I left the beautiful old Minneapolis house at about 11, an hour late. The housekeeper had already arrived and was bustling around in the kitchen. A stunningly beautiful Jamaican woman with long, fine braids in a ponytail down to her low back, she told me, "Shugah, don' you worry nah. I've got two othah rooms to do fust." Wow. I was in awe of her beauty and grace. And it occurred to me that aside from moving to California in 1988, I really haven't got out much since my college days in New York City and London.
The night before, I'd gone in search of some dinner (and beer, but I told you about that), and it appeared that there was a market right around the corner. So I set off to walk a couple of blocks. As soon as I turned the corner, I was in a different world. The women in chadors floated colorfully everywhere in groups, and suddenly here was a big knot of African-Americans arguing vociferously about something. I couldn't tell what. Men and women yelled back and forth at each other while another woman, emaciated and crying, scrambled to find something in her bag on the sidewalk.
Several of the men looked up as I passed, one saying, "Hey, honey, how you doin'?" I told him I was looking for a market to buy some dinner stuff, and he pointed over his shoulder at a shop right behind him. All of its small windows were barred with vertical steel pillars. "Here you go, this is the one right here." It didn't look anything like the bright, clean store Google had shown me, but I went in anyway. I was hungry and tired. The owner was a Muslim man who started talking familiarly with the guy from the street, who'd followed me in. I found some eggs, some feta, and some beans, and went to the raised counter to check out. My acquaintance from the street commented on the dragon tattoo on my left forearm, saying it looked really new. I said it seemed to be holding up well, but that it was 18 years old or so. He responded with mock surprise, saying, "So you got that when you were 10 or something?!" I literally said back to him, "Oh, brother," and he smiled sheepishly. Apparently bad pickup lines are a thick thread that runs through the whole cultural tapestry of the male species.
Anyway, the next day the nice Google lady helped me get into the city center, more or less, and I found myself staring up at really tall buildings again for the first time in years. In California there aren't any tall buildings, and they're certainly not made of bricks, because they just come tumbling down in a heap in the next earthquake. So I felt like the little country mouse as I found my way to a parking garage and left the Mini to walk around for a bit.
From my very limited perspective, Minneapolis is a series of shopping malls and business centers connected by these "skyways" the city built so people didn't have to go outside in the notoriously awful winter weather. In the humid, rainy summers, they're cool and air-conditioned, so many folks just don't go outside much. The cashier at Target told me that many of the city's elderly folks do their walking in these Habitrail-like-mazes. (Here's the real story of how and why these things came into being.)
I marveled at the ingenuity and practicality of these constructions, but again began to feel like the city had taken its inspiration from Las Vegas. Consumer opportunities lay around every corner: you could get a nice green juice (I did), sign up for ziplining somewhere outside the city (no, thanks), pay still-incredibly-high prices at Nordstrom Rack, or have your picture taken in front of a 5-story fountain whose water dropped straight down from the roof into a giant saucer surrounded by trees. Other floors housed banks, real estate companies, and myriad professional services.
I kept trying to find Target, which was rumored to be within a few hundred feet or so. It had started pouring outside, and all I had was Dan's Stetson to keep me dry. I needed a real raincoat, which I'm infamous for not possessing. ("Mom, I'll be fine!"). I was carrying my trusty old laptop around, too, and didn't want to push my luck by getting it wet. Finally, in the middle of another skyway, I spotted the big bullseye down the block on the ground level. Aha! Now I was getting somewhere. But seeing Target and actually getting to Target are two different things in on the Skyway System. Meanwhile, my cartilege-less right hip was reminding me why ignoring increasing pain for eight years is always a bad idea.
With the help of several friendly people (Minnesotans are famous for that), I found the mega-store at last and walked in the front gates as though I'd arrived at Mecca. And...they didn't have any raincoats. Goddammit. So I found the other thing I needed and went to check out. The lady cashier asked, "Oh, hello, dear. Did you find everything you need?" I mentioned I hadn't found a raincoat like I'd wanted, and she got a sad look on her face. She was really a little upset about it. Then she started thinking and squinting up to the left. After a moment, she exclaimed, "Oh, I knew it!" She hustled me over the nearby umbrella section, from which she magically produced the very last burnt-orange waterproof poncho in the store. "It's kind of a strange color, dontcha know, but it tucks into its own bag right here, and it has a hood even! You could wear your cowboy hat right over it!" I told her I loved the color (it's one of my favs), and we went back to her checkout stand. It's a great poncho and I'll always remember that nice lady.
By then I'd had enough of the endless Skyway System, so I determined to set out to find the Mini again. I asked one of the janitors for help. He like the Jamaican housekeeper, looked like a model on an advertising set. Holy smokes, the way he leaned on that mop while he answered me! Gasp. He directed me toward Northstar, which I vaguely recalled was the Skyway "center" in which I'd parked when I came into the city. With his help and more a few minutes later from the bright women at a snazzy marketing firm in the bowels of the "IDS Center" Habitrail, I finally tracked down the Mini, but not after a couple of mistakes using the elevators. At last, Mini recovered, I wound down and down and down the ramps back to street level until I reached the guy who'd let me in less than two hours ago. He took my ticket and said, "OK, Miss, that'll be seventeen dollars." Speaking of gasping--holy shit! And speaking of sheepish smiles, here was another one when I pointed out I'd only been parked just a little while. "Well, Miss, I'm really sorry about that. Yeah, it's crazy. I don't know how they get away with it."
Google routed me out of the city and toward Wisconsin. Soon I crossed the St. Croix River, which is a tributary of the mighty Mississippi and which separates the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. On the Wisconsin side, there was a giant, handmade sign to greet everyone. It declared, "We Support Trump!" There were large American flags fluttering in the breeze on either side. "Oh, boy," I thought, and sure enough, as I drove my first few miles in Wisconsin (pronounced "Wis-CAHN-sin"), there seemed to be a noticeable downgrade in the energy I'd felt in Minneapolis. Suddenly, drivers were more aggressive, the road (the very same I-94 East I'd been traveling) turned awful, and the countryside disappeared, replaced with thick, dark woods on either side of the highway. I stopped to get gas and virtually everyone was fat, white, and wearing baseball caps and/or plaid shirts tied around their thick waists. I don't mean this as a judgement--it's just what I observed. I did hear two men speaking Thai, but there were no black people around, and certainly no women in chadors. It was a cultural wasteland, from what I could see.
I kept driving. I'd thought ahead today and, due to the forecast, had booked an Airbnb place for the night in a town called Oregon. Now, to you West Coasters, this is not the state, Or-i-GUN. This is the tiny Wisconsin town Or-i-GAHN. Don't mix 'em up. I still had a few hours to go to get there, so I hunkered down for the drive. I sipped on the strong coffee I'd just bought, but still found myself pretty sleepy. In fact, it was the first time I'd felt groggy on the road. There was nothing to see except the dense, shadowed forests on both sides of the road--beautiful in their own right, but a little monotonous after a while.
Also, after a couple of hours, I spontaneously bestowed upon the State of Wisconsin my informal award for Most Dead, Smashed Deer and Other Animals. It was truly gruesome driving on I-90 East. Cisco and I have a habit of saying Om mane padme hum when we pass dead animals on the side of the road, so I was saying these sacred words a lot today. It added to the gloomy heaviness of the Wisconsin vibe I was feeling. Even the highways and roads here show lack of imagination: the Google lady mentioned County Road TT or Highway MM, or turn left on Road Q. She had a hard time pronouncing those, calling them "Highwait," "Highwayum," and "Roadik," respectively. That was good for a laugh, anyway.
At last I arrived at my destination for the night. The host, Hopi, sat outside drinking a glass of white wine as I pulled into the driveway. The clouds had lowered significantly, and it was starting to sprinkle pretty meaningfully. Her denim shirt had tons of rain drops on it when I went to shake her hand. Her dog Annie was there as well to say hello. An adorable terrier mix with curious eyes and floppy ears, Annie sniffed my ankles and pronounced me OK to enter the house. Here's a picture of Hopi and Dick's place from the little road out front:
Hopi showed me around a bit, and then took me to my room. When I saw it, I immediately decided to stay another night. "And this is what I call The Bordello Room," Hopi declared with a laugh. Painted a gorgeous shade of blood red (another fav of mine), with a huge, fancy mirror over the bed, a crystal-drop chandelier, and a hand-sponge-painted, Tuscan-summer-palette ceiling, the room instantly enthralled me. A gorgeous, framed Asian tapestry graced one wall, and photographs from the couple's many Asian travels hung on the opposite wall.
Hopi and I talked for a while under the patio umbrella back outside, until the lightning got pretty bad. I kept thinking about the wisdom of sitting on metal chairs around a metal pole in a lightning storm. But the stories she was telling me were so great, like about how she got her name. The daughter of devout Catholics, she was born Mary, but some years into her marriage with Dick, now her husband of 58 years, he gave her the nickname Hopeless. She didn't much like Mary or Hopeless, so she turned it into Hopi, and that's how she's known now. Also, I learned that unless you're Christian around here, you pretty much don't count for anything. "I refuse to take the sacrament," Hopi says, "so I'm not allowed to go to church. If you take the sacrament, that means you're saying you believe in something I don't."
A veteran world traveler, she cites all the great spiritual masters of different traditions, declaring, "I just don't think Jesus is the be-all and end-all. He taught great stuff, but so did a lot of other people. It seems silly to focus all the attention on him." My guest bathroom is decorated with statues of Shiva, Buddha, and the elephant god Ganesh. Funny thing is, just down the street lies the world-famous Deer Park Buddhist Center and Monastery, which the Dalai Lama visits every two years. No one talks about it or even seems to know about it, though. It's not even mentioned in the "Visitor's Guide to Oregon, Wisconsin" lying on the breakfast table in the living room. Hopi says, "Well, that figures," when I point out the omission. I'll go see it tomorrow.
Anyway, I'm totally wiped. I think the big-city driving today wore me out, and all this late-night writing is getting to me. But I love it, and I don't know what will happen when I get to Maine. Will I stop writing? I hope not. I can't believe how much there is to describe when you just pay attention and talk to people.