Day 35. ND/MN/WI: grumpy riser, true head, celebrity guests, icy blasts

by Kevin May

The house was dark and silent when I got up. I went into the kitchen and wasn’t sure quite what to do with myself.

I snuck outside for a much overdue burst of nicotine, but even then felt guilty about polluting the crisp rural air that was billowing politely in the cornfields.

When I had finished, I put the butt in my pocket and went back in. The crashing of pans from the kitchen, a couple of doors down from my room, alerted me to woken life.

By the look on her face, I’d say Kathleen didn’t much like being up at 8.30 in the morning. Jerry, on the other hand, came bouncing in from outside ten minutes later with the air of a man who had already done a day’s work.

The country lane  on which they lived looked very different by daylight. The previous night it  had seemed menacing, but now it was like something out of a Famous Five  book. I fully expected to see some kids in pre-war garb come bounding across the corn with their excited pet dog in tow, off in search of daily japes.

Soon I was in Fargo, and approaching the state line. The traffic was slow moving, and as I edged along Main Avenue towards Moorhead, I noticed a Pennzoil service station offering an oil change and lube check in 10 minutes for only $17.95. The radio had been bleating on throughout the trip with commercials, surprisingly enough from companies offering the service, advocating the necessity of having your oil changed every 3000 miles. It had been almost 12,000 miles since I had picked the car up in Savannah GA.

As well as being home to the Artiste formerly known as Zimmerman, Minnesota is apparently a state of 10,000 lakes. I passed so many of the latter that I didn’t bother stopping to take any photographs because the day was evidently going to bring me many opportunities. And who would want fifteen photographs of various lakes, in any case?

My first Minnesotan port of call was Lake Itasca, or more precisely its State Park, where the headwaters of the Mississippi were to be found. Itasca was a contraction of the two Latin words, veritas and caput.

It was another astonishingly beautiful park, and I enjoyed teetering through it at 25 mph to reach the northern end where I parked and walked the last 600 yards to the point where the mighty Mississippi began as a small stream. I had a brief look around the inevitable gift shop but there was little of interest. It seemed the more important the sight, the more shoddy the gear that was sold in the official shops.

The river ran north out of the park before looping south, and I followed its course to Bemidji, the first town on the Mississippi. The place was also famous for its statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox called Babe. The Bunyan legend told of a giant lumberjack who had walked across the state with his pet ox, and it was their plodding that had made all the lakes.

He must have been pretty bloody big – he’d also made the Grand Canyon and Puget Sound in his time – and his statue was obviously a scaled-down version, about 15’ tall. It appeared to have been made by the same bloke who did the figures for Trumpton. He looked like one of the soldiers out of Pippin Fort.

Not that I would have said anything publicly to criticize such a state icon. You had to be careful in Minnesota. The governor of the state, in true Bunyan style, was an ex-professional wrestler who gloried in the name Jesse “The Body” Ventura. His response to some recent press criticism had been to sue the newspapers concerned, on the basis that his name was trademarked and they hadn’t received his permission to use it. It seemed quite a no-holds-barred approach to public relations.

I was running low on cash, and there was a bank nearby so I went in to change some travellers’ checks. The cashier had a thorough look through my passport and then, with a “My, you’ve been all over haven’t you?”, asked me if I had an account with them. When I confessed that I hadn’t, she pointed to an ink-pad next to the chained pen and I was asked to put my thumbprint on each cheque that I wished to cash.

Across the road was the Chipewa Trading Post, with anxiously helpful staff. Within two minutes of entering and explaining that I wanted something different (ie. not a shot glass) distinguished as being from Minnesota, I had three of them ferreting around for ideas. After a dozen or so attempts, I finally settled for a Paul Bunyan/Babe golden Christmas tree decoration with the word “Minnesota” at the bottom.

The owner came over to introduce himself and to welcome me to the USA. He was interested in what I was doing, but seemed to struggle with the concept. “Wowee. That’s great. So you’re doing the 27 states in 29 days. Amazing.”

It was a beautiful drive out of Bemidji through the Chippewa National Forest and past the superbly named Lake Winnibigoshish. It sounded like a Japanese game show where the contestants vie for a large kebab. A nearby school had the equally impressive name of Bug O Nay Ge Shig. It must have been a laugh being a cheerleader there.

As I came out of Grand Rapids, it dawned on me that I’d not taken a photograph of a single lake let alone one of Prince or Bob Dylan. A quick glance at my road atlas showed no more blue blobs between where I was and the state line. My fears were confirmed when I arrived in Duluth with no lakes on my film.

It seemed a ridiculous oversight, but little I could do about it now. At the very least though, I wanted a shot of the great lake taken from Minnesota. This proved more easily said than done, and I wasted another 45 minutes driving around the manic streets of Duluth trying to find a decent vantage point where it would be safe and legal to stop and snap the blue expanse.

I had booked a room in Bayfield, Wisconsin, on a peninsular overlooking Lake Superior. As I picked my way through the darkness along the coast road, I thought I saw movement up ahead but then lost it. Seconds later, I saw it again but it was too late, I was right upon it.

As I flashed my full beam and held on my horn, the deer twenty feet in front of me in the middle of the road froze. I threw on the anchors and swerved into the oncoming lane, missing the hapless beast by a couple of inches. I drove gingerly the rest of the way and arrived in town at about 8.30.

The place I was staying at was called Greunke’s First Street Inn. I was the only person staying that night, and so sharing a bathroom was a fairly minor sacrifice. I was shown up to the room by a waitress from the restaurant/bar downstairs, and warned that food was only served until nine. I didn’t feel like eating immediately, and so sat at the bar and chatted with the two barmaids until closing.

The younger was called Alia, and thought that it was absurd that I was leaving the following morning without going to see the islands. The Apostle Islands lay just offshore and were the major tourist lure for the area. I explained the nature of my trip and, in the nicest way possible, she told me that she couldn’t see the point of it.

I didn’t think that I could argue with her. She did want to know what I had made of New Orleans though, as she was going there herself the following week. I said that I had found it quite decadent.

Although they had closed for the evening, Alia let me have one last drink after hours and the kitchen staff all came out and congregated by the bar. They asked me if I minded them smoking, apparently something only permitted after all customers have left.

A rather stern looking middle-aged lady, who turned out to be the owner, joined us and started examining the till roll. She introduced herself as Judith and said that she came originally from Sweden. When she heard about my trip, she was a lot more interested and impressed than Alia had appeared to be.

She asked if I was going to Montana, as she had a cabin to rent in Red Lodge. I told that I’d already been and had not gone to Red Lodge, but had thought about it. Impressed turned to sniffy.

What looked like an old news-sheet was pushed across the counter to me. It was actually a rather neat promotional tool of the Inn, with the menu printed inside. It advertised the lodge in Montana, but also had stories about the great and the good who had stayed at the Inn in Bayfield. I hadn’t heard of many of these celebrities (Leo Kottke? John Prine? Pat Paulson?), but was slightly impressed by John F Kennedy Jr, and almost slightly impressed by Garrison Keillor. It seemed a touch intrusive to detail what all of these people had chosen to eat during their stays though.

Alia told me about Maggie’s, only five blocks away, where I could get good food and something to drink now that they were closed. She said that the Rum Line was closer, but was pretty rough and they only served “shitty pizzas”. I was surprised that it was possible for somewhere to be five blocks away in a town that size.

I passed the Rum Line on the way, and it looked perfectly fine to me. I’d certainly found myself in less salubrious joints elsewhere on the trip. Indeed I was soon to find out how rough it was because when I got to Maggie’s it was closed, and so I had no other options.

It turned out to be very civilized, even if they had overdone the pink lighting a touch. Alia obviously wasn’t the most reliable source of local knowledge. She also told me that there was a call box at the end of the pier, which of course there wasn’t.

I overheard the guy next to me say to the barmaid that they’d been to Hawaii the previous year and it was lovely. I took my opportunity, and turned to him to join in.

Summoning my most obvious English accent, I asked whether being in Hawaii felt like you were in America or did it feel strange. I’d been to Gibraltar, where the language, money, food and shops were the same but it felt no more like the UK than Timbuktu.

He and his wife got my drift straight away. He answered cursorily that it felt half-American and half-Japanese, because that was the proportions of each nation visiting the islands and all the menus were in both languages. They saw that I was a foreigner by myself and that I was just trying to start a conversation. And it worked.

Their names were Tom and Marty, and they were originally from Wisconsin but now lived in Colorado. They’d been back for a wedding and were now spending a few days looking around and reminiscing. He was a Latin teacher who bore a striking resemblance to Jimmy Hill (only with white hair), and she was a primary school teacher.

When I mentioned what I was doing, their reaction was to say that I was probably going to beat them to it then. They’d been around all 48 with the exception of four, “the Carolinas, Mississippi and Louisiana”. I said that I thought they were an odd four to have left until last and they agreed.

They were a fantastically amiable couple. Given their professions they were understandably scholarly. As well as hitting me with a bit of “Conticuere omnes, intentique ora tenebant”, he wanted to talk about Chaucerian English. It also turned out that they had both started to learn to ski in their sixties. Very charmingly, they insisted on paying for all my beer.

It took me a while to get back into the guesthouse. The route through the restaurant was now closed, and so I had to find the outside stairs and walk along the balcony to a door that my key was supposed to open. Only it didn’t.

The wind was whipping in off Lake Superior making swift entry fairly imperative. I didn’t reckon that I could bank on being as lucky as William E Larson, if I fell foul of the weather. He had recently lost some fingers to frostbite after falling asleep outside while drunk. Because this had occurred outside his mobile home, which doubled as an office, it had been deemed that he had suffered “work related injuries”.

He had been awarded $85,000 compensation by the state of Wisconsin.