Russ Ringsak

Not Exactly Fiji

September 26, 2006

The summer vacation was a motorcycle ride out west, same as it's been for the last twenty-three years. Beyond the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota - that great milling and mingling of the leathered brethren - and on into the less traveled canyons of the Rockies. It's not Tripoli or Zanzibar, not Istanbul or Barcelona, nor Portofino nor Madagascar nor Fiji. Just the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and sometimes western Colorado.

There may have been a time when I thought it would be fun to sit for days on an ocean beach in a lawn chair with a fruity drink nearby, looking out over the overwhelming blue wetness and thinking how wonderful it all is, but I can't recall that. I may have been a kid when I had that thought. Maybe I saw it in a movie. Bikinis, palm trees, heat; sitting around doing nothing. Straw hat. Shorts and sandals. People speaking strange languages.

If I ever had it, that desire is lost on me now. I don't even yearn for a cabin on a northern lake. Don't own a single sandal or pair of shorts. But I'm glad it works for the general population, that shoreline leisure business. The fact that most people don't really care to go roaring beneath high stone cliffs and across rolling plains is part of the grandeur of the experience.

And how grand it is. We marvel every year at the wide open hills, the jagged rock skylines, the incredible solitude. You sail over it as if in a dream world - better than a dream because no dream can fill the senses that way, with the rumble, the wind, the smell of the prairies, the air wet and cool along the rivers. And above all, the absolute freedom from being crowded by your own kind. There are just enough persons out there to keep the fields tended, the cattle in check, the power on, the kitchens stocked, the counters waited upon and the beer cold. And to carry on polite conversations with strangers. It's cheap and you never stand in line for anything; never have to walk three blocks with your luggage to sit in a cramped airplane seat. There is nothing like it. It is amazing that it is available at all on the planet, to cruise like a hawk over such thinly settled harmonious beauty.

All of this is just by way of answering the question most people are too polite to ask: "Why would you want to ride one of those noisy contraptions for days at a time and get dirty and sunburned and hot and cold and wet just to look at empty landscape? Good grief, can't you just read the National Geographic or the travel section in the paper?" It is a good question, which may be why we keep going back for the answer.

I started this piece in a room on the 26th floor of a downtown Chicago hotel. The southern exposure offered the shore of Lake Michigan to the left and half the city spreading out to the far hazy blue horizons on the right. Broad boulevards cut through the apartment houses and parking ramps and disappeared off into the wide two-story neighborhoods. I took a walking search for breakfast in the near neighborhood and was once again, as always in Chicago, knocked out by the buildings. Their particular blend of stone, brick, cast iron and glass never fails to please; that terrific mix of sweetness and sheer power that permeates the Loop and makes it such a treat to visit.

But it comes with a price: just the toll booths in and out of the city cost $38.25 for our truck, and the hotel room, probably chosen because it was as close as practical to our venue, was expensive enough to make a mid-salaried citizen suck air in through their teeth. And the tolls and hotel were about half of what they'd cost in New York, which leads me again to conclude that there is a point at which the economies of urban scale begin to reverse.

A concentration of tall buildings creates an immense low-rise corona around itself; a grad student could write a thesis about the relationship between highrise floor footage and its corresponding suburban development acreage. My guess is that for every new little office cubicle that buds out in a central tower a twenty-acre tract somewhere off on the horizon gets stripped. You can see this when you fly over any megalopolis on a clear day: how small is the footprint of the core compared to the outer tramplings. The elegant old central city begins to feel like a fine three-story mansion built with a parlor, a ballroom, a dining hall and eight bedroooms for a good-sized family of ten, a family that somehow grew out of control into a thousand, mostly strangers to each other and all living in a rambling connection of outbuildings.

It seems the fulcrum of the scale at which city growth no longer improves the domain for the species is about at the same place where it starts to take two phone books to list the place. Here in Minnesota is a good example, where more than half the state's population orbits directly around the Twin Cities. St Paul has one phone book and Minneapolis needs two. A lot of folks - especially those on the east side of the Mississippi - consider St Paul the more comfortable city. They don't come right out and call Minneapolis unlivable but they never go there if they don't have to. Of course Minneapolitans look down their noses as well and seldom venture into the sister city. They don't keep that third phone book in the house.

That aside, it seems that a hive size of a million critters, plus or minus, is about as many of us as can cooperate without seriously getting on each other's nerves. My personal threshold is much lower than that, as mentioned above, but even among the more tolerant there comes a point at which doors are double bolted and road rage is a more common phenomenon than road courtesy. The arteries thicken and morning traffic moves at nine miles an hour; people comment on how much longer the commutes are taking these days. Rapid transit gets touted as the answer but the cities claiming the best transit systems seem to have the slowest traffic, like Washington, Boston, New York and Seattle.

At any rate, the view from the cab of our rig is generally that of the open superslab, and the time spent in urban coagulation is comparatively little. So this is more an observation than a rant, from someone who doesn't have to fight rush hour twice a day, five times a week. And for those of you who do suffer it, I offer my thanks; I have been led to believe your jam-packed miseries help to make things like professional baseball possible.

Next week our show heads for a city without big-league baseball; Missoula, Montana. I will find something different to report about the place. Something other than the big sky and the antelope herds flowing across golden grassy prairie hills, and the mighty upthrusting ridges of stone.

© R.Ringsak 2006

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