Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Can I Convince You to Vacation in the Midwest?

Look under a mushroom and you might find Iowa.

This summer between jaunts to Mt. Rainier and the Oregon Coast, I sidetracked east and looped through six of the Midwestern states: North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska.  My intentions for the trip included visiting friends, tracing my ancestral lineages, and placing flowers on the headstone of my recently-discovered great-uncle, a Minneapolis 1900s saloonkeeper whose inheritance had put my sister and me through college.

The pins on a map hanging in Iowa’s Gothic House Museum indicate that Midwesterners vacation in the Midwest, while Westerners—like me, not so much.

I was leery of traveling into the Midwest partly because of the reputation of the stern-faced Midwesterners, pitchforks at ready. Maskless and unvaccinated in the middle of an epidemic.


But, it is hard to keep a stern face when there is so much to find to delight. 

I’ll start my story in the southwest corner of North Dakota at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I hadn’t heard of this park until this summer. A young Seattle couple camping in Mt. Rainier raved to me that this was their favorite park.

The terrain was startling and the roaming wild horses unexpected. In one evening, I was pleased to locate two bison of the three hundred “managed” Park herd—first bison I had seen since the one on a bar sign in Montana. The best photo of a bison that I took was the one hanging off the bar. 

(Isn’t it sad that white men decimated the herds of bison—sustenance for the Native population—and in exchange gifted them alcoholism and ironically bison on neon bar signs?)

I crossed North Dakota stopping only at rest stops and convenience stores, partly due to the state's high Covid-19 rates. I spoke with a nurse offering free Covid shots at a highway rest stop. She had given four shots in four hours. She shrugged behind her mask. Other than the National Park rangers at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, she and one other woman were the only ones I saw wearing masks all day. My tally seemed to be an informal statistic that confirmed why North Dakota had a high rate of epidemic-related hospitalizations and deaths this summer. And why I kept moving. Maybe by the time you might visit, things will have changed. I would have loved to go slower and admire the county.

My favorite billboard on the entire trip was in Fargo, North Dakota. It was a chiropractor’s advertisement with a smiling gray-haired cowboy, who leaned forward on his horse and made eye contact as I drove by. It made me wish I had a horse. The ad read “Let Us Put You Back in the Saddle.”   

The billboards throughout my travels portrayed a big part of Midwestern culture: an aging farm population and an enduring Christian presence. The well-meaning Pro-life billboards started showing up in North Dakota and continued being in evidence on highways the entire journey. Unfortunately, the only babies shown on every billboard—six Midwest state’s worth—were white babies. The signs contradicted the recent protests that systematic racism doesn’t exist in America. The impression was reinforced when one billboard had a blue lives matter flag on one half and on the other half a photo of another fetus worth saving—a white one again. I had expected to cross evidence of racism in the Midwest and it was one of the reasons that visiting there made me anticipate feeling uncomfortable. I just hadn't expected it to be so blatant.

As I drove into eastern Minnesota, hardwoods began appearing. Common hackberry, oak, elm, and maples circled farmhouses and silos or edged small lakes. I was delighted as the beautiful woods grew thicker. I spent a night on one of the lakes with new friends, Anita and John, who had an old cabin with a Finnish wood-fired sauna nestled against the lake’s bank. My hosts were lovely and their dog laidback and welcoming. When I arrived late afternoon the smell of freshly made grape jelly lingered. As an introduction to Minnesota, I was charmed. We even canoed a short distance in the morning before the dog jumped in the water and began following us, threatening to tip us over. We switched to the sauna.


Mid-morning I headed to the Twin-Cities area, where I loved the backyard concert in St. Paul and the Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes served at the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. I was glad to go by (even in a heavy downpour) and see the heartfelt tribute to an ordinary man who had died before his time.

George Floyd

All of the bigger cities I visited—Minneapolis, St. Paul, and later Sioux Falls—were surprisingly hip with their plethora of coffee shops and unique restaurants, but the small towns held their weight too. Fairfield, Iowa, had a cider house and an especially good bakery. A nearby town had an exceptional Italian restaurant on its little village square. And of course there was a hamburger joint staffed with a teenager at the counter with her braces glinting off the fluorescent lights. I could see the braces because no one wore masks. Not the cooks, not the customers. Everyone, men in their muddy boots and families, exuded a joyful midday jive. The fries were good.

I came away with a cluster of impressions of the Midwest. A cluster, by the way, is the name for a group of mushrooms. 

In Iowa my good friend Art took me on trails that meandered over gentle slopes and alongside the wide and slow rivers. Wildflowers were abundant and the fun of hunting mushrooms turned up more than a dozen varieties in one walk. Treasure hunting for adults. The landscape was beautiful.


The Midwestern people whom I encountered on my travels—like the mushrooms—were of many persuasions. In Sioux Falls a car maintenance salesman took the time to talk with me after my car was serviced and the women in the Genealogy Research Department of the same city helped me by rifling through old books in search of my family. In St. Paul Adele, Tom, and Flora made me feel welcome by sharing books, laughter, and their dog, Opel. 

In a small towns it was the same. In Iowa a volunteer at a barn bash happily described to Art and me the uses of various pieces of antique farm equipment and how they had made farming easier and more efficient. A farmer wearing a red baseball cap enthused about his half-a-million dollar combine after we had climbed up into its high seats and admired the view. And at the same event, another farmer explained an exhibit showing how using newer farming techniques increased water retention in soil. Although he didn't mention the why farmers were having to change their methods of farming (plow into our conversation the words climate change), he seemed to understand that his generation of farmers needed to rely on science.  
I had a lovely discussion with the woman at The Gothic House Museum about making pies and with the grave digger at the the cemetery in Missouri City, Iowa, who took time to help me find my ancestor Evan's gravestones. I liked all of the people with whom I spoke, even if we might not have agreed. Consider the older guy who made me coffee at the Hub in Burwell, Nebraska. He told me he wasn’t concerned about not having any boys to carry on his family name because the second-coming was going to take him up before long. He, like all the rest, asked about my travels and sent me on my way smiling.   

Am I going to vacation in the Midwest again? 


Before I ventured east, I wasn't looking forward to the flag-waving political bluster that seems to have replaced science and good sense with a rigid independence and a stubborn pride. It seems to have especially infected farming and ranching communities in America. Their livelyhoods are essential to our country's wellbeing, so the trend seems particularly unfortunate. Hay bales wrapped in American flags laying in fields along highways in North Dakota were the first indication of the bluster. I wondered what kind of reception I would find wearing my yoga tights and mask, looking like a foreigner.

Patches of flags, sometimes thick as weeds, waved in front yards in many of the Midwestern small towns. American flags flapped from the eaves of businesses on town squares, making covert statements about loyalty. A campaign poster in a beauty shop's window read: “Jesus in 2020, Our Only Hope.” And in contradiction of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," there were yard signs stating “F_ _ _ whatever candidate you didn’t like.” If I just focused on the political messages, and there were many, I would have missed the goodness of the people and the beauty of their land.

So, yes, I plan to return to the Midwest. Bet mushrooms on it. So you should consider it too. Go and leave your own prints in the Midwest like a night-prowling raccoon left his in the soil on a riverbank on the Des Moines River. Take your mask (you’ll look like a raccoon) and get your shots beforehand. 

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