Where the West Begins.

Milwaukee to Minneapolis, April 27, 29, and 29, 2014

It’s drizzling on Sunday morning as my friend drops me off at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. This is where my Amtrak Hiawatha train brought me from Chicago three days before and where I’ll find my Greyhound bus for Minneapolis. I think I’m the only one to arrive in a Mercedes.

Today we’ll cut across the fertile, gently rolling plains of Wisconsin, bridge the Mississippi, and end in the younger of the Twin Cities. I plan to doze, listen to tunes on my iPad, and enjoy the scenery. I lean back and relax, leaving the driving to them. For those of you old enough to remember, Greyhound came out with a slogan in 1955, “Go Greyhound, and leave the driving to us.”

For those who haven’t ridden American busses lately, Greyhound and Megabus are two lines which offer, at a slightly higher price, an express bus. We have a diverse group on board, far more quiet than the passengers on many flights I’ve taken, something which could be attributed to the fact that we don’t have to arrive two hours early, take off our shoes and belts, be scanned, and held for another hour with a crowd of strangers. Or, it could be they don’t serve liquor on the bus.

Big, comfortable seats, free wifi, 120 volt outlets to keep our electronics charged, free checked baggage and very limited stops. There’s a restroom on board. My ride today is $27.50. One fifteen minute stop. Not bad.

As we near the Mississippi, the land flattens. The Mississippi has always been my dividing line between East and West. There was a time in America when Alabama was considered the West. The Cumberland Gap of Tennessee was the dividing point before that. Afterward, the Ohio River laid claim. But the Mississippi swallows the Ohio, the Missouri, the Platte, the Arkansas, picking up width and power from its start in the northern reach of Minnesota to where it pushes its mud into the broad delta of Louisiana and Mississippi and out into the Gulf of Mexico.

This is where the ice age left the landscape we still inhabit. It’s where the Native Americans such as the Sioux left the woods and became the horsemen of the plains. This is where vast herds of buffalo gathered, running in such huge massings as to shake the earth miles away. Until we killed them all, of course.

This is where slash and burn agriculture gave way to putting a plow into sod held in place by waves of six foot tall buffalo grass, where early settlers sometimes reported feeling seasick from watching the wind rolled grass toss as violently as the sea.

This is where the Germans, the Swedes and the Norwegians fled war and poverty to stake a claim to land, chasing the land offered by the railroads which had received enormous tracts of land as an incentive to lay rail from sea to sea. Those farmers who weren’t cheated by the railroads or Mother Nature clung to the land, clung to their language, their traditions.

This is where I get off the bus, in a Minneapolis washed with rain, the red brick buildings turned black by the slanting cold rain. I walk a block and find two of my dear friends in a stylish bar deciding whether to start a second bottle of wine. It may be one of those times. What can I say but “yes” and ask that a third glass be found.

Minneapolis, at the right times of the year, can be the perfect American city. Clean, efficient, full of great art, a wonderful repertory theater, fine dining, beautiful lakes and the famed “Minnesota nice.” At the wrong time of year it can freeze your nose right off your face or deliver to every spot on your body swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitos the likes of which I never saw on the Amazon.

Despite the rain, this is the right time of year. And, yes, I’ve been to the sister city of St. Paul’s Winter Carnival and enjoyed it. (Slogan: The Coolest Celebration On Earth. And they don’t mean cool as in hip, they mean as in freakin’ cold.)

In Minneapolis downtown buildings are interconnected by sky bridges so it is possible to walk inside, in comfort, nearly across the principal downtown area. I was also there when it snowed so much that the inflated Humphrey Metrodome, then home to the Vikings, collapsed from the weight of too much snow. That day we had tickets to the wonderful Guthrie Theater which I refused to miss. We took the light rail until it had to stop because of the snow, and walked through knee deep snow for blocks to get to the theater, my friend complaining that we should have taken a cab, ignoring the fact that hardly a vehicle, even the massive 4-wheel drives, was moving and the streets were closed.

For my first night in Minneapolis this time it was just rain, not snow, and we dine in at 112 Eatery, a comfortable restaurant carved out of an old building and made into one of those casual settings with a solid menu containing some delightful surprises, inventive without being weird, worth every cent and a great place to catch up with old friends.

A second couple from South Dakota, my home state, and my home town, Huron, join us for breakfast the next morning. We jump into his car for an expedition to Mall of America. Yup, that one. The largest mall in the United States. Ironically, the Mall of America is owned by Canadians, the Ghermezian brothers who also built the West Edmonton Mall, the largest shopping mall in North America. Mall of America has over 400 stores and its own hotels.

Folks tell me how awesome it is to have all those shops in one place. I wonder if anything which contains 4 million 870 thousand square feet is actually “one place.” It is an expression of American consumerism, and it is a place where every Minnesota major sports team—including the University of Minnesota Gophers—has its own store.

Sticking with my plan to use as much public transportation as possible, we return on MetroTransit’s Blue Line (Hiawatha). That’s their designation, not mine. Why Hiawatha gets surrounded by parentheses I don’t know, but there it is. As I pointed out in my Chicago to Milwaukee post, Hiawatha was getting pretty far from home back there. It’s a longer way from Mall of America to Gitche Gumee, although some say that’s the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior, and Minneapolis does have Minnehaha Falls, Minnehaha being the love interest of Hiawatha. Anyway, with a non-rush-hour fare of 75 cents for seniors, I’m not about to quibble. The ride is smooth, fast and easy.

We join the other friends that evening—all five of us—for dinner at Restaurant Alma in St. Paul. A little more upscale, a decidedly more innovative menu, and some truly fabulous food. You bet I’d go back.

But the real reason four out of five of us are here in Minneapolis is to see the fabulous Joe Lovano and his group Us Five at the Dakota. I like to think of the Dakota as a jazz club which also has other music. Tonight, it’s definitely jazz, and jazz spanning at least four decades.

Lovano, principally a tenor sax player, is using a bass player, a pianist and two drummers. The music shimmers. To my ear, the rhythm comes mostly from the bassist and the piano player. We expect rhythm from drummers, but aren’t they playing melody as well? It’s their second show of the night, and they play hard for seventy straight minutes. Five musicians listening intently to each other, trading lines, pushing the theme, exploring and leading each other as they go, inspired and giving it all they have. Truly wonderful and a reminder how absolutely alive live jazz can be.

Jazz is generally accepted as America’s only truly original musical form. In the heaven of music, jazz is a bright constellation, and the stars of Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Gillespie, Davis, Coltrane, shine brightest. New stars appear, and many burn as brightly. We’ll see if they keep their luminescence for as long as the godfathers. I hope so. This is an art form based on innovation and expression, breaking loose from old forms while still acknowledging them . . . the very essence of America at its best.

The third day, I tag along on their shopping trip during the morning. In the afternoon, it’s the Walker Art Center. Architecturally interesting, innovative, a large collection, and with a full range of programs, the Walker is a fine museum. The outdoor sculpture gardens are lovely, but in what has become a driving rain, we skip them in favor of the inside. As luck would have it, exhibitions are being changed out and a number of rooms are closed.

However, a very large display of Edward Hopper pencil and ink studies is paired with his oils. The oils are based on what he worked out on paper first, sometimes years before. It gives a wonderful opportunity to look at the early studies then at an assembled piece in oil, seeing how he positioned his subjects, turned a head up slightly or rotated a shoulder or arm. This is much larger and more detailed than the Art Institute of Chicago’s examination of a single Monet. Ironically, Hopper’s best known painting, “Nighthawks”, resides in the Art Institute and is not a part of this display. Hopper’s angular perspective, shadows and light coming at unusual angles, and his people, sometimes almost a part of the landscape, always oddly dreamlike, detached or distant, give me the feeling of viewing a single frame of a film noir just before something very tragic or very violent or both happens.

On that third day, looking out of a skywalk, I spot Murray’s. Murray’s was old school when I used to hitchhike into Minneapolis to watch the Twins with Harmon Killebrew. Murray’s is one of those quintessential old bars and steak houses (“Silver Butter Knife Steak” describing the utensil the steak could be cut with). The outside sign seems to be the same one I saw in the ‘60’s and the inside hasn’t changed. What do you order in a place like Murray’s? An Old Fashioned.

Parenthetically, Killebrew’s record-holding longest-ever home run is honored with a seat from the old stadium, located at the exact same distance and height in the exact same spot where his homer hit on the second deck of the bleachers. It’s located inside of Mall of America which was built over the original Twins’ home field.

Time is dwindling. Two folks have already headed back to South Dakota. My old friend remains here with his wife, also a dear friend, but I’ve known Bob for about 60 years so he is “my old friend.” I’ve checked out of my hotel and stashed my bag at their room. The rain is still coming down and the winds are up. For dinner, we opt for Vincent, a lovely French restaurant, a half block from their hotel. It’s a night for cassoulet and wine from France’s Southwest. Delicious. Back at the hotel, I switch into some clothes for my train trip, say goodbye, and head down the street for the bus stop, umbrella slanted into the headwind and driving rain.

Somewhere in my fourth block of walking towards the bus stop two things happen rather simultaneously. First, I remember that the bus will take me no close than four tenths of a mile from the train depot. Second, I become acutely aware of how hard it is raining when the wind turns my umbrella inside out for the third time and renders it irreparable. My resolve weakens. I flag a cab.

In the train station—a new one should be open by now—I stand in line, get my ticket examined, pointed to my train car and told to select my own seat. I climb the stairs to the top of the double decker, toss my roller bag and day pack in the rack above, settle into a window seat, and at 11:15, right on schedule, we pull out of the Minneapolis station on Amtrak’s Empire Builder into the dark night with Seattle out there in the distance, waiting.

© 2014 GrayOnTheRoad and Gary Gray

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