Thursday, March 04, 2004

FEBRUARY 26, 2004

I went to breakfast again at the Shabee Cafe in downtown L'Anse. Roy Kemppainen was there having coffee. He said Hello as I came in. When he left, he pointed out that while I was here I was getting to enjoy some of their "typical February weather."

The waitress said: "Roy, your nose is getting longer."

There were two fellows in the booth behind me. One of them was hard of hearing. The other one said: "It was 57 degrees at my place yesterday."

The hard-of-hearing fellow said: "It was 31 degrees at my place."

"This nice weather is coming too early," the first fellow said. "It will get bad again in March and April."

"What?" said the second fellow.

"April," said the first fellow. "We have some of our worst storms in April."

Later he said that he had gotten out target shooting with his black powder rifle. He tries to do that every month. "But there was deer season, then Christmas, then January got so g-damn cold!"

"What?" said the second fellow.

"January was too damn cold!"


It was a lovely afternoon, with water running everywhere, and I spent some hours in my room writing up my notes. Then I just had to get outside.

I took a drive in the country, heading northeast out of L'Anse on Bayshore Road toward Pequaming, Aura, and Skanee. I wanted to see some of the outlying parts of the county in that direction.

In Pequaming these days some cottages remain, and the fabled Henry Ford Cottage stills stands. The community once bustled with activity, now it seems a mere and random collection of houses. The Ford Cottage is at the end of a road: you could have guessed that, Tom. The cottage is not as elegant as I had imagined it. Nor is it lit by low summer sun as in the photograph of it at the Tourist Information Center in L'Anse. Tracey Barrett told me that she had lived in the Ford Cottage as a child.

I visited Aura as well. Tracey Barrett had lived here too. Visiting Aura was like visiting my hometown of Curlew, Iowa: so much has been lost. Where has it all gone? All the past on the landscape seems to have been laid over with a modern sheen. Is this what it comes to? Everywhere, I mean everywhere we so often seem incapable of preserving the things we most need to preserve. Why is that?

I want to say the same for Skanee. We're here at the edge of everything good and wonderful, right at the edge of earth and water and sky, and much of it seems to have evaporated, to have escaped us. How many Skanee stories go untold. What do we need to do to tell them?

This isn't meant as criticism of anyone or anybody. Certainly I don't know what the answer is. Basho said: "I sweep my walk, the whole world is clean." I will continue my trek, going post to post in the middle west talking with people, tape recorder running, capturing what I can. I know it's too little, too late. If everyone would do it, though, think how much we could save.

The drive back to L'Anse from Skanee was a somber one, in spite of the beautiful afternoon. I wasn't in a particular hurry to get away from my sadness, but I could not dwell on it either. I just drove and watched the water run in sheets across the road where the sun was melting snow out in the open. Losing our past, it's like the snow melting, the water running away. It's like ash flying off a fire. That's true here in Baraga County and in all the communities I visit.

It has been a beautiful day. Sometimes the theme is courage, resilence. Today the theme is loss, what we have lost.



It is January. I am in Rugby, North Dakota, a pretty grizzled-looking specimen in need of a hair cut. Across the street from the grocery store in downtown Rugby I see DK's shop: "Barber and Styling" it says in the window.

DK is 44, a woman with her dark hair put up. "It would be turning grey if I let it," she will tell me. She is finishing a trim for an older man whose hair might have been red once, now it's more red-head gone grey.

"She'll just have to comb it out if she doesn't like it," DK says of a cowlick on the back of the fellow's head, a turn of hair that doesn't stay down properly and she can't make it. Haircut done, she and the fellow look at a collection of black and white photos. From where I sit, the people in the photos look as if they're dressed for the 1950s. That would be the real 1950s, not something retro. DK and the fellow talk familiarly of those people and I see DK has a charm and tenderness that might not be readily apparent.

Soon enough she turns to me. "Well, come on." She ushers me into her barber chair. "How do you want it cut?" I think she knows my style is no style at all. "Do you want it trimmed up over your ears?"

"I tell the woman back home to make me look like a well-groomed mountain man - not that she listens," I say. DK gives me a look. She starts to work.

"I have to like the haircuts I give before I'm done with them," she says.

DK was a farm girl who had an itch to see what was out there beyond the farm. She couldn't be satisfied doing what everybody else does. After she finished high school in Rugby, she spent some time in the National Guard in Georgia and the Carolinas, then headed out to California for ten years, to Florida, to the state of Washington. You sense that if she'd found a good man out there, she might not have returned.

"Why did you come back?" I ask her.

"Family," she says. She is one of eight kids. "I'm sort of the black sheep, you know. I had to get out of here and see the world. My brothers and sisters were happy staying here."

What's the difference between her and her siblings that she had to leave North Dakota and they didn't? "I don't know," DK says, "I couldn't tell you."

Later she tells me her youngest brother is 23, he's an electrician, and he has built his own house. "You've got to start young and get yourself settled," she says, with - I think – some tone of admiration.

I point out that she wouldn't have seen California, Florida, and Washington state if she'd have followed her own advice about staying put and starting young. "You're right," she says. "I had to get out of here for awhile."

Yeah, DK's siblings stayed in Rugby. One of her brothers farms with her father. A couple others farm, too. One sister married a farmer. A brother loads trucks for a company in town. Another works at the hospital. DK cuts hair. Her youngest brother is the electrician.

"What's the average price for a house in Rugby?" I wonder. The fellow who runs the Rugby stockyards has come in now and is waiting patiently while DK clips and re-clips my beard getting me to look like something you wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen with. DK glances over at the fellow from the stockyards and asks him: "What is the average price for a house?"

Fifty thousand dollars is what they agree on. "Not that all the houses in Rugby cost that much," DK says. "I bought one for $15,000."

DK might be done with my trim. "What do you think?" she asks me.

"If you're happy with it, I'm happy," I say. The more you talk with her, the more you trust she really won't let a customer out of the barber chair until she is pleased with her work.

I think she would say "I'm proud of every hair cut I give" again if I let her. I look into the mirror and see her looking into the mirror too, looking at the reflection of me, of herself, of the streets of Rugby out the window, of the town she left and came back to.


MARCH 4, 1998

Yesterday's snow is mostly gone. Clouds cross the sky from different directions, different-colored: as if the day does not know where it is going. It is a little crisp around the edge, this morning, and a very, very fine snow rittles the windshield. The pond down the hill from our house has been entirely open for more than a week. The wind disturbs its surface now. Across the pond, the cold steel of railroad tracks. Today is brown and gray, and a very little white.

Some things we do for love, some we do for money. Some things we do not know why we do them. Out of habit, perhaps. Comfort. We live with pain, sometimes, because we are comfortable with it: more comfortable with pain than with the alternative. It is better to die, we think, than to be afraid. I am no innocent bystander. I am as guilty as the rest. Water follows the path of least resistance and so, sometimes, does man.

The snow in the air thickens.

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