One day when I was a little kid, I was at my grandma’s house being watched by a few of my aunts and uncles in their early 20s. A commercial for a new flavor of ice cream came on TV, and everyone agreed it looked good. My uncle went out, got in the car, bought some ice cream, and brought it back. As we ate it, I thought, “So this is what it means to be an adult. When you want something, you just go get it.”
I remembered that afternoon tonight as I got in my car to drive from Minneapolis to Hudson, Wisconsin. It’s Sunday, which means that Minnesota liquor stores are closed by law: if you want to buy some beer, you can either go to a bar or go to Wisconsin. I wanted to fill the fridge, so I pointed my Taurus toward the St. Croix River.
Even more than the beer, really, I wanted to drive for a while on the open highway in the setting sun. Most days I take my car to work in St. Paul, but that’s rush-hour city driving. To distract myself and to allay the frustration, I usually listen to audiobooks while commuting. Tonight, I wanted to roll my windows down and listen to some loud music.
Working on the Internet, you grow accustomed to a floating, rootless feeling: news from the other side of the world bumps up against tweets from five feet away, and the sun never sets. Driving through fields of soybeans at Minnesota’s eastern edge, I felt acutely in and of a particular place and time—a time in history that was slipping away with the sunlight.
When sociologist Orlando Patterson asked Americans, a few years ago, what activities they associate with freedom, he was disappointed to find that very few mentioned voting or exercising their first-amendment right to free speech. Instead, most of his respondents talked about their cars. Americans love to drive, and to many of us, our cars are the most tangible representations of what we consider freedom.
Will that last? It seems unlikely that it will, alternative-fuel technology notwithstanding. Our car culture—especially our fossil-fueled car culture—is unsustainable, and if we survive the next several decades of global warming, our great-great-grandchildren certainly won’t be hopping in their Fords to combust fuel as casually as we do now. The American age of the automobile is waning, and we’ll need to find another way to feel free.
Almost certainly much nearer in the future is the demise of the blue law banning Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota. After decades of shoulder-shrugging, a new generation of Minnesotans with a more acute perspective on the absurdity of this puritan law are agitating for its repeal. Whether or not that happens before Super Bowl XXVI shines the international spotlight on our Sabbath-day dryness, the change seems inevitable. My first Sunday border beer run might turn out to have been my last.
Though I’d crossed that border to Wisconsin innumerable times, I’d never done so on Sunday explicitly with alcohol purchase in mind. I realized, when I got to Wisconsin, that I’d subconsciously expected Wisconsinites to be waiting at the roadside with bushels of booze at pop-up establishments like produce stands. Instead, when I chose what looked like the first exit, I had to drive past several Hudson hotels before I found a strip-mall liquor store.
I pulled in next to another car from Minnesota, which contained the only other customer browsing the beer coolers. I grabbed a case of New Glarus Spotted Cow, an ale that holds mythic status in Minnesota because it isn’t distributed outside Wisconsin. “You can take it there to drink it,” said the clerk when she saw my Gopher State ID, “but you can’t take it there to sell it.”
Obeying her injunction, I brought the bottles back and stashed them in a private refrigerator, to be enjoyed exclusively by me, my girlfriend, and maybe our neighbors if they come to hang out on the shared porch where we’re now tapping on our laptops while sipping Spotted Cow. I wanted this beer, so I climbed in my car and went to get it, because I could.
It’s a beautiful Minnesota night circa summer 2014, and there will never be another quite like it.