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My drive through rural Wisconsin was bookended by La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, two towns that were nice enough but not as intriguing as those of southern Minnesota. I crossed into Iowa at Marquette, which was nothing more than a couple of motels and a casino with a giant buffet (per the billboard) tucked beneath a steep bluff, but just a couple of miles to the south McGregor turned out to be a comely one street town ending in a T-intersection at a large stone church.
This picturesque and abrupt termination made McGregor memorable, but there wasn’t a coffee shop or cafe to distract passers through. This trend would hold throughout much of Iowa. The towns were neat and pleasant, but they were quite chaste compared to those of slutty Minnesota, trying to seduce naïve strangers with its lurid craft boutiques and frilly cafes.
In fact, McGregor was so indifferent to outsiders that this crucial intersection—the only one in town—didn’t bother embellishing route numbers with anything as gaudy as hints about what town…state park…local attraction…or NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY… may be found by following a particular route. Your choices were 76 or County X56. Locals would know.
I figured the county route was too obscure to be The Great River Road, so I turned right and soon came to an even more confusing intersection in the middle of nowhere that correlated poorly withthe tattered road atlas from [Read more...]
LYRICAL EXAGGERATION & DONUT INDULGENCE
I’d gone to bed a bundle of nerves from pushing too far the day before, but woke feeling refreshed and excited. As an added bonus, I was surprised to discover by daylight that Red Wing was a lovely red brick town filled with towering churches, historically preserved storefronts, and converted warehouses, all nestled beneath a scenic bluff with a park on top providing a panoramic view of it all. I’d visited Allentown once expecting industrial ruin per the Billy Joel song and was shocked to find a bustling, refurbished downtown district. Similarly, the Dylan song had prepared me for Dickensian bleakness, yet Red Wing turned out to be one of the most charming small towns I visited.
I wandered the streets soaking in the sunshine and hometown vibe for a while—my favorite pastime when visiting a new place—before being lured into a bakery and coffee shop prominently featuring a banner proclaiming it had been voted Minnesota’s best. It had a comfy, rustic vibe and the long display case was packed so full of delectable confections that I instantly knew the low carb diet I’d clung to so stubbornly was about to take the morning off.
As I stared lustily at the menagerie of decadence, I asked the girl behind the counter to steer me to the best option, desperate to get the most bang for my buck with my nutritional sin, but she assured me everything was good. Well, that really narrowed things down!
Normally I steer clear of donuts, considering them the cotton candy of pastry. Krispy Kremes in particular dissolve on the tongue before I’m fully aware of what I’m tasting, yet shortly after that millisecond of indulgence my blood sugar spikes and I ache for bed like suffering a bad flu. These hearty round pastries, however, held a greater promise, and I asked about the day’s special— [Read more...]
ALL-AMERICAN TOWNS & THE NOT-YET-MIGHTY MISSISSIPPI
The shores of the Mississippi River straightened out south of Brainerd, and as I approached a string of pleasant small towns hugging its banks I realized I wasn’t going to reach Iowa before dark—not even close. As the sun dipped towards the western horizon I felt the stress of my own expectations; tomorrow would mark a full week in Minnesota, the first of ten states bordering the river. I’d built some flexibility into my trip but not enough to spend two months meandering back to New Orleans!
Despite my stress, I wanted to see as much as humanly possible so around 4 o’clock pulled into the small waterfront park at Little Falls—the next significant small town after Brainerd—to stretch my legs and snap a few pictures of the dam built upon its namesake. It seems ever town in Minnesota maintains such a pastoral park curled up against the river, and in the glistening later afternoon sunlight teens idly lounged about on summer break while cubicle bound professionals paused on their way home for a moment in the sun. Unfortunately, I didn’t have long to linger, wanting to get as close to the border as possible before nightfall.
I only made it an hour and two towns closer, however, (skipping industrial St. Cloud) before stopping again. Mike and Kelly Chase, friends from my Krewe of Rocckus adventure that kicked off this blog, had invited me to [Read more...]
PYTHON THAT SWALLOWED THE THREE LITTLE PIGS
The town of Bemidji lies about 20 miles northeast of the Mississippi’s source and boasts dual claims to fame: first town on the Mississippi River and birthplace of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (and I’m not sure they realize the latter aren’t actual historical figures!) During its initial wilderness leg the modest Mississippi balloons into three of Minnesota’s largest lakes in quick succession like a python that swallowed the Three Little Pigs. Bemidji, a surprisingly robust college hockey town (home of The U of M-Bemidji), hugs the first of these lakes that dominate the Mississippi’s initial northern arc and is the only one developed beyond small fishing camp and boat resorts.
Upon entering town, it’s near-mandatory to stop by the welcome center and allow the giant statues of Paul & Babe to photo bomb you by the lake. Just around the corner, though, is a nearly completed lakefront arena of grand scale and design that promises to draw legends and giants of a different ilk. Whereas the lakefront is the main draw, there’s a string of alluring coffee shops and cafes mixed amongst the souvenir shops running perpendicular from the waterfront like a spoke. Venture a little further and you run into a cheerily cluttered antique mall perfect for visiting packrats and a small operational wool mill that sells the socks and gloves it produces next door along with an assortment of heavy wool clothing from other manufacturers to help you through the frigid northern winters.
The primary reason visitors travel this far north, though, is for [Read more...]
A RIVER BY ANY OTHER NAME (OR BRANCH)
Identifying a river seems to be an obvious endeavor, but choosing which trickle of rainwater is the true source can be as tricky as determining which grain of sand begins a beach. Thus, it wasn’t until 1832 that the source of the Mighty Mississippi was established when a local Native American led Henry Schoolcraft—a geologist and U.S. diplomat on an Indian peacekeeping mission who decided to take a side trip after failing to find the source with previous expeditions—to the portage flowing from a lake that Schoolcraft named Itasca. As with any such claim, controversy quickly ensued and other ambitious explorers tried to refute his claim.
Modern scientists even question whether the northern branch of the great confluence should be considered the ‘true river,’ for the Missouri River, branching to the west, dwarfs the length of the entire recognized Mississippi while the Ohio River—branching to the east—contributes by far the greatest volume of water. Yet while debate may continue in scientific communities, Schoolcraft triumphed with historians, mapmakers, and vacationers seeking to stride the humble origins of the nation’s greatest river.
SEEKING TRUE HEAD
Schoolcraft created the name Itasca by combining the Latin words veritas (true) and caput (head), though he might as well have called it Lake Disappointment! Early writers and naturalists, eager to witness the birth of the Mighty Mississippi, decried this marshy, log and debris jammed outlet as an unworthy beginning for the nation’s legendary artery.
Although the modern aesthetic would tend towards preseveration, depression era work corpsmen decided to [Read more...]
PICKLES & DRYER LINT
While visiting my sister, Kelli Sarrett Moors, over Christmas I raved so much about the curry pickles she and my mother canned last summer she sent me home with a jar. I later raved on Facebook about how I put them on a sandwich and enjoyed it so much that I forgot to add meat. Alas, they are sweet pickles and full of sugar, so when I embarked on My Low Carb Lent I pushed the half-finished jar to the back of the refrigerator. As I emptied out my apartment, however, I couldn’t bear to leave behind the best pickles ever.
Between maintaining my diet—which I’ve eased up on a bit per design—and cleaning out my fridge, I left New Orleans with two coolers full of food. Last Thursday as I transferred this mass of groceries into Jesse’s refrigerator, he and Amy were stunned. When I pulled out the half-finished jar of pickles, though, it was too much. “That’s just ridiculous!” Jesse declared, shaking his head.
Two days later as we headed north to Duluth, a frigid college/tourist/mining town perched on a hillside on the southeastern tip of Lake Superior, I realized in a huff that I’d left my wallet in Jesse’s basement. Later, as we pitched our tents along the shore of the lake, Jesse and Amy again marveled as I pulled out elastic jewelry string and began to repair my tent poles whose innards had dry rotted. Then, when Jesse realized we’d forgot trash bags I declared, “We can just use my [Read more...]
ONE FINAL DETOUR
Last we spoke I was lying on an air mattress in an empty house contemplating the future. Now I’m curled up in a leather recliner cradling a streaming cup of black coffee in a rugged, wood hewn coffee shop along Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota warding off the chill of a northern summer as I eagerly embrace the glorious present tense.
Granted, Duluth is slightly beyond the reach of the Mississippi River—the alpha and omega of my journey –but anyone familiar with my life knows that I’m always susceptible to a delightful detour. In fact, One Final Detour could serve as my epitaph!
THE WATERFALL AND THE FLAT HEAD
Exorbitant rental car rates made flying north impractical so the morning after my dining room dissertation I packed my truck so full you would think I were [Read more...]
EMPTY HOUSE, CROWDED MIND
Tonight I’m lying on an air mattress in the dining room of the now empty New Orleans house I’ve rented for the past ten months. Last night this room was filled with the stories and laughter of the good friends I’ve made over the last year and a half. It took an entire year for my ‘Red Beans On Monday’ parties to draw a steady crowd, but the last several gatherings have been smashing successes. Last night’s encore performance didn’t disappoint, delivering all the enrichment and communion that I’d hoped for when I began this tradition after reading about the phenomenon in Gumbo Tales. Thus inspired, I made my first Monday pot as a New Orleans resident within weeks of moving here and tried to give them away to the neighbor who begged off, citing her diabetes. I’ve come a long way.
It figures things would finally start to click as my time winds down.
Therapy work is still slow in New Orleans, writing opportunities have failed to materialize, and I’ve yet to hear back from my last gasp TV audition. Meanwhile, several interesting opportunities are beckoning back in Florida, so perhaps it’s time to join the real world again and resume the daily grind, relegating passion back to hobby as most adult do.
PACKING UP & LOOKING BACK
I have no regrets. It has been an enlightening year and I never truly intended to permanently relocate, anyhow. Still, it was a little melancholy over the past week packing up and looking back. As I’ve reminisced I’ve visited old haunts and caught up with everyone I could. Sunday afternoon I took one last opportunity to play croquet with the Chewbacchus folks and that night headed to Frenchmen Street while it’s still just down the road. At one point in the evening wanderlust overtook me and I strolled back by my Decatur Street home of last summer’s misadventures, checking on the old neighborhood.
Last night’s red beans was the final stop on my farewell tour, so this morning I put my stuff in storage and cleaned the house, setting aside food and camping gear for one last adventure.
LEWIS & GPS (FOLLOWING THE BIG MUDDY)
Tomorrow I’m heading north, driving to Minnesota—specifically Lake Itasca, source of the Mississippi River. From there I plan to follow it back to New Orleans, blogging about my discoveries along the way. I have no itinerary. I’m just heading out like a Lewis without the Clark (though with a GPS, which is probably better, anyhow.)
There is no New Orleans without the Mississippi River and all that enters that great draining basin must pass the Crescent City on its search for the sea. I have wanted to take this trip since arriving in town–for the river seems such a natural extension of the city–and recently it has occurred to me as the perfect farewell. So I’ll spend the next two weeks exploring the river that made New Orleans a necessity and contributed to is wild and delinquent nature, following it back to my current adopted home.
SEEKING CLOSURE: ONE LAST GRAND ADVENTURE
Unless something drastic happens as I meander, then I’ll pack upon return and head back East, having found such fitting closure in seeking out the spiritual artery that feeds New Orleans.
The blog will continue, as will my visits to New Orleans and participation in Mardi Gras, but differently. The blog and my study of New Orleans will again become a hobby rather than focus of my time and attention.
Yet before I go trying to grow up again, I have one last grand adventure to undertake, so I hope you’ll check in from time to time as I cut through the heartland of this great nation looking for the people and places whose essence has drifted down towards this famous bend in the Big Muddy to create one of the most unique and interesting cities in the world.
POTENTIAL GAME CHANGER
An interesting wrinkle cropped up last week while I contemplated my future and the future of this blog. Since Mardi Gras I have pondered whether to stay in town and double down on my writing aspirations or move back to Florida and move forward compiling my adventure as a memoir. Although returning would feel a little like a retreat, I have deeper roots and more therapy opportunities in Florida (and I certainly need to refill the coffers after my year-long adventure!) Whatever I decide, I will continue to blog and participate in Mardi Gras. It’s just a matter of focus and priority. I intend to stay connected, marching in Chewbacchus and rolling with Morpheus no matter where I live; frequent down I-10 have become old hat by now. The question is whether to continue to make New Orleans my daily reality or return it to the status of my favorite escape from real life.
My lease ends this month and my roommate is reuniting with his wife so the pressure of the decision has increasingly weighed on me considering I’ll be homeless in two weeks. Perhaps it would be easier just to move back to Florida, go back to work, and resume writing on the side.
Just when it seemed cut and dried, though, my friend Yoda Pat sent me a Facebook invitation that could change everything. [Read more...]
THE NOLA NEW YEAR
I have written many time about how Mardi Gras is a year round event. Even though 2014’s Carnival Season ended with Ash Wednesday on March 5th, minds immediately turned to 2015’s festivities. In fact, only a handful of days into Lent my ever enthusiastic float mate, Don, posted the first of his now regular countdown updates on Morpheus’s Facebook wall: Only 342 days until we ride! Mardi Gras—not New Years or Christmas—is the epicenter of the New Orleans calendar, drawing all other days and events into its orbit.
In the opening pages of this blog I asserted:
Mardi Gras isn’t a few weeks of planning followed by a big blowout. It’s a year of preparation and perspiration that unfolds over several weeks like a military campaign hell-bent on spreading heaven throughout the darkest months of the year.
This thesis was confirmed last summer during my visit to Mardi Gras World—a tourist attraction that provides the public a behind-the-scenes view of how Mardi Gras is built. During my tour I learned most krewes hand the facility’s conceptual artists their theme for next year’s parade on Ash Wednesday—or sometimes before. Even in the more informal and DIY Chewbacchus my sub-krewe of K.R.A.P. was bouncing around plans for a Jabba the Hut’s Barge float next year before the final parades had rolled. (Since I’d yet to embark on My Low Carb Lent to shed my ‘transplant twenty-five,’ I offered to play Jabba but co-leader Rachel Unger shot back that [Read more...]