Boat. Boat. Boat. Car. Pickup. Minivan. Boat.
The stream of northbound traffic would start on Thursdays, earlier when there was a holiday. It was a trickle at first, building into Friday, when it became an all-day, one-way parade.
Boat. Camper. Car. Camper. Boat. Boat.
As a young boy I would watch the traffic from a hill overlooking Hwy. 169. My family lived in that nebulously defined geographic territory that weekend warriors from the Twin Cities refer to as “Up North.” It’s a region that, depending on your starting point, stretched anywhere north of I-694 to the Arctic Circle.
Every metropolitan area in America has its recreational outlets — the beaches, mountains, rivers and forests where big-city denizens go to forget they’re the rats in the rat race. Lakes are the escape of choice for Twin Citians. And in this Land of 10,000 Lakes, only a handful are large enough to show up on most maps.
One of those was my lake. I grew up along the northwest shore of Lake Mille Lacs, a few miles from the small village of Garrison. Mille Lacs covers more than 200 square miles of surface, a fact that I always felt — not knowing how such things are defined — should qualify it as a sea instead of a lake.
Garrison, by contrast, was as small as they come. For most of my childhood, the green signs seen upon entering town read “Population 198” in small letters below the city name. (They couldn’t find two more people to make it a round number?) But on those hot summer weekends, the influx from the Twin Cities would boost that total into the thousands. In fact, in the early ’90s, Garrison became the smallest town in the world (by whose measurement I may never know) to have a McDonald’s, made possible by that sea of urban outdoors enthusiasts who invaded every weekend.
And it really felt like an invasion.
During my teen years in the early ’90s I found work at a gas station situated at a fork in the road for Twin Cities weekenders.
The Holiday station in Garrison was flanked on the west by Hwy. 18, taking travelers northwest to the Brainerd Lakes area, and to the east by 169, a path north to the abundance of lakes, cabins and resorts surrounding the community of Aitkin, where I attended high school. That made the Holiday station something of a ground zero for road-trip pit stops.
I was barely 16 when I joined my sister, Tara, working at Holiday. I liked the diversity of the work. During an eight-hour shift I might find myself manning the cash register, organizing VHS rentals, restocking gas pump islands, emptying garbage cans, sliding bottles of Mountain Dew down the cooler racks or, best of all, making pizzas. In the summers, when I could work during the week, days would pass in a perfect rhythm. Most of the customers were familiar faces, and enough time would pass between visitors to make each new face a welcome sight.
Then Friday came. Even though I knew it was coming, the rush of Twin Cities invaders still caught me by surprise, both in terms of volume and attitude. Suddenly the locals’ tolerance of an uncooperative lottery ticket dispenser — it wasn’t my fault it wasn’t working — would evaporate into loathsome big-city impatience. Nobody ever said it, and maybe this is my own insecurity speaking, but I always sensed a disdain for country yokels like myself. They didn’t care if I read Shakespeare or the back of a cereal box; I lacked sophistication by proximity.
My favorite anecdote comes from the brief period when the Holiday station operated its own Taco Bell inside. This wasn’t an ordinary Taco Bell; it was as if a Taco Bell had been swallowed by a convenience store. They called it Taco Bell “Express,” a title that implied expediency, but in reality it just meant we made some of the same stuff as other Taco Bells, but without the correct equipment and in twice the amount of time.
One busy Sunday, when the Twin Citians were entering the southbound automotive conga line, one particularly inelegant patron ordered a chili cheese burrito, a popular item from the era.
But here’s the thing he and I didn’t know about this ’90s Taco Bell staple: the real Taco Bells made them with a steamer, a piece of equipment that apparently melted the cheese perfectly but was inexplicably withheld from the Express locations. So when my version of the burrito made its way to old Anoka Joe, or whatever his name was, he was severely displeased by the meltiness of his cheese. He let me know as much by throwing it back at me before walking away in disgust.
I tossed the burrito against a wall, letting it slide its way back down onto our prep area, until Anoka Joe returned and I could point him in the direction of a microwave.
Twin Citians always brought out the best in me.
A reliable onslaught
Car. Car. Truck. Camper. Boat. Boat. Boat. Boat. Car.
The return parade was something to be avoided. In fact, there was nothing more disruptive about the weekly Twin Cities invasion than the traffic. If we needed groceries, we’d best get it done before Thursday. And God forbid anybody gets the hankering for a Big Mac at 5 p.m. Sunday — they’d find themselves in line behind a minivan from St. Louis Park, a boat from St. Paul and a camper containing the entire city of Edina.
As disruptive as it was, though, we all knew the truth. We needed this invasion. It was our livelihood. These invaders put food on the tables of these small, bucolic fishing tourist havens.
My dad ran a fishing charter service out of Garrison. It was our family business. Others found work at Grand Casino Mille Lacs, at the assortment of resorts along the lake, at McDonald’s or Holiday or Burger King or the SuperAmerica stores that were yet to come, all thanks to the reliable onslaught of weekend traffic from the Twin Cities.
So, yes, these invaders were loathsome at times. And today, with walleye politics putting a squeeze on the lake’s tourism trade, they may even be missed. Yet the beauty of Up North remains, whether you enjoy it for a weekend or soak it in for a lifetime.
Erik Siemers is a Minnesota-born journalist living in Portland, Ore.