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Minnesota: Minneapolis and the Mall of America

Note: This post reflects my travels from May 2017. I am currently living the grad student life in the good ol’ South Bay. Prior to that, I spent a good 5 months travelling. My first endeavor of my funemployment period was an ambitious 2-month roadtrip to visit all the (US) states I had never been to and everything in between. Yes, it’s been a while, and I’m slowly documenting my travels (keyword: s l o w l y).

Technically, we had already hit Minnesota by the time we made it to Fargo, as the Fargo-Moorhead area rests nicely on the North Dakota-Minnesota border, but without further ado:

Just the facts:

STATES: Minnesota
NICKNAME: The North Star State
FOOD EATEN: Leftover food, breakfast at Al’s Breakfast, pho at Pho Hoa, Indian/Nepalese at Namaste Cafe, cupcakes from Nadia Cakes, coffee from Spyhouse, ramen at Zen Box Izakaya
GOOGLE MAPS ILLUSTRATION: Prince, because WHO ELSE?
PHOTOS: HERE
DATE(S) VISITED: May 16th-19th, 2017

As somebody who had grown up in the Midwest, I actually hadn’t made it out to Minnesota before. “GIRL, how have you not been to Minnesota?!” people would ask exasperatedly when they noticed that it was on my States I Hadn’t Yet Visited list.

Me: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

That said, I’ve always heard pretty glowing reviews about the state, especially from those who live and have lived there, and Minneapolis (where I stayed for the 3-4 days) has a charm of its own, cold and drizzle and all.

After being flanked on all sides by Mother Nature and her environs, it felt damn good to finally be in a city with six-digit populations!!! Even though the drive from Fargo led to a pretty intense downpour, which escalated into a thunderstorm. Even though I faceplanted and skinned my elbows while running through the rain to grab my belongings out of the car. This was obviously the Midwest’s way of welcoming me back into their fold.

After catching up on sleep, the first morning in Minneapolis was kickstarted by a hearty breakfast at Al’s Breakfast, famous for its blueberry pancakes and its building size so cozy that NYC-sized closets feel palatial by comparison.

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No joke, this place is packed tighter than a can of sardines, and the line starts at the very inside of the store, so you can jealously stare and glower upon everybody sitting and eating their pancakes, while you stand in wait.

To Al’s credit though, the line dissipated pretty quickly (unlike the lines in San Francisco, COUGH), and Grace and I snagged two barstools within 15 minutes. No sooner did we step inside were Grace and I treated to a meal of the corned beef hash and blueberry pancakes so comforting and filling that we felt like the Pillsbury Doughboy by the time we left.

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We took a comfortable stroll around Dinkytown (and later, the U of M area) to walk off our blueberry pancake food-babies and take in the industrial sights and sounds of the city. Because it was raining on/off and we had a comfortable 3-4 days to kill, we spent most of our time meeting up with folks and eating. But mostly eating.

A few highlights:

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These are momos from Namaste Cafe. Momos are meat-based (we had bison!) Nepalese dumplings that you typically dip in a tomato-based sauce, and I will forever sing their praises. We also had spicy potatoes, garlic marathi, and almond chicken, and let’s just say after days of eating straight-up carb-loaded American food with where salt is the spiciest ingredient, it was so satisfying to have a break in between. My taste buds cried.

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This was ramen from Zen Box Izakaya, aka the ultimate comfort food on a cold, drizzly day. My love for ramen is woefully not very well-documented, but rest assured, this was so good.

However! We did other things besides stuff our faces with food. Minneapolis, perhaps by virtue of being host to MCAD, has a pretty bitchin’ art museum: the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). And get this:

Membership was free.

While I appreciate free shit as much as the next person, what made the MIA pretty bitchin’ was actually its (– look surprised –) art.

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del toro exhibit = 10/10, would go again ☠️ #gdtatmia

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We immediately made a beeline for the Guillermo del Toro exhibit, which has various art from his movies, from Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth (my forever fave, FIGHT ME) to Crimson Peak. Sadly, this exhibit was curated a good few months before The Shape of Water had even been released, but we still spent a good amount of time poring over the dark magical beautiful gothic romantic fantasy aesthetic of del Toro’s works.

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👼 #gdtatmia

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The snaps below aren’t del Toro, but rather, other works we found while wandering the MIA.

🐼🌼🌺🌸🌹🌷💐💠

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finally made it to mt. rushmore! ✌️

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Fitting, considering that I was just at Mt. Rushmore only a few days prior to taking this photo.

By the very last day of our Minnesota adventures, my Midwestern raised-in-the-90s teenaged self was curious about the Mall of America, because that place is a gargantuan representation of my childhood weekends of hanging out at malls. 11-year-old me would have loved MoA. Now, I get that millennials killed the shopping malls, just like they killed a lot of other culturally irrelevant things we knew and loved so dearly, but my past self would have hated me if I didn’t go.

That, and I needed new eyeliner.

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South Dakota (Part 2) and North Dakota: Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Maah Daah Hey Trail, Fargo

Note: This post reflects my travels from May 2017. I am currently living the grad student life in the good ol’ South Bay. Prior to that, I spent a good 5 months travelling. My first endeavor of my funemployment period was an ambitious 2-month roadtrip to visit all the (US) states I had never been to and everything in between. Yes, it’s been a while, and I’m slowly documenting my travels (keyword: s l o w l y).

When I was younger, I was a big fan of The Baby-sitter’s Club like no one’s business. 90s-era #squadgoals — what’s not to love, right? In one Super Special, BSC in the USA, the girls embark on a cross-country road trip, and while they’re in the Badlands, they run out of gas and are stranded in what feels like the literal middle of nowhere.

If anything, I can blame that book for making me think that South Dakota was the epitome of the middle of nowhere.

In reality, the Badlands are pretty dope, but I’d highly recommend going with a full tank during the day when you can actually see stuff. Because you will not be stressing over gas and instead you will be gifted with rugged landscapes like this:

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While the terrain is so rugged that it looks like some higher power decided to take the desert and implode the ground to oblivion, it’s flat and makes for great (albeit very sunny) hiking.

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However, like I mentioned eons ago, South Dakota is a mix of nature at its most breathtaking and rugged …. and tourist kitsch at its most egregious.

On the drive out of Badlands, it’s impossible not to notice the 43892485 billboards for Wall Drug.

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Wall Drug Store claims to have everything under the sun, from ice cream to 5-cent coffee to every material object you can think of to dinosaur replicas. An onslaught of Western kitsch in South Dakota, it’s unmissable and you’re inundated with so many billboards that you’re practically compelled to check it out.

In BSC in the USA, Claudia Kishi buys a painting that looks awfully Georgia-O’Keeffe-esque, only to find out by the end of the book that it’s — SPOILER ALERT — a real Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Unfortunately, I didn’t get so lucky, but I only went for the milkshakes (listen, I was hungry!) and braced myself for the long drive through North Dakota.


Just the facts:

STATES: North Dakota
NICKNAME: The Peace Garden State
FOOD EATEN: Whatever we could find in Medora (aka CLIF bars from the C-store and taffy from the Taffy Shop) and later, knoephla soup and milkshakes at Kroll’s Diner
GOOGLE MAPS ILLUSTRATION: A beekeeper
PHOTOS: HERE

Driving through North Dakota was something else, though.

First of all, there were no lights. When it’s the evening and you’re driving into a void of nihilist-level nothingness with only your car lights for assistance, IT IS SOME NEXT-LEVEL BLACK HOLE SHIT.

I literally had no idea what North Dakota looked like until I woke up the next morning in Medora, a quaint town and centerpiece of Theodore Roosevelt National Park:

JK, this is what T-Ro actually looks like (click for a larger view):

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And here’s a replica of Teddy Roosevelt’s crib back in his Rough Rider days, when he called the park home:

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Secondly, when you stroll into Medora during the park’s off-season, you’ll find that most businesses, from the saloon-like restaurant to the convenience store (aptly named the C-Store), operate on severely reduced hours, if they’re even open at all. Hell, when we walked into the taffy store, we were asked if we were looking for employment, as opposed to buying a bag of saltwater taffy (which we did!).

Even the park rangers were surprised to see visitors, especially out-of-state visitors.

If the morning was spent wandering town and figuring out which businesses were actually open in May (answer: Very Few. Medora is very much a Bring Your Own Food locale in its off-season.), the afternoon was spent mountain biking! MAD-MAX STYLE. The Maah Daah Hey Trail is not a mountain-biking trail engineered for the faint of heart. The trails are unforgivably thin and winding and you will turn into a human jackhammer as you jump over rocks and careen downhill.

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The actual trail connects the north and south portions of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and extends for 144.7 miles (there’s a great NYT writeup here on biking half the trail), but given that I only had an afternoon before we needed to haul ass over to Fargo, I rented a bike from Dakota Cyclery, and my wonderful guide Jennifer took me out for a spin.

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As we pedaled up the mountains, my attention was gripped by the unspoiled landscapes above. I’m such a sucker for the color palette of the Maah Daah Hey: pale blue skies, splotches of dark green sagebrush, dusty prairiegrass, and light brown earth. The landscape goes on for miles and miles, with little end in sight, as if to speak to the immense size of the state.

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Isn’t nature the best?

We even made friends with this little buddy below (also known as a short-horned lizard):

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The ride was the pick-me-up I needed before the five hours of driving from Medora to Fargo. As somebody who has yet to discover the appeal of podcasts, I was limited to the bleakness that was radio in the middle of North Dakota. This might be the origin story of my hatred for “Shape of You”. Either that, or I was inundated with religious sermons. After hours of listening to nonstop NPR, we whizzed by Bismarck and the majority of ND and finally made our way to Fargo by midnight.

Tired from yesterday’s one-two-punch of mountain biking and driving, we slept in the next day alongside this adorable doggo:

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Because we were hungry and we hadn’t really eaten much in North Dakota other than whatever snack foods we managed to scrounge up at C-stores and rest stops, Bailey took us to eat some good ol’ North Dakotan comfort food at Kroll’s where we indulged in knoephla (aka the Lumpy Yellow Soup), which is like the culinary equivalent of a warm hug. Listen, chicken noodle soup doesn’t hold a candle to this.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), no lutefisk was had, but if the HECK NO license plate was emblematic of South Dakota, then I’m going to humbly nominate this T-shirt as Peak North Dakota.

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Montana and South Dakota (Part 1): Bozeman, Mt. Rushmore, Jewel Caves, Deadwood

Just the facts:

STATES: Montana
NICKNAME: The Treasure State
FOOD EATEN: Brunch at Jam!, dinner and drinks at Montana Ale Works, drinks at Lockhorn Cider House, brunch at Cateye Cafe, groceries at Community Food Co-op
GOOGLE MAPS ILLUSTRATION: A cowboy
PHOTOS: HERE

Fun as Idaho was, my roadtrip hit two minor snags early on.

Or rather, my ability to adult came under fire in the first two days of the roadtrip when I realized that (1) there was a fraudulent charge on my credit card and (2) my camera was broken.

#1 left me a credit card down, and #2?

Welp, thank god for Montana and their lack of sales tax!

Because goddamn, if I’m going to completely replace my Nikon, I might as well get it tax-free. Two camera stores and a D7100 later, I was in Bozeman, MT, which I had actually visited twenty years ago, during a trip to Yellowstone. All I remember from Bozeman during the summer of ’97 was my parents refusing to buy me stuff from the local shopping mall. And a bird pooping on my head.

Thankfully, my second rodeo with the Bozone improved by leaps and bounds, and I can proudly say that no birds have pooped on my head. Since I’d already been to Yellowstone, I opted to take it easy during the Montana leg of the trip, which meant lots of food. And beer, which is pretty much liquid bread, so that also counts as food.

Highlights included:

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Biscuit and waffles at JAM!

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🍺✈️ at #montanaaleworks (salmon fly honey rye, razzu, and beltian white) #latergram

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Shepherd’s pie at Montana Ale Works, topped off with a beautiful beer flight of Salmon Fly Honey Rye (Madison River Brewing at Belgrade, MT), Razzu Raspberry Wheat (Philipsburg Brewing Company at Philipsburg, MT), Beltian White (Harvest Moon Brewing at Belt, MT)

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Cider flight at Lockhorn Cider House, which is a wonderful place not just because of the cider, but because it is a dog-friendly cider house and there is no combo more wonderful than cider and dogs.

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The Cowgirl (= banana bread french toast topped with yogurt + marionberry sauce and whipped cream) at Cateye Cafe, whose aesthetic caters quite well to my cat-eye-glasses-wearing self.

Other than eating and playing with dogs and getting a replacement camera, I suppose I did other stuff in Bozeman. I went grocery shopping at the Bozeman Community Food Co-op, which my friend described as peak Bozone, and welp, I can’t say I can find the lie in that description:

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Artisanal bone broth exists in this world, and of course it is in a jar with a well-designed label with nice typeface.

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There were also some rad skeletons of dinosaurs at the Museum of the Rockies, so if dinosaurs and prehistoric stuff are your jam, you’ll dig it.

But if post-Civil-War US history is what you’re after, then perhaps the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument might be more your speed. Also known as the site of Custer’s Last Stand (remember your AP US History classes?!), this stop broke up an otherwise monotonous drive out of Montana.

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I am also including a gratuitous photo of huckleberry ice cream sandwiches, because only in convenience stores in Montana do they sell huckleberry ice cream sandwiches alongside old standbys like vanilla and chocolate. And they are delicious.

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Just the facts:

STATES: South Dakota
NICKNAME: The Mt. Rushmore State
FOOD EATEN: Dinner at Lewie’s Burgers and Brews, coffee at Pure Bean Roasters, coffee at Dixon Coffee Co.
GOOGLE MAPS ILLUSTRATION: A miner
PHOTOS: HERE

Huckleberry ice cream sandwiches and national monuments aside, the drive from Montana (to Wyoming) to South Dakota was pretty forgettable for the long stretch of distance I had to cover. Damn you Mountain Time Zone for your bigass states! On the plus side, there are higher speed limits and mountain views in Montana that are easy to take for granted. On the minus side? Eve-ry-thing else.

Love bugs stuck and clung to our windshield and made it nigh-impossible to see, rest stops are practically extinct, I was getting dehydrated, and instead of seeing small-town exits with gas stations/fast-food restaurants, you get unnamed exits that lead you into a hamlet, unincorporated community, or worse: somebody else’s backyard.

And yet, several hours later, we made it! To Rapid City, South Dakota!

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This, my friends, is peak South Dakota.

Okay, okay, to South Dakota’s credit, there actually is a lot to offer, and it truly is an underrated state, especially if you’re into nature and are willing to withstand some degree of tourist kitsch (because you’ll see so much of it to an unavoidable extent). We went to several national parks, all of which were clustered within a two-hour radius of Rapid City. If we squinted a little bit, we could even see some portrait busts carved into the mountains:

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The upside is that Mt. Rushmore is a quick drive from Rapid City, but the downside is the stretch of tourist hell so egregiously tacky that you cannot avoid. You think you’re screwed, and then you get inundated with a stretch of billboards you wish you hadn’t read. For the most part, Mt. Rushmore is a fairly quick trip:

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If you walk a little closer, you can see up Washington’s nose.

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Do you understand this equation?

It’s okay, neither did I. But now you know that Thomas Jefferson authored the first ice cream recipe in America! #themoreyouknow

That afternoon, we headed to Jewel Caves, which I found fascinating. Apparently, my camera didn’t find them very fascinating, according to the number of blurry photos I amassed, but look, if there’s anything The Magic School Bus taught me, it’s that caves are Pretty Dope:

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Once we got out the caves and drove through the Black Hills, we stopped at Deadwood, a cute little town that’s been historically preserved to retain its likeness as a gold-mining town, saloons and all.

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You can even catch a glimpse of history at the Deadwood Mountain Grand, where we missed a live concert featuring everybody’s favorite 90s alt-rock acts like the Barenaked Ladies, Vertical Horizon, Fastball, and Everclear by

ONE.

FUCKING.

DAY.

No, I’m not salty. You’re salty.