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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 01, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ultra-Mall, Yellowstone, and International Peace

Over the years, quite by accident, we found that we had taken our kids to most of the states of the union. So it became a kind of goal to add states to the list.

The rules were simple -- landing at an airport and taking off again didn't count, but driving through any part of a state did count.

By the time our youngest was born, the older kids had visited every state except North Dakota and Alaska.

Alaska we'll visit on a cruise someday, when I work up the courage to face the idea of being trapped on a boat with the same group of strangers for a solid week or more.

But North Dakota ... they don't have any cruises there, and it's not on the way to anything, so the only way to visit it was just to decide to go there.

Those who suggested that we count seeing the movie Fargo as a visit to the state were quickly outvoted. Rules are rules.

Well, now we've been there, and here's what we found.

First, North Dakota is every bit as thrilling as South Dakota, and much more exciting than a drive through Nebraska.

For scenery, where South Dakota has the Badlands, North Dakota has its own badlands.

For great landmarks, where South Dakota has Mt. Rushmore, North Dakota has the International Peace Gardens.

Built and maintained by the Oddfellows, this beautiful park straddles the Canadian border in the middle of nowhere. (You drive in without having to pass the Canadian border guards; but to return to the U.S., you have to pass through the U.S. border check.)

From the main parking lot (where the restrooms were shockingly clean for a public park) you embark on a beautiful walk through formal flower gardens. We were there perhaps a couple of weeks early, since only a few of the flowers were in bloom; but strolling along streams that flowed into a central pool, with graceful spring-leafed trees and lush lawns and bushes on every side, we were not disappointed.

The garden paths lead you to a monument -- four concrete monoliths, two on the American side, two on the Canadian side of the border.

Not far behind the monument is a chapel, whose stone walls are engraved with quotations from Americans and Canadians. Only a few represent the kind of puerile sentimentality you might expect; most are robust words from great people who earned the right to have the opinions they express.

Despite being early for the blooms at the Peace Garden, we felt that we had picked the right time of year to visit North Dakota. From the flat, lake-dotted Red River Valley in the east, where heavy rains had left the wheatfields astonishingly green, to the rolling hills in the middle, and on to the rough country of the west, June is the time to see this state.

*

June is not, however, the time to see Yellowstone -- at least not this year. America's oldest national park is always a beautiful place to see, with bison and elks and antelopes showing off for the visitors. And the relics of the great fire of a few years ago are still part of nature on display, for the forests are busy recovering, giving a different kind of scenery that is still lovely.

The problem is that weather in Yellowstone is so lousy during the winter that the only time they can repair the roads is during the same season that all the tourists are trying to drive on them.

The places where the road was cut down to one lane and we had to wait our turn to be allowed through were only a minor annoyance. But when we came to a section that was mile after mile of dirt road, with the slowest vehicle setting the speed for all, we despaired.

So we didn't go to Old Faithful this time -- what normally is a one-hour round trip off the main road would have been at least two hours of extra driving, and by this time we were ready to move on. Those with more patience will no doubt find Old Faithful as faithful as ever, and only a little bit older.

*

One other site on our journey must be mentioned. On the way to North Dakota we found we were within easy reach of the Mall of America, and it would have been plain stupid not to stop by and see the place.

Now, I must admit to a certain ambivalence toward malls. I mean, most of them have the same stores as every other mall. That's their strength and their weakness. No matter where you are in America, when you enter a mall you pretty much know what you'll find.

So if you want to shop at The Gap or Williams-Sonoma or Pottery Barn, or if you want to snack at Chick-Fil-A (the best fast-food in the world of malls) or Mrs. Fields, then you head for the mall. Any mall.

But it also means that there's no reason to make a special trip to any particular mall.

Indeed, I'm quite annoyed at the way these same stores have moved into once-great shopping districts like Georgetown in DC and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, driving out the quirky shops that made those places worth visiting.

Georgetown shopping is pointless now, except for Olsen's Books and the wittily casual lifesize statues of people eating lunch or painting a wall. Third Street Promenade is still a lively place with street musicians, topiary dinosaurs, and a few interesting shops still thriving.

There's a kind of honesty, however, in a mall that doesn't pretend to be anything else. And for sheer in-your-face honesty of that sort, it's hard to beat the Mall of America in Bloomington, just south of Minneapolis.

We stayed at a Residence Inn just a few blocks from the mall, but, being American, we drove there. The parking lot was shockingly empty -- until we realized that most people have the brains to park in the huge covered garages, because when it isn't snowing or raining, it's hot as blazes.

The mall is as big as they say -- like four very large malls arranged in a square, with an amusement park, "Camp Snoopy," in the middle. It's exhausting just to see it all -- heck, it was exhausting just to see a third of it, which is what we did.

Every store you ever saw in more than one mall is there, some of them more than once. But this mall is so big it actually has stores you've never seen anywhere else.

Our favorite, of course, was the Lake Wobegon store, with memorabilia from Minnesota Public Radio, where we bought T-shirts and some Garrison Keillor "News from Lake Wobegon" tapes that amused us and moved us during the next day's drive.

What kept us there for an extra day, however, was Camp Snoopy. We not only got ourselves delightfully soaked on the log chute ride, it was also while waiting in line there that we met a North Dakotan who told us about what we should see and what routes we should take through his home state (we followed his advice and he was right on every point).

But most rides and activities had no line at all. Bumper cars, the ferris wheel, and a watercannon playground were the most fun for us in Camp Snoopy -- but for those who like self-inflicted torment, there are fairly robust roller coasters and other puke-inducing rides.

We're not sure what it says about us, but what we probably enjoyed most was the General Mills "Cereal Adventure," where we got our family picture on a Wheaties box and got to design our own cereal and draw the art for the front of the box.

It hardly seemed worth the money we paid, but when we talk about our trip, it's Cereal Adventure that stands out.

Lego-Land, by contrast, was a disappointment. The only activity is building your own racecar and letting it roll down a ramp; the rest of it is just a store, which is fine if you need more Legos. We didn't.

*

Have you seen Lilo and Stitch yet?

I had low expectations for several reasons. First, I thought from the way it was promoted that the story would be about a cuddly space alien who had funny adventures among the whole pantheon of Disney cartoon characters.

Second, it's been a long time since there's been a Disney animated film that was worth seeing. Basically, since Jeffrey Katzenberg left the studio I've found Disney animated films to range from witless to offensive.  I didn't expect this movie to be any different.

Wrong on both counts. The funny, moving story is of an alien mutant created as a killing machine who comes to a Hawaiian-like island and is civilized by two orphaned sisters who are struggling to make a life for themselves without their parents.

The writing and the performances are splendid -- truthful and powerful. Our two daughters saw much of their own relationship in the deftly created quarreling and playing between the older sister and the younger (the age differences of the characters were about the same as that between my girls).

And perhaps I'm just a sentimental old fool, but I found myself responding to the evocation of the ties that bind a family together with deep feeling.

It's the kind of story I like best: Good people trying to do good as best they understand it. It's also really funny and kids laugh and get excited and love the film almost as much as the adults do.


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