I spent two years of my life, 2001-2003 living in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, in the hamlet of Roseville. This little town offered nothing other than an apartment with a garage, double-paned windows, heat paid, and reasonable driving distance to work. Essentially, in my mid-20s, I looked at one of the great cities of the nation and decided, nah, I'm going to live on something called "Old Highway 8" and eat at Taco Bell every week. These are the poor decisions I make on a daily basis. I didn't see a single concert and attended exactly one sporting event. But, I also made $29,000 a year-- not exactly easy living.

My first visit to Minnesota actually happened in 1992. My family found it a good idea to take a short vacation to Minneapolis. We saw the Twins meet the Red Sox. We probably went to the zoo. I don't even know anymore what we did apart from that. On that trip we learned of the phrase "there are two seasons, winter and road construction." I also picked up a KQRS bumper sticker. I put it on the back of my station wagon.

In 1994, the annual handbell choir trip took me to Minnesota a second time. Actually we first stopped in Ames, Iowa, home of the bad smell. Welcome to Ames, check your good looks and acceptable odor at the door! We had a performance during a church service the following morning. But this Saturday night Bryan Hickey and I stayed with an elderly couple out in the country. They argued consistently over the insignificant things in life, and had probably not dealt with kids in a long time. They served us peach ice cream (good) and asked if we wanted to watch a German World War II documentary with them (not good). The ring went well; the church members even applauded during the service and took up a collection for us. “Beside Still Waters” is one of our finer accomplishments, because of the patience and emotion required to play it correctly. Of course, we use it strictly for church services.

The next stop was Rochester, Minnesota, home to the famous Mayo Clinic. An intriguing moment which cries out “small world,” happened, as one of our ringers sees her relatives in an adjacent car on the highway. We both stopped at the next rest area, at which we also found someone’s wallet. We hit Rochester with no fanfare. About ten people showed up for our concert, but we ate well. They even brought cheesecake for us to viciously inhale. All of the adult males and the male ringers stayed at the minister’s home. They were quite a talkative family, and with good reason. They had no television in the house to distract them. Evil television!

After Rochester we spent a few days in the Twin Cities. First stop-- the zoo. The following expressions may not be uttered in my presence ever again: “How cute!” and “That’s so adorable!” I toured the zoo with Melissa Pappert and Becca Humburg, just so you know, as my friend Jed would not have said any of these phrases.

The days in Minneapolis and St. Paul have blurred together. We did a lot in three days. I think it was three days anyway. We’ll start with the concerts. I remember one concert in church (once again, a low turnout) which had an interesting twist. Sometimes we entered ringing something similar to a cadence, walking side by side to our positions on stage. But the gallery noticed we entered sans shoes. I'm certain they expected 15 teenagers from Kansas to enter barefoot. That's what ignorant people do best. But we did have an excuse. Apparently, someone left our suitcase, containing our shoes, back in Rochester. I don't recall who had the responsibility of packing the clothes. I know it wasn’t myself or Jed, because we carried tables, heavy bell cases, and packed the small trailer attached to one of the vans. Our director usually assigned the responsibility of the clothes to one of the girls, who packed them inside the smaller van itself. Someone drove more than an hour to Rochester to retrieve our shoes, then drove more than an hour back to Minneapolis.

Outside of church, we played one concert in a retirement home, and we played one in the Mall of America. The latter had a lot of interesting aspects to it. We played in an open space in front of everyone, whether they wanted to listen or not. The echo resonated down every corridor. Of note, a blister on my left hand opened during the performance. I didn’t notice until I saw my white glove covered in blood. I’m proud to say I beat O.J. to the bloody glove incident.

We drew a good audience. The manager rewarded us with a pass for a free ride at the indoor amusement park. I toured the mall with Melissa, Becca and Bryan, since Jed had his eye on another female ringer. I understood completely. I felt Melissa and company needed to experience some patented chaos. Of course it would involve Bryan in a negative way. I insisted Melissa apply a lot of lipstick, and when Bryan wasn’t looking, plant a big wet one on him. She wouldn’t do it the first time. But she couldn’t resist the next time I reminded her of my dare. She placed a wet, sloppy kiss with a lot of residue on the back of Bryan’s neck. He ran to the restroom to wash it off.

Becca also bore the brunt of my misbehavior. At the counter of one store were what I initially identified as fragrances or perfumes. I tricked Becca into extending her arm, which I sprayed up and down. Only then did I look at the bottle, which actually contained beach-scented room spray (according to the label). Essentially, I covered Becca with Glade. And yes, she got me too. We carried the smell all the way back to the van, piquing the curiosity of our fellow ringers. I played dumb.

Other stops included the state capitol, a cathedral, a science museum for kids, and several roadsides to consult maps. The real treasure, though, was the museum of medical quackery. The two-room museum consisted of everything from a phrenology scanner (which still functioned) to anti-aging machines and all sorts of sexual devices. I still have my brain scan somewhere.

The same day, we had dinner at a sponsor’s house, a house that included a backyard pond. Jed and I canoed around the pond skillfully, as we had done it in Boy Scouts. Others weren’t so fortunate. Four girls, Dyan, Lori, Laura and Katie crammed into a canoe (made for two, not four) and attempted to maneuver around the pond. They had slowly paddled a quarter of the way around when two of them tried to stand up. Predictably, the canoe capsized and all four girls fell into the murky, algae-filled mess. One adult (under his breath) described them as a “big pile of stupid.” I found that appropriate. The pond scum smell was considerably less popular than the beach room spray. Even a shower couldn’t kill that stench immediately. Jed, Bryan and I stayed in two different places in that time. One home included a kid who needed a serious beating for his smarmy attitude and skill at video games.

From Minneapolis, we went west and north to Bemidji, site of the festival. Two stops in between included the Sinclair Lewis museum in Sauk Centre, and the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which one can walk across to the opposite side. Bemidji afforded us a cold lake and a large statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox. Bryan had a birthday, and Melissa knew what to do. When we visited the statue, all the girls put on lipstick and each gave him a wet kiss. We didn’t let Bryan wash it off this time.

Unlike previous festivals, no one wanted to be our friend. In particular, a choir from Duluth, Minnesota developed an arrogant attitude from being the best at their region’s festival every year. They saw us as a threat. They did play a great concert, but I believe we topped them. This was our great triumph on the tour. We played a two-song show at the festival, featuring “Barber of Seville” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.” A powerful flourish at the end forced the crowd to leap to their feet and give us the longest standing ovation I’ve ever experienced. To us, it seemed like any ordinary concert. But we forget that adults find it interesting that kids can play so well. The Duluth choir did not find it amazing. In fact, their director gave Jed and I the evil eye, saying “good job” as he passed us by. Their bass bell player (who sometimes played two in one hand-- a ridiculously hard maneuver) attempted a knockdown with his shoulder. I just grinned. It must be tough to accept defeat when bells is all that one lives for.

2011 Trip: Minneapolis

With minimal fuss, I flew to Minneapolis, a metro area where I used to live. This time, I actually had money to spend. I bought a ticket to the Twins game, in the new Target Field. My seat is in the top row, with a view of the railroad tracks far below. The visiting White Sox won.

Minneapolis to Bemidji

The highlight of this drive is my 30-minute stop in a St. Cloud parking lot to record an air check of an AM radio station. This is my first trip using my CC Witness, a pocket-sized radio recorder that saves files in mp3 format. As I remembered from a previous bell choir trip, the scenery is mostly the same trees and some water. I got a bit mixed up taking the correct Bemidji exit since I didn’t print the directions to the motel. But once there, I walked to the nearby campus of the local university, where I spent a few nights in a dormitory as a bell choir participant all those years ago. I took some night pictures by the lake. I’m sure the lakeside campus is a blast in the winter.

Northern Minnesota and Grand Forks

I begin to realize I packed too much driving into this trip. Today I drove all the way to International Falls in time for lunch. It rained most of the way. It rained heavily as I ate lunch in a downtown Chinese restaurant (probably the best meal of the trip). I didn’t take a single picture in town for some reason, and I didn’t cross the Canadian border there.

In the afternoon I drove across the northernmost highway in the state, through boundary water towns advertising the best walleye fishing anywhere. I stopped for a while in Roseau, sitting in the park while recording a local station. Much of northern Minnesota starts to resemble Kansas, and that’s because I’m closing in on my first visit to North Dakota. But would you believe no rooms are available in Grand Forks? The motel overbooked, partly because families are moving students back to the local university, and partly because the oil boom has brought excess workers without the housing required. Luckily, I found a room in the more expensive Holiday Inn. Otherwise I would have slept in my rental car.


I learned an important lesson today. Canada doesn’t like you. Yes, it is a sovereign nation. Canada can do as it pleases. I wanted to visit for one day. So why detain me?

From Grand Forks, I drove to the border. Mind you, this is prairie country. It’s dreadfully flat, treeless, lifeless. Most of the border crossers are commercial truckers, and it’s probably easy to hide illicit shipments within legal cargo. A solitary man without a lot of luggage and no good reason to drive to Winnipeg will generate suspicion. That’s me. The border patrol is geographically ignorant. No, I did not drive from Kansas continuously, all through the night, to be with you today. The border patrol asks bizarre questions, presumably to upend your prepared story. If you want a background check, the border is a good place to do it. They’ll keep you a windowless room and perform one, while you wait. The best part: if you’re squeaky-clean like me, the border patrol must politely hide its frustration. It’s a wonderful feeling. I suppose assignment to the prairie provinces is the worst assignment, so perhaps I should not judge.

With a stamp in my passport, I drove the highway to Winnipeg. The scenery is nearly the same, the exception being a greater number of wind farms. The speed limit is 100 to 110 kilometers per hour. It doesn’t take long to reach Winnipeg, a large city, an oasis almost, in an otherwise dull part of the continent.

With about $50 Canadian in my wallet, I didn’t intend to do much. I tried to eat lunch at one of the city’s critically-acclaimed diners, but found it was closed for a few weeks while the owners went on vacation. So I ate at Subway and marveled at everything being printed in both English and French. I noticed the streets were much narrower than American streets, at least those in the central United States anyway. How do the snow plows operate? Does Winnipeg even bother with plows?

I stopped by one of the city’s larger parks. I hiked along an urban trail, but high water from recent rainfall forced me to reverse course. I also inspected a little botanical garden. By mid-afternoon, I had driven around downtown and the western side of the city, satisfied with my ability to wing it sans a decent map. But I’m keeping an eye on the gas gauge, as well as the 50 kph speed limit. I didn’t bring a lot of Canadian money, and I don’t know if my debit card will work in Canada, so I drive back to the border. Again, I suffer through the same idiocy at the hands of the border patrol. Again, they can do nothing but let me pass.

Return to Minneapolis

The Holiday Inn at Grand Forks serves an incredibly disgusting breakfast. The eggs are the pre-cooked, frozen variety, requiring a microwave. The vile quality of this meal knows no bounds. I walked down the street to McDonald’s instead. Today is another long driving day, with nothing planned. Western Minnesota looks like North Dakota. The traffic increases as one approaches Minneapolis. I ate at the Denny’s near the hotel, and I flew home the next morning.