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Travels through America’s Purgatory: Rochester, MN

Just a note: I have finally finished this essay, over a year after I originally started writing it and almost 14 months removed from the event that took me to Rochester.

It’s famously known for being the home of the Mayo Clinic, the premier medical center of the world.

Well, if it weren’t for the hospital, there really wouldn’t be much else to Rochester.

And why is the hospital so important? Aren’t hospitals about death, dying and sickness? Wouldn’t you rather have your town known for other things?

Say what you will about Milwaukee, at least they have Bob Uecker.

I shouldn’t say Rochester is only known for the Mayo Clinic. They also have a water tower painted to look like a giant ear of corn. Yea.

I was in Rochester for the MNGOP state convention. Oh yeah, I’m living the gangsta life.

Timing myself rather successfully, I got to Rochester early enough to drive around a bit. I soon realized leaving this place wouldn’t be hard at all.

Adding to my immediate woes was the fact I was in Rochester for the MN Republican Party’s State Convention and had to navigate the town, which was quite foreign to me, in surprisingly heavy traffic. I found the convention center, places to park, my hotel (where I couldn’t park until after noon) and a gas station with white trash going in and out carrying bananas and cigarettes. My kind of place.

Just thinking about the convention…ugh. Excuse me while I throw up into a room full of…of…er…comrades. Yes, I do love my fellow Minnesota Republicans and their various antics don’t bore me or infuriate me in the least. Yeah…

I left Rochester eventually, because I could.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rochester is the Mayo Clinic.

The city had some sort of industrial core, back when industry meant big brick buildings and child labor. There are remnants of rail and those other industrial peripherals around, but now Rochester is just the Mayo Clinic. Some large suburban houses placed delicately on the rolling hills around the downtown area which is dominated by office buildings adds to the scrubbed good looks you’d expect from a place filled with doctors.

There are rivers. And trees. And it could even be considered scenic. Very scenic.

Okay, I admit. it’s a good looking city.

But a trained eye like mine catches the little imperfections which all Midwestern towns have in bucketfuls.

Rochester is kinda swampy, I couldn’t quite place it but then I had an epiphany: Rochester looks like Little Rock, Arkansas, and Minneapolis had a bastard child. I was born in Little Rock, so I have first hand knowledge.

Rochester is located in the one county in Minnesota with no lakes (according to geography scholar Karl Rove); so it lacks the one thing which makes life in rural Minnesota remotely tolerable: taking money from wealthy tourists by allowing them to ravage the majestic beauty of Minnesota’s 10,000+ lakes.

Instead, Rochester relies on taking money from the wealthiest people on the planet in their hour of need. It’s the American way.

I mentioned the relaxed and comfortable environment of Rochester, the rolling hills, green trees and wide roads choked with people.

Good lord there are a lot of cars…Where do all the cars come from? Why are there so many people driving around downtown Rochester in the middle of a thunderstorm?

I was out and about because the Rochester parking ramp people are dumb (or evil). On the day a large convention with thousands of people (well, 1,500 anyway) opens in town, they decide to schedule their annual cleanup of the city’s parking ramps.

Scores of convention goers had to sneak off in the middle of proceedings to try and find another place to park their SUVs within walking distance of the downtown convention center.

So that was the reason I was driving around downtown Rochester in the middle of a thunderstorm. I was killing time until I could park at my hotel.

And sure, I’ll be honest; I wasn’t much interested in some of the convention proceedings…like…all of them.

None of this explains why there were so many cars driving around. Shouldn’t everyone be sick? Are there fewer sick people on a Friday afternoon? Or are those destitute cancer sufferers just trying to sneak out for a quick boatride on some nonexistent lake?

The thunderstorm made it impossible to see. The storm, and the fact I hadn’t gotten new windshield wipers on my car since Tom Kelly was the manager of the Twins.

To add insult to an already embarrassing situation, it started to hail…Thanks God.

Lesson learned, no more Republican State Conventions.

Since I was already driving around a severe thunderstorm in a city I had never been to in the midst of heavy traffic and had no rational reason to, you know, go back to the convention, I decided to do some exploring.

Which was great, since the heavy rains made it impossible to see things like signs.

Supposedly, there is a “world famous” BBQ place in Rochester along with a very good burger joint.

I think.

if there are those things in Rochester, nobody I talked to knew anything about it. Not the lady at the hotel welcome desk, not the little kid at the gas station, not the nice old guy I shouted at from my moving vehicle.

With no direction to go or even an idea about what I was really looking for, I just kept driving.

After nearly killing myself a couple of times I gave up and stopped at a Panera Bread.

Having spent a lot of time on the road in my life I know a Panera Bread is a safe port with uppity, foul smelling but not too-terrible food, overpriced drinks and Internet access.

Laptop at my side, I went in.

I did some Googling. Choked on some poppy seeds some idiot thought belonged on a grilled cheese sandwich.

Found a map online. Located a gym (Anytime Fitness) and did some other research.

Once I had my fill of yuppie pretentiousness I decided to try and find that Anytime Fitness and get a workout in. So started adventure number–whatever–for the day.

Even though this time I knew where I was supposed to be going (had a poorly drawn map and no more bad weather), somehow I still figured out a way to get lost trying to find this stupid gym.

After numerous illegal u-turns which had me circling around an OCB (Old Country Buffet) looking for this place, I found it.

Snuggled right up against the OCB.

Not snuggled.

Engulfed by the OCB.

You could barely see it. It was like trying to find Luke’s X-Wing fighter when looking at the fat bloated corpse of the Death Star.

For a brief instant, I fell in love with Rochester Minnesota.

You put an OCB next to a gym? Wow. That takes chutzpah.

In fact, I kinda liked the arrangement. If that strip had a theatre, a comic book shop and a refrigerator box (or a tee-pee or something) for me to sleep in, I’da found my Shangri-La.

The first thing to notice about this island of the surreal was the fat people. A lot of fat people. The OCB is a mecca for fat people. They were going in, and out, and regular intervals.

None were going to the gym, or coming out.

Nice try local Anytime fitness owner.

The gym itself was its own culture of weird.

There were nothing but women in the gym at first.

I got about half an hour into my workout, struggling through the angry glares of women who, but for the grace of blind justice, would probably kill every man they knew, or saw.

Then they all left.

The gym was empty.

About fifteen minutes later, men started to arrive.

Soon enough, the gym was filled with 20something fitness addicts talking about supplements and power sets. They also sent me the occasional sinister stare, mainly because I’m not in shape and they were (I assume, it might have been the “I (heart) smoking” t-shirt I was wearing).

It took me a while to realize, but I hadn’t seen any couples whatsoever in all of Rochester outside of the MNGOP convention.

There was absolutely no fraternization between the sexes anywhere to be seen.

After my workout I drove around searching for a couple, any couple, and found none. Of course, there were still tons of lost drivers putzing around wherever I went. I was slowly going insane.

If no one in Rochester is shooting DNA at each other, where are all these drivers coming from?

The people at the Mayo clinic must have something big cooking, some sort of horrible experiment where one gender doesn’t think about the other. Maybe it’s cloning. Or robots.

Maybe I’m going crazy. Maybe everyone in town is here because of cancer. Either a relative having cancer, having cancer themselves, or helping people with cancer die in slight dignity.

When you’re life revolves around cancer, you may not be thinking about sex or a family or how NOT TO TAILGATE ME. GO AWAY FREAKS.


The road to Rochester paved. Don’t be fooled. It’s an Earthly purgatory where suffering washes away joys of life.

Leaving town couldn’t come soon enough. The drive, north on Highway 52, is comfortable and scenic. Cows. Rolling hills. Farms with red barns. One could become fooled enough by the beauty to move to Rochester. At least in summer.

But a man should only be fooled once.


6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the advice.

  2. I think you may have made a wrong turn and went to a different Rochester? 70% of the people who visit Mayo Clinic are healthy. The City is extreemly vibrant with activity and in fact Money magazine has consistently ranked Rochester MN as the top or in the top ten most livable cities in the entire USA. Rochester MN was just ranked by Forbes and US News and World report as a top ten city to grow up in the entire USA. The MN GOP convention was awesome and the reason they came to Rochester is that it is an awesome City —- easy on people battling cancer they choose to come to the best medical destinations in the world for a reason, their life is at stake… Rochester is a world-class destination offering services and amentities unmatched by other Cities of 100,000 people. Oh did I mention that Mayo Clinic is Minnesota’s largest private employer and largest economic driver.

  3. My wife works at the Mayo. She says she loves her co-workers and brags about the world-class healthcare quality. And Rochester is to be commended for all that. But she has repeatedly stated how boring the town and surrounding area are, according to her co-workers. Good schools? Yes. Great healthcare industry? Top notch. Great place to live? Only if you enjoy cornfields and tee ball.

  4. Funny, of the 20 cities profiled in my travel series, this is the first time anyone has ever defended the city mentioned.

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