Thursday, May 19, 2016

Down South - Up North

"Why not think of something special we can do for your birthday?"

This is a tough question to answer when daily life so often seems a little supercharged. After all, we had just gotten back from a three-day improvisatory ramble through the valleys of southeastern Minnesota, though, to be perfectly accurate, we veered into Wisconsin on day one to have lunch at Gelly's in Stockholm.

We've driven through Stockholm countless times on our way to the Harbor View in nearby Pepin, but I'd never noticed this unprepossessing restaurant before, nor the towering but defunct Texaco sign out front. We might have passed it by once again but Hilary has recently gotten a smart-phone and she noticed it on a Trip Advisor listing. It ranked fourth of four...but no matter.

The food was pretty good. There were a few vintage aprons hanging in the window. "I don't want people to think this is a biker bar," Rebecca told us as she brought me my BLT.

Rebecca herself discovered the sleepy town on the back of her husband's Harley during one of the annual flood runs that have brought bikers to the area since in 1965. The couple bought a few acres outside of town, and when they split up, she got the real estate. She more recently bought the café we were sitting in, and also the dilapidated hotel down the street.

She's going to change the name of the café to Lena's Lucky Star, she told us. She thinks it's better suited to a café with a Texaco Star out front in a town named Stockholm. I have half a mind to send her an email recommending that to heighten the Nordic effect, she ought to offer a cold plate of Ingebretsen's leverpostej with herring and beets on toast.

In the subsequent hours we wandered the valleys and roamed the bluffs of the Mississippi Valley, eventually camping on the edge of the fields at Frontenac State Park where we sat in camp chairs watching the warblers drift through.

The Minnesota parks system has changed their protocols, and this led to the odd situation of me calling an 800 number to reserve a campsite while sitting in the park.

"We're set up at site 37," I told the young man who answered the phone. "Frontenac State Park."

"Frontenac? I'll check and see what's available," he said. "Do you want hook-ups or a primitive site?"

"Like I said, we're set up in site 37."

"OK. I'll see if that's available."

"The park is deserted!"

"It's coming up now. Let's see. Wow. Everything appears to be wide open."

"Like I said..."

There was something comical about the exchange, but when it was over, and I'd given the man my credit card number to secure the site, it occurred to me it had been easier and taken less time than driving back down to the ranger's office would have. It occurred to me only later that someone might have reserved site 37 in advance, sight unseen.

Bad news: the orchard oriole has not returned to the apple tree across the road from the campground host. Good news: we were wandering the fields at dusk when a black-billed cuckoo emerged from the heavy growth of a tree five feet above our heads. He sat there so long, oblivious to our presence, that we decided to leave him in peace and walked on.

The next morning at Whitewater State Park Hilary spotted a peregrine falcon high on the cliffs, and we chatted at length there with a ranger and her son about the fauna of the area.

The blue-winged warbler appeared once again at his favorite fork in the road at Forestville State Park. Plenty of yellow warblers, but precious few red starts. And the bluebells down in the bottomlands of the Root River were oddly sparse.

Well, every year is different. The weather had been mostly gray, mostly cool. Serious rain had been predicted for our second night out, so we rented one of the new camper cabins at Forestville. That was different, in a nice way.

We returned home with 82 birds on our list, an average year: orioles everywhere, soaring pelicans and squawking sandhill cranes, a dazzling red-headed woodpecker, a brash brown thrasher, and several plump white-crowned sparrows among the sightings.

Do something special? With memories of such verdure still vivid, the only thing I could think of by way of new adventures was this: let's go to Duluth!

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