Take the skyway

LEIF PETTERSEN | Updated 8/17/2012

A downtown dweller spends 14 days in the skyway system - and survives.

Not long from now, the planet's space agencies will start recruiting people for the first colony on Mars. Colonists will need to be comfortable functioning in close quarters, endure extended periods indoors and survive on less-than-scintillating food options. Where will these hearty colonists be found? NASA? The Biosphere? Or some other place where tens of thousands of people happily go about their days in comparable surroundings?

Minneapolis' skyway system, long equated to a human-sized hamster run, has been transformed in recent years from a place where workers and shoppers could merely escape the elements for a few hours into a fully outfitted neighborhood, with the usual trappings and perks of being in the center of a major city.

You can see a doctor, dentist, optometrist or hairstylist. You can get your body pulverized by a masseuse, chiropractor, personal trainer or yogi. You can apply for a passport, renew your driver's license, pay back taxes, get married, get divorced and sue your ex-spouse. You can hire a Realtor, shop for a condo, engage a mortgage broker, secure a bank loan and furnish your new home. You can take your in-laws to a very nice dinner, then a live theater show, movie or sporting event, and leave them at a respectable hotel. You can buy groceries, fill prescriptions, get a tetanus shot, do your dry cleaning, go to church and outfit an exceptional wine-tasting party. You can take university classes and go swimming, art-spotting or bar-hopping. You can send a package, receive a package, gift-wrap a package and get your package waxed. All this and much more -- without ever stepping a toe outdoors.

The scope of the Minneapolis skyway system is remarkable. It consists of 83 enclosed bridges connecting 73 blocks, stretching on for 8 miles, making it the world's largest continuous skyway system and probably one of the largest contiguous indoor spaces. This is where I live, work, shop and spend unholy amounts of uninterrupted time in winter.

Map of the Minneapolis skyways

When Target on Nicollet Mall expanded its grocery and produce sections in 2008, the skyway-as-neighborhood notion was complete. Virtually all practical resources, services, merchandise and day-to-day fundamental needs are now skyway-accessible -- or so I've theorized. So in January, with a demoralizing extended weather forecast unfolding, I decided to put my skyway livability theory to the test. I resolved to stay confined to the system for two weeks straight, without any unusual outside support (i.e. pizza delivery was OK, but having a carload of groceries delivered from Lunds was not). I did not stockpile groceries before the confinement began, and though I walked past many open doors, I never broke the threshold for 14 days.

I used part of my confinement to explore parts of the skyway that I hadn't previously visited and to check out tips collected from skyway power users. Practical features aside, it must be said that the skyways are excellent strolling grounds anytime of year. If there's a larger and more tricked-out, safe, controlled and clean pedestrian-only zone anywhere else in the country, I've yet to hear about it. Typical pedestrian annoyances and hazards like cars, bikes, stoplights, the elements, construction, animals and animal waste are nonexistent. And so, enclosed in this special serenity, I launched daily excursions, all done without a jacket, hat or gloves, or on some occasions, without even lacing up my shoes.

Among my favorite discoveries were the garden and benches in the 510 Marquette Building, the adjacent atriums in the AT&T Tower and Oracle Center, the rotating art display in the Thrivent building, and the giddying amount of unexpectedly good food -- a crow-eating revelation for me after years of blindly lamenting the aforementioned "less-than-scintillating food options."