One day when I was a little kid, I was at my grandma’s house being watched by a few of my aunts and uncles in their early 20s. A commercial for a new flavor of ice cream came on TV, and everyone agreed it looked good. My uncle went out, got in the car, bought some ice cream, and brought it back. As we ate it, I thought, “So this is what it means to be an adult. When you want something, you just go get it.”
I remembered that afternoon tonight as I got in my car to drive from Minneapolis to Hudson, Wisconsin. It’s Sunday, which means that Minnesota liquor stores are closed by law: if you want to buy some beer, you can either go to a bar or go to Wisconsin. I wanted to fill the fridge, so I pointed my Taurus toward the St. Croix River.
Even more than the beer, really, I wanted to drive for a while on the open highway in the setting sun. Most days I take my car to work in St. Paul, but that’s rush-hour city driving. To distract myself and to allay the frustration, I usually listen to audiobooks while commuting. Tonight, I wanted to roll my windows down and listen to some loud music.
Working on the Internet, you grow accustomed to a floating, rootless feeling: news from the other side of the world bumps up against tweets from five feet away, and the sun never sets. Driving through fields of soybeans at Minnesota’s eastern edge, I felt acutely in and of a particular place and time—a time in history that was slipping away with the sunlight.
When sociologist Orlando Patterson asked Americans, a few years ago, what activities they associate with freedom, he was disappointed to find that very few mentioned voting or exercising their first-amendment right to free speech. Instead, most of his respondents talked about their cars. Americans love to drive, and to many of us, our cars are the most tangible representations of what we consider freedom.
Will that last? It seems unlikely that it will, alternative-fuel technology notwithstanding. Our car culture—especially our fossil-fueled car culture—is unsustainable, and if we survive the next several decades of global warming, our great-great-grandchildren certainly won’t be hopping in their Fords to combust fuel as casually as we do now. The American age of the automobile is waning, and we’ll need to find another way to feel free.
Almost certainly much nearer in the future is the demise of the blue law banning Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota. After decades of shoulder-shrugging, a new generation of Minnesotans with a more acute perspective on the absurdity of this puritan law are agitating for its repeal. Whether or not that happens before Super Bowl XXVI shines the international spotlight on our Sabbath-day dryness, the change seems inevitable. My first Sunday border beer run might turn out to have been my last.
Though I’d crossed that border to Wisconsin innumerable times, I’d never done so on Sunday explicitly with alcohol purchase in mind. I realized, when I got to Wisconsin, that I’d subconsciously expected Wisconsinites to be waiting at the roadside with bushels of booze at pop-up establishments like produce stands. Instead, when I chose what looked like the first exit, I had to drive past several Hudson hotels before I found a strip-mall liquor store.
I pulled in next to another car from Minnesota, which contained the only other customer browsing the beer coolers. I grabbed a case of New Glarus Spotted Cow, an ale that holds mythic status in Minnesota because it isn’t distributed outside Wisconsin. “You can take it there to drink it,” said the clerk when she saw my Gopher State ID, “but you can’t take it there to sell it.”
Obeying her injunction, I brought the bottles back and stashed them in a private refrigerator, to be enjoyed exclusively by me, my girlfriend, and maybe our neighbors if they come to hang out on the shared porch where we’re now tapping on our laptops while sipping Spotted Cow. I wanted this beer, so I got in my car and went to get it, because I could.
It’s a beautiful Minnesota night circa summer 2014, and there will never be another quite like it.
For more about Minnesota by Jay Gabler, 34 other writers, and nine illustrators and photographers, grab our book Bright Lights, Twin Cities!
Being more than a flyover state
New foods at the Minnesota State Fair
Condo construction in Dinkytown
Pedal Pubs (love or hate)
Bars (the edible kind)
Josh Hartnett’s unibrow
Our hip-hop scene
Dan Wilson’s songwriting
Still voting for Walter Mondale
Topping lutefisk with cream gravy (instead of using melted butter like a godless Norwegian)
When “up north” is actually west, east, or south
The North Stars logo
Being reduced to stereotypes
Anything with the word “Fargo” in it
The Mighty Ducks
The Dayton’s auditorium Christmas show, back when it was different every year
DQs being shuttered for the winter
Coming around the corner on Highway 169 and spotting the Green Giant
The actual location of Lake Wobegon
Getting circled by Bert
The final Holidazzle
How much like your dad the mayor is
Minneapolis vs. St. Paul farmers’ markets and their rules about how far away the food can come in from
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
The weather, every goddamn day
10. Albert Lea. Home of the most epic highway rest stop in the state of Minnesota. There’s outsize wooden statuary, there’s a veritable football field of Minnesota-themed merchandise, and there’s a Cold Stone Creamery where at least one of the employees will toss your blended ice cream into the air behind his back, whip a 180, and catch it in your cup. What were the community meetings that led to the decision to build this majestic edifice of fun near Minnesota’s southern border, for Iowans coming north to realize they’ve discovered a new frontier of fun and to give Minnesotans traveling south one final reason to regret leaving the state, however temporarily?
9. Delano. This city of just 5,500 boasts a giant dancing chicken and the gloriously surreal Peppermint Twist Drive-In, a 50s throwback not so much to Ozzie and Harriet as to The Twilight Zone. What other delicious horrors lurk here?
8. Duluth. After a few tough decades economically, Duluth is aiming to become not just the tourist mecca of Minnesota but also its hipster haven. There’s a boardwalk, there are beaches, there are giant ore freighters, there’s a nationally-relevant experimental music scene. What’s the next trick Duluth has up its sleeve?
7. New Ulm. Minnesota is famous for its Scandinavians, but actually the single most populous ethnic group in the state isn’t Swedes, Norwegians, or Finns: it’s Germans, and the epicenter of Gopher State Germanness is New Ulm. The Hermann Monument (“Hermann the German”) is the national monument to German immigrants, and three times a day the Glockenspiel chimes downtown as figures on a rotating platter emerge to tell the story of the city’s history (except in December, when they tell the Christmas Story). Is the next step a Bavarian-themed amusement park? Let’s hope yes.
6. Winona. The Tangential’s Chris Vondracek and Mary Juhl have been in Winona a lot for work over the past couple of years, and their tweets have been kind of fascinating to follow, revealing a #TinyMtnVillage (to use Chris’s hashtag) in southeast Minnesota, where—as Mary’s photos in Bright Lights, Twin Cities depict—stunning vistas and bucolic river idylls coexist with knuckles-bared bar fights and strange fires. Let’s all go party there.
5. Red Wing. Best known for its pottery, for the Largest Workboot Ever Witnessed by the Civilized Public, and for the reform school that inspired a Bob Dylan song, Red Wing too is a land of contrasts. Picnic at Barn Bluff and try not to fall to your death. (It happens.)
4. Grand Marais. The Cape Cod of Minnesota, Grand Marais bustles with vacationing yuppies, wanna-be voyageurs, and bad art. If I lived up there, I’d self-publish a Gossip-Girl-style series of young adult novels about popped collars and bruised egos among Grand Marais townie youth.
3. St. Peter. You’re driving through the wide streets of south central Minnesota, past soybeans and meat markets (of both the literal and the country-bar varieties), when BAM! you run into an establishment that offers coffee cuppings, fleur-de-lis lattes, and artisan sandwiches in tinfoil boxes. Welcome to Brooklyn-on-the-Prairie, the college town that’s home to Gustavus Adolphus College. Better check your street fashion before you step out of the minivan.
2. Stillwater. What the average Minnesotan knows about Stillwater is that it’s “good for antiquing.” The more time you spend in Stillwater, though, the more fascinating it gets. Michele Bachmann’s current home town is just a bridge jump away from the back woods of Wisconsin. Its caves have been used for boozing, for theater, and for scaring the crap out of little children on pitch-black boat rides; gangsters used to hold court at the “cave view” table in the adjoining restaurant. Stillwater is home to Minnesota’s most notorious penitentiary, which also produces—as Colleen Powers notes in Bright Lights, Twin Cities—the country’s oldest continuously published prison newspaper. Intrigued yet?
1. Morris. If all of Minnesota’s college campuses were at a party together, the University of Minnesota—Morris would be the quiet character sitting out on the porch, wearing sunglasses at night and smoking an expensive clove. Bored with the jocks and know-it-alls inside, you’d go out to make conversation, but Morris would be gone, roaring away on a motorcycle as the late-night DJ on KUMM says something you can’t make out over the roar of the engine but sounds like it must have been beautiful, profound, and sad.
For two blocks right in front of the Valspar plant in downtown Minneapolis—on S. 3rd St., between S. 10th Ave. and S. 12th Ave.—there are magical meters that only cost a quarter an hour, for up to ten hours. This is the way to go if you’re seeing a play at the Guthrie.
The best place to take your parents for lunch in downtown St. Paul is the Four Inns, a diner accessible only from the skyway at 101 E. 5th St. It feels like it hasn’t changed since the Nixon Administration. (Pro tip: Listen very carefully when they explain how to get to the restroom.)
Every day of the week, from 9 PM to midnight, Ol’ Mexico in Roseville has a two-for-one special on enormous beers.
Always drive straight to the top in the Mall of America parking ramp.
You can choose cherry dip as one of your two “toppings” on a Dairy Queen waffle-bowl sundae.
Some of the cheapest oysters in the Twin Cities are at one of the most expensive seafood restaurants: Stella’s Fish Cafe & Prestige Oyster Bar has 69-cent oysters every Friday from 3:00 to 6:00 PM. If that’s not enough fish for you, you can cross the street and eat endless fish & chips for $9.99 all day Friday at the Uptown Tavern.
We’ll all tell you to bike or bus to the Minnesota State Fair, but then we just go pay the twenty bucks and park in someone’s front yard, because that’s the easiest way to transport all the crap you always end up bringing home with you.
The best museum in Minnesota is Ed’s Museum in Wykoff. A guy named Ed died and left his store and upstairs apartment to the city, and they opened the property as a museum. The museum of Ed. The only stuff in it is Ed’s stuff, because it’s Ed’s Museum. You usually have to make an appointment to get in, but it’s worth it.
The Science Museum of Minnesota has America’s only theater that converts from a domed Omni screen to a flat IMAX screen. They convert it before Omni screenings just to show it off, but the IMAX screen is almost never used.
It’s worth a road trip from the Twin Cities to Pipestone, in southwestern Minnesota, just to drive through the eerie wind farm on your way.
When you’re in Duluth, it’s worth driving over to Superior, Wisconsin just so you can say you crossed the Dick Bong Bridge.
Though liquor sales are illegal on Sundays, grocery stores can still sell “cooking” sherry.
If you’re seeing a show at the Jungle Theater in Uptown Minneapolis (and you should), try to get tickets for opening night: a lot of times, after the show there’s a free buffet with a huge spread of food and wine to celebrate.
On a good day, you can totally get buzzed on samples at Surdyk’s Liquor.
Zipp’s Liquors has the best free boxes in Minneapolis. Just grab some empty booze boxes off the mountain sitting inside the front door.
Donny Dirk’s Zombie Den is a bar that closes three hours before the legally-mandated bar close time of 2 AM, but it’s worth waiting until the 11 PM closing time for the nightly laser light show.
When we tell you what the “cool” coffee shops are, we won’t mention that those same coffee shops also have the shittiest wi-fi. If you actually want to get work done, go somewhere dorky.
Prince notwithstanding, the Grammy category where Minnesota was historically most dominant was the now-defunct Best Polka Album.
We constantly mock Wisconsin, but then we all go there on vacation.
The number one secret to happiness in Minnesota is finding a place to live where shoveling the snow is someone else’s job.
Loons. Most lakes in Minnesota have at least one resident loon pair and they’re not shy or quiet. Not only that, but every TV ad for the Minnesota state lottery ends with the loon call. It would be our state sound, if there was one. People living south of Minnesota do not know what loons are, think they have a ridiculous name, and are only unwittingly familiar with them because loon calls always crop up right after the great-horned-owl call on “spooky woods night sounds” background audio in every single horror movie.
The north country. Minnesota is a stunning place, and there aren’t many other places that look like it. The distinctive pines and paper birches the whole place is littered with prefer frigid northern climates. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was on a road trip through upstate New York and the sight of birches had me bouncing from window to window like a dog that’s just realized the car ride’s almost over. Something about the north country feels more wild and savage and pure than the outdoors of other places—like any second a wolf will come loping out of the pines, howl mournfully, penetrate your soul with its piercing blue eyes, and then disappear into the forest again. Being in the outdoors in other places, I’m just like, “This is buggy.”
The cold. No, this one isn’t a joke. I mean, the cold is terrible—but I missed the yearly test of my mettle. It gave me a sense of pride, surviving a Minnesota winter. Without it, I worried that there was some part deep in my soul withering; that without surviving in the completely insane and unlivable conditions of a Minneapolis winter, every year I was becoming less and less fit to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Being able to sit down in a bar. In Minneapolis, you can decide you’d like to go to a popular bar, then you can walk into said bar, get a drink, and sit at a table. For the most part, you can just do that. You can sit down at a bar, and get a drink in under a half an hour, without having gotten there basically at bar open. It’s incredible.
Space. When I lived in Brooklyn, my fiancé and I took up camping. Then he took up brewing beer. Then we couldn’t take up anything else because there wasn’t any more room in the apartment. I wanted to keep the bike in the apartment, but we would have had to get rid of the futon or the TV.
Political moderation. The drawback of living in a swing state like Minnesota is the deluge of ads come election time, but the advantage is that you get to live in a nice, moderate place. In some places, if you let it slip that you grew up with guns in your house and your father still owns a couple, people will have a heart attack. In other places, if you say your boyfriend doesn’t go to church, people will stifle a gasp. There are a lot of people in Minnesota who will do neither, and will instead politely hear you—like a considerate, tolerant fellow human. It’s pretty nice, actually.