General 9-12-2004

Letter from a Writer: Making Water and Politics

The aesthetics of political expression and the politics of recreation are raked over this month by Jean Sramek, Duluth correspondent on whatever crosses her path.

Jean Sramek

I normally avoid making sweeping statements about politics. “The Republicans will lower my taxes.” “Bill Clinton created jobs.” “Nader stole votes from Gore.” While they are a few intelligence levels above bullshit about “integrity” and “freedom” and “restoring dignity,” such statements rarely take into account the complexities of any American political procedure, instead reducing a room-sized computer’s worth of information to a game of tic-tac-toe played with a pencil. Statements about taxes are particularly offensive. People whine about taxes being too high or get all excited about a tax cut, but people are animals. I hang out with way smart people and I still hear poorly-informed opinions about taxes. On the other hand, I seldom hear things like “Why should the gubmint give money to some feller what puts our Lord Jesus in a glass of piss?” so I guess I should consider myself lucky.

Speaking of piss, and back to my point, I’m going to make one of those ignorant statements now, a little lump of a statement shorn of any detail or intuition or political science: Tim Pawlenty has turned us into fat criminals.

The Willard Munger State Trail is named after the late state representative. He was a generous man, a visionary politician, and an environmentalist. His son, Will Munger, owns and operates the Munger Inn, a motel located at the trailhead in the western part of Duluth. The asphalt trail runs from Duluth to Hinckley, parallel to Highway 23 along a former railroad bed. It’s used primarily by bicyclists. I bike a section of the trail once a week, from the Munger Inn to downtown Carlton and back again. It’s not boring. I see trillium turn into lady’s slippers turn into columbine, and I do a lot of writing in my head during this weekly 30-mile ride.

There used to be two porta-johns, paid for with our Minnesota tax dollars, located at the trailhead and at Beck’s Road–about 5 miles south and therefore a popular turnaround point for families with little kids and people of limited mobility. Last year, the state yanked the potties, replacing them with a sign that said something about budget cuts. A local bike shop and a rollerblading club rallied, raising enough money to pay for one trailhead potty for part of the season. Inside that plastic cube is a small laser-printed sign, asking us to please call a local number and donate money if we’d like to help the cause.

But the Beck’s Road porta-john is gone. To add insult to injury, the state left standing the sturdy wood frame surrounding it. Now people throw their pop cans and energy bar wrappers—neatly—into the frame where the porta-john used to be.

Why? Tim Pawlenty. Okay, it’s more complicated than that—Republican governor, sales tax rebate disaster, spread the pain around, refuse to raise taxes, cut DNR funding, cut trails funding, cut porta-johns—but basically, Suburban Tim is the reason I have to pee in the woods. He, however indirectly, has made it more difficult for people to enjoy fresh air and exercise in the state of Minnesota. Meanwhile, Blue Cross/Blue Shield has spearheaded a billboard and newspaper ad campaign begging obese Minnesotans to, for the love of God, “groove your body for 10 minutes 3 times a day.” You’d think that we’d want to encourage state trail use as matter of public health. But since we’ve become a swing state (Swing state! When did that happen, and when will I be able to say “swing state” without triggering my gag reflex?), perhaps the rules of logic no longer apply.

When you arrive at the Munger trailhead, park your car, and unstrap your bike and gear, chances are that you or your kids will want to use a toilet before hitting the trail. Your choices, during most of the year, are: hold it until you get to Carlton; use the Munger Inn’s restrooms (“Hello, Munger family! Your father, Representative Willard Munger, dedicated his life to the people of Northern Minnesota; let us show our gratitude by having a parade of strangers use your toilet”); or to deposit the contents of your bladder on the side of the trail. Which I’m pretty sure is against the law. Regardless, it doesn’t seem right to whiz on Willard’s legacy.

I’m not much of an American, but I’m a feverishly patriotic Minnesotan. One of the things that makes this state great is the quality of our public recreation areas, and by extension, the quality of our wayside rests and state-scrubbed toilets. Drive west and your potty stops will quickly deteriorate. When you see the first signs for Wall Drug, you’d better have your own stash of hand soap and Charmin. By the time you get to western South Dakota, there will be stalls with no doors and faucets with no water; when you hit Wyoming and Colorado, a blue “REST AREA” sign will yield a tipped-over porta-john oozing a pool of tourist waste at the end of a sad gravel road. I haven’t been to Idaho or Nevada, but I can only imagine. I hear they have really low taxes in Mississippi, too. Minnesota porta-johns have full dispensers of hand sanitizer and poop-free floors for a reason. Our endless rolls of toilet paper and no-touch electronic flushes aren’t free. Duh: we have cushy public potties because they’re maintained by people with pension plans and employer-paid health insurance.

Swing state. It’s depressing. Never mind dehydrated funding for the arts and poking holes in MinnesotaCare. This is about “quality of life,” another one of those blanket political statements—but one that actually means something to Minnesotans. Or used to. It’s depressing, but it’s not hard to condense into a useful lunatic epithet. Pawlenty has taken away our places to pee.