#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 22
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
America’s roads have been our home for this journey—well, the roads and Brent’s Jetta, which is filling up with state maps, brewery t-shirts, a bent peacock feather, and a good layer of sand and soot. Over the miles, we’ve listened to the hybrid folk of Trampled by Turtles, the fast-talking lyrics of Dessa, and the zombie epidemic survival stories of World War Z. As we cross into Minnesota, the tenth and final CD of the zombie war is wrapping up, and it’s been a doozy of a story. But before you think we filled our entire road trip with sound, let me remind you that there have been wonderfully long stretches of road that we spanned in silence, listening only to the wind and the sound of our own thoughts, which is the beauty of traveling with an introvert. The ability to sit in peaceful silence is an old art, I think, and Brent and I are masters of the craft.
What we’re slow to master, but certainly practicing, is the ability to find good road food. By good, I mean local, tasty, somewhat healthy, and best of all: There when we need it. So far, we’ve thrived on classics from Mom-and-Pop shops when we could find them, gas station fatty salty cheesy [and in Brent’s case] bacony snack foods when we couldn’t, and the nightlife of the Applebee’s chain that we turned into two days’ worth of bellyfuls when there was nothing but 80 miles of road ahead. And after days and days of this, the pattern is about to change, because where we’re going, we will feast like kings.It’s dark by the time we arrive in Rochester, Minnesota, and of all the amazing places we’ve been these last few days, Rochester is different. I lived here for a good twelve years, and Brent lived here a bit longer than that. He’s since moved to St. Paul, and I’m now located out of Pittsburgh, but Rochester is still our home away from home.
Rochester had once been a great hub for IBM, which now has a smaller presence but is still located on a sprawling campus of buildings paneled with blue glass that is known simply as Big Blue. According to Wikipedia, “As of 2013 the company held the record for most patents generated by a business for 22 consecutive years.” [Brent holds two.] Wikipedia mentions some company inventions/developments that perhaps we’ve heard of, such as, “The Automated teller machine (ATM), the floppy disk, the hard disk drive, the magnetic stripe card… Universal Product Code (UPC)…” etc., etc., etc. All right here in the plains of Minnesota.
Beyond IBM, Rochester is known for the Mayo Clinic, which got its start after a series of massive tornadoes (two F3s followed by one F5) destroyed much of Rochester in 1883, prompting local physician Dr. William Worrall Mayo, his sons William and Charles, along with Mother Mary Alfred Moes and the Sisters of Saint Francis to start a hospital that is today part of the Mayo Clinic.
In 1907 Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer invented a new system for keeping records and for moving them quickly throughout the hospital via a system of conveyors and tubes. Hospitals worldwide have kept their eyes on Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic and have been implementing Mother Mayo’s practices ever since. Thanks to a sharp bread knife and fumbling fingers, yours truly has her very own Mayo Clinic patient number and a half dozen tiny stitch marks on my right index finger to remember the occasion. I can tell you from experience that as you walk down the hallways of Mayo from one specialist’s office to another, the second specialist has already learned of your situation and is ready to talk with you when you reach their door.
We hop off the highway and approach Rochester from the south. When we get to the big corn water tower on our right, we smile knowing that dinner is just ahead. “The big corn” is a 60-foot water tower on the site of what was the Libby plant, now Seneca Foods. [And as true locals put it, you always give directions in reference to what was there, and then maybe mention what’s there now if you get around to it.] I remember that when I first arrived in Rochester, I organized the landmarks according to where they were in relation to “the big corn,” a funny habit that I keep to this day.
We hit downtown and park the Jetta, and as we step out on the streets of home and stretch our legs, I hear someone calling my name and I turn and see my friend James locking up the patio of the Grand Rounds Brew Pub. (I haven’t set foot here in five months, and this is what happens. That’s home.) James crosses the street to us, gives me a hug, and the three of us catch up for a few minutes. “Business is good!” he tells us as he heads back to it, and if we’d been a little earlier on our entry into town, we could have eaten at the Grand Rounds before they closed for the night. (The last time I was here, they featured a salmon dish that was out of this world.) As it stands, we’ll head to Newt’s for some late-night food.
Newt’s when I bump into my friend Ellen, the talented violinist, on the patio. Ellen is part of the duo Thomas and the Rain, who have been playing music together for years. “You’re here?” she says and hugs me. “I thought you were on a road trip in the middle of America.”
“We’re still on it,” I say. “We just drove into town.”
We catch up for a minute and then Brent and I head on our way, but just before we do, Ellen elbows me and says, “Hey, can I bum a candy cigarette?”
Do you see why we love this place? We head up to Newt’s, sidle up to the bar, and proceed to pig out. I get my favorite: beer battered fried chicken salad with buffalo sauce. Brent gets a giant burger and I help him eat his fries. Full and happy, I check the time and note that we have very little of it before Forager closes.
“It’s over by the highway?” Brent asks.
I nod. “Where the Good Foods Store used to be,” I say. “You’ll see.”
We drive the handful of blocks away from downtown and closer to the highway and make a right. There before us is the backlit sign I had seen on Facebook. “There it is!” I say, and I can’t keep my excitement down. Back when I was getting ready to move to Pittsburgh, this place was just an idea in my friend Annie’s mind and the subject of excited chatter in the building where my writing studio was next door to Forager’s architect. Months and months (a year?) later, and after many Facebook progress reports from a variety of local artists who were brought in to apply their talents, here it is, right in front of me.
We get inside with enough time for me to a have an original draft beer (and Brent to have a soda) and for me to explore and try to stay out of trouble (I only went into the employee area one time, and that was with express permission).
In addition to being a brew pub, I discover that Forager has a wood-fired oven and what they call a Pop Up Kitchen, where any potential restaurateur can try their hand at running a mini-restaurant from kitchen to register to see if they truly like the work before applying for a business loan.
We close the place down, and hop in the Jetta, aiming for St. Paul. And I think that, for all of its familiarity, this home-away-from-home in the middle of America never fails to surprise. At the rate Rochester is growing, generated by thinkers and innovators coupled with artistic doers, I could spend a dozen more years here basking in great friendships and swimming in the concept-to-reality momentum. I pick out the stars in the night sky above and think about how very American it all is.
(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 21, Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12, Segment 11, Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8, Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)