Feeling Minnesota


The survival story is a popular literary sell here in Minnesota, and has been for some time, according to many book dealers. We enjoy reading of the near-death travails of others more than folks do in most other states. When I was younger I wondered why this was, but over the years I have concluded that it's due to our long winters.

I think we view ourselves as a different type of survivor here in Minnesota. Not necessarily heroic, but of a breed that has made peace with a certain level of endurance. Consequently, we're fascinated by those who take that endurance to the next level: the Andes plane crash victims who survive through cannibalism; the hiker, pinned by a boulder, who cuts off his own arm to make it to safety; Shackleton and his crew's impossible arctic escape. These stories give us a sense of calm by showing us that our untapped human strength is capable of enduring far worse than a Minnesota winter. In reading these tales the weather outside is suddenly tamed.

We go about our day feeling lucky our car is only stuck at Lake and Lyndale and not in the Arctic Circle. A broken starter becomes a minor inconvenience when set against weeks of lice and rations of hardtack. We get chilled waiting for a bus but we know there's always the option of forming a snow cave and curling up inside, using a scarf and a stick as a signal that there's human life here to be rescued.

All Minnesotans know a similar daydream: driving on a lone country road late at night in below-zero temperatures, we fantasize about survival. We picture our car in the ditch, snowfall rapidly erasing it from the landscape, the glove compartment housing our lone Hershey bar, and the question looming larger by the minute: Do we walk in search of the farmhouse or stay put in hopes help will arrive?

Perhaps some imagine the car running out of gas, heartfelt goodbye notes scribbled on the back of road maps, the battery eventually dying and the radio along with it—the quiet loneliness. Conjuring such a scene has become more difficult in our modern era due to the ubiquity of cell phones. It's too easy now to just call 911. That's why, on those late-night country drives, we ought to pitch these phones out the window so as to once again know the absence of the net below our frigid tightrope. After all, while none of us wants to suffer, many of us long to hold that invisible trophy for having survived suffering against all odds. We want to be called courageous and resourceful, possessing a great will and indomitable spirit. As Minnesotans we want to believe this is who we truly are. But there's only one way to ever know: We have to take the plunge, step into that abyss.

I read many survival books and always try to put myself in the skin of those battling the elements. I tell myself I would act in much the same manner as the brave protagonists, knowing full well I'd be the one throwing in the towel early, waiting impatiently for the afterlife's ethereal tunnel and bright white light. No survival book would be forthcoming. I'd instead have the posthumous story, explaining how staying with the car wasn't the best plan, and how, in the absence of water, one cannot, in fact, survive on sips of siphoned gasoline.

The struggle to survive a Minnesota winter is more a mind game, of course, than it is a battle of physical endurance. We all know those who, over the years, lose this battle of the psyche and either escape south for large portions of the season or move away altogether. The question "Why do we live here?" is muttered all too often this time of year as the season drags on longer than many are mentally prepared for.

When that phrase is delivered often enough, odds are an individual is already formulating plans to avoid future cold seasons. Résumés are going out to Phoenix, Tampa, Charleston, or San Diego. These people may be comforted by the coming spring thaw, but their will has finally worn away, their spirits are broken. They are not the survivor types we read about. They don't have a scarf on a stick. They stand with a lone white flag, waving it in bitter resignation.

These are the ones our Andes soccer players would have eaten.