The End of America

Dramatic title, huh? Well don't worry, it's simply a case of all good things coming to an end; in this case (a large over-stuffed suitcase) my three years in America are drawing rapidly to a close. The countdown to MSP > HEL is down into single digits, the apartment is almost empty, goodbyes are being said, and the time for reminiscence is upon us. And so I offer a trip report of another kind – a look back over three years in America.

It ain't so different (except when it is).

Coming from Lapland, where -30ºC is not uncommon in winter, our arrival in the midst of a cold Minnesota winter wasn't so much of a shock, and yet somehow it felt colder. Maybe it was because we didn't have a car and had to walk everywhere. Once, Minneapolis enjoyed a vast tram network that rattled around the city, but the automobile industry had different ideas about that. Today it's almost impossible to get by without a car. The layout of Minneapolis (as with many American cities, a few obvious coastal cities excepted) is so dissipated and anti-center you often have to drive from one side of the city to another just to complete a simple errand – and in Minneapolis, that distance can be well over 10 miles.

A typical road in Minneapolis.

Fortunately, we have a local coop within walking distance, so we've mostly been able to avoid regular journeys to the strip malls and corporate behemoths. Healthy organic food comes at a price, but in a country where corn syrup seems to mysteriously find its way into almost every edible product, I think it's been worth it.  The coop has been an oasis of culinary delights: Organic pop tarts? Check! Elk and wild mushroom sausages? Check! I don't think I've ever eaten so well.

Of course, that means I didn't get to enjoy delights such as this...

WTF moment #1. Why? Because we can! Sadly, these were not available in the organic coop.

But back to the issue of the cold. As I said, Lapland prepares you for the cold, but Lapland is also

prepared

for

 the cold. The apartments in Finland have triple-glazed windows, central heating, and are heated well  enough to be able to comfortably hang out in t-shirts in mid-winter. Minnesotan winters are not so dissimilar to Finnish winters, so why isn't triple glazing standard? The first house we stayed in house didn't even have

double

 glazing! It was like living in England, but with the added excitement of truly arctic conditions. The landlord (whom incidentally,

was

 English, so maybe that explains it) told us she regularly turned the thermostat down to 52F (11ºC!!!!) at night to save on heating costs, and many people we visited wore their hats indoors.

Fortunately, however, there are highly efficient insulation systems which easily can be added to your house so solve all these problems:

WTF moment #2: The insulating properties of cling film are well known in America.

Yes, by simply attaching cling film to your windows, your house will be transformed into a paradise of warmth.

While Minnesotans have yet to discover the joys of triple glazing, they have managed to improve significantly on one cold weather sport: endurance fishing.  In Finland, ice-fishing is a frigid and lonely activity. Wrapped in as many insulating layers as you can reasonably pile on without compromising your ability to move limbs, you sit out on the ice, shivering, watching the hole you made slowly freeze over, in the vain hope that you might catch something still alive and actually worth eating before you die of hypothermia.

It's surprising, then, that the resourceful Finns haven't yet come up with a solution to ease their suffering (on the other hand...) but fear not: Minnesota has the answer! It is simple and quite brilliant: huts on ice.

Lake Minnetonka Art Shanties, based on fishermen's huts.

The fishers of Minnesota drag out small wooden huts onto the ice and fish

inside

 them. They put a little heater in there, bring along a tv or radio, maybe even a cooker for the deep fried ravioli, and they sit comfortably in the warm, while they fish

inside

 the hut. Come on Finland! Pull your socks up! This is serious innovation! Why has nobody thought of this?

A little history

Ah, the Mississippi! I live barely a hundred meters from its banks, and my daily walk with Rufus (my English Springer Spaniel) along the bluffs and shore has kept me sane on many an occasion.

The state purchased much of the Mississippi shoreline so it's possible to enjoy peace and seclusion in the middle of the city, watch bald eagles swoop over the treetops, and even spot coyotes, beavers and other, ahem, "wildlife"...

Wondering what those "certain offenses" are? This is a family blog.

Let's just say that ships aren't the only things cruising the Mississippi.

While walking along the riverbanks I often like to imagine what America would have been like without, well,

America

. All the roads as we know them today have been built in the last 150 years or so. The concrete jungle stretches as far as the eye can see and much, much further. All of that has been written upon the landscape, but occasionally, along the bluffs, you get a brief glimpse of what it might have all been like when Native Americans still roamed the land. In rare pockets of oak savannah, it's still possible to get a sense of what has been lost; to imagine gently rolling plains instead of block after block of poorly-insulated housing.

In general, all that business with the Native Americans isn't really talked about. As they say, it is what it is. Better to brush it under the table. Take a look at this historical marker from Fort Snelling:

Aside from the utterly awesome name of Zebulon Pike, this sign is an interesting example historical revisionism. "Grey Cloud Island," we're told, "was known for its supernatural woods." Well, that's not entirely true – for the Dakota is was the location of their foundation myth: the place where the world began. The marker seems to suggest it was more like Sleepy Hollow. But never mind, Colonel Henry Leavenworth found it a good campsite, so that's all right then.

Also, you just have to love the matter-of-fact description of Prairie Island:

"The home of the Prairie Island Dakota Indian Community, who share it with a nuclear power plant." 

Lucky them. "We'll happily let you live on this small patch of land, but please don't touch the isotopes."

In all fairness, the Finns did a pretty good job of oppressing Europe's last indigenous people, the Sàmi, through programs of re-location and language eradication.

But enough about all this depressing stuff. Let's go west!

A Road Trip

Definitely one of the highlights of our stay was a two week road trip through the Dakotas to Montana and Wyoming. It's impossible to really understand the scale of America until you try to traverse it. Distances on unfamiliar maps appear much shorter (miles always sound a lot less than kilometers) but as the landscape opens up in front of you, the true breadth of this country reveals itself.

After finally getting to Bozeman (notable for the location of first contact with Vulcans, and Backpacking Light HQ) we made the obligatory trip to Yellowstone.

The National Parks have been referred to as America's Best Idea. I don't disagree, although I would say that designing America's Best Idea around the car was maybe not the smartest move. I know many freedom-loving Americans disagree with me on this on the grounds that the parks' directive is to make nature accessible, but there are other ways to make wild areas accessible without subjecting them to millions of cars every year.

All of Yellowstone's most famous sights are accessed via a vast figure 8 road loop which gets congested with the millions of annual visitors stopping to catch a glimpse of wildlife.

Although visitors are repeatedly warned not to leave their vehicles and approach animals, the merest whiff of a Grizzly Bear results in a comical roadside frenzy:

Contrary to the advice given by rangers, the best method for getting that photograph of a Grizzly and her cub is to encourage small children to run toward them with gay abandon.

WTF moment #3: Children approach Grizzly mother and cub

The strategy never fails.

Satisfied Grizzlies, having just eaten fresh child flesh

Around and around they go, driving that figure eight loop in huge Winnebagos. The campsites are the location of a daily scramble as people shuttle from one site to another early in the morning. We learned the hard way that all the sites fill up by 10am. And yet less than one percent of visitors venture beyond the campsites and car parks into the wild.

I'm not saying that I'm any better – but we had a dog with us, and the rules prohibit venturing with pets beyond the roadside. Rufus had to stay in the car when we wanted to go anywhere else.

The park is spectacular. The volcanic caldera spews up delights and contrasts all over the park. A sudden hot spring here, a bulbous mineral deposit there. These are sights unseen in Europe, and rarely seen on such a grand scale elsewhere.

There's loads to see in Yellowstone, but the West is a big place, so we headed down to Jackson to explore Wyoming a little.

While Jackson itself is a little over the top (befitting the winter ski & tourist industry), the area around it is beautiful. Some of you might be aware that in one of my other lives I'm a scriptwriter, and the image below is almost exactly how I imagined the location for a Western I wrote (which will likely never get made).

I can almost see my characters riding through the hills, exacting their revenge and avoiding encounters with mountain lions.

It was great to finally give Rufus a chance to run around also. After three days in Yellowstone cooped up in the car, he had a wild time running up and down the hills.

This is another reason I'm looking forward to returning to Lapland – the ability to let my dog get some decent exercise off leash. While there are places in Minneapolis where I let him run (illegally), the options to let dogs be dogs are limited. The dog parks are not particularly pleasant, and tend to encourage abnormal, aggressive behavior in dogs (and some owners) – creating a vicious cyclic argument that feeds back into limiting off-leash areas. It's a shame. I feel that when dogs are allowed to be dogs, they tend to be better behaved. Is it any surprise that dogs become unpredictable when we limit their freedom to a tiny dog park?

Oh, well. Guess I won't be going for hike after all.

Over the snow-capped mountains we go on our way through Wyoming, driving past dude ranches and cowboy country, the Teton National Forest and the Gros Ventre wilderness. This is the big country of Annie Proulx's short stories: bold, empty, beautiful. Of all the places I've been in the US, this was the place I most wanted to return. I imagined an odd alternative life here, as I suppose many have in the past.

Epic landscapes to be explored north of Dubois

I felt an odd affinity with Dubois, Wyoiming, an odd little town pitched between the Wind River Range and a the Shostone National Forest. Maybe it was because I bumped into the Chief of Police in the local store with his kids. He seemed like a nice chap. Or maybe it was the magic of the Jackalope. Who knows...

WTF moment #4: The Jackalope

It's unrealistic to think I could ever eke out a living there, but it's nice to dream.

Sadly, Dubois was only a pit stop. The road and America's wide open spaces beckoned. Who wouldn't want to stop in Thermopolis, location of the world's largest mineral hot spring? (I don't know how true that claim is – what about Iceland or Turkey?) We took to the waters, their sulphuric aroma becoming quite pleasant after a while. I forgot to take off my wedding ring, and found it had corroded from cheapskate silver into a rather attractive matt gold.

But while exploring the hills around Thermopolis I became frustrated again. I could see a vast countryside around me, all inaccessible. The ranch owners had put up fences marking their land, a common sight on the entire journey, in fact. It's a far cry from the Nordic countries "everyman's rights" which allow you to walk and camp wherever you want as long as you don't disturb private property. Imagine seeing such vast country calling to you, and then to find it fenced off, tantalisingly out of reach. It's heartbreaking.

I needed a lift, so we headed to one of my film-geek cultural highlights.

Devil's Tower, location of a close encounter of the third kind. To my joy there was a campsite in the grounds of the monument, so we were able to lie back in our tent and watch the sun cast alpenglow-stlye rays over the sculpted mashed-potato. Rufus had a well-earned opportunity to run amok too.

Best of all, the campsite screens the movie every night. It was every bit as I remembered – excellent first half, boring second half. What can you do? It was the 70s.

Like many places, Devil's Tower is a sacred place for Native Americans. And this was a sacred day on which, "it is hoped that climbers will respect traditions and refrain from climbing".

Here's an interesting fact: did you know that the prairie dogs running around the grounds of Devil's Tower (and the Badlands) have the plague? Yep,

that

 plague!

Bring out your dead!

We continued the cultural stage of the tour by briefly visiting Mount Rushmore (I don't think we really need any photos) before moving on to Deadwood. Wonderful TV series. Godawful town. Apparently Kevin Costner owns half the casinos that have transformed a place of historical interest into a seedy cheesefest, in which case he has a lot to answer for. The dead forest around the town was interesting, but the graveyard was where I was heading. The final resting place for Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and, for the dedicated fan of the show (dedicated enough to climb to the top of the hill), Seth Bullock.

Having had our fill of disappointing Deadwood, we headed off again to find desolation in Badlands. I suppose this was another destination for the film geek in me (if you haven't seen Terrence Malick's

Badlands

, you have missed a masterpiece), but the contrast of this landscape to everything that came before or afterwards is stunning.

 This is simply an otherworldly place – the closest you are likely to come to walking on another planet.

Swelteringly hot, dry as a bone, and yet still habited by resilient life – hares, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, bison.

Looks cute, but it probably caught bubonic plague from a prairie dog.

I vowed to

return with my backpack

.

Eventually though, all road trips lead to one place: home.

Seward, Minneapolis. It's a lot bigger in real life.

Of course, there's a whole lot of MInnesota to explore beyond the confines of the Twin Cities.

Duluth has always held a vague interest for me, although I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just because when you say it and impersonate Hannibal Lecter, it just sounds cool – "Duh-looth" – or maybe it's because my favourite band is from there – Low (if you're interested, check out

The Curtain Hits the Cast

for starters).

Beyond Duluth lie the great backwoods of the Boundary Waters and forests "Up North".

That be Canada

Lake Superior is a vast body of water. Cold year round, but crystal clear. Before visiting the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan we spent a great few days in a beach cabin with views like this:

I got to spend time filming one of

our art installations

near Ely (voted best small town in America!).

We had a few exhibitions in the US while we've been here. The end result of that shoot was presented in Minneapolis.

Installing

Some we kept, some we threw back

, our installation about immigration and refugees, drawing

parallels between the migration of Finns to America and international immigration today. 

We were also lucky to show another installation as part of an exhibition organized by the Finnish Embassy and Cultural Center in New York. It even got

pretty awesome reviews

.

I'd long wanted to go to New York, and it was everything I expected, with a little extra on the side.

Gotham City afforded me plenty of opportunities to indulge my inner film geek too (water treatment scene from Marathon Man, anyone? Cloverfield sets?), and an urban hike along the length of Broadway (with a few excursions into Chinatown, Central Park etc) was fascinating. It's definitely the most European-feeling places that I visited. It felt familiar somehow – from movies but also because of it's European-ness. But recently I've grown tired of big cities. They swallow you whole, and regurgitate you a thousand times a day. In the process you lose sense of who you are. You become the synechdoche of the city.

But if you're on 6th Avenue, go to the

Astro

restaurant and treat yourself to their Ultimate Greek Yogurt Experience. You won't regret it.

Back to Minnesota we go for a real taste of America: the State Fair.

In Minnesota, you'll find a literal corn-ucopia, mostly involving things on sticks – corndogs, walleye, meatball pasta, camel – you name it, they'll find a way of putting it on a stick and deep frying it.

The benchmark test to determine when you've really made it in Minnesota is when you get sculpted in butter.

WTF moment #5: Butter Sculptures.

Looks like some of the subjects have been tucking into their likenesses...

Saving the best 'till last

Living in the 'States for a while has been a great opportunity – one that I would never have imagined I would lucky enough to experience. It's a fascinating country, full of contradictions. One of the great things I'll take back is a better understanding of what it means to be American – politically, socially, ethically, ethnically, historically. It is very common for Europeans and other nationalities to have an incredibly simplistic attitude toward the USA, but time spent here reveals the complexities underlying the image of America that's often perceived abroad. The fear of "big government", the healthcare debate, gun ownership, liberalism, an absurd interpretation (and fear of) socialism, the immigration paradox (a nation of immigrants being opposed to immigration), the concept of freedom of speech and the seemingly contradictory recent crackdowns on the Occupy movement protestors. All are complex subjects I could write a book about, and certainly far too off-topic to even attempt to discuss in a blog which is supposed to be about backpacking! 

Nevertheless, my lasting impression is of a country that has pursued its obsession with freedom to the point that its peculiar interpretation of the concept has become detrimental to the wellbeing of its people. Choice is a wonderful thing – providing you can afford to choose. And most of the

46 million people living below the poverty line

don't have many options. But then, with the current crisis in Europe, are things really any better? It's hard to say, the systems are so different. Personally, I'll take a welfare state and high taxes any day over uncertainty, convoluted healthcare systems, and lack of a security net in the US. As many other visiting guests have said to me, there's nothing like three years in America to make you realize you're a European.

Ah... I promised I wouldn't tuen this into a political diatribe, and it would be ungracious of me to finish without celebrating the three best things I experienced in America.

1. Utah

Without a doubt, the most spectacular landscapes I've ever walked in. My trip to Utah is something I'll never forget. Epic vistas, blistering heat, sand and sagebrush. The transformation of water into a rare and treasured resource. The humbling scale of the place can only be described as biblical.

You can read more about my experiences in Utah in my 

set of four trip reports

.

2. Beer

I came to America ignorant, assuming that the US only had bad beer. While there is a

lot

of bad beer, there is a ton of truly

great

 beer. I leave knowing that America has joined Belgium at the top of the beer league tables.

I was also fortunate to meet and become friends with Michael Agnew of

A Perfect Pint

, an avid and excellent homebrewer, and Minnesota's first cicerone. He warned me that once I started to brew my own beer it would become an all-consuming obsession. He was spot on.

Brewing Sahti, one of my beer challenges to Mr. Agnew.

Learning all about beer, and how to brew was undoubtedly something that was only possible for me to do while in the 'States. My extremely limited knowledge of Finnish, and the lack of such an extensive homebrewing/craft beer culture in Finland would have made it very difficult there. Things are changing though, and new Finnish brews are popping up frequently, which has me very excited.

Beer and food pairing session. I believe this occasion was sausagefest.

So while I arrived ignorant, I return invigorated, having found an excellent online supplier in Sweden to fuel my next brew.

Last, but definitely not least...

3. IVF

After years of trying, and the disappointment and pain that comes with every negative test or loss,  American expertise finally helped bring our daughter, Enni, into the world. So, critical as I might be about the healthcare system in general, it's hard to complain too loudly when the end result is this:

Enni Ainikki Rainio-Roberts, born 22.7.2011

I leave the final, last word, to the citizens of Seward: liberal peacenicks and hippies to the last, I thank you for having me. Finland here I come... I'll see you on the other side!