I arrived in Minneapolis last night after a long train and bus journey from New York. I’ve decided to take a brief break from traveling and spend 24 hours in Minneapolis before moving on. I’m not expecting much of the city, but I decide to suspend my preconceptions and give it a chance. And I’m glad I did, for this Midwest city is full of surprises.
Like many forward-thinking mid-sized cities, Minneapolis has installed public bike sharing kiosks throughout the downtown core to encourage people to cycle. I’m generally a fan of the concept, although my recent experiences in London and New York were somewhat frustrating, and so I decide to explore the city on two wheels.
I rent a bike from a Nice Ride curbside automatic kiosk near my hotel. It costs only $6 for 24 hours of unlimited use – a bargain! – with the one catch that you must return each borrowed bike within 30 minutes, or else face a small penalty. This is supposed to encourage people to take short, one-way rides, rather than tie up a bike for the entire day. There are Nice Ride stations all over the city, though, so this doesn’t strike me as much of a problem.
Surprising as it may seem, Minneapolis has plenty of bike lanes, so I plan my route along the green lines on my map. I start on city streets heading (I think) south, but promptly get lost and find myself well to the west. After a course correction, I realize I’m already pushing against my 30-minute time limit and divert to a docking station to deposit my bike. No luck – I’m a few minutes late, and am charged the $3 late penalty. Rats.
I immediately withdraw a second bike and then resume my journey towards Cedar Lake, a forested park on the edge of the city. This part of the trip is on a nice paved path through city parks and beside a railway line in a valley, so it doesn’t feel like I’m in the city. Soon I’m pedalling through a light, airy forest along the shore of Cedar Lake. I see signs pointing to nearby Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. My spirit of adventure is ignited, and I consider circling all three lakes, but then I realize that I’m once again running up against the 30-minute limit. I switch into high gear (on the heavy steel cruisers rented by Nice Bike, this is third gear) and pedal as fast as I can to the next docking station. Out by the lake, there are relatively few docking stations, and though I arrive in time at the spot where my map tells me one should be, I cannot find it. I frantically search the maze of residential streets and park paths, but by the time I find the station, it’s too late. Another $3.
Frustrated, I immediately withdraw a third bike and reset the clock. From the lake I follow the Midtown Greenway east toward the river. The path follows a narrow strip of park that snakes in a long line below the grade of the surrounding neighbourhoods, possibly tracing the route of some defunct rail line. This time I make sure I have enough time, and after twenty minutes emerge to street level and renew the lease on the bike (now on bike #4). I am surprised to see shops, a theatre, and a vibrant little street market. Apparently Minneapolis has a nice “uptown.” Huh. Cycling? Markets? This isn’t the sprawly American city I was expecting.
I continue following the greenway, then head north to Franklin Ave, which I follow east to the river. I deposit my bike on time, and the walk half way across the Franklin Bridge, which straddles the Mississippi. Although I crossed the river last night by bus, I was too tired to notice, so I consider this the moment when I truly enter the American West.
Shop away the calories
I’m quite impressed with Minneapolis’s efforts to make the city green and bike-friendly, but America’s obsession with highways, cars, sprawl and consumerism definitely thrives here too. At the hotel clerk’s recommendation, I hop on the light rail and take it to its terminus station, the Mall of America, on the outskirts of the city. I’m both excited and a bit nervous to see what sort of place has the honour of carrying the name of the country known for decadent overindulgence when it comes to shopping and spending.
The mall is absolutely enormous. The doughnut-shaped floor plan spans three levels, and is filled with shops of all types, and much else besides. The first thing I see is the entrance to the underground aquarium, swarming with children. A mall with an aquarium? OK… I take the escalator to the second level and immediately notice a huge scale model of a US Navy battleship on display in a nearby store. Upon closer inspection, I realize that it’s made out of Lego. There’s no Lego for sale here, though – evidently this store exists only to showcase someone’s weird obsession with building large and eerily accurate Lego models.
I start walking around clockwise around the mall. I am drawn to the wedding dress store (and chapel!), which has a sign explaining that they do not participate in scavenger hunts “due to the nature of the items for sale in this shop”. Next to it, I see that there is an wing attached to the main building as an exhibit space. There are two special exhibits on now: The Barbie Dreamhouse Experience (for the girls), and a Star Trek thing (for the boys). I mention gender because the marketing banners, colour schemes, music, and (above all) the guests themselves meld together into the most perfect example of gender stereotypes I have ever seen. See Barbie’s kitchen, complete with colourful appliances and a cupcake station! You can read the description of the exhibit yourself here. I’m not much into space fantasy myself, so I line up to see Barbie, but reconsider when I see the price of admission is a hefty $24. I continue walking instead.
A quarter of the way around the third floor I take a break and line up for a Chipotle burrito in the food court. I snag a table overlooking the amusement park that fills the enclosed space in the middle of the doughnut. The rollercoasters whiz around mostly empty, but occasionally I hear a high-pitched screen of delight as the train races around a loop-de-loop. In the atrium adjacent to the food court, near the entrance to the cinema, titan-scale Lego superheroes are suspended in the air, locked in eternal action. This place sure is intense.
After packing down my gargantuan burrito, I decide I’ve had enough shopping and head back to where I started to catch the train back into town. I made it less than half way around a single floor. Forget bike-share – walking the Mall of America is the best exercise in town.
When I get back downtown, I decide to take the long way back to my hotel in order to see a bit of the business district. It’s Friday afternoon, and the streets are buzzing with activity. As it happens, this is the weekend of Minneapolis’s Gay Pride festivities, and the city is clearly getting ready for a big party. This year’s festivities promise to be particularly exciting, since this morning the US Supreme Court released its long-expected decision guaranteeing the right of same-sex couples to marry nation-wide, thus striking down any remaining state-level bans. (Minnesota removed barriers to same-sex marriage in 2013.)
I witness a touching scene that makes me realize that America is finally turning a new leaf on LGBT rights. A woman and her young son, both neatly dressed, hail down a bicycle rickshaw from the sidewalk. The driver pulls over and helps them into the back. He has hollowed eyes and unkempt hair, and looks like he likes to drink Bud and shoots racoons at the dump for fun.
“What is all this celebration about?” the mother asks.
“It’s Pride weekend,” the driver responds.
The mother looks confused. “Pride of what?” she asks, genuinely.
The driver doesn’t miss a beat. “Gay pride. There’s a parade and music and stuff. It’s pretty fun.”
The mother doesn’t seem affected. “Oh, ok. Can you take me to this restaurant please?” she says, showing the driver a piece of paper. They roll off.
Such a change. Only a few years ago, protests for LGBT rights ripped through urban streets, and Pride was a debauchery-laden headache best avoided by the straight-laced and family-oriented. Now it seems we’re just a part of the wallpaper.
All aboard the Nostalgia Express!
I pick up my bag from the hotel and then hop back onto the light rail, which takes me to the central train station in St. Paul. The square in front of the station is blocked off in preparation for the Jazz Festival. I wonder how the festival will manage in the face of competition from Pride?
I already have a printed copy of my ticket, so I skip the line and go directly to the waiting hall. The room is great and beautiful, with a vaulted ceiling, a gorgeous tiled floor, and lots of richly ornamented wooden furniture and fixtures – an absolutely perfect place to depart from on a cross-America journey. I am absolutely captivated by a piece of public art suspended from the ceiling. It’s a net of LEDs curved into an undulating surface of shimmering light, evoking the look of sunlight fracturing through the surface of a swimming pool, as seen from below. Periodically, the silhouette of a swimmer glides across the surface, arms and legs fluttering and stroking, the LEDs dimming in sequence to create the illusion. It’s like someone hung a magic curtain from the ceiling, its diaphanous folds revealing the view from a crystal ball placed at the bottom of the pool at some sunny resort.
After about an hour of waiting, I see the approaching train through the window, and the atmosphere among the waiting passengers becomes electric. They’re all as excited as I am. We’re about to take a train to the west coast, crossing the great plains and the mountains, just like an explorer in olden times!
When we are finally allowed to board, we are already fifteen minutes behind schedule (official Amtrak wall-mounted TV screen says: On Time). Next stop: Seattle.