Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Field Trip--St. Peter

The day was humid, warm, and intermittently overcast. Spring was in the air, and we decided to venture southwest across some of the most beautiful landscapes in the metro area—up the valley of the Minnesota River. The river had overflowed its banks in most places, and vast forests of trees were rising from the gray-brown expanse of water. The bridge across the river to Chaska was closed. But the water was receding—albeit very slowly, a policeman in the riverside park in Shakopee told us.

It’s a historic part of the state, and the river towns still boast stone and brick buildings dating from the Civil War era. There are gravel pits and tree farms on either side of the highway, and various shelves or levels of floodplain from which to view the river valley, depending on which highway you follow. In many places the lowest level, which floods commonly year after year, has been turned into the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area.

At one point we turned down a gravel road and pulled into a parking lot at the Louisville Swamp trailhead, wandering from there through savannah-like landscape a few hundred yards to an overlook. A man returning to his car with a big white dog exclaimed, “There are snakes everywhere!” as he passed.

We didn’t see any. But we heard plenty of frogs croaking in a pond, and at the edge of the bluff I got a very good look at a field sparrow, whose attractive pink beak and subtle head-coloring set him apart from the brashly striped song sparrows we more commonly see flitting through the underbrush. The sun had come out and you could smell the moist grass as it heated up.

Le Sueur is not an exciting or an attractive town, though Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, the Frenchman for whom it’s named, had a colorful life. He led the first white party up the Minnesota River in 1700 and established as fort upstream from Mankato, where it was suspected the “blue earth” was rich in copper. He had returned down the river with some big tubs of mud for analysis when the fort was overrun by Sac and Fox Indians and most of the inhabitants were massacred. Le Sueur himself died not long afterward in Havana.

Crossing the swollen river in Le Sueur, we continued through the bottoms down the west side of the valley (much narrower than the east side) past the wonderful museum of the Nicollet County Historical Society (didn’t stop) and the St. Peter municipal park (underwater) and on into town in search of a Mexican restaurant.

The main street of St. Peter is extremely wide, and the old store-fronts are in pretty good shape. Coffee shops and co-ops betray the presence of a college somewhere nearby. Indeed, you can see the campus of Gustavus Adolphus perched on its hill to the west from many places downtown.

Ignoring the Taco John’s, we stepped into a darkened Mexican grocery store on Main Street. A young, heavy-set bleach-blond stood behind the counter with her back to us, applying a coat of mascara to her lashes.

“Is there a Mexican restaurant in town?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. Behind the bank, down there,” and she gestured with her little brush before returning to her pocket mirror.

She repeated the name of the restaurant several times, but her English was limited and I wasn’t sure if she’d said The Agape ( the Greek word for Christian charity) or The Agave (the plant out of which tequila is manufactured). And I was suddenly reminded that one scholar involved in deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls arrived at the conclusion that the word “Christ” in the New Testament actually refers to a species of mushroom.

It was a fine little restaurant with a yucca-like agave plant on the sign, crowded with families and students. A soccer match was underway on a big screen in the other room, though the sound had been turned down. We steered clear of the tequila. The newly-scrubbed tile floor was treacherous enough as it was.

After lunch we wandered down the street to check out the newly-opened Cedars Grille. Housed in a historic building with rough-hewn limestone walls, it looks like the kind of place students would take their parents to when they visit the campus for the day. “It used to be Richard’s,” the cheerful hostess told us. When that drew a blank, she said, “You’re not from St. Peter, are you?”

I can image that the Cedars Grille might turn into a fine restaurant. The owner is of Lebanese descent, and he says he’s dedicated less to “fine dining” than to “affordable meals.” (Well, I saw butternut ravioli and chicken tarragon pasta on the menu along with the kabobs.)

We stopped to examine the statue in front of the courthouse of three-time Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson—the first to be born in Minnesota, and a contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1908. We wandered into the art center on Main Street to see an exhibit of pottery by recent McKnight grant winners, but it’s a very small space and there wasn’t much to see.

There were at least fifteen bicycles parked outside the River Rock coffee shop just down the street, which seemed odd, considering that nearly everyone inside was hunched over a laptop. I came very close to buying a used paperback copy of Light in August but drew back at the last minute, though the book cost hardly more than the latte, and Faulkner is such a slow read that I certainly would have got my money’s worth.

During the long drive home we made one last discovery. The hamlet of Ottawa, Minnesota, sits in the woods on a terrace on the east side of the river a few miles downstream from St. Peter. It consists of twelve or fifteen buildings, eight of which were built of Oneota limestone during Minnesota’s territorial period. I’d never heard of it.

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