May 2, 2017
I’m moving right along across Northwestern Minnesota, where spring is tentative at this latitude (now 48 degrees), but the early signs are there, more like early April in places where I’ve spent most of my life. In fact, yesterday someone said the young grass is not nearly as green until after it has had some snow on it. Last week, while I suffered in light snow and ice pellets, there was a true accumulation of up to six inches farther north. There are still small piles of it in some of the parking lots and in shady places where the sun doesn’t shine, even if the actual temperature gets as high as the low 50-degree range in the afternoon.
I briefly skirted the Minnesota north woods, where the pine forests begin, although it was a glancing blow. In Detroit Lakes, a popular summer resort town, people are just beginning to talk about preparing for the tourist season on the water, which doesn’t really begin until the middle of June and is over by Labor Day. You have to do some imagining to visualize the docks in the water and boats tied up to them, while the outdoor patios of lakeside bars and eateries are full of vacationers.
Then it was back to the prairies for a while. After a brief climb out of Detroit Lakes, it’s pretty much tabletop flat. The land was once the bottom of glacial Lake Agassiz, which at the end of the last ice age (only the day before yesterday in geologic terms), was a huge body of water more than twice as large as today’s Great Lakes combined. As the glaciers melted (they don’t really retreat in the same way they advance), they held back a huge volume of meltwater that periodically broke through the ice dams and created moving mountains of water that scoured out valleys far out of proportion to the small rivers that flow through them today. It must have seemed like the apocalypse to the natives who roamed the area at the time.
Eventually the land changed yet again, from the intensely cultivated prairies that stretch to the south for more than 1500 miles, to a kind of northern prairie. The predominant trees, which exist to the south as hardwoods in small pockets of virgin timber and more recently planted windbreaks, are here largely birches and some conifers, and they are more extensive. The soil is less well drained and a little more boggy, a clear legacy of its glacial past.
“You’re in moose country now,” I was told at a convenience store in the tiny town of Winger, Minnesota, “and there are bears in the back country, too.” The only evidence of wildlife I have seen so far are the carcasses of deer at the side of the highway. Judging by the size of the roadkill, much larger than the rather scrawny creatures where I live, I’m guessing the cars and their drivers fared only slightly better than the deer.
I’m also back in “Indian country.” Some of the Native American tribes in Minnesota moved west to the Dakotas, but others were allowed to remain on the less populated northern reaches of their ancestral homelands. Two large reservations remain today, culturally and linguistically connected, but separated by political differences. The more southerly Chippewas joined together six bands into the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which now has several reservations, including the White Earth Reservation that I rode through and is home today to some 9200 Native American residents. The northern Red Lake Band, however, refused to be governed by the provisions of the 1887 Dawes Act that ended the communal ownership of tribal lands. Their Red Lake Indian Reservation is one of very few “closed reservations” that preserves ownership of native land in common.
The only real growth industry on tribal lands is gambling. Both the Minnesota Chippewas and the Red Lake Band own and operate casinos. Some observers see this as the fairest form of “Indian revenge” against centuries of white oppression. They cite the opportunities for jobs, tourism and local development, as well as the source of income in some of the poorest areas in the state.
I confess I am far less sanguine about Indian gaming. I stayed at two of the tribal casinos, the Shooting Star Casino is Mahnomen, Minnesota, and the Seven Clans Casino about 10 miles south of Thief River Falls. I really had no choice, as it would have meant otherwise riding 80 miles out of my way to find overnight accommodations. And while the casinos were reasonably well kept and patronized, I didn’t find them particularly appealing.
It’s not so much the Native Americans I take issue with. Their opportunities are limited and they struggle as they inhabit a space between two very different cultures. It’s more that I am just not fond of gambling. It hardly seems to bring out the best in people, and the demographics associated with it as an activity are, frankly, not very positive. Gamblers are considerably older than the general population, skewing well into the senior citizen range (for the record, of course I’m a senior as well). They are less active, a considerable number of them with limited mobility. They engage in unhealthy behavior such as consuming more than a few drinks at one sitting, and nearly a majority of them are smokers. Quite a few of them are also overweight. As evidence of the Type 2 diabetes pandemic that plagues many older North Americans, the casinos are the only places, other than hospitals, where I have seen receptacles in the restrooms for discarded needles of those who use injectable insulin.
I don’t want to be guilty of ageism, nor discrimination against the disabled or unhealthy. But this does not seem to be a population that is growing; if anything, it would appear to be in decline as younger people with different attitudes and behaviors are replacing them. In 30 to 40 years, will aging millennials want to visit casinos? I have doubts.
Moreover, the flashing lights and cacophony of a casino floor, darkly illuminated by artificial light only, are not a pleasant place to me. And there is the issue of the smoke. It’s a reversal of the situation of 20 years ago before smoking was banned in public spaces. Back then, there were designated areas specifically for smokers. In Minnesota today, smoking is allowed on the casino floor, except for designated non-smoking areas that seem poorly patronized. No doubt some smokers say it shows non-smokers how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot.
The casinos are something of a getaway destination for Northwest Minnesotans, Northeast North Dakotans and even Canadians from Winnipeg south to the U.S. border. The weekend undiscounted prices are not outrageous, but certainly no bargain. My buffet dinner featured an extensive salad bar, but the entrée choices were limited and not of the highest quality (the prime rib was just plain tough). On the other hand, the second casino where I stayed had a Sunday-Thursday special that offered one night’s heavily discounted hotel room in exchange for joining their Player’s Club (at no charge) and also receiving $10 in free gambling money, which I didn’t even use. The second casino’s restaurant was closed for remodeling, and there was only a limited menu at the snack bar. I suppose between the two casinos I averaged a reasonable price for the total of two nights. Still, I felt no incentive to return soon.
I respect and admire Native Americans, but I have to ask if relatively low-wage service jobs are their best prescription for the future. I’m not sure where this leads.
The coincidence of the week concerns two cyclists and Warm Showers hosts in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Glen and Darby Kajewski. When I contacted them, they said they had already heard about my trip and would have been anxious to host me. However, they would be out of town on the very days I would be there. I thanked them in an email and said I was sorry about the missed opportunity to meet.
On the day I rode from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, to the casino at Mahnomen, a red pickup truck coming the other way slowed and then stopped. The driver asked if I were Bill. Of course it was my would-be hosts Glen and Darby, who were on their way to destinations south. We stopped and happily chatted, visiting like friends who knew each other. They made recommendations about people to see in Thief River Falls, where I would be three nights later, and we parted with photos and smiles.
You just never know who you will run into and when.
At the edge of the Minnesota north woods:
The shore at the popular lakeside resort community of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, still more than a month away from the beginning of the tourist season:
My would-be Warm Showers hosts from Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Glen and Darby Kijewski, whom I encountered on the road north from Detroit Lakes:
Leftover unmelted snow from a late April Northwest Minnesota storm:
The Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minnesota:
I’ll took this photo at the Shooting Star Casino for my Canadian friends and neighbours (Canadian spelling). It’s part of a secret code intended for Canucks:
The Seven Clans Casino south of Thief River Falls, Minnesota:
An evening scene from the window of my room at the Seven Clans Casino. The sky is big in Northwest Minnesota: