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The Rural-Urban Connection: Let's give Minnesota some affirmative action for winter

Some years ago, at a yoga retreat in Northern California, a woman asked me where I was from. I said "northern Minnesota." "Oh!" she responded, "I feel so sorry for you."

"Why?" I asked. She launched into a string of negative presumptions about how terrible our winters must be. I laughed. And told her the truth.

For me, winter was a major reason I came home after 35 years of living elsewhere — Washington, D.C.; Lansing, Michigan; Colorado's front range; the Bay Area; Chicago; and central New Jersey.

I missed the snow. The sun sparkling on the snow. Those winter nights when I'm drawn out of the house to dance with the Northern Lights. The snow sports: ice skating, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing.

For years after returning, almost every morning from November through April. I bore up under my favorite newscaster's predictable disparaging of our state's weather.

I wonder if news anchors in Phoenix use groaning adjectives to describe their 110-degree summer days or forecast your air conditioning bill.

Or in Florida, when they report sky-high humidity, do they complain that it smells bad as well as makes you wilt? I don't think so.

Is it some Minnesota character fault that makes us advertise our self-pity and create bad press for our winter businesses?

It's a matter of individual taste. But the months I find challenging in Minnesota are November, March and April. My brother Steve warned me when I moved home: November is a stormy, wet and unpredictable monthly. March through April, we're often disappointed by persistent cold and damp. But, the waterfowl are returning, and that's a considerable consolation.

We aren't putting our best foot forward to encourage people to stay or move here. Or return after school or work. Or to forego "snowbirding."

It's not that hard to adopt to Minnesota winters. Driving can be challenging. But winter in D.C. or central New Jersey are worse: terrible ice on the roads; almost no investment in snow-removal equipment.

It's accident heaven. My secretary used to call mornings after the slightest snowfall and say, "I can't make it in." I argued that it's not that hard to learn to drive in these conditions. She simply retorted, "Well I could, but all those other people won't, so I'm not coming in!" She was terrific, so I put up with it.

A few years ago, a young Brazilian friend wrote that she had two weeks between college and graduate school, and she'd like to visit us. Her two weeks were in January. I thought about it and proposed that we spend one week going up the North Shore in the true winter, followed by week in southern Arizona. I knew she'd never seen the great American deserts.

After Joana disembarked from the plane, we bought her a thick snow jacket at a Twin Cities sports shop. We drove up a magical Highway 61, stopping to gaze at ice-falls where rivers plunge over the edge of the escarpments — the Baptism River, Gooseberry Falls. Where storms have graced evergreens with ice sculptures. In the snow, we climbed White Sky Rock, above Caribou Lake. We drove up the Gunflint trail to welcome dogsled racers coming cross the frozen lake to the finish line. We had a ball!

It is all about clothing. People laugh when I demonstrate what my friend June and I wear on our morning 2.3-mile walk six days a week. Two pairs of socks. Longies and legwarmers. A pair of blue jeans over these, and snowpants as well. A cami, a turtleneck, a wool sweater, snow jacket and frightful orange and yellow vest to alert hunters and drivers. Wool gloves engulfed in big snow mitts covering nearly to my elbows.

And the frosting: ear band, thick wool hat, woolen scarf. Mine is secondhand cashmere bought at a used clothing store in New York City 20 years ago. When you breath moisture into it, it stays warm. Goggles if windy.

It's not rocket science. And, we walk briskly.

Studying the Minnesota economy a decade ago, I was surprised to learn that Minnesota had fewer doctors and health care practitioners per capita compared to rest of the U.S. I wondered if this resulted from an exodus of older, more vulnerable folks to warmer climates. But no, we have the same proportion of people over 65 as countrywide. Maybe the hardier ones stay? And that could be true for all ages. I don't know, just speculating.

Anyway, for the sake of our winter sports entrepreneurs and hospitality sectors, why not put our best winter foot forward? Why not a campaign by our Minnesota State tourism bureau that says, "We're wintery and we know how to play in it?" I recommend outing groups like the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club and the Northstar Ski Touring Club.

Both offer affordable options, all year round, to ski, bike, hike and more. Best yet, just walk out your back door. Or take a walk in your neighborhood. It's never as bad as you imagine. And it might be a winter wonderland.

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