Last week I had the opportunity to drive to the southwest part of the state, to get out of the city, breathe some country air and make snap judgments about places I drive through at 55 miles per hour. Here are some lessons I learned:
1. Whenever I say, “I’m from the Cities” I feel as if I should pull some avocado toast from a pocket. Why do we use this term? No one in “the Cities” says they live in “the Cities” unless they’re talking to someone who lives in, you know, “the Towns.”
I was relieved when someone in a smallish town said she hadn’t been to “the Cities” in a while. “Ah, whew, they do call it that.” Unless she was following my lead: “Well, he’s from there, they call it that, so should I. We call it the Metrogopolis, or the Murder Bins.”
At least I don’t say “outstate,” which A) would make the Cities “instate,” and B) implies that the Cities are the part of Minnesota that matters and everything else is just, y’know, hamlets with tractors and Casey’s convenience stores. It’s insulting. I propose that we start using the terms Tight State for the metro area and Loose State for the rest of Minnesota.
Also noted: People may “go up” to the Cities, but when they don’t, they say they don’t “get up” to the Cities. “We’re going up to the Cities tomorrow.” “Have fun! I don’t get up there much lately.”
Likewise, if you are in the Cities, you do not “get down” to New Ulm. For one thing, it is full of Germans, and they do not get down in the sense that people in the Cities, who listen to Prince, “get down.” Unless you break out an accordion, and then out come the lederhosen and you’re clinking a ceramic stein with someone who has a feather in his hat and it’s 2 a.m. and you’re playing “Name That Kaiser” with some guy who’s got a deck of famous kings.
Oh, I’m kidding. I’m not saying the local Mexican fast-food joint is Taco Johann at all, or the KFC picture of Colonel Sanders has him wearing a monocle, but it’s pretty German.
2. The best coffee I had on the trip was in one of those places we have here in the Cities. Not one of those places where, when they make your order, they call your name. In this case, my name was “Go ahead on pump two.” And the coffee was better than the burnt expensive battery residue people pay $4.75 for.
3. There’s nothing like driving alone on a two-lane road, unimpeded, the flat ribbon stretching to the horizon. You lift a finger to cars passing the other way, because that’s what folks do out here. (“Idiot,” the drivers probably think, “we lift the first and fourth finger in this county. Must be from the Cities.”)
But then, there’s a crisis. You’re behind someone who’s poking along. If it’s a tractor, you can’t complain, because this is where your food comes from. It’s like rolling your eyes because a fire truck is backing into the station and you’re delayed half a minute.
If, however, it’s someone who’s driving way below the speed limit, you have to pass. And here the terror begins. WWII pilots divebombing anti-aircraft emplacements had less stress. First, check your median stripes. Solid yellow? Throttle back. No such stripe? Floor it. Move into the oncoming lane. Pray: “Praaaaise the Lord and pass the Winnebago!” You lean forward as if whipping on your steed, and, of course, you hit the rumble strips on the center lane that chatter like some dinosaur that learned to pass gas in the tenor range.
Then you settle back into your lane with the emotions of someone who just felt a bullet whistle harmlessly past his ear. I’m alive!
4. I have satellite radio, so I didn’t experience the joys of small-town stations. Long ago I had a car without a cassette player and had to rely on the radio as I drove out of town on 94. There would be the inevitable stockman’s report: “Pork bellies and sows holding steady. Pork legs and boars flying all over the place.” And then there’d be a swap-meet program:
“Mrs. Horace Peterson over in Wanakee has a card table to give away, missing one leg. No, sorry, that’s Mrs. Peterson who’s missing the leg; the table’s fine. And we have a note from Harold Johnson over in Johnsonville. He’d like to trade an anvil for a box of doll heads.”
The stations would eventually fade to static as you passed out of range. Even though I don’t listen anymore, I know they’re still out there. The transmitters are still transmitting, the voices like ghosts tapping on your car window as you slide through the small towns, ride the capillary roads off the main.
It’s good to get out and remind yourself that there’s more to the state than the Cities. Get down to Loose Minnesota! Not that that’s the official tourist slogan, but it should be.