Category Archives: Minnesota

State Fair


Julie: How would you feel about taking Violet to Minnesota to see my parents and then go to the Minnesota State Fair?

Me:  Sure

Any journey is filled with ups and downs, and so it has been with the journey of Violet the campervan. I bought her as an empty cargo van in 2018 after several years of deliberation.  Initially, my camper decisions were based on camping with a family of 5, then 4, and finally two.  I had come to understand that my family had aged out of family camping trips, a hard realization for me. 

My friend Tom had told me that he would help me convert a vehicle into a camper, and we had actually looked at an old shorty bus for that purpose.  I am not a construction expert, but I do have a good sense of the complexity of many projects. So I knew that building out a vehicle sounds easy. Still, in reality, it would be a time-consuming and challenging project.  

I serendipitously came upon an ad for Wayfarer Vans, a company in Colorado that could install a basic camper “insert” in a single day. This prefab setup would give me a floor, walls, ceiling, bed, and kitchen box.  Even in this basic form, I would have a useable camper. 

I purchased a new Ram Promaster cargo van at a reasonable price and set about doing some preliminary work, installing a hitch and some passenger windows.  I then drove to Colorado Springs to have the van transformed. The following morning I went to Wayfarer Vans, and  Wayfarer kindly lent me a car that allowed me to hike at the Garden of the Gods State Park. By 1 PM I got a phone call that Violet was ready to be picked up. 

Over the last three years, my friend Tom and I have slowly modified Violet.  We have added everything from a solar-powered electrical system to a Wabasto heater to cruise control.  Violet has become her unique creation, built on the bones of a commercial product. She is not only roadworthy but also a very liveable and practical space.  

Due to her cargo van lineage, Violet only has two seats, and due to her camper setup, she only has one large bed. I envisioned that this setup would be suitable for solo trips, trips with Julie, and trips with my son, William.  Unfortunately, her bed configuration couldn’t accommodate a “sleep-over” with my daughters. However, Violet could still be used with them on day trips.  With every camper, there are always compromises, and this was the compromise with Violet.

My initial years of owning Violet have been filled with many exciting adventures. Still, few of them included Julie or William.  They were not interested, but that changed this year.  I have gone on many camping/hiking trips with William and Julie in 2021, which has been a wonderful and unexpected change. 

And so, I direct you back to the first few lines of this post and the significance of their content.  Julie was not only willing, but she was requesting a camping adventure in Violet… is it of any surprise that I agreed?  

When I’m going on a camping trip with someone, I try to make their experience as good as I possibly can. So I cleaned Violet inside and out and made a trip to the grocery store to purchase all of Julie’s favorite foods.  I also committed to doing all of the driving and all of the cooking so Julie could read and relax.  The best way to get a repeat customer is to offer good customer service!

We camped outside of St. Paul, mid-way between Julie’s parents and the state fairgrounds.  On Sunday, we visited her parents, and on Monday, we went to the Minnesota State Fair.

Prior, I had only gone to a state fair once in my life.  My Uncle Nick took me and a few of my cousins to the Illinois State Fair when I was in grade school.  I have a pleasant general feeling about that adventure, but I only have two discrete memories.  The first memory centers around the general excitement I had going on a trip to Springfield, Illinois (I didn’t go on a lot of trips as a kid).  The second memory was that my uncle bought me a foot-long corn dog on a stick.  I think that this was the first corn dog that I ever had, and in my mind, it was a gourmet triumph.

Julie had gone to the Minnesota State Fair several times growing up. Unsurprisingly, many of her memories also centered on fair food, in her case, cheese curds and Tiny Tim donuts. She had talked about returning to the fair for decades, and I was glad to finally make that happen.

On the day of the fair we got up early, and I made two cups of pour-over coffee. However, we skipped breakfast as we knew that we would be spending the day eating a lot of trash carnival-type food.  We tidied up the camper, a necessary step to avoid everything crashing to the floor when driving.  I typed the fair’s address into Google Maps and started a zig-zag expressway trip to the venue. Google gave me slightly incorrect directions, and we missed the parking lot.  Fortunately, we stumbled on a private lot that was both closer and cheaper.  Score!

We entered a gate near the livestock pavilions and were instantly greeted by moos, nays, and bleats.  Surprisingly, the animal smells were low.  Perhaps this was due to excellent animal husbandry, or maybe it was due to the cooler morning temperatures.  Either way, I was grateful.  At this point, I will tell you the rest of the story in photos as they say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  

We camped halfway between Julie’s parents’ home and the fairgrounds. About a 30-minute trip either way.
One of the many things Tom and I did when we built out Violet was to add swivels so the front seats could turn, which made the cabin more user-friendly for two.
I made some pour-over coffee for Julie and me, but we skipped breakfast so we would have room to sample all of the fair foods that we wanted to try.
Our first stop was the cattle building. State fairs often have permanent buildings that are used for decades.
Cows are surprisingly intelligent animals.
Like many teens, this calf had a mind of its own.
These sheep were unbelievably cute
I think this device was for shearing. The sheep would stand completely still as if they knew what was about to happen.
We saw a lot of officers on horseback. It was a pretty impressive sight.
Teams of horses pranced around the fairgrounds.
Fair cheese curds are really delicious-in my opinion they are significantly better than ones from places like Culvers.
This, dear reader, is a deep-fried Snickers bar on a stick. It is a standing joke at the fair that you can get anything “on a stick.” In fact, I even saw one stand that was selling a spaghetti and meatball dinner on a stick. As far as the Snickers bar is concerned I found it way too sweet and way too greasy. We each took a bite and then binned it.
This was a “boozy” pie from another stand. No booze could be detected, but it tasted pretty good!
I know what you are thinking….
…but this SPAM burger was delicious!
The dairy building is the place…
…for all things dairy.
Julie has talked about the butterheads ever since I have known her. They are the carved likenesses of Princess Kay from the Milky Way and her court (you can see her on the far left). The heads are carved out of butter one at a time.
A close-up of a completed butterhead.
There was also some international entertainment. Here are Indonesian dancers. Julie recognized the balding guy playing in the background. It turns out that they grew up in the same small town in Minnesota. He is now a professor of music at a local university.
At last! I found my corn dog!
With great anticipation, I took my first bite… I was underwhelmed. My childhood memory was apparently somewhat inaccurate.
Julie found the Tiny Tim Donut Stand…
Magnificent mini-donuts!
So many hand-made crafts. I know that these items are supposed to be cute, but they creeped me out a bit.
Julie’s first-ever job was working at a Bridgeman’s ice cream parlor. We had to take this photo.
Home-made cakes. Yum! …but they were for viewing only.
Home-made cookies… also yum. The contest items were behind glass, but they looked delicious.
One of Julie’s fair memories was riding down this slide. Naturally, we had to repeat the adventure.
Another memory of hers was the “Old Mill” ride, which is basically a tunnel of love. The ride is 100 years old and it shows. She was afraid that the ride was going to stall as it was so jerky, and my shoulder kept on banging on the walls of the ride. I guess it would be more exciting if you were a young teenager riding with that special someone and managed to snag your first kiss.
I love demonstrations as they take common objects and make you feel like you just have to have them. This one was sort of an egg beater thing. However, they made it sound like it was the most amazing invention of the century. No, we didn’t buy one.
One of the many contests… this one judging apples.
Another craft project. Pretty amazing when you realize that this was made by hand.
There was also a lot of free music. Here is the Minnesota National Guard band.
Crowd sizes were pretty manageable and lines for food and activities were relatively short.
We left the Minnesota State Fair and drove back home through Wisconsin. We found a delightful county campground and we were able to camp directly on a lake. This is what I saw from Violet’s front window at 6 AM after camping the night.

There was a certain naivety about the state fair and a feeling of a past gone era. An innocence not elsewhere found. I felt safe and happy. I had a sense of pride and patriotism. Someday, I will go back. It was worth it.



Christmas In Cold Minnesota

I could see the outline of the Minneapolis-St. Paul skyline from my window seat as the plane banked to the left. The year was 1989, and I had just finished taking part II of my Psychiatry Board exam at the Hennepin County Hospital in Minneapolis. I felt that I had done well, and I was feeling a sense of relief.  This was my first time visiting the Twin Cities, and I remember thinking that this visit would be not only my first but also my last. There was no reason to return.

December 1991, I packed two suitcases into the tiny back seat of my 1988 Mustang GT convertible. My Mustang had a brilliant white body, accented by a dark navy blue ragtop. She was sleek, sexy, and very fast.  The GT drove like a dream on dry pavement, but it could be treacherous with the slightest bit of snow. This latter fact concerned me as I was about to embark on a 450-mile trip up north.

I started the car’s engine and rotated the heater knobs to warm the cabin and defrost the windshield.  I reached over the passenger seat, grabbed my yellow window scraper, and started to hack the ice and snow off the windshield.  I waited for the car to warm up before going back into the house to get my girlfriend. I was already feeling anxious.

She was also feeling nervous, but we were both playing it cool.  Soon we were whizzing down I-88, then I-39, then I-90. We made random conversation and tried to appear calm.  Our hidden anxiety evidenced by our frequent detours to interstate rest-stops. I would have to stop, then she would.  Our suddenly overactive bladders were providing a window into our inner emotional state.

We had started dating in July, and a few months later she had asked me to travel north to spend Christmas with her family who lived in a rural town outside of the Twin Cities. I had given up on all dating for almost two years before that July. I had decided that the whole courtship process was too stressful and I had made a commitment to myself to live a single life. I was happy with my choice, but I also felt like something was missing. I met her at a random meeting one week before she was to leave our workplace to return to graduate school. We sat next to each other at that meeting, and we started to chat; a week later I asked her out on a date… now we were driving to Minnesota.

The drive was long, the air was frigid cold. We drove through the Twin Cities and got onto Highway 55, traveling west towards the town of Buffalo.  My heart was beating faster as we drove down the narrow road, past farms and frozen fields. Finally, we arrived at Buffalo, the county seat of Wright County.  A town of 10,000 surrounded by Buffalo Lake, Lake Pulaski, and Deer Lake. Julie’s parent’s house was on Buffalo Lake. We pulled up a large circular driveway at the back of the house.  There were cars already parked, we were not the first to arrive.

There was no need to knock, and Julie opened the back door and walked in.  I followed with my suitcase and a large gift basket that I brought as a hostess gift. We were greeted with welcomes and hellos.  Everyone was excited to see Julie and curious to meet me. I was satisfied with smiles and the smell of dinner cooking in the oven. I’m naturally shy, and I quickly donned my more social alter ego.  A smile on my face, I moved forward boldly.

The day consisted of polite questions, good food, and parlor games. At some point, Christmas gifts were opened. Julie’s father, Bob requested that she play a piano duet with her sister Kathy.  They dutifully banged out a few Christmas carols. At some point, Julie and I walked to Buffalo’s downtown, which was only a block away. At the town’s grocery store Julie ran into several residents, all of them wanting an update as they looked at me with questioning eyes. At another point, Bob loaded me into his old Lincoln and drove me directly onto Buffalo Lake.  As a city boy, I was confident that we would plunge to our deaths believing that the weight of the car would crack the ice beneath its wheels. It did not, and I lived another day. That night the temperature dropped to -19 F, I got ready to go out and warm up the Mustang to make sure that it would start the next morning. Julie’s brother-in-law, Karl quizzically looked at me, “Why are you starting the car, it is only -19?”  I was definitely in Minnesota!

Despite my shyness, I soon felt comfortable and fell back into my real personality.  Julie’s family is very Swedish, and I’m Eastern European by heritage. Some of their customs were different than mine, but I was more aware of our similarities rather than our differences.  I wondered how many men she had brought up to Buffalo through the years. I found out later that I was the first, and only one.

Today is December 25, 2018. I write this post from Burnsville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.  I arrived here yesterday with Julie and our three children. Running late, we traveled directly to Faith Covenant Church, My sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s home church.  There we met the rest of the family as we celebrated Christmas Eve with a candlelight service.

After church, we returned to their home. We had interesting conversation, good food, and played games.  We caught up on each other’s lives. This morning we opened gifts, ate more, talked more, and played more games. As I write this some of us are reading, some are playing the board game, “Risk,” two are finishing the construction of a Christmas present, two are completing a jigsaw puzzle, I am writing this post. Today I learned that Oregon produces the most Christmas trees, and the dentist elf in the TV special, “Rudolf The Red Nose Reinder,” name is Hermie. Knowledge is power!

I have been traveling to Minnesota for the last 27 years, not only for Christmas but for other events too. I have long lost any anxiety when visiting my wife, Julie’s side of the family. After all of these years, her family is my family. In 1989 I thought that I had completed my one and only trip to Minnesota.  Twenty-nine years later I have been here over 100 times. Dear reader, life is full of surprises.