Uffdah. Uffdah?
The Quirky Pleasures of Minneapolis

By Jerry V. Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 18, 2000

Just when you think you have Minnesota figured out, it slips away from you--like a sunfish flipping out of your rowboat. To kids my age growing up there, the state could pretty well be summarized as taciturn Lutheran elders and Spam casserole. To the nation at large, we were known mostly for cold weather and were indistinguishable from Iowa and the Dakotas, except that we had Hubert Humphrey, who, truth be told, embarrassed us because he was just so . . . chatty.

Then Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded a world-renowned theater there, Mary Tyler Moore set her TV program there, the Twins went to the World Series, and Garrison Keillor built a national radio program around us. National magazines talked up Minneapolis as a city that really worked. In nearby Bloomington, a developer built the Mall of America, which inexplicably drew shoppers and gawkers from around the world. Formerly merely cold, now we were cool, sophisticated, enviable.

And then Minnesota elected Jesse "The Body" Ventura.

The one constant is the water. In Minnesota, when life seems too much to ponder, you head for the lake--any of the 10,000. (Actually, Minnesota has more than 10,000 lakes, but we wouldn't want people to think we had the big head.) Just as Texans buy ranches when they get a few dollars together, Minnesotans build lake cabins. Let the Texans lasso the dogies; we'll spend our summer Saturdays drowning worms, swatting deer flies and cannonballing off the pier, exclaiming when we return, sputtering, to the surface, "Uffdah! That's cold."

"Uffdah!" is a multipurpose regionalism connoting dismay, surprise or sensory overload. It is particularly useful in commenting on the weather, the Vikings or recent gubernatorial pronouncements. Or, in the case of my wife, Janice, and me, in deciding which lakes to visit during our recent trip.

But we didn't even have to leave "The Cities" (the collective noun for Minneapolis and St. Paul). We just went out Lake Street to Lake Calhoun on a breezy Sunday morning. Sailboats slipped along the downtown skyline, migrating birds lowered their flaps for landing, and now and then a show-off fish noisily broke the surface of the water. And the stress washed right out of our bodies.

Joggers and cyclists circled the lake--indeed, the path around the lake not only is paved, it is divided into lanes like the George Washington Parkway and has roses growing in the median strip. You can rent a canoe and navigate from Calhoun via a channel to Lake of the Isles (the one Mary Richards used to walk along in the credits), then to Cedar Lake. Catch some rays back at Calhoun Beach (yes, a beach in Minnesota). Or go to a concert at nearby Lake Harriet's band shell.

The big-time lake, though, is out in the southwest suburbs. Lake Minnetonka is full of picturesque coves and inlets and is surrounded by expensive homes, but it's not merely decorative. It is a real, functioning lake where weekend fishermen pull sunfish and bass out of the water, notwithstanding heavy cabin cruiser traffic. The attraction of fishing may be a generational thing, however, as Minnesota last year felt compelled to create special "fish for free if you're with a kid" weekends to pull the youngsters away from MTV and encourage family bonding over the bait bucket.

There probably was bonding going on during our visit to Minnetonka, but people were too intent on their fishing to mention it. These weren't fancy-pants fly fishermen looking for trophies; they were just folks thinking of supper--which is, of course, what one calls the evening meal in Minnesota. While they threw a lot of the catch back as undersized ("Aww, keep it, Donny--you can use it in the parking meter!"), much of it likely made it to local tables that night.

A threat--even more ominous than MTV--to water fun is the growing problem with Eurasian milfoil, an exotic species of thick aquatic plant for which there is no known preventative. Boaters exiting an infected lake must carefully wash their boats and trailers before hooking them up.

Life in the Cities inevitably involves the Mississippi as well. The river comes down from mallard and muskrat country, forms the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis, and then cuts east and becomes the boundary with St. Paul. Some students at the University of Minnesota have classes on both sides of the divide and cross it via an enclosed walkway (much appreciated during winter semesters).

We found a good place to experience the river: right in the middle of it. The Nicollet Island Inn is a little too big to be a B&B (and, by definition, it can't be--it serves dinner), but a little too small to be a hotel. Long ago--and before a thorough face-lifting--it was a Salvation Army shelter. Now it is a quiet shelter from the busy workaday world of modern Minneapolis.

Janice and I strolled under the trees around the small island and across the bridges that link it to downtown and the old St. Anthony area. You also could ride a bike down the scenic boulevard on the east bank of the river, into St. Paul, past the University of St. Thomas, then cross over to Minnehaha Park and pedal back on West River Parkway. Catch your breath at one of the overlooks and contemplate the occasional river traffic. (The river is navigable even this far from New Orleans, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers and a series of locks and dams.)

I had forgotten my ninth-grade Minnesota history course, but relearned much of it during a pleasant afternoon at St. Anthony Falls. Young guides from the state historical society walked us out to the edge of the falls and helped us visualize what the area must have looked like when it was first settled. The city of Minneapolis was born here, as Minneapolis on the west side and St. Anthony on the east. The west-siders were quicker to exploit the natural power of the falls for grain and lumber milling. (That's why today what we call the Twin Cities aren't St. Anthony and St. Paul.) The towering grain elevators were the city's first skyscrapers, and they remain, even though the milling now is done elsewhere.

Back on what once was Main Street of the old St. Anthony, we enjoyed the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices--machines that were supposed to enlarge whatever was too small, reduce whatever was too big, grow hair on whatever was too bald or otherwise cure whatever ailed you. But they didn't. Of the displayed devices, only the shoe store X-ray machine really did work. (Unfortunately.)

At Janice's urging, I sat under the spiky hood of the phrenology machine while it assessed my supposed mental strengths and failings based on the shape of my head. According to its printout, I am deficient in "acquisitiveness" and "should cultivate a desire for possessions and a sense of material values."

Later, while I catnapped at the inn, Janice hiked back to the falls and across the Stone Arch Bridge, an old railroad span built in the style of a Roman aqueduct. The tracks are gone now, and it makes for a dramatic walk toward downtown. She reports that there were performance artists doing a mime routine on a sandbar below the falls--how symbolic of modern Minnesota. And--how typical of the Minnesota I remember--no one paid any attention.

Minneapolis has other, more traditional cultural opportunities, although few have anything to compare with the phrenology machine. Right by the river is the university's new Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, a Frank Gehry creation in stainless steel that houses a contemporary art collection. On the other side of downtown is the Walker Art Center, another museum of contemporary art, with its famous giant spoon-and-cherry in the sculpture garden. And the American Swedish Institute's South Minneapolis mansion reminds Minnesotans of their Scandinavian heritage.

The Cities also have enough live theater to keep you busy for a long time, from the classics at the Guthrie, to experimental drama at the University of Minnesota, to Broadway and walleyed pike at the Old Log dinner theater.

The Minneapolis music scene would astound any returning baby boomer who last saw the state in the late '50s. True, Dylan lived there then, but he couldn't wait to get out. The biggest star was a polka band leader named, so help me, Whoopee John Wilfahrt. Now Minneapolis is known as a proving ground for national music trends, including the innovations of Prince. (At least Whoopee John never labeled himself "the Artist Formerly Known as Wilfahrt.")

When Charles Kuralt used to do his CBS "On the Road" pieces, it seemed that every string collector, bee-beard wearer and bridge-mix eccentric that he featured was a Minnesota resident. Maybe Minnesotans can revel in their quirks because--not to be smug--they are confident deep down that they really do have it together on the things that matter. So that when a movie like "Fargo" comes out and makes fun of their milk-house accents, they can shrug and say, "Now, that was different."

Maybe that's why Aquavit, a nouvelle Swedish American restaurant with an Ethiopian chef, can celebrate "herring week" and feature delicate sushi and sashimi crafted from the much-maligned fish that traditionally occupies the shelves next to the pickled pigs' feet. The restaurant's namesake Swedish liquor is served in frozen glasses and offered in multicolored flights spotlighting infusions of caraway or fennel or star anise and juniper berry. It's a long way from sharing swigs of peppermint schnapps at the side of the feed lot.

And maybe that's why Minnesotans can afford to elect a pro wrestler to the highest office in the state. Minnesota gave the world Northwest Airlines and Target discount stores, Cheerios and Post-It Notes, Gene McCarthy and Poppin' Fresh. So why not do something that the rest of the world thinks is a little nuts?

And when nobody is looking, you can laugh to yourself. And then go fishing.

Jerry Haines last wrote for Travel about a budget trip to Hong Kong and Beijing.

DETAILS: Minneapolis

GETTING THERE: Northwest Airlines flies to Minneapolis nonstop from Reagan National and is quoting a round-trip fare of $270. Flight time is about 2 1/2 hours. Other major airlines serve Minneapolis-St. Paul, but most require a connection.

GETTING AROUND: Although the Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) share an extensive bus system, the lakes and riverside spots are best reached by car. But the Mississippi River and the interstate highways (both obviously designed by non-Minnesotans) sometimes cut through in undisciplined ways, interrupting streets and frustrating travel. Be careful at highway interchanges: The area has a number of poorly designed ones that place exiting traffic squarely in the path of cars trying to enter. Planners were more thoughtful of pedestrians, as most of the buildings in downtown Minneapolis are linked by skywalks, enclosed second-floor walkways. You can walk for a mile "above it all" without setting foot outside.

WHERE TO STAY: The Minneapolis area has dozens of major chain hotels, particularly downtown and near the Mall of America in Bloomington. At the Hotel Sofitel (5601 W. 78th St., Bloomington, 612-835-1900; rates are $175 to $190), French charm meets Midwestern practicality--bon jour, you betcha. We liked the Nicollet Island Inn (95 Merriam St., Minneapolis, 612-331-1800; $130 to $165).

WHERE TO EAT: Aquavit (IDS Center, 80 S. Eighth St.) has nouvelle American cuisine with Scandinavian influence. Try the $65 chef's tasting menu ($52 for vegetarian) or the $20 fixed-price lunch menu. D'Amico Cucina (Butler Square, 100 N. Sixth St.) serves contemporary Italian. Goodfellow's (40 S. Seventh St., City Center, Nicollet Mall) has regional, seasonal American food and an extensive wine cellar. The Nicollet Island Inn (see above) has more food from the heartland. Entrees for these Minneapolis restaurants run from $22 to $35. Al's Breakfast (413 14th Ave. SE) serves breakfast to 14 lucky customers at a time; typical morning fare is about $8.

WHAT TO DO: Minneapolis has 22 lakes within its boundaries. The most accessible ones--Calhoun, Cedar, Harriet, Lake of the Isles--are in the southwest corner of the city near the increasingly hip "uptown" district (which actually is south of its "downtown" district). Lake Minnetonka is about a 15-minute drive west. The Mississippi is hard to miss, but it's most easily viewed along St. Anthony's old Main Street and downstream from the University of Minnesota along boulevards on either bank.

INFORMATION: The Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, 612-661-4700, www.minneapolis.org. Whoopee John's recordings are available through www.cdnow.com. No, really.

--Jerry Haines

© 2000 The Washington Post Company