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My pilgrimage to Cologne (Minnesota) — during the Ryder Cup

Last year, I decided I like taking long walks in the country. I have some bad associations with the term “hiking,” I think, but that’s essentially what we’re talking about.

1. Pilgrimage

Last year, I decided I like taking long walks in the country. I have some bad associations with the term “hiking,” I think, but that’s essentially what we’re talking about.

I think the term “pilgrimage” is easier to deal with, maybe because there’s a literary quality to the idea of a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages make me think of rustic inns that serve good-smelling herbal spirits and fart jokes and nice paintings of holy mothers and babies wearing crowns and tiny little reminders of death, and I like all of those things a lot. I guess “hikes” make me think of cargo pants and really aggressive hippie jocks from my high school. 

But don’t be fooled. When I tell you about a quote-unquote pilgrimage, I am really just talking about a hike. It’s a ridiculous stance, I know. I’m trying to evolve on the issue. 

Whatever you call it, I like planning a long walk. Every fall, I have tried to identify some site within a day or two walk from Minneapolis, and make my way there on foot over the course of a weekend. I like walking, but I am not in the most excellent shape, so somewhere in the 30-mile range is a perfect distance for a pilgrim of my abilities. Twenty miles the first day, a stop overnight, and then 10 miles the next day is enough to take me well outside the outer stretches of suburbia into unfamiliar territory, but not so rigorous that I become a puddle of disintegrating flesh by the end.

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There are plenty of small towns about 30 miles outside town that would be nice to walk to. For a pilgrimage, in the classic, medieval sense, there is only one choice, though: Cologne, Minnesota. 

In Germany, Cologne (Köln in German) is home of the Cologne Cathedral, an enormous, twin-spired Gothic church that took 600 years to complete. It was badly damaged during World War II, and then rebuilt with that famous sense of German efficiency in the years after the war – apparently, it’s a sort-of-joke-but-not-entirely-a-joke in Cologne that the Master Builder of the Cathedral must be “free of giddiness.” Since the 12th century, it has housed a number of relics associated with the Three Magi. These relics, and the scale and majesty of the cathedral itself, makes it the most popular pilgrimage site in Germany.

At some point in the 19th century, a community of several hundred Germans in south-central Minnesota decided the hilly terrain about 12 miles north of the Minnesota River reminded them enough of the Rhineland to name a small town for Cologne. There are plenty of Minnesota towns within a few days’ walk of the Twin Cities with European namesakes – New Ulm, St. Cloud, New Prague, New Munich – but Cologne is in a class by itself, nomenclaturally. Cologne is obviously the perfect destination for a pilgrimage.

So I set off on a Saturday morning to walk to Cologne, on a journey I hoped would be full of rustic inns that serve good-smelling herbal spirits and fart jokes and nice paintings of holy mothers and babies wearing crowns and tiny little reminders of death.

There were most of those things, but there was also a lot of golf.

2. Ryder Cup

The weekend I chose was, unbeknownst to me, the weekend the Ryder Cup descended upon the Hazeltine National Golf Course, right in the middle of my pilgrimage route. I don’t think about golf very often, a fact that will become abundantly clear to me over the course of the weekend. I remember big-ticket national events like the Republican Convention and the All-Star Game and the effect they had on the local landscape. But I can’t think of anything that made an impression on the landscape in quite the same way as the Ryder Cup. With the exception of a few lonely stretches out in Carver County, I was never more than 2,000 feet from a well-tanned man in a white baseball cap and form-fitting polo knit shirt for the entire 30 miles between Minneapolis and Cologne.

Even if I didn’t see them, they were there – on every arterial street I crossed, I was passed by two or three black Southwest Metro buses, shuttling golfers and fans between sites. Every bar I wandered into along the way (four) was not just tuned in to the game, but filled with fans whose rowdy cheers following each point scored by an American, scenes of effusion that contrasted mightily with the silent crowds of spectators on the TV screens golf-clapping.

I followed the Minnesota River Bluffs LRT Regional Trail for most of the walk between Minnetonka and Chaska, a route that passes near at least half a dozen golf courses, including Hazeltine. On one stretch between Highway 212 and Pioneer Trail, you’re actually walking right through Bearpath Golf and Country Club, or just below it – golf carts whiz over your head through elevated bridges. In terms of land use and general expression of the culture, the stretch of suburbia in the southwest metro between 494 and the Minnesota River is ruled by King Golf.

photo of a golfers on a golf course
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A familiar sight, from Hopkins to Cologne.

It is a domain that is ever-expanding, too. The most incongruous sight of the walk, as far as golf is concerned, was Dahlgreen Golf Course, which pops up almost out of nowhere amid active farmlands on a lonely, partially unpaved stretch of Dahlgren Road. Dahlgren (one “e”) Road is so remote it doesn’t even show up in Google Street View. Dahlgreen (two “e”s), right off 212, is a sort of outpost for advancing suburbia. One minute, I was walking down the middle of a gravel road, scooting to the side to make way occasionally for enormous grain threshers in International Harvester red. The next minute, I am walking through the parking lot of a genteel golf course that wouldn’t seem out of place in Edina. I was glad to come across the golf club. Golf clubs always have clubhouses, often named the Nineteenth Hole, as is the case at Dahlgreen (two “e”s).

Just in time, too. Dahlgren Road ascends a hill much steeper than I’d imagined I’d encounter, and by the top, my legs were sore and I was ready for a shot of something with a medicinal flavor at Dahlgreen. 

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On the way into the clubhouse, a guy in the parking lot looked me over, and said, “You look like you walked here.”

“I did,” I say. “From Minneapolis.”

“Huh, wow,” he says. “Y’know, when I caddied as a young man, I’d walk 12 or 13 miles a day.”

“Golf’s a walking game, I guess,” I said.

“Nah. Not with these.” He pointed to his golf cart. “We can’t carry our beer around on foot.” 

3. The raven

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The golf district bridges the suburbs of the west metro with the small towns along the river valley, connecting the urban Cedar Lake Trail to the back roads of Carver County. The first part of the walk through St. Louis Park and Hopkins affords you plenty of opportunities to stop and see a number of sites worthy of homage. The beehive-shaped Works Progress Administration fireplaces at Lilac Park at Highway 100, and the factory showroom at Nordic Ware, filled with a thousand varieties of Bundt pans, are both top-notch Saturday morning destinations for in-town tourism. Further down the way, The Depot at Hopkins is, in the middle of a Cargill-dominated light industrial landscape, an oasis of punk rock teenagers and weekend leisure cyclists drinking coffee together in a historic depot building. 

photo of beehive-style outdoor fireplace
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
One of two remaining beehive fireplaces, this one in Lilac Park off the Cedar Lake Trail.

The further out you go, the fewer weekend cyclists you encounter darting by. The throngs of cyclists thin out, and you can walk with a little more impunity, looking over your shoulder less often. The trails grow much quieter. I’m always a little out of my depth on trails. When I am walking through an urban or even a suburban landscape, I know what I’m looking for and how to identify what I see – display fonts, architectural styles, hand-painted signs. I just haven’t spent enough time on trails to be able to get a good sense for what trees and birds I am seeing. I get the feeling of watching a movie in a foreign language with the subtitles off. Maybe I have a general sense of the plot and relationships between characters, but I am missing an enormous part of the experience. 

The only bird I could positively, definitively identify here was a single crow, which seemed to follow me for a few miles. Every so often I’d look up, and a large black bird would be perched on a streetlamp or post, playing it cool and glancing over my head. I know how smart crows are – they can solve puzzles and they recognize faces.

What could this bird portend? Any pilgrim knows mysterious signs are what you make of them. On this note, I chose to read the crow’s presence as a sign of a quiet intelligence, a smart animal friend watching out for me. I emphatically did not read it as the harbinger of death that a less imaginative reader of cosmic signs might find. In fact, the raven was the sign of the Holy Roman Emperors, the very same medieval German autocrats who were elected in part by Cologne’s archbishops in the first place. As far as cosmic approval of my pilgrimage was concerned, the familiar face of this bird was a good one to have.

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Speaking of signs of my own mortality: The path to Cologne is much more difficult to navigate on the western outskirts of Eden Prairie. Some of the trails are closed because of to mudslides, and my only recourse was negotiating the shoulder of Highway 101 as the sky darkened, mostly in abject terror at the thought of being squashed by an SUV en route to a Ryder Cup afterparty.

photo of a sewn on patch from the city of köln germany
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
An accessory for the fashionable pilgrim.

After a few minutes, I gave up. This part of the metro, fortunately, is right on the edge of the pickup zone for Lyft. I’m a faithful pilgrim, but even I know there’s not much to be gained, spiritually or materially, by crawling up the shoulder of a highway at 8 p.m. with cars blowing by at 65 miles per hour. I’m not too much of a purist to call for a ride if I need one.

The area was thick with Lyft drivers, in fact, shuttling Ryder Cup participants to and from the various 19th holes in the west metro. A driver picked me up and took me across the river to Shakopee, where I stayed overnight with my friends Mike and Tammy, Bürgermeisters of the small, enclaved hamlet of Mt. Holly. The city of Mt. Holly is as welcoming a place as any roadside German country inn, and a good resting point for the next day, situated as it is just on the frontier of where the suburbs give way to the country. The next morning, I got a ride back to the spot I’d left off the night before.

4. Votive candles

River towns aren’t like prairie towns. Prairie towns are prim, orderly, built by chambers of commerce and teetotaling church fathers. River towns are built by drunken steamboat captains and merchants and transient outcasts and others making their way between the centers of commerce and political power, and looking to make a buck and blow off some steam. River towns are fun.

Chaska and Carver, separated by two miles, are both river cities along the Minnesota. They somehow feel a little livelier, a little more worldly than the prairie towns sitting on railroad lines to the north and south. Any town where you can wander into a pancake and waffle breakfast on a Sunday morning in the gym of a Catholic school and eat among bowling and girl’s basketball trophies from the 1950s is all right by me, and that’s exactly how I began my Sunday. (I believe this is called a “carbo loading” in some endurance athletic circles.) Walking between the two towns on a trail with the Minnesota River peeking out from behind a curtain of trees was, as far as the landscape went, the best of the walk. 

“You look like you’re touring the town,” said a woman leaving Mass as I walked by the Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Chaska, on my way to Carver. “Are you with the Ryder Cup?”

I must have looked very confused. She clarified.

“I just thought because of your hat.” I was wearing a wool baseball cap – the sort I thought looked too weird and old-timey for a Ryder Cup participant, but this may just go to show how shallow my preconceived notions of what a golfer looks like are. Or maybe she just had golfers on the brain, too. It was hard not to last weekend.

photo of gothic-style church
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Chaska.

Past Carver, to avoid the highways you ascend Dahlgren Road, which climbs higher and higher until you��re at the top of a peak that afford a pretty stunning view of the surrounding valley — I remembered, at the summit looking around and with the German herbal liqueur at the Nineteenth Hole still in the unseen future, thinking that this is why people go on walks (ahem, hikes) like this. 

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photo of lone tree on a dirt road
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
At the top of Dahlgren Road: one “e,” one tree.

Walking country roads is a much different experience from walking on a trail, and one I prefer. You’re right in the middle of things – you need to watch for tractors and trucks driving by, and when they do, you have to scramble off the road to avoid the storm of dust they kick up. Since you’re not separated from the roads people use every day, you see a lot more along the way. I saw old mailboxes for defunct newspapers (did you know the old Tribune mailboxes were yellow and not Star Tribune green? I didn’t, until this weekend), abandoned barns, tiny township halls with minutes from the last meeting posted outside, and businesses with funny signs. I passed a gravel pit operated by WM Mueller and Sons that purported to be a “Rest Home and Deli.” Either Mr. Mueller or his one of his sons has a subtle sense of absurdity, or there are nuances in the humor of the aggregate industry I don’t grasp.

A few friends from Minneapolis met me in town at the of the walk. In honor of Cologne’s namesake, I felt like my pilgrimage should end in a cathedral, or at least a Catholic Church. St. Bernard’s is the local church, founded when the town had just a under 400 inhabitants, nearly all of whom were Germans. The cemetery out back is full of German names, spanning generations. No Lutheran or Methodist churches in Cologne, as far as I can tell – the only other competition is a Jehovah’s Witness hall. St. Bernard’s was empty on a Sunday afternoon. I went in to light a votive candle.

photo of cologne railroad sign with grain silo in background
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Our destination.

As far as I know, I don’t have a single Catholic direct ancestor after the Reformation – even the handful of Irish and Germans going back far enough came from Methodist and Lutheran stock. I felt like lighting a candle was the appropriate thing to do, but I couldn’t think of a person on whose behalf I should light it.

I did recall a story of a great-times-a-few-aunt, though, who was apparently frozen out of an older branch of the family for marrying a German Catholic in West Philadelphia, and subsequently converting to the faith. I could have that wrong, but the details as I remembered them seemed appropriate for Cologne. So I lit the candle in memory of this distant aunt I never met, put a few dollars in the donation box, and walked back out into the evening. My friends and I drove a short way to the Inn Town II, a local bar decorated with an outstanding mural of a biker being led by a spectral cowboy.

The Ryder Cup was on one the televisions inside, of course, but the actual golfing had ended. The Americans were triumphant for the first time in a few years, and the networks were covering the wrap-up. The other TVs were tuned to the Twin Cities local news, and a rodeo competition on one of the lesser ESPNs. The center of attention was less on the TVs and more on a young couple in their wedding outfits. They had just been married at the Renaissance Festival the day before, down the road from Cologne, and were wrapping up their wedding weekend.

My friend Monica ordered them shots. I ordered a German herbal liqueur – OK, fine, a Jägermeister – and we sat around eating some fries. After an hour or so, we all headed back to Minneapolis, the pilgrimage at an end.