In Spring Valley, Minnesota, we found a well-preserved A&W Drive-In. It still has the familiar roofline and curb bay, plus a plush green backyard featuring picnic tables, a mural, and a vintage Papa Burger statue. (Mama Burger apparently got custody of the kids, and they could be anywhere by now.)A&W’s been having a bit of an identity crisis lately, by the way. Many of the classic drive-in locations had closed by the 1980s, when the chain was concentrating on placing hot dog stands in every mall’s food court. Nowadays—in my neck of the woods, anyway—A&W is most often seen sharing a building with Long John Silver’s. (Both restaurants are run by Yum! Brands, out of Louisville.) Once in a while they’ll try something new—but an architecturally impressive freestanding prototype A&W opened in Effingham, IL, a few years back didn’t last long, and an A&W paired with a gas station in St. Charles County, MO, tanked after a few seasons. It’s nice to see that the classic curb-service root beer joints survive here and there, but the “new” corporate color scheme—sea-foam green with mustard-and-bean-dip-colored checkerboard trim—really clashes with the venerable orange-and-brown palette most people identify with A&W…don’t you think?
I’d promised my friend and rock ‘n’ roll benefactor John Kass I’d ring him when we got to Minneapolis, and he promptly invited us over to beautiful suburban St. Paul for beer and swimming. We had a lot to talk about and I can talk while drinking but not so much while swimming, so we sat by the pool with the happy Kass clan and John and Chris gave us tips for enjoying the Twin Cities. He also got out a surprisingly good-sounding battery-operated turntable and played requests from his vast collection of Minneapolis rock rarities. I hadn't heard the Suburbs in quite a while!
At length Katie and I retired to the conveniently-located Four Points Sheraton, where we watched a fascinating TV show about primordial dwarfs and their susceptibility to catastrophic aneurysms.
Katie had heard good things about the Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior, and John advised us that traffic would be hellish on a Friday or Saturday so we made the trek on Thursday. It was quite a haul, but we were rewarded with some fantastic scenery, a top-notch pizza at Sammy’s in Duluth, and an audience with the Bare-Assed Voyageur of Two Harbors.
This impressive piece of folk-art statuary must stand fifteen or twenty feet tall. He guards a vacant lot next to the Voyageur Motel—which could just as easily be called the Voyeur, due to its guests’ view of the bearded giant’s unclothed nether region. I’m sure the dude is supposed to be wearing pants, but his caretakers made the mistake of painting ‘em the same color as his face and hands. Oops! And what’s with the hollow eyes? A web search reveals that the Voyageur statue used to have eyes that moved, and that he also spoke. Creepy, huh? I’ve found no record of what he used to say, but I couldn’t blame them for silencing him if he was uttering things like “Come here, little girl; I want to show you something.”
Another too-big-to-be-believed sight in Two Harbors is the set of massive docks pictured above.
The lighthouse itself, a little further up the road, is impressively positioned on a rocky protuberance and admirably maintained. Interpretive displays tell the story of the lighthouse’s construction, explain the way the keepers obtained supplies before local roads were built, and also trace the course of the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald.
Since I try to bring home at least one new t-shirt from every road trip, I was slightly tempted by the surprisingly cool offerings at the gift shop: One t-shirt design imitated the label of a beer bottle, for instance. Still, I am not prepared to be the Guy With The Lighthouse T-Shirt, so we bought a commemorative spoon for Katie’s mom and went on our way.
We paused in the tiny town of Kerrick for a photo of a bar called Lobo’s Den. It had a stylish example of the “On & Off” signs seen around Minnesota; they indicate that a tavern also functions as a package-liquor store so customers can consume their booze ON-site and OFF-site.
I cannot believe I did not take a single picture of anything in Duluth. Someday I will return and give Duluth the time and attention it deserves.
Back in Minneapolis, we met up with John Kass again at a release party for “Whiskey on a Sunday,” a new DVD about the band Flogging Molly. The event was hosted by the downtown branch of Grumpy’s, a small chain of bar & grills run by one of the parties responsible for the Amphetamine Reptile record label—an imprint familiar to fans of the loud, raw, wild rock ‘n’ roll of the grunge era. AmRep (as it's fondly known) has a very distinctive graphic aesthetic, and the design and signage at Grumpy’s shares some of the same flavor. I presumed that they’d have some pretty good-looking t-shirts, but Paddy the bartender regretted to inform me that they were temporarily out of stock. The teriyaki wings were good, though!
The evening ended at the Varsity, a handsome old movie theater recently reborn as a concert venue. We enjoyed a sparkling set by Camera Obscura, a six-piece Scottish pop band that shares a few attributes with its friends and neighbors in Belle and Sebastian. The sound was crystal clear, and the venue was just beautiful. The movie-house floor has been flattened, but there’s a variety of tiered seating (sofas, small tables, ottomans, etc.) along the side walls and a wide strip down the middle for those who prefer (or are obliged) to stand or to dance. Small trees hung with white Christmas lights add charm, and the upstairs lounge flanking the restrooms is retro-fabulous. Camera Obscura was selling t-shirts that, oddly enough, resembled Minnesota Twins jerseys. Coincidence, surely; they could hardly afford to print up locally-themed shirts for every town on the tour!
I didn’t buy a shirt. I was holding out for something that explicitly, intentionally stated ”I got this in Minneapolis!” (The Varsity should sell t-shirts of its own, I think.) I also didn’t get a photo of the Varsity; I figured they didn’t want cameras inside, so I left mine in the car a few blocks away and totally forgot to get a picture later. Here’s a link to a set of photos taken just a couple of days later by someone else; I’d sure like to have been at this show!
Next installment: Bike-friendly MPLS, more cool old theatres, Jens Lekman!