There’s a lot to say about Minnes-oota, doncha know. Ya, there’s lots of lakes and snow, just like the Norwegian and Swedish immigrants were used to back home. You betcha.
Apologies to any 'Sotans whom I’ve offended with my mocking Scandinavian accent. My only exposure to the dialect has been through movies and Betty White in Golden Girls reruns when I was a kid.
My real experience with Minnesota was fleeting and uneventful. I raced across the southern border of the state along Route 90 heading from Wisconsin towards the Badlands in South Dakota. The most memorable part of that stretch of country? The suicidal insects that Jackson-Pollocked my windshield and front bumper. These bugs came in all shapes and sizes, and different colors—at least, their insides were different colors. Every few hours, I’d have to stop the car and break out the Windex because the wipers couldn’t handle the sticky goo remains of the tiny kamikaze artists. Valiant and courageous defenders of their personal air space, but no match for a speeding Subaru.
Minnesota—Dakota for “whitish or cloudy water”—is filled with lakes and rivers, making it a great place for outdoor adventure. The State Tourism Board actively promotes Voyageurs National Park, which is located in the upper northeast corner bordering Canada near the wilderness mecca Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Minnesota has no less than 22 scenic byways if you’re the driving type (this article is titled “Road Trip” after all). If you're feeling a bit more urban, the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St.Paul) have an extended series of bike lanes through the cities—a good eco-friendly way to see the place where almost half the state population resides. You can then extend your bike ride into the hills around the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix River Valleys.
As for cinema, within the past two decades, Minnesota has fared slightly better than its neighbors to the south and west. Robert Altman shot his last film here in 2006 (A Prairie Home Companion). Sam Raimi shot some of his 1998 thriller, A Simple Plan, here after learning some techniques for shooting in the snow from his friends, and Minnesota natives, Joel and Ethan Coen. (We'll delve into the film a bit more next week in Wisconsin).
The Coens, who had previously been critical darlings, made a big splash with their 1996 hit, Fargo. As I mentioned in a past column, this crime drama was set in Fargo, N.D., but shot mainly in snowy, northern Minnesota. It earned two Academy Awards—one for Best Screenplay and the other for Best Actress for Frances McDormand—after being nominated in seven categories (Picture, Editing, Director, Cinematography, and Actor as well as Screenplay and Actress). The film chills me to the bone—not because of the bloody murder scenes—but because it looks so extremely cold. McDormand, as the very pregnant Marge Gunderson, often exits her house decked in a full down parka over what looks like 30 other layers—so many so that she resembles the McDonald's character of my youth, Grimace. I can barely stand winters on the central Atlantic coast—and they look downright tropical compared to the spots where Fargo was filmed: Brainerd, Edina, Hallock, Richfield, St. Louis Park, Stillwater, and Willernie, not to mention Minneapolis.
Snow and cold seem to be a common motif for Minnesota films. In North Country, Niki Caro (director of the underappreciated Kiwi film, Whale Rider) takes us through the story of a woman working a man’s job in a place and a time where gender mattered to those ignorant enough to make something of it. Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, single mother of two who brings a sexual harassment lawsuit against the mining company who employed her. Josey suffers all sorts of cruelties and embarrassments at the hands of her mostly male coworkers, but her winning case eventually sets the precedent for sexual harassment laws across the country. The backdrop for this story is northern Minnesota: Eveleth, Iron Range, Chisholm and Virginia (not the state, but the Minnesota city). The film is at times overly dramatic, but never once do you lose the sense of cold environs—physical and emotional alike. Some of my favorite shots from the film are the aerials that sweep over the land with the camera pointing directly down on glacial-carved land and evergreen trees—repeating themselves like a Warhol print of a soup can. Another thing these two films have in common? Frances McDormand, who plays a colleague of Josey's at the mine and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role.
Lesson learned? Minnesota is a place to experience the outdoors. The lakes, the hills, the rivers... all coupled with the low population density means this state is made for exploring. Just be sure to bring a sweater. Yah, you betcha.
Photo: Duluth Minnesota by Jim Brekke via Flickr