On the way down to a Twins game a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a rest area along U.S. Highway 10 just east of Detroit Lakes.
Tucked on a hillside in lake country, the place was neat as a pin. A crew busily cleaned the winter residue out of the shrub beds and freshened up the bark mulch.
In the parking lot, a retired couple ate their lunch out of an open cooler. Their van's license plates said New Brunswick.
I was famished, so I used all of my Minnesota passive-aggressive manipulative techniques to try to scam a sandwich off them.
"Boy, this is my lucky day," I said. "And here I was going to stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken."
They thought I was kidding. No luck.
So, I asked about their trip. They were on their way to western Canada, taking their time, seeing the sights.
"This is a beautiful rest area," the man said suddenly.
He was amazed that the caretaker had come out to line up the garbage cans.
"Somebody takes pride in this place," he added.
The neatness of the Minnesota rest areas the couple had seen contrasted with those in other states farther east.
Most of the rest areas were closed for the season. Others were in rough shape.
Some states have gone to rest areas "without facilities." They are basically parking lots where people are supposed to rest, but nothing else.
Ha. As if you can stop people from using rest areas for their traditional purpose, facilities or not. What a mess.
As a proud Minnesotan and a fan of neat, clean rest areas, I puffed up my chest and claimed full credit for our state's proud rest area tradition.
A rest area up by Erskine has won awards for the flower bed put in by its caretaker and for the general neatness of the place.
Down by Fergus Falls, a rest area features a friendly caretaker in a green uniform who leaves the door open on his mop-filled office and visits with passers by.
Up by East Grand Forks, a friendly staff of tourism people offer you coffee and tell you about local attractions even if you are already local.
I have crossed North Dakota enough times, both from east to west and from north to south, to know that its standards are just as high.
What a contrast to some other states, which I will not name. The funding isn't there. Clean rest areas are obviously not of any value. Use at your own risk.
And people who cross those states notice, believe me.
There are those who say rest areas are not a legitimate government function. Gas stations could fill in the gap. You can have your picnic in the Walmart parking lot, for crying out loud.
I beg to differ.
In Minnesota, at least, somebody in government has found a way to motivate rest area employees to take pride in their domain.
In Minnesota, we band together through our government to show civic pride and hospitality to outsiders who come through.
Those of us who travel within our own state also benefit.
I mean, if you are forced to stop at a gas station, you pretty much have to buy a bottle of water or something to justify your stop. And the staff sometimes doesn't have time to keep things neat.
In this unfortunate era where much of our population has fallen into the grip of anti-government zealots who seem to think government is always bad, always wrong, always unproductive, I point to rest areas as a place where government, the Minnesota state government, at least, has been successful.
Good rest areas are probably unnecessary. They are, perhaps, a luxury.
But to an out-of-state traveler who has had six cups of coffee over the previous three hours, they are blessed comfort.
In addition, rest areas are but one example of a long and proud Minnesota tradition of civic pride, of citizens working through their government to show off their values to the outside world.
Long may they be properly funded.