09 Jul

Farewell Tour of the Twin Cities

This past weekend, I was one of 30 passengers on a bus tour to the Twin Cities. The official purpose of the tour was to see the Yankees battle the Twins at Target Field, but I took my bike and instead used the time to tour the area once again on two wheels. Despite the sweltering heat, I would put on nearly 85 miles over the two days I was there.

During the four-day adventure, many others on the bus kept asking me if I made it to the games at all. Though there was a time when I was such a passionate baseball fan that I would regularly take a day off work to observe Opening Day, I attended neither game. I haven’t actually watched a baseball game since 2007.

I got on bright and early on Friday morning as the bus made various stops to pick up passengers. At one stop, our tour director had to call a couple of passengers who were late. It turned out they were sitting in the nearby McDonald’s and didn’t see the bus pull up.


I can certainly understand that a bus of this size would be hard to spot.

At the Salisbury House on Pembina Highway, my heart nearly skipped a beat as I saw Dave, our driver, come on board to relive the driver who came from Brandon. He was the driver we had two years earlier who, as loyal readers may recall, put us in mortal peril with his many man-made distractions on the road. This time around, however, he was much more attentive and there were no major incidents.

Speeds were down to 80 km/h for a while as road work was going on north of Morris. PTH 75 is one of the worst highways in the province and badly needs the work, yet the government propaganda sign before the start of the construction reads, “Steady Growth, Good Jobs,” as if this is just a job-creation scheme instead of vital road maintenance.

We picked up the last six passengers in Morris. We first pulled up next to Motown Motors before moving on to Burke’s Restaurant.


Does this mean they take ½ hour off each day or that it will take them 23½ hours to get to you?


Hopefully the six of them enjoyed the “karaokee” while waiting.

With everyone aboard, our tour director gave us his usual spiel, skipping his time-honored line “if I can leave my wife behind, I can leave you behind.” It was likely not a coincidence that his wife was sitting across the aisle from him. Nonetheless, I’m quite familiar with the spiel, having gone with him six times previously. I’m surprised he doesn’t end it with the line, “this has been a recording.”

Once we reached the border, I took note of the new traffic light in front of the duty free store on the Canadian side. I swear there are more traffic lights per capita in the SPRM than anywhere else in the Western world. In a way, I suppose it’s fitting to put another one in as one last reminder of the province travellers about to leave.

Since we were travelling on Independence Day, I was expecting the third degree at U.S. Customs. When crossing the border in 2008, one day after September 11, all of us faced a higher level of scrutiny than normal. Luckily, it turned out to be the exact opposite. For the first time, I wasn’t asked any questions and it seemed like they couldn’t get rid of us fast enough.

Within minutes of crossing the border, our tour director put on his first movie of the trip. This one featured a bunch of older men chasing after young women in bars and strip clubs. I wish I had a better talent for tuning these movies out.


It is a sight I’ve seen countless times, but I still grab a shot of the Crystal Sugar plant north of Drayton.


At the Drayton exit, I made sure to once again catch a glimpse of the sign that used to have the word “CHICKEN” on it. I also thought of former colleague Steve Conner, who lost his wife and three-year-old daughter near this location in a tragic accident this past winter.

As we passed Sucker Town, my eyes drifted far to the east, well beyond the horizon. Those who know me will understand why. Though we had been on the road for over four hours, it felt like it only took us 15 minutes to get to Fargo and West Acres, our lunch stop.


An unwelcome reminder that we’re still too close to the SPRM.


As I’ve said before, anything Snoopy-related is always going to grab my attention. At least one reader was surprised none of these beagles came home with me.


I picked up lunch at Subway and checked my e-mail before getting back on the bus. Following a detour to Happy Harry’s, where everyone but me loaded up on liquor, we headed east and crossed the frontier into the great state of Minnesota, where we spent the bulk of the time on the trip.

On our way, a couple on a motorcycle waved to us as they passed by. Unlike what normally happens in the SPRM, they used all their fingers. It was also a nice sign to see a school bus that actually has the words “SCHOOL BUS” plastered on the front instead of “ECOLIERS.”

I spotted a clever billboard that showed a man sitting on a toilet in obvious agony with the caption, “There’s got to be a better way. Get a colonoscopy.” The first misspelled sign I saw south of the border was a billboard for McDonald’s in Sauk Centre that said RV parking is “availiable.”

Our next stop was Albertville, the black hole of civilization.


Albertville is the home of Albertville Premium Outlets, a massive collection of stores where people get slightly less gouged for brand-name merchandise they likely don’t need and walk away thinking they’re getting a bargain.


Sadly, our tour director gave us two and a half hours at this miserable place. For some, it’s not nearly enough. For me, it’s two and a half hours too long. Before setting us loose, he went inside to pick up some VIP coupon booklets, but not one of them contained a “get out of jail free” card.

It was absolutely sickening to walk around seeing these teenage princesses in groups of three or four with armfuls of bags from the trendiest stores. As a good friend of mine put it, it is a cultural sickness. Perhaps it was only fitting that one of the vanity license plates I spotted was “PRESIUS.”

While stopping to jot down some notes, a couple came up to the drink machine next to the bench where I was seated. They seemed puzzled by how it works and asked me for help.


It wasn’t that complicated, but even with my help, they couldn’t seem to figure it out and moved on.

Trying to kill some time as best I could, I walked around to wear off the bus legs.


In front of Coach New York, there was actually a line waiting to get in. I don’t know what they sell, but I suspect they’d have to pay me to go in there.


A typical Manitoban. This would make for a perfect submission to WpgParkingFail.com if only the site owner had decided to keep it up.


I guess taking your dog for a leak qualifies as “Emergency Stopping.”

Having run out of places to walk to, I returned to the bus an hour early and waited for the rest of the passengers to return. Aside from me, there wasn’t one who didn’t have an armful of bags. After everyone was back on board, the weight of the bus might have been double what it was when we pulled in.

Several of my fellow passengers were showing off their purchases while waiting for the bus to leave. One woman took out a purple leotard with black polka dots that she bought for her daughter. Any self-respecting woman would have been embarrassed to wear it to bed and she likely paid more for it than I spent on the entire trip.

Every time I visit the Twin Cities, I always pay attention to the Pine Point Wood Products sign in Rogers. It has been there ever since my first visit and serves as my unofficial marker that we’re indeed here.


I was incredibly disappointed to see that they replaced their iconic yellow sign with something more generic. Sacrilege.

This time, I’m not seated at the front of the bus and I can’t see many of the signs on the highway, but I’ve been coming here so often over the years that I can tell what suburb we’re in by looking at the street signs.


We got in to our hotel at 7:45 and I saw their much-ballyhooed renovations for the first time. It has easily been the best hotel I’ve stayed at and I wondered why they needed to renovate. I appreciate the modernization, but the color scheme they chose is certainly not a step forward in my opinion.

073_room230074_hallway088_diningroom 324_breakfast 325_breakfast326_breakfast327_breakfast

The following morning, after the complimentary breakfast, it was time to hit the road. Soon after getting to the trail, I made a brief stop to fill out a survey they were taking. I made sure to compliment them on how well they had done and mentioned a few of the horror stories during my many adventures in the degenerate capital of the SPRM.


I made a point of stopping at Lake Calhoun, a scenic area in the western edge of Minneapolis. There is a nice trail that circles the lake as well as nearby Lake Harriet to the south, but since I had bigger fish to fry on this day, I continued east on the Midtown Greenway towards West River Parkway and Saint Paul.


This was one of a few bike repair stations I found along the trail system. In addition to the pump, there are cables where you can raise your bike up and perform any necessary maintenance. The fact that it hasn’t been vandalized, wrecked, used as a toilet or set on fire is another strong indicator that you’re not in the SPRM.


A repair shop and café along the Midtown Greenway.


More scenes along the Midtown Greenway.


Where the Midtown Greenway meets West River Parkway.


While stopping here for some pictures, someone came up to me and asked for directions, which I was happy to be able to do.


I crossed the mighty Mississippi at Lake Street into Saint Paul, the Capital City, as the sign says.


So many people on the trails in the Twin Cities kindly yell “on your left” when passing. Little did I know that it’s a state law.

I proceeded south to Summit Avenue, where I turned east towards downtown Saint Paul in the dedicated bike lane.


I planned to stop for some pictures at Snelling Avenue and get some shots of the MN 51 markers on both the south and north sides of Summit.


After finishing with the pictures, the gentleman at right approached me and asked me why I was taking the shots of the highway signs. After I mentioned my Web site, he told me his father used to work for Mn/DOT and that he is one of a handful of contributors to the informative Minnesota highway pages on Wikipedia. We exchanged some stories that only fellow roadgeeks could appreciate and he invited me to a meet-up they were having in Como Park the next day. I would have loved to have gone, but I only had the two days there, so I had to decline. Nonetheless, this chance encounter was one of the highlights of the trip. This is something that would only happen in friendly Minnesota.


I continued on and got this shot near downtown.


The Cathedral of Saint Paul.


The Xcel Energy Center. The WHA once had two teams in Saint Paul, but today, it is home to a team that plays in another major league.


The former Saint Paul Auditorium, the original home of the first edition of the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

Continuing east through downtown, I stopped at a Subway.


Need a bail bond to go with that sub?


Snoopy in Lafayette Park.


Mickey’s Diner.


The Mexican consulate.

I turned around at the corner of 7th and Arcade and retraced my steps in making it back. The heat was taking its toll, but I made sure to stop for some badly needed fluids.


A service station at the corner of Grand and Cleveland in Saint Paul.


It’s Hennepin Avenue, not “Hennapin.”

All told, I covered 47.4 miles before putting on a few more after a rest at the hotel to go to a nearby grocery store to pick up some food for the next two days.

Next morning, I was crushed when I looked out the window and saw the rain coming down in buckets. Fortunately, it cleared up quickly and I was on the road again by 8:15, this time headed for downtown Minneapolis via the Kenilworth and Cedar Lake trails.


I exited the trail and made a side trip to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.


After a little break, I crossed the foot bridge over I-94 to Loring Park


While in Loring Park, a white squirrel came up to me and posed for a picture.


Message sent. Message received. You may understand. You may not.


Moving on, I made to Nicollet Mall and north to Cancer Survivors Park.


For me, the park is always a must-see on every visit and many of you who know me understand why.


View from the 3rd Avenue Bridge.


The light rail. Real rapid transit.


This is where the once-mighty Metrodome once stood, soon to be replaced by a palatial new stadium for the Vikings. The Metrodome may have not been one of the most legendary sports facilities in the country, but I think many of our tour participants were wishing the Twins were still playing under its air-conditioned, climate-controlled Teflon roof as they roasted in the mid-summer heat.


Oddly, I found more beggars in downtown Saint Paul and Minneapolis than in any past visit, including this one, who was holding up a sign saying she was homeless and needed money. She should consider cutting back on her food bill.

I was hoping to go through the skyway and stop for lunch in the food court at Gaviidae Common, but, curiously, many of the stores weren’t open until noon. I realize it was a Sunday, but it was a Twins game day and Americans are, if nothing else, enterprising entrepreneurs. Where there are prospective customers, corporate America will be there to open their doors. Instead, I found an attitude that I would more expect to find in the SPRM.

When I finally did get through to Gaviidae Common, I was shocked to see that the food court that I had been visiting for years was gone. I had to move on and managed to find one of the few Subways open in the area.


I had been to this Subway once before and their policy of needing to show photo ID to use the washroom was still in force, but I was one of the lucky ones who they evidently trusted with the key without needing to show ID. I felt so blessed.


After a few shots around the Stone Arch Bridge, I got back on the trail and headed back towards the hotel.


Heading underneath Target Field.

On the way back, a couple of teenagers passed me who were talking about sales and profit margins. In spite of Obama’s best efforts, entrepreneurship is still alive and well in the U.S. If I was in Canada, such talk would likely center around government handouts.


I couldn’t resist this shot on 11th Street in Hopkins. Many of my former colleagues will understand the significance as it relates to our former employer.

After getting back to the hotel, I went for a little walk around the area.


The significance is obvious in more than one way.


Manitobans don’t have a monopoly on double-parking.


On the north side of MN 62, I spotted this Caribou Coffee location alongside Einstein Bros. Bagels.


On the other side of the street was another Caribou Coffee location. Canadians aren’t this bad with their addiction to Tim Hortons.

Since this was what is virtually certain to be my final visit to the Twin Cities, it was tough to leave the following morning. I had been going there since the days when I-394 was still Wayzata Boulevard and when the state’s pro sports teams were all playing out of Bloomington. I still remember both the Met Center and Metropolitan Stadium, long before anyone ever thought of the Mall of America. I’ve seen the Twins play at the Met in 1978, 1980 and 1981. Back then, I-494 hadn’t been finished and ended at MN 5, just past the airport. I’ve got a lot of history there, most of it good, and it’s sad to see it come to an end.

In any event, with the Monday morning rush hour traffic going in the opposite direction, we headed northwest and down the familiar path on I-94. Despite having taken that route so often, there seemingly is always something new for me to see. For example, there was a billboard offering laser therapy for arthritis. For pets. Groan.

I thought of a former colleague when we crossed into WRIGHT COUNTY. Most such signs in Minnesota are in mixed case, but this one was in ALL CAPS. I know at least one reader will appreciate the sighting and perhaps more than one. Even though I spent so long there on the way in, I didn’t notice that they finally made an exit from the westbound direction for Albertville until we passed it on the return trip. Oddly, one of the most popular exits in the state was not previously accessible in both directions.

Once again, I noticed an army of white trucks from St. Cloud-based Spee-Dee Delivery Service on I-94. I can’t imagine anyone in the state having more vehicles than Spee-Dee. A truck passed us in the opposite direction with the words “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK” emblazoned on the grill. Luckily for him, he was headed away from the SPRM. Near Fargo, there was a billboard promoting the Fargo Air Museum. It’s so good that they have places like this dedicated to preserving the legacy and heritage of their air.

Once we crossed the Red River and back into North Dakota, I looked out my window and south down University Drive. Feeling especially nostalgic on this trip, I couldn’t help but think of the Bowler, a place my parents and I used to frequent on our trips to Fargo. As its name would suggest, it was primarily a bowling alley, but it also had a popular smorgasbord that we often took advantage of. On one occasion, we sat down and drank some water before getting up to fill our plates. While we were away from the table, one family sat down at our table and unknowingly drank from the same glasses. We didn’t say anything and just moved to another table.

Just before arriving at West Acres, our tour director passed out the Je Declare forms for us to fill out for the border. While everyone else was madly totalling up their bills, I had nothing to declare and filled in a big, fat zero under the total value of goods purchased.

Aside from trying to tune out the movie, my last trip along I-29 proved uneventful. I laughed when I saw the billboard near Drayton that said “Be Kind.” It seems pointless to say such a thing to people headed back into North America’s toilet.

Our last U.S. stop came in Pembina, famous for the Duty Free shop.


As you’d expect, I was the only one who wasn’t in line to buy booze or smokes. I’m proud of that. Oddly, while outside taking pictures, a GO bus whizzed by. For those of you not familiar with GO, it is a major transit system in the Center of the Universe and surrounding area. As for why it was there, Pembina is not just home to the Duty Free store, but to a Motor Coach plant.

At the border, we were served by a guardette who came on board to collect our Je Declare forms. She didn’t search through any of our possessions and was only making sure that all the boxes were ticked on the Je Declare forms. Only a handful of people even had to show their passport. Bureaucracy at its finest. Once again, I feel so much better knowing the security of our borders is in such capable hands.

As always, returning to the SPRM is depressing. Nonetheless, it was another tremendous experience. I want to publicly thank Tony Rinella and his wife Yolanda for all the great memories over the years as well as to all the great people in the Twin Cities who make coming there so pleasurable. I would also like to thank everyone at the Hilton Garden Inn in Eden Prairie for their hospitality.