Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thoughts on Spring in Minnesota

Until recently, if you had asked me when to visit Minnesota, my sole recommendation would have been fall. Fall really is glorious in Minnesota, with flaming red, orange, and yellow trees under sparkling blue skies. It has always been my favorite time of year.

But I've changed my mind about a bit and am coming to think that spring is also an ideal season here.

When I think of spring I still think of it as an ugly season, with straw colored wetlands and barren land, melting snow that leaves a layer of mud and exposed trash, and uncertain weather that only hints of better days to come. But that really isn't accurate anymore. It's not just that spring comes earlier and steadily now (although it actually does), but Minnesota's urban landscape has also changed over the past 20 years. A change which has helped make spring an amazing and beautiful season here.

Twenty years ago, when a cousin came from Sweden to visit me, she astutely noted that there were no flower beds in cities here.

She was right. My mother - a farm girl who still lived in the country - had flower beds just like her mother had on the farm. Almost all of our neighbors who farmed had flower beds with brightly colored old-fashioned flowers perfect for cutting. Very few other people planted flowers. Most houses had just a few foundation shrubs, a lilac bush, and a sheet of neatly manicured grass. . . and that was it. It didn't matter if you were in Sauk Centre or St. Cloud or the Twin Cities, most city yards just didn't include many flowers. It must have seemed very bleak and boring to my cousin who had come here from a part of the world where many yards are completely filled with flowers.

Fast forward to today.

It is unusual now to see a house anywhere that doesn't have at least a few flowers around it. Tulips - which were relatively unusual here when I was growing up are now common and most yards seem to have a least a few stray tulips amid a flowering shrub or tree.

And that makes all the difference.

While still not as floriferous as most European cities, I think my cousin would now find Minnesota acceptably lovely in the spring.

I think anyone would.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Around the Neighborhood

In early spring the budding trees play a trick on the eye: The yellowish flowers and red-tinted baby leaves of the aspens and maples provide a hint of color that reminds me of fall - only a more delicate version of fall's extravagant display.

I've tried to capture that on film, but never successfully, so here, instead, is a close-up that at least partially illustrates this phenomenon.

I live in what I think of is a wonderful old-fashioned neighborhood with fanciful frame houses loaded with architectural detail. It is easy to get side-tracked.

But this time of year, the yards surrounding these architectural fancies are pretty compelling.

It seems impossible that lilac season is almost upon us, but we find a clump basking in sunshine, its blossoms almost open. Wow! Spring must really be here.

I always try to wander past St. Clement's church this time of year, as this very English-looking building and its surrounding flowerbeds are a quick mental trip to a neighborhood church in that lush country.

Ah, springtime in England!

Pack Your Suitcase!

I've had internet access as long as I've had my own computer. For almost all of that time I've used the net to help me plan my vacations. First I saved and printed out copies of items I found interesting. Then I started simply bookmarking them for future reference. It worked, but involved a lot of sorting and filing.

Now, I have Conde Nast's Suitcase.

Basically, Suitcase is just another on-line itinerary building site, but it can be used to easily capture and save info from anywhere on the web, not just from the Conde Nast Traveler site. Of course, it also lets you access other people's trips, so it is easy to find neat things you might have missed on your own. (You can make your trip info private if you want, but hey, where's the fun in that?) It's cool. I really needed to start planning our Seattle/Vancouver/Victoria trip - now that I've stumbled onto Suitcase, I've actually started :-)

Thanks Conde Nast!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Rapid City - The Details

Rapid City is the gateway to the Black Hills, as it has been since gold was discovered here in the 1870s. Today it is mostly an unattractive conglomeration of the usual sprawl, but it has a nice historic downtown with a number of interesting shops and restaurants.

Rapid City and the Black Hills area is served by a full-service regional airport with regular scheduled flights on Northwest, Delta, and United.

There is an abundance of run-of-the-mill hotels that serve visitors taking day trips into the Black Hills. (There are also a large number of hotels within the Black Hills themselves.) My conference was based at the Ramkota, which is relativly inexpensive, has large non-smoking rooms, a very helpful staff, and free wireless internet in every room. The free shuttle has some schedule limitations, but they make an effort to get everyone where they want to be when they want to be there.

The Corn Exchange is a tiny spot tucked between the shop fronts along Main Street. Expect friendly efficient service and exquisite food prepared using the finest ingredients. Make a reservation to ensure yourself a table, as we almost didn't get one on a Tuesday night in the off-season. Entrees run from $15 -$30.

I did not get a chance to eat at Botticelli Ristorante Italiano, but I would have liked to try it.

More restaurants and reviews are listed on Frommers or do what I did, and check Trip Advisor.

A Quick Shopping Trip

Previous Post: Mount Rushmore

I have been determined to get downtown to check out the shopping scene - especially in light of my excellent frugal behavior at the Mount Rushmore gift shop.

I am not alone in my determination and soon a group of us are headed there on the shuttle.

Downtown Rapid City is a relatively intact example of a prosperous old west street with solid brick buildings, false fronts, and precise dentation.

It also has a few nice shops, including the fabulous Prairie Edge, which features high quality Lakota art of all types.

The store has an amazing collection of items both traditional and modern, including jewelry by local artists. However, despite my general rule that favors buying jewelry over other items (jewelry seems the ideal souvenir, since it is functional, easy to pack, takes little space to store, and never needs dusting), I purchase a lovely modern ledger painting by Donald Montileaux Yellowbird. I really like the piece and, as a bonus it is both small (so I may actually be able to find a place to hang it) and reminiscent of the works by Francis Yellow that I can no longer afford :-(

We stumble upon an open-air alley art gallery. It is cheerful and witty.

Although it seems like the work of youthful artists, the references to German singer Nena's song "99 Red Balloons" makes me suspect it is the work of someone of more advanced age! (At one point during my college years you could hear either the English or original German version approximately every 12 minutes on my favorite radio station. Yes, we timed it.)

As we search for a spot to grab a quick sandwich, thunder cuts through the dark sky. Wow! A short time ago it was hot and sunny. Now it appears we'll be flying out this afternoon through a rainstorm.

Next Post: The Details

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mount Rushmore

Previous Post: Off to Rapid City

Tonight we have group event and dinner at Mount Rushmore.

It is a gorgeous warm spring evening when we arrive.
It's pretty cool, but I've always thought of Mount Rushmore as a sort of corny site and I guess l still do. Maybe I just prefer my mountains unadorned. The Black Hills are made up of gorgeous twisted and folded stone - they certainly were not in need of any human intervention.

From the President's Trail we also have good views of the prairie that stretches into the distance far, far below us.

Very lovely.

I have few moments to duck into the large gift shop. In the back of the shop, large glassed-in cases beckon with gorgeous native-made jewelry. There are rows of beautiful inlaid stone baubles, but all are Southwestern in style (none seems to have local influences) and would require dropping a fair-sized sum to purchase. I leave without touching a single one.

Dinner is pleasant and we are able to watch the oversized presidential faces brighten under the lights as the sky darkens.

It is pretty cool.

We return to Rapid City via lovely skyline drive - a rather stomach-churning adventure on a bus in the dark of night.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Off to Rapid City

I have a conference in Rapid City, South Dakota.

I have driven through here in the past, but I've never flown in - thus I am a bit surprised to land at an airport completely surrounded by ranchland. I think I can see a city off in the distance, but it's a little hard to tell. However, I can see the black hills rolling off in the distance. The sky above them is the deep dark blue of an approaching storm. The prairie between is gorgeous.

I already know that my hotel, the oddly named Ramkota, is located far from downtown. This concerns me. I hate being trapped in urban sprawl.

I am NOT comforted when I ask the shuttle driver about the hotel. He assures me it is in a great location - right next to the regional shopping mall.

I ask about restaurants next, hoping to find a secret local steakhouse with the most amazing aged beef in the west. In answer I am assured that this is a town with many great restaurants - why, there is an Olive Garden and a TGIFriday's, to name just a couple. When I ask where the locals go for great steak, he recommends Outback. When asked if there are any locally owned places, he names one buffet spot near the hotel.

It appears I have been sent to culinary purgatory for the week.

But at the hotel (with great views of the mall and assorted strip development and almost no view of the mountains), my depression over the idea of dinner at Olive Garden prods me into the action. I pull out my laptop, type in "dining in Rapid City" and am rewarded with a list of links. Among them is a link to Trip Advisor.

I decide to start there. There are two reviews. Both identify The Corn Exchange as the best restaurant (albeit a pricey one) in town. At there website, I learn that the chef at this bistro is a member of the Slow Food movement. I know where I will be eating the next night even if I have to walk downtown to get there!

A load off my mind, I relax and can enjoy the evening reception :-)

Next Post: Mount Rushmore

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Shipping Season Has Begun

A meeting brought me to Duluth today and left me time for a brief stop in Canal Park, where the harbor is mostly open, allowing the lakers to easily glide through the remaining rotten, wind-blown ice.

There is just enough ice left to make the surrounding shore cool even on a warm warm day.