Christmas in Minnesota

We crossed the state line into Minnesota around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday night and it immediately started snowing. This was our first legitimate trip to Minnesota (I don’t count flight layovers). The small towns we drove through all have nice welcome marquees that are lit up at night (Stewartville: The Future is Bright!). I ate walleye and wild rice and discovered that many Minnesotans do talk like the characters in “Fargo”.

We spent a night and half a day in downtown Saint Paul. After breakfast we walked up to the Minnesota State Capitol, another fine palace of democracy. Excepting the gilded horse  sculptures the outside is serious and gray like the December sky, but the inside is spacious and bright with many colorful varieties of polished stone. We also walked to the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a compact domed basilica perched upon a hill overlooking the city core.

On the long, dark drive from Saint Paul to International Falls, we stopped in Virginia at the heart of the Iron Range, for dinner. Northern Minnesota with its forests and mines certainly doesn’t look like Iowa. The most intriguing road sign of the trip was north of Virginia:


I thought it was a message to the former Secretary of the Interior but apparently Embarrass and Babbitt are two little towns off the same exit of U.S. Highway 53.

Because of the dark winter evening we didn’t see much of the North Country until the next morning when we woke up at the lodge just outside Voyageurs National Park to our view of a frozen section of Rainy Lake. A couple of inches fell overnight. It was not enough to ski or snowshoe on, or at least not enough for the park ranger at the visitor center to rent us skis. He did recommend some trails for hiking and told us a little about the bears, wolves, and moose in the park. The bears were asleep for the winter but the wolves and moose were out and I hoped to see some. Lore was glad the bears were asleep and not was as enthusiastic about the wolves and moose. The gray wolves in the park are pretty big (there was a huge stuffed one in the museum exhibit) but the ranger said they stay away from people.

International Falls was cute but didn’t smell so nice. I suppose the massive paper mills on the riverfront were the reason. The supermarket was busy on the Friday of Christmas weekend. The old lady behind us in the express checkout lane eyed our 14 items suspiciously. It’s fair to say we didn’t look like International Falls residents. People kept asking us why we were so bundled up in our hiking fleeces and snow pants as it was unseasonably warm in the high 20s and low 30s. International Falls looks like more of Carhartt town anyway.

The area around International Falls is quite the winter wonderland, though. There were snowmobiles and ice fishing huts and even a couple of ski planes parked on the lake. On some state trails we found plenty of snow to ski on, but since the national park was the only rental game in town we contented ourselves with trampling over the ski tracks with our boots until some old guy chased us off.

Our big day of hiking was along the Blind Ash Bay Trail near Ash River, a trek highly recommended by our ranger. The day started out cold but the sun came out around 10:00 a.m. and stayed out for a few hours. The trail was four miles round trip through conifer forest. Judging by all the tracks in the snow it looked like an animal highway. Right at the trailhead were some canine-looking tracks, the closed thing I saw to a wolf all weekend. The extent to which deer, cats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits shared the trail with humans surprised me. Then again, maybe trails are trails for a reason. One tiny animal’s tracks ended abruptly in a dent in the snow made perhaps by an owl’s underside. We saw some chickadees and red squirrels but otherwise all was very quiet except for some woodpeckers and snowmobiles in the distance on the lake. Our best sighting was a ruffed grouse which crossed our path. It let us get pretty close before we went our separate ways.

The trail ended at Blind Ash Bay, a little cove in Kabetogama Lake. It was completely frozen over and covered with snow but we didn’t venture out onto it. The sun was out in full winter force and the white lake dazzled us as we stood among dried cattails and looked across. We moved uphill to a clearing for a snack, where it was warm but not blinding. We made the two miles back in just over an hour and drove to the next trailhead for our leftovers sandwiches at Beaver Pond Overlook.

When we got back to International Falls, we stopped for some soup to warm up. The waitress, seeing us in our fleece and snow clothes, asked, “Are you on foot?”

“No, we drove here.”

“Oh,” she said, looking perplexed. We explained we were hiking. She pointed out what a nice day it was. She was wearing a tee-shirt.

On Christmas morning we woke up early, exchanged gifts, and then hit the trail again. We parked at the boat ramp near the visitor center and walked across Black Bay. For Lore’s sake I pretended to not be afraid but I’ve never walked across a frozen lake before either. The ranger said it was fine to walk across but there was still a mental barrier to cross. Instead of following the snowmobile tracks we walked the short way straight across to Kabetogama Peninsula and followed the shoreline north to the dock where the hiking trails started. Once on shore we picked up the hiking trail and walked about half a mile to a frozen beaver pond. We sat in the snow overlooking the pond and ate our trail mix and granola bar breakfast with ice-cold water (the food was not the high point of the weekend).

That was it for hiking. We went back (by now old pros at crossing ice) to the lodge for lunch and naps. We kept catching the “A Christmas Story” marathon on TBS at the same part of the movie where Ralphie beats up Scut Farkus and had to return to it a few times before we saw the whole thing. The staff had deserted the lodge and, as on the trails, we were by ourselves. It was a beautiful and quiet Christmas.

Saint Paul, International Falls, and Voyageurs National Park

The sensitive state

So there’s a big kerfuffle here in Iowa about an article in The Atlantic. In it author Stephen Bloom, a professor at the University of Iowa, offers a pretty warty portrait of the state. “Talk of Iowa” on Iowa Public Radio had a lengthy discussion today about the controversy. Among the article’s more noxious excerpts:

[T]oday, Keokuk, is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they’re some of the skuzziest cities I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something.

For what it’s worth, Keokuk is pretty a depressing city, precisely because it’s so pretty and sad at the same time. But wait, there’s more:

Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated [sic]) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Plus my favorite:

Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom, so you don’t track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room, even though the aroma of pig shit is absolutely venerated in Iowa: It’s known to one and all here as “the smell of money.”

Which are all pretty harsh, but after reading the whole article I found it a little more thoughtful than, say, an angry blog rant. I think the point, and maybe his snooty, condescending, college professor tone obscured this, is not to romanticize the rural Heartland as a vast prairie of bucolic serenity.

The great amounts of umbrage taken surprises me. It shows an un-Iowan kind of insecurity. I suspect that, even though Bloom is a 20-year resident of Iowa and is intimately familiar with the state, some Iowans are worried that he is maleducating The Atlantic‘s readership in the outer forty-nine. Iowans should be used to setting straight us fools by now.

Capital City

A large, domed limestone courthouse building.
Polk County Courthouse

We were in Des Moines a couple of weeks ago and had some time to wander around downtown. Sometimes I think Des Moines is what the writers of The Simpsons had in mind when they created Capital City. After five years in Iowa City I feel like hick looking up at the tall Whatever-It’s-Called Building. The streets were weirdly deserted for lunchtime on a Monday. Perhaps many had left early for Thanksgiving, but the streets were really empty. Then I remembered the downtown Skywalk, the system of enclosed overhead walkways that connect buildings in some of the bigger cold-weather cities. We went up and, sure enough, there were the city’s pedestrians.

Deserted city streets around a downtown corporate campus are crossed with covered skywalks.
The deserted streets and skywalks of the Nationwide campus.

Our infrequent trips to Des Moines are always good for a pound of sliced bologna, plus olive paste, homemade pasta, and Italian sausages from Graziano’s. For some reason, deli-sliced Boar’s Head bologna is absent from Iowa City (as are proper delis for that matter).

Giant figure of a crouching man composed of painted steel letters.
I am Nomade. I am perfect.

We also walked down to the newly installed Pappajohn Sculpture Park which has about twenty large outdoor sculptures. Some were good, some were not, some looked like bowel movements. Our favorite was Nomade by Jaume Plensa, a huge crouching figure composed of metal letters which you can walk into.

Colorful downtown office buildings and skyscrapers.
See? Des Moines is all right.


I’m typing this entry on my new iMac. My PC has been pushed aside pending its cleaning out and disassembly. So far I like it but it will take some getting used to. Everything seems to organized by what it is rather than where it is. Apple bills its system as “more intuitive” but I’ve been using PCs for probably 25 years now and their quirks are ingrained in me.