Tag Archives: town

self-made

Leaving the Cities, and the kindness of Philip and Preston, is sort of slow going this morning. On one hand, I’m really eager to be back to the river and small-town America and the rhythm of life we have created on this journey; on the other hand, I could easily spend another week here visiting friends and colleagues, mulling over the implications of the trip so far, and maybe even making some music, now that Mary Kay has brought my DP install disk, so that I can get it running on my replacement computer.

One thing Philip said seemingly almost offhandedly the other day is really helping me think through this whole undertaking. He mentioned something about how the point of the journey is for me to have my own take on the river: not so much to gather other people’s takes as an (ethno)musicologist might. I’ve been feeling sort of guilty and inadequate that I have little or no interest in going to hear music at the State Fair, for example; I would much rather look at the hundreds of species of rabbits, listen to the auctioneers sell off cows, and study the crop art (did you catch the crop art iPhone I posted the other day?!) Philip and Preston seemed to immediately understand this, and even though they certainly know about lots of interesting music in Minnesota, including their own, they didn’t push me to explore that now. The fact is, other than at church each Sunday, I have heard no live music at all on this trip. Unless you count birds and wind and train whistles and industrial sounds. Which I definitely do.

I feel like I am emptying myself of other people’s music. And it’s a bit scary, actually, since lots of the music I have written is in one way or another a response to music that already exists. I’m not sure what music I will be moved to write. I’m (mostly) okay with this emptying even though it creates a certain amount of mild anxiety in me. It’s sort of like a large-scale version of the emptying that comes before any new piece. But Philip’s comment somehow gave me permission to be squarely in this state, not to try to escape it, and I am really grateful to him for saying it.

It’s Mac’s paddling day today, and because we have a second kayak, Heather and Mary Kay can each get a half-day of paddling with his company, which seems like an excellent way to get them started on the river. Heather started out with Mac in the morning, so Mary Kay and I wandered around Mendota a bit, which was a curious experience. Mendota barely exists now, but it was a town long before St. Paul or Minneapolis came into being, and there are a few exquisitely maintained stone structures: St. Peter’s Church, Governor Sibley’s house, etc. right near where the Minnesota RIver joins the Mississippi, not far from Fort Snelling. They are made of the limestone that creates the bluffs we have just now started seeing, and there’s something great about how local these structures are. Makes me definitely want to build my Vermont house out of stone and wood gathered from my own land.

The trade-off point for Heather and Mary Kay was a boat launch just down from the US 494 bridge: maybe one of the biggest bridges we’ve seen yet over the Mississippi, and it’s under huge construction to double the lanes. An old man was sitting on a bench there: Ken has been coming out to watch the construction every day for months now. He had worked for years in the stockyards of South St. Paul; born in 1920, he grew up here the youngest of eleven children of parents and grandparents who grew up here, and most of his four children live nearby as well. I got to thinking about how some families have one person who did the big move of emigrating and then everyone settles in the new place for generations to come; while other folks seem to have immigration in their blood and they themselves and many of their offspring end up moving repeatedly all over the country or the world. I feel like I have both sides in me: my father was a wanderer by nature (or was it an adaptation to his circumstances?), and my mother always claimed she would have been happy to live in Farmington or Plymouth (Michigan) her whole life. But of course she didn’t, and I don’t know that she could have, despite all her voiced longing for that alternate settled life she never lived.

10,000 lakes; 1000 pictures

I’m sitting in a snack bar overlooking Lake Calhoun in the city of Minneapolis, and of course it has free wi-fi and power outlets wherever you might need them: the Twin Cities being one of those places that seems to regard wi-fi as a public good, very handy. It’s been a delightful and very full few days in the Twin Cities: but totally out of the rhythm Mac and I had developed over the last ten days or so, so I’m WAY behind on blogging. Suffice it to say that Mac paddled from Anoka to NE Minneapolis, a neighborhood I had never spent time in before now, which has a very cool new library in an old brewery; I paddled through the entire city of Minneapolis and to the border of St. Paul on Friday, which required me to go through THREE locks (I was very scared beforehand, but it was actually very cool and manageable, and the lock wardens or tenders or whatever they are called were very kind and friendly and didn’t seem to mind using all this huge technology just for me and my tiny kayak.)

Phillip and Preston, our incredibly generous and unflappable hosts for all these days at their very cool place, which has its own blog, took us on an amazing walk after my kayaking day to a new park in St. Paul that has been reclaimed from being a railway yard. It had previously been an encampment for the Ojibwe and there’s a magic cave there. And the walk continued up into a place called Swede Hollow, a sort of camp where immigrant workers in the nearby brewery lived up until the 50’s or something.

Friday night we all had dinner at Maura and Jeff’s, Saturday we said goodbye to Richard and welcomed Heather and Mary Kay as new fellow-travelers, and celebrated by going to the State Fair, oh my oh my oh my!!! this totally fascinating conflation of rural agricultural stuff right in the MIDDLE of the city of St. Paul, very very cool.

anyway, I could write for days about all these excellent adventures, but I think I’m just going to post some pictures and leave it at that for the moment. I’m pretty fried and today is a day of rest, right?!?

here are a few photos from friday, the day I paddled from NE Minneapolis to St. Paul

We Expect Visitors

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Last night Mac and I decided to take today off from paddling for the first time since our daytrip to Hibbing on 9 August, which Mac wrote about here. We’ve been alternating paddling ever since Richard left for the Twin Cities, and we’re getting too fast for our own good! Not really, but since we’ve kind of fallen in love with Little Falls, despite the gaping lack of a proper internet cafe, it seemed like a cool thing to spend the day here, an actual day off.

Since it’s Sunday, I wanted to find a church for my weekly immersion in community life. After the not-really-Lutheran church the first week, I’ve been to a very friendly Methodist church in Deer River, and a (real) Lutheran church in Palisade, where they had a really touching baptism the Sunday I was there. I considered going for a Catholic mass this week, but the church had giant pro-life billboards out front, which seemed a bit much, and I do feel uncomfortable about the whole communion question in a Catholic church. I thought Lutheran might be interesting given this week’s decision about gay and lesbian clergy. But then we passed an Episcopal church that had a sign saying ”We Expect Visitors,” so we had to go there. I’m really glad for that: the parishioners take rightful pride in their beautiful windows and sanctuary, they had a real pipe organ and good music, and the priest and all the parishioners were very warm and down to earth. The gospel reading had that excellent moment where Jesus tells the apostles they can leave if they want, and Peter says, sort of plaintively to my ear, “Where would we go?” Like if he could think of something better than following this crazy guy around, he would do it in a heartbeat.

One stained-glass window depicted Bishop Whipple, who famously went to Washington to talk Lincoln out of killing 264 of the 303 Native people who were convicted of murder in the 1862 uprising. The window had a crest at the top that had a tomahawk and a peace pipe crossed underneath the Christian cross; our host thought that maybe that’s the crest for the Episcopal mission to the Native peoples.

Afterwards we headed to the grocery store where we found real Greek yogurt, yay! So we bought a bunch of berries to go with the yogurt and ran square into Tony, who had stopped us the first time on the steps of the library Friday afternoon to expostulate about how cool our kayak was and ask about our journey. (Tony is the third schoolteacher I’ve met so far on these travels, and I’ve decided schoolteachers are just the best ever. Perhaps it’s because they have to deal with meeting and engaging with a whole bunch of really idiosyncratic new people every year (I think kids are just more individual than grownups most of the time: they haven’t yet had their edges trimmed to fit…) Anyway, it was excellent to meet up with Tony again in the grocery store, shopping with his wife on a Sunday afternoon. (Can I admit I also like that? just the idea of having the sort of calm and orderly life where the husband and wife go to the grocery store together once a week to stock up. Imagine!)

Anyway, so we headed off to the park with the nun-tended virgin pines that I so enjoyed yesterday, and we arrive and the Baptists are having their annual picnic, but that’s cool, we can share, so we’ve been spending the afternoon hanging out reading and listening to music, and suddenly there’s Karen! This is the woman Mac met Friday morning on the steps of the library, and we met her again yesterday and she told us about these cross rocks at Blanchard Dam, and then here she is at the park! Okay, this is really small-town life, no?! Three times in three days!

Another nice thing about Little Falls is that people really work on their houses: there’s a True Value in basically every mall in town, and I can see how they all stay in business! The picture above is just an example, a house right across the street from the library.

Anyway, in the park I read some more Schoolcraft and here are a couple of favorite additional facts he relates about the Ojibwe language:

Verbs, in the Chippewa, must agree in number and tense with the noun. They must also agree in gender, that is, verbs animate must have nouns animate. They must also have animate pronouns and animate adjectives. Vitality, or the want of vitality, seems to be the distinction which the inventors of the language seized upon to set up the great rules of its syntax. [Ch XVII]

Doesn’t that make WAY more sense as the core category? Life/non-life is kind of a more important distinction than male/female, after all! Similarly, the third person singular, ween, is used for both he and she: maybe we should take it up in English to solve that dumb problem in our language once and for all!

a song and a dance

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I had a marathon paddling day today (thirty miles!!!) because there aren’t many choices for pulling out along this stretch of the river. So one choice was to do two days on the river, camping overnight at one of the sites available only from the river. I considered doing that, because a river-access-only campsite sounds really cool to me, but then I realized I would have to forego coffee the second day, because I’m not really set up for coffee in the wild, so I decided I’d rather do a long day of paddling. I put in at Jacobson campsite, which we had happily lived in completely alone for two days: it’s a “primitive” site, meaning pit toilets, no shower, but a really excellent source of very cold, very clean water, so we were totally happy there. Mac and Richard had kayaking days when we were at that site, which had absolutely no cell service, so I did a lot of reading, about which more later, and tried a run one morning, but the mosquitos on the ATV trail were brutal, so I gave up after about a half hour.

This part of the river feels very different from the headwaters section before all the lakes. By now the volume of water has about doubled, the DNR maps tell us, and the municipal boat ramps are mostly located at late 19th century ferry crossings, each of which has the requisite steamboat wreck lying in the bottom of the river. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is pretty difficult to imagine passenger boats steaming up this part of the river: it has reverted to something closer perhaps to what it looked like in the early 19th century, when the French were trading with the Ojibwe, and logging and settlement had not yet begun.

In the course of an entire day of paddling: 8 am to 6 pm, I saw precisely one other person: a guy fishing from the side of the bank. I heard plenty of people though: most of this area is farmland, and behind the layer of trees lining the bank, you can hear the sounds of farm machinery and glimpse farmhouses and even a vacation home now and again. But the river itself is too low for powerboats: only the most knowledgeable or foolhardy would risk running an engine through these waters, and fellow self-powered boaters are few and far between. Kayaks and canoes are a real rarity, strangely enough, given that they are the ideal way to travel on the river up here.

I got out and took a lunch break at Ms. Keto campsite (get it?!) where the banks were a clay-mud that was so dense and thick, it actually brought back my childhood fear of quicksand. One step in that mud takes you down about a foot, and you feel like your feet will never emerge with your shoes still on them, and trying to get into the kayak while extricating from that muck is really a trick!

We had planned to stay at Big Sandy Lake, but the campground was full, so Mac and Richard set us up at the town park in Palisade, which is this great little town. I can’t explain it, exactly, but Palisade feels like what one dreams a small town would be like. After dinner in camp, I proposed we get some ice cream (it’s finally really hot summer weather) and as we walked up to the gas station/general store, a woman outside greeted us and said “Are you here for some ice cream?” and proceeded to serve us with some amazing quality of shared pleasure in the treat. I don’t know how she did that exactly, but I want what she’s having. Her co-worker at the register said something about the kids dancing in the parking lot, and I said, “Well, you have to dance somewhere.” and the ice-cream lady said, ”Yes, my youngest daughter is all about a song and a dance, that’s all there’d be if it was up to her. It’s great to be around her.“ I’m not making this up, people. Here we are in this tiny town (population 118), the sort of place my urban prejudice imagines is rife with gun-toting meth-heads looking for trouble to stave off meaninglessness, and instead, the gas station is the locus of a kind of magical quotidian joy that treasures serving ice-cream as much as eating it, and dancing in the parking lot on a summer’s evening as the perfect entertainment.