For well over a year I drove around Ottertail County, poking around in its little towns, stopping whenever something caught my eye, asking “why?” a lot, and “who should I talk to?” It would be easy to make light of what I did under the title “area reporter,” just because the towns are small, relatively few people are affected by their decisions, and most of the world barely knows where Minnesota is, much less Ashby, Erhard, Henning, or Dent. But that would be missing the point. Yes, their worlds are smaller than, say, Parisians’ or New Yorkers’, but are their lives something less, then? Of course not. What happens in Pelican Rapids is far more important to the people who live there than anything Hollywood, for example, or Fox News thinks they should care about.
I grew to have great respect for the down-to-earth, solid people who seem to have such a strong sense of self—of who they are, where they belong, and what really matters. They get into scrapes, face crises and mess up, just like everybody else on the planet, but like as not, there’s a friend or relative nearby to help out when they do.
They don’t envy people who live more glamorous lives. They drive home from work in 10 minutes, hop on the pontoon, and catch a few bass before rolling into bed. They duck out of work, walk a couple of blocks, and take in their kid’s baseball games. Chances are the boss is sitting right next to them watching too. They help build a friend’s garage for a few beers and a backyard barbecue, not because they feel some obligation, but because it’s fun. They organize fundraisers for a neighbor strapped with imposing medical bills, and eat lots of pancakes and sausages at fundraisers somebody else organized. They plan the community celebrations, chaperone the homecoming dance, shovel the snow in Grandpa’s driveway, bring a hotdish to church for the annual meeting, and clean the cemetery.
In a small town it’s all the same people! It’s not like they can spread it around and just do one thing. They know who lives next door, across the street, and around the corner—personally. They readily share names and phone numbers, even with a reporter, and always know who’s in charge of what, who moved, who had a baby, who bagged the biggest buck, and whose kid got picked up by the cops. They also know the cops.
This is what makes Minnesotans “nice.” And the nicest part of all is that they don’t even think about it.