Thursday, August 27, 2009

Minnesota Local Charm and South Dakota Burgers

Dropped in on the Coffee Hag in downtown Mankato. Cute little independent coffee shop run by women and enjoyed by many. When I took this photo of her, she asked what it was for and I simply said, "me. I'm on vacation and take photos of everywhere I go." She responded, "ahh, it's like paparazzi." This place reminded me of my favorite coffee place on Avenue A and 3rd Street in the East Village. Salvation Army couches, board games, wall of photos and good chai. I know Laura Ingalls shopped here but besides a cute little antique shop, there wasn’t all that much going on here. I almost went to lunch at this Italian restaurant that seemed to be the only place in town with cars out front but it ended up being dead inside, no characters to sit next to at the bar. So I got on the road instead. Had a large breakfast for free so my tummy was satisfied.

Next stop along Route 14 was New Ulm, Minnesota. Hadn’t heard of it before but when I got there and saw the “Downtown” arrow sign, I figured I’d take a look since Mankato wasn’t all that. I was immediately pleased because it was a little German town and it smelled of cheese. Apparently, there was a processing plant down by the river and it made me hungry but it was 2:45 and the restaurants were no longer serving lunch. Total bummer. This town reminded me a bit of Bariloche in Argentina, another German settlement.

New Ulm was a big industry town (AMPI was headquartered here, milk producer) but it also had the historic downtown Main Street that I liked. Parked the car and started taking photos of the German restaurants and such when all of a sudden, this man said, “Oh, did you recognize him, that’s why you were smiling?” Confused, I said, “No, I’m not from here,” unaware that he knew full well I wasn’t from there and this was his way of getting me to stop and talk. Three men sat outside this small independent bookstore sipping coffee at the one cafĂ© table with chairs on the sidewalk. It was the picture of Golden Girls but with men and no cheesecake. They were adorable. I asked their names and offered mine. Bill and Al were both retired attorneys, mostly estates, trusts and such, but some divorces now and again. I never did get what Carol had done before retirement. Bill was the talker. Anything that came out of your mouth, he had a story that popped into his head that was sometimes only loosely related to the topic at hand. And if Carol was telling me about the sights to see in New Ulm (pronounced by Bill as “gnome”), and Bill interrupted him, he simply said, “wait til I finish!” with a ‘sheesh’ look on his face. You could tell these guys have known each other for a long time and later I learned that they meet up each day at the same time (around 2:00) to have coffee and chat. So sweet.

They asked me what I was doing in New Ulm, if I had family here, where I was staying. I explained that I had no clue about their little town and that I simply stopped because I always stopped when I thought there might be a fun little town to discover. They asked what I did back home and I talked about my work in the courts since they were lawyers. Al kept calling me the “most interesting person” they’ve ever met, and I said, “I’ll be sure to tell my friends back home that.” Each person that walked by while I was talking to them learned all about me. That I was from New York City and that I was traveling across country by myself with no itinerary. It was a hoot! Carol went and got me the tourist guide for New Ulm and even went and highlighted the pages that he felt were ‘must-sees.’ When I shared that I had never driven more than 6 hours straight before in my life, he gave me a tip to stay alert on the road, “Just drink a little Mountain Dew and you’ll perk right back up.” I smiled and thanked him.

They kept referring to Hermann the German as if I knew who that was so finally I asked. He was this famous German warrior that fought against the Romans in the year 9 A.D. and since many of the folks that settled here were from Germany, they built an enormous statue in town in his honor. It’s the 3rd largest copper statue in the U.S. And since this year was the 2000 year anniversary, it was understandable that they were all up in arms about it. They all had a lot of pride in New Ulm. It was nice.

We then got on the topic of New York and how quick paced it is in comparison to Minnesota. I agreed of course but explained that you can make it feel like a small town if you make the effort. I told them that when I lived in Manhattan, I used to walk crosstown to work and waved to my dry cleaner each morning, got coffee at the same diner on the corner and knew all the doorman on my route there. They liked that story. Just then, a couple walked by and of course they had to learn where I was from. Bill popped up to give them the news and the man said, “I used to be your paperboy” because he realized Bill didn’t recognize him. Bill asked what he was up to and the man said he was retired as well but he was only 49. He then proceeded to say that he sold his company recently for 65 million dollars. I was instantly turned off. How strange to just blurt that out in the second sentence you share with a group of people you only know as acquaintances. Later, when he left, Al relayed the conversation to me as if I hadn’t heard the figure and I said I thought that was uncouth. He agreed. Al said that he invented some cure for something using pig’s ears or some other part of the animal. So the man and his wife went off to play a round of golf or something. Whatevs. Bill wanted to escort me to Hermann with the fellas in tow, but I declined. I wanted to duck into this antique shop before it closed and wasn’t sure I was going to stick around. Al and Carol kept telling him to stop putting me on the spot. I loved their banter. I think I’m going to see if they’ll be my pen pal, along with Mike and Rod. I miss having pen pals and I’m not sure any of these fellas use the internet much. What’ll be interesting is to see if I can write to them with simply this address:

Bill, Al (retired attys) and Carol
Nicest guys in New Ulm
Drink coffee together at 2:00-ish each day
on and around N. Minnesota Street
New Ulm, MN 56073-1729

Next stop along the way was Brookings, South Dakota where I learned that there are only about 700,000 people living in this large state. “There are more cattle than people here I bet,” said a retired military man that I met at Nick’s Hamburger Shop on Main. He and his wife were enjoying a lovely evening outside listening to live music at his high school mate’s burger joint. Dick Fergen, who had also done quite a bit of traveling in his day, was the current owner of this 1929 burger establishment and it was obviously a favorite to many. It seemed like anyone who was out that night was here. I went inside to order and they asked, “how many?” The slogan is “Buy ‘em by the bag” because they are small little guys, similar in size to White Castle but cannot compare to taste and quality for sure. What was interesting is that they ask you what you want as “fixins” when you order. They put the pickles, ketchup and such on the burger themselves. When I got my bag, I realized that they weren’t even wrapped inside, just piled on top of one another with toothpicks holding them together. So cute.

So I ate with the biker couple (ex-military and former nurse) and got loads of helpful hints on seeing the Black Hills and Badlands out west. I really do step in it. These folks had traveled through 48 states on their bikes and were just the nicest people ever! She had been a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian for 3 plus years and liked NYC very much. I didn’t catch their names but the gentleman even went out to his bike to show me the map that I’ll get when I go to Wall Drug. They had just been in that area because Sturgis has this annual biker festival and they go each year. He said it is the largest one of its kind and a sight to see. There might even be some remnant bikers from the festival in those towns when I get there. FUN! So they wished me happy travels and I was back on the road to get to Mitchell where my former Newsweek colleague Alexandra told me there is a Corn Palace that is a must see.

Radio highlights: “Bad to the Bone,” Guns & Roses, Sheryl Crow, Eminem, Percy Sledge and my favorite, Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts.”

Amazing sunset on a lake toward Mitchell, SD


May said...

Should I tell Brynn to Google like mad to find the name and location of the cafe? =)

nurdc said...

i know the nicest guys in New Ulm. you are right - they are the 3 nicest guys in New Ulm. they will be reading your post today over coffee about 2:00-ish.
i told them i would post to you for them as again, you were right, they don't do much with the computer.
looking forward to helping them out.
ciao for now and enjoy your adventures.