuel, the whole package). Motored to Lund’s supermarket at 50th and France, the shopping area closest to where I grew up, bought some flowers, and 15 minutes handed them to Rick and Murph Dow, my hosts for the night. I was with Rick a few weeks earlier in Buenos Aires, but hadn’t seen Murph since Notre Dame football 10 months earlier. She is a terrific cook, and we ate and drank well that night, and, as always with those two, laughed hard. Rick rolled some varied videos as we ate dessert; the two best were of the young English singer known simply as Adele, and some outrageous video of a street band in New Orleans that he shot himself – Rick has been into music all his life, and he’s got a ton of cool stuff. Was asleep by 9:30 in anticipation of a big Sunday.
Up at dawn, hugged Murph, out the door to the Minnesota State Fair, my 30th consecutive year (and have probably been a total of 45 times). We met my longtime pal Bob Woehrle for breakfast at the Hamline United Methodist Church dining hall, since 1897, the oldest foodservice establishment on the fairgrounds. The Fair visit is formulaic, so step one was the juried art show, where since 1986 we’ve been buying lovely pieces with strong Minnesota sense of place. The Fair had already been open three days, so I didn’t really expect to find anything in our price range, but I did, a wonderful piece. Rick, Bob, and I agreed that the show was better than it had been in years, and we stayed an hour, admiring some wonderful work.
Next stop was the Creative Activities building, as usual filled with remarkable handwork of people with plenty of time. High point there was a nice T-t-S moment with a young woman who won 1st and 2nd prizes for maple syrup. Her parents, who we also met, had 200 sugar maples 200 miles north, near Detroit Lakes. We yakked for quite a while, firing questions as curious folk are wont to do. One tidbit: one medium-sized maple tree (theirs were 70-80 years old, they estimated) yields sap that will boil down to about a quart of syrup (I thought about that a few days later when I was pouring syrup on the breakfast pancakes for the girls and me). Perhaps someday you’ll find their Spen Sugarbush label in the supermarket.
Stop 3 was the Horticulture Building, time for some beer tasting at the Minnesota Craft Brewers’ Association set-up, which has become huge in the last few years. Then onto the last stops, in the animal barns. Out of concern for the possible spread of bird flu, the poultry barn was empty, but there were lots of rabbits nearby. Then next door to the sheep, me explaining to Andrea, a prizewinning 4-H seamstress, about my fleece swap – the new fiber was rich with lanolin and an earthy smell. Pausing to pet a ewe, a remembered Pastor Goff’s homily a week earlier: “the password is Thank You,” in this case for the gift of domesticated animals. A huge gift. From a couple months earlier, I also recalled portions of the superb English novel A God in Ruins. Although the family around which the book revolves live a solid upper-middle-class life in the country outside London, domesticated animals play a large role, and are portrayed with respect and admiration. My sentiments exactly.
As I have written in previous years, thanks to my dad’s rural roots, this city kid has some grasp of livestock raising, which led us to a nice conversation with a young stockman who was looking after his family’s beautiful Limousin steer. Then into the swine barn, past the goats, and across the grounds for a last beer at a new place, The Blue Barn.
It was a warm Sunday, and the Fair was packed. Check and done, we said our goodbyes, walked back to our cars and peeled off. As I have done six times since 2008, I zipped Up North to see my pal-since-1963 Tim McGlynn, who lives on Big Trout Lake on the northern edge of Crow Wing County. Love those place names, and loved being back in the woods. A couple months earlier Tim moved from the more built-up south side of the lake to the north, which despite being less than a mile across the water had a totally different feel: the road was unpaved, the cabins more modest, the lake quieter. He bought a lot with a 60-year-old simple cabin that was about to be razed for a modern cottage. It was great to see him again. We grabbed a beer and sat on the dock, then boated over for a walleye (walleyed pike, a splendid Northern fish) dinner and a good yak. Was asleep by nine.
Up at 5:30, more yaks over coffee, then a splendid 24-mile bike ride, then a bit of work. It was just noon and I had itchy feet, so I peeled off and drove north to Leech Lake, the third largest in a state of big lakes. I had not seen Leech since I was a little boy, and it was vast. Tim recommended lunch on the water at Walker, seat of Cass County, and I literally stumbled upon the historic Chase Hotel, built 1924. They had a pleasant deck with a fine view of one of the bays (just the bay was a vast expanse water). The scene was truly “the good life in Minnesota” (see sidebar), made better with another plate of walleye, in this case a huge sandwich and glass of pale ale from the Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors.
Sidebar: The Good Life in Minnesota
Sitting on the deck looking out on all that water, it was indeed “the good life in Minnesota,” a phrase that immediately brought to mind the cover of the August 13, 1973, issue of Time. I smiled when I thought of that cover and where I saw it. I was far from Minnesota. Walking briskly past a newsstand on a concourse of Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, Australia, I spotted the cover, pivoted, and, smiling broadly, bought a copy. There was Wendell Anderson, the Governor, also smiling broadly. The story inside made me stand tall, describing many virtues of my home state, including recent legislation that created a statewide pool for K-12 education funding, to equalize resources and help ensure that kids in rural and poor school districts would not be disadvantaged because of a smaller property tax base. Seems pretty much commonsense, but back then it was a radical idea, termed “the Minnesota Miracle.” Though the state has lost some of its commitment to progressive policy and social justice, and there are plenty of simplistic political clowns, it remains a remarkably decent place. And I’m so proud to say I come from there.
Fortified, I jumped back in the car and drove east on Highway 200 to Whipholt, where I could see the main part of Leech Lake, then south to Breezy Point Resort and a couple of beers with another long buddy, George Rasmusson. When I started in the airline business in 1984, with Republic, George became a fast friend. He was and remains one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, with stories galore, and that warm afternoon we sat on the deck beside Pelican Lake and recounted tales of airplanes, fishing, and more. Maybe the funniest yarn was about the time a few years back when George got a huge fish hook (suitable for catching a 50-pound muskie, short for muskellunge, a prized big species to freshwater anglers) stuck in a finger while chasing muskies on Lake of the Woods, a big lake on the Minnesota-Ontario border. He calmly boated to Kenora, on the Canadian side, docked, and walked to the hospital ER. The staff at reception, in the ER hallway, and in the examining room told him – three times – “we get to keep the lure.” After a newbie doctor successful extracted the hook (while the how-to manual was propped open on George’s belly), he walked down the hall and spotted a shadow box full of hooks and lures removed from patients’ bodies! He’s got lots more tales like that! It was great to see him.
Was back at Tim’s by 6:30, into the boat and through the chain of lakes to a third helping of walleye, then back home just before dark. I had not heard the cry of the loon in the 27 hours Up North, then at 8:51 Monday evening, that sweet sound arrived! It was a perfect end to a splendid day.
Tim rode back to the Twin Cities with me, and it was nice to have company and more time to yak. He’s exceedingly well informed, so the conversation ranged across business, society, culture. I dropped him at the airport (he was headed west to buy a small RV in Boise), and at 10 met my 12th Grade English teacher, Mr. Jensen; 47 years after entering his class, I still have some reluctance about using his first name! I hadn’t seen him for 18 months, and was good to catch up, especially to exchange book recommendations, as one would expect from a former literature teacher. Next stop was lunch with my nephew Evan, who I had seen six months earlier – but was still grand to catch up, and learning about his work as an Uber driver. And the last stop, a mile from the airport, was a moment to place my hand on my Dad’s headstone at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, and simply express my gratitude for what he and all the others did for us 70 years ago. The password is Thank You.
Dropped the car, flew home, and had MacKenzie and Henry on leash just at dusk. It was really nice to be home, even if for just two days . . .