Category Archives: Minnesota

Ely, Minnesota, for the Wild or the Wimpy

Serenity on Farm Lake near Ely, Minnesota. A portion of this lake is in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Ely, Minnesota (five hours north of Minneapolis), is home to the hardest of hardcore outdoorspeople—polar explorers Will Steger, Paul Schurke and Anne Bancroft, to name a few.  From Ely, you can launch a dogsledding trip in winter or a multi-week canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in summer. Budget Travel magazine named Ely “The Coolest Small Town in America” last year. They said, “It says a lot about a town when there are more wildlife centers (two) than Wal-Marts (zero), and more canoe and fishing outfitters (27) than, well, anything else. In Ely, you’re never more than a step away from the wilderness.”  But what if you’re made of less hardy stuff or you’re traveling with people for whom “wilderness” means that the mall is a 15-minute drive?

Ely offers plenty of opportunities for activity and a healthy dose of nature, even for outdoor novices or those who may not be physically able tackle portaging canoes or rugged hikes. On a trip last weekend, we hit the Harvest Moon Festival, complete with

an early "voyageur"

crafty artisans; historic reenactors of the early settlers and trappers of the area, the voyageurs; and a lumberjack show—a little hokey, but entertaining.

My favorite comment came from one of the “voyageurs” who was cooking up some sort of stew in a giant cast iron post.  I asked what he was

Cooking "Camp Wander" If it wanders into camp, we cook it.

cooking and he said, “Camp Wander. If it wanders into camp, we cook it.”

Ely is home to the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, and some tasty restaurants such as the Chocolate Moose.  You can buy great sweaters and of course mukluks at Steger Mukluk.  For book lovers, there’s a nice bookstore upstairs at Piragis Northwoods Company.

One of my favorite stops in town is the Brandenburg Gallery, where you can see and buy

a Jim Brandenburg poster

photos from acclaimed outdoor photographer and Ely resident, Jim Brandenburg.  His photography captures the spirit and the unusual beauty of the wilderness.  Check out his web site to see his stunning photos and a video, and click on this Minnesota Department of Natural Resources link for a video that features his fall photos.

On our recent trip, in lieu of a tent, we opted for a cozy cabin at Timber Trail Lodge where you can canoe, fish, or simply ponder the lake and its solitude from the dock. Famed environmentalist, author and Ely resident Sigurd Olson said

Wilderness is a spiritual necessity. An antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium. I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for the fishing or the scenery or companionship, but in reality it is something far deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls.

Olson was instrumental in the preservation of millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. He helped establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California and helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964. Looking for a little wilderness inspiration?  Read his books The Singing WildernessListening Point, The Lonely Land and others.

Finally, talk about “budget travel”–in Ely and the surrounding wilderness, the most amazing sights are free. Lay on your back on the dock at night and you’ll see  a show of stars that you can’t see amid the lights of a city.   And, if you’re lucky, you may see an even more spectacular show—the Northern Lights. We saw another amazing, though dismaying, display of

Pagami Creek Fire

nature, the huge Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters, which is now so big that the smoke is visible as far away as Chicago. Started by lightning two weeks ago, it has burned through over 100,000 acres. Hopefully, the frost and sleet in the next few days will slow its spread.

For more northern Minnesota-inspired reading look for:

Tim O’Brien- In the Lake of the Woods 

Will Weaver – Red Earth, White Earth, The Last Hunter: an American Family Album, and of the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” which was made into the movie Sweet Land.

Catherine Holm- My Heart is a Mountain: Tales of Magic and the Land

William Kent Krueger– Vermillion Drift

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Minnesota and the National Book Festival

I’ve written several times in this blog about Birchbark Books, a great indie bookstore in Minneapolis—author Louise Erdrich, proprietor.  Erdrich and her sister, Heid Erdrich, also founded Wiigwaas Press (part of the non-profit Birchbark House) in order to promote indigenous language revitalization through publications and programs. A book for young readers from Wiigwaas Press, Awesiinyensag: Dibaajimowinan Ji-gikinoo’amaageng, written totally in Ojibwe, has been named Minnesota’s Best Read for 2011 by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. It is Minnesota’s official selection to represent all of the publications in the state this year at the National Book Festival, Sept. 24-25, in Washington, D.C.

One of the book’s co-editors, Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language and culture at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, says, “I just love it that anyone who wants to read the best book in Minnesota this year has to read it in Ojibwe.”  That may be difficult for most of us.  Though we use many Ojibwe words such as moose and Mississippi, the language itself is at risk of disappearing.  Treuer explains his interest in preserving the language in this video. Or, you can read his highly-praised books about the Ojibwe (in English), The Assassination of Hole in the Day, and the Ojibwe in Minnesota.

Four Years Later: I-35W Bridge Collapse In Minneapolis Still Prompts Eternal Questions

A night-time view of the new I-35W bridge in Minneapolis.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis and a Remembrance Garden near the bridge will be dedicated this afternoon. Thirteen people were killed and 145 injured when the bridge fell into the Mississippi River on August 1, taking with it cars, trucks and the the public’s sense of security. It was an unbelievable scene and for weeks after, everyone in the Twin Cities told stories of someone they knew who was killed or who had just driven over the bridge before it fell in. Why those people?

My book club just read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a fictional story (actually a moral fable) set in 1714 about when “the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” I wish that I had known about this book four years ago when our tragedy happened, so similar are Wilder’s words to those we spoke at the time. He says, “The moment a Peruvian heard of the accident he signed himself and made a mental calculation as to how recently he had crossed by it and how soon he had intended crossing by it again.  People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering; they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf.” A Franciscan missionary, Brother Juniper, asks, “Why did this happen to those five?”

In his forward to the book, Russell Banks says, “The underlying assumption of the novel is that any one of us could have been on that bridge when it collapsed and threw five people into the abyss.” Why those people? It’s a question we ask whenever such a tragedy arises and Banks suggests comparison with the events of 9/11.  Prime Minister Tony Blair read the closing sentences of The Bridge of San Luis Rey at a memorial service for victims of the World Trade Center attack:

But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made the.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

No e-Books Here, Only Rare Books

Rare books are like works of art. Browsers at the Twin Cities Antiquarian Book Fair.

No matter how much you love your e-reader, the books it contains will never look beautiful on your shelves and those electronic books will never appreciate in value.  You’ll never feel the weight or the texture of digital books, the care that went into binding them or wonder who held those books before you.

Those facts were particularly striking last weekend as I strolled the stalls of the 21st annual Twin Cities Antiquarian and Rare Book Fair at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.  The shelves were full of lovely leather-bound, gold embossed rare books as well as first editions from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury and scads of others.  Picking them up was like holding a piece of literary history. I kept waiting for someone to slap my hands and say, “You touch it, you buy it,” but no one did.  One of the marquee items for sale was a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, which probably sold for a buck or two in the 1920s, but was listed on Saturday for $35,000.

I have rare-book taste but a garage-sale-paperback budget, so Tender is the Night wasn’t among my purchases. Nonetheless, there were more affordable options including books for as little as $5.  But the real fun for me was to be among people who are even more book-obsessed than I am.  These are not the same people you would find at, say, the Pet-a-Palooza that was going on in the building next door. (That looked like a lot of fun, too.) It was a crowd that might be described as “professorial.” I ran into a friend who said he was sure he was the only guy there without a beard.

Though they deal in valuable volumes, the booksellers at these events are a friendly bunch and happy to discuss the business (which is doing pretty well) and share their tips on collecting books and spotting first editions.  Original dust jackets are a must, signed by the author.  I lingered and lurked around the desk where dealers where appraising books that people brought in; it was like watching “Antiques Roadshow,” only for books. Who knew a book fair could have such drama? One woman hauled in a pile of books that looked like they had been in her attic since the 30’s and she was more than a little distressed to find they were worth about $5 max (the agony of defeat!).  Another gentleman who brought his books in a briefcase as if he were delivering ransom money walked away a happy man with the knowledge that several of his tomes were worth a few hundred dollars (the thrill of victory!)—with dust jackets and signatures, of course.

As e-readers continue to grow in popularity, rare books will only become rarer, but I’m hoping they won’t become nearly worthless like old PCs or film cameras, but rather more like valuable Chippendale furniture. For more on the world of antique and collectible books, check out the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. And, if you’re looking for a book fair to attend, the The Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers holds their big Chicago show in August.

An F. Scott Fitzgerald Walk in St. Paul

I took a walk last week through the Summit Hill neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota,

F. Scott Fitzgerald's debut novel This Side of Paradise

where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, grew up, wrote his first stories and made the revisions on his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. (If its original not-so-catchy title The Romantic Egoist is any indicator, I can see why they suggested revisions)

Even if you’re not a big Fitzgerald fan, even if you don’t know Amory Blaine from Jay Gatsby, this is a great neighborhood for a stroll, especially in summer. With its gorgeous Victorian homes, overarching elm trees and fun shops nearby it’s—if not this side of paradise—really, really nice.

The St. Paul Public Library (which has a special Fitzgerald reading alcove) offers a brochure called “F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul—Homes and Haunts” that you can download. Start the tour at 481 Laurel Ave., where Fitzgerald was born. Park there and start the walk. The house where his parents later lived (593/599 Summit) and where he finished This Side of Paradisehe described as “A house below the average on a street above the average.”

Fitzgerald's neighborhood is still above average and has many beautifully restored Victorian homes.

Published in 1920, this work launched his career as spokesman for the Jazz Age. He chronicles the changing mores of the generation of wild children of Victorian parents, who Gertrude Stein later dubbed the “Lost Generation.”  Fitzgerald presciently wrote in the most famous passage of the novel, “Here was a new generation, . . . dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success, grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald's St. Paul birthplace

Be sure to make a stop at W.A. Frost (374 Selby), which has the world’s best outdoor dining, part of your tour.  Frost’s was a drug store and soda fountain during Fitzgerald’s day and retains its historic charm.  Finally, end your tour across the street from W.A. Frost at Common Good Books (downstairs at 165 Western Avenue North), whose proprietor is another St. Paul author and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor. It’s a gem of a bookstore.  To read more of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul works, look for The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by another St. Paul author, Patricia Hampl.  Read “The Ice Palace,” “Winter Dreams,” and “A Night at the Fair.”

The real Wilder Life versus my imaginary Wilder Life. I’ll take the latter.

I’ve been reading Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life in which she recounts her love of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s  Little House on the Prairie books and her effort to re-create “Laura World” for herself. So, it was a fun coincidence to read a post on the Algonquin Books blog about An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.  Dillard says of her childhood:

What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live.

That describes the qualities that have sent generations of young readers flocking to the Little Housebooks, and surely what sent McClure on her journey into “Laura World.”  What fan of “Half-Pint Ingalls” (who thanks to McClure now has her own Twitter account

Laura "Half Pint" Ingalls has her own Twitter account @halfpintingalls.

@halfpintingalls) hasn’t secretly wanted to venture just a little into Laura World? It was a relief to find someone so quirkily devoted to books and McClure’s descriptions of her attempts at some of the Little House activities—churning butter, for example, or making Vanity Cakes—are hilarious. I particularly enjoyed the chapter where she and her ever-patient significant other, Chris, spend a bit of time on a farm learning do-it-yourself skills that might have been of use in Laura World but it turns out they’ve joined a gathering of fundamentalists preparing for “end times.”  

I’m a huge advocate of  reading books to get a better understanding of places one is traveling.  And, a “field trip” to the place where a book took place extends the experience of reading the book. For example, what does fiction such as the Little House books tell us about life in the late 18th century and how does that experience affect us now?  How well would I measure up to the challenges of pioneer life?  How does the Long Winter of Wilder’s experience compare to the long winter I just experienced? I can tell you one thing:  it makes me happy to have central heat and store-bought sticks of butter in the frig.  I’m happy I don’t have to butcher a hog and make head cheese, though I’ve always had a kind of gross fascination with the way the Little House younguns blew up pig bladders and used them as balls.

But McClure also delves into the research about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the dynamics of Laura’s relationship with her daughter, Rose.  She discovers just how far the Little House books deviate from the life of the real Wilders and, (Holy Hoedown!) the suspicion that Rose had more of a hand in writing the books than Laura.

It makes me wonder if there’s a danger in learning too much. It just might diminish the magic of reading in the first place.  The real Laura World doesn’t hold a hand-dipped tallow candle to the world Laura created in our imaginations. I’m going to meet up later this summer with a group of Wilder fans from the Book Vault (see my previous post) in Oskaloosa, Iowa as they hit the Little House hot spots near Minneapolis where I live.  I’ll dip my toes in the water On the Banks of Plum Creek, but my view of Laura World will remain the one in  my own imagination.

Bikes and Books Tour of Minneapolis

The Twin Cities are regularly rated among the most literary cities in the country
(check out Flavorwire‘s pairing of top cities and books set in them) and Minneapolis has been voted the best biking city in America for the last two years.  So it makes sense to put the two together for a two-wheel tour of some of Minneapolis’ outstanding independent bookstores as well as its famous Chain of Lakes.  FYI, for anyone not familiar with this area of Minneapolis, we’re talking flat, paved bikes-only paths, great for kids and anyone who may not be Tour-de-France-fit.

Start out in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, home of some of Minneapolis’ most fun bars and restaurants, as proven by the continual discussion of noise regulations for the area at city council meetings.  It’s also the home of Magers and Quinn on Hennepin Avenue, the city’s largest independent bookseller which bills itself as “A bounty of the world’s best books assembled by biblioholic booksellers.”  This is a place that will make even the most dedicated e-book reader stow the tech and stock up on print.  It has that cozy independent bookstore feel and stacks you could wander for hours. They have everything, new, used (deals!), beautiful antique volumes and first editions…so bring your backpack.  And, if they don’t have a book you’re looking for, they’ll track it down and order it for you.  It’s also a good idea to get on their mailing list for author appearances and reading ideas.

If you haven’t come equipped, trot around the corner to Calhoun Bike Rentals on Lake Street and rent a bike for the rest of your journey.   They also offer bike tours of some of the most interesting areas of Minneapolis.

The Tin Fish restaurant in the Lake Calhoun Boat Pavillion makes a great place to stoke up for lunch. Then start pedaling.  The Chain of Lakes is part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.  Head south along the east side of Lake Calhoun and on down to Lake Harriet.

A short side trip from Lake Harriett is Wild Rumpus Books a fantastic children’s bookstore that features, in addition to books, live animals and a tiny front door for children to enter through.

Head back to Lake Harriet and north again to Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and on to Birchbark Books and Native Arts in the lovely, leafy Kenwood neighborhood.  It’s one of my favorite bookstores (see my previous post) with a special emphasis on Native American literature.  The staff and owner, novelist Louise Erdrich, carefully choose the books here and handwritten notes offer insight into books for browsers.  Books aside, any store with a confessional and dogs on the premises is good for the soul. You’ll need a little nosh to sustain you as you retrace your path back to Uptown.  Stop next door at the Kenwood Café.

Many bibliophiles make a point of hitting independent bookstores such as these whenever they travel.  To that end, IndieBound has an Indie Store finder that helps readers find indie booksellers just about anywhere.  For more on bookstore tourism, take a look at GalleyCat and Bookstore Tourism.