In an effort to "meet the community" I decided to attend a church service, it being Sunday morning, and me with nothing pressing on my schedule. The church at the far end of Main Street, across the tracks and past the cultural center, looked promising. I learned from the website that it has a female minister; it welcomes "those who will ask questions of faith so as to add purpose to their lives," and the social hour takes place before, rather than after, the service. I imagined myself stepping into the fellowship hall perhaps fifteen minutes prior to the service, meeting and chatting with a few friendly people, and then moving on to the service itself.
But that’s not how it came down.
As I approached the little white church from the city hall parking lot across the street, I noticed that the marquee in front said "service at 9:30." (The website said 10:30. Oops.) It was already 10:15. The first door I tried was locked. I heard nothing inside, but there were plenty of cars parked nearby, so I tried the other door. It was open. The minute I stepped inside, the sound of a man’s booming voice reached my ears. I turned the corner, took one glance at the assembled congregation, across the expanse of the fellowship hall, and decided to sit in the lobby where I could hear the sermon perfectly well without drawing attention to myself.
The man was discussing a passage in Deuteronomy in which the Israelites are advised to teach their children about God, not just occasionally or during festivals, but every day, through both speech and example. He talked about how much children learn from watching their parents, how busy everyone is nowadays, and how rarely references to God figure in family conversations. He went on the describe how often he had been saved from going down the wrong path by God, how many opportunities had been sent his way, how often he’d been forgiven. It was good stuff, though it was clear to me that the man was expounding rather than working off a script. He kept returning to the same themes—teaching the children, the rush of modern life, the need to be admonished by God. It was like one of those model trains that run on a track high on the wall above the booths in a restaurant—here it comes again!
As I sat there on my solitary pew, with its red cushion, listening to the man intone, I looked at the plastic fig tree next to the opposite wall, the large paper banner that had been decorated with colorful Crayolas by the children, and the walker that someone had stowed above the coat rack. A duck-hunter’s hat sat on the shelf next to the walker, and there was a food shelf bushel on the floor under the long row of coats.
Finally the sermon came to an end and a woman with a pleasant voice began to sing. At that point I decided to slip into the nave and join the congregation. Turning the corner cautiously, I came face-to-face with a woman in high heels who was pacing back forth with an infant in her arms. I smiled at her. She gave me a slightly questioning look in return.
I took a seat in a pew against the back wall next to one of the ushers. He wore a quilted green hunting vest and had a friendly, rugged face. He looked a little like Nick Nolte. The minister, on the other hand, bore a striking resemblance to Eugene Pallette. I read in the program that he was a guest pastor from a church in Baxter. That resolved the gender issue. Before being ordained he’d run the local café in New York Mills for many years.
I sang. I recited the prayers. I noticed that when the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer, no one made much of an attempt to keep pace with anyone else, and as the prayer reached its "for ever and ever" it sounded like holy hell. I even threw a small bill into the offertory plate. From where I sat I had a very good view, through the arch to the hallway, of the coffee thermoses and ham sandwiches they were stacking onto serving plates out in the fellowship hall.
The trouble was, when the service was over, I was likely to be the first one to leave, because I was sitting right by the door. But I wasn’t going to just walk across a room full of empty tables set for luncheon and grab a sandwich, so I stood in the hallway and let people passed by.
I had a vague hope that someone would stop and say, "You’re a stranger. Who are you? And what are you doing here?" Many congregations in Minneapolis have designated greeters who scan the crowd like Secret Service agents looking for lonely newcomers, whom they make it a point to welcome. But no one welcomed me. On the contrary, it seemed that everyone was making an effort to avoid looking my way.
Finally, two young woman came to a stop right beside me in the hall. "Do they always have this kind of a spread after a service?" I asked, by way of breaking the ice.
"I don’t know," one of the women said. "I’ve never been here before."
"Really? Neither have I. I’m from Minneapolis. Where are you two from?"
"We’re from here. But we’ve never been in this church. We used to work in Wayne’s café. They called us and told us to come down."
Conversation in the fellowship hall was starting to get lively. I probably would have bumped into some very interesting folks if I’d stuck around, but suddenly, I felt it was time to move on.
And move on I did, first to Perham, nine miles up the highway, where I was impressed by the huge Tuffy pet food factory and warehouse. It’s much bigger, I think, than the Lund boat factory here in New York Mills.
In Detroit Lakes I chatted briefly with the clerk in Bookworld. "No, a store of this size doesn’t have the budget to send anyone to the Chicago book convention," she responded to my inquiry, smiling wearily.
I was impressed that they had Javier Marias’s new book, The Infatuations, on display on their New Releases end-cap.
"Has anyone been reading this?" I asked.
"Not that I know of. Then again, it just came in. Can I help you find anything?"
A few minutes later I was waiting in the drive-thru line at Caribou on the next block for a small latte and also a ham-and-cheddar mini-quiche. (Maybe I should have stuck around the church for those sandwiches.)
The lake itself, a few blocks down the hill from downtown, was teeming with coots, most of them just offshore. They’re a lovely gray, but they’re skittish, and seemingly idiotic.
A few hours later, back at my personal retreat center in New York Mills, I was sitting here at my laptop, tinkering with an old essay about Puccini, when the sky cleared. Suddenly the town seemed friendlier; mothers strode down the sidewalk pushing baby strollers.
I headed south on Ottertail County 67, planning to pick up the Leaf Lake Trail, which appeared to be a continuation of 513th Street. (I have good maps.) But I was sidetracked by a small sign pointing the way to the Outdoor Finnish Museum. I took the left turn and proceeded down a gravel road to the park entry—gated and locked. The sign said: open Memorial Day to Labor Day. A smaller sign said Under Continual Electronic Surveillance. But there wasn’t a sign saying No Trespassing.
There are some very nice buildings in there, and the setting is bucolic. (There were also lots of white-throated sparrows in the thickets on the way in.) One of the structures is painted red, several of the clapboard buildings are white, and quite a few--the ones with the dovetailed corners--are a natural gray, like the similarly rugged structures you see in Embarrass and in Finland on the North Shore.
I found it strange that the dates posted on the buildings seemed to refer to when a given structure was moved, not to when it was built. Or maybe the buildings aren't as old as they look.
It seemed stranger still that there was a trailer-camp with hook-ups in plain sight behind the historic general store. Nothing spoils the atmosphere of a pioneer Finnish village like a bunch of aluminum Winnebagos parked behind it. Maybe that’s how they finance the enterprise, but it seems to me there are plenty of other fields nearby that would serve the same function just as well.
Of course, there are no Winnebegos there now, just unobtrusive hook-up posts amid the grass. The place was deserted and the afternoon light was spectacular.
I peered in the window of the Ottertail town hall and the dry goods store, full of antique merchandise, but was more impressed by the bright green grass, the bright red barn, and the immaculate white of the clapboard farmhouse. It all looked a little like a surreal Scandinavian dream. (I know Finns aren’t Scandinavian but that’s the association we tend to make.)
I stared long and hard at the sawmill blade—a flat disc of barbed steel maybe three feet across. It looked wicked. But this is how you turn trees into lumber. The mill blades of today are wafer thin, to keep waste to a minimum. Who knows, maybe they’re doing it with lasers now?
Back on the road, I returned to County 138 and continued south. At the intersection to Highway 67 I went straight-on, after which the road is no longer paved. I crossed a reedy stream—Leaf Creek, I suppose—and not long afterwards, deep in the woods, came to 513st Street, where I turned west.
These are the best roads, of course—the ones that traverse the marshy or hilly terrain where you can’t plant crops. The roads where the birds live.
It turned out to be a pretty road, more clay than sand, perhaps, with plenty of gravel, too. The leaves are turning, and it’s interesting to note that there was once a town on the Red River ox cart trail called Leaf Lake. I don’t think it lasted more than three or four years. You can see the diminutive brass plaque, about the size of a Kindle screen, mounted on a bolder at the public landing on the west end of Leaf Lake.
At several places during my mini-road trip I saw flocks of birds rising up, in the way that snow buntings rise up in the wintertime. I finally got a good look at a few of them; they were bluebirds.
I also saw a single, superb, swamp sparrow amid the reeds at one of my stops.