January in Minnesota. It’s 6 below in direct sunlight. Everyone is dressed in puffy coats and fuzzy hats with dangly ear flaps. They’re clomping around in furry boots and wearing mittens reminiscent of seal flippers.
Their cheeks are red, their noses running. Most have the pained expression of someone who just ran three miles with a full bladder.
And they’re all staring at me. What’s the deal? Is it my boyish good looks? My confident gait? Is it how my dreamy eyes become hypnotic whenever I wear green?
Oh right. They’re staring because I’m wearing cargo shorts and a Duff Beer T-shirt.
I can get away with this because we’re all walking the Minneapolis skyway system. Everyone else just came in from the sadistic cold. And despite being 9 blocks from home, I haven’t been outside in two days.
When winter sets in, everyone has their coping methods. Some people embrace it by going skating, skiing or ice fishing (aka drinking and farting without judgment). Some people go to ball games with their torsos painted purple. Some people just leave.
Me? I walk the skyways dressed for July. Relishing the double-takes of the beleaguered is my coping method.
Some of you may find this crazy. Some of you may find it wonderful. Either way, there’s no denying that it’s unique. And awesome. The Minneapolis skyway system is the largest system of its kind in the world. It has everything one needs to avoid facing the urethra-constricting elements for weeks or even months.
And foul weather avoidance, even in a human-size habitrail, is the difference between a miserable winter and an average kinda crappy winter.
Skyways weren't built in a day
I’ve watched the skyways evolve into a fully enclosed city. There are corporate offices, bars, restaurants, bakeries, hotels, government services, retail, gyms, grocery stores, liquor stores, banks, a post office, doctors, dentists, chiropractors, masseurs, pharmacies, hair and nail salons, accountants, lawyers, dry cleaners, live theaters, two (soon three) pro sports facilities, a university, a church, art exhibits and of course an ever-growing selection of residential buildings like the one I’ve lived in for eight years.
And it’s getting bigger. The current system of 83 bridges, connecting 73 blocks (sources vary), stretching on for 8 miles is expecting a significant new tentacle on the east side of downtown this summer. That’s when the new Wells Fargo buildings and the Vikings Stadium get plugged in.
After the words “wine” and “free,” I believe “skyway-connected” are perhaps the most beautiful words in the English language.
Read the following and soak in the splendor:
• Skyway-connected condo
• Skyway-connected wine shop
• Skyway-connected credit union
• Skyway-connected really good restaurant
• Skyway-connected happy hour
• Skyway-connected movie theater (RIP Block E Theaters, boo hoo)
How long can someone go without stepping a toe outdoors? I can’t answer that. There may be no limit for those unconcerned with seeing friends and family, traveling or seeking emergency medical attention.
One January years ago, I went two solid weeks without leaving the Minneapolis skyway while “researching” a stunt article for Vita.mn. It was wonderful. The whole skyway was my home. It didn’t get to the point of me wearing slippers while running errands, but almost.
The average high temperature for those two weeks was something like 4 above.
When it was over, I stepped outside into the freeze-your-face-off cold, took a few deep breaths of fresh air, then went back inside for another three days.
The good, the enhancements, the cattle prods
There are times I use the skyways even during nice weather. For one thing, I’ve learned it can be faster than walking outside, since downtown stoplights seem metered so anyone walking 3 miles per hour hits a red at every intersection.
Also, lately, I use the skyways for my own safety.
I witnessed more distracted driving in downtown Minneapolis than ever last summer. Common close calls included cars cutting off pedestrians in crosswalks; rolling along for tens of feet as the driver looked down at the stereo/food/text message/dropped cigarette; and absentmindedly sailing through red lights. It was terrifying.
Cars menacing pedestrians notwithstanding, the skyways are much safer than sidewalks during winter. There’s no chance of slipping on ice and fracturing your coccyx. There’s no dog poop or fresh loogies to avoid. There are no idiots on bikes, wearing earbuds and no helmets, tearing down the sidewalk, weaving around pedestrians at full speed like it’s a videogame.
The skyways are no utopia, however. Halfwits stand in the middle of busy intersections having conversations, oblivious to those trying to get around them. People walk five abreast at 100 yards per hour, making it impossible to pass. And — Buddha give me strength — the people shuffling along down the center of skyways, dinking with their cell phones, deserve no less than a cattle prod to the brainstem.
How can the skyways be improved? The non-uniform opening hours have burned me more than once as have the limited weekend hours. There needs to be better grocery options and more places to sit. And I still feel passionately about retrofitting the Nicollet Avenue light rail station to be enclosed and skyway-connected, effectively making the airport and Mall of America skyway-connected.
Don’t even try to tell me that wouldn’t rule.
Leif Pettersen is a writer, traveler, humorist, juggler and tourism professional. He’s visited 54 countries and seen a lot of extraordinary stuff, so when he says that something is unique and awesome, you should take him seriously.
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