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The view from the bluffs

It’s a busy, busy world out there.

There’s a certain place I go in my little town of St. Paul, Minn. It’s a park in one of the oldest parts of town, called Dayton’s Bluff. It sits atop a stubby cliff formed 10,000 years ago by the Mississippi River. For several years I have made a habit of stopping and eating my lunch under the little radio tower that stands on the peak, its red light blinking night and day as a warning to low-flying aircraft.

Let me describe what I see when I look down. First, there is the river, which takes a big bend to the left as it snakes through St. Paul. Though rivers flow downhill-the result of legislation, I think-to me the river here goes up, because from my view on the bluff, everything seems to be heading up. I see barges tied up, or a lone tugboat pushing upriver, parting the silky water with its prow.

Beside the river are several lanes of train tracks, and the echoing rumble of freight cars connecting. You can see eight sets of track running side by side, and hear the whistle of an engine coming through.

Then, just next to the tracks, is U.S. Hwy. 61, one of the grand old highways of America, skirting the barge-choked river all the way up from New Orleans, heading north through Duluth, Minn., and running along Lake Superior’s north shore, past freighters loaded with iron ore from Bob Dylan’s old stomping grounds-Hibbing, Minn.

But I’m not done yet. On the other side of the river is a newspaper printing plant, with delivery trucks coming and going. Beside the printing plant is a little airport called Holman Field. All day long you can see little one- and two-engine planes touching down and taking off on the tiny runway, and people climbing down little ladders and crossing the tarmac, bags in hand.

Then, beyond the airport, are the mighty bridges crossing the Mississippi–the Robert Street bridge, the very picture of massive 1920s splendor–and the recently refitted Wabasha bridge, with its fancy new light posts and walkways.

And then there are the downtown buildings. St. Paul has a sleepy downtown, with only two buildings that can pass for skyscrapers. But it has a couple of department stores, a new hockey arena, scores of nice old brick warehouses and office buildings, and then, skipping across Interstate 94, the long green mall leading up to the Cass Gilbert-designed state capitol-a passable replica of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., only not so big, and adorned with an impressive statuary team of gold-plated horses.

It is not often that you can stand in one place and see so much. You can see every kind of transportation, and make out people doing dozens of different jobs.

Though I’ve been lunching here for years, only recently did I understand the full charm of this place. I was with a friend and his two young children. It was night, and the city was lit up, and the radio tower blinked red against the stars, and the sound of an incoming Piper Cub buzzed in our ears. The youngest child pointed up at the plane’s moving white light.

This scene was a replica of a certain kind of book that young children, especially boys two to four years old, love to peruse.

I remembered sitting with my son on my lap all those years ago, him pointing at the pictures in Richard Scarry’s “Busy, Busy World” and naming the different kinds of trucks on the page. You could almost feel the hopes welling up in him at all the buttons he could push in this world.

What a kind way to introduce children to technology and careers. And what a boyish way to encounter our busy, busy world.

Michael Finley is America’s best-loved futurist(tm).

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