A fisherman on Lake Itasca - Minnesota

A fisherman on Lake Itasca – Minnesota

Outside, in the dimmest of morning light the birds come together to produce a cacophony of sound. In the distance I recognize a familiar call, “who cooks for you”, it’s a barred owl concluding his night of hunting and carousing. Close by a camper starts a Coleman stove; the jet-like sound of white gas escaping from the ports and forming a bluish-yellow flame causes me to recall a hodgepodge of people, places and smells. The pitter-patter of droplets hitting the tent is difficult to diagnose. Is it raining or just the trees shaking off the remnants of last night’s storm? Framed between the red pines and sugar maples is a brilliant full moon whose shift is nearly over. It’s 4:51 AM in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park Campground; I love waking up in a tent.

I am not usually this alert at 4:51 AM but I’m excited to see the Lake that the park is named for, Lake Itasca. In the morning light and mist, where a small creek trickles out of the north end of the lake I see the silhouette of a fisherman. Frustrated, he reels in his line; as he walks by he comments, “I can see large bass in the water but they don’t want what I have.” He quickly heads across the creek toward his gear with the hope of finding a more palatable lure.

Standing in the headwaters of the Mississippi River - Minnesota

Standing in the headwaters of the Mississippi River – Minnesota

This early in the morning I am surprised how warm the crystal clear waters are. I roll my pants up to my knees, peel off my socks and walk to the middle of the creek. As I stand watching this humble creek travel north toward Canada it is hard to believe I am standing in the headwaters of the Mississippi River; the fourth longest river in the world. Yes, the Mississippi actually starts life as a northbound river but eventually changes it’s mind and heads towards Dixie. In ninety days the water trickling past my feet will have fallen 1,475 feet, traveled around 2500 miles and turned chocolate brown by the time it joins the Gulf of Mexico.

Minnesota is also known for being home to Lake Woebegon, “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”. Just a few miles east of the Lake Woebegon Bicycle Trail live “Willing and Abel; that’s their Appalachian Trail names. We met them on the AT a few years ago and they kindly invited us to stop by as we headed west.

Willing is tall with dark hair, sports the good looks of a college quarterback and the slender fit body of a nationally ranked kayaker or cross-country skier. In fact Willing has been all three as well as an Olympian and now competes in race walking and cross-country skiing. If you’re interested he will tell you what it was like to compete in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and what he and Steve Prefontaine talked about as they waited to enter the stadium during the opening ceremony.

But at the 2012 Boston Marathon dinner honoring the significant runners of years past, Willing was not one of the athletes honored, he was just the eye candy on the arm of his strong and determined wife, Abel.

For over seventy years women were banned from running the Boston Marathon but women being intelligent people they finally asked, “Why?” Abel was one of those women; she was going to run Boston with or without the organizers blessing. As winter passed and Patriot Day approached Abel was dissatisfied with her training, her longest training run was only twelve miles, but that did not alter her decision. Her plan was like that of the other women who were going to run; hide in the bushes and then when the race starts, blend in.

Just two weeks before Abel ran her 1972 Boston Marathon it was announced that woman could officially run. With the stroke of a pen Abel was transformed from a bandit runner to one of the first official women finishers of the Boston Marathon. There were only eight female runners that first year. The track flats she wore during the race can be seen in the Boston Athletic Club’s display that honors the women of the Boston Marathon.

Willing is ready for any kind of Minnesota snow with his collection of ski wax

Willing is ready for any kind of snow with his extensive collection of ski wax

Willing and Abel have two daughters and to use Garrison Keillor’s line they “are above average”. Keillor claims Lake Woebegon is a fictional town but I know it actually exists. The cover up is part of a conspiracy to keep outsiders from visiting Minnesota and discovering the beauty of its north country, the hundreds of miles of paved bicycle paths and the joy of spending hour after hour crouched over a small hole on a frozen lake.

The fighting Johnnies of St. John

The fighting Johnnies of St. John

During a Friday Night Fish Fry at Saint Johns Abbey a Lutheran minister shared with Father O’Neill his concerns about global warming. “Minnesota will become another California in a few years, Father. It’s true! Soon there will be donut shops on every corner and your monastery’s lakeshore will be dotted with women in bikinis trying to tan their cleavage to match the crust of your famous Johnnie Bread.”

Father O’Neill thought the minister’s timeline was a bit off but he could see the problems that global warming could cause; a mass migration into the land of ten thousand lakes. Plus if people started eating more donuts the sale of the Abbey’s Johnnie Bread would surely fall. As for the bikini clad women along the monastery’s lakeshore that could cause trouble too. The Monk attrition rate has been a growing problem and lining the lakeshore with temptation would surely test those with doubt in their heart. Yes, something needed to be done to make Minnesota less appealing to those from other states.

The next day Father O’Neill shared his thoughts on global warming with Brother William. Brother William was a poor baker and in fact was best known for putting too much yeast in the Johnnie bread during the Annual Bishop’s Retreat. By morning mass the bishops looked like a herd of cattle with bloat. Bishop Kennedy was leading the mass but his prayers went unanswered. As he lifted the challis above his head he could retain the fermenting gases no longer and suddenly they escaped from his body in a loud and awkwardly long roar. The commotion jolted the youngest monks in the back row from their slumber and assuming the Bishop said something in Latin they responded in harmony with an, “Amen”. It could have been a career ender for Brother William but he was also a gifted beekeeper and Father O’Neill loved honey on his Johnnie bread so he took him out of the kitchen and made him his assistant.

A few months later Brother William placed a jar of mosquitos on Father O’Neill’s desk. “This is your answer to keeping Minnesota from being discovered and saving the monastery, Father. These mosquitos only bite non-Minnesotans and leave welts the size of doorknobs.” Although Father O’Neill appreciated Brother William’s efforts he was disturbed by the idea of disfiguring non-Minnesotans and made it clear that was not the answer. Brother William apologized for his misunderstanding and then apologized again. The second apology was for the fact that a number of his mosquitos had escaped during the breeding process.

The best solution Father O’Neill and his Lutheran counterpart could come up with was to encourage their congregations to never use real names when telling the world of the fine and unique characteristics of the people and towns of Minnesota.

So now you know the truth. When Garrison Keillor is talking about Lake Woebegon he is actually speaking in code to his Minnesota brothers and sisters. The town he is really talking about is Saint Cloud. “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”.

Walking through the woods at Itasca State Park - Minnesota

Walking through the woods at Itasca State Park – Minnesota

Categories: Hiking, Travel, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. You’re a great storyteller, Brick…had me laughing and chuckling. I have never been north of Minneapolis in the great state of Minnesota, your post is pulling me closer. Many thanks! 🙂

  2. Hi Sue and Tom…hope your travels are going well. Glad you got up to Itasca!

    It was really fun to read your account of Lake Woebegone. I enjoyed the Marathon story of Phil being “eye candy” on my arm too!

    We just got back from Glacier last night. Good times and good hikes! Nice to be home, though…I got tired of yelling and whooping to let the grizzly bears know we were there. 🙂

    Take care—-I bet you are at your house by now!

    Peace, Val

    Sent from my iPhone


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