On October 1st, I gave up Chicken McNuggets. I averaged at least 3 orders per week, each containing 6 delicious pieces, multiplied by 36 weeks and 51 calories to equal 33,048 calories landing in my gut. Sitting all day nearly every day driving, I’d dropped from what was probably the best shape of my life last year, to my worst. Why? McDonald’s has free Wifi.
I take responsibility; there are healthier choices on the menu. I could’ve opted for apples and yogurt, or a berry smoothie; I didn’t. I extinguished judgment just long enough for my immediate satisfaction. Ice-cream and books are also weaknesses.
It wasn’t going to be difficult to give up nuggets; I have great discipline in not doing things. I chose not to drink for nearly two years, I chose not to have sex either, no big deal. It’s doing things that trigger my internal resistance. This unfortunate trait is perfectly exemplified in my almost ritualistic inability to exercise.
I usually planned it for morning, which I habitually delayed till afternoon because it was too cold or I wanted to get on the road. As the day progressed, I generally put off the effort till evening because it was too hot and I wanted to continue on the road. The evening slot was invariably postponed till the next morning because it was getting too dark or there were too many mosquitoes (in the summer) or again, it was too cold. These stages became a kind of tradition.
If I missed Monday, I’d plan to start on Wednesday. If I missed Wednesday, I aimed for Friday. If I missed Friday, I’d round it off till Monday, so I could start the week right. This happened with other tasks as well, becoming purposefully rationalized delusions, forms of laziness and self-righteous procrastination. Just the thought of doing something was itself a placebo that made me feel better, not as much as if I’d actually done it, but enough to make me feel like I’d done something. What I needed to do was trick myself into a double-negative and not, not exercise. Then maybe I’d exercise. I’m not disciplined enough to follow Nike’s advice, “just do it”. Discipline is not giving yourself a choice. I gave myself too many.
The Meat Museum.
On the Monday morning I vowed to give up nuggets, true to form, I decided not to exercise because it was cold and I had to get on the road to Minnesota. My first stop that day, after a tip from a smiling elderly woman at the Visitor’s Center, was the Palace of Processed Meat: the Spam Museum. I’d never eaten spam, but I’d eaten Vienna Sausages, and my experience with them turned out to be very helpful when I traveled the world a few years ago. I figured if I could eat a Vienna Sausage, with its questionable provenance encased in yellow jelly, I could eat anything. This realization made swallowing ants, slugs, crickets, and rancid goat meat much more palatable.The Spam Museum was well-designed, with interactive media displays that were fun, colorful, efficient, informative, and friendly. Accurately or not, it contextualized American potted meat as an important element of our shared history, as well as its popularity among GIs and Eisenhower, and its current, somewhat surprising popularity in Asia (left over from the wars?). I was impressed by the creative uses the Asians seemed to find for this pink animal product. Americans found their own ingenious ways to put the brand to use, few of them edible. In the gift-shop were blue and yellow basketballs, Spam-emblazoned hats and key-chains, towels, trinkets, toys, and tins. From a pile of potted possibilities, I bought myself a can of meat; it still sits in my passenger seat. I look at it every day wondering when I’ll eat it.
The road beckoned and the Chief, like a metal Rocinante, carried me to joust with a forest of modern windmills towering over the plains, their great white blades spinning slowly in the morning breeze. I accelerated past them, aiming the lances emblazoned on my van’s flanks for the Great River Road. Somewhere beyond the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, past the striped farm fields at Lewiston was the Mississippi River. At Stockton I turned into a gorgeous valley of rolling hills and trees exploding in color. I pulled over and buried myself in a field of prairie grasses, gold against a silver sky.
Just over the rise was The Great Mississippi, Old Man River. I first saw it earlier this year in New Orleans; I touched it again in Vicksburg, then Memphis, St. Louis, and Hannibal. Last week I walked along its shores in Dubuque, Iowa. I knew the river continued overhead in the north, that the origin of the Great Waterway was somewhere high in Minnesota. I would find it.
Pretty river towns dotted the Mississippi’s serpentine coast. I hit several the first day, stopping at the Eagle Museum in Wabasha, the marina in Lake City, and the eponymous Redwing shoe store, where I bought boots for winter. Each town touted amiable Midwestern main streets settled by beautiful brick buildings and small stores. The weather was getting quickly cooler, but the days so far, were still crisp and bright. I found a park in Redwing and surprised myself by working out as the light disappeared, obscuring local citizens with a veil of anonymity as they pooped their dogs in the grass.
Reminding me of a Dali painting, hay was rolled into great cylinders as I drove north through the morning to Minneapolis, like scattered geometric shapes casting long shadows across a sharp horizon. These associations were harbingers of the day to come, spent mostly among sharp modern buildings like the Guthrie Theater in the Mills District, and the surreal art and sculptures at the Walker museum: An empty raincoat and a blasted umbrella frozen by wind; a huge cherry balancing on a giant spoon in a pool of water.
I drove to Uptown and strolled the energetic streets, which lured me into a bookstore where I inquired about books, shutting off my brain just long enough to buy them. Then I perused my purchases at picturesque Lake Calhoun only a few blocks away, the sun tripping over the lazy water to brighten gliding sails, the entire perimeter framed by the shimmering lemon leaves of Fall.
How could I visit Minneapolis without a foray into the Mall of America, the mecca of consumerism? I obstinately avoided the Barnes and Noble by ducking under roller-coasters and log rides and giant Lego characters, installing myself alone in a movie theater. “End of Watch” spared me for a few hours from the cold night. I exchanged the theater seat for a more comfortable couch at Starbucks with Wifi. Logging in, I confirmed my Rolex sale on Ebay, one of the last items I valued. Its funds were necessary to feed the Chief who sat outside like an ice-box, waiting for me to navigate the labyrinthine corridors when the mall closed. True to my expectations, the van was freezing. I rushed to a nearby Walmart and burrowed under the covers, noting that I’d overnighted in over 100 Walmart parking lots so far.
A gray morning, a long counter, the clatter of dishes and the sizzle of food on a grill, trophies, medals, stuffed animals, and foreign currency engulfed the wall opposite me. Based on a recommendation, I ordered eggs Benedict, bacon, and pancakes. The low murmur of conversation among mostly college students was about integers and quadratic fields. A waiter bragged to my counter-mate he was on TV the night before. This narrow breakfast dive was called Al’s, and held the reputation of being the best morning meal in town. It being my only meal in town, I agreed.
My stomach full of brown food, I headed to St. Paul, marveling at the lack of rush hour traffic. Via text, my buddy Tony Greenberg introduced me to his buddy, David Ingwell, a deacon also involved in the health-care industry. David suggested a garage for general maintenance on the Chief, then took me on a tour of the city, along Summit Drive and the explosive color lining the Mississippi, down avenues of stately homes, past the towering St. Paul Cathedral, which he said was purposefully built higher than the nearby capitol building…God over Man.
Later, David and I worked out at his gym, then dropped by to say hello to Susan Metzger, a fashion designer he knew in the neighborhood. Before I left, we visited a market where he loaded me up with food, including some great tiramisu his wife made, sending me on my way with CDs for the road.
That night, bookstore personnel directed me to Macalaster College for the Presidential debate. I sat in the basement of the Student Union among students with laptops and androids, iPads and iPhones. They participated in the live Twitter feed on a large split-screen, attention bouncing between their comrades’ quips and the spectacle of a bored Obama sparring with a vivacious Romney.
With the temperature below freezing at night, a tepid sun did little to warm the chilly streets close to the river. Brick buildings and wood houses composed much of Stillwater, a quaint river town. Here at the edge of the wilderness was the first American settlement in Minnesota, founded in 1848. I circled a few blocks on foot before rummaging for winter clothes in the unheated nether-regions of the Chief, surfacing with a thick hooded sweater from Rothco, a hat someone left with me, and a single unmatched glove. This worked out fine, I drove with one, texted with the other.
Cottony clouds and frigid air resisted my push north to Duluth. The Chief leaned against the wind, purring rather than coughing after his check-up and oil-change the day before. A giant green lizard squashed by a house alerted me of a roadside sculpture park in Franconia, complete with suspended cabins, and rows of pyramids. I also clambered the basalt cliffs of Taylor Falls, just a mile away, where trees sprang precariously from cracks in the boulders, igniting the landscape with red leaves.
After an hour or so, Duluth appeared below, hugging the breaking waves of Lake Superior. A smooth gray sky arced over the water’s cobalt surge and white caps. In a beautifully designed modern building, I met with a pair of recent friends, the Benson brothers, Dave and Greg, who were just returning from a run. Forward thinking and environmentally conscious, they’d formed a company called Loll Designs, which created stylish cutting boards and furniture from recycled materials. Greg took me on a tour of their production process, then bought me an awesome sandwich downtown at Northern Waters Smokehaus for lunch. He took the rest of the day off and showed me the city. We visited one of the longest sandbars in the world, hopped over the rocks at a Chester Creek, and attended a sustainability conference with the Mayor. The venue was Fitgers, an old brewery, transformed into a cool multi-use facility with restaurants, a micro-brewery, stores, and a night club, its lawn overlooking the vast lake.
That evening, I hula-hooped with his kids and ate home-made chili with him and his wife Bridget. It felt good to have warm food; I also savored a warm shower and warm bed. Morning revealed an incredible view as we piled into the car. After dropping the kids off at school, Greg showed me a look-out over the city called Hawk’s Ridge, popular with bird-watchers. There he explained the route I’d take up the coast to see Gooseberry Falls, and Split Rock Light-house. Both turned out to be worthwhile stops.
Leaving the coast, I turned inland, across bogs and wetlands that must have been far more than 10,000 lakes. It was snowing, and the shining cerulean circles of water absorbed the scattered flakes. I blew through a town that claimed Judy Garland as a resident, and another that claimed Bob Dylan. I hijacked some Wifi at McDonald’s in Chisholm where an old man, seeing me on my iPhone, quipped he’d never have gotten away with all he did as a young man if those things had been around. He winked at me.
I wandered around downtown Hibbing before settling at Walmart, buying a hat and gloves and hiding in my sleeping bag, clothed in several layers, to avoid the -6 chill. Thus cocooned, I hibernated for 12 hours.
Glaciers once buried this area under a thousand feet of ice, carving out the pitted landscape now saturated with ponds and lakes; that’s what science says. The local story however, is different. A giant stomped through here, accompanied by a big blue ox; their footprints filled with water becoming the ponds and lakes. The legends of Paul Bunyan and Babe seemed to follow me around America horizontally, as the Mississippi River seemed to cross my path vertically. I first met Bunyan, in the form of a giant statue, in Bangor Maine, then again in Mackinac Michigan, now in Itasca Minnesota. I predict more sightings in Washington or Oregon or among the great trees of Northern California. A lumberjack and folklore hero, some historians question his legitimacy, arguing that his origins belonged to a turn-of-the-century marketing campaign for a logging company. It no longer matters, legend sticks.I’d almost certainly bump into Bunyan and Babe again, but Minnesota was my final farewell to the Mississippi. Driving through a forest of bare trees populated by majestic bald eagles, I found its source, and Bunyan-like, I stepped over the great river in a few short steps, the Herculean task made easier by the river’s narrow girth, a mere brook bubbling from a lake. It all started here, 1500 feet above sea-level in northern Minnesota. From this humble beginning the river quickly gained size and momentum to travel 2500 miles to the Gulf, and become one of the largest rivers in the world.
Night brought a deep freeze in Detroit Lakes, frosting my windows with a milky layer inside and out by morning. I congratulated myself on an entire week without nuggets, and didn’t feel all that bad about my one day of exercise. It was a Monday, a new week. And although it was a little too chilly to work out, I told myself I’d do it later in the day when it grew warmer. I had to get on the road; it was time to continue West. Minnesota was done, next was North Dakota, then a drop into South Dakota, then Nebraska and Kansas before entering lands I would at long last, after nearly 10 months on the road, be familiar with.