Saturday, October 31, 2015

November Ramble

Nowadays "getting away from it all" isn't all that difficult. Unplug the computer and you're halfway there.

The other day we went one step further and ventured north into the increasingly leafless farm country northeast of town, with Taylors Falls as a vaguely defined point of terminus.

We stuck to the freeway through Forest lake and veered east on Highway 8—a route we've avoided for years, due to the heavy Friday afternoon traffic, the stoplights in every little town, and the generally "junky" appearance of the countryside.  But on a gray Friday morning in late October, the landscape seemed fresh again, and the towns had regained their character.

Lindstrom, Chisago City, Center City. I have trouble remembering which one I'm passing through, or whether I'm in a town at all, rather than the latest accretion of exurban sprawl. But I'm sure it was in Lindstrom that we stopped into one of those small bakeries that inspire all travelers with hope. This one seemed to be dominated by cookies, and I was tempted by the orange, pumpkin-shaped one, but I ordered three Russian teacakes instead. At the front counter I noticed some oily, misshapen donuts that looked very good indeed. Hilary got a cinnamon version, I got a honey-glazed variety, and we asked the woman to throw in a crispy, too, for good measure.

The total, which also included a twelve-ounce cup of coffee, was $4.20.

There's a little sitting room next to the bakery, but it was full of retired farmers wearing hunting caps with the flaps down, so we decided to sit in the car in the alley behind the shop next door, enjoying our baked goods while looking out across the street to the self-proclaimed "German Meat-Market."
The donuts were good. So were the teacakes—powdered sugar flying everywhere. Only later did I learn that the bakery has a "top pick" listing on Michael Stern's Roadfood website.   

In Center City we veered north along the side of the lake to a small clutch of municipal buildings and a handsome church sitting in a narrow strip of land with water on either side. After bringing our consumption of baked goods to a satisfactory conclusion in the parking lot of another nearby church while looking out a cross the gray expanse of Pioneer Lake, I said:

"I've got an idea. Let's go to Almeland."

"What's in Almeland?" Hilary asked.

"Nothing. But we've never been there."

Our change of route was confirmed when Hilary took at look at the atlas and found that County 9 would take us to Almeland. We could see the sign for the turnoff directly in front of the car.

The landscape north of Highway 8 is largely open, though there are plenty of woodlots, too, and it tends to slope gently toward the St. Croix River, which runs north-to-south roughly ten miles east of town.

We had gone only a few miles  north when I spotted some winterberry bushes in a ditch. We didn't stop because the shoulder was narrow at that point and a man was walking his dog in a field on the other side of the road, but front that point on, we found ourselves staring off into the underbrush with heightened interest.

Almeland consists largely of a gas station/general store, a crumbling creamery with tree branches growing out of the windows, a substantial church, and an antique store housed in the former mercantile. (I later learned the town also has a "cultural center" though we never saw it.)

To my uneducated eye, the antique store was better than average, meaning that it was well-lit, relatively uncluttered, and largely free of broken objects and junk. Hilary examined the jewelry carefully and also spotted two Boda glass "snowball" candle holders that we ended up buying.

One wall of the shop is lined with glass-fronted display cases, and it also has a smaller display in the center room devoted to someone's "collection." The woman who ran the shop told us that these displays, which change every month, feature items on a specific theme accumulated by a local resident. They're not for sale; they're simply there to be admired.

The case currently holds a collection of translucent green dishes, which I could admire even from a distance of twenty feet.

I asked the woman about the famous thresher festival that's been held in Almeland every August for the last fifty years, and she filled me in on the details. Everything from a tractor caravan to the quilt raffle and the evening  dance in the beer garden.

The entire lofty room is painted in the Swedish national colors, and there are some nice woven tapestries for sale amid the flotsam of furniture and glassware.

"I know this region was originally settled by Swedes..." I said.

"Oh, yes, very heavily Swedish. Look at the name. Of course, it's gotten diluted over the generations."

"What does Almeland mean, anyway?" I asked.

"I don't really know," she replied with a sheepish smile.

"Maybe you ought to look that up," I said, not unkindly, and she smiled again.

(I did a little research myself when we got home and determined that Almelund might mean "elm grove." But the town was founded by a fellow named Almquist (elm twig), which also probably had something to do with it. Perhaps I'll send the woman a note.)

As most Minnesotans do know, the arrival of the Swedes in Chisago County was immortalized in a series of novels by Wilhelm Moberg, which Jan Troell later made into a couple of films: The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land. Moberg also wrote a number of casual pieces about the region, some of which were collected in a book called The Unknown Swedes. In one of them he wanders around an overgrown graveyard in the Chisago Lakes region and muses on connections between the Old World and the new one. It's a nice piece, though clearly written for an audience back home rather than here.

In any case, it was written back in 1950—before I was born. Things fade and vanish, or are transformed into other things.

Yet I know for a fact that the ethnic heritage of the area hasn't vanished entirely. We bought a used canoe last summer from a man named Rollie who claimed to be a direct descendant of the original settlers in the Chisago Lakes area--the very couple that appears in Moberg's novels. The vessel had been on many fine adventures, the man told me.

Why was he selling it? He was moving to Utah.

A few years ago a local writer, Sue Leaf, wrote a book about living in the Chisago Lakes area. It's called The Bullhead Queen: a Year on Pioneer Lake. There's quite a bit in it about the seasons, the lakes, and the birds, but very little about the Swedes. However, at one point, visiting the grandmother of a friend, she writes:

The Swedes have an unwritten rule about serving seven different kinds of cookies with company coffee, a rule Tom's grandmother scrupulously observed.

It makes me wonder if there is also an unwritten rule about how many varieties you need to sample to be polite.

But Leaf's most vivid description is accompanied by expressions of regret. Having been invited on a birding trip to northern Minnesota to witness an invasion of great gray owls, she finds that she's already agreed to play the piano for a Santa Lucia Fes­tival at the local Swedish heritage club.

"So on the Saturday when my fellow birders were winging their way north, I sat behind a keyboard, one glum German American in a sea of Swedes. The church basement was trans­formed by sparkling candles, the fragrance of coffee and fruit soup, and the red of Christmas elves and decorative hearts. The sweet children's voices sang 'Nu tandes tusen julejus' (A thousand Christmas candles now are lit upon the earth), and I thought, 'I have lost the opportunity of a lifetime.' "

The book has a good deal of contemporary local color, and is more often meditative than quarrelsome, though Leaf describes herself at one point  as "out of step" with her neighbors on Pioneer Lake, who assert their property rights vigorously against the intrusion of environmental initiatives designed to preserve the best parts of the landscape and fauna for future generations.

Ah yes. The landscape. On a gray morning in late October, following a few days of rain, the burnished leaves on the red oaks provide the most dramatic splashes of color. The shrubby willows are holding on to the last of their yellow leaves. We pulled to a stop several times on deserted back-roads to harvest winterberries that turned out to be merely the red stems of dogwood bushes that had lost their berries entirely.

Arriving in Taylor's Falls from the north, we pulled into a "classic" drive-in that nevertheless displayed stylish banners describing the local sources of the beef, chicken, bison, and vegetables it used. The hamburgers were "hand-made to order" but "worth the wait," and the root beer was brewed on site daily. We were served by a young car-hop with blond hair and a tiny crystal embedded in her nostril. 

She would have been a fitting candidate for the role of Santa Lucia herself.

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