one year walk

It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that my one-year anniversary of living in Minnesota was coming up, and that I ought to celebrate it. I’m big on celebrating anniversaries and birthdays and New Year’s Eves; all of the milestoney days that make the passing of time seem, for a moment, neatly chunked out into parcels. Then I started thinking about how it’s totally crazy that I’ve been here for a year, when it feels like there’s so much about this city that I’ve never seen. After three months at Isle Royale I could walk down certain paths on a moonless night, avoiding holes and miniature cliffsides and not spill a drop of Labatt. After four months at Colorado I could pad barefoot across a blacktop parking lot and not step on a single tumblefucker (or, well, not too many; I had a great someone to help me remove them, at least.)

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I was thinking that I don’t have the same familiar intimacy with the Twin Cities. Driving home from work at the time, on my stupid 27-minute commute, I was like, “Here’s the problem. I effing drive everywhere.” And I’m a walker. A hiker. That’s how I get to know places. Now I’m always zipping around on I-94, it feels like. My hikes are in the state parks or up north or in other states. I used to live in national parks. It was easy to get to know my home on foot. Here, in the cities, I’d never really traversed more than a mile that way.

And there it was – the perfect way to celebrate the anniversary of pulling in one year ago on an icy night. I was going to walk the Twin Cities.

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So on Saturday, I did. Niko and I had brunch at this delightful coffee shop a couple of blocks from me; I was a little hungover, the loaded hash browns were amazing, and I talked to an older-but-looked-way-young woman who loved my walking idea. She told me about the Cities; she grew up in Milwaukee but moved here, she said, because everyone told her there were more opportunities for a young African-American woman in the Cities. She went to college in Fargo and is amazed now at how she survived the snows. She has a family here now. She checked out my boots and made sure I had a hat with me.

I started the actual walk a few miles east of my house, so that I could cut back westward and go all the way from downtown St Paul to downtown Minneapolis. Niko dropped me off right above the river where it curves upward again, cradling St Paul. It was very gray, the city skyline hardly a contrast against the concrete-colored sky. There was a historical plaque right there; I’m not normally a huge plaque reader, but I was caught up in the excitement of the morning so I did. I was standing above Carver’s Cave, it turns out, which was discovered and used by a Jonathan Carver in 1766 who was, remarkably enough, an explorer from Michigan, on a quest for the perfect Northwest Passage. I gave a mental shout-out to my Michigander brethren of the past. We both stood on this bluff and stared at this same river.

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It was crazy exciting starting the walk. It wasn’t just the ripeness of the morning either, the thoughts of everything that lay ahead – the whole walk was exciting. The journey was everything I’d been hoping for. There were new things to see on every block, my boots are incredible, and pieces of the city began locking together in ways they never had before. I marched along, creating my own mental map.

From the river I started east, following a transitway to downtown, where I popped out of a weird warehouse district into the St Paul Farmers Market. Even on the final day of January, there were multiple vendors, with tables of peppers and potatoes and cuts of meat. I’d been thinking that I should stop and talk to people along the way, and the Farmer’s Market felt like a good place to start: full of safe, non-confrontational people okay with a little bit of eccentricity, you know? I stopped two young moms with their kids, explained my walk, and asked what they liked about living in the Twin Cities. “I love how local you can live,” the first said, and crowed about the year-round Farmer’s Market. The other mom talked about how she loves seasons. “This one loves snow,” she said, and clapped a hand atop the pink hat of her tiny daughter.

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I pushed off across a park and its tiny stream. Skyscrapers were rising up all around me; so were birches, many of them with birds nests in their bare, highest branches. People were out and about walking their dogs, walking in small groups. Downtown St Paul is weird because there isn’t a lot of street-level, pedestrian-friendly business, but at least people were outside. A few blocks down I met an elderly man with a walking stick who asked for directions to breakfast. I was utterly useless, but he did agree to be interviewed anyway. He talked about clean water, how he loved the river, and how there are river otters here now. We spent a happy few minutes discussing otters before I wished him luck with his breakfast quest and kept trekking.

2015-01-31 11.32.41zigzagged through downtown for awhile, watching people waiting for busses, checking out the building for Minnesota Public Radio and the Fitzgerald Theater and the enormous Church of Scientology. The light rail train purred by now and again with regularity. Eventually I marched up the lawn of the Capitol Building, which is under construction and draped in white cloth, like something you discover in the corner of the attic. I’d never been inside, and wasn’t sure if you were allowed to just, like, march in whenever you wanted – but it turns out you can! Two friendly young people gave me a map and a pamphlet about the building’s history – it was the third Capitol building Minnesota built in its first forty years of statehood, turns out. Everything was walled up because of the construction project, but I peeked through fancy metal grills at the ornate Senate and House chambers and used a large bathroom with a radiator in it and pale green walls. There was an enormous portrait of Jesse Ventura, pro-wrestler turned governor, in the basement. Minnesota has had its weird moments.

2015-01-31 12.02.50Westward! I headed straight northwest actually, diagonally up Como Ave. I crossed some invisible line soon after leaving the Capitol and everything turned sodden and crumbling. The most action was at the White Castle, which was hopping, and had a sign encouraging reservations for Valentines’ Day. I got my third interview from a mom and her two daughters waiting at a bus stop. This woman also ragged on Milwaukee (poor Milwaukee), talking about how much safer she feels here. She said the people are friendlier in St Paul, but that Minneapolis is more fun for going out. Her daughters like St. Paul because it’s where their family is. “They’ve never been to Minneapolis,” their mom said, with a note of pride in her voice. This is an antagonism I notice here all the time but don’t really get – a strong sense of competition between the two cities, which to me are one big entity, looped through with a coil of running water. I wanted to walk from one to the other like I was tying a piece of string between them: a connection, a reminder that hey, you guys are literally spooning, okay?

2015-01-31 12.16.47Sometime after this I went by the Hmong Marketplace (a collection of large buildings around two sides of a big parking lot) and decided to go into the largest building. There’s a sizable Hmong population in St. Paul, and on this bustling Saturday early-afternoon, it felt like a huge percentage of them were shopping in this building with me; it was crowded. I saw a bar of soap labeled “Virginity Soap,” which was weird, but nothing else was in English and so it was all a blue of colors and lines to me. There was one table packed with intriguing bundles of sticks. Curious, I asked the woman standing there what they were. “I don’t speak English,” she told me, “but stay.”

I stood there for several minutes, feeling more and more awkward as the seconds ticked by, wondering if I’d misunderstood her. To pass the time I picked up and carefully inspected various bottles and medicinal-looking products on the table, but I was self-conscious of this as well, as I had no clue what the things I was so gently perusing were. I might have been intently canvassing testicle creams or something, for all I knew. (I don’t know if testicle creams are a thing. It’s just one of the grosser combos I can think of at the moment.) Finally a friendly-looking man approached and introduced himself as her husband. “Can I help?” he asked. I gratefully inquired as to the identification and uses of the stick bundles, and he went through them with me: this plant is good for stomach-aches; this seed is eaten to stop snoring; this plant helps with female troubles during pregnancy. Some of them, he said, just smelled really good. I wished I knew quite as many uses for the plants that grow in my woods. (This conversation also reminded me of this book, [<– that’s a link, click on it] which is excellent.)

2015-01-31 13.02.53Como Ave got boring for a little while – it turned residential, the sky was still gray, no one was out. The houses here were small and square and mostly painted white and gray. Occasionally one would have brightly colored shutters. Eventually I reached the foot and bike paths around Como Lake, where I stopped for a few pretzels and a Luna bar (thanks, Jess!) The lake was frozen and dusted with snow, but there were occasional red signs along the shore warning, “Thin Ice” and clearly-labeled “life rafts” strung to small trees.

I crunched along through the crusty piles of snow, taking pictures of snowy rocks and spruce trees, crossed a small bridge, and made it eventually to the graceful Conservatory building. It was a million degrees inside and humid and smelled like greenness. I sallied forth through the ferns and orchids; the place was packed, full of Minnesotans escaping winter.

As I was inspecting some sort of tropical bloom, I realized my phone was nearly dead – this would have been inconvenient (I was only seven miles into the walk at this point), so I called my roommate Kate, who is a champ. She delivered my charger to the conservatory, like someone delivering caches to someone on a long through-hike. She also brought our foster puppy (who has now gone on to a longer-term home, which is not a euphemism for death, I promise.) He was swaddled into a giant blanket with just his little brown fuzz-face visible. I gave them cuddles and hung out in the rich humidity for awhile longer, writing notes while my phone charged.

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After the Conservatory it was back to the gray streets. There were a lot of views like this:

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I made my way past the empty state fairgrounds (such a contrast to their thrum of summer’s end) and bought 2015-01-31 16.26.07-1some chunks of cheese at Nelson’s Cheese and Deli, which I’ve passed a thousand times, thinking how pleasant it looked. This was one of the great boons of my walk: I finally had the time and opportunity to stop and leisurely explore all of the things I normally pass at 55 mph.

I ate the cheese chunks with Karen and Eli at my old house – the place I’d arrived at and moved into a year ago. We had a good chat, but after some selfies on the concrete stoop with Karen’s disposable camera I was off again, trying to make good time while I still had light. I was ten miles in. I crossed the Franklin Bridge, stared down at the river once more. By mile twelve I was starting to get tired, and here I made the mistake of following a pathway marked closed, like this:

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I wagered there would be no mudslides on such a frozen day, but after a quiet half mile’s walk beside the river on the utterly deserted path I reached another, more formidable fence. I could’ve scrambled up the steep, icy hill and made it around the end of the fence, but a hundred feet down was another, and on the other side of that were a bunch of squat construction-site structures with at least two figures moving between them. “Poop,” I thought, and retraced my steps all the way back, up the hill, back to Franklin. There was still no one around except one car idling by the side of the road under the overpass, and I got a little bit nervous, moving fast until I was back on a populated road with other pedestrians moving past me.

At this point I am still only two-thirds of my way through my walk, so let me speed things up for you. I purchased a coffee and a seven-layer bar at the Seward Co-Op and got my next interview (a Co-Op employee, who appreciates the liberal community here) and then two more (from two slightly intoxicated dudes my age on the sidewalk, who love people’s enthusiasm here but not the price of weed.) My friend Allyson joined me at mile 14.38, and Niko met up with us soon afterwards. The sun set as we entered downtown Minneapolis, walked by the looming structure of the new football stadium in progress, and eventually entered the skyway system. In there it was warm and stale and busy with people shopping. We made our way to a large courtyard in one of the skyscrapers, with an enormous fountain of water falling from the ceiling, and many small trees filled with tiny lights, Niko acting as tour guide extraordinaire. After bursting out onto the open sidewalk again, my legs now truly beginning to ache, I got my next interview from a young man on the street, who talked about his family and loving snow.

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And Niko and Allyson and I plowed forth, across lit-up bridges and past massive insurance buildings, and I, at least, felt giddy with the denouement of the walk. We finally reached our neighborhood goal, nearly North East, and here we cavorted into a bar. I’d been walking for close to nineteen miles. There were beers and sausages and potatoes. I interviewed the man at the cash register (he likes MN’s craft beer scene.) And the night ended with more friends and more beers and games at a long wooden table.

So that walk was Saturday, and it was just what I needed. Just now, as I drove home from my dance class, I looked at the Minneapolis skyline from the road and realized I already felt a deeper connection to it. I recognized certain buildings’ profiles and remembered walking beneath them. I connected the lights and the silhouettes with memories; with conversations; with definite aches in my muscles. I knew exactly how to get there from my front door. Walking gave me a tangible connection to these cities that I didn’t have before and started to help me create an interior map. After three months on Isle Royale, it already felt like a home; after a year and a walk here, it’s finally starting to feel like another.

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