Monday, September 17, 2007

A Kentucky Boy in Minnesota

About 1,510 miles, 27 hours and 40 minutes in the car, 37 hours and 30 minutes at the destination, and 65 hours and 10 minutes total round trip – that was my 3-day mini-vacation to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, to see my favorite band, Rush.

Nervously excited about the trip, I was unable to get to bed Friday night, and did not end up falling asleep until after 1:00 a.m. My alarm was set for 5:00 a.m., but I turned it off when it rang, and didn’t even really wake up. I finally roused myself right at 7:00, hurriedly took a shower and gathered my things together, and managed to pull out of the driveway at 7:30. I exited my neighborhood right after dawn on a cloudy late summer morning in Kentucky.

With the exception of Wisconsin, I have visited every state east of the Mississippi River, and most of the states of the southwest, as well as California. The one area of the country I have not visited, however, is the swath of states stretching from Kansas, north through the heartland, and west to Washington. About 20 years ago, in the late 1980’s, when I was about 13, I made a couple of trips to Chicago, but had never been north past that point. As I would be visiting two states I had never seen before (Wisconsin and Minnesota), and as I love solitary travel, I was really excited about this trip.

With my CD case lying open to the first page of Rush albums, I headed west down Interstate 64, toward Louisville. It was already warm, and by the time I hit Louisville, the thermometer was reading in the low 80’s, despite not even being 9:00 yet. This would prove to be the high water mark for temperature for my weekend. It was still cloudy, and continued to be so as I crossed Louisville and entered Indiana.

As a Kentuckian by birth, having spent 27 of my 32 years in this state, I have a healthy and deeply-bred derision of Indiana. It’s flat, empty, not particularly pretty, and, inexplicably, it stinks. Now, I’ve been in other states that seem to smell funny – northern Louisiana reeks of sulfur, and East Texas has a curious burnt wood smell – but Indiana just simply smells like shit. Literally. During the 300 or so miles from New Albany to Gary, I got distinct whiffs of cattle excrement at least five or six random times. In my experience, this is generally par for the course when traveling through rural Indiana. And here I thought that Indiana farmers only grew corn.

This was a Chinese place somewhere in Indiana. The sign reads
"You a carry out a Chinese fast food." Nice.

The most amusing part of the trip through Indiana was a bit of graffiti I saw on a highway sign. In addition to the other irritating things about Indiana, they love to clutter their Interstates with signs. And I don’t mean billboards – every state has those – I’m talking about street signs: “Wrong Way” signs on the opposite side of the Interstate, No Parking signs all along the entrance and exit ramps into rest areas, countless signs telling you it’s now three miles closer than the last sign to the city ahead, and on and on and on. One of these repetitive signs is about drunk driving. It says something like “Report impaired drivers – Call 911.” On one of these signs, underneath the “Report impaired drivers” phrase, someone had spray painted: “No one likes a snitch.” I got a good laugh out of that one.

I passed through Indianapolis in a blur, never leaving Interstate 65, and finally arrived just after lunchtime in Chicago, Illinois. Right about the time I was entering the Chicago metro area, the clouds parted as though by the Hand of Providence, and the remainder of the trip was sunny and clear. It took me about an hour or so to get across Chicago, but I took a bunch of pictures of the skyline on the way.

The Sears Tower, as seen from my car.

The road I was on – Interstate 90 – is a toll road all the way to the Wisconsin border, so it was nice to put away my wallet after a couple of hours of toll booths and traffic jams.

Entering Wisconsin, I immediately discovered that it looked sort of like Indiana, except not ugly or smelly. It seemed to be a beautiful state, with wide sweeping corn fields interlocked with plains of rolling, emerald green, and silos by the dozen. All the barns were painted the same rich, brick red, with white trim – just like you see in the pictures. I guess it was that emerald green that surprised me most. It was almost reminiscent of Ireland.

Residents of Wisconsin, evidently, love their water parks. I saw no less than five or six different water parks along Interstates 90 and 94 as I wound my way northward, past Madison and Eau Claire. There literally seemed to be a water park at every exit. One rather large place, advertised for miles and miles on billboards, is called Wisconsin Dells, but it was only one of many that I saw.

Hi, my name is Scott and I love Rush.

As you get farther into Wisconsin, the cornfields and emerald green grass is replaced by hilly terrain, rocky outcrops, and groves of pine trees. It reminded me a lot of Arkansas.

And, of course, there was the cheese. Signs advertising various styles of cheese abounded all along the Interstate, and one sign in particular caught my attention because of the incongruity of the advertisement: “FIREWORKS and CHEESE!” Still another sign stood at an Interstate off ramp, towering high into the sky, with a huge brown sign proclaiming “CHEESE” in big block letters, and then, farther down on the post, a much smaller sign saying, almost as an afterthought: “sandwiches.” I couldn’t tell if that was supposed to mean they were selling cheese sandwiches, or if they were merely pointing out that they’d sell you cheese, and, if you want it, a sandwich too.

I entered St. Paul around dusk. The sun cast an orange glow across the bellies of the clouds that hung in the sky, and it was a nice touch for my first entrance into the Twin Cities. The area reminded me a lot of Houston, sans palm trees – very flat and very clean and pretty. I took Interstate 494 south toward Bloomington, passing the Mall of America and finally arriving at my friend Mike’s house almost exactly thirteen hours after leaving Lexington. I found the turnoff for his house by looking for the ski jump that stands on one of the few legitimate hills in the Twin Cities.

Mike’s house was a beautiful 2-story home in a quiet area of the Twin Cities. He and has wife gave me my own bedroom and bathroom in the finished basement, and Mike had enchiladas and margaritas ready for my arrival. We ended the evening, naturally, by talking about Rush and watching a documentary on the making of their latest album, Snakes & Arrows.

On Sunday morning, Mike took me to see the sites. We went first into downtown Minneapolis, where we looked at and went inside the Basilica of St. Mary, billed as the oldest basilica in the United States (apparently there aren’t a lot of old basilicas in the U.S. – this one was completed in 1914). It was a beautiful gray building with two large turrets overshadowed by a stained copper dome.

A mass was in progress when we went inside, so we did not get to see the sanctuary, but the foyer was very pretty with arched ceilings and a large crucifix adorning the wall inside a spiral staircase.

I considered dipping my hand into the holy water, but decided it would be sacrilegious.

After our spiritual renewal inside St. Mary’s, we walked across a pedestrian bridge spanning one of the city’s Interstates. This led directly into the Sculpture Garden – claimed by Minnesotans to be the largest urban sculpture garden in the country. The centerpiece is an unusual fountain sculpture of an enormous spoon holding a bright red cherry. If you stand in just the right spot, you can see St. Mary’s towering in the distance beyond the cherry. A Catholic friend of mind commented wryly on the incongruity of a huge cherry sculpture situated in a park next door to a basilica named for the Perpetual Virgin. Well, the cherry is intact, after all.

After walking around Sculpture Garden, we headed over to St. Paul to pick up our friend Becca. Becca is a devout Jew of the Conservative tradition, and she was decked out in a Rush T-shirt with a watermelon-styled kippah perched on the crown of her head (a kippah is otherwise known to us Adam Sandler fans as a “yarmulke”). In the center of the kippah she had a button with the arrow image from the Snakes & Arrows album. A Rush fan to the end, she is.

We took a walk into downtown St. Paul and saw Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. This church is apparently the oldest continuously used church building in the Twin Cities, and it is in a building that was originally built in 1854 by the Universalist Society.

We got there in between masses, so we were able to go inside the sanctuary. It was very beautiful, smelled of incense, and had the customary confession closets in the back.

On the front was a sculpture of the Blessed Virgin appearing to Saint Bernadette in Lourdes, and the doors were painted in a royal blue, decked out with fleur-de-lis, which – as I pointed out to Mike – is the city symbol of Louisville, Kentucky.

After Our Lady of Lourdes, we went a few blocks down to St. Anthony Falls, which is the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River. Problem is, it’s no longer natural. Sometime in the late 19th century, the water was diverted with dams, and now the waterfall goes over a concrete basin.

It’s really pretty down there, and the river at this spot is flanked on either side by Pillsbury and Gold Medal grain mills – apparently the Twin Cities are a major producer of flour.

After seeing St. Anthony Falls, we walked over near Lake Calhoun – one of the touted “10,000” lakes of Minnesota. As we walked past, the sun shimmered off the dark blue surface, and sailboats dotted the expanse of waters, making for a really beautiful late summer scene.

We stopped and ate at a nearby restaurant called Little Tel Aviv, which served authentic kosher Israeli food. Becca ordered for us, and we shared four appetizers, made up of foods I couldn’t pronounce, but which tasted really good.

After we left the restaurant, the only bad moment of the weekend occurred. As we were pulling out of a 2-way street onto a 1-way street, we were all looking right to make sure the road was clear, and as Mike turned out, we ran into another car coming from the opposite direction. It was a very low-impact accident – none of the airbags in either car went off. Despite that, the girls in the other car were rather rude and irritated, and one of them was pretending to be hurt. She even called an ambulance. With two years working in a law firm that specializes in insurance defense for car accidents, I was able to give Mike some good advice – I don’t think he had anything to worry about. There is no way that girl was hurt.

While Mike waited for the police to arrive, Becca and I went up to a used bookstore nearby. I sat and read from Sam Harris’s atheist manifesto The End of Faith, while Becca perused the poetry section. She ended up buying four books, including one for me called After the Lost War, which is a modern epic poem written from the Southern perspective in the aftermath of the Civil War.

We finally got home following the fender bender, and Mike’s family and I headed over to the concert venue (Becca had been picked up by her friend, with whom she was going to the concert). We stopped and ate at a snazzy Italian place called Cossetta’s Italian Market & Pizzeria. While we were there, we took a bunch of pictures with other Rush fans we know through the message boards, and got word of a rumor that Neil Peart had been at the cigar store a few doors down about an hour earlier, buying cigarettes. This came, apparently, from someone who worked there. We were all rather bummed out that we hadn’t gotten a chance to meet him and become lifelong best friends.

At 6:30, we headed over to the venue and found our seats. Mike and his son were in the front row, at the far edge of the stage, stage right, in front of where Alex Lifeson stands. I was in row 14, but after running into a mutual friend from the message board who also had first row seats, I was able to upgrade to row 10, as he had an extra ticket he hadn’t been able to sell.

The show was fantastic. I won’t bore those of you who aren’t Rush fans with intimate details, but this was the third show I had seen in 8 days, and it was the best of the three. The acoustics in the indoor venue were excellent, and I felt that The Holy Trinity was in prime form. Geddy Lee’s voice sounded great, especially considering this show was at the end of the American leg of the tour. I was especially animated at this show (probably because I knew it was my last of the year), and by the end I was soaked in sweat and had a cracking, hoarse voice.

Geddy Lee is fuckin' awesome!

The Holy Trinity.

As I did at the Cincinnati show, I wore my Caress of Steel Tour 1975-76 replica T-shirt. I bought this shirt a few years ago online, and it is a replica of the shirts sold during the actual tour of the mid-1970’s. In Cincinnati, I had a number of people ask me if the shirt was authentic, and I always told them the truth. This time around, however, I was in a Vegas mood, so I decided to tell everyone who asked that it was the real deal. I must have told this lie to 10 different people. The general response was, “Awesome, dude! That’s incredible! I wish I had taken care of my old tour shirts! Geddy Lee is fuckin’ awesome!” I even came up with a story about how it was my Dad’s shirt, and he had kept good care of it over the years, and now I wear it to all the shows. My Dad saw them in Louisville, so the story went, but Louisville doesn’t appear on the list of cities on the back of the shirt, so I figure he must have been too high to remember exactly where he saw them (at this point in the story, I would add in a nice chuckle). For anyone who knows my straight-laced, chemistry professor Dad, who was a conservative evangelical Christian in the 1970’s who once berated my Mom for listening to (gasp!) Billy Joel, you’ll know what an amusing fabrication this is. Making up total lies and telling them to strangers is oddly entertaining.

During the intermission, I was able to have a moment of kindness to a fellow Rush fan. I got to talking with a guy who was standing outside smoking, and after the obligatory discussion about my authentic 1975-76 tour shirt, I asked him where he was sitting. Section 109 or thereabouts, I think he told me. So I offered to give him my 14th row ticket, which I was now not using. He was shocked and offered to give me money, but I told him he could have it. I did let him buy me a beer, though. He had told me his favorite song was 2112 – which was the song and album by the same title that really launched Rush into the limelight back in 1976 – but I didn’t have the heart to tell him they weren’t going to play it.

Well, after the concert was over, of course, the Big Let Down set in. That’s the only bad thing about waiting all summer to see a concert. With so much build up and excitement, you bottom out when it’s all over. It wasn’t quite so bad after Minnesota, however, as it was the week before after Cincinnati and Columbus.

I got up about 7:30 on Monday morning, ate breakfast, said my good-byes to Mike, and headed home. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it out of the driveway. My car, which has never given me any sort of trouble whatsoever, magically refused to start when I tried to turn it on. I turned the key over and over, but the engine just kept whining without catching. I started getting that panicky “This can’t be happening” feeling. Here I was, 750 miles from home on a Monday morning in Minnesota, a credit card maxed out, very little in my checking account, no family any closer than Indianapolis, and my car wouldn’t start. I really started to freak out, but I kept on turning the key and finally the mother started. Mike came back outside and I turned it off and started it again to see if it would do the same thing, and it fired right up the second time. I finally headed out about 10:00.

On the way home, I decided to take a little extra time and see a few sites. I drove past the Mall of America (which Mike said is sort of an over-hyped disappointment), and took a few pictures for my wife. Later, a few miles into Wisconsin, I got off at an exit that had a sign for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway. I wasn’t sure what this was, but I’ve always been a Little House on the Prairie fan, so I figured I’d see what it was all about. Unfortunately, I never found it. However, the town there, called Menomonie, was pretty, and I took a few pictures. It’s apparently a college town, with a school there called Stout University or something similar.

A building in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

Not long outside of Menomonie, it started raining, and it didn’t stop until I got to Chicago. That was a real pain in the ass, and made for a slow and stressful trip. It also ensured that I entered Chicago right about rush hour, and it took me nearly three hours to get from Elgin, on the western side of Chicago, to Gary, Indiana, on the eastern side of Chicago. I coasted into my driveway at about 12:40 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and was about ready to collapse by that point.

I miss Rush.

All in all, it was a great trip. I got to see states and sites I had never seen before, and I had quite a bit of “me” time alone in the car with just my music and the countryside. Add on top of that the excellent Rush concert, and it made for a well-deserved and timely weekend getaway.


Kitten Bitch said...

You've never heard of the Wisconsin Dells???? Come now. Even I know that Wisconsin is big on water parks. But I think I learned that from listening to NPR.

And I can't believe that you didn't bother to take the time to take a little picture of your sister's favorite place in St. Paul. The Fitzgerald Theater. No love for me.

Sounds like a good trip though. Except for the whole, having to sit through a Rush show. :)

Scott said...

I asked Mike if he knew where Garrison Keillor's theater was, but he said he wasn't sure. And no, I've never heard of Wisconsin Dells, nor did I know that they loved water parks, necessarily.

Leigh Ellwood said...

Do you always look so bored when you drive?

Scott said...

13 hours will do that to you.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you had a nice time, although I'll bet it doesn't live up to the 1992 Elton John "The One" tour at Rupp.

Scott said...

Rush makes Elton John look like he has the talent of Brad Stone and Maggie Tuggle's love child.

Cat Nip said...

I have a rather interesting three-part scar on my leg that looks like a scratch from a very large hand. Three almost horizontal scars that are pretty much equidistant. I got sick of explaining what really happened, since it's not very exciting, so I started telling people it was a cougar scratch. One girl hung on every word of my very elaborate story that was complete with sound effects. People believe anything if they have no reason to doubt you. Pretty fun.

Sounds like you had a great time, even with the car annoyances. :)
Seems like you were able to do a ton of sight seeing in such a short time.

Your friend was right. The Mall of America isn't that great. Especially for those who can't stand to shop. It's too big, and if you stand still on the second floor, you can feel the building sway. I guess it has to have some give, but it's still a little creepy.

Cat Nip said...

Oh, and I didn't know about the water parks, either.

Scott said...

See, Kitten Bitch!? Cat Nip had never heard of Wisconsin's fascination with water parks either.

I'm sure Kitten Bitch would have fallen for your cougar story too, Nippers. Only, with her, she would have assumed it was an attack by Edward Sissorhands or something.

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