I came to Winona from the Twin Cities almost exactly 16 years ago, and at the time I was a little, um, concerned that a town of 30,000ish couldn’t possibly be as interesting or have as much to offer as the sprawling metropolis I was coming from.
That impression wasn’t helped in the slightest by a woman, also a transplant, told me during my first week here, “If Fleet Farm doesn’t have it, you don’t need it.” Yuk yuk yuk. Now I’d never actually been to a Fleet Farm, but I had a pretty good idea that we were talking about camouflage and John Deere and rabbit pellets, and I spent the rest of the night sulking.
Okay listen, Fleet Farm fans, do not send me angry e-mails. I like Fleet Farm. I even buy stuff there, like bug spray and dog food and Christmas lights. But you have to admit it doesn’t exactly have the same ring as, oh, I don’t know, The Galleria.
So anyway, I spent my early days here missing big shopping malls and miles of restaurants and my favorite chiropractor, and wondering how I would get by without them and why *anyone* would choose to live in a small town.
But as we settled in I started to realize some things… my kids could walk to their elementary school one block away, something people living in sprawling suburbs never dream of. And I went from spending an hour a day sitting in traffic to getting antsy if their were two cars in front of me at the stop sign. My kids could ride their bikes almost anywhere in town without me being afraid, and they could sign up for any sports or summer activities they wanted without tryouts and waiting lists.
And we found places to eat, and guess what – most of the time it was the same kind of stuff we were eating in Minneapolis except we didn’t have to stand outside for 30 minutes waiting for a table. Things, I realized, seemed to be looking up. We even found a few favorite spots, places where people remembered us from the last time, and this town I had started out dreading was starting to feel downright homey.
Shopping malls and all that started to fade away as something I lamented – I realized that was just *stuff* and I knew where to find it if I needed it. But what I had traded it for was a life, a life that included more time looking at my kids instead of a windshield in a place where my family has an identity beyond our house number on a mail box.
I don’t remember when it happened because the feeling kind of snuck up on me, but one day someone asked me if I liked living in Winona and I heard myself say, “Yes, I really do.” Then I fainted. Just kidding.
But seriously, I realized that the people here are blessed in a way that urbanites can’t imagine until you live it. This community is big enough to have a little anonymity if you want it, but small enough to find familiar places and faces five minutes from home.
Even better, the past few years have seen the arts blossom here with the introduction of the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and the Frozen River Film Festival, not to mention the abundance of live music downtown at places like Ed’s No Name Bar… and suddenly the Twin Cities is coming to us for arts and culture. How cool is that?
As a former Twin Citian who couldn’t imagine Winona being half as good as her life in the Twin Cities, let me tell you, I might think it’s cooler than anyone, because I know now this life is more like twice as good and growing.