A Saturday Morning Drive

Five-thirty in the morning came real early yesterday.  Our fancy SUV with the butt warmers, satellite radio, automatic climate control, etc., etc., wouldn’t start.  That’s what happens to a vehicle when your battery is 4 years old, the temperature is 8 degrees, and you haven’t driven it for two weeks.  Deb and I climbed into the less opulent but reliable pickup for the one hour ride from Winona to Rochester MN.

Still pitch dark, we popped on the four wheel drive as a precaution, the road slick from a dusting of snow.  As we pulled out of Winona, MN the frozen Mississippi river made it seem almost impossible that boats and jet skis could have been racing out there just a few months ago.  It was eerily quiet as the truck groaned along the highway.  We met an occasional car or truck coming from the other direction, but it occurred to me that not a lot of people get up before 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.  As we rattled through little Stockton, MN we noticed that the only gas station in town was closed; so much for the early morning coffee.  However, the little Kwik Trip store in Lewiston was open and the coffee was hot.

Along highway 14 the dawn slowly stirred.  The milking parlors were lighted as the dairy farmers went to work on their herds.  There is no rest for a dairy farmer running a small operation.  Twice a day, every day, he has to milk those cows.  There are no federal or state holidays and no sick days.  Not even on Christmas day can a dairyman get his well-deserved rest.  By the time his sons are raised, they want to get off the farm as quickly as possible….forever.  They tell their college professors, “Only my old man would put up with the daily grind of the dairy farm.”

As we headed west, places with names like St Charles, Utica, Dover, and Eyota made their short-lived appearances.  These small towns usually sport an implement dealer, a local hardware store, a home-town café, and a bar or two.  While pride of ownership is important, more often than not these enterprises sap the life out of their owners, with long hours and minimal profits.   No one gets rich running a greasy spoon in a town of 100 people.  Your typical small town hardware store owner spends a lifetime paying down his mortgage and inventory loans.  By the time he’s in his late forties, he’s out of hock to the local bank.  That gives him 10-15 years to make a few bucks, if he’s still interested in hardware!  Eventually he looks for a buyer for the business.  If the town is prosperous enough, he will find some young couple to take the bait.  If the town is in decline, he will be forced to auction off his inventory.  Owners of these small town businesses often wonder whether they own the business or the business owns them.  That’s the way it is in a small town.

As the sun rises, we finally see the silhouette of downtown Rochester, MN (Pop 105,000).  Rochester would be a small Minnesota prairie town except for the fact that Dr. William W. Mayo and his sons established a clinic there in the late 19th century. Today the Rochester Mayo complex employs 30,000 people, including over 1,400 physicians.  The physicians are salaried.  The Mayo Clinic has some of the lowest health care costs in the United States, yet it is also a place to which people come from all over the world in their quest for extraordinary results.

When Deb and I moved to Winona, MN in 1975 we took little notice of our close proximity to the Mayo Clinic.  Now it is a lifeline for Deb and a place of reassurance for me.  As I am prone to say, “The Mayo Clinic Is the nicest place, staffed with the most competent, professional and friendly people that I never want to see again!”

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