14 November 2015



My heart breaks.

What do you say? I chose to say this, directly to the people of France.  

(If you want to know why I’m writing this, scroll to the English section at the end. But the why isn’t really the point.)

* * *

Paris. France. Mes amis.

Je pleure et debout en solidarité avec vous que je vous écris cette 6.765 kilomètres de distance, à Minneapolis.

Votre courage et votre résilience étonner constamment moi-votre belle nation forte a résisté face à la violence tant de fois.

Comme beaucoup d'Américains, je vous connais seulement comme un touriste: quelques jours errant la ville, manger pain au chocolat à Gérard Mulot, regarder le coucher du soleil de Montmartre. Je souhaite que je savais que tu mieux que je souhaite que nos nations se connaissaient mieux. Mais je tiens à vous dire que les Etats-Unis, vous admire. Non seulement vos pâtisseries et vos paysages, les choses que nous éprouvons en tant que touristes, mais votre esprit, votre courage. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, fermeté.

Vous avez résisté avec nous tant de fois, et nous sommes avec vous.

Je vous souhaite la paix et le confort que vous reconstruisez votre ville et vos vies. J'espère vous voir bientôt.

(Mes excuses pour le mauvais français. Il est de la faute de Google Translate.)

* * *

And here’s a note for the Americans.

My Facebook feed is filled with French flags and vacation photos of Notre Dame and Les Deux Magots and a certain tower. I understand and admire the impulse: This awful thing has happened, I don’t know to express my sadness, and a Facebook photo is something, at least.

Yet I can’t bring myself to change my profile, post my snapshots, offer tales of strolls along the Seine, as though my tourist memories were somehow an acceptable proxy for the real human lives torn apart.

I understand that the power comes from the aggregate—collectively, these pixelated squares send a message: There are so, so many of us thinking of you. No judgment, I promise, of people who do post photos.

But to me, for my purposes, it feels so damn easy, like a Yo app for empathy and activism (Click! Done! Solidarity accomplished!). Moreover, the audience is so incredibly limited: it’s message-making exclusively for my curated friends, a whisper in the echo chamber rather than a genuinely public statement. It’s not attending a vigil, it’s not a West Point football player carrying the Tricolor onto the field, which is also easy but unexpectedly moving, because a football game at West Point is about as rah-rah-America as it gets; there’s real meaning in that gesture.

But still, you have to say something. And while I fully acknowledge that this is also an empty gesture (particularly because no one reads this blog, much less anyone in France) . . . this is the best I’ve got.

09 November 2015

American History as a Hero's Journey

As I've worked on my book about the US territories (still in progress, thanks for asking), I've been thinking about the role of the territories in two separate versions of American history: the collective-memory mythology and the actual, factual master narrative.

In the process, I've also been pondering what, exactly, the mythology version looks like. Here's where my mind is right now: I think that the USA largely sees itself as living out its own rags-to-riches tale. Or, to put it another way, a Hero's Journey, in Joseph Campbell's classic formulation:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The key detail for the American Hero's Journey is that in the popular imagination, it's now effectively complete, aside from a bit of ongoing housekeeping.*

Basically, it's like this:

Click for larger image
All jokes aside, I think this accurately shows the general contours of how Americans, collectively, see history. I'm very curious to hear if anyone has any alternate takes, so please add your two cents in the comments. 

(And so we're clear: Yes, I know that even the slightest bit of scrutiny and understanding of Actual History reveals this mythology to be mostly false. That's a recurring theme in my book. But for now, I'm just interested in identifying what those Hero's Journey beats are, how the mythology is constructed.)

28 October 2015

What to Pack For a North Pole Expedition, 100 Years Ago

Most travel experts recommend packing light, but some people cannot or will not follow this advice.

In the annals of extreme over-packers, you have two categories: Dandies and Badasses. Those who are perpetually ready to host the Queen and her entourage in their hotel rooms, and those who are, with no delusion, preparing to fight polar bears.

In the Dandy category is Temple Fielding, a prominent travel guidebook writer in the 1950s and 1960s (the man made the cover of Time, such was his fame). A long, long time (okay, five years) ago, I posted his packing list:
In [a large raffia basket] Fielding keeps a bottle of maraschino cherries, a bottle of Angostura biters, a portable Philips three-speed record-player, five records (four of mood music and "one Sinatra always"), a leather-covered RCA transistor radio, an old half-pint Heublein bottle full of vermouth, and a large nickel thermos with a wide mouth.
That's only the beginning. There are also thirty-five handkerchiefs, sealskin slippers, a yodeling alarm clock, and so much more. For years, I've considered this the Holy Grail of Packing Lists.

Until today, when I found a small article from 1917 about Arctic explorer and real-deal Badass Roald Amundsen's provisions for his expedition to the Northeast Passage.

Amundsen was planning to be gone for six years, in one of the least-known and most foreboding corners of the planet, and evidently operated on the principle that if was going to endure that, well, he was going to require certain luxuries.

Namely, he and his crew needed their candy. Six hundred pounds of it.

Also two tons of coffee and two tons of sugar.

Here's the full list, from the Princeton (Minnesota) Union on January 25, 1917:

The expedition lasted from 1918 to 1920--not six years, but it was no less epic (a word I do not use lightly) for the shorter duration. The ship was stuck in the ice for two winters and Amundsen really was attacked by a polar bear. I imagine him stumbling back to the ship after that close encounter, bloody and bewildered, and opening up his candy stash and just shoveling it in his mouth, presumably with a large whisky chaser.

You can see the full newspaper page via the "Chronicling America" database operated by the Library of Congress. The big story on the left is what I was actually trying to find, before this story caught my eye. Also note the intriguing headline to just below Amundsen's packing list!

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.