A Return… to the Last Days of Minnesota Summer

Summer in Minnesota can be so fleeting, it is true. I write this as the sun goes down on another warm, sunny Minnesota evening which will all too soon be gone. Today is the last day of July already and it seemed like the month just disappeared. Is there something about this languid season of heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and lakes that causes people suddenly to look up into the sultry summer night and realize that there is only about one and a half months of summer left? It could definitely be, of course, the rather late beginning of this summer after a winter of bone chilling cold, we had a long spring of driving rains that swelled the lakes and rivers over their banks.

For me, of course, it did not help spending the first two weeks of July on a road trip out to the Pacific Northwest, and then the rest of the month recovering. It feels like I just got back, really, like I’m still trying to readjust from life on the road to daily life. For me, summer often meant an adventure across the country so I am happy I got one in this year. Great trip, and a great way to reflect on what my city means to me after visiting others. Over the two weeks, I spent time in Portland, Seattle, Port Angeles, and a short trip to Victoria, British Columbia.

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Pike Place Market on a foggy Seattle morning

There does seem to be a connection between these two regions, the Upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest dating at least as far back James J. Hill the Empire builder, whose Northern Pacific railway empire was centered in St. Paul and linked Chicago to Portland. A shared Scandinavian-American culture, particularly noticeable in Seattle, also informs both regions. Perhaps for this reason, there also seems to be a friendly (for the most part) rivalry between these cities as well. In short, we all seem to focus on kind of a trifecta of “bikes, beers, and books,” or something equally glib.

Over the weeks I spent in Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere in the area, I encountered numerous transplanted Midwesterners from Minnesota and Wisconsin. In among the most “Portlandia” moments, one vegan former Wisconsinite was oddly insistent that was “a Portlander now,” as if eager to distance herself from the land of cheese. Speaking of that, it seems Fred Armisen first conceived of the idea for Portlandia after being inspired by Minneapolis.  At the same time, I met a woman who was preparing her own vacation across the country to the Boundary Waters, while another man was leaving for Roseau in a few weeks. While they would be kayaking the Boundary Waters or hiking the Gunflint Trail I was hiking the Olympic National Park. Indeed, these cities would top my list of American cities to transfer to if I ever left Minnesota. They all offer strong connections to a host of natural attractions, whether lakes and streams or mountains and harbors. Perhaps for this reason, you can find huge statues of Paul Bunyan in all of these places!

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A great place to grab breakfast, Cartopia Food Carts, Southeast Portland

When I first visited some years ago, I thought that Portland, in particular, reminded me of the Twin Cities, a little more than Seattle. We are both river cities, for one, and are always competing for the coveted title of Bicycle Magazine’s most bike friendly city, though both the Twin Cities generally manage to beat Portland on the most literary city list, Powell’s City of Books notwithstanding. I, of course, had to spend at least four hours exploring here. Since my last visit, food carts had proliferated to a degree not yet seen in the Twin Cities, at least in “pods,” as they call them in Portland. The food stands, offering cuisine of any conceivable type, from Georgian cuisine and bahn mi, through craft hot dogs, falafel, and other standard street food. While we have a good community of growing food carts and trucks, we have a little ways to go here.

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The line for doughnuts, Voodoo Doughnut, Old Town Portland

Among the most interesting touristy attractions I checked out while in Portland, right down the street from the infamous Voodoo Doughnut (inspiration for our trendy new doughnut shop Glam-Doll Donuts on Nicollet), was the Portland Underground Tour. Like the underground tours located in Seattle, a large group of out of towners were led by knowledgeable locals down into the bowels of the city; in this case, Old Town. Unlike the relatively cool Seattle tunnels, though, these were cramped and hot; they were, also, according to the guide, where hapless newcomers to the city of Portland were for decades, around the turn of the century, drugged and dragged off as indentured laborers for sailors crossing the Pacific to Shanghai. Hence the term, “shanghaiing.” For many years, the guides maintained, this dark history of human rights abuse was ignored in official histories of Portland which continues to have a very high rate of human trafficking. While some historians continue to question the validity of the extent of these tales, I was left to wonder about Minneapolis and St. Paul, with their network of tunnels and catacombs and histories of corruption and crime that also have kept under the radar until recently. As we crawled out of the sidewalk in Old Town, I pondered of the different ways a city’s identity is often not even identifiable to the people who are living in it.

All in all, a wonderful and reinvigorating trip, though I now look forward to enjoying the rest of the summer in the Twin Cities and spending some more time going on adventures close to home!

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Space Needle, as seen from the Seattle Asian Art Museum, on a sunny Seattle afternoon