Tag Archives: travel

A Full Moon Hike to Jefferson Lake

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Hiking at night is something I had never really thought about doing. As is the case with the majority of the people who go hiking, my primary motivations are scenery, connection with nature, and exercise, most of which is far more compatible with daytime.

Most of my nighttime hiking experiences have been in cases where I remained on a trail until just after dark to watch a sunset…

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Backpacking….

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Or starting a hike early due to time constraints or goals, all of which involved reaching a specific place in daytime.

This particular nighttime hike was organized by a group called Mappy Hour. With the motto, “Live in the city, love the outdoors”, they bring together outdoor adventurers of all levels who live and work in cities. Sometimes the input of others helps expose us to activities we would not have otherwise done. Like a lot of people in Colorado, wintertime for me can end up being mostly just skiing. Going on this event exposed me to something different.

Jefferson Lake is outside of a tiny town called Jefferson, in Colorado’s South Park region.

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This hike started in late afternoon, before sunset. As we approached the trailhead, I was somewhat concerned that the high clouds would detract from the experience of a full moon hike.

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Jefferson Lake is accessible by road during the summertime. However, during the winter, the road is closed off right after entering the Pike National Forest, where the wide open ranch land of South Park’s high plains meets the densely packed trees associated with some of Colorado’s highest terrain.

In winter, the final four miles of the road to Jefferson Lake can be hiked or snowshoed, depending on conditions.

Most of this winter hike (3 out of 4 miles) is a very gradual climb, passing by campgrounds, as well as the Colorado Trail. It is a great trail for someone who is new to snowshoeing, however, conditions must be considered, as even in mid winter, there is no guarantee the road will be snowpacked for the entire four mile length.

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The road also passes by another wonder of nature I often fail to consider, a beaver dam. Apparently, we humans are not the only ones capable of using trees to create infrastructure.

The final mile before arriving at the lake is a bit steeper, but still not overly strenuous. However, for those not accustomed to hiking in snow, or snowshoes, it can be a bit exhausting.

We watched the moon rise over the mountains to the East.

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Gradually lighting the lake up, one segment at a time.

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By the time the moon had fully risen, the entire lake, as well as the entire forest surrounding it, was noticeably lighter.

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The amount if light the moon can provide is something that those of us who spend most of our lives in cities often fail to appreciate. However, on this evening, the difference between an evening with full moon light and one without would be on full display. The evening of January 20, 2019 was a lunar eclipse, which began to manifest a few hours after sundown.

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Lunar eclipses occur at a much slower pace than solar ones. This lunar eclipse began to show just before 8:30 P.M., but would not reach totality until 9:41 P.M. in Central Colorado. During the lunar eclipse, the sky grows far darker, the way it appears during a new moon, and the moon itself takes on a red color, whose true beauty can only be truly appreciated in person. This National Geographic photograph, taken by professionals with professional equipment, would come closest to giving it justice- way closer than any photo I could take!

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The event was nothing short of amazing, in a manner that cannot be properly expressed through words or even pictures. At the end of the hike, I felt content in a manner that is rarely achieved in day-to-day life, due to the combination of being in motion, observing spectacular scientific phenomenon, and being in a social setting.

Hiking at night in the middle of winter is something I have never done before. However when it comes my primary motivations for hiking, getting exercise, scenery and connection with nature, this activity met all three criteria. There are plenty of times in life when we focus too much on a specific solution, activity or procedure, rather than the overall motivation. This causes us to narrow our options too much. This event reminded me how important it is to stay focused on the overall motivation rather than one specific activity or solution. This goes for all areas i life, not just outdoor adventures and weekend activities. As long as we stay open-minded, pay attention, and keep our overall goals in mind, we can find some amazing experiences!

Fall Camping at Cottonwood Lake

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This fall has been one of the most exhausting periods of my life in a long time. There is a reason I am writing this blog, in early November, over a month after this experience. Life is rarely constant. Sometime we are up, sometimes we are down. Sometimes we are comfortable and sometimes we feel everything is spiraling out of control. There are also periods that are slower and periods that are busier.

Exhaustion often has a variety of sources. Sometimes it does happen simply because someone is doing too much. However, I have seen tons of people who are extremely busy manage to have what appeared like really good energy levels. I have also seen people with little on their schedule appear extremely exhausted.

At this current moment in time, both personally, and throughout my country, there are other sources of exhaustion that are quite prevalent. Our news is often sensationalized and our political climate is downright toxic. We also have yet to incorporate new technologies into our lives in a healthy manner, leading to large-scale mental health issues which are beginning to manifest in horrible ways.

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The amount of time we spend in front of screens continues to increase. It is now over 11 hours per day. This has caused people to interact less and less with one another, leading to loneliness. The number of people who said they have nobody in which to confide in, about deeply troubling personal matters, has tripled in the last three decades.

I may have personally created additional exhaustion, in my life specifically, by taking on more work and over-doing some other endeavors. Seriously, I had no idea those tomatoes would grow so well!

When exhausted, we often have the instinct to stay home, rest, do nothing for a while. However, this is not always the best course of action. In my case, it would not have removed me from some of the sources of stress and exhaustion. How often, in today’s culture, does “resting”, really mean watching something on television, while also scrolling through news and social media on our phones. This form of “resting” still involves some amount of mental energy being dedicated to the very things that are causing many of us stress, which appear in the news, on social media and frequently on the television as well.

Sometimes, it is far better to power through the exhaustion for a little bit in order to get away from all this.

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Going camping takes work. It requires preparing meals, gathering supplies, picking out a location, traveling there, then setting up camp and building a fire. This is far more effort than it takes to turn the television on, or grab a smart phone while laying in bed. However, there is far more reward: actual relaxation.

Cottonwood Lake is about ten miles west of Buena Vista, Colorado, right in the center of the state, in the San Isabel National Forest.

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The campsite we found, a couple of miles further up the road, turned out to be one of the greatest places ever for viewing fall colors in the Rocky Mountains in Late September.

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It was amazing not only to see the colors at this one particular spot a couple miles west of Cottonwood Lake, but to see them at all different times of the day. In particular, at times around sunrise and sunset, the orange color in many of the leaves appeared deeper, and even more vibrant and colorful!

Most importantly, after finding the ideal camping site, getting the tent set up, starting the fire, and cooking dinner, the experience was far more relaxing than anything I would have done at home.

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Despite the full moon, I was able to get to sleep not too long after 9 P.M. With no lights, televisions, or random noises interrupting, it felt like I slept off all the exhaustion of the previous weeks. With the feeling of being rested, and my mind completely disconnected from all the stresses of back home, the return trip felt even more beautiful.

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It was like some kind of opening of the mind was needed to fully take in what was in front of me.

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The life I returned to was not too different. I still have the same ambitions. Smart phones did not become any less addicting, and world news and politics did not become any less depressing. We can escape from our lives, but we cannot escape forever.

Plus, it is not always bad. People that are busy, and even sometimes exhausted, can also be happy, if their mind is on the right things and they find themselves in the right environment. Sometimes it is the ones that are idle, not having all the experiences life has to offer, trapped in fear and “analysis paralysis”, that are the most prone to depression.

More importantly, all activities have busier and calmer periods. Jobs have busier and calmer periods, and there is not too much for me to do in the garden in November. It is easy to interpret a month or so with little to no rest as evidence that one has taken on too much in their lives. This may or may not be the case, and when the activities someone is involved in are generally making them happy, it is far better to endure a busy and stressful season than to give up on activities that are producing a sense of fulfillment.

Nebraska Out of the Way Attractions

Smith Falls

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Smith Falls is pretty well hidden from most travelers. It is located in a very sparsely populated section of North Central Nebraska, far away from any heavily traveled interstate highway. It is also in a section of the country where few would expect to see a magnificent waterfall like this one.

Unless you are one of Valentine, Nebraska’s 2,820 residents, getting there is a long drive on empty roads, that even requires four miles on a gravel road off of State Highway 12.

Being so far out of the way of where people live and travel, the Niobrara Canyon, where Smith Falls is located, is quite secluded. The river itself looks nothing like the surrounding areas. The dense tree coverage feels reminiscent of places further East. It feels like the perfect destination for a private group experience; a float trip, family reunion, or some other group bonding experience.

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There does tend to be a few more people at the Falls themselves, as it is the main attraction at the State Park.

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Unlike some trails, visitors can freely walk right into Smith Falls without breaking any kind of rule. Many visitors bring swimsuits, and wear water shoes, as the trail to get from the parking to the falls is not vigorous at all, although it is about half a mile.

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Carhenge

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Carhenge, just north of Alliance, Nebraska, several hours west of Smith Falls is also quite far from any metropolitan area or heavily traveled highway. This image of an open two-lane highway with nobody else on it, wide open skies and small subtle sand hills in the background sums up the entire three hour drive between Smith Falls and Carhenge.

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While both attractions are out of the way, a few miles outside a small town (Alliance has a population closer to 8,000), in a way they could not be any more different. Smith Falls and the Niobrara Canyon is all about natural beauty, an attraction carved out of a glaciation event that occurred about 17,000 years ago. Carhenge is a homage to all things manmade, a recreation of Stonehenge, a mysterious pre-historic manmade structure, using a more modern human invention, cars.

Whereas Smith Falls is serious, Carhenge is has a goofy vibe. There is also more to Carhenge than just rusty old cars arranged like Stonehenge. This one vehicle apparently has a time capsule in it. In the year 2053, someone will open up memories of 2003, the last year before social media. That should be an interesting experience, especially for someone not old enough to remember such a world.

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There is also a car where people can write on.

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A few of these random structures that are made out of car parts, whose relation to the rest of the exhibit is not aparent.

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And, a car hood with a vaguely political sounding message on it.

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Chimney Rock

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Not too far from Carhenge is an attraction of both natural beauty and historical significance: Chimney Rock.

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Although this structure served as a landmark for Native Americans and fur trappers, its significance was heightened when South Pass (in Western Wyoming) was discovered to be the easiest passage across the Rocky Mountains. This lead to most major trails, including the famed Oregon Trail, being routed along the North Platte River, passing by Chimney Rock.

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Chimney Rock is a National Historical Site with a museum containing artifacts, primarily about the pioneers who traveled this route, including journals and letters written by those who made the journey.

It is hard to appreciate in the current era, where anyone with means can get on a plane and fly to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but when pioneers in the mid-19th Century came across Chimney Rock, they were often in awe of its beauty. Many accounts went to great lengths to describe the structure that is Chimney Rock.

It was also recognized by those making the journey at the time as the point where the flat portion of the journey ended and the uphill part began. The journey ahead would become more rigorous, but also more beautiful.

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Nebraska is not always known as a place with a lot of natural beauty. However, it is not without its places to be appreciated. The truth is that beauty can be found pretty much anywhere, because, it is often not a specific place or a specific person. It is often an experience. A major part of the travel experience is driving. Nebraska offers open roads that pass by subtle features like the sand hills or the rock features further west. The key is to go a little bit out of the way, and to notice, be looking for what is around you. Then, with the right music on in the right vehicle (I personally found both classic rock and EDM to match this situation, you may find something different), the experience becomes a thing of beauty itself.

The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center

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If you are anything like me, on a lengthy road trip, you are always looking for interesting places to stop. Stopping, for an hour or two, or for a night, breaks up the monotony of being in a car,  often on the highway, for many hours in a row. It also helps me take advantage of being where I am, and seeing interesting things I would not have been able to see had I flown. Depending on timing, the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, in Chamberlin, South Dakota is quite possibly one of the most interesting places to stop and check out on a drive across the state.

Chamberlin is already a welcome break to what can be a monotonous drive. Where I-90 crosses the Missouri river, and interestingly enough close to where explorers Lewis and Clark had one of their more confrontational encounters, the bluffs of the Missouri River contrast with the flat open grassland that stretches about 200 miles in either direction.

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The museum itself is unique as it tells the story of the Western United States from the point of view of the Native Americans, specifically the Sioux Nation.

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Most other museums about Western history, mention the Native Americans. However, in nearly all cases, the story is told primary from our point of view.

A lot of these museums cover the fir trade and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Some even talk of the Native Americans quite fondly and empathetically, like this statue, named Dignity, also in Chamberlin. It is accompanied by a museum that focuses on the South Dakota portion of Lewis and Clark’s mission.

The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, by contrast, tells the story of the region from the point of view of the Native Americans. It starts with life before European settlement. One of the first exhibits is an artistic depiction of what life was like across South Dakota before Lewis and Clark, and many of the fir traders had arrived.

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This depiction of life in South Dakota is quite easy to get immersed in. For a few minutes, I felt the way they felt, like I was living the life they lived. It is felt almost like the feeling people get when they truly feel a immersed in a movie or T.V. show and become emotionally attached to one or more of the characters. The people in this mural felt like my friends and family.

It made wish that I cared more, in the grand scheme of things, about the fact that the land they once occupied had been taken from them. Sure, change is inevitable, and given technological progress throughout the world, it is hard to imagine a scenario where South Dakota still looks exactly like this artist rendition today. However, there was a lot of misfortune brought upon these tribes.

This first part of the museum covers the culture of the Sioux. One thing I realized is that, the Sioux, being the group we interacted with most frequently in more recent years, likely created the caricature of Native Americans most of us live with today. The caricature of Native Americans are people who were at one with nature, in a way today’s hard core environmentalists can only dream of. They capture buffalo and use every last piece of it, giving the earth thanks for their bounty.

While this seems to be true of the Sioux Nations that Lewis and Clark encountered, and were among the last holdouts in the “Indian Wars” of the late 19th Century, it was not necessarily true of all Native Americans across the continent. Some tribes even exhausted their natural resources to the point of having to relocate.

What is astounding is how a culture can be so similar yet so different at the same time.

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Unlike in our culture, the Sioux place little emphasis on negative reinforcement or heavy-handed parenting. It seems as though positive reinforcement, likely mixed with a bit of peer pressure, generally brought children towards the right path. The general culture is interesting in the context of today’s current cultural divide. They saw children as a common tribal/communal responsibility, but also placed boys and girls on separate paths from a very young age; something both sides can agree with.

The museum then goes on to tell the story of the Sioux after European settlement. This story, oddly, starts out hopeful, which can be inferred from the diaries of Lewis and Clark. First, Spanish settlers brought with them horses, making travel faster. Later, British, French and Americans brought trade and all sorts of new supplies that made their lives easier. They became wealthier too.

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Unfortunately, they also brought disease. One aspect of the story of “How the West Was Won” that is rarely talked about extensively is how much of a role disease played in changing the North American continent for good. With the horses, guns, and new medicines, Europeans also brought diseases that Native Americans had no immunity to. These diseases would unleash plague after plague upon tribes throughout the 19th century, reducing their numbers. By the time the “Indian Wars” would occur, their numbers were reduced to the point that the outcome, victory for the United States, was all but inevitable.

What had started out as an interesting new development with opportunities had turned into a nightmare. The final part of the museum covers the next, equally depressing chapter in the story of the Sioux. For most of the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, the U.S. government would sign treaties, establishing bounders with Native American tribes, only to break them anytime gold, or anything else of value was found on their land. The end result was today’s geographical distribution of Reservations, which covers only about 3% of the land area in the United States.

At this point, I am not sure what I can do about this terrible turn of events. It is hard for me to accept too much guilt for it, as I was born in 1980s New York, a time and a place where all this had already occurred. “My people”, if I can call it that, had happened to already successfully assimilate into the Nation that is responsible for much of the devastation brought upon the Native Americans. I was born into this country, and that is all I really know. Going somewhere else would be foreign to me.

I imagine a scenario where all this never happened, an alternate history, where Native Americans still control the North American continent. Rather than being born in the United States, I would have been born in Italy, spoken Italian and lived Italian culture. Still, in this case, there would likely be some story about how the Romans conquered the Etruscans.

At some point, it becomes necessary, in my opinion, to say that all I can really do is be mindful of history, live the life I know how to live in the place I was born into, for my own happiness, and try to look for a solution going forwards. Unfortunately, I do not have that solution, otherwise, I would probably be doing something else at this moment in time.

 

The World’s Only Corn Palace

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It’s one of those tourist attractions that makes most people just ask why. Corn is certainly Eastern South Dakota’s primary feature. However, it is impossible to drive by this place, see billboards advertising it, or hear about it from friends and not wonder what sequence of events lead to this idea actually being pursued and funded.

In the 21st Century, it sounds like the result of some combination of boredom, drugs, alcohol and/or sleep deprivation. But, when it was first constructed, in 1892, the idea was actually quite commonplace. Despite being the “World’s Only” Corn Palace, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD was not the world’s first. The idea was actually originally pursued in Sioux City, IA. Meanwhile, nearby Plankinton, SD was pursuing something called a “Grain Palace”.

So, what was behind all of these efforts to produce what is today seems like a pretty oddball attraction? To understand it requires actually visiting the place and taking a closer look at it, both inside and out.

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While the palace is reconstructed every year with a different theme, one aspect remains the same. The images, carefully created using corn, depict life on the Great Plains. The 2018 theme, South Dakota Weather, showcased an important aspect of life on the Great Plains, dealing with variant, and sometime wild weather patterns.

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The more the artistic displays at the Corn Palace are observed, taken in, and absorbed, the more the attraction makes sense. Rappers often use their lyrics to brag about the place in which they came from. Countless young adults showcase their lives on social media, showing primarily what they are proud of. This is just another version of this. South Dakotans showcasing what they are proud of…

Their resilience in the face of wild weather.

The pioneer spirit that drove them to the West, and the dedication and hard work it took to make life work in a rugged place.

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Cooperation, the community spirit, and the feeling of connection with the natural world.

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And, most importantly, the unique manner in which they show it.

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While the idea is not new, and it comes across as odd, the Mitchell Corn Palace is actually quite refreshing. In a world where bragging is everywhere, the form it has taken here is both unique and does not require insults be thrown at anyone else. It should serve as a challenge to all of us, as we attempt to find our place in a crowded world. Is there a way that each one of us can show the world why we love ourselves and why we feel valuable? But, do so in a way that is actually interesting to those around us, unique to each and every one of us as an individual, and does not require anyone else to be diminished in the process?

 

 

Sioux Falls: Not What its Supposed to Be

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I could stare at this for hours, looking at every detail about how the water pours over the rocks, creating a continuous splash, swirls in a pattern that is both chaotic and controlled at the same time, and a fine mist that sprays outward from the surface it lands on.

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No matter how many times I see waterfalls like these, it always fascinates me that some of the water that cascades downward takes on the appearance of foam, as if it was not water at all, but had taken on another form. Watching the water rapidly descend and subsequently take on this different form feels reminiscent of a human being that undergoes an experience that is both traumatic and transformative. The water, traumatized by unexpectedly falling rapidly, suddenly exudes a sudsy and bubbly appearance.

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The amount of raw power that is created when large amount of water steadily pour over a rock. The variance in colors that appear as a result of every small scale detail about how the rocks are arranged. The changes in the manner in which the atmosphere feels in proximity to this phenomenon.

All of this creates a level of curiosity and fascination in me reminiscent of an 8-year-old at a science museum, in awe by dinosaur bones and that electricity ball that makes people’s hair stand up any time they put their hands on it. How did the rocks come to be formed in this manner? Why did the water chose this path on its way to the ocean to complete the water cycle? And, in this case in particular, how did this happen in a place so unexpected?

Falls Park is not only in a section of the country that is quite flat (Eastern South Dakota), but it is also right in the middle of a city (Sioux Falls). Everything about its location is contrary to what most people think of when they imagine encountering waterfalls. Yet, it is there, powerful and beautiful.

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It is also not just one waterfall, but a series of waterfalls that cover a surprisingly long section of the Big Sioux River. The park itself spans 123 acres, includes a restaurant, permanent sculptures, and gets lit up for the holidays in December. It does for Sioux Falls what Central Park does for New York, and Golden Gate does for San Francisco. It is the place in the heart of town that is natural and scenic, providing a kind of convenient short-term escape from day-to-day urban concerns.

However, given its location, surrounded in all directions by flat lightly forested grassland and corn fields, a waterfall like this feels like it is not supposed to be here. Sioux Falls is a city in the Great Plains. The other cities in the region are bisected by rivers that gently flow towards the Mississippi in some capacity, not cascading waterfalls that are typically found in mountainous terrain.

Sioux Falls captures the imagination much in the same way light switches captivate a 9 month old, or magnets a 4 year old. It is not what is expected. It is not what it is supposed to be. Places like this, people like this, and ideas like this are what makes life interesting. Sure, we are all comforted when what is around us, including the people we interact with, follow some sort of pattern, behaving as expected. However, without the mavericks out there, the teacher with a strange method of reaching students, those that quit stable jobs to start a business, and that one person in your social circle who always has a story from last weekend about something the rest of us could never even imagine doing, things can get quite stale. Therefore, for the same reason I salute the first person to decide to travel the world by bicycle, I salute Sioux Falls for not being what it is supposed to be!

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.