Day-Tripper

Call these places the heart of the heartland. Or call them the middle of the middle of nowhere. One thing is certain: When you picnic on truck stop food in the cemetery beneath the oil refinery, you won't have to worry about other tourists

A good day trip should involve either a very short drive or lots of leisurely driving. There's no middle ground. Driving an hour or two to shop for antiques or eat in some swell restaurant doesn't count. In my book that's not a day trip, that's going shopping or out to eat. So, sorry, but in the pantheon of Minnesota day trips, Stillwater, Red Wing, New Prague, and Pepin don't count. And as much as I admire our fine state parks, I'm tossing them out as well, mainly because they don't fit my agenda, and visiting them requires a sort of hearty resolve that I generally find missing when the mood to get out of town hits me.

That's the thing, I think: Day trips shouldn't make any great physical demands. They shouldn't really make any demands, period. Basically, the rule of thumb for any successful day trip is that you should be able to get the maximum amount of weird pleasure and experience out of the minimum output of effort and expenditure. That's not exactly a tall order, and that's the whole point.

I think it's important to steer clear of the interstate highways that make destination driving so easy but ruin the actual experience of pure pleasure driving. In siphoning traffic away from small towns and making obsolete much of the railroad service that was the lifeblood of so many of those same communities, the Eisenhower Federal Interstate Highway System condemned huge portions of the country to death by starvation. That's painfully evident here in Minnesota, where interstates 35, 94, and 90 run like fat scars up and down and across the map. Those freeways might take you somewhere else, might well deliver you from nowhere. But they won't take you to any of the places we're going to go, which are mostly, according to any conventional urban wisdom, nowhere.

Likewise, unless you can afford a cabin on one of the increasingly crowded (and expensive) lakes, or have all the time in the world to muck around in the Boundary Waters or Arrowhead Region getting hopelessly lost, buffeted by wind and weather, and eaten alive by all manner of flying things, the whole Up North business is perhaps best experienced vicariously. There are plenty of calendars and lush coffee-table books that will give you all the idea you need of what the place looks like without having to be surrounded by wilderness or other tourists. As with all other types of pornography, I can assure you from personal experience that these images represent a fantasy whose reality is a whole lot messier.

All of the destinations I'll be recommending instead lie in the roughly triangular out-state (I love that term, by the way; it sounds like an Orson Scott Card novel) sprawl that stretches south from the Twin Cities and runs up against Highway 169 to the west, Highway 52 to the east, and bottoms out at the Iowa border to the south. I-35 runs straight down the middle of the region, and the east-west slash of I-90 moves through its southern portion.

If you were feeling ambitious, and were purely in the mood to drive, you could make this entire trek in one day. But I'd recommend taking your time, and breaking it up into a series of shorter trips. You really should poke around in these out-of-the-way places where so much of the local color is fading by the day, like a not-quite-flattering family photo left too long near the window. Even though so many of us come from so many different someplace elses, I remain confident that there are hundreds of destinations a relatively short drive from the Twin Cities that are as exotic and unfamiliar as any foreign country.

 

First Leg: Pine Bend Cemetery.
Highway 52 South, Rosemount
approximately 22 miles from the Twin Cities

To find the most obscure, oppressed, and forsaken cemetery in America, you're going to have to be paying attention. It's easy to miss, given that it's literally surrounded by the gargantuan spectacle of the Koch oil refinery, with its myriad of barbed wire fences and "No Trespassing" signs. The cemetery, established on June 15, 1876, is on the east side of Highway 52, directly across from the flame- and smoke-belching stacks of the main refinery compound. Traffic whizzes along on the road, and if you're headed south from the Twin Cities you're going to have to figure out a way to get turned back north (the easiest way is to get off at the first exit, cross the highway overpass, and get back on 52). The cemetery has a gravel driveway on the right that crosses railroad tracks and gives way to grass just outside the gates.

I'd suggest packing a lunch. The Pine Bend Cemetery is the sort of place characters in a J.G. Ballard novel would have a picnic if characters in J.G. Ballard novels had picnics.

Given what it's up against (which on most days looks and smells dangerously close to pending environmental apocalypse), the cemetery is remarkably well cared for. It's really quite a pretty little place, if you can manage to avert your eyes from its towering and monstrous neighbor to the west. There are a number of Civil War casualties buried at Pine Bend (most of them are marked "G.A.R. 1861-1865"), as well as other worn gravestones from the 19th century.

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