Two breakfasts, a walk with my daughters and my first game at Target Field — maybe yesterday is what heaven is like?

Yesterday was one of those rare days when you know it’s going to be a good one, then you just let it play out and enjoy every minute.

Lauren flew in from Chicago on Wednesday evening. She went down to visit Emily in Rochester on Thursday and stayed overnight. I drove down to bring her back to Minneapolis yesterday morning. So began my great day.

Breakfast #1 at Little Oscar's in Hampton

Little Oscar’s, a roadside diner in Hampton was brought to my attention by Kyle after it was recommended to him by “Uncle Mike” Dervos. Known for their great breakfasts — and especially their bacon — I decided to leave home early and give it a try. I liked it a lot. The bacon WAS fantastic. I like to eat breakfast out but don’t do it often. I also love the 60s-style angular, clean-lined architecture of the place (see also Target Field later in this post) and the way the owner walks around and chats with the regulars.

With a healthy dose of cholesterol coursing through my veins and a fully caffeinated nervous system, it was off to Rochester.

I arrived at Emily’s house 45 minutes later to find that she and Lauren had just baked scones.

Breakfast #2: Fresh, home made scones, fresh coffee poured by Emily. Life is good -- very good.

Well, the scones were amazing — and I mean that — I’d never had one that light, fluffy and melty-in-your-mouthishly good.

Lauren snaps a photo of her father, who is in a state of bliss.

Soon, Peet was ready for a walk and Emily suggested we go to Quarry Hill Park. It’s about a mile away, down a path that follows the railroad track. The park was an an unexpected delight — overgrown remnants of the old limestone quarry, large fields of prairie grass and wildflowers, no one but us in sight — a beautiful nature preserve right next to a residential area and state psychiatric hospital with a scary-looking prison fence around it.

Peet, Emily and Lauren amid the prairie grasses in Quarry Hill Park

There are old caves in the limestone that were once used as natural refrigeration “for the produced raised, stored and eaten by patients residing at the State Hospital”, according to one of the signs.

Peet guards the entrance to one of the old caves

The Date girls take the road less traveled

In the evening, Lauren and I went to our first Twins game at the new ball park, Target Field. I’ve been waiting all summer — waiting for years, really — for this.

Lauren and I had this same thought at the same time. Here's a scene that we would never have dreamed of 10 years ago -- fans flocking to see the Twins play outdoors at a downtown ballpark with a light rail train going past. Chalk a couple up for Minneapolis for getting these things right.

Lauren has been a big Twins fan for most of her life, going back to the glory years of ’87 to ’91, when they won two World Series. It’s been more difficult for her to cheer for them while living in Chicago for the past 3 years, but the new Target Field and a current team with some talented and likable players have rejuvenated her enthusiasm.

Lauren enters the stadium wearing her Kirby Puckett t-shirt at Gate 34, which is numbered in honor of her favorite player of the '80s.

Lauren's polish sausage with onions from Kramarczuk's just prior to gametime. OK, now I KNOW I'm in heaven.

The Twins won, 5-3 — just as they should. Jim Thome hit a home run right in front of us that just cleared the flower bed by the left field foul pole (you gotta love this place) — just as he should. As the sky grew dark, we could feel a gentle summer breeze as it ruffled the flags in right field a just a bit.

Just as it should.

And the day played out just as I had hoped it would.

Target Field -- gorgeous ending to a beautiful day.

I hate to see old buildings torn down — especially this one.

On Thursday and Friday, they tore down what was left of the building that used to house Heidi’s Restaurant, the Blackbird Cafe and the Patina and Shoppe Local gift stores. Now there’s just a big hole.

Big hole where some terrific neighborhood businesses used to be (photo by Steve Date)

On my way home from work on February 18th, I heard on the radio that there was a fire at a popular restaurant and surrounding businesses in my neighborhood. The odor hit me when I was still a couple of miles away. It was a sickly smell of things that shouldn’t be burning.

The front facade of the brick building was still standing after the fire trucks left. While we knew the insides of all the businesses were lost, most of us hoped that the building’s front and side walls could be saved and that the restaurants and stores could eventually move back in to their old spaces. Even when the Blackbird announced a couple of months ago that it would reopen at a new location on 38th and Nicollet, I still held onto some hope that the building could be reused.

But it was apparently too far gone.

Firefighters try to save Heidi's and the Blackbird (photo by Kate NG Sommers for Heavy Table)

From a similar vantage point yesterday (photo by Steve Date)

The fire was a blow to the Minneapolis restaurant scene. Heidi’s had developed a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the Twin Cities and The Blackbird was a wonderful neighborhood place that was full of tender loving care and served fantastic food.

But the loss of this block was like a death in the family to the people in the neighborhood. The building itself was not architecturally noteworthy, but it represented one of the little neighborhood business corners that developed in the early 20th century along the old street car lines in the Twin Cities. James Lileks of the StarTribune wrote a nice, nostalgic column about the building shortly after the fire. It was, he wrote, “… a building full of secret stories, the sort of place you only find in places that have been inhabited for a hundred years or so. The one we lost was just a one-story brick block. We have many. We have spares. So?
Well, it was ours.”

The corner occupied by the Patina gift store was originally a drug store. It has gone through several incarnations and was an antique store before Patina bought it and began the transformation of the block. Over the past two decades this block had turned into a truly great urban residential small business area. The neighborhood was thankful it was there — and proud of it.

Firefighters worked all afternoon trying to stop the fire (Photo by Kate NG Sommers for Heavy Table)

From a similar angle this weekend. The Malt Shop next door escaped damage (photo by Steve Date)

I held out hope that something of the old building could be saved. I had heard in recent weeks that they were going to have to tear it down, but I didn’t want to believe it until I ran by on Friday and the big hole took me by surprise.

I’m still hoping that some of the businesses rebuild there and I hope the new building looks good and fits into the neighborhood.

Of course, life goes on and “things fall apart”. But the big hole makes me sad, because you can’t build an old building.

I used a couple of photos by Kate NG Sommers who did some great reporting and photography for Heavy Table during and after the fire. Please read her stories and look at the other fantastic photos she shot.

My daughter, Lauren, also did a nice blog post about it right after the fire.

It’s nice having Emily back in Minnesota

On graduation day in 1999, Emily received a letter from the University of Virginia saying that she had been accepted from their wait list. It was one of those life-changing moments. UVA had been her top choice and we were all thrilled that she would be going to such a beautiful, prestigious college in a wonderful part of the country. I knew I’d miss having her around for the next four years, but any misgivings about that were entirely blown away by the fact that she was going to be able to have a life experience such as this.

Emily and Peet show me their secret cave in Whitewater State Park

She did come back to Minneapolis for a short time after college and had an apartment in northeast Minneapolis, but then went on to be a teacher in New York for the past five years. Now she’s back, living in Rochester — new husband, great dog, new house, new life. She’s happy — and I’m liking it a lot. Last Friday I drove down to help her do some work around the house. We didn’t get much accomplished, but it turned out to be a great trip. She decided that since they were planning to come up on Sunday anyway and Kyle had to work Saturday, she and Peet would ride back with me and spend the weekend.

Emily and Peet looking down at the swimming beach at Whitewater

We had a nice lunch together on a patio in downtown Rochester. Then we stopped at Whitewater State Park on the way to Minneapolis for a little hike. It was beautiful — the scenery, the conversation, the time together. I’ll never forget that day, because it was at that park that I really realized how nice it’s going to be to have these kinds of opportunities after 11 years. Kyle’s residency is four years and I know there’s a good chance they’ll move away again after that, but I’m going to cherish these times and never forget how lucky I am to have Emily, Kyle and Peet in my life for a while.

Peet and I went for a walk at Lake Harriet on Saturday. He seems to like Minnesota.

Eloise Butler continues to teach Minneapolis kids 77 years after her death.

The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis is one of those “gonna-stop-there-some-day” places that I finally visited today. As part of a science-focused summer school curriculum this year, the Minneapolis School District is sending all the 4th grade classrooms on field trips to this beautiful, quiet section of the Minneapolis Parks system.

Native prairie grasses grow in part of the wildlife sanctuary. (All photos by Steve Date)

I’ve driven by this place on Theodore Wirth Parkway many times, usually on my way to the Wirth Golf Course, but I never knew who Eloise Butler was or what was behind the gate. Today I learned that she was a science teacher in the Minneapolis schools for 36 years. According to one of the signs in the park, she “became known for taking students ‘botanizing’ in the bogs of Glenwood Park”. She believed what a lot of teachers still do — that the best way to teach kids natural science is to have them experience nature first-hand. Butler, along with several other science teachers, persuaded the Minneapolis Park Board to set aside a small parcel of land as a natural botanic garden. This “Wild Botanic Garden” opened in April of 1907.

Becka, our guide (gray shirt) did a great job of helping the students make observations about the wildlife that surrounded us in the Quaking Bog section of the park. Notice the Target gear -- they

The kids had a great time and seemed to learn a lot. I want to thank Target Corp. as well as the Minneapolis Public Schools for making this trip possible for our students. No one in my group (including me) had ever been here before and it was a beautiful as well as educational experience for all of us. We’re lucky to live in a city with such a wonderful public parks system and the Eloise Butler Garden and Sanctuary is a hidden treasure within that system.

Tatiana made some nice drawings of what she saw today.

Today we learned that Eloise Butler actually died in the sanctuary and her ashes were scattered there, in the place she loved. Some people have reported seeing her walking around in the park from time to time in the years since then. We didn’t see her today, but I do know that she left a wonderful legacy. It makes me happy that she was a public school teacher in my city. She knew that if the city would agree to keep this place in its natural state, that children — and adults — would always be able to visit and “let nature be their teacher”. Thank you, Eloise. The Minneapolis kids are still learning in your special place. I hope you’re resting in peace.

I feel a personal connection to 9 cities.

As my plane took off from the San Diego airport last Monday, I thought about how my visit with Casey, Hilary and their family (see previous post) had just made it one of several cities with which I have a personal connection. In my old age, I’ve come to appreciate the significance of place. Whether it’s a historical monument, a beautiful natural preserve, or someone’s house — places are important. For me, I like to have places to go back to — to remember.

I’d been to the San Diego area several times before, with some great previous memories, but on my flight I realized that as a result of this trip I now have a bond with that area that I’ll always carry with me. I started thinking about other cities that have have become like that for me — places where I feel that I’m a little more than just a visitor.

Madison, Wisconsin will always be the home of Lauren the college student.

Not counting the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I’ve lived all my life, there are exactly 9 cities (one is actually a very small town) on my list. I love many other cities I’ve visited — Seattle, Prague, Barcelona, Boston, Savannah, Charleston, Florence, Paris, Venice, to name 9 others — but I’ve only been an outsider in those places, with no personal tie.

Mom and Dad visit Emily's 4th grade class in Brooklyn.

The list was easy to make. All of my cities qualify for it easily and no others come close to making it. In alphabetical order, here are my 9 special cities, with the major (but not only) reason for inclusion.

Charlottesville, Virginia – My daughter, Emily attended the University of Virginia there.
Chicago – Other daughter, Lauren lives there now.
Coalwood, West Virginia (OK, not exactly a “city”) – I made a documentary film about it, called “Welcome to Coalwood”.
Duluth, Minnesota – Childhood memories
Madison, Wisconsin – Lauren went to college there.
Madrid, Spain – Lauren spent her Junior year of college studying abroad there and we visited her.
New York City – Emily lived there for 5 years.
Rochester, Minnesota – Emily and husband Kyle are starting the next chapter of their life together there.
San Diego – Casey and Hilary Gauntt shared their home and their family story of loss and hope with me.

In future posts I’ll tell my story of each of my 9 cities more fully. Whenever I visit any of these places I will always feel at least a little bit at home. I don’t know if there will ever be a 10th, but you never know. I hope there are more to come.

What are your special cities?

What a long, strange trip it continues to be . . .

A tricked-out old bus parked near the beach in Oceanside, California (All photos by Steve Date)

I just spent a few days in the San Diego area. I was the guest of some new friends that I met last October. It’s a long story, and one that I’ll tell more of in upcoming posts, but let’s just say that Casey and Hilary Gauntt and their family have been through a awful lot over the past couple of years. Their story is both tragic and hopeful. It includes the loss of a son and an unexpected connection with his grandfather who died 40 years ago. They are wonderful people and an amazing family. I’m trying to help them tell their story with the use of video so others might get some strength and inspiration from it.

They have a lovely house in Solana Beach

They treated me like royalty. Sometimes, I almost felt like I was part of the family, but of course I’m not, and I can’t know the pain and heartache they’ve been through. But we had some really nice times together over the long 4th of July weekend and I’ll never be able to thank them for letting me into their lives in this special way. Their graciousness and generosity is incredible.

Hilary comes home and enters their beautiful yard.

Casey’s son-in-law, Ryan Kirby, invited me to play golf with him and Casey at the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, where he’s a member. It was VERY nice — way different than my usual golf outing. I must admit that I’m not used to being attended to in the manner of a private club such as this. I think I could get used to it pretty quickly, though. The weather that day was perfect — high 60s and sunny. An ocean breeze always (they tell me) comes up the valley from the Del Mar beach. The golf course itself was stunning. A big thank you to Ryan for a round of golf I’ll never forget.

Casey hits a shot to one of the many picturesque greens at the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club.

I also had the privilege of meeting Casey’s mother, Barb, his daughter, Brittany, and grandson Wyatt, a noisy little guy who has brought optimism, hope and joy back into their lives.

4 generations - Casey, Brittany, Wyatt and Barb

We’re considering ways to help get the video project seen be those who might benefit from it. The immediate plan is to enter the video as a 10-minute documentary in the Minnesota Historical Society’s “1968 Project” in September. The story has a strong connection to that year. The Gauntts have also set up a scholarship fund in the name of Casey and Hilary’s son, Jimmy, that is helping Torrey Pines High School grads go to college and study the arts. It would be nice to help raise some money for that. We’ll think of other ways to get it seen as we go.

Casey and Hilary taking in the view at a nearby beach.

The weekend was both enjoyable and emotionally draining for everyone. They tell me they’re glad I was there to get more of the story on video, but I know it’s hard to have a house guest for 4 nights and it’s got to be tough to talk about these things so much for several days in a row. But the story is so great because the lives of everyone in the family have been changed in unexpected and hard-to-explain ways. I’m amazed at everyone’s strength and positive spirit.

One day, Casey and I went for a run in a beautiful wetland area nearby. We stopped at a bench that they had inscribed and dedicated to Jimmy. Casey told Jimmy who I was as we sat on his bench on a hillside looking out over the valley. I sat there feeling the cool breeze with tears in my eyes. Can you feel both incredibly sad and exhilarated at the same time?
Mostly, I feel lucky to have met Casey and Hilary last October in Coalwood, West Virginia.

More to come.
Stay tuned.