Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Midwest - Part Zwei

A nice brunch the next morning with my mom & dad, younger brother, wife and kids – who were by weird coincidence visiting the MN based family the week prior and on their way home to Kansas – then we headed even farther north to the Land of Sky Blue Waters... Bemidji… First City on the Mississippi…. that’s where my mom grew up and my parents met when she was in high school and dad was a sophomore at Bemidji State – so my grandpa lives there as well as both sets of aunts and uncles on mom’s side of the family and three of five cousins.

I don’t think I’d been to Bemidji since I was 15 or 16. Since dad’s side all live in small towns near Minneapolis I’ve seen them more often during the years I was in DSM – it was easy to pop in and visit on my way to or from a weekend in MSPLS – but Bemidji isn’t on the way to anywhere!

Since I’d never been to Portland before I decided to move here, I flew out for a weekend to check it out about a month before I actually made the move. I was by myself in a rented Yugo and a cheap hotel (later I learned I hooker hotel) on Sandy Blvd. and after a day exploring the city I drove to the coast. I was 27 years old at the time and had never seen the ocean from US shores before. As I drove out the Sunset Highway though, it was a little reassuring that while this was the new and different place that I wanted it to be - it wasn’t completely unfamiliar either, as the Evergreens lining the highway, making the sunny afternoon a bit darker and chillier then it should be, reminded me of driving to my grandpa’s cabin on Turtle River Lake in northern Minnesota.

Every summer of my childhood, for as long as I can remember, we went to Minnesota on a family vacation. We’d first stop at the Newman side of the family just south of Minneapolis. We’d stay at grandma and grandpas a few days and all the cousins would come over. The youngest of the nine cousins was the same age as my older brother and the oldest ones I don’t remember really being around much – already in college or working. But then came the really fun part - then we’d keep going north – into the land where my brothers and I commented once - that if aliens landed they’d think that the planet was uninhabited.

We would drive and drive and never see another car let alone a city or even a farm. The roads were narrow and lined with pines and birch crowding up on either side, Once there had been a forest fire, so the trees were scarred and blackened making everything look even more desolate. But once you got far enough, you’d start to see signs of life. Small towns with roadside signs promoting local festivals and homegrown vegetables. And then you’d reach Bemidji – as we drove into town you’d see Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Grandpa’s in town home and office weren’t far away and there was a small amusement park right across the street – but the best part of Bemidji was going to the lake.

Grandma and Grandpa had a huge log cabin right on the lake – a big picture window overlooking it all, enough bedrooms plus a guest cabin that’d we’d all go out and stay – all the cousins and aunts and uncles. Once a bat swooped down out of the rafters and landed on my mom’s head during breakfast – grandpa just grabbed the tennis racket he kept handy for such occasions and chased it down. There was a garage filled with tools and three little motorbikes that the older kids got to ride – and grandpa or an uncle would give rides to the little cousins. An orchard full of crab apples that we’d eat ourselves sick at, throw to the dogs (there were always lots of dogs) and then go down to the lake. Grandpa had a red and white motor boat that he’d always take us out in, but also a couple of canoes and other little paddle boats that we could take out ourselves – always in our lifejackets – and turn over in the middle of the lake as we then laughed and splashed out way back to shore underneath an overturned canoe.

So it was fun to take Noland there and share stories with him about those kid trips. The drive from Minneapolis wasn’t quite as barren as I remembered – with the expanding tourism of resorts and fishing weekends there were signs of civilization all along the way – we even jumped out of the car at a rest stop near Brainard, pulled out the laptop hooked into the wi-fi connection and took care of a few items that needed to be taken care of. And then there were the scary signs – alongside the resorts and farmers markets were the “Jesus hates it when you kill babies” signs. They were really prolific through one stretch of the drive. We wondered if there was a higher percentage of abortions there, or if they were just kooks….

Up in Bemidji we did the family visit – it was good and I’m glad that Noland got to meet grandpa and vice versa since sadly I’m guessing that this was the last time we’ll get to see him. Had a lot of nice long chats with my aunts and uncles and brief ones with my cousins (they all had wee ones to chase after so they never go to sit down and talk.) And I took Noland to Itasca State Park – headwaters of the Mississippi and we waded across the river – where I confessed to being rather bratty about having to hike the last time I visited the place (at about age 9) causing my uncle to thank the Lord that he had two boys - and then I serenaded Noland with bits of an Indigo Girl’s tune

Well the Mississippi’s mighty, it starts in Minnesota, at a place that you could walk across with five steps down. And I guess that’s how you started, like a pin prick to my heart and at this point you rush right through me and I start to drown...

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