In Minnesota, Hold the Mayo

Piano tunes fill the atrium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Piano tunes fill the atrium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. (Mayo Clinic)
By Elinor Lander horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Whenever I refer to my husband as "a native Washingtonian," he leaps into the conversation. "Actually, I'm from Minnesota," he says in a let's-get-the-facts-straight voice. If a spouse of many decades misrepresents her husband's basic biographical data, it confuses people -- but gimme a break! The truth is that long, long ago, my late father-in-law and his bride train-safaried from Washington to distant Rochester, Minn., where he was starting four years of surgical training at the Mayo Clinic. Norman was born there and toddled around for two years until his parents permanently returned to Washington. You call that a Minnesotan?

My mother-in-law, to whom "going out of town" had always implied a shopping trip to Baltimore, found her four-year stint in this frigid, isolated outpost -- where the car was put up on blocks for the winter because of severe weather and no one had even heard of a bagel -- traumatizing. My workaholic father-in-law developed a passionate admiration for the clinic and its doctors. Whenever any family member or friend had a puzzling or grave medical condition, his advice was "Go up to Mayo."

Which is why I was there.

My condition, a bizarre and severe allergic problem, was not critical, although it had a certain undeniable drama. I anticipated passing the time between examinations and tests catching up on my reading and staring at the walls of my hotel room. What I found instead was a city that had quintupled in size since my mother-in-law's indenture and offered diversions in abundance. With considerable downtime between medical appointments, I explored the clinic, the shops, the restaurants and a number of memorable sights.

Rochester, which bills itself "the best small city in America," now has a population of 93,000, a staggering percentage of whom work at the clinic or in clinic-related jobs. The Mayo Clinic is the largest private medical clinic in the world, with more than 2 million patient visits each year. Patients come from all areas of America and around the world, among them a great many folks from Washington and its vicinity. Most arrive with family members and without cars.

Where do they stay? What do they do with their off-clinic time?

I've visited the clinic four times -- as a patient and as a companion -- and, although it sounds a bit weird, I look forward to these visits. I am fascinated by the clinic's superb art collection. I do my gift shopping at favorite Rochester boutiques. I browse the bookstores and antiques shops. I like eating the local walleyed pike and baklava at Michael's, the succulent kebabs at Pappageorge Taverna, sipping perfect martinis at City Cafe and digging into their macadamia-sesame-crusted fresh mahi-mahi ("also can be prepared without dairy, fats or oils for your pre-examination," the menu reads -- after all, you are in a medical community). I enjoy the friendly, patient, chatty Midwestern men and women I encounter in the clinic and all around town.

Like most Washingtonians, I fly to Minneapolis and switch planes for the brief 80-mile flight to Rochester. On a clear day, you can peer down and see mile after mile of Olmsted County's picturesque family farms, the sort we all thought had disappeared eons ago.

The clinic, in the heart of downtown, is ringed by hotels, restaurants and shops. The first thing a visitor learns about navigating Mayo's many buildings and hospitals is that they are connected by a maze of underground walkways called the subway.

Forget any associations you have with the term. This subway system comprises miles of brightly lit, high-ceilinged passages lined with places to eat and shop. Their raison d'etre is Rochester's formidable climate -- mid-winter temperatures of 10 to 20 degrees below are commonplace, and much lower readings are frequently recorded -- but visitors perambulate them in all seasons. The system also links four nearby hotels, including the Marriott, to the clinic, and a skyway connects other hotels with commercial and civic buildings.

Worst scenario but best news: If you come during a record freeze, you can eat, sleep, see your doctor and entertain yourself without once braving the elements.

I have never been bold enough to visit Rochester in extreme weather, so my personal list of favorite diversions includes places and events within the clinic or a short and pleasant walk from it, plus a few that require a taxi.

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