I spent last weekend in Minnesota having flashbacks.
It has been twenty years since I graduated from college. (My daughter is starting high school in September, too, which means I’m way older than I thought I was. I swear she was a toddler last week.)
I went to the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University), a small Catholic women’s college in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Sight-unseen, I traipsed off to the unknown wilds of Minnesota when I was eighteen. My parents drove me across the country, with stops at some beautiful places along the way.
(Seriously, people, if you have not visited the Badlands you need to take the time. And Yellowstone. And the Grand Tetons. I love Midwestern road trips. Our country is a fantastically beautiful place. I may be an uppity liberal smartass, and I may take a critical eye to our government and behavior as a whole in the world, but I love our United States of America with a deep passion. This is my home, these are my people. I believe we have enormous unrealized potential. But that’s another post entirely…)
My grandmother was Very Catholic. Much church attendance and a picture of the pope up on the wall in the hallway. She died before I went to college, and I think part of me wanted to go to this Catholic college in her honor. I knew she would have appreciated my choice. And I wanted an adventure. Staying in state was not enough of a change for me. I needed to go someplace entirely different.
Minnesota certainly qualifies in that respect.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into with the winters there. No. Idea. (I cannot talk about Minnesota without spending at least a little time talking about the weather. It takes a very particular kind of hardy Midwestern human to thrive in that climate. My hat goes off to you, Minnesotans. May the Force be with you. And may you have plenty of itch-free long underwear.)
I grew up in Western Washington. Land of rain. Lots of rain. Beautiful summers, occasionally snowy winters. Temperate climate.
I was ridiculously spoiled.
Over the course of this last weekend, revisiting my college stomping grounds, I was informed that the four years I attended school there we had unusually cold and bitter winters. That may very well be true. I’m not going to come and visit again during the winter to compare and contrast, though. Much as I love the place (I truly do. I have some fantastic memories from my time there.), I also have enough memories of having the breath freeze in my lungs when I stepped outdoors, and wishing I could layer three more sweaters under my coat, that I think I’ll stick to visiting during warmer months.
And that won’t be a problem, because Minnesota goes from freezing tundra to steamy sauna in a heartbeat.
My twenty year reunion took place during the steamy sauna season.
Right now Saint Paul is lush, green, and achingly beautiful. It is also 96 degrees and 99.9% humidity. (We were treated to a Wicked Witch of the West level storm Sunday morning, too. Ahh… Midwestern weather.)
Campus is, thankfully, covered in enormous old trees that lend the property some much-needed shade and cool respite from the relentless summer sun. (Over the course of the reunion weekend I came to really appreciate those trees.)
I had no idea how pretty the campus was before I showed up as a freshman. The many trees instantly made me feel right at home, after growing up out in the boonies surrounded by woods. I was utterly relieved to be surrounded with so much greenery. Coming back to this place I had been so familiar with, it made my heart happy to see it again, after all these years, still covered in trees and aging brick.
I flew in on a red-eye from Portland, getting in at 5:45 in the morning. It was already warm, but I had dressed accordingly. I’d managed to pack everything I needed into one small carry-on. I was traveling light and hoping for a reasonably hassle-free trip.
Of course, it being me, there had to be at least a little hassle.
I foolishly attempted to take a cab from the airport to the hotel over by the Mall of America, where I was going to hang out with a friend while we waited for our local friend to let us know where to meet her. Yes, there was a free shuttle. No, I did not care. I was exhausted. I just wanted to get the heck out of the airport and to the hotel so I could collapse. I’d only gotten two hours of sleep and I was punchy.
The cab driver was irritated with me when I said where I was going. Despite the fact that I was still a paying fare, and he was still getting the “airport fee” that was automatically tacked on. Unfortunately he wasn’t overtly cranky about it until we were in the cab driving away. “Bad luck for me,” he said, “That’s only right over there! Too close.”
And then, when I told him I needed to go to the Comfort Inn near the Mall of America, he drove me to the front door of the closed Mall, said, “Here you go,” and drove off. (I assumed it was close to where I was supposed to be. I was wrong. Yes, I did pay my fare. No, I did not give him a tip.)
I was too tired to really think about the fact that I wasn’t being dropped off at the destination I had been aiming for. It was early, I didn’t have a lot of luggage, and the sun was low enough that the heat hadn’t really taken over yet. After a three hour flight, a walk didn’t sound like the worst thing, so I asked for directions, called my friend to tell her what had happened, and got on my way.
The hotel was a mile and a half away from where I had been dropped off.
And even a small carry-on bag can start to wear on you after about a mile.
(I resisted the urge to stop by the taxi queue at the airport when I left on Sunday to see if I could find the offending cabbie and tell him off for his abysmal customer service. Mainly because I was in a ridiculously good mood after spending the weekend with some of my favorite people, in one of my favorite places, and I wasn’t going to let him ruin that for me.)
Finally I made it to the hotel, sweaty and more than a little bit desperate for breakfast, a shower, and a nap. I was willing to substitute large quantities of coffee, for the nap, though, if needed. (And believe me, it was needed.)
My friend Rebecca (who had flown in from Washington) and I spent a little time catching up, and then started to get ready for the coming reunion festivities. Breakfasted, showered, and feeling reasonably refreshed and prepared for the oncoming socialization, we caught a cab to our friend Jen 1’s workplace (a school), where we would pick up her car that she was letting us borrow for the day while she worked. (I include the number because of the handful of people I knew from my graduating class who would be attending the reunion, three of them are named Jen. Numbers are vital. Normally I call two of them by their last names, but in the interest of relative privacy I’m not going to do that here.)
We spent a few fun minutes checking out the school and being treated to free egg rolls being provided by a food cart (apparently one of the teachers had won a contest). The kids were adorable (because elementary school kids just are), asking questions about where Rebecca and I had come from and what we were doing there. It was completely cool to see where Jen 1 was working, and how she was obviously a beloved person to the children attending school there.
Then we were on our way.
We dropped our things off at St. Kate’s first. In a dorm that smelled like new paint and had fabulously comfortable looking lounges and suites. (Kids these days, they get all the cool stuff.) It was definitely not the cinderblock utilitarian architecture of OUR freshman dorm (which had come replete with a nun on every floor). It was weird to be on campus as a middle-aged adult. Things were familiar, but changed. I hadn’t cried yet, but I knew it would happen at some point. (My money was on the Rare Book talk with one of the nuns who had taught some of my favorite courses.)
My breakfast coffee was rapidly leaving my system, and jet-lag and sleep-deprivation were beginning to take their toll, so our next stop was at the local Caribou Coffee for refueling.
Coffee has definitely evolved in Minnesota. I had grown up a coffee snob, living near Seattle, and when I had gone to college the coffee was NOT up to my standards by any stretch of the imagination. Now, though, Minnesota has figured out coffee. Thank goodness. Because I was a desperate character.
Minnesotans being who they are, the smiling, chipper human behind the counter gave me a free coffee off of her own points (some form of system that I did not question) when she heard we were tourists. And she gave Rebecca her employee discount. So we were sustained not only through the caffeine, but through the kindness of this random human who had simply decided it was our day to be lucky.
I love Minnesota.
After caffeinating, our first real tourist stop was Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.
Just driving there was a trip down memory lane. Being back on streets that were almost familiar, and then feeling like I had always been there, the roads unspooling in my mind. I had not had a car when I was in college, so it was surreal to be driving through town. Back in college I would sometimes catch a ride from one of my friends who had cars (most of them didn’t), but I tended to rely more on public transportation.
(I did drive an enormous white van to and from St. Thomas to pick up instrumentalists for orchestra, but that was a very short, set route. I didn’t go joyriding in the St. Kate’s van. Except for that one time when I slid through an icy intersection. But that wasn’t particularly joyous…)
We found a rare parking spot (because every Minnesotan with a lick of sense was at the park enjoying the ridiculously gorgeous weather) and walked down to an observation point by the falls to take some pictures. It was starting to get pretty warm out, but like so many parts of the area, we were surrounded by enormous shady trees. There were squirrels running through the park, and humans out on bicycles and on foot. Everyone was basking in the warmth after what, I was sure, had been a typical Minnesota winter.
After the park, I wanted to spend a little bit of time at the Mall of America, now that it was actually open. I had souvenirs to acquire for my children, and I was feeling nostalgic for all the hours I had spent wandering the halls and entertaining myself at the amusement park in the center of the mall. (There are rides and roller coasters, and enormous LEGO sculptures. Back in the day there was a movie theater and a floor with all bars and clubs, too. It’s amazing. And a necessary distraction when you’re trapped indoors during the interminable winter.)
So, touristy things covered, we ate some tasty Italian food in one of the many food courts. (We may or may not have also spent some quality time ogling a particularly attractive, suited man who was also indulging in some Italian food several tables away. Malls are excellent venues for people-watching…)
Then we headed off for the festivities at St. Kate’s.
And I will continue this story in my next installment, as there is simply too much to tell. (My eyes are starting to cross from exhaustion, because that’s what I get for not writing this during daylight hours.)
It starts to get even more interesting as the reunion weekend progresses. Trust me.
(I may have committed a small crime… Or two. But they really were very tiny. Hardly worth mentioning at all. Honest.)
(Oh yeah, and I also may have also started a new religion…)
(And there may have been sparkly penis confetti. And really bad pie. And tap-dancing.)
(Oh yeah, and then there was the “not in Kansas any more” level storm… But I’ll get to that later.)
No really, I swear I will.