Sunday, February 17, 2013

Travelogue 485 – February 17

What do I know about our neighbors to the south? It's a territory I have no images for. I have traveled the state's highways in days long past. I remember long ribbons of asphalt and the white dotted lines. I remember farms, but quite possibly only as an abstraction, as stock images borrowed from magazine ads.

Now I'm driving down Route 169 and leaving the Twin Cities, on my way to our neighbors' territory. I don't know what to expect, at least beyond the familiar gauntlet of suburbia: first, the suburban highways that flow like bobsled chutes. There is no view from their privileged surfaces, if one were to have the nerve to look away from the swerving game of tag. There are only glimpses of stands of evergreens, planted in lines, or of square-edged masses that are the habitations of commerce, or of the cartoonish signs indicating major malls, space opening around these malls like the pall of battle or the long sleep afterward.

From inner ring I pass to outer ring. I seem to be passing in and out of these outpost communities: just when a snow-covered field says country, a tract of steady-beat housing appears, manifesting its own sunshine strip malls. Just as quickly they're gone, retreating before the snow-top pasture lands again.

One of the last stands of Twin Cities culture are the twin establishments of the race track and the amusement park, both silent as the sets of failed films, pushed down into a crust of snow. Past them, I am free.

I am following the Minnesota River Valley. This bit of the journey smacks of the rugged, of the bare-faced rock among the snow. The Nissan and I are clearly descending through a pass of sorts, with the river lending company and guidance on the left. Horizons are tight. We might see, my steed and I, across the surface of the wild river – wild with ice and wild with black waters fighting against the dying glint of the white – we might see across waters and into the woods, but it is the season of sight, all trees bare and standing tense sentry. On the right side are the short and stern daddy walls of geography. We wind breathlessly down into vales, my Nissan and I.

St. Peter comes to us, bluffs running parallel to us at a stately distance to the west. Structures folded from the prolific essence of high grace, clearly academic or religious, judge us from above, judge the pioneers and settlers, the drivers of paltry Nissans. South of the Saint stands Mankato, occupying a stark, bent alley that encloses the river among ten miles of snowy shelving. The town boasts its vestige smokestacks, its university, its line of antique brick storefronts turned to bars with a dress code that mandates grease. Long-hairs stalk in temperatures dipping, today steadily dipping.

The Minnesota River breathes. All the town's buildings exhale in clouds of mist. Vapors rise gently above the river valley.

Hereabouts, I catch Route 60, toward the west and south, toward the state line.

The next saint is James, and beyond St James on my new country route, like a temper melting in distraction, the land relaxes and opens into long views. My Nissan sees suddenly distance, curves gentle and rather vertical than slithering horizontal, over mile-long bows in the land, each generous enough in description to allow projection of farming plots over every hectare. The snow stands shallow, in sly and tacit acknowledgement of temporality, over each fertile field. And the Nissan hums.

Now change is a quality measured in fine doses. Farm fields spread in confidence over the land. Horizons open up. Nissan and I enjoy the sight of farm houses and archetypal red silos. Towns access the highway on slanting roads, and turn a commercial face toward passing travelers, in gas stations and apple pie diners and tractor dealerships.

While Nissan and I share a few chuckles over weekend public radio, the miles clock, steadily burning our fuel. We are isolated from the biting winds behind glass, and behind speed, a tiny and subconscious part of us continually praying for the genius of automotive engineers. Climate control whirs below the voices of radio personalities. Nissan and I are having a pleasant day.

The snow on the ground begins to dissipate, freeing the varieties of brown underneath, the grasses and the cold earth. And suddenly there is the border, and the markers among the spacious fields, cheery welcome signs in the awkward shapes of their states, seem like mild satire engineered by the guys on the radio.

This is Iowa! The lands themselves could hardly be more hospitable, opening up their miles to the travelers without impediment, without reserve. 'Here is our corn. This is our sky; you can see for yourselves how it is. Sometimes it is wrathful. Mostly it is kind. Look up and it may not seem like you are moving, but you are more Iowa every minute.'

Monday, February 04, 2013

Travelogue 484 – February 4
What's My Name?

He's a big man. He occupies half the seat beside him on the bus. He speaks into his cell with a genial smile, making plans for the evening. 'I work in the morning,' he informs us all. 'So I can't be at it all night. You know what I'm saying? … What they all over there doing? … No, baby, I've got plans.' He negotiates. 'OK, I can come by at 8 or 9. … Oh, that's not good enough.' He's laughing. He stares straight ahead blandly, while passengers board and squeeze by him down the aisle. 'I bet you don't even remember my name,' he says suddenly. 'What's my name?' The bus shudders forward, moving down Nicollet in the direction of the river.

The bus becomes crowded. It always does in the blocks between Tenth and Seventh. There are a lot of connecting lines here. Everyone is bundled up, they waddle down the aisle, edging sideways by the big man. He doesn't see them. His gaze seems locked on some pleasure in his near future. It's an innocent pleasure, to judge from the openness in his expression. His voice carries above us all, above all the shuffle of travel. He hums from time to time when he isn't talking. The mob duck-walks off again at Seventh and Sixth. The big man stands.

He stands beside the bus driver, who is a white-haired white woman, and he asks what the next stop is. She answers quietly. He wants to clarify: 'That one there?' pointing ahead. 'That's the next stop,' she says. He's content with that. He relaxes, leans against the pole and smiles. 'Where are you watching the game?' he asks her. She demurs. 'I'm not really a big football fan.' He stands up straight. 'But this is the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is like, is like Christmas or Easter.' He grins scans the seats nearby for support. One old man is game, nodding and laughing. 'Right? Everybody is partying. This is like the biggest day of the year for guacamole and chips and ... water.' He's full of love for his country. “That's no lie.' The old man is bobbing his head gleefully.

I'll be watching the game at Steve's house. Steve lives in Fridley, up snowy, anonymous highways north of downtown. Minnesota is humble. It is flat; it demonstrates no distinguishable features. We might be driving anywhere. The purpose of life might well be movement, might be macadam, might be the purchase of fuel. The most brilliant places en route are the fuel stops.

We will arrive. Steve has a refurbished basement. He has a sixty-something inch screen. But these are only excuses for gathering. Here's what Steve really has. He has a three year-old boy with a voice like brass. He likes to run at full speed and dive head first into the sofa cushions. He has a neighborhood deli that delivers huge calzones and french fries that stay soft long after they cool. He has a huge tub of ice cream in the refrigerator. He has a mother-in-law that always, always has a new method for divining the future. Today it will be the reading of poker cards, according to a book that assigns a card to one's birth date. I won't divulge my card, but trust me, I am made for great things. The older I get, I'll be wondering more and more often when those great things will arrive. I'll be anxious about them, like I might be about a child late home from school. Unless the movies have always been right, the great things are under my nose, etc.

Steve has cable; Steve has remotes. When the action on the field slows, when the lights go out, we will turn the channel to the Puppy Bowl. This will annoy Steve to no end, and we will find that hilarious. We will manage to catch one puppy touchdown, a chew-toy tug-of-war between two tawny-hides on the felt green pitch. I will be thrilled. But even better will be the kitty half-time show. I will be reminded that there is something merciless about the kitten, a ruthlessness cloaked in its cuteness, like a blade handled with calculated carelessness, making that initial incision in a trice, in a lapse of attention. We will be slain, laughing while Steve glowers.

Returning to the game, we will see the promise of great things in Buttercup. That's my placeholder name for the quarterback of the Niners, until I master the more challenging true name. And we will learn that for some there is indeed a dignity inside losing, when one has precociously arrived too soon, when one has drawn just the right card from the poker deck and only must wait.

As I dive into my second bowl of ice cream, feeling already the chemical blanket of lethargy settle over me like a rehearsal of death, before ever setting eyes on the great things that were my due, I will think of the big man on the bus. I will recall his innocence, even as I inventory my guilt over ice cream, even as he indulges in something far nearer to the danger of kittens, I think of the big man's sensible smile.