For the many urban people who spend part of their summers in the small communities of northern Minnesota, I have found the indisputable key to enjoying the experience: a bicycle.
Granted, my experience is not the most common. I was in Bemidji this summer not purely for pleasure, but to direct a production of "The Odd Couple" at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. A sunny disposition with a can-do attitude, incredible stamina and a make-up kit are useful items for summer stock, but without a bicycle, you run the risk of missing summer itself. And this doesn't apply just to theatrical types; anyone whose summer routine brings them to the small towns of the North Woods can benefit from getting around by bike.
Here in Bemidji, just about everything -- the dorms the company stays in, the rehearsal hall, the theater itself -- is always an easy and utterly pleasant bike ride away. The distances are such that to drive seems wasteful and silly, and to walk takes just a bit too long, so hopping on the bike provides the perfect alternative. In addition to giving you the illusion of fitness and making you feel virtuous, this has the added benefit of allowing you to breeze all over town and appreciate some things you might have otherwise overlooked.
Bemidji has wisely embraced zoning, so all the fast-food joints and oil-change places are on a strip of highway a mile or so north of downtown, and easily avoided. Downtown itself is maybe 10 square blocks; it has the look of not having changed a lot in the last 50 years and has somehow managed to stay unaware of its own charms. The town still has angle parking, small-scale stores (including a Ben Franklin) and more than a few good places to eat. Wheeling by the storefronts and houses you get the feeling of having, for a short while anyway, a slower and less complicated life, more time than you thought and a sense of nostalgia for an era you never knew.
The Legacy Amendment, funded by a sales tax that took effect last week, provides support for both the natural environment and the arts. This pair of causes may strike some people as unnatural -- an Odd Couple of its own. Here, staging the play of that name, there was nothing unnatural about it. The very same people value both.
The Playhouse, a civic institution nearing its 60th anniversary, has a justifiable reputation as a perfect blend of good work and goofing off. Most of this cast was made up of well-regarded pros from the Twin Cities who happily traded the heat and headaches of scrounging up work at home for three weeks of rehearsing and performing in a temperate, laid-back town filled with avid theatergoers eager for an evening's entertainment after a hard day of boating, swimming and fishing.
The theater pay isn't high, but neither is the pressure. Rehearsal often stops for stories and jokes ("Knock knock!" "Who's there?" "Control freak. NOW YOU SAY 'CONTROL FREAK WHO'!"), and there's a nice sense of ease and camaraderie. One of the characters in "The Odd Couple" makes a reference to Bulldog Drummond. I asked the 26-year-old playing the part if he knew who that was. "Not a clue!" came the cheerful reply. The pleasures are many: the almost-forgotten and frequently underrated experience of sleeping in a single bed. Sitting on the patio of the Irish pub with a lamb sandwich and a cold beer, watching the rain. The picnic hosted by the Board of Directors, featuring massive amounts of grilled chicken, bratwurst, fresh fruit and slices of cake the size of your head. Watching two smart, funny actors find every laugh in a well-written scene. And best of all, gliding silently home after rehearsal on your Schwinn at 10:30 at night, as creeping murmur and the pouring dark fill the wide vessel of the universe, down the broad, tree-lined and almost impossibly quiet streets, a faint sliver of daylight still in the west, past the mostly dark houses, the breeze cool on your face; and appreciating more and more, with every turn of the spokes, the contentment and happiness that is the essence of a summer night.
Peter Moore is an actor and director in the Twin Cities.