This past weekend the land mass of Minnesota , with it’s 10,000 moisture-filled pores known as Lakes, beckoned me to squeeze all of the life and excitement I could from the sponge-like state in a span of time others might deem entirely too brief to do anything of note. The challenge was to experience the vast array Midwestern American culture, wringing out all I could in the realms of cuisine, amusement, and general oddities all in a stretch lasting less than 84 hours.
Arriving at 1:30 CST in Minneapolis, I fully regret the three and a half hours it took for Operation Experience Minnesota to spring into action, but it was a detour since gathering friends together, renting cars and checking in to hotel rooms would ultimately serve us favorably in our stay in the Gopher State.
Having anticipated the journey weeks in advance, I came prepared with a bushel of activity to partake in. The most pressing matter upon our arrival was of the gastronomic variety. Throughout the course of this particular day, I had only had a bottle of fruit drink and some airplane peanuts; I was bordering on starving.
Gathering up a crew consisting of my high school friend Joe D, his wife JSarah, and a crew of Joe’s College housemates and their significant others; we made for the Minneapolis meat monument known as Matt’s Bar. Sure the name Matt’s Bar doesn’t call to mind anything spectacular. The moniker reminds one an insignificant small town dive along the lines of Moe’s Tavern; but Matt’s bar is so much more. It’s the home of the “Jucy Lucy.”
What, pray tell, is a “Jucy Lucy?” Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s a delicious burger with a molten cheese core and a renowned item on the list of Minneapolis culinary specialties. It had to be tasted. The six other members of the out of state crew agreed with my assessment.
We were able to procure a few tables in the back of the famed establishment after a brief wait and before even gazing upon the menu we all agreed what we were there for. Aiming to expedite our order, Laura (a member of our party) took it upon herself to round up the order so as to speak for the table when the waitress arrived. The preparation was all for naught as the waitress arrived and went on with her own system of taking orders simply blurting out, “How many Lucy’s? How many orders of fries?” She also had to go about the business of seeing the onion situation(fried, raw, no) for each individual burger. That hadn’t been accounted for in Laura’s original plan. The process was efficient nonetheless; and we tacked on a few pitchers of beer to go with our meaty delights.
The anticipation was great, but the wait didn’t seem too long. I was seated directly across from Steve and Laura who were situated below a wide-screen TV showing opening round games of the Little League World Series. This particular game was showing Minnesota vs. Texas and it seemed innate that I would be pulling hard for Minnesota to pull this one out despite being down 10-4 in the final inning. A brief tinge of excitement fell over me when the hometown heroes brought the game within a 2-spot with a grand slam, but that it all went downhill from there as they just couldn’t pull it out.
No matter, dinner was served. Placed before us, wrapped in sandwich paper, were our Jucy Lucys. The waitress instructed us to wait a few minutes lest we be scalded by the molten cheese inside. We obliged her warning, though I was definitely tempted to have a go at it. I opted to take my burger with fried onions au natural. I had read that you didn’t need to put any condiment embellishment on these delightful treats, so I tried to go as authentic as possible, just Jucy Lucy, me and a pint of Leinie.
Slightly reluctant to scarf down the goodness in too few bites, my first nip revealed a very flavorful patty, but failed to draw first cheesy blood. The next bite was a different story. It wasn’t quite a Clint Malarchuk gusher, but it definitely would’ve warranted a trip to the emergency room if it were the result of sharp object on skin.
The yellow ooze was something more than just cheese on a burger. It was a flavorful burst of deliciousness that also served as a nice dipping sauce for the fries once it had settled onto the paper. The Jucy Lucy was indeed Juicy and a wonder for taste buds to behold. Part One of Operation Experience Minnesota was indeed a triumph.
The early goings of our experdition were not without casualties. Joes’s wife JSarah had suffered a bit of a neck strain/spasm earlier in the day prior to making the trip and it was not treating her kindly. So as we prepared for phase 2 of Mission Minneapolis, two key members of our team were knocked down for the count.
Like a Sergeant leaving behind two wounded soldiers (and a mediocre writer clinging on too tightly to war metaphors), we pressed on to achieve our objective; to have the most fun we possibly could during our one day in Minneapolis.
Using our next hour to recover from the “jucyness” of the lucy, the remaining revelers met in our hotel lobby at around 8pm. I had a plan in mind. I wanted to go to Nye’s – a bar so well-regarded that it had been named Best Bar in America by Esquire– as our first stop. My plans aside, I was only a small cog in part of a group now. I wasn’t the only one who had ideas, so when Dan first suggested we go to Brit’s Pub, I reluctantly agreed with this as our first stop on the nightlife tour.
At first glance, Brit’s seemed like any other plain pub. For a gimmicky British Pub-type it had precious few options in the way of authentic British brews. Nothing, I couldn’t get at most bars in New York anyway. I voiced this opinion once, but refrained from anything else that might be construed as whiny because I realized it was silly. This place wasn’t so bad. It had Twins games and Rugby on the TV. No one was bumping anyone out of the way, so as to cause someone to spill their beer. This place was alright. Then we made the move to go upstairs and outside because Dan heard they had lawn bowling. I wasn’t too excited about lawn bowling since we have a few places to play Bocce here in Brooklyn, but once we made it outside I shut the hell up.
Brit’s had an impressive, grassy expanse for which visitors could get competitive. The well-manicured bowling green was unfortunately in use for a corporate event and we couldn’t partake in the festivities, but I was still impressed by the layout. We stayed at Brit’s for at least 3 beers before packing up our things and heading on to the next bar, but not before being joined by my good friend Matt and his wife Lindsay.
The next move was a bold one and one that I greatly approved of. Rather than grab a cab, we decided the night was too lovely and the next bar was too near. We walked through downtown Minneapolis seeing many impressive architectural specimens on the way til we came to a bridge that crossed the Mississippi River and brought us to Northeast Minneapolis where we were soon face to face with the aforementioned Nye’s Polonaise.
Nye’s seemed like a classic old-time bar. I don’t really know how to characterize it other than that. It had a long, dimly lit bar and older man with a foreign accent behind the bar. There was a tiny stage in the corner where instruments rested for the time being. Most of the people I encountered in the establishment were relatively attractive, but not overly hipster-ish. It had the general easygoing vibe of your local dive, but something more unique.
We arrived to find 7 available stools at the bar even though the vibe was anything but dead. Soon after our arrival the house polka band retook the stage and began steadily churning out standards. At one point I was sure I recognized one of the songs just from the first few notes as “Pennsylvania Polka” from the film Groundhog Day. Lo and behold, the singer started in on the lyrics. There was just something comforting at this bar as I sipped on Grain Belt and made easy conversation with an old friend. I felt like I was in Brooklyn.
The night went on and my urgency to see all that I could see caught up with me. My friend Anna, a Minneapolite, recommended I check out U Otter Stop Inn for a dive-y karaoke bar. So our crowd gathered outside yet again, though we lost Matt and Lindsay, and off we went to the next stop.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe I was spoiled by the great feel of the last 2 places, but U Otter Stop Inn was cramped and kind of annoying. Gopher and Viking Pride lined the walls and the crowd was a bit rowdy, though not completely out of hand. Part of me longed for civility, but also held on for somewhat of a unique experience. Instead, I just got your run of the mill cheap beer and some underwhelming karaoke without the thrill of participation. I put in for a few karaoke songs, but was pretty sure I’d never get to hear them.
Rather than wait it out til the end of the night, we piled in a cab and headed back downtown where we ended our night at a place called The Local. After a beer or two it was closing time and we each headed back to our respective hotel rooms. At some point in the night Joe and his wife had made for the emergency room to deal with her neck issues. I returned home to the empty hotel room that the 3 of us had shared and passed out happily on the firm slab of heaven that was my bed.
I slept like an angel, even though at some point I heard Joe and JSarah tiptoe back into the room. I wasn’t waking up for anyone at that point. I was just too comfortable.
Not sure what time I woke up the next day, but I knew we’d be checking out soon after I did. Joe had secured a late checkout thanks to his emergency room visit. We didn’t hurry though. Steve, Dan, and company left before us for some breakfast and got a head start out west towards Spicer, where we were all headed for a wedding.
Our plan was to pick up Suli at the Airport and maybe catch up with them by the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Darwin, MN. It didn’t really work out that way. We got a later start than expected after grabbing brunch at The Local and having some issues with our GPS on the way to the airport. We eventually reached Suli waiting by pickup section of the Delta Terminal. He had been waiting a bit, but his trip was just beginning. All told it was probably the same amount of time he would’ve waited to rent a car.
So we were off. Not really much to do but drive west and wait to be enveloped by small town awesomeness. That awesomeness enveloped us about an hour and 25 minutes into our road trip. We had just stopped to get some water and take a bathroom break along Route 12 and been cruising along through towns with miniscule populations for close to a half hour when on the driver’s side Suli spied a wrestling ring surrounded by a crowd and with some townsfolk cheering on some grapplers. Someone in the car let out a “holy shit!” and before we knew it we were looking for a spot.
Upon parking and further investigation, we were about to witness the FLWA Wrestling and the Dassel Church of Christ’s Bible Slam 2010. At first we stood back as mere observers afraid of being pegged as outsiders. A match had just ended and the ringmaster was announcing another FLWA event two Sundays from the day. He encouraged the audience to make the scene, while also putting an accent on the importance of going to church that day too…or at least finding some time to go to church if you were going to go to wrestling on a Sunday. With that reverent proclamation, he proclaimed that it was time for a ten-minute intermission.
JSarah and I took this as an occasion to wander around the town. We saw a sign for the Dassel Historical Society four blocks away and made for it with excitement as a way to pass the time between bouts. We were cut off as Joe and Suli pulled up in the car and told us to get in. Joe said someone gave him the finger and he wanted to leave due to feeling unwelcome. This was a bit of a red herring. Some woman in a car gave us the finger when we didn’t know if we could cross the street as she waited for us to cross. It wasn’t that big of a deal. It wasn’t as if the townspeople were waiting to sink their pitchforks in us. JSarah and I got in the car, but convinced Joe and Suli to pull over and stay awhile. We were going to see going to catch some of Bible Slam 2010 no matter how welcome or unwelcome we were.
Before the wrestling commenced there were some announcements and the ringmaster got some volunteers to throw out some Bible Slam shirts to the audience. Joe and I hooted and hollered but still didn’t get any of the precious apparel thrown our way. Sure we could have paid $5 for one from anyone in town, but we didn’t want to give them the feeling that small town folk were so novel and we were mocking them in anyway.
Once the shirts were all distributed, the next match was announced. The Challenger/Villain Sammy Savard took to the stage and started bashing the audience and the town of “Dass-hole,”(Dasshole) Minnesota and its inhabitants with repetitive banter and insults that made you think he was just waiting for them to announce his opponent. Luckily, the FLWA champion soon arrived.
” (Paul the ?)Psycopath” arrived in a Ghostbusters-like vehicle with his face plastered on the side of it. He sat in the back seat and the driver/orderly from the Mental institution came around to let him out. Psycopath paraded around the stage…and that’s when all hell broke loose. You can see it below.
We didn’t stay for the entire match. Things got a bit ridiculous after awhile and we had a ball of twine to see. We were so close we could almost taste the quirkiness of the upcoming roadside attraction. Several small towns later, we found ourselves parked across the Darwin, MN Gazebo that housed the Giant ball of twine 12 ft. in diameter. It loomed quite large, but didn’t make for a great photo op since the plexiglass that protected it was entirely too reflective. If only it had been a more cloudy day.
Eager to obtain further proof of my visitation, I went to Jack’s Tavern across the street to seal this momentous occasion with a souvenir shirt. I liked quite a few of the shirt designs, but most of them were either size XXL or only available in silly colors that I would never wear. After making the poor girl behind the counter remove nearly every single shirt I was going to have to settle on buying the first Medium of any shirt she found. I threw $16 her way and off we went towards Spicer; the site where our good friend Eric would be tying the knot the very next day.
Upon our arrival at the Willow Bay Resort, we rejoined our friends who had left ahead of us and made friendly conversation with the folksy proprietor of the establishment located on beautiful Nest Lake. The owner/manager was surprised when we asked him for the key since locking the door was not such a common occurrence in them there parts.
Our cabin situated above the front office/store, had quite the homey feel with a nice view of the lake. There was a living room and kitchen area and two bedrooms, one of which had a bunkbed in addition to the queen-sized. Each cabin also came equipped with it’s own grill and fire pit. We had stumbled into a bit of a rustic paradise for what was definitely a reasonable rate.
The first order of business after settling into our temporary abode was to enjoy some soft adventure on the placid lake. There were a pair of kayaks, a paddle boat, and two water-bikes for the taking. Having a bit of kayak crush, I made my selection. We had several hours to kill before a booze cruise with the bride, groom, and other guests, so the lake was our chief source of entertainment prior to grilling some dinner, during which Dan impressed everyone with his ability to duplicate (to an extent) the “Jucy Lucy.”
Once water amusement was had and patties were enjoyed, we made towards another cabin retreat where we met up to have drinks with all who would be joining us aboard the booze cruise. Some old acquaintances were on hand and some new ones made as we enjoyed a few brews in celebration of the bride and groom. The party continued as we headed out into the middle of Green Lake aboard “Cruisin’ at Melvin’s.”
For all the fun that goes with the idea of going on a booze cruise, the prospect looses of lot of its luster when the Booze Cruise in question carries a somewhat rank odor and resembles the infamous bug scene in Indiana Jones in Temple Doom. There were areas of the boat that were quite literally covered in creepy crawlies– the bathroom probably being the most notable. So while people sucked down drinks and alcoholic whipped cream, their enjoyment was tempered by the fear of being chewed down to the skeleton by a swarm of various mites. Post booze cruise there was another round of drinks at the aforementioned cabins and some tumult that followed before we could effectively call it an evening.
The next morning, Sunday, bore a large resemblance to the previous day after we had arrived at the cabins; there was plenty of time for water sports and grilling prior to the wedding that was to begin at 5pm at the local Bible Camp Chapel. Being of Jewish background I always view the act of entering anything seemingly as Christian as a Bible Camp with a little bit of caution and cynicism, but the scene was both lovely and rustic. We were greeted by a babbling brook and a mini-waterfall on the way up to the chapel and when we we entered a hair late, the wedding was just set to start. Joe, JSarah, Suli and I hurried past the wedding party and found our seats near to the rest of our group and took in a wonderful ceremony that lent equal portions from both the Jewish and Lutheran (?) faith.
The act of actually departing from inside the chapel was a little time consuming. Each row, before exiting the building was to be received by the bride and groom while still seated in their pew. It was nice to stay seated and relax for a bit, but it was a perfect day outside and I did have a longing to enjoy the outdoors.
Once outside we were all given lacy baggies of birdseed, in lieu of rice, to toss at the newlyweds on their exit from the premises. In anticipation of the moment I undid the bow of my baggy feeling that I had it safely in hand. Within a matter of seconds my birdseed had emptied out on the floor in tragic fashion. Thankfully, someone was kind enough to lend me some of theirs so that I could load up and loft some projectiles into the hair of the bride and groom.
Bible Camp was a merely a pitstop on the road to the wedded bliss of Sunday evening. The party carried on in the small resort town of Spicer, from the shore of where it had gone mobile the previous evening. Melvyn’s on the Lake played host to the reception and also played host to what was probably the first ever dancing of the Hora in the history of Kandiyohi County. After the just married couple arrived via boat to the venue, there was a wonderful cocktail hour followed by heartfelt speeches and plentiful dinner and dessert options; though it wasn’t until the dancing portion of the evening commenced when the wedding felt as if it were in full effect.
It started with an awkward invitation for the attendees to witness some “Jewish Folk Dancing,” which seemed to lend with it an air of novelty along the lines of watching walruses mate at the zoo for the non-chosen folk. The DJs had to be instructed to put the song on repeat for when the track on his CD first ended we had barely started circling the room and were not even close to lifting up the bride and groom on their respective chairs. Our mission was eventually accomplished and our heritage celebrated, but it was not without some uncomfortable pauses in the excitement.
From there on out the wedding took on the personality of late 80’s early 90’s prom. The DJs, who were employees of 94.1 “The Loon” knew somewhat we wanted to hear, but also were not shy about accepting our requests. They seemed in awe of our uninhibited, sloppy-enthusiastic dancing. Maybe they were gearing up to put our moves on youtube or were truly captivated by the zeal with which we took to the dance floor, but I think we kind of knocked their socks off with our collective will to party and request good songs that they themselves were into.I was sober for most of the wedding, but I didn’t hold back when it came to having a good time and more or less kept myself in motion throughout.
The party eventually dwindled down and it was back to the cabin for our crew which had grown to 10 in the past few hours. Rather than call it a night a few of us sat out by the firepit and drank a few beers. There was even some irresponsible lakefront high jinks as JSarah and I pedaled around the lake as a few others swam out to the floating dock.
At one point I was having a few steering issues and everyone had gone in. I found myself helplessly pedaling in a very undesirable horror movie predicament. I was waiting for some creature to emerge from the lake and mysteriously swallow me. Fortunately, I was able to wrest control of my floating bicycle and bring it safely to shore after a few minutes. Jsarah and I sat out for a few more minutes finishing our beer and then called it a good night.
I was somewhat sad to leave the Willow Bay Resort on Monday morning. Nest Lake looked so inviting upon waking up. Sitting in a kayak in the middle of it while wakeboarders hydroplaned in the not-so-distance seemed like a nice alternative to how I would’ve liked to spend my day. Alas, we had to get to Minneapolis. Our flight was leaving a little after 5pm and there was still a little we wanted to do.
After saying our teary goodbyes to our fellow temporary lake-dwellers, Suli, Joe, JSarah, and I headed out of Spicer only to be snagged by the prospect of lunch at the town Dairy Queen –where I’m pretty sure most of the employees were 13 years old. So…after Dairy Queen with high-tailed it out of Spicer, stopping only along the way to Minneapolis to take a photo of the sign for Darwin, MN.
It had also been previously decided that we were leaving Spicer at an earlier time to make an appearance at the (in)famous Mall of America, the largest Mall in the United States– if not the world. Upon our arrival at the daunting shopping complex our first task was to find the perfect parking spot. We settled on the section marked Georgia Peach where we found a juicy spot right next to the entrance. We braced ourselves for commerce and we got it in triplicate.
The overwhelming monument to shopping boasted an impressive expanse of ways to waste your time. From an amusement park to a casino/hotel. Luckily, I didn’t find the casino in time as I’d have been content not to waste my time gazing into the various Caribou Coffee storefronts or the Minnesota Vikings locker room team shop in its stead. I may have never even found my way to the food court where I ended up deciding to dine on an underwhelming salad option.
What I regret most about my trip to the Mall of Americas is that I didn’t make it to the cheese shop or ride the roller coaster. But those are adventures reserved for another time. It’s hard to hit all of the choice emporiums when you have to wade through several incarnations of The Gap and other well-known retailers who seem to be populating an abundance of the storefronts in different wings of the shopping arena, just in case shoppers tire out and decide the north end of the mall is entirely too far of a hike and one’s purchasing pals would be better suited leaving them for dead near the Rainforest Cafe.
We covered 3 of 4 mall compass points and then it was off to the airport to bid the fair state of Minnesota adieu. I’d love to say something climactic and uniquely Midwestern occurred during our wait for our Delta flight, but aside from a bit of a delay it was just standard airport fodder. I was hoping the flight would be overbooked so that I might volunteer my seat and spend a little extra time in town and possibly score a free plane ticket to anywhere in the continental US for my troubles, but there were no such announcements.
Instead we boarded our flight two hours late and arrived back in LaGuardia without a hitch. All’s well that end’s in a boring fashion I suppose. Though, I can’t say I was the least bored by Minnesota.