Friday, September 20, 2013

Week 3, Part 2: Minnesota & Wisconsin—Two Lakes

When I was in my twenties, I wrote some pages of a fictional place where some things and some words meant something different than they actually do. The piece was called “Minnesota” but this Minnesota was “the center for spiritual enlightenment.” It was a place but more than that, a state of being. Persimmons were love. I don’t remember what other words I used in this project. It’s probably tucked somewhere in a journal, if I didn’t purge it with so many of my other writings that I threw away when I was twenty-nine. I’d never been to Minnesota, but I had all these ideas about it. Of course, I knew Minneapolis to be rich with theater and art. I had a childhood friend that had moved there to work at their famous children’s theater. And I remember going to some acquaintances “Moving to Minnesota Sale” when I lived in Irvine, California. Since I always loved the idea of being wherever I was not, from time to time, I daydreamed about moving to Minneapolis. Eventually, my best friend Madeline left Berkeley during this time to move with her then-boyfriend to Minneapolis. And until this week, I never made it to the state of Minnesota.

Big Carnelian Lake, Stillwater, Minnesota

The drive from South Dakota to Stillwater, Minnesota, where we would stay for two nights, was largely filled with farms. We pulled over in a small town to get gas where they had an old-fashioned gas pump and two men were sitting in chairs in front of the station.

It was a gray day and as we approached the Twin Cities, the skyline wasn’t visible. Stillwater, the first establishment in the state, is about 45 minutes outside of the Twin Cities, on the banks of the St. Croix River, which divides Minnesota from Wisconsin. We were staying with dear friends of my dear friend Sasha, who I worked on performance projects with during grad school and who has been one of my biggest creative advocates and supporters over the last nineteen years. He’d recently connected me with his friend Susanna, who along with her husband, Ilya, have started Luv Ice Cream, a healthy, alternative to sugar-sweetened ice creams and chocolates. You can read about their story and company here:

They’ve developed their own all natural stevia blend that I’ve used in some baking experiments with a lot of success. (No bitter aftertaste!) Susanna and I have emailed over the last few months and I’d spoken to her once on the phone in preparation for coming to visit. I knew she and Ilya were as busy as two people could be but they still insisted on putting us up.

As we followed the directions to their house, which is several miles north of Stillwater on the  edge of a small lake, I thought Larry must wonder where I was taking him. Wild turkeys crossed the gravel road as we kept driving and turning, eventually turning down into their long driveway that ended on the shore of Big Carnelian Lake under plenty of trees and beside a lovely home.

We walked up the porch stairs and knocked on the door and could see a beautiful long wooden table set for dinner. Ilya answered the door and greeted me with a hug and he and Susanna quickly swept us into their world, as they were discussing buying a walk in freezer and cooler for their quickly-expanding business. Dinner was amazing and healthy, and Susanna let no detail pass—there were fresh flowers and lavender bath scrub in our bathroom to greet us after a long day of a driving—these small things, baths and bouquets of flowers, that I’ve definitely missed while on the road.

The next day, after a morning yoga class and a quick tour of Stillwater, Susanna took time out of her busy schedule to take us on a tour of downtown Minneapolis. We saw Mill Ruins Park, walking along the old bridge overlooking it, the Mill Museum and the new Guthrie Theater. The city was so clean with so little traffic it was stunning. Then she took us to the skyway tunnel system downtown and deftly toured us through some of her family’s favorite courtyards so we could get a feel of the city. After that, she took us to see the Walker Sculpture Garden which had a delightful sculptor’s miniature golf course, the giant spoon and cherry well known from the opening of the “Mary Tyler Moore” show, and gorgeous pathways of more varieties of flowers than I could count or name.

We met Ilya on his lunch break at an excellent family-owned Thai restaurant in St. Paul and then drove home to rest before going to the communal kitchen where they rent space to help turn out part of an ice cream order that was due on Friday. Larry became very deft at helping Ilya stir the custard as it went into the giant machine as well as cleaning and boxing finished pints. I help lid the pints, put together and label boxes and pint containers, and, and did some packing of ice cream—which is an altogether messy job. We worked for about three hours and then went home for a late dinner.

After tasting several flavors of ice creams as well as some of their vegan coconut based creams, we finished dinner with the leftover half pint of chocolate ice cream which was so delicious and rich and creamy it was difficult to believe it was sugar-free. I was amped up from the excitement and discussion of the night, which involved a lot of talk about the food science and our own personal journeys with food and health. I think the work they are doing is so exciting and revolutionary and I can’t wait until I’m settled back in a kitchen to start developing a baked doughnut made with their stevia blend to offer alongside the chocolate cupcakes I’ve already developed that are vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free.

Meeting new people is always a bit nerve-wracking for me, but Susanna and Ilya were so generous, sweet, open, funny, and lovely, that they felt like fast friends. Plus, we loved their pug Nutella and their kitty Kwanza. 

Since we know we will be spending part of the winter in Northern Wisconsin, about three hours from them, we promised to return again, for another visit and a work party this winter. Though you can’t order their ice cream online (yet), you can order their delicious stevia-blend sweetened chocolates through the website above.

Then in the late morning, after a long night’s sleep, and another lovely breakfast (Susanna is an amazing cook), we said our goodbyes-for-now to head to visit some another couple we’ve never met, who live in the North Woods of Wisconsin, Jerry and Lea Justice. We drove through a thunder and lightning storm for awhile and then it was light rain for most of the three or four hours of travel.

Clam Lake, Wisconsin

This was not my first trip to Wisconsin. I’d flown to Milwaukee in 1997 to visit Fort Atkinson and Lake Koshkonong, Wisconsin, where my favorite American poet, Lorine Niedecker, lived her whole life. Fort Atkinson is between Madison and Milwaukee and a little south of both. I stayed there for several days and took a videotaped interview of Gail Roub, who had been Niedecker’s neighbor her last years of life. It was just before Christmas and Gail was dying of cancer—in fact, he died just a couple weeks after I visited, but he was strong enough and faithful enough to Niedecker’s memory and legacy to  take me out to her houses on Lake Koshkonong and to talk candidly about what he knew of her. I still have videos of the trip and the interview, tucked in a box and ready for anyone wanting to take on the work of biography. Maybe someday I will re-visit that project. But for now, we were heading to Wisconsin to meet the people we would housesit for from January to April and to meet their sweet cats who we’d tend to while they were away.

Jerry and Lea live on Clam Lake, which is situated in the middle of Chequamegon National Forest. We met them on a housesitting website. Clam Lake is a tiny unincorporated community near two small towns—Hayward (pop. 2300) is about 34 miles away, and Cable (pop. 700) is about 17 miles away. A fishing, snowmobiling, and cross country skiing tourist destination, Clam Lake and its surrounds house many wild animals—we saw deer, more wild turkey, and eagles, but there’s also efforts to repopulate elk, as well as wolf, foxes—and plenty of chipmunk for Lea and Jerry’s cats to chase. We totally forgot to take photos because we were so engaged in conversation during our short stay there, but I took a few photos on our way out. 

I’ll be writing and posting more about Clam Lake and the surrounding areas when we are back in January and I have a chance to get to know the people and the area more intimately while I hole up and work on a book and learn to snowshoe, but I wanted to say a few words about how beautiful this part of the country is. A mix of deciduous and pine trees, the leaves were just starting to turn, and Lea showed me photos of the lake in its full fall foliage. Brilliant!

Lea and Jerry greeted us so warmly, meeting us at the convenience store down the road from their house, showing us their home, sharing with us many of their lives adventures, and asking after our lives and careers. They made us feel special and like honored guests, and we couldn’t feel luckier to have been chosen to spend part of the winter in their beautiful home sitting on the lake with a big picture window, a loft work space for me, three adorable and affectionate kitties—Little Guy, Darby, and Jill—and two close by towns that seem to have so much to offer considering how small they are.

Jerry worked for Esso as an engineer and he and Lea traveled to and lived in many countries, especially in South America, during his years working for the company before they retired on Clam Lake, near where Jerry grew up. They told us about their many pets, including a monkey and an ocelot. Lea’s a huge advocate for animals and she and Larry had a lot to talk about because of his years of work as a dog walker and with animal foster groups. 

They took us to one of the three taverns in Clam Lake for a pizza and to introduce us to the couple who own the tavern—Sherry and Ralph. Then we went home and talked some more until we were all ready for bed.

It was quiet as quiet can be, but both Larry and I were so excited about our new connection with Lea and Jerry and looking forward to our time housesitting for them, that we had a bit of trouble falling asleep.

After breakfast that included toast from a local bakery (a rustic walnut cranberry loaf),  we took a short tour around Lea’s beautiful flower gardens and along the lake in the morning after breakfast, we had to get on the road to head to our next destination, another a city I’ve never been: Chicago.

We look forward to seeing Lea and Jerry (and Jill, Darby, and Little Guy) in mid-January, meeting more of the people of Clam Lake, Hayward, and Cable, and having a North Woods experience this winter. This is a part of the country I never really knew about and I feel so glad to have opened myself to trying new things on this trip. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity. 

Onward! to Chicago! But first, the rest of Wisconsin, including: 

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