It seems at once yesterday and three week ago since I came up the road to New Ulm and began a long wander through Minnesota. I went as far as one can to the Lake of the Woods and then turned around and returned on the western side of the state, more famous for its prairie than the familiar white and red pines of the north.
There were new places, surprises, an old favorite, bugs and lots of rain as part of that but as I left Thursday I felt I knew it better now. Readers with me last year will remember that I came barging out of Canada from my trip around Lake Superior to discover the wonderful area north of Duluth, then on to St. Cloud and on south in the quest to find warmth and a lack of precipitation, the Lincoln Highway, and thus missing attractions along the way in my haste.
Several years ago as part of the great adventure of following the Mississippi River from the end to the beginning, I ended the trip at the headwaters at Lake Itasca and exited stage left to follow Route 2 across the roof of the rest of the northern tier of states on U.S. 2. Both of those trips into the state seem too short.
New Ulm was a short trip from Clear Lake Iowa. An annual park pass at their State Park seemed wise since it was a reasonably guess that I would stay in more than five parks, thus making the one visit, five dollar version a bad investment. As it happens I was in seven by the time I left on Wednesday in a truly epic thunderstorm that was doing a good job of taking the leaves off the trees art Blue Mounds State Park in the far south western corner of the state. It seemed a fitting send off. There was more to come in South Dakota since that is where the weather came from, but I hoped it would moderate.
Minnesota is a marvelous and diverse place. While most of my time was spent in the more rural environs, I did pass through a number of places with populations greater than 20,000, a fairly urban experience for me. Weather was a driving decision. The weather north was better than near “The Cities” as the natives refer to Minneapolis and St. Paul, located cheek by jowl on the Mississippi River. Following a central route, wandering through New Ulm and on to Mille de Lac and northward, we reached Bemidj. I paused for a mandatory cleaning, laundry, and shopping stop. The hotel I stay at there is on the lake and hosts many of wedding receptions. This trip an actual wedding occurred on the lawn facing the lake. It is a lovely spot, albeit a bit windy. Kris and Mandy whoever exchanged their vows just one floor below my windows and I was entertained by piped in violins, a live guitarist, and the sonorous sounds of the good Reverend as he discomforted the bride by telling anecdotes about her early years—which would have been the ones prior to her 19th birthday which she had celebrated a week before.
I like Bemidji. This is the second time I have been there in the spring. It may be that the joy of sun and a 70 degree temperature is such that natives are incapable of ill humor. They are fond of running, skating, bicycling and walking along the lakefront. I was struck by the lack of obesity in Bemidji. It exists, but seems less prevalent here than in the population as a whole. The University (Bemidji State) there means that many of the clerks in the business are young, cheerful, and less jaded than most. Glad to be working and happy to help.
This trip, I spent two days in the Lake Itasca State Park which is the oldest one in the state and the “home” of the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi. It is a remarkably large place with more than 100 lakes within its boundaries. One can drive a 17 mile loop in the most rural part and find beaver dams and visit many of these small lakes. It rained of course, but lightly and the weather was warm enough to make up for it. The campground is rustic and enormous, a favored spot for natives to spend a week in summer.Here, as in all the places I have been this year, the number of tent campers are more numerous than in past trips. No one has an adequate explanation. They are usually younger and often same sexed and seem to enjoy the experience. Some of the campgrounds have length limits few more than electricity at the site which explains perhaps why some of the larger road warrior trailers and motor homes are absent.
Continuing north, as far as I could go, I reached the edge of the Lake of the Woods at a primitive campground known as Zippel Bay. It is rural there. No, perhaps beyond rural, but the best chance to see eagles, owls, and bears. They were all there but my attempts at photography thwarted at every turn by birds far more wise than I. I saw a fair number, but never when I was in a position to get a picture. No matter, they are in my mind and they are wonderful. A couple from Oregon and I set off one morning to see if we could find the bears we had been warned to avoid and came across a small black bear, which we concluded was a cub and if so momma was likely to be nearby so we hastily retreated. We did see some larger ones fishing, but only through binoculars. In the evening the deer came to the meadows as they did at dawn, just before full light. They were skittish. I am sure the lack of human contact is the reason. We enjoyed them as the firelight took hold and the very late sunsets here in the high latitudes faded into the gloaming.
The trip down the western side of the state was slow and meandering. Never one to use an Interstate when there is an alternative. I found lots of them and lots of small parks to spend a night or two. The rains returned as did the fog. Time at the wheel was contemplative. The state road speed limit is 50 MPH so there was time to look about and enjoy the scenery that so fascinates me.
As in many places there are small but interesting National Monuments here about which one knows nothing unless you take the time to get off the road. One such this time was in the town of Pipestone in the far south western corner of the state. The town takes its name from the quarry just outside of town. It is considered a holy place by many Indian tribes for it is here that the stone for the ceremonial pipe is found. It is in fact one of the few places in North America where it is found. Specimens of peace pipes, as they became known to whites, have been found that were quarried here as far away as Ohio. There is evidence that the red stone—said to be red with the blood of the ancestors---has been quarried here for more than 2,000 years. While there is a long and tortured history of control of the quarries, it was always sacred ground. When members of different tribes would come to quarry the stone, they left their weapons and gathered the stone peaceably. The Yankton Sioux had exclusive control given them by the US government in 1858 and were then moved 150 miles away shortly thereafter making it difficult to exercise it. They reached a settlement in 1928 which ended their claim. In 1937, Congress established the National Monument and gave only Indians exclusive quarrying rights.
Today, a member of any tribe, recognized by the U.S. government, may quarry here. Some have been doing so for years. Some come once or twice a year. There is a five year waiting list. It is done only with hand tools. The vain of stone they wish to reach is deep under the quartzite of the surface. It is not easy work but it is a connection to their ancestry that many Indians cherish. Each of them leaves gifts for the gods they believe inhabit this place near the great boulders at the entrance known as the Three Sisters. It is a quiet and peaceful place with a beautiful stream fed from springs. I am glad I found it and had time to explore. It is complicated, as I have found most Indian sites to be, but once one understands the reasoning of the natives as to why this place is holy and necessary, it is easier to understand why the pipe is used at all.
A white man named George Catlin came here in 1836 to live among the Indians. He wrote extensively in journals and made maps of much of the area that the Plains Indian Tribes inhabited. His true talent was painting and many of the hundreds he did are now a part of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian collection and found in museums in states throughout the Mississippi River basin. Catlin was a remarkable man who came here first with General Lewis and published a number of books about the Indians of North America traveled as far as Florida and Canada to paint and worked for the Smithsonian near the end of his life.
The peace of the countryside and the warmth the people I met along the way has made this trip through Minnesota most pleasant. I do not know when I will be back, but now at least I can say I have taken the time to look at much of it for more than a fleeting moment.
Thank you Minnesota.