My family and I took a trip to New York City last week to visit my oldest brother, Dan. After graduating from Bemidji High School in 2003, he went on to get a degree in resource conservation and environmental management from the University of Minnesota and now works for the U.S. National Park Service. His seasonal stints have brought him from Point Reyes, Calif., and now, to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on the New York Harbor.
And so, during a brilliant August week, my parents, Dave and Diane, along with my youngest brother, Lucas, and I hopped a flight to the Big Apple.
My family and I are no strangers to traveling. My father, a man who hadn't flown in an airplane until he was 22 years old, saw the value of teaching us at a young age to independently navigate our own ways across bustling airport terminals and how to plan trips.
And so, if one of the kids gallivants off to a new place, we tag along. The joke, however, is that not unlike the Hollywood Griswolds, we are the real-life, Chevy Chase version of the family going to Wally World; we are tourists, hey!
We settled in on our flight that would take us into LaGuardia Airport. As we cruised high above Lake Erie, my mother leaned over to me and whispered, "Do you think they throw away these blankets?"
I shrugged, hoping she might just drop the subject, but instead she motioned the flight attendant and got the answer she wanted. Gleefully, my mother shoved four of the paper-thin, blue blankets into her carry-on. I instantly reverted to my 13-year-old self and shrank a little lower in my seat.
Our hotel was located on 53rd Street and Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan. We were in a hub of urban commotion. The streets were alive with the hum of the city as we jostled around each other, jockeying a space on the sidewalk for our suitcases as we rolled them inside.
High heels and beige suits -clip clop - rush by. Jaywalkers, spendy handbags, blaring horns, maps out, look up, taxis swerve, hissing steam, muggy, smoggy, fast-paced organized chaos met my stare from the hotel lobby.
Looking for a chance to save some bucks is always a good idea, but booking our trip through Travelocity was an even braver one. Upon check-in, we found that our reservations had subjected themselves to change and the room came complete with one king size bed and a pullout couch for five. Someone was going to sleep on the floor, and that someone was me.
In a moment of tired, I-don't-want-to-deal-with-your-problem-because-you-booked-with-some-other-company, travel-weary stress, my mother slowly smiled at me and said, "Well, at least we'll have enough blankets!"
Our travel day and first evening in New York ended with a reunion with Dan and a trek by subway to Greenwich Village for some vintage New York pizza on Bleecker Street at John's Pizzeria. Gooey mozzarella and hunks of toppings swamped the thick pie. Hot, tired and happy, the first pizza that night was forever the best of the trip.
Our trip was a mash of sites and a whirlwind tour of the places that anybody goes to see in New York City. And even so, there are absolutely so many places to see, even the most emphatic of tourists still can't see them all, or at least live to tell about them.
Our first day started with a trip down to Battery Park in lower Manhattan. The weather was gloomy, but the air was hot and thin. Grates in the sidewalks shot steamy air into the street; one block reeked of old banana peels and garbage and the next smelled like falafels, or grass and cool air - the city of smells.
Battery Park is the section in New York where the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers once stood. The September 11th Families Association opened the Tribute World Trade Center, a temporary monument, to the public in 2006. Here tourists can see different exhibits within the building, adjacent to Ground Zero.
On the day eight years ago that changed the United States and the world around us, it was difficult to imagine what it felt like from a small, northern Minnesota city. It was a tour that no one really wanted to take - tears, unbearable - but it was necessary to understand.
"It looks like a hole in the sky," my father said, looking at the rubble graveyard, piled behind tall fences.
Artifacts lined the museum: a purse, shoes, a cell phone, and a scrap of an airplane window. It was horrible and real. I was a freshman at Bemidji High School when the attacks happened, but on this day all the people in the museum and I were New Yorkers.
The trip was busy with other museums, too. We saw brontosauruses, Plains Indian wigwams, van Gogh, Rembrandt and Monet (though, not all in the same place). The American Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are musts on a visit to the city.
We did Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. We stood in long lines, ate more pizza, gobs of cheesecake and experienced the brilliance of the Lion King on Broadway. We got stuck in the turnstiles on the underground and milled around for the wrong train. We saw Chinatown, got blisters, haggled for designer perfume and bought too many souvenirs that professed our love of the city that is bigger than the state of Minnesota.
But it wasn't all conventional sightseeing. After all, my family and I did make the trip to see what Dan actually does over there. And so, on the last day of the trip, we found ourselves in Brooklyn. It's hard to imagine that outside the monster megalopolis lay actual houses complete with yards and green space.
Dan, a boat operator on his crew, works on wetland restoration just outside the city, stopping the erosion of islands and marshes into the Atlantic. He samples fish and shrimp and crab and takes soil tests. When I asked him if he ever thought he'd somehow be here, nearly 2,000 miles from his home, digging around in the dirt, he said no.
"Never, but there aren't too many opportunities for wild land urban interface," he said. "It's a unique opportunity to experience the New York City lifestyle and work for the U.S National Park Service. You can work in the mud all day and then go to a show on Broadway."
We made our way to the Jacob Riis beach on the Atlantic, a big blue, salty mass, and saw thousands of people propped up on beach chairs beneath umbrellas in the sweltering August sun. The beach, a local favorite, is one of the most visited beaches in the region.
"People laugh because [the beach] is still in NYC," Dan said. "There's trees and birds and costal line still within the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn."
Our family vacation came to a close after six days in the metropolis, and it was time to go home. It was a memorable trip that stretched our bounds and brought an increasingly spread-out family back together for a short time.
I asked Dan if he still felt like a Minnesotan, dreamt about tuna casserole, missing Lake Bemidji, watching the Twins or a night down at Brigid's Cross, and his answer was clear.
"Absolutely," he said. "I'm very proud of where I'm from. I still say I'm from Bemidji, Minnesota when they ask me, not just Minnesota I miss it at every change of the season."
The city, in its fast pace and big lights was great, but in the end, there still is really no place like home.