The past few weekends have been absolutely packed with patriotism, or at least what passes for it these days. It’s no secret that Americans love when entertainment and nationalism intertwine, and as of late, the two have been in jackbooted lockstep.
The festivities began in the final weekend of June. The Mankato Regional Airport played host to one of the biggest events to hit our region, in terms of sheer size and fossil fuel consumption: The Minnesota Air Spectacular. Lest you think this was just an excuse to perpetuate the unnecessary nouning of a verb, heavyweight sponsors / local pillars of goodwill Taylor Corp and the Tailwind Group (with additional support from….MONSANTO *gasp*) brought us a true spectacularity featuring the USAF Thunderbirds, which are basically the Burger King to the Blue Angels’ McDonalds.
Ideally, an air show is a kid-centric event. It’s an exploration of objects that are totally beyond their scope of comprehension, celebrating the marvels of engineering, speed, and sonics. When I was a tiny human, my dad took me to an airshow in Duluth, right at the peak of Top Gun‘s popularity.
I was incredibly stoked, not only to see mechanical contraptions that were bigger than houses and could bomb the hell out of brown people, but also to score some killer merch: My dad bought me a rad “Airborne” pin with a sweet skull on it and an SR-71 Blackbird trucker hat that was twice the size of my pelvis.
These things were awesome. Because I was a kid.
Now that I’m an adult–with the wherewithal to read books not titled Daredevil, the Man Without Fear–I find it insulting that an attraction largely driven by American tax dollars costs $20+ for the privilege to attend. In fact, the entire enterprise is off-putting. When an AIR SPECTACULAR rolls into your town, it’s basically like the military-industrial complex is pulling its lobbyist-greased ballsack out of its Dockers, slapping it across our collective forehead, and then insisting that we jam fistfuls of cash into its puckered, festering asshole.
Okay, that’s kind of gross. If you’d prefer not to worry about the $400 billion we’re spending on fighter jets (remember those epic dogfights with Al Qaeda and whoever the hell we were actually fighting in Iraq?) instead of things like education, transit, and health care, by all means, watch the big things go fast. After all, this is the time of year that we should be eating hot dogs, slamming domestic macrobrews, and bitching about real problems, like the 1.3% of food stamps lost to underground trafficking.
This is what we do on our…Independence Day.
But even the most cynical critics of American excess can’t resist the charms of the Fourth of July. The lure of relaxing on the Northland’s freshwater shores with family and friends is simply too strong. What are we if we cannot break whiskey and hops with our loved ones? Life is too short to deprive ourselves of the most humanizing experiences, is it not?
So, in the interest of being a human, I set out to visit my people in Duluth–aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, moms, dads–on July 3rd. Mostly by bicycle. Because what’s more American than riding a bike 110 miles from Hinckley to Island Lake for the opportunity to sip scotch and spew anarcho-communist rhetoric?
(Besides, well, everything.)
Thus, my life partner Toyota Corolla’d me to the Willard Munger trailhead in Hinckley–which is a WAY shittier town than the Grand Casino and Tobies billboards would have you believe–and I set about my journey.
I had eyes on trekking up the Willard Munger Trail for some time now, less as a recreational expedition and more of a way to haul ass to D-town without straining on our single-car household. My Duluthian obligations are running unusually high this summer, and not only would I like to avoid leaving Mean Gene carless for an entire weekend, but I hate driving because it is bad and terrible.
Anyway, here’s the thing about the Munger Trail: as a recreational expedition, it ain’t much of a conquest.
It’s bookended by a pair of 15-mile-ish stretches that are gorgeous for different reasons. The Hinckley-to-Rutledge portion alternates between treelined canopies and wide-open, untouched prairie views, while the final stretch from Carlton to not-quite Duluth (more on that later) runs alongside / through Jay Cooke State Park, where the views range from breathtaking to intimidating.
But that 40+ mile midsection that runs parallel to Highway 61? It’s just a straight. goddamn. line. If you don’t have friends or whiskey to keep you occupied, it’s…well, let’s take a look at some of the riveting terrain…
Getting a sense of the theme, here?
All of this banality makes the long-awaited, ever-so-slight descent from Jay Cooke into Duluth a hellacious reward. But once that rollercoaster of wilderness was complete, rather than being greeted with a warm welcome into my hometown–something like the beautiful crest into the harbor that glass-cagers are privileged when rolling in from Spirit Mountain–I was crushed by the encompassing maw of construction season.
The last 9 miles of the trail were closed. I had to hike up a staircase and plant myself on something called “Becks Road.”
On the wrong side of Spirit Mountain.
Next to a sign screaming, “DEMOLITION LANDFILL.”
Near 108th Avenue West.
In Gary / New Duluth.
Which any Duluthian knows isn’t actually Duluth, much less New Duluth. It’s the Pluto to Morgan Park’s Siberia.
Thus, after a maddening 75-mile trek, I was forced to cross the entire city. My only respite(s) were stopping at the mighty A & Dubs for replenishment…
…before finally touching down in East Duluth to settle down with family and crush Bent Paddle by the pint.
It was a good–if brief–weekend, but the return journey wasn’t much better than the ride northward. Again, it’s more of a lets-get-from-point-A-to-point-B ride, best split by a night in this shelter 20 miles from the Hinckley trailhead…
…and best spent with other humans.
(Wannabe racers would hate this thing, too, because despite the straightaways, the asphalt is in relatively sketchy condition. My 32mm Panaracers roll over just about anything, but skinny-tire carbonites would torque their aerobars with impotent rage at having their taints battered by bumps.)
The lone oasis on this arduous trek was this country store in Mahtowa….
…which transforms into something of a bratwurst-fueled flea market on Sundays.
Needless to say, it was nice to land back in Mankato, but the weekend following the 4th was filled with a bit of trepidation. There was an inkling that my town / glorified neighborhood of North Mankato, in the throes of the Fun Days parade and festivities, would succumb to the kind of backwoods racism that emerged from Facebook commenters in the wake of that Albert Lea Confederate’s dick-waving cluelessness.
I was half-afraid that the people that pissed all over this since-scrubbed KEYC comment section (including a City of Mankato employee that was posting blatantly-racist memes) would descend upon Benderz and resurrect the Klan while middle-aged women got falling-down-drunk in front of Scrambler-sick children.
So, I kept my never-been-to-Fun-Days streak alive, and retreated indoors to watch a cocky Irishman TKO an all-American boy in the main event of what was possibly the greatest card in UFC history.
Keep up the good work, America.
Okay, I posted this photo on Facebook a couple few weeks back, but this place needs more love. Look at that blackboard. LOOK AT IT. This is how you eat lunch, people.
The Garden of Eat’n is tucked away in the desolate wasteland known as Commerce Drive, buried behind Big Dog Sports Cafe and completely obscured from streetside view. Sure, there’s a sign in the parking lot, but it’s totally dwarfed by the garish, gargantuan ERBERT & GERBERT’S screamer that oppresses Upper North’s lunchgoers.
And that’s troubling, because the Garden of Eat’n deserves more love than it’s currently dishing out. Upper North Mankato should be a haven for businesses catering to their ample lunch crowd, as there’s a high concentration of blue-collar Borg cubes in the area. But most of us daygrinders are moth-flamed to the usual bullshit: Subway, Kwik Trip, Culver’s. They’ve claimed the “prime” real estate on Commerce, while independent establishments like New Great Wall struggle for survival in empty strip malls on the far side of the sun.
So, this is a call to action: Upper North’s factory grinders / package schleppers should unshackle from dull-ass convention and step into the Garden.
In southern Minnesota, change isn’t exactly…embraced. But fear not, all ye camo’d and Carhartted! While it humbly boasts a bakery / bistro vibe from within its minimal square footage, it’s not finely tuned; it’s much more Grandma’s Kitchen than Hipster Crunchfest. The Garden isn’t flashy, and that’s the charm.
Hey, if you want to piss away half an hour’s pay on nuclear cold cuts and roller dogs and Monster Blood Poison and rock-hard cheese curds, that’s your business. But if you want to throw down on two sloppy joes AND mac and cheese on Wednesdays for five dollars?
You know where to go.
In the wake of the What’s Up’s closing, February’s events have been viewed as crucial for the Mankato music scene’s short-term survival. The month’s most vital shows, Hardcore Crayons / Fury Things / Crash Cuddle and PHE 8, have found new homes at Busters and the Mankato Event Center, respectively. With these events in safe standing–and, arguably, in situations more conducive to robust attendance than they were originally–the RJKT scope settled upon Lower North, where a pair of all-ages shows at Benderz commanded unusual attention.
Two weekends. Two shows. Two stories.
The first show was previewed on these pages, and by most accounts, it was a rousing success. Even when presented with a vibrant, enthusiastic crowd, Benderz seemed to have a decent system worked out, with the bar’s architecture making it much easier for the staff to work the door. Essentially, the building is a wide-angled “v”, with the entry at the vertex. Show-goers were diverted to the back room on the right, which was solely dedicated to music, while bar patrons could avoid a punk rock assault by taking a sharp left upon entry.
The place was near capacity that evening, for a few reasons: On one side, Old Towne Ghosts are one of the town’s biggest draws. On the other, the bar was airing UFC 183. (Following the death of the downtown Buffalo Wild Wings, Benderz is the only establishment in Mankato tuning into UFC events. And with the diluted, top-heavy cards Zuffa has been cranking out, even hardcores are opting to watch PPVs for the price of a few PBRs.)
But the biggest reason? The all-ages crowd came out in force. By the time Minneapolis’ Remo Drive triggered one of the most kinetic, spontaneous kid-pits I’d ever witnessed, it was clear that reports of the Mankato music scene’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
All told, it was a great night, one that was enabled by a largely hospitable and accessible venue. Even if one didn’t feel like watching an entire band’s set, drifting over to the bar side was smooth, and the waitstaff seemed to genuinely appreciate our business. It was a welcoming atmosphere.
At the following week’s show, however, blemishes began to surface. And we’re not talking zits. Straight-up leprosy.
Comparatively, attendance was sparse, possibly due to the illness-related cancellation of headliners Arms for Elephants. As we walked in, a group of kids were pounding out a scraggly brand of post-grunge, so I dragged my lawyer, Adam, to the bar side to throw back some Jagermeister like distinguished adults.
We quickly realized that our presence was less than welcome.
Our status as interlopers wasn’t immediately apparent. But, scanning the scene, we stuck out from the crowd, and not by virtue of our own weirdness. In a contrast to the previous week, the bar’s population had been reduced to regulars: Shitfaced-at-eight-o-clock, physical-activity-averse, camo-and-fossil-fuel-worshiping rednecks.
We took a pair of open seats at the bar. A few minutes into our conversation about the potential Legend of Zelda Netflix series, a grumble emerged from the woman seated to my right. The first part of her sentence was unintelligible, but it finished with “…stay the fuck on the other side.” As the phrase snagged my ear, I looked over to see her furiously scraping away at a stack of lottery tickets with a three-inch folding knife.
(Call me “liberal” like it’s actually a pejorative if you must, but even if someone spent their very last scratching quarters at the Kwik Trip Casino, I’m not sure that flinging around an open blade is acceptable behavior in an establishment that specializes in serving alcohol, regardless of said establishment’s affinity for blaze orange and motorsports.)
Soon after, we stepped outside for a smoke. Almost immediately, she threw her purse on my seat. We took the hint. So we hit the sidewalk.
Clearly, our semi-sober presence wasn’t welcome; in stark contrast, of course, to the sweaty, walking heart attack the bartender managed to overserve before 9 o’clock. We later saw this same mouthbreather behind the wheel of a vehicle in the parking lot of PJ’s Liquor. (And we’re 100% sure it was the same dude, too, because he actually got out of his car to greet us with some kind of primal, jubilant grunt of familiarity, even though we hadn’t even spoken a goddamn word to each other previously.)
Needless to say, this experience didn’t get generate a whole lot of excitement for a return visit.
Admittedly, this two-weekend sample size is small. But it’s pretty safe to conclude that, failing a special draw such as a notable punk rock show and/or Anderson Silva’s (steroid-aided) return from a horrific leg injury, Benderz has a problem: Their clientele. If their obvious indifference to regulation continues, their long-term viability as a venue is in significant jeopardy.
Music isn’t the issue. People are.
I’ve had more verbal altercations with motorists this month (two) than I’ve had in my previous eight months of daily commuting combined. (Non-December Total: Zero.)
Either people are extra-spooked by winter cyclists, or they’re just REALLY excited for the holidays.
The first incident was pretty ridiculous; I was riding across Veteran’s Memorial Bridge into North Mankato, coming down from the crest and approaching the stoplight. Suddenly, I felt a bath of headlights, a horn blaring, and an SUV speeding around me as it veered into the left lane, well above the speed limit. (I was, per Minnesota state law, riding on the right side of the right lane, adorned with front and rear flashers with reflective tape strapped to my rear rack and backpack.)
After pulling into my parking lot–I live above one of the bars in Lower North–I was seething; dude had shaken my blood for no reason other than him being surprised that there was a bicycle on the road. And unfortunately for this driver, he decided to wait for me, take a loop around the block, and pull up to my doorstep to give me a piece of his mind. From the “comfort” of his ass-blue Nissan Xterra, of course, which is basically the Pontiac Aztek of gas-guzzling shitboxes.
Well, I know you’ve got lights on, and you’re within your legal rights to be on the road, but you’re really hard to see, and [looks me up and down] I don’t know if you’re drunk or whatever…
…and then I lost it.
Initially, I was willing to have a decent conversation with this guy the importance of noticing law-abiding bicyclists on a well-lit road, but as soon as he pulled the “you must have 8 DUIs and be high on THE MARIJUANA if you’re not employing a loan officer, an insurance agent, and the entire goddamn military-industrial complex with your transportation choices” card, I went ballistic.
Here’s the deal, people: Bicycles are vehicles. In fact, “bicyclists have all rights and duties of any other vehicle driver.” So, if you’re the gussied-up crone in the late-model SUV that slowed down to croak “USE THE SIDEWALK” at me yesterday in BROAD DAYLIGHT as you turned off the road in which we were the only two users, stick that in your Williams-Sonoma catalog and blow it up Ina Garten’s butthole.
But riding a bike isn’t all about suffering fools and bumpkins that have strong takes on roundabout construction. Sometimes, you can stop mid-ride and appreciate the beauty of your ‘hood, such as this little display behind the North Mankato Library:
Seriously, aren’t blue Christmas lights just the best? Red is terrible. Knock that shit off. This isn’t an emergency, it’s a freaking holiday.
(Yeah, you got me. It’s finals week, and this post is totally half-assed. Sorry for the filler, humans. I’ll rebound next week. Promise. ‘Til then, listen to Killing Joke and enjoy those reasonable gas prices.)
As a holiday bonus, we got nailed with about nine inches of snow today. I’m new to the whole winter bike commuting experience, so I was pretty stoked to plunge my studded tires into some serious snowfall.
My commute–from the corner of Belgrade and Range to the outer reaches of Lookout Drive–was an absolute blast, despite some hurdles. At about 10 a.m., the biking / walking path that winds up Lee Boulevard was totally buried, and I didn’t feel confident that I possessed the stamina to maintain a straight line up the right side of Lee’s serpentine climb. (I depend on the bike path’s wide berth to accommodate my wild mashery.)
So. I threw my bike on my shoulder and hiked up the side of the road, which assuredly infuriated the FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE RENDERS ME INVINCIBLE crowd.
About halfway up Lee, I jumped back on, and ripped the rest of the way to Lookout incident-free. But once I hit the intersection? Whooosh, bro. The area atop that hill harvests some brutal gusts–the North Mankato city planners seemingly took North Dakota’s “screw Arbor Day” ethos t.o the extreme–and we were mired in some straight-up whiteout conditions for a good half-mile.
But when I finally reached my destination, the feeling wasn’t one of relief from white-knuckled freakout, it was exhilaration. I had CONQUERED my city. My typically 30-minute commute only took me about 40 minutes in a freaking SNOWSTORM, and it RULED.
(Crucial point incoming in five…four…)
Here’s the deal with living in Minnesota: You can embrace the ridiculousness of our winters and make ’em an adventure, or you can make yourself miserable for a significant portion of the year. Every year. Seems like a simple choice, doesn’t it?
But too many people underdress for the elements. Too many complain about scraping their car windows. Too many keep themselves confined to controlled climates. I was among these people about a year ago, nearly settled into a one-dimensional, curmudgeonly thirtysomethingness.
On my adventure home from work, I realized that mindset is just another one of adulthood’s slow sacrifices, chipping away at wonderment as you’re subtly crushed into complacency. As I ripped through the snow at nightfall, I experienced the winter air in a way I hadn’t since I was a teenager, roaming the streets of Duluth’s Central Hillside in search of any thrill available, or carving through the slopes of Spirit Mountain and Trollhaugen as I grasped for a freedom that was, at the time, unattainable myth.
Winter riding recaptures a vitality that, with age, you acquire the luxury to avoid. Life is about finding the thrill in living. Slap on some layers and get the hell out there, Mankato.
Get Red With…
I – “The Storm I Ride”
Immortal has been long entrenched as the world’s Official Snowstorm Band, so listing them here would be more than appropriate. Yet albums like At the Heart of Winter, Sons of Northern Darkness, and All Shall Fall, despite moments of serious velocity, boast a lumbering, conquering gait more appropriate for motorized excursions.
Abbath’s blastbeat-free 2006 sideproject, I, was infused with a freewheeling flair more suited to two-wheel bombing. Cheeseball black n’ roll from one of the subgenre’s mightiest showmen: What’s not to love?
There was a storm. It was ridden. Enjoy the riffs.