Minnesota is frigid tundra, filled with funny sounding people who live in igloos and ice castles.
Or so I’m told.
As a Minnesota native, I didn’t come to this realization until I moved away. I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013. My first “grown-up” job was as a newspaper reporter in Ogallala, Nebraska. I was excited to start fresh in a new state, for no other reason than getting to slap new license plates on my car.
Ogallala is a town of just under 5,000 people, about 30 miles from the Colorado border. It’s a small hub in a large swath of ranching country.
It was where I first heard the “clickity-clank” of a cowboy’s spurs walking through a grocery store. It was also the first time I realized there could be parts of America so rural that a county of more than 700 square miles could have less than 500 residents. Or that high schools could play football with only six players on the field per team.
As strange as this new land was to me, I was just as exotic to Nebraskans. When I’d tell them I moved from Minnesota, I’d consistently get one of two responses: They’d smile and say they could tell by my accent. Or they’d look confused and say I didn’t sound like a Minnesotan. I’d ask what a Minnesotan was supposed to sound like, and they’d imitate a line from “Fargo.”
Once the initial politeness of strangers meeting for the first time wore off, the jokes started rolling in.
One night I was sitting with a group of friends at one of the few bars in town. There was someone at the table I hadn’t met. My friend Rory introduced us, saying I'd moved to the Midwest.
I tried clarifying that Minnesota is part of the Midwest. Rory sneered. “You’re not from the Midwest. You’re from South Canada.”
As far as my friends in Ogallala were concerned, my “pa” would wander into the snowy wilderness and slay a moose with nothing but his bowie knife and brute strength. We would then take our dog-sled team to town and trade the carcass for a month’s supply of whale oil so we could keep our candles burning through the long winter.
My coworker Brian was willing to acknowledge the possibility that my home state could have some culture. He said if Minnesota ever produced a decent rapper, he’d probably be named Lutefisk.
“Then Ludacris could open for him,” Brian became fond of saying. “Because Lutefisk don’t open for anybody.”
I once met a Texan while visiting Denver, which was the closest major city to Ogallala. He thought it was hilarious that he'd once been to Minnesota. The most interesting thing a stewardess told him was that he’d arrived just in time to experience Laura Ingalls Wilder Days.
After the better part of four years, I moved back to Bemidji, where I got a job at the town’s daily newspaper. It felt natural moving home. At the same time, it felt like someone had ripped the blinders off my face. I found myself reaching for the same jokes my Nebraskan friends would have been making a few months earlier.
Just a few weeks after moving, a moose came wading through Lake Bemidji. Then I saw a street sign that said YAUBECHA LN NW. I pulled my car over to make sure I read it right.
I wondered if Rory was right about us living in “South Canada.” I also thought that if this is the image Minnesota projects to the rest of the world, we deserve all the jokes they throw at us.
I also started hearing all sorts of Nebraska jokes.
One night I went out for a burger. As I was talking to the bartender, I mentioned I’d just moved from Nebraska. He said he understood why.
“I’ve been to Nebraska. I could fall asleep at the wheel and just wake up somewhere with an empty tank of gas. There’s nothing to hit out there.”
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