RoadTrip Part II: DC to Ithaca

Friday 1 August

States Covered: DC, VA, MD, PA, NY

Our trip started with me picking up John at Dulles Airport as he deplaned from a cross-country flight from San Francisco. Conventional wisdom would have suggested that we wait until Saturday the 2nd to get going on our trip, give the poor man a chance to catch his breath, etc. Nothing doing. I was hell-bent on getting on the road as soon as possible. Americans don’t get enough vacation time, I was going to make every minute count.

By about 4:00 pm we were headed up Route 15. Although the road was only two lanes and little slow, I was overjoyed to avoid the I-95 corridor. The drive in Virginia also passed through some beautiful, rolling hills with horse pastures, vineyards and for a bit, a minimum of sprawl. It was nice to have pretty stuff to look at seeing as John had a little trouble separating himself from his work. He spent the first hour of the trip on his Blackberry tying up a whole lot of loose ends. Later we went through beautful farm country in Maryland and equally beautiful landscapes in Pennsylvania before it got too dark to see anything.

We cheered as we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. A Yankee at heart (and by birth) it felt good to be heading north. (I don’t care much where my ashes are sprinkled when I die, but I must admit that my will makes it clear that it should be in a state or territory that fought on the side of the Union.)

We made great time stopping at Dairy Queen along the way and making Ithaca by about 11:40 pm. As every American must know it ain’t a road trip until you stop at the DQ. Also, having no DQs in DC (why?!) it is hard for me to pass one up…

Minnesota Part III: Minneapolis in a Day

When I was in Minnesota last weekend, the 35W Bridge was still standing. I even drove across it last Friday. On Sunday when I took the picture above, if I had pointed my camera in the opposite direction I would have been able to take a picture of it. What a difference a moment can make in the visual, functional, and emotional life of a city and its inhabitants. It is kind of hard to write the final installment of my Minnesota Series without mentioning this terrible event. There are those times when events become defining moments. No doubt the collapse of the bridge will be a defining moment for many Minnesotans. L’Etoile du Nord will still shine, but many Minnesotans will begin to frame memories as having happened “before” or “after”. The following blog post describes the last Sunday before, my last day in Minnesota before…

I began my final morning in Minnesota by having breakfast with two high school friends. Although a little bleary eyed, we had a great time dissecting everything that happened the previous night at our 20-year reunion. After breakfast we all checked out of the hotel and I had about five hours to kill before I needed to be at the airport. Luckily for me there are many pleasant ways to spend a beautiful summer day in Minneapolis. My biggest problem was trying to limit myself.

Not having been in Minneapolis for about three years, I had some new architecture to check up on. I took a quick swing through the warehouse district which has been developing for years but is now starting to really feel like a full-time neighborhood. One of the new anchors on the east end of the district is the new Guthrie Theater building. Perched right on the Mississippi River and designed by Jean Nouvel, the deep blue building nicely complements its 19th century industrial neighbors on both sides of the river. After the failed festival shopping centers of the 1980s along the north side of the river (Riverplace and St. Anthony Main) it is nice to see this kind of draw down on the river. I think the new Guthrie serves a similar function (and has some of the same design edge) as Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London. In addition to the bike and walking paths that run in front of the theater along the river, there is a brand new park right next door that strikes the right balance of greenspace and hardscape. At the center of Gold Medal Park (after the flour brand of the same name) is a giant grassy mound that has a spiral path edged in steel that winds up to the top where one gets a view of the neighborhood and the river. The park is already a pleasant place to be, I can only imagine how nice it will be when the trees mature.

Although I would have liked to have taken a more extensive tour downtown to see what was new, I didn’t really have the time. But I did manage to take a drive by the new Pelli-designed Minneapolis Public Library. From what I could see it is a great building. Since I had another destination in mind I skipped a visit the Walker Art Center. Having seen the new Herzog & de Meuron addition three years ago I decided not to make a repeat visit. This decision also meant I missed out on the best free date in town, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the best ice cream in the entire Midwest at Sebastian Joe’s. Having happily gorged myself at Dairy Queen earlier in the weekend, I didn’t feel too deprived—although DQ and Sebastian Joes have nothing in common other than being purveyors of cool, creamy, sweet treats.

My main destination was the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Living in DC and having access to the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, the Phillips, the Kreeger, and a host of other art venues, I have a lot of options for viewing fine art. Even against that background I still find the MIA to be one of the most satisfying art museums in the country. Not only does it have a fine collection, but the museum space itself is a pleasure. I was particularly interested to see A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting, 1840-1910. It was fascinating to see these works that would otherwise not be seen in North America or, in many cases, even in Europe outside of Scandinavia. There were some real gems including the Munch painting that heads up my 8/1 posting below. It was also great to see some of my old favorites in the permanent collection that I have seen off and on for the last 30 years.

It was reluctantly that I headed off to MSP to get my flight back to Washington. But even that experience was pleasant. Once you get through security MSP has a lot to offer in the way of food and shopping (Yes, I went to the Dairy Queen again). I was one of the lucky ones whose Northwest Flight did not get cancelled.

After this quick, recent trip to Minnesota, it was awfully strange to see it suddenly the center of media attention. Minnesota is a prosperous state. Minneapolis is a prosperous city. And Minnesotans do the right thing. We understand—or at least used to—the benefits of responsibility and of delayed gratification (all those Lutherans and Catholics). Our industries have been historically and notably philanthropic and our outlook is relentlessly pragmatic. So why on earth did that bridge fall into the river? What priorities have so captured the hearts and minds of the state that something like that can happen? Which tax cuts could have fixed that bridge?

Minnesota Part I: Dog Days of Summer

This weekend I headed back to Minnesota for my 20-year high school union. It was a whirlwind weekend with lots to do and little time to do it. After a stormy, delayed flight into MSP from DCA I made it to my Uncle’s and Aunt’s house in the MacalesterGroveland Neighborhood of St. Paul. The weather was cooler than DC but still more humid than I expected. Unlike DC, not everyone in Minnesota has AC. Which was fine by me. I have never quite gotten used to sleeping in air conditioning (a requirement in steamy DC) and I actually enjoyed having two fans to cool me and lull me to sleep instead.

After a great night’s sleep I actually managed to go for a run before breakfast. I figured if I was going to cheat on the South Beach with pancakes and syrup, I might as well burn some calories. I also knew that I was picking up 2 dozen donuts at Don’s Bakery in Elk River. Don’s donuts are the donuts of my childhood and I wasn’t going to let this rare opportunity to get some pass me by. I took the two large boxes back to my rental car, turned on the AC and ate two of them–a jelly Bismark and a Lady Finger–in about 30 seconds flat. About half an hour later I found myself at my childhood Dairy Queen ordering burgers and a chocolate-dipped cone.

Not even the diet-busting goodness of my midday binge could delude me into thinking that Elk River was worth the visit. Despite lots of new construction activity in town, the place has a dusty, abandoned look. No doubt the 10,000 people that have moved to town since I graduated in 1987 spend most of their time patronizing the strip malls outside of town. Families conviced they need a patch of suburban sprawl, will never know what it is like to grow up within blocks of schools, a library, shops, churches, parks, ice skating, the Dairy Queen, and even the spot where the Elk River flows into the Mississippi. Growing up I lived in a community that smart developers and New Urbanists desperately try to recreate. Despite recent developments, short-sighted market forces and bad decisions by the City have greatly diminished the financial and emotional investments that decades of residents put into make Elk River a real place rather than a sprawling mass of parking lots along the highway.

Without much to keep me in Elk River, I got in the car and headed “up north” to my brother’s place near the northwestern shore of Lake Mille Lacs. By the time I got there, the humidity was gone and the weather was like every childhood memory I have of summer in Minnesota. It was great to see him and his family and catch up with them. Having recently left the Elk River area, they were happy to see the balance of the 2 dozen donuts from Don’s. In additon to having several more of the donuts, the real treat for me was playing with their three dogs. (Abby is the sweetie I coerced into sitting still for the picture above.)

Coming Soon: Minnesota Part II: The Reunion