Home » People & Culture » Outstate


A little time spent with family outside of Bemidji is a good thing.  They’re not my immediate family, so to me the stories are just what’s going on in a world I normally don’t think about all that much.  For this day after Thanksgiving, I only have a few random thoughts about this world which is only a 4 hour drive from our imagination.

Upstate Minnesota is part of the same culture as the Cities, but it’s organized a bit different and has a different sense of trust.  People tend to know each other a bit more closely.  Discussions about big things like the state of health care and the economy usually do come down to how someone they know is doing or what their experience with the “system” was.  That’s true everywhere, of course, but when there’s one hospital in town or just a few car dealerships changes that might seem small in the City have a more personal effect on people’s lives.

What always strikes me the most about rural Minnesota is how little some things change.  It’s not that you see weathered orange trucks off in the fields year after year, either.  We were talking about what it takes to get to a doctor in Bemidji, and how hard it is to find a clinic that takes new patients without a many-month wait.  I’ve been hearing about this problem for 25 years, and still there is no solution.  The “free market” hasn’t taken care of it, the state hasn’t done a thing – no one seems to be able to make it work.

We complain about how government works in the Twin Cities about as much as anyone can.  It’s a basic right of free people everywhere, of course.  But what usually gets us going is how government doesn’t keep up with changing times and changing needs.  In rural areas, one really big need isn’t changing because it’s never met.

It’s not like nothing ever changes.  I counted 14 empty stores along Minnesota 371 through Pequot Lakes.  Everywhere north of Brainerd in the “Lakes Country” seems to be on hard times, much harder than they were a year ago.  This is a part of Minnesota that, for lack of a more delicate way to put it, serves the middle class of the Twin Cities as a “getaway”.  My read of this stretch of road is that the luxury of time up at the lakes was one of the first things to go when the economy went bad.

The one big new development up by Bemidji that has everyone talking is the new casino in the Red Lake Reservation.  I have no idea if this will be a success, but to me it comes down to this:  if the Brainerd Lakes area takes a hit and a bit new casino further on does well, the future of everyone – rural and urban – is not going to be pretty.  It would be nice to see something bringing income to Red Lake, but this hardly seems like a sustainable thing for the future.

Once you get beyond the man made world where some things change and some things just don’t seem to, the hardwoods still give way to pines north of Brainerd and they give up the land to birches just a bit north of that.  This year the lakes haven’t frozen over yet, which means that it really has been a warm November by any standard.  The main difference between upstate Minnesota and those of us in the City is that people up here have little choice but to stay in touch with the things that move to their own rhythm.

But we mostly talk about Brett Favre and the Vikings and the other stuff anyone can expect in Minnesota all the same.  We’re part of the same world even though in many ways the basic outlook on life starts in a different place.  Minnesotans tend to think of outstate life as the source of our whole culture.  It’s only as far away as a summer spent out on the lakes, something that may or may not be fading from our experience.  I hope it’s not.

3 thoughts on “Outstate

  1. It’s not as though most people don’t care about outstate, but they do treat it as if its a totally different place. I don’t understand why. They have so many pockets of poverty that are allowed to hide, not the least of which is on reservations like Red Lake. It’s shameful that we ignore it so well.

  2. It’s probably the best thing that can happen to the lakes if people left them alone for a while. Hate to be tough on those who make a living off of tourism, but too many boats spewing oil isn’t good for lakes & it’s not good for anyone in the big scheme of things.

  3. I don’t know if people really ignore outstate, but they sure do ignore poverty on average. There are very different needs up in Bemidji than we have in Saint Paul, which really only figures. But there are always people who need a little help, everywhere you look. As they grow in number, perhaps there might even be enough to make a real movement – assuming we can get past the isolation that defines so much of it.

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