By Doug Mack
One day, I decided to become a Segway tour guide on the Minneapolis riverfront. I needed the money. I needed the fresh air. I needed to get out of my comfort zone. And showing complete strangers around my beloved city from the perch of our era’s most ridiculed mode of transportation checked all the boxes.
At the time I was thirty years old and single. The view from my blue microfiber futon overlooked a weedy parking lot. But from the front door of my apartment building, it was a straight four-block shot to the Mississippi riverfront, a whole new world of lushness and cobblestones, where the nation’s most storied waterway, wide and muddy, eased past the limestone mills that built the city, and which were now in various states of ruin and revival. Here was Main Street, every bit the Norman Rockwell scene conjured by its name, with historic brick buildings, cozy cafés, and families out for a stroll (parents holding hands, kids on scooters, a beagle bounding alongside them), and in the middle of it all, the incongruous scene of rookie Segway riders lurching atop their self-balancing steeds, yelping and flailing and trying their damnedest not fall on their faces.
I wanted to be part of that tableau. All of it. And though the family part wasn’t anywhere on the horizon given the dismal state of my dating life (so many awkward conversations, so few connections), the Segway part was just a job interview away.
Before long I got hired and outfitted: yellow t-shirt, red helmet, walkie-talkie. I learned to run the cash register and to answer the most common questions: How fast can these things go? About twelve miles per hour, max. How much do they cost? Around five grand. Is it true that the inventor of the Segway died while he was riding one? Not true! But the guy who bought the company and served as its CEO . . . yeah. He drove his Segway off a cliff by accident. That won’t happen to you, most likely!
A Segway is a technological marvel, self-balancing thanks to five gyroscopes and a solid-state angular rate sensor. (Say this with a straight face and move on before anyone asks for further explanation.) It’s all hidden inside the base upon which you stand. What you actually see, what registers in your mind, is a pogo stick affixed to a small plastic box with two wheels attached, a prank cobbled together with stuff found in the garage. Your lizard brain pulses a warning: You’re going to fall on your face.
The key is to block out that voice, to turn off your brain. It’s all about subtle movements and adjustments, like downhill skiing, only slower and more nerdy: lean a bit on your toes to go forward, shift to your heels to slow down. For every human action, there’s a mechanical reaction—if you fight it, it’ll fight back. Be cool, find your balance. As our tours began, riders would still be working on this, forming a weaving line of a dozen or more Segways, an absurdist Make Way for Ducklings, with yellow-shirted guides nudging their charges along, reminding them not to overthink it.
The tour featured seven history stops, and most guides maintained the keep-it-simple approach in their spiels. They weren’t historians, they were a random assortment of summer-job-seekers: college students and artists and aspiring entrepreneurs; a retired principal and a kindergarten teacher who always tried to work her favorite bar—“Home of the Greenie!”—into her talks. Where entertainment is the point and tips are on the line, a good story takes precedence over verifiable fact. Hit the highlights, bullshit at will.
Our first stop was in front of the Pillsbury A-Mill, a mass of grey limestone, the world’s largest flour mill when it opened in 1881. It was here, on my first tour, that I heard the first whopper, a claim that, because the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nothing on the interior or exterior could be altered or removed, including machinery. If the planned conversion to apartments ever happened, the guide said with utmost sincerity, people would have to put beds on top of grinders and build bathrooms around sifters.
This is not true. I knew it was not true because it is obviously not true, but also because my father is a historic preservation architect and I knew how these things work—all of which I desperately wanted to yell out on that first tour. But more than anything, I wanted to fit in, to be part of the team of guides, and to get those tips and maybe, eventually, upgrade that blue microfiber futon or even get out of that apartment. Be cool, I reminded myself. Find your balance.
I quickly realized that the talking points varied not just from guide to guide but from day to day. Tales of the riverfront came and went, intersected with the truth, then veered away. It was history edited on the fly, depending on weather, mood, crowd size, and the need to get to the bathroom. I started gently offering suggestions when facts got truly mangled over and over, trying my best not to be pedantic. But after I began doing history stops myself, I discovered the ease with which the truth got jumbled, due to nerves or the sudden desire for a quick hit of laughter from my audience, not unlike the bumbling small-talk on the first dates that filled many of my evenings that summer.
From the mill, a path led us through shady Father Hennepin Park— named for a Franciscan missionary who came here in 1680—and then to the Stone Arch Bridge and the view of the skyline and Saint Anthony Falls—Owámniyomni, to use the Dakota name that was in our official script but which we were too embarrassed to attempt to pronounce. At the falls, we were supposed to talk about how back when Father Hennepin was here and it hadn’t eroded so much, it was much higher . . . and at this point, my brain always froze. How high was it? Some guides said it was as tall as Niagara, some said it was forty feet high, another said one hundred feet. No matter how many times I looked it up, I always forgot, so I’d quickly point at the Guthrie Theater—a decidedly modern building with dark-blue cladding and hulking mass offset by a golden glass box near the top—and deadpan that it was the North American headquarters for Ikea. If they laughed, I’d say the whole thing came flat-pack, and was put together with a single Allen wrench. Keep riffing, keep ’em happy, get those tips.
But no wisecracks or facts—fumbled or not—could compete with the setting. That magnificent horseshoe-shaped waterfall, those shimmering skyscrapers just blocks from the river. Minneapolis combined the urban and the pastoral like nowhere else I knew, and for all my apprehensions about what I was doing, there was an undeniable pleasure in sharing this place with other people. For a few minutes, we were immersed together in the heart of the city, its defining tragedies and triumphs written in the stones and trees and waterway around us.
On weekend afternoons, wedding parties took over the area around the Stone Arch Bridge for photo shoots, and we’d veer around them, bridesmaids and groomsmen giving us thumbs-up and high-fives or, sometimes, just pointing and laughing. All we could do was mug and bask, knowing that our weird scooters had just added a jolt of absurdity to a solemn occasion, mingling sacred and profane.
As the summer wore on, I became more confident in my history talks, finding a balance of straight facts and crowd-pleasing humor, and also more secure as part of the team, bantering with the other guides, trusting them. But when I saw all those happy-family tableaus on Main Street or on the Stone Arch Bridge, there was always a sense of something missing, a story still jumbled and incomplete: I wanted my own quiet riverfront moment with someone I loved.
I kept going on dates, and at the beginning of August, I met Maren, a graduate student with brown hair and a constant gleam in her blue-green eyes. It took me a couple of dates to work up to mentioning my nascent career as a Segway tour guide, but finally I blurted it out with a combination of pride and sheepishness. One week later, we walked the route together on a quiet Sunday morning with a choir of cicadas singing the hymns. Everything felt right: the company, the conversation, the setting.
The topics meandered, finally getting deeper than the getting-to-know-you chitchat of our earlier dates, and pausing now and then for Maren to prompt me, with a gentle smirk, for some history. As we passed the downtown post office, I told her about its brass light fixture, three hundred feet long or something like that, but really freaking long, it’s so cool. We kept going across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge—Those suspension cables? Just for show, not structurally necessary—and up to the village on Nicollet Island. A place where even the Twin Cities locals did wonderstruck double-takes at the two dozen historic houses—a Queen Anne here, a Colonial there—under a canopy of oaks and elms, movie-set idyllic. “I’ve lived in Minneapolis for forty years and I had no idea this was here,” one woman told me. One day, a family of foxes trotted by as we rode down the island’s brick streets. Maren, too, hadn’t known about the village, and it was all I could do to suppress giddiness as I pointed out the shortcut paths winding through the woods, the purple house and the yellow one, and the micro-prairie where, in late-summer evenings, the tall grasses glowed.
In the coming months, we would walk around this area many times, as a couple. The next year, I would move into her apartment on the other side of the city; a year after that, we would get married. Maren’s bachelorette party would include a Segway tour led by the kindergarten teacher with a fondness for the Greenie.
But on that first riverfront walk, we took a detour from the Segway route, to a landing along the riverbank, hidden from the main road on Nicollet Island. It was my favorite spot in the city, a place I sometimes came to sit quietly, a place where history and nature seemed to wrap around me like a blanket, cozy and calming. All of downtown was laid out before us, towering and magnificent, just across the water. I had no talking points, no history, no jokes. We sat in silence, enjoying the city together, fully belonging in this place together. ■
This essay appears in Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
Doug Mack is the author of The Not-Quite States of America and Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day. He has written for the New York Times, Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Travel + Leisure. He lives in the Longfellow neighborhood with his family, and has a digital home at www.douglasmack.net.
Cover image by Chris Yunker via Flickr (cropped; CC BY 2.0).
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