03 April 2015

#AWP15: A Minneapolis Guide From an Actual Local

Hello there, Literary People. Welcome to Minneapolis.

You may be wondering: Will I meet Prince? Will I have to get around via sled dog? Do all the local restaurants serve Jell-O or just most of them? Will I spot Prince riding a dogsled and eating purple Jell-O and maybe some raspberry sorbet (pun!)? Because that's totally an essay I want to write for The Awl.

Well. I’m Doug. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I have answers and guidance for you. 

(Also, while I have your attention, please come to a reading that I’m doing, along with eight other travel writers, at a bar called Honey on Saturday at 4pm. More details below.)

General Things to Keep in Mind

  • The weather's gonna change in five minutes. The forecast calls for temps ranging from the upper 20s to the mid-70s so . . . yeah, that’s how it goes. Welcome. Be prepared for anything.
  • Minnesotans are friendly, so don’t hesitate to ask anyone for directions and such.
  • We’re also not yokels and though we can joke about eating Jell-O and living in igloos, we'd rather you didn't make Flyover Country quips or, worse, express astonishment that there's diversity and culture and even ONE OF THE BEST MODERN ART MUSEUMS IN THE WORLD OUT HERE IN THE HINTERLANDS, WOW! Seriously, if anyone says anything like that, I swear to God we'll . . . scowl imperceptibly as we give you directions and welcome you to our city and tell you about last night's hockey game. 
  • We're also quite passive-aggressive. 
  • The best way to see the city is on a bike. (See "Getting Around," below.)
  • Know the key phrases:
    • Saint Paul is, to hear most Minneapolitans describe it, a mythical land at the edge of the known universe, rumored to hold such enchantments as the state capitol, professional hockey, and unicorns. I can verify that, in fact, Saint Paul is both real and wonderful. You should take the time to head east and explore Minneapolis's twin city (see "Other Things to See and Do). 
    • Nicollet Mall is the main downtown eating/shopping street, near the Convention Center. Say it the local, definitely-not-French way: "NICK-o-lit" or "NICK-uh-lit."
    • A Jucy (or Juicy) Lucy is the local contribution to the culinary universe. Basically, a cheeseburger with the cheese inside. Do eat one, even if you're a hard-core granola-and-sprouts type. They're greasy manna. Don't make the rookie mistake of biting into it immediately after it arrives, unless you want third-degree burns on your tongue. Wait a minute. 
    • Nordeast is the area just across the river from downtown Minneapolis. 
    • Uptown is actually south of downtown by a few miles. I know, New Yorkers. Hush. 
    • The River is the Mississippi. It's a great place to go and brood and calm your neurotic, bookish mind. 
    • "That's interesting" or "That's different" are our passive-aggressive ways of saying, basically, WTF. These are both strong, negative reactions, though only when said with a particular flat tone or a big, fake smile. If it's a genuine smile, we probably mean it's actually interesting or different. Good luck trying to discern between the two. 

And now, a brief interlude in which a local sage named Slug explains Minneapolitans' low-key pride in their city:




Getting Around

  • We've got buses and light rail (see Metrotransit.org for schedules). Buses require exact change (or rather, they don’t GIVE change, so if all you’ve got is a fiver, it’ll be an expensive trip). Each light rail stop has ticket kiosks that accept credit cards. Once you've paid for a ride, you're good for unlimited rides on all buses and trains for two and a half hours. 
  • You tend to find cabs only at designated taxi stands, e.g. at hotels. Finding one downtown is easy. Anywhere else, you'll probably have to make a phone call.
  • Get on a bike. The Nice Ride bike-sharing program just reopened for the season. We’ve got a (really, truly) world-class system of parks and parkways and trails, so it’s a great town for two-wheeled exploring, especially outside the downtown core.
  • Get in the skyways. If you're on foot and if it’s cold or rainy or you just feel like a trippy and Very Minneapolis experience, you can see much of downtown via the skyways, a sort of hamster Habitrail for humans, with shops and restaurants and such. The geography of the skyways is haphazard and confusing and your phone map probably won’t help you, but there are large maps posted all over the place or you can use the SkywayMyWay app. The skyways connect to the Convention Center and are open 6:30am-10:00pm.


Eating & Drinking

To eat like a local, you'll need to have a Jucy Lucy and drink one of our many fine local beers (e.g. Surly or Summit). 

The Convention Center area, like its counterparts across the globe, is surrounded by overpriced and largely mediocre restaurants. But there are some good options within walking distance:
  • Hell's Kitchen  serves up some local specialties like bison burgers and walleye and . . . kangaroo sliders. They're best known for their breakfast and brunch. Also: excellent happy hour deals. Their sibling, Angel Food Bakery, is a nice spot for a buttery, sugary midday snack. 
  • Vincent A Restaurant is French and fancy and expensive, but their bar is French and fancy  and reasonably priced, and offers the very best gourmet Juicy Lucy in town ($8 during happy hour). And at $13.50, their two-course lunch is a hell of a deal for what you get.
  • Barrio is kinda loud and crowded but worth it for the food. If it's warm, their outside seating area is one of the best in town, right on Nicollet Mall. Another good happy hour spot.
  • For cheaper eats, head to the food trucks along Marquette Avenue at lunch, or to the myriad restaurants along Nicollet Avenue south of Grant Street (e.g. Salsa a la Salsa and Market Barbecue). My favorite food truck, Velee Deli, just opened Real Shop in the skyway. 
Farther afield, the best places to sample the full culinary wealth of Minneapolis is the Midtown Global Market, which has tons of food stands, with solid representation from the city's large Mexican, Vietnamese, Somali, and Indian communities. (True fact: Anthony Bourdain says we have the best Vietnamese food in the USA.)

Nicollet Avenue south of downtown, all the way to Lake Street, is known as "Eat Street" and also has a long, long roster of restaurants. Hop on the 18 bus on Nicollet. Try Quang or Jasmine 26 for Vietnamese, or Harry Singh's Original Caribbean Restaurant (get the roti) or Glam Doll Donuts.

Or head across the river to East Hennepin Avenue (via buses 10 or 17), where you can go old-school at Kramarczuck's Eastern European deli or drink at a time-warp of a bar, Nye's Polonaise Room (named Esquire's "Best Bar in America" a few years back and closing this year after a long, long run; cozy up to the piano bar while you can). My own favorite restaurant in town, Brasa (Caribbean comfort food by a Beard-Award-winning chef) is also over there.

UPDATE: If you're vegan, Glam Doll Donuts and Brasa (noted above) are two excellent options, as are Pizza Luce and French Meadow. Thanks to Susan for adding this in the comments.

Juicy Lucy. The specific grease alchemy going on here actually makes it
good for you. True. Kim via Wikimedia Commons

Other Things to See and Do

  • Nicollet Island, which looks like a twee little village hidden in the shadow (almost literally) of downtown Minneapolis. Most locals don't even know about it. (Here's a thing I wrote about it.
  • Make a pilgrimage to Open Book, the heart of the Minneapolis literary scene, housing The Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Editions, and Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, which has a small but superb gift shop with all manner of artistic books and book-making supplies and generally Really Effing Cool Stuff for any literary types.
  • Check out the lakes (south of downtown) or the downtown riverfront, with its old mills and the landmark Stone Arch Bridge.
  • The Mill City Museum is right along the riverfront, in the ruin of an General Mills "A" Mill, which was once the largest flour mill in the world. A genuinely fascinating and well-curated sort of place, it tells the history of Minneapolis, the history of milling, and how those two histories are intertwined. Also, they have a baking lab, where you get to sample the end result of the milling process: cookies.
  • The Walker Art Museum, at the very edge of downtown (walkable from the Convention Center if you're up for some exercise) is the aforementioned One of the Finest Modern Art Museums in the World; its free Sculpture Garden is also a marvel of a public space.
  • The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is . . . honestly, not that different from other big-city museums. Greek statues, European Master paintings, some American stuff. World-class, don't get me wrong, but not necessarily more exciting than other museums you've seen. But, ahem, admission is totally free. And the Prairie School design section shows off our iconic homegrown aesthetic. So there's that.
  • First Ave, the club that Prince made famous, is in downtown Minneapolis. You should probably go take a gander. 
  • UPDATE: Go to Saint Paul. I left this off the first time around, because it's actually not that easy to get from the Convention Center area to the most interesting parts of Saint Paul if you don't have a car. But then Nick Coleman (a longtime local newspaper columnist I've long admired and who I honestly can't believe saw this post) commented below and ... Well, he's right, you should make time for Saint Paul. Best thing to do, if you have a few hours and want to explore our twin to the east, is to hop on the light rail Green Line and head down University Avenue. For an offbeat experience, get off at Snelling and go to Ax-Man Surplus Store, purveyors of all manner of odd and wonderful and just plain confusing stuff. It's like Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore crossed with a Radio Shack crossed with some sort of surrealist toy store. Also: lots of delicious food nearby, like On's Kitchen Thai Cuisine.

Also . . .

I'm reading with eight other travel writers, and you should come! Free and open to the public, at a sweet subterranean bar called Honey--drink a cocktail, hear some tales from across the globe. It'll be a grand ol' time. Saturday, April 11th, 4-6pm. More details on the Facebook event page.

Honey is across the street from Nye's Polonaise Room, so come hear some travel stories and then head across the street to drink and polka with a cross-section of Minneapolis. (Map/directions.)

click to enlarge


Want to know how to get Twins tickets, where to find the best Jucy Lucy, or why you must never, ever utter the word "casserole"? The comments are open; ask away!

23 January 2015

End of the Road: Notes on Wrapping Up a Tour of the Territories


Back when I was an American Studies major at Carleton College, we had departmental t-shirts that said, “Gone looking for America. Back in five minutes.”

It was a joke, of course, but even as we acknowledged the incredible complexity of “looking for” this nation, this shared experience, the fact is that we overlooked many of the myriad chapters of the American Story—people, cultures, places.

For one thing, we never once studied the United States beyond the states, which is to say the territories (and the commonwealths and the freely associated states; I'm mostly going to use "territories" as a catch-all below).



Over the past year, I’ve been trying to remedy that immense gap in my understanding of the nation. The voyage has taken just a bit longer than five minutes and has involved flying more than 31,000 miles, to the farthest-flung specks of American soil. Across the International Dateline. Across the equator.

Like the nation itself, this road trip has been wonderful and weird and sometimes kinda heartbreaking.

And tomorrow, it’s done. I fly back to icy Minneapolis. To write and stay put for a while and relax at home with Maren. There’s no place like home; I think I heard that somewhere.

But for another 24 hours, I’m here in Vieques, a “double territory,” as one local described it—officially part of Puerto Rico but sorta not quite, just as Puerto Rico is officially part of the USA, but sorta not quite. It’s a quiet, end-of-the-road sort of place, with wild horses and a beached sailboat rusting on the waterfront and a bioluminescent bay that made me giggle with wonder as I kayaked around it last night, plus areas where you can’t go because there’s live ordnance still lying around from the decades when the Navy used Vieques as a bombing range (they finally stopped in 2003, after it became an international cause).



Tonight, I’m going to put on my one pair of long pants and the least-wrinkly shirt in my backpack and treat myself to a nice meal. I’m going to toast the territories and the people I’ve met along the way.

In the movies, this would be the part where there’s a blurred-edge montage of memories and poignant moments. Of the tiny villages and polyglot cities-of-the-future and treacherous jungle roads and transcendent sunsets. Of the people I met: the former Marines and environmentalists and traditional sailors who navigate by stars. The radio DJs and musicians and tattoo artists and factory workers. The government officials and end-of-the-road hippie dropouts and football coaches. The random passersby on streets, in restaurants, at a nondescript convenience store in the Puerto Rican town of Arroyo. The chef who invited me into his restaurant so he could sing me some Bob Dylan (after a round of shots for everyone, of course).

I’m profoundly grateful to everyone who offered insights, travel tips, books, drinks, tours, and/or a place to stay. Thank you all. Thanks so much. Your hospitality and assistance and insights are what made this journey so grand.



Thirty-one thousand miles works out to nearly three times around the perimeter of the Contiguous 48 states. It’s the sort of distance that makes you expect that, in all that time, you’d wind up somewhere with giraffes or castles or, you know, not a United States post office. But there was USPS, every single time. And I never had to change currency or get a visa. I know how this works, and I now know why and how the USA came to be involved with each of these places, yet it still amuses and confuses me to be so far from home yet able to send a postcard for 34 cents.

Maybe it’ll never quite make sense to me. I’m still processing it all, and I shared very little from the road here on the blog (though I’m better at Twitter, FYI). I’m saving the big stories and insights for the book (next year …).

For now, though, I offer you a quick trip recap by the numbers.



Miles flown: More than 31,000

Flights taken: 18, by my best count, but maybe more.

Miles driven: Dunno. But hundreds.

Cars rented: 6

Cars majorly scratched up on narrow mountain roads: 1

Total number of islands on which I set foot: 14 (Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, Saint John, Tutuila, Anu’u, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kwajalein, Majuro, Puerto Rico, Vieques)

Times I crossed the equator: 2 (to/from American Samoa)

Times I crossed the International Dateline: 2 (to/from Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands)

Places visited, in order: US Virgin Islands (territory), American Samoa (territory), Guam (territory), Northern Mariana Islands (commonwealth), Chuuk (airplane layover, so probably shouldn’t count as a visit; freely associated state), Pohnpei (ibid on both counts), Marshall Islands (freely associated state), Puerto Rico (commonwealth).

Number of times I was corrected in the commonwealths for using the word territory: More than a few.

Official distinction between the two: Commonwealths have sliiightly more autonomy (and are not considered colonies by the UN, though the territories are).

Actual distinction, if we’re being honest: Really not much at all.

(And what of the freely associated states? They’re technically autonomous nations, but use US Postal Service, US currency, FEMA disaster relief, and are in many ways quasi-territories.)

Extreme points of the USA visited: southernmost (American Samoa), westernmost (Guam), easternmost (Virgin Islands)

Local cheap beers consumed: Um. Quite a few.

Tasting notes: Cheap beer tastes pretty the same the world over. Pretty sure they're all actually bottled in the same place.

Local pastries consumed: Again, quite a few. Highlights include a coconut-filled doughnut in American Samoa and a guava pastry in Puerto Rico.

Oddest drink consumed: Mavi in Puerto Rico (made with fermented bark; there’s a similar drink called mawbi in the USVI, but it tastes a lot better)

Food I’m most glad I didn’t have to try: Purple sea worms in American Samoa, which were not in season.

Place that most scared me: The former air force base on Tinian, where all the buildings and bunkers and tanks and runways still remain, slowly being taken over by the jungle. I poked my head inside a pitch-dark bunker and something moved and I sprinted the hell away from there.

Teeny-tiny airplanes flown on: 6

Number of flights on the world’s most dangerous regularly-scheduled air route: 2

Windy, potholed, scary-as-hell mountain roads driven: Countless.

Times lost on said roads: A whoooole lot

Long mountain-hikes completed: 2

Territories in which I saw a baseball stadium: 4

Territories in which I saw a cricket ground: 2

Average cost of a gas of gallon: At least 50% more than in Minnesota

Mix of convenience-store food aisles between American and non-American calorific snax: precisely half and half, in each place.

Territories that played a role in World War II: All of them.

Territories that were active battlegrounds in World War II: Guam and Northern Marianas (and American Samoa, in the sense that there was one mortar fired).

Territories with considerable lingering signs of other colonial rulers: 4 (Denmark in the USVI; Spain in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Marianas; Japan in Guam and the Northern Marianas).

Earliest date of acquisition of current territories: 1898 (Guam, Puerto Rico, via the Spanish-American War).

Latest date of official acquisition of current territories: 1978 (Northern Marianas, although they’d been under US rule as part of the United Nations Trust Territories since the end of World War II).

Hats lost: 4

Hats found with my last name on them: 1. On a remote mountain trail in American Samoa, right after my guide was talking about the mischievous local ghosts, and I’m still unnerved by the whole thing.

Guns fired: 1. With Japanese tourists on Guam. There are a bunch of gun ranges where tourists from Japan, China, and Russia go to have the quintessential American experience of dressing up like cowboys and shooting guns.

Hello Kitty gelatos consumed in the shade of a large luxury-good shopping mall (outside the Gucci store, to be specific) immediately after firing a gun: 1

WTF moments: Countless.

Rank of the barbecue on Guam among the best I’ve ever had: Right up there, top two or three. If there were any justice, this would be considered with Kansas City and Memphis and Texas among the nation’s great barbecue hotspots.

Salsa lessons taken: 1

Salsa lessons utterly failed: 1

Unspeakably beautiful sunsets observed: So, so many.

Unspeakably beautiful sunsets interrupted by marching, chanting Marines and a (toy) drone flying overhead: 1

Date by which I have to process all of this and write it into something cohesive and not overly long, and submit a manuscript: June 1st. Wish me luck. 


15 January 2015

Postcard from San Juan: The Strange and Wonderful Fiesta de la Calle San Sebastian


I'm at the Fiesta de la Calle San Sebastian in San Juan, standing on the edge of a crowd grinding to some hard-core oontz-oontz electronica, when a guy in a green top hat offers me two little white capsules.

I take them.

Let's be clear: they're Tic Tacs. Or at least I'm pretty sure they are, because he dispenses them from the right container, and he's part of a group branded head-to-toe in the Tic Tac logo, and corporate guerrilla marketing is a common thing here.

But the fact remains, within minutes, I see some weird stuff. A shadow morphs into a bow-and-arrow-toting warrior. Don King appears in the crowd and so does and Elsa from "Frozen," toting a melted Olaf in a plastic bag, reduced to a pool of water, a carrot, and a couple of sticks. Stilt-walking spirits jam to roaming salsa bands, surrounded by cacophonous crowds. When the guy in a chicken mask walks by, I'm relieved by how normal he seems.


The streets are pools of light and competing waves of noise--bongos and "ONE OF US HAS TO STAY SOBER" and oontz-oontz-oontz--crushed into narrow, cobblestoned corridors. From the wrought-iron balcony above us, a woman who looks just like Dame Maggie Smith scowls down at us.

It's all so preposterous, so heady, that for a moment, I wonder, were those REALLY Tic Tacs?

Pretty sure. But I guess I can't be certain.

25 July 2014

My new book: THE FORGOTTEN STATES OF AMERICA


This just in: I have a new book coming out! It’ll be published by W.W. Norton … sometime in the future. It's a travelogue about a topic that I really should know more about--and you should, too. But most of us don't have a clue.

The working title is The Forgotten States of America: In Search of the Territories, Islands, and Far-Flung Specks of American Soil. From the book proposal:

When you get right down to it, the United States of America is not merely a nation of states. We are also comprised of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our territories. They’re filled with US National Parks and US post offices and people as proudly red-white-and-blue as any Daughter of the American Revolution.

And yet for most Americans, the territories are a mere curiosity. They’re extant but inconsequential, like poppy seeds or the Lifetime Network. Pop quiz: Name the US territories and tell me just one thing about each. Heck, just tell me how many territories there are. No, really. Try it. I’ll wait.

… Exactly.

The Forgotten States of America is a long-overdue introduction to the United States beyond the states, by way of a decidedly different sort of all-American road trip, to the five inhabited territories (there’s your answer: the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa) and other quasi-American points beyond.*

It’s a globe-hopping travelogue—with no visas or currency-exchanging necessary—examining the complicated histories of how the USA acquired each place (spoiler: military action, manifest destiny) and their ongoing role in the American Experiment (spoiler: military preparedness, manifest destiny). Most of all, the book showcases the here-and-now of modern life in the territories, with their diverse mix of millennia-old indigenous groups, opportunity-seeking immigrants, military personnel, and an eclectic array of dropouts, schemers, and dreamers.

Through the lens of my own experiences, I’ll show why the territories matter: How they made the USA what it is today and what they can show us—from their quasi-outsider position—about what it means to be American.

From bustling cities to quiet back roads to Lost World jungles of the we’re-definitely-not-in-the-states-anymore variety, I’ll be your guide as we seek answers and attempt to connect the dots between the territories and our nation of united … places.

--
Pictured above, clockwise from top left:
  • The Liberation Carnival on Guam, celebrating the decisive July 1944 battle when the USA defeated the Japanese Army, which had captured the island (then a USA territory) in 1941; 
  • the sign outside Hollywood Shooting on Guam, where Chinese, Japanese, and Russian tourists go to shoot guns and dress up like cowboys and feel Oh So American; 
  • a crew of National Park of American Samoa summer interns taking a break from clearing paths on the Mount Alava trail; 
  • probably the world’s most idyllic tropical-wonderland hotel, not telling you where because the owner doesn’t want publicity.

--
* Hello, people in Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. I know. I hear ya. “We’re commonwealths, dammit, not territories!” Check. I’ll explain the differences in the book. But that’ll require a bit of explaining, as you know. So for purposes of this post, I'm using “territories” as a catch-all term for “The parts of the United States that are not the states or DC.” Okay? We’re cool?

10 June 2014

Postcard Gallery: Stone Elephant, Magical Moose, and Top-Hatted Snail Edition

I get mail. Awesome, awesome mail. A selection of my recent favorites:



Some additional notes: 


This one might be my favorite, if only because of the comedic imagery of picturing a snail put on that bowtie. Think of the logistics that entails. (Top hats are easy, don't try that argument with me.)


This retro foursome, though, is also marvelous. Three of 'em come from excellent travel-writer pals; the fourth's from an excellent reader. There's Elephant Rock in the upper left, courtesy of Jessica Spiegel. To the right, the oh-so-modern Tijuana border, via Pam Mandel. The photo of the moose postcard, from Jenna Schnuerdoesn't do it justice, because it's one of those postcards printed on textured plastic, where the photo looks 3D, moving slightly as you tilt your head. And the oranges. LOOK AT THOSE THINGS. I've been to California. It's a pretty lush sort of place. Stuff grows. And grows. That's enough OJ for, like, a year's worth of breakfasts. Many thanks, Reader Melissa.



Also, by the way, the much-discussed Pantone Conspiracy is still going. After something like three years and well over a hundred of these things. I'm starting to think it's all part of some elaborate prank by the NSA: We know where you live. But for now, all we want to do is send you postcards. Enjoy! (But really, watch your back.)


Finally, this. A sly callback from a reader with a long memory, a reference to my very first published story, "Confessions of a Chicken Man."

04 June 2014

The Cabinet of Wonders Just Outside the Door: Notes on Exploring Your Own Neighborhood



The other day, Maren and I discovered a new species.

We were walking through a wooded section of a park in our neighborhood, listening for birds and trying to identify the swatches of feathers we could make out in the trees. Since we know nothing about birds, the conversation went something like this:

“There’s a robin!”

“There’s an oriole!”

“There’s a … um … Black and I Can’t Tell, Maybe Yellow-Winged—Yes, Yellow—Kinda Pudgybird.”

And then, in the undergrowth, a different sort of animal. Not a bird, but that’s all I can say with certainty.

It was the greyish brown of our local rabbits, and shared their round, fat bodies and huge back feet. It definitely hopped like a rabbit. But its tail was tiny, a stump rather than a fuzzball. And its head was like a squirrel: small, pointy, with stubby ears. We spent several minutes tracking it, intrigued, and decided it was the result of a squirrel mating with a bunny. A squnny.

I’m sure the naturalists will tell me it was some well-known species. But I prefer to think of it as a curiosity hiding in plain sight, our own personal discovery.

There’s always new stuff to find, even when we don’t venture very far. I love wandering around Minneapolis and exploring new neighborhoods. But lately I’ve realized that there's Cool New Stuff even closer to home, just across the street. Proximity is no guarantee of noticing. You have to be paying attention.

We live near Lake Harriet. In this City of Lakes, this one's ours. It’s a three-mile walk around the whole thing, three miles of well-kept paths and sights and delights, both lasting and ephemeral, personal and universal.

A cabinet of wonders just outside our door.

Some of them, actually, would fit in quite well with the believe-it-or-not curios of the actual Cabinets of Wonders that old-time aristocrats used to have.*

  • Here is an elf house. Real thing. It’s in the hollow at the base of a tree. There’s a little ornately-carved wooden door with a little brass handle, and kids open the door and leave notes inside, and Mr. Little Guy writes back.
  • Here is an elusive sea monster, which moves from lake to lake. Also a real thing, a Brontosaurus-poking-its-head-above-the-water thing. (Yes, there’s a logical explanation; no, I’m not going to provide it.)
  • Here is the old trolley, the last remnant of a streetcar line that once crisscrossed the Twin Cities, one of the nation’s finest transit systems. Now, it’s a $2-a-head time machine that goes back and forth on a mile of track and across the generations.
  • Here is what I’m pretty sure must be The World's Smallest Sailboat You Can Sit Inside, But Only After Mastering Elaborate Cirque de Soleil-Level Contortions. It looks like a sleek coffee table—very Urban Loft—into which someone has stuck a mast.
  • Even more confounding are The Sailboats Large Enough to Sail Around the World, plying the waters of this mile-across lake.

Keep walking.
  • Over here, on the south end, are what I always think of as The Woods, where the path is tunneled with trees. And if you look through the gap—that gap, right there—you’ll get a view of the downtown skyline across the water, compact and modern, glass skyscrapers that glow (I mean really glow) at sunset, and you’ve gotta come here, to this gap, for the best view.
  • Over there, asserting their presence, are the Sketchy Dudebro Ducks. Nature, man. Nature can be awful, especially during mating season. These guys are so terrifying in their pursuit of the Ladyducks—chasing them across the skies, attacking in the water—that just watching them for thirty seconds would surely make even the most hardened human misogynist shudder and join the National Organization for Women.
  • On a happier note, here are the teeny-tiny ducklings following their mother in the water, little balls of fluff with beaks, paddling for all they’re worth while the runners and Rollerbladers and Sketchy Dudebro Humans in their Hummers stop on the paths and roads encircling the lake and stare and smile and let out a collective aww.

The humans. Cruising in their cars, whizzing past on Tour-worthy bikes, walking with their families … to say nothing of the runners.

  • Oh, the runners. So many varieties of runners that to begin to categorize them in any manageable way, you'd have to start up at Class before branching out into Family, Genus, Species. The fleet-footed, tattooed hipster moms and dads pushing their kids in their $1,000 strollers. The gangly high-schoolers who plod past with an air of youthful exuberance matched by stoic commitment to beefing up the ol' college-app resume. The bespectacled and manifestly Not Fit creative types whose pallor and physique betrays their many hours indoors, in front of a computer, and a general lack of familiarity with the sun or exercise.
  • Over here are the sedentary lake-goers at the beach. Satisfying the innate human urge to go lie on a towel on some sand, even if the body of water isn’t exactly the ocean, the waves decidedly un-surfable, the stretch of sand just a few yards wide. No matter. Just look at the sign: South Beach.


The curiosities aren’t all visual.

  • There are also the sounds. The community orchestras playing at the bandshell, the walkers gossiping, the cars slowly cruising (yesterday, “Call Me Maybe” was on heavy rotation).
  • My favorite, though, is what you hear when you walk past the sailboats parked at their buoys: their halyards, all clinking that just-right metal-on-metal note, bright and resonant and deeply satisfying. A cricket-like embodiment of All That Is Right About Summer.
  • And the tastes. Next to the bandshell, there’s a refectory—snack bar, if you prefer—called Bread & Pickle. I recommend the cheese curds (house made) and a hibiscus iced tea (ditto). An odd pairing, I realize. But it works.

Or at least it works for me. And that may be because part of the attraction here at Lake Harriet comes from that most potent of all wonder-makers, nostalgia. The broader kind—the street car and bandshell do their golly-gee darndest to conjure a Rockwellian Simpler Time—but also the personal kind.


  • Out there, in the middle of the lake, that’s where we walked last winter, when it was frozen solid. Where we made snow angels and waved at the jets landing at MSP, which is just a couple of miles over that way.
  • Here is the Peace Garden, where my friends Andrew and Becky got married.
  • Here is the field where, watching a movie-in-the-park with Maren on one of our first dates, I first fell head-over-heels in love with her. The table where we sat, drinking hibiscus tea and eating cheese curds and chatting until long after Bread & Pickle had closed for the night.
  • Here is the bench where, one unseasonably warm evening in March, I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me.
  • Here is the kiosk where you can rent a canoe or a kayak. We keep meaning to do that. A memory yet to be formed. 

I’m curious to see what fresh wonders await out there on the water.

--
* By the by, this is a fascinating book about actual old-school cabinets of wonder and the cabinet-of-wonder-evoking Museum of Jurassic Technology, whose exhibits may or may not be real. 

28 May 2014

Throwback Thursday, Lazy Writer Edition

It’s been way too long since I posted, but I’m working on some new stuff. Big stuff. You’ll see. Also, I’m way overdue on the Postcard Gallery updates. I got your mail, I promise. Yes, you with the endearing fake telegram; you with the oversized-produce postcard; you with the old-school aerograms. All coming soon to this spot.

In the meantime, hey, it’s Throwback Thursday, also known as The Internet’s Way of Generating Content When All You Really Have Is Old Stuff. So here are some old stories of mine that I happen to like and think you will, too. And some old photos, too.




Throwback #1: A sketchy hotel in Scotland
For starters, here's a photo from 1999, during one of my first trips abroad. That's me in the middle, with my sister and my dad, outside the Nigg Hotel, (sort of) near Inverness. This is the morning after the memorably odd day I discuss in "Seven Travel Rules From a Brooding Teenager." The story was my attempt to capture the angst of a teenager on a family-bonding trip just before he heads off to college. The hotel played along, offering plenty of fuel for my gloomy mood. Seriously: just try to tell me that place doesn't look like a Scottish stand-in for the Bates Motel.

Throwback #2: That other place in Scotland, the one where they play a game with a ball that (probably) symbolizes a severed head
My parents have a mild obsession with Scotland. Hence that trip in 1999, as well as a few other journeys throughout my childhood. My parents live frugally, largely so that they can save up for the next trip. About ten years ago, they moved to Scotland for a year, to a charming town with a certain offbeat tradition, a rugby-like game that involves hundreds of burly men. It was an interesting reporting challenge to try not to get run over, but I lived to tell the tale, "The Old Ba' Game."

Throwback #3: The park in Ecuador with 300 iguanas, all of them out to get me
I can be a bit, shall we say, jumpy. It's a theme that comes up in a lot of my stories (including the two above) because, while the world is a pretty cool and interesting place, it also sorta wants me dead, and is forever contriving new ways to make me think that my demise may well be imminent. At one point, I considered calling this blog A Neurotic Abroad. Mind you, I do have my own adventurous streak. I put myself out there. But then, pretty quickly, I reach the OH HELL NO threshold, like that time in Ecuador when an iguana mistook my ass for a chew toy.

And now, a Throwback to Look Forward.
Here's another photo from that 1999 trip to Scotland. (Based on photographic evidence, I wore that white hoodie the whole trip. I AM FASHION.)



That's me on the left and my friend Doug on the right. He's Scottish, I'm American, and we're posing with our respective national soft drinks. (His being Irn-Bru, which is the most cloyingly sweet substance yet discovered by science, bright orange in color, quite possibly radioactive, and kinda delicious for, like, the first two sips. Mine being Coca-Cola, which, aside from the color, could be described in largely the same terms.)

There's nothing more to that story, except that it's one small bit of evidence of my long obsession with Americana and the question of what things and ideas and archetypes make up our national identity. Which is one of the themes of my next book. More details soon.