THIRD RETURN TO ITASCA
WOOD TICKS LEECHES AND DEER FLIES—PARK RAPIDS—I GET A HAIRCUT—OUR BARTENDERS DRINK ON THE JOB—THE HEADWATERS BAR—PIZZA AND GIANT MOSQUITOES—KNIT WITS AT NETTIE'S NET
In July of 2001 my sister Sally and I met in Minnesota to relive part of our childhood and to get away from it all. I flew into Minneapolis from Arizona and she from New Orleans. There we rented a mid-sized car -- an Alero -- and headed north to our old summer haunt Lake Itasca, one of the most beautiful places you're likely to see. Here's just part of what happened:
I'm not afraid of wood ticks, but I found that Sally is. I welcome them myself and rather enjoy it on the rare occasions when they fasten themselves to me and I have to yank them off. The same goes for leeches, although I admit they are a lot creepier. I used to fear leeches until I learned that they never burrow completely into you and start surfing your bloodstream. Before that, when I found one on me, I would rip him free thinking I had got him off just before he headed for my liver to coat himself with human antigens and storm unchallenged through my system. Sally was afraid of Lyme disease from the wood ticks. But the ticks we saw weren't those tiny deer ticks that carry the disease. This summer the deer flies were the real problem -- so much so that we had to abort one decent walk from the Douglas Lodge to Mary Lake. They were eating us alive. And on Squaw Lake (Now politically correctly named Lake Ozawindib), we would try to swim underwater as much as we could because when we surfaced for air, they would be on us in a flash! And they hurt.
It was interesting to see the old sights from the 60s -- the Deer Town tourist trap near the town of Park Rapids, Whimpy's hamburger franchises, Fuller's Tackle Shop and so on. Minnesota, of course, also has a different selection of birds. At the Douglas Lodge, where we were so happy to stay, the hummingbird feeders were alive with ruby-throated hummers, a species not seen in Arizona. The fact is that they are the only eastern species, while Arizona boasts ten or more. Among the birds we were able to see were the blackburnian warbler, the chestnut-sided warbler, the painted redstart, the purple martin, the chimney swift, the red-eyed vireo, the black duck, and a host of others we don't get to see at home.
I rented a boat with an outboard and Sally and I went trolling. Actually, she went sight-seeing and I trolled for pike. I didn't do very well. I was skunked trolling and nothing would strike when I casted for largemouths or fished the crappie hole either.
We landed on Schoolcraft Island and I found that Sally liked poison ivy little more than wood ticks. The island was covered with the stuff, and you had to walk through it to get anywhere. Poison ivy doesn't bother me. You can stomp through it and usually nothing happens. The worst I've had was some on the soles of my feet in the sixties -- when I didn't wear shoes in the summer. That was actually a good place to have it because you could scratch it with every step you took. I wonder if my old friend Bill Underhill invented his ridiculous "I'm gonna go, go, to the show..." dance from the odd way he walked when he had poison ivy on the bottoms of his feet.
We got rid of the boat and went to the culvert where I just massacred the fish. I would toss in my lure and instantly I would have a pike or a rock bass on the line. The trouble was that the barbs were tearing up the fish. I had to kill one pike with a rock because I simply could not get the lure out of him. It was ghastly. It's really no different from massacring chipmunks -- it's just that the chipmunks can SCREAM and fish can't on account of they don't have any lungs. I decided to stop fishing and if I ever did again I would take a pair of pliers and mash the barbs flat. That's what they make you do on the Colorado in Arizona's Marble Canyon. They don't want you tearing up the trout and if you can't get the hooks out of a fish, you can't "catch and release."
In 1966 Park Rapids was not exactly hip. Back then, I walked down the street and people would spin on their heels to see my hair, which was just a Beatles/surfer cut. I remember kids running up to our car to see where the hell we were from and saying, "Oh, Arizona!" If California was a year or two ahead of the times with respect to Arizona, as it always seemed to be, then Arizona was a year or two ahead of Park Rapids.
On this trip, however, Sally and I found the new Park Rapids to be a rather hip town and quite a cool place -- rustic and very western in style. Many of the Minnesotan small towns look a lot like Gun Smoke's Dodge City -- they seem quite a bit more western -- Hollywood style -- than most Arizona towns, which are often more Spanish in design. I stopped into a barber shop and got a quick haircut. Sally was patient and I really needed one. More than thirty years ago I was part of a big scene in a barber shop in Park Rapids, and it may well have been this very one. (My father kept telling the barber to cut some more off and the barber would say, "I don't want the boy to be mad at me." My parents let me have my hair pretty much they way I wanted, but my Dad didn't think we were getting our money's worth from the barber. Finally, the barber just hacked away and messed up my hairdo. I felt he was just being lazy by going "chop, chop, chop I'm done!" But this time the woman cutting my hair and I had a fine time yacking and yucking. Sally and I then decided to pop in for a beer somewhere.
The place was so crowded, however, that we went and hit another joint called Art's Place. Oh, God how low class it looked from the outside -- and inside it presented no disappointment. It was a dark, damp joint made for get-down-and-drink drinkin'. Arizonans usually just order beer, but Minnesotans drink a lot of hard liquor in those bars. We had a beer that was absolutely insipid and icky and we left and went back to the Royal, found a place at the bar and had a beer and a nice chat with the drunk bartender. As we sat there, wood ticks started crawling out of my clothes, and Sally wanted to scoot away from me. We didn't stay long. We drove back to Lake Itasca and did an afternoon of sight-seeing .
When we returned to the Douglas Lodge, we were late for dinner. The lodge restaurant had closed and we were not afforded its yummy repast. Now, about a quarter mile from the Lake is the Headwaters Bar where we figured we could get something to eat. They had just had a fire that destroyed most of the kitchen and they had nothing to serve but toaster oven pizza -- but it was absolutely excellent! We went in twice for pizza during this third return trip to Itasca. The Headwaters also served good beer -- my favorite being the Summit Pale Ale -- a hoppy concoction that was close to an India Pale Ale.
In the Headwaters, giant mosquitoes would appear out of nowhere and attack you as you sat at the bar. There was some hole in the wall or something where they were getting in, but no one could find it. It is an exaggeration, but not too great a one, to say that those mosquitoes were as big as mayflies.
The Headwaters used to have a lot more than pizza. A year before, I had ordered prime rib there. A young and reluctant waitress served it to me. I remember how I could tell she didn't want to play the role of waitress. It just wasn't in her.
When we asked about other eateries, all the waitresses at the Headwaters said, "Oh ya, ya, the Headwaters is the only place before Park Rapids or Bemidji.." They were wrong. We saw a restaurant/bar on the main highway just three miles from Itasca. It was called Nettie's Net. Late the next afternoon we went over there hoping to have some walleye.
Nettie's Net was owned and operated entirely and exclusively by Knit Wits! They all drank on the job too and they didn't quite look like Minnesotans -- don't ask me how, but they were more like New Yorkers and kind of retarded New Yorkers at that. One of them was on our side of the bar and blabbing at the decibel level of a major earthquake. He was in his late forties and perhaps related to all of this clan and he told the filthiest stories. Everybody smiled, young and old, and thought he was charming.
After a long wait, as kind of an afterthought it seemed, the bartender directed his attention to us and we ordered a beer. We didn't want to order food in the place anymore. But we thought we'd make a polite purchase and split. The beers took ages to get to us and the shouting and noise from the patron-owners was deafening.
Nettie was there. I recognized her as the chief cook and bottle washer because she was barking more orders than anybody else. No one paid her the slightest attention. There were at least eight people running the place, and none of them were quite sure if they were working or just partying at the bash they were hosting. You could tell that this was a big night for them by how upbeat and excited they were. They had a live band setting up outside and it was just going to be one big northern Minnesota stomping session.
We went out to see the band. A rough-looking fiftyish man was playing a beat-up Stratocaster through a one-hundred watt Fender amp along with a bass player and a drummer whose drums were miked and ear-splitting. They were banging out some Credence Clearwater Revival standards. The only audience sat fifty feet back in lawn chairs -- an older crowd of about six, perhaps relatives of Nettie. The dirt parking lot dance floor in front of the band was empty and I had the feeling not many people were going to show for this gig. Nettie and clan would never know the difference, however; I knew that they would be so hungover the next day they would judge their condition as evidence that the whole project had been a roaring success unmindful of the fact that they had drunk up all of the profits.
I SNORE LIKE A MOTHER F....—A DRIZZLY SKY —A SPECIAL SMELL —DIRT FOREST ROADS —GIANT COWS—FAMILY HOMES BUILT DEEP IN THE WOODS —CHILDREN'S CRAYON DRAWINGS —A NOTE INSIDE —THE PIANO IN THE STAIRWAY —THE LOON SONG BED AND BREAKFAST. —A PRIVATE LAKE
Sally and I had a tiny room in one of the little cabins next to the Douglas Lodge. Sally was concerned that she would get little sleep as she has always said in her irreverent way, "Tom, you snore like a motherfucker!" I don't know why she describes it in such rough terms — but -- although I'm not sure that motherfuckers are especially celebrated for their snoring -- I am sure that I snore loudly enough to merit most any such kind of simile. She seemed to be able to sleep well enough on this trip, however.
The first day was clear and bright but we awoke on the second to a drizzly sky. I was worried the trip could suffer, but the different weather added some variety to the experience. It doesn't rain much in Arizona and it is interesting to see how the other half lives. There is also a special smell that comes after a rain in a northern forest. It's not the dusty smell of an Arizona shower, whose drops make a puff of fine ochre powder rise into the air from the street; Minnesota rain brings on a more peaty fragrance.
The skies had pretty much cleared by the afternoon and we weren't slowed down at all. Our plan for the trip was to hit all of the places that Steve and Sonny and I had the year before and then add some. To this end we decided to go down some dirt forest roads to see what mysteries lay in wait for us.
Thirty-five years before I had gone down such roads with a friend and saw a farm in the distance. My memory has it this way: we stopped the car and looked. There, before our eyes, Giant Cows stood at the end of the road. Giant Cows. They were as tall as houses -- taller -- their shoulders flush with the roof of the barn -- impossibly big. No such cows ever lived. The scene was like something out of a drug addict's nightmare and we looked, turned the car around, and drove away. I know now that these must have been but very big cows and nothing more, but my memory tells the story of cows as large at least as Babe, Paul Bunyan's blue ox from 1930s Minnesotan folklore.
Those many years ago the same friend and I also found the occasional abandoned house down these forest roads. Surprisingly, these seemed to be family homes built deep in the woods -- two-story dwellings often with signs of the family -- now lost with the years -- years that have simply ridden away on the wind. In one house, children's crayon drawings on papers were still lying about. Another house had a note stuck on a wall -- a note that someone had left many years before. As I remember, it stated where the writer had gone and when he or she would return.
There was something very moving and disturbing about such finds -- for they portrayed so clearly the passage of time. They starkly showed a bygone era and a family life that once meant everything to someone and that was now forever gone.
Another house stands out across the years in my memory. Inside it, a piano was wedged in the stairway. How many years it had been there was impossible to say. I guessed that the movers had dropped the piano on their way down the stairs and it had become lodged so fast that it was judged immovable and then simply abandoned. I remember reaching up and strumming the harp-like array of 88 strings laid open above me and hearing throughout the house their eerie ringing like the sound of some giant autoharp.
In 2001, however, we saw no abandoned houses. The dirt road we took had signs on it that said, "Loon Song Bed and Breakfast." This road was just a few hundred yards from our usual haunts of the past and yet on it might be something new and different and maybe even mystical. We drove down the road, occasionally stopping to get out with binoculars to mark down a few more birds on our lists. Along the road were more quaint signs about the bed and breakfast and finally, at the end of a turn, we came upon an overlook of the Loonsong.
There was a very large lake below, and a breeze wrinkled its dark blue water. Just above the lake was an inn built of wood. One or two cars were parked in back of it. We felt that the Loonsong was a place where rather well-to-do or famous people might stay for a few summer days. The place was private and secluded and very quiet. And it had its own lake. But that was just the impression of a couple of Arizonans. In Minnesota, a private lake is nothing. Even in Itasca Park, fishy Squaw Lake is mostly left alone by anglers -- and it has lake trout! Fifteen percent of the state is covered with water and fishermen and anyone else have little reason to congregate on the shores any particular lake.
MCDONALD'S TRADING POST—A GRASSY FIELD WITH A BIT OF SCRAGGLY BLACKBERRY IN IT—LEFT-WING COUNTRY FOLK—YOU CAN HAVE A DRINK. WHATEVER YOU WANT."—"THOSE ARE THE BEATLES, I BELIEVE."—A NEW DIRT ROAD EXPEDITION—LOST!—THE MYSTERY AND THE MAGIC ONCE AGAIN
We took another dirt road expedition which started at the former site of McDonald's Trading Post. There was nothing left there but a grassy field with a bit of scraggly blackberry in it. The field lay at the dirt crossroads at the edge of the forest. The trading post had burned down and the senior McDonalds had passed away years before. I remember that even in the sixties, they were quite old. They spoke with thick country accents. My father once told me that they were practically run out of the Twin Cities -- hardly redneck towns-- because they were so radical in their left wing beliefs. I never saw that aspect of them except that they liked my left-wing parents and so whenever I went in for a cheeseburger there, they simply refused to let me pay. They reminded me of the characters in The Grapes of Wrath -- the character that Henry Fonda played for example -- but much older.
Mrs. McDonald once told me, "We don't fly."
To which I said, "Well, how do you travel?"
She said, "We take the train." In her midwestern drawl. "We really like it. You can have a drink. Whatever you want."
These are the only words I remember from her in any detail, but I remember the words exactly. I have but one clear recollection of what her husband once said. We were listening to the juke box in the trading post and he said, "Those are the Beatles, I believe," which was kind of a hip thing for a guy that age to say; the Beatles were quite new. Bill Underhill, a friend of my brothers and sisters and I, said very kindly, "Well, no -- actually that's the Dave Clark Five -- but they sound like the Beatles sometimes."
"Ah," said Mr. McDonald, seemingly pleased to learn.
But they're gone now -- both of of the McDonalds -- and it seems nothing is left of them and their dreams and legacy but a grassy field at the forest crossroads.
Sally and I started a new dirt road expedition at the site of the old McDonald's Trading Post. I drove the rented Alero off to find more magic and mystery and within minutes I was completely and totally lost. This wouldn't be a problem if I were with my other sister, but Sally is afflicted with the same malady as I: she has absolutely no sense of direction -- at all. NONE.
I drove. I tried one dirt road after another. Finally, I got on a highway. I saw nothing familiar so I found another highway and started driving down it. Time passed and I must have been doing sixty for much of it and I was sure I had left most of Minnesota behind and would soon be in Ontario or maybe North Dakota. All I had tried to do was to find a bit of mystery and magic down a dirt road -- the way I had done so long ago -- and now, instead, I was hopelessly lost.
Finally, in despair, I got off of the highway and took a lonely dirt road. I drove down it and stopped. There I saw a grassy field with a bit of scraggly blackberry in it. The field lay at the dirt crossroads at the edge of the forest.
I was back at McDonald's.
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