We'll Always Have White Bear Lake
I've heard it used to be hip to be square. But that was not in my lifetime. That was in some pre-Travolta, pre-Urban Outfitters world, when hip was the province of the elite. Now that hip is purchasable at every Target and deconstructible from every MTV clip, it's merely square to be square. If you know you're supposed to be wearing platform mules, what are you doing lazing about in espadrilles? Do you think you're some kind of rebel?
So when I tell you I'm staying in the Cities this summer it's not because I don't know what's hip--I do watch E!, and I read travel magazines. I know that the very hippest will spend this summer in bandeau tops hefting their Prada satchels into the hands of Buddhist porters in Tibet in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and modest weight loss. I know that the also-ran hip, those drudges forced to book tickets in advance, will be kicking their Coach bags around with their Hush Puppies in Madrid and Korea. I know that the most unspeakably unhip will be sweating into their Payless jellies and shifting their recycled duty-free bags around the overhead compartments of economy bus tours in Venice and Paris. I know all this, and I know that at the very bottom of the hipness pyramid there's me, the unrelentingly square. Facing a summer without guidebooks, I won't be able to complain about unwashed Parisians, butt-pinching Romans, or lost luggage; I won't find spiritual enlightenment and I won't lose weight. If you see me dripping dry in public, look for the gloating waiter in the background.
But I don't mind, because while everyone else is exploring the vanguards of travel chic, I'll be knocking around the nooks and crannies of these Cities, where pleasure comes fast and cheap and travel adventure awaits at every step. Think of it as an exploration of the unappreciated: New Yorkers don't go to Broadway shows, Parisians don't go to the Louvre, and Twin Citians don't notice mini-golf, moonlight bowling, or the Mississippi River. All of these things are here, they're near, and they're in their own way precious: There is probably no mini-golf, and definitely no moonlight bowling, in Tibet. If present trends continue, who knows--they may not even be here in 20 years. So make this the summer when you explore the riches of the here and now, and enjoy the absence of hip.
Strolling in the sunshine, putting in the presence of folk art, what could be more fun? For my money the best course hereabouts is out in the hinterland of Elk River, at Fun City. Vultures hover over one hole, tombstones and spiders litter others, and at the heart of it all is a miniature Norman Bates house festooned with lights. The last four holes are played in the haunted house (look for the hunchback leering down from the belfry, the life-size diorama of the vampire in his coffin, and is that King Tut holding a putter in his bandaged hands?). For $3.50 a game, with optional add-on slushees, games of laser tag, and turns in the batting cage, it's a much better deal than the Tower of London.
Closer to home and air-conditioned, Lava Links operates on the site of a onetime U.S. Swim & Fitness franchise, with the pool transformed into the deepest water hazard known to mini-golf. In the front part of the course, rolling astroturf and dusty palm trees create the illusion of an extremely dusty Hawaii; in the back, fluorescent painted rocks and black light make a glowing lunar disco-scape, and from time to time a leering dragon head spews fog from his nostrils onto your chilled shoulders. Look for the stress-ending wack-a-gator game in the arcade room, and, if you're feeling particularly rich, splurge on a few games of laser tag: Shooting strangers in the dark is strangely restorative.
Those of you seeking more of an ecotourist, oh-the-poor-natives experience might consider a few hours at Amusement City in Maplewood--or, as I like to call it, Amusement Unincorporated Township. This decrepit little spot is so low-budget that one of the hazards is just a big rock dropped between the start and the hole. If ever a site needed a bunch of wealthy tourists to set up camp and construct some useful structures, this is it. And while you're at it, fix the tail of the pig--vandals have nearly succeeded in sawing it off. (If you haven't got enough pity for Amusement City by the end of your round, pity me: It took 25 strokes to get my ball into the cup of the simple astroturf volcano on hole 5. Imagine a polar bear trying to thread a needle and you'll get a sense of the scene.) If you like ghost towns--Tombstone, Deadwood--you'll love Amusement City.
Dark Side of the Moon
Romance in the wee hours can look quite ghastly, but everyone looks good at moonlight bowling--which is what you get when a bowling alley shuts off the primary lights, substitutes blue light, black light, or sheer dimness, and plays loud music. The balls glow like comets on the night floor, the beers form a sparkling fountain from plastic pitcher to plastic cup to porcelain urinal, the pins glow like little Caspers, and you in your flat, funny shoes fling great weights before you.
Moonlight bowling is like a cruise on balmy seas: dislocating, strangely romantic, weirdly false, and soothing the way bomb pops in summer are soothing. If you feel wound up about your performance with a cold beer in one hand and your pink ball gliding like a synthetic comet, like a Spice Girl's wayward wink--if you feel competitive or stressed here, abandon hope for your summer.
At Stardust Lanes, "cosmic bowling" goes on if customers demand it, which they do almost every night. Black lights cause the retro-spacey mural of rockets shaped like bowling pins and vaporous planets to glow like a giant oven's coils as the pop music of the past 40 years envelops the space. Plenty of blue and pink balls are available, and cops at the door keep the under-21 set out. It's an exceedingly unself-conscious and beautiful scene; to stand at one end and watch the balls flow through the dark is as satisfying as watching a meteor shower, and more aurally pleasant.
Up at the Falcon Bowl in Falcon Heights, the concept is taken one step further with full-fledged theme nights--country-western, Looney Tunes, and Back to the '50s--complete with appropriate music, decor, and, if you're cooperative, costumes. This is the spot to try if you actually know how to bowl; prizes are offered for certain combinations of pins, and a dollar of everyone's admission goes toward a prize for the high bowlers. Falcon Bowl is a 3.2 bar with a set-up policy--they sell pop and mixers if you want to bring your own bottle. This might be the place where I finally debut the shoebox-sized portable bar I got as a gift.
Perhaps the best bargain in moonlight bowling is the White Bear Bowl, where $5 gets you through the night; the place is popular with the northeast-suburban high-school set, and what you lose in having to listen to KDWB blasting over the loudspeakers, you make up for in eavesdropping opportunities. Will Tina take Donny back? Will Theresa's mom ever get a clue? Is there anything on God's green earth that doesn't suck? Stay tuned for further updates. Richfield's Lariat Lanes is a sweet little operation in which man-made fog sometimes rolls over the black-lit lanes, and moonlight bowling has been known to run all the way to 2 a.m.
On the Waterfront
The birds flutter, the wind blows, and, up on the eastern river bluffs facing downtown St. Paul, six burial mounds arc like turtle shells up toward the sky as the constant wind drowns out street noise to make a sacred bubble around you and yours. There are things I could say about these ancient monuments that might sound a bit ripe, but they're all true: The mounds are haunting, awe-inspiring, resonant. In more practical terms, the grounds around them are the best place in town for a picnic--mosquitoes don't seem to make it up this high, the constant wind is cooling, and Indian Mounds Park is nearly always deserted. How many people will go to St. Paul for a day trip?
More than go to Lilydale Regional Park on the south bank of the Mississippi across from St. Paul, my nominee as the Twin Cities' most underutilized gem. Pull in through Harriet Island, drive through a soaring treescape that feels like some far-distant wilderness, stake out a cool patch of shaded ground, and watch the barges in the river stream past. The few manufacturing structures remaining in St. Paul emerge from the tree-filled shores to give the park a spooky postindustrial quality: Lilydale reminds me of the scene in Planet of the Apes when the space travelers realize they're on Earth. Lilydale's emptiness only proves how lucky we are--to ignore such a magical stretch of urban forest is the privilege of the spoiled.
Across the river, and more cheerful because of the plentiful sunshine, are the well-tended lawns and Caribbean-white beaches of Hidden Falls Park. Climb down the bank, bury your rear in the sand, and stick your feet in the cool water--but don't go too far, the current is strong and could pull you in. Take a book, dig in for the day, and pretend you're at the lake: In fact, some crowded northwoods lakes can't compare to Hidden Falls, where towering trees, deep undergrowth, and the curve of the shore create a new stretch of total privacy every 20 feet or so.
Further up the river are the very well-tended hiking and biking trails of Fort Snelling State Park, where the hopeful spans of the Mendota Bridge leap overhead and the roar of planes heading for the airport drives out the weak and sentimental. The newly updated park features some ultradeluxe swimming and picnic facilities--separate men's and women's showers, anyone? And in the heart of it all is Snelling Lake, where endangered American lotus flowers bloom and egrets wade elegantly in the shallows, oblivious to the fact that the minnows they stalk are local and unhip.
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