April 24, 2017
Sometimes other demands on my time take over. It’s been more than a week since I posted a blog entry; the reasons for the delay are many: the progress of the trip, weather, personal matters, just trying to get the show down the road from point A to B to C, etc.
I have left the familiarity of Iowa for that of Southwest and Western Minnesota. Not that it’s greatly different; the overarching geography ever since Eastern Oklahoma has been the prairies of the Eastern Great Plains. The only real divergence was for the intrusion of the Missouri River through Northeast Kansas, Northwest Missouri and Southwest Iowa. That great and historic river has its own rugged terrain, but the interruption is minimal, apart from the hills it presents to a cyclist. To all but the most dedicated natural scientist, I suppose it would be difficult to tell a Kansas prairie vista from one in Minnesota. Virtually all of it is intensely agricultural.
The rolling nature of the land flattened out somewhat as I moved through Iowa, especially north of Cherokee. What is lost in terms of texture is more than made up for by the ease of travel, although it amplifies the effects of the wind, almost a constant on the plains, if from a variety of directions. Unfortunately there have been more headwinds than tailwinds for the past two weeks, only a couple of days that seriously slowed me down, but a lot of hours with enough wind to be mildly aggravating.
While the geography and wind haven’t changed appreciably, the rest of the weather has. Again, I have not encountered the dreaded snow, which has eluded me by as close as a week, and continues to do so in places not too far to the north. It’s no doubt springtime here, but it’s a fickle, early spring that threatens to reverse itself if disrespected. The grass at the side of the road is green, the earliest trees such as the willows are leafing out, plants that will bloom in a month or two are thrusting their tender shoots into the sunlight, the early migrating birds have either passed through or settled in, and the familiar song of the red-wing blackbird fills my ears on the roadside, at least when not drowned out by trucks and cars.
But it all feels a bit tentative compared to earlier in the trip when spring seemed more established. I suppose I knew this would happen, especially as I move north of 45 degrees latitude, where even May can conceal a punch in its velvet glove.
Minnesota is the last of the seven U.S. states of my trip, and the second greatest number of miles at 467, still dwarfed by the 697 miles of Texas. From north to south the state changes from much like its southern neighbor, Iowa, to its northern neighbors, the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, from a location where the tractor is a commonly observed form of transport to one traversed by the canoe.
Minnesota has a reputation for being a place of order and common sense, where people are friendly but a little reserved, preferring to mind their own business than pry into the lives of others. “Minnesota nice” is a common expression, best expressed in my thoughts by the old saying “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” There’s also an attempt to put their best foot forward and make a good first impression to outsiders. For example, at the Minnesota border, there are tourist welcome centers, and the roads feature new pavement and wide shoulders. However, my experience is that after about 10 miles or so, the familiar road reappears and the shoulders again narrow. It’s back to business as usual.
My first stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes (I’ve never been comfortable referring to it as the Gopher State) was Worthington, population 13,000. I can attest this is not a typical Midwestern town, despite the superficial appearances. It took only a few minutes to note the differences. I had arranged to stop by the office of The Worthington Daily Globe, a rarity as a daily newspaper in a town of this size. One of the reporters, Karl Evers-Hillstrom, wanted a photo to accompany the interview we had done over the phone a few days earlier. Given his name, I expected a tall Minnesotan of Scandinavian origin. He was tall enough, all right, and he looked vaguely the rest of the part. But about almost everything else I was mistaken. He was young, just out of college, and not at all from Minnesota. Instead he was from Brooklyn, as in New York, and his alma mater was the State University of New York at New Paltz, hardly near the Midwest. We enjoyed a brief conversation about culture shock and being a young single newspaper person in a small Minnesota city. His article and photo are here: http://www.dglobe.com/news/-canadian-resident-stops-worthington-midst-cross-country-cycling-trip
After settling into my motel, rather high-end for a bicycle traveler but earned via accumulated reward points for earlier budget stays, the next day I met my host for Worthington, arranged via the very accommodating Ashley Goettig at the chamber of commerce. Mike Woll is again one of those people who makes a difference in a relatively small place. He heads an investment business under his own name, and while he sells securities, he focuses more on managing the wealth of those who have carefully accumulated it, ensuring they will be able to enjoy it and pass it on in an orderly fashion. That’s certainly a Minnesota virtue.
Yet there is also a progressive streak to Mike, a belief that a diverse community is a healthy one with a secure and growing future. “I don’t want to alienate my clients,” he says, “but I also want to show them that what has happened here may not be ideal, but it is good for all of us.” What has happened in Worthington is diversity in a major way. Like many rural places, the city emerged from the farm crisis of the 1980s wounded and at a crossroads. The local pork processing plant, the major employer, eliminated its unions and greatly reduced labor costs. Residents, who had worked hard but earned a decent living, were less willing to take the low-wage jobs that remained. The gap was filled by immigrants, at first from Mexico, but eventually also from countries so diverse they almost defy enumeration.
Today Worthington’s main street is not full of empty storefronts, but instead is something of an international marketplace, with restaurants, groceries, bakeries and other businesses that cater to at least a dozen different ethnic groups from every inhabited continent. And the faces you see are those you would expect in a major metropolitan area, in addition to pale white Minnesotans, of course. “In terms of diversity, we’re the outlier in Minnesota,” Mike said. “Even St. Paul doesn’t have the percentages we do.”
We lunched at an international grocery run by immigrants from Laos; it stocked goods from a host of countries, but in the back was a lunch counter featuring traditional Lao cuisine. The atmosphere was extremely casual: you stood at the counter to place your order, picked up your food, bought drinks and condiments elsewhere in the store, and ate at plain tables covered with white paper. My chicken with sticky rice was both subtly and piquantly spiced in a way I could only guess at the ingredients. I live near one of the world’s most diverse and international cities (Toronto), yet I’m not sure I could duplicate the experience there.
As Mike suggested earlier, Worthington is not a perfect place. The local schools (the elementary schools now have more than 50 percent minority students), are struggling somewhat, although many of the high achievers at the high school are the children of immigrants. When I asked what the town could use most, he answered. “A major increase in the starting wage at the pork plant.” Despite this, I sensed that other smaller communities struggling to grow would gladly trade their problems for those of Worthington.
Not all of the success is low-tech or the result of immigration; some of it is innovative and homegrown. Two local veterinarians with an entrepreneurial bent have created not one but three businesses focusing on veterinary laboratory services and equipment. They excel at startups, selling out to larger concerns, one of them a division of a European pharmaceutical giant, and then turning around and beginning with a new idea.
Later that afternoon, Mike and I convened at the home of his friend and another interesting Worthingtonian, Bill Keitel. Bill is an example of what happened to the Baby Boomers who embraced the counterculture of the 1960s but remained in their home towns. A talented craftsperson, he began to sell leather items at concerts, festivals and craft fairs beginning in the early 1970s. Today he has a business that specializes in making elegantly crafted accessories from buffalo hides, which he still travels to sell at fairs and Native American cultural events, but also has a retail shop in town as well as a wholesale operation. Among his major customers are the gift shops at many of the national parks throughout the West.
Bill’s home faces Lake Okabena, a prairie lake just south of downtown, one of the many thousands in Minnesota. The weather was warm enough (mid 60s) to sit outside, and so we helped him inaugurate another spring ritual: the first outdoor cookout of the year. We carried the picnic table out of storage and set it up next to “the speaker’s corner,” a place Bill occasionally entertains friends and neighbors with his stories and his music (he is nearly as talented a guitarist as he is leather worker).
But before he fired up the grill and began cooking the brats he had bought and prepared earlier, we paused for the cocktail hour, from an entirely new vantage point. From his garage he produced a ladder, and all three of us proceeded to climb 15 feet up to the platform he had constructed for his now grown children some years earlier in an American oak tree he had planted from an acorn 37 years ago. Imagine three old guys in their 50s and 60s sipping craft beers on an April afternoon in a tree.
As I said, Worthington is an atypical Midwestern town. It shouldn’t be.
A Hispanic bakery on the main street of Worthington, Minnesota:
An international grocery in Worthington run by Laotian immigrants and featuring outstanding authentic Lao cuisine in the back:
A house of worship in Worthington now repurposed as a Guatemalan pentacostal church:
The shore of prairie Lake Okabena in Worthington, Minnesota:
Posing with my “ambassadors” to Worthington, Mike Woll (left) and Bill Keitel (right):
Enjoying a beer perched 15 feet in a tree: