The quinquennial pilgrimage

I last went to the Iowa State Fair five years ago. Once might be enough but I thought my wife should experience it. The state fair has a lot of educational value for me since I can learn about where my food comes from, but it’s also a sort of pilgrimage of Americana. Among other curiosities and amusements, we saw the Butter Cow (which I didn’t see last time) and made off with some swag from the Iowa Egg Council.

Speaking of butter, you can buy it fried from one of the food vendors, along with fried Oreos and Twinkies. Which in fact is one of the things I think is great about this country: you are free to eat a fried stick of battered butter. There’s nothing wrong with eating that way every once in a while (and once a year is way more than enough). Unfortunately, many in attendance looked like they were practicing all year for eating at the State Fair.

At any rate, I didn’t eat the fried butter for lunch but rather a more conventional corn dog. It’s hard for me to eat fried stick food at a fair without hearing my uncle’s disembodied voice in my head: “Don’t walk around eating your food. You’ll look like a scavone.” I don’t know what a scavone is, or even if I’m spelling it right. It’s one of those unwritten antique Sicilian or Calabrese dialect slang words, the meaning of which would be obscure except for its context. Presumably, a scavone is like a slob.

A man about to chomp on a corn dog at the state fair.
A scavone

We missed by two days the Nuremberg-like rally led by Hank Williams, Jr. (as noted in DailyDisgust). Free to eat fried butter, free to be an idiot. God bless America!

Escape to New York

Homer: New York is a hellhole. And you know how I feel about hellholes!

Marge: It’s wall-to-wall landmarks! The Williamsburg bridge! Fourth Avenue! Governor’s Island!

“The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson”

I moved away from New York almost ten years ago and I haven’t been back to visit the city in over five. Much is as I left it, but some has changed. The World Trade Center and its ancillary infrastructure are still being reconstructed. There is more security around town, especially in the Financial District, including cops and closed streets and bollards and French barricades. It appears the security mission there has evolved from counterterrorism to counterrevolution. Zuccotti Park was quiet but there were still some protesters occupying the steps of Federal Hall.

My wife and I, along with her parents, stayed in the Millennium Hilton, the Space Odyssey Monolith style building right across from the World Trade Center. The last time I saw the Millennium Hilton it was closed and covered in dust. From our room we could look down at construction in the World Trade Center plaza and look up at progress on 1 WTC, now the tallest building in New York. In fact, I think we got good deals on the rooms because of the construction noise. Every morning at 8 o’clock the clanking would begin. It was not a place for sleeping late.

Sleeping late wasn’t necessary anyway. Almost everything we visited on this trip I had been to before, though we saw in four days what I had spent many much shorter excursions seeing. In fact, though I got some good photos, I felt like I was re-taking many from my pre-digital camera days (which were not so long ago). The most notable exception was the new National September 11 Memorial—more on that later. The other novelty was a quick stop at Alexander Hamilton’s grave in the Trinity Church cemetery, something that as a nerd I had always meant to visit.

Like every place I’ve lived there are things I miss about New York and things I don’t miss. One thing I miss about New York is that there is so much of it. Its limits are not obvious like they are in other cities. The size and density of New York’s parts obscure each other. In New York I feel like I could wander around forever looking at interesting things without ever leaving or passing the same place twice.

I don’t miss the crowds which in New York have a certain Soylent Green quality. My family and I rediscovered the crowds as soon as we wandered onto the Brooklyn Bridge from the street by way of a creepy staircase. For a bridge that was originally built for pedestrians, there is not a lot of room left there for them. The walk was busy: walkers in one lane, bicyclists in the other, joggers on the broad stripe separating them, and two-way traffic in each. The stretch from Manhattan to the observation deck around the west tower was probably more clogged with tourists anyway.

While on the bridge I had a good, quick reminder of something else I don’t like about New York’s crowds besides their existence: regular outbursts from the insane people among them. An angry cyclist approaching the bridge from Park Row shouted at pedestrians to “go back to the subway and stay off the bridge!” Like a lot of New York’s kooks, this cyclist:

  1. Lived in a crowed city that is completely unfriendly to his lifestyle, yet expected tourists, commuters, and other pedestrians to clear the way for his benefit.
  2. Tried to remedy his problem at once by shouting at random passers-by.

Clearly this man was not getting the mental health care he needed. At around 10,000 people per square mile, such problems of our nation get magnified and focussed in Manhattan.

I had a more energizing experience with the crowds as I ran some errands the morning of our departure. It was rush hour in the financial district and everybody was trudging to work. I pushed my way upstream and across the street to a deli. Aside from the construction workers taking their breaks in the back, the deli was a study in New York fast. I was in and out of there with our breakfast in five minutes. The guy at the counter even talked fast.

There were some good surprises: the renovated Staten Island Ferry terminals looked really nice and seemed actually pleasant. They are shiny and cheerful and modern where they were once unfortunate places you had to pass through before and after you rode the boat. The day’s weather was dismal in spite of the gleaming facilities: rainy, cold, and windy—terrible weather for taking the ferry. The visibility wasn’t too poor, though, and while we could tolerate the conditions we stood on the open deck and took pictures of the Statue of Liberty.

In Midtown we poked around the now-fashionable Rockefeller Center for a while. While the statue of Prometheus is the best-known public artwork there, I never paid much attention to the other installations which, along with the Art Deco buildings, gush the propaganda of progress. Interesting carved stone or metal reliefs decorate the outsides of each building, and the lobby of 30 Rock (or the GE Building, as my mom would call it) has some very cool and epic murals.

Even though it is much younger than either trendy Rockefeller Center, the eternally classy Chrysler Building, way-too-fancy-for-a-train-station Grand Central Terminal, or the monumental Main Branch Library, United Nations Headquarters looked worn and dated. They were doing a lot of construction there while at the same time attempting to hide it. In fact, the complex was disappearing behind a high iron fence (something I don’t recall from previous visits and which appears new), another victim perhaps of security paranoia. The tour we took was pretty lame; our guide was more of an escort who periodically activated our multilingual listening devices with a radio transmitter.

Another place doing a lot of renovation was the American Museum of Natural History. Both the main hall and the room with the whale were closed (though we could see the whale through a doorway from another room). Thank goodness the dinosaur exhibits were still open or I would have simply died. We got in and out of the museum through the adjacent subway, ignoring the jazz musician playing for tips until he helpfully reminded everyone that the B trains don’t run on weekends.

Bloomington, Indiana

The snow here in Iowa held off until my plane was due to land in Cedar Rapids. We didn’t see the ground until we were fifty feet above it. I was returning from a business trip to Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington is not a whole lot different from Iowa City. They are about the same size and dominated by big state universities. Bloomington has a good collection of unusual “ethnic” restaurants (Burmese, Turkish, Tibetan, Afghani).

A woman watches a man bowl a ball in a bowling alley
We bowled after a long day of work.

Our workshop was at the Indiana Memorial Union at the university, which combined a hotel, meeting rooms, food court, and recreation center. “Hoosiers” played regularly on the hotel’s in-house movie channel. The recreation center included a bowling alley, of which my colleagues and I made use. I could have gotten away with not leaving the building until I left for the airport today, though that would have been a little unhealthy. The Indiana University campus is pretty: an august-looking collection of limestone Italianate-style buildings. It has lots of quadrangles.

A graveyard surrounds a limestone chapel on a university campus.
This pretty chapel and cemetery were just outside our meeting room.
Sculptures with elliptical bodies and dangling tentacles hang from airport ceiling.
Neither an airport nor Indianapolis seemed appropriate for jellyfish sculptures.

On the way to Bloomington, I arrived in Indianapolis for the first time. We had a good view of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we landed. It’s big. The Indianapolis airport is not so enormous for a large city and felt a little empty. The spacious terminal is only a few years old. There are these weird jellyfish sculptures handing from the ceiling—not ugly, just out of place—and of course the obligatory light display in one of the connecting corridors that airports of big Midwestern cities seem to like so much.

An unoccupied ticket counter in a spacious new airport terminal.
The Indianapolis airport was spacious but empty.

I noticed some changes in the Detroit airport during my layover today: signs and announcements in Chinese. On previous trips I’ve noticed signs in Japanese; I presume these signs reflect either Detroit’s actual international trade or the trade it aspires to attract.

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:

EMBARRASS
BABBITT
EXIT 69

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