Tag Archives: Minnesota

WE Fest and the Culture of Northern Minnesota

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What is American Culture? This is a much tougher question to answer than most people would want to admit. Sure, there are those things about America that foreigners notice right away. For instance, the portion sizes.

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But, large portions of food, large amounts of soda, big cars, loudness and exhibitionism are not the only things that define American Culture. In fact, they do not even unite the entire nation, as there are places in the United States where these are not the customs.

American Culture cannot be described in one sentence, one paragraph, or even one page because of how far from homogenous it is. Traveling within the country, one would find many different sub-cultures. It is even possible to argue that every state, every city, and sometimes every neighborhood, has its own unique traditions and customs.

Of course, to claim there are thousands of sub-cultures in the country would be, in a way, getting too hung up on minor details. However, there is definitely grounds on which to claim there are several dozen cultures with significant distinctions from one another.

The culture of Minnesota can generally be thought of as in the same category as Wisconsin and Michigan.¬†The entire region has an abundance of lakes. Minnesota is “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”. This culture seems to revolve around going to the lake, being on a boat, fishing, and drinking beer. People from the metropolitan areas often own second homes or cabins along a lake and travel there on the weekends. This seven week old infant living in Saint Paul is already preparing for his third trip “up to the lake”.

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Northern Minnesota specifically is fairly sparsely populated, putting it one one side of the most obvious cultural divide in the U.S.; urban vs. rural. Generally speaking, on either side of this divide between large metropolitan areas and places more sparsely populated. The expectations are different, the attitudes are different, and, the music is different. There is perhaps no better way to get immersed in the culture of rural America than to go to a country music festival.

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WE Fest is a major country music festival in Detroit Lakes, MN. The attendance, in 2018, was said to have topped 65,000. Here, the different customs and attitudes were on full display.

The U.S.A flag was everywhere! So were messages, from performers and attendees alike (often on their shirts) showing support for the American way of like, the military, and other mainstays of American culture.

This is not to say people in the cities do not love their country. But, there does seem to be significantly less exhibitionism about it. There is also, in some sub-cultures, particularly the ones centered around major academic institutions, a greater willingness to criticize actions taken by the United States of America. In some cases, this comes across as downright cynicism.

To be honest, there is something about the flag waving, proud, traditional rural culture that feels warmer … ¬†happier. It feels far better to believe in something and take pride in it than to succumb to cynicism and long for something else. Cynicism can feel quite cold at times, and self-loathing creates sadness.

Yet, the more traditional culture can also feel unnecessarily restrictive.

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Seriously, let the dogs and cats have fun too!

While exhibitionism can be annoying to some people, taking excessive pride in one’s country truly only becomes harmful when it leads to one of two outcomes.

First is the hostile treatment of outsiders. In the case of National pride, this would be treating non-Americans as lesser human beings. This is not to say that most, or even one-in-ten flag waving rural Americans have ever advocated treating outsiders poorly. It is to say that, excessive pride in a group of people, whether it be a nationality, a gang, or even something like a personality type, can lead to some form of non-beneficial disconnect from those with different traits.

Second, is when pride leads to an attitude where no criticism, even if constructive, is tolerated. Not all decisions are good decisions.

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Loving another human being can sometimes mean needing to tell that person when they are choosing the wrong course of action. Loving oneself means seeking ways in which to improve. The same can be said for a nation. Like an individual, a nation needs to try to avoid poor decisions and seek ways in which to improve. Pride can lead to avoiding all criticism and seeing no need to take suggestions or improve, which is detrimental.

Maybe this nation, like every nation, needs people to remind them that the nation is great, with a great culture and heritage. But, also needs people to point out some shortcomings, help it avoid repeating past mistakes, and point out areas where improvements can be made. These are the traits of a balanced individual, and hopefully, going forward, can be the traits of a balanced nation.

A Continental Crossroads

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Many places refer to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind. In fact, every sign welcoming motorists to the state of Indiana refers to the state as the “Crossroads of America”. Indiana’s claim to being the “Crossroads of America” has to do with some of the earliest long distance highways, including the Lincolnway, which pre-dates Route 66, passing through Indiana. Even now it is a place many have to drive through to get to destinations like Chicago, Detroit, and Louisville.

Duluth’s claim to be a “continental crossroads” seems even more substantial than Indiana’s. The North American continent includes Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States. Duluth makes this claim based on railroads and waterways. Duluth was an important rail hub in the heyday of the Minnesota lumber industry around 100 years ago, with lumber from points north being hauled to Duluth to make connections to other areas, both by rail and by ship via Lake Superior.

With this history, one of Duluth’s major attractions is their historic depot. This depot, located in the center of town, contains several museums, including an impressive rail museum. Many old trains are on display here, and visitors can view the inside of many of these trains, including the passenger and dining cars, as well as the conductor’s cars.

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One of the most impressive trains on display here was an old snowplow train. This particular model, was used to plow large amounts of snow, as much as 12 feet high. Seeing this is not too surprising given Duluth’s cold and snowy climate. Residents of Duluth undoubtedly put up with more cold and snowy weather than I would ever imagine wanting to experience.

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Duluth is a place I had never been to before. In 2007, I did visit Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, which are only 90 miles away. But, I never did visit Duluth. I did not specifically avoid coming here, but I did not seek it out either. I guess that would make it kind of a “neutral” place for me. We all have a lot of places like that. Places we would not make a specific point to visit, but would not avoid. Duluth is quite far North, and out of the way of most American road trips. In fact, on the trip here from Minneapolis along I-35, there were plenty of billboards advertising resorts in Canada, specifically Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Duluth turned out to be kind of an interesting place. It is still very much of an industrial town. Many industrial towns in the Midwest have experienced a certain amount of decline, leading to the term “rust belt”. From what I saw here, the decline seems to have not been as bad here, and there still appears to be a significant amount of industrial activity. I almost wonder if this town looks a lot like the other industrial towns in the country looked like back in the 1950s or so before much of this happened.

There also are kind of neat bluffs just outside of town. They kind of remind me of the river bluffs I would encounter along the Mississippi River along I-90, in a completely different part of Minnesota. The town appears to have mostly been built in the lower terrain right along Lake Superior, giving it a neat lakefront. I still wonder if people hike up these bluffs on a regular basis, the way Boulderites regularly hike the Flatirons.

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But what about Duluth’s claims to be a “continental crossroads”? Well, the fact that it is an important shipping port definitely backs up this claim. It was out of Duluth that the tragic voyage of the Edmond Fitzgerald left in 1975. This voyage, intended for Cleveland, was one of a number of journeys taken along the Great Lakes from Duluth over the years. From points north and west, it is the nearest access point to the Great Lakes, which provides shipping access to the Atlantic via the Erie Canal. Also, with a good number of ports along Lake Superior being in Canada, Duluth’s importance undoubtedly stretches beyond the United Sates.

But, does this make Duluth any more important than I had previously thought? Maybe not? I mean, there are tons of airports near an international border that can call themselves “international airports” by virtue of their location more than their flight availability. And, almost every town that refers to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind have some kind of story to back up their claims. The truth is that, the world is full of crossroads. Routes and trails have criss-crossed the continent for a long time, and along these routes and trails, many important connections have developed in quite a few locations, each with significance in the history and development of our nation. This is actually one of the things that made our country great. It is not once place that made us who we are, nor is who we are just one thing. Everybody had input. And, more importantly, everyone had the right to decline input as well. Minnesota is quite different from Texas, which is also quite different from New York. Each place developed differently, and each “crossroads” across this great continent has their own unique way of life based on what kind of “crossroads” they are.

A Long Drive Down a Familiar Road

There is no road that I know better than Interstate 90. Before moving to Denver last year, I lived in the Midwest for 19 years. In that time, I attended High School, College, Graduate School, and started my first job. I lived in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. But, I never lived more than 10 miles from I-90. I drove back and forth on that road so much that I once claimed that I could tell at least one story about every exit on that road from South Bend to the Dells.

Today’s journey began on that all to familiar road. It was surreal to be driving past the same places, looking at the same exits, and reminiscing about the same stories, the same people, but keeping in mind that I no longer live here. It was almost like a journey into another life, but one that I am still living.

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We got an early start on June 1, and raced across Wisconsin. Well, raced is a relative term. Wisconsin remains, along with Illinois, the only states in the Midwest to still have a statewide speed limit of 65. In addition, unlike in Illinois, they are looking to pull you over.

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Regardless, we still go to LaCrosse in 4 hours, with our first stop being in Sparta, WI. Sparta is known as the “bicycle capital of Wisconsin”, which, as a bike enthusiast, makes it near and dear to me. In fact, I had ridden through Sparta in 2006, on a ride across the state. It is where the LaCross River Trail ends and the Elroy-Sparta trail begins. Both are bicycle trails created from abandoned rail beds, and quite fun to ride. Sparta hosts a bicycle museum, and has even placed bicycle images on their road signs!

In LaCrosse, we did something I am not accustomed to on road trips. We actually stopped at a microbrewery to sample some beer. The Pearl Street Brewery would not open for tasting until noon. With a little bit of extra time, we went downtown and checked out some sights, including the grounds of Oktoberst. LaCrosse is said to have one of the best Oktoberfests this side of the Atlantic. I regret never having gone there, but I did live in Madison, and living in Madison is almost like a non-stop Oktoberfest!

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After sampling some good beer, it was time to tackle a new state, Minnesota. When it comes to states to drive across, Minnesota is the ultimate tease. The first ten miles are utterly spectacular! The road follows the bluffs of the Mississippi River, which are almost at their best here. In fact, this is my favorite Mississippi River crossing (with St. Louis being a close second).

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Unfortunately, after those ten miles, the surrounding scenery suddenly goes dull. I mean suddenly! At mile marker 267, you suddenly enter a mainly flat terrain full of corn fields. It stays that way for pretty much the entire rest of the state. So, essentially, Minnesota presents itself to the westbound I-90 traveler as quite exciting, but ends up manifesting as dull and frustrating. It reminds me of our own government, but that is another issue.

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Today’s destination is Spirit Lake, Iowa, for some camping. Spirit Lake, despite being in Iowa is only about 20 minutes off of I-90. The drive is quite easy, and, to be honest, I do not notice the difference in scenery between Iowa and Minnesota. I would say that the part of Minnesota I had been traveling through today is like more like Iowa than the rest of Minnesota.

However, ironically, the part of Iowa I end up camping in may be more like Minnesota than the rest of Iowa. Specifically, I am referring to the size of the lake. Minnesota, of course, is known for its lakes. Every time I visit the state, it feels like half the population owns a boat. In fact, the state motto is the “land of 10,000 lakes”. Iowa may not be lacking in lakes the way many states out west are, but it isn’t known for it’s lakes. But, Spirit Lake is a place where life pretty much revolves around the lake, much the way it does for many places in Minnesota.

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I am very proud of myself on this day. I put up the tent all by myself! Yeah, this is something that many people know how to do, but it is a skill I never developed, and really need to have. Especially, if I really want to dive into the experience of living in Colorado, and, what is the point of moving to a new place if you don’t plan to experience it with all you’ve got.

The evening was all about spending some quality time with good friends, the kind of people you truly feel comfortable around. We goofed off, we grilled, and played frisbee in the park. We had a few drinks, and got a bit loopy. My friend Jason found a way to break a rock trying to break a gigantic tree branch to make more firewood. It was quite hilarious.

More importantly, we talked about some real stuff. The kind of stuff that people don’t seem to talk about anymore. People, society, who we are, where we are going, what we need in life. I have no idea why people don’t talk about all this anymore. Maybe it is the constant distractions. It seems like we are more connected than ever, but also more isolated. I really don’t know what I personally can do about this, but be there for people when they need me, which I plan to do. If I can reduce the amount of loneliness in this world, I could truly be of service to humanity. Maybe this is the kind of realization people tend to have on a quiet (somewhat, as it has been windy) night in a lake in North Central Iowa.