May 8, 2017
The highlight of my last full day in the U.S. was in Hallock, Minnesota, almost as far northwest as you can get in the of Land of 10,000 Lakes, fewer than 10 miles from the Red River of the North and North Dakota, and some 16 miles from the Canadian border. It’s hard to imagine the land bring any flatter or the winds driving the snow any more fiercely just a week ago, although the temperature on this day in early May finally broke the 70-degree mark (I still can’t seem to escape the headwinds, however). You can tell that full spring is just waiting to burst forth.
I’ve now been interviewed nearly a dozen times by local newspapers, often enough that the novelty has worn off. But I received a message from the editor of the weekly Kittson County Enterprise with an intriguing description of the reporter/writer who wanted to interview me: “She’s an amazing young woman and an excellent writer…she’s going to Harvard this fall.”
How could I say no? And so I came to meet Dani Perez, who is indeed as her editor described her, and more. I’ve taught at various times in my highly variable career, and bright young people are always a pleasure. Dani’s questions were perceptive, and I tried to answer them a little more elaborately than the standard quotes I sense reporters want to hear for their articles. But of course the far more interesting stories to me are the ones I can extract from the people I meet on the trip.
Dani’s story is no exception. She’s clearly gifted, having come from Venezuela to the U.S. with her family at the age of six, an example of the talent and abilities immigrants bring to the American experience. Some 12 years later, she’s a completely American young woman, one of only a few non-native Minnesotans at her small high school. She seems destined for an even wider and more far-ranging life as an adult. She applied to a total of six colleges and universities, and was accepted by all of them. “Then someone suggested Harvard,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I belonged, but I said to myself, ‘Why not?’”
In March the acceptance letter came, and just a week ago she traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to visit the new environment she will be inhabiting beginning in August. “I couldn’t get over it,” she said. “The architecture was beautiful and the people so interesting and diverse.” She says she intends to major in sociology “because I like studying the ways people live together.” My recommendation to her was to take advantage of the great minds and people who frequent such a place. She’s a lucky person, and I felt fortunate to meet her on the cusp of such an opportunity. Go forth, Dani, and do yourself and your community proud.
I had hoped to add a final Minnesota craft brewery to my list by visiting the Revelation Ale Works in tiny Hallock (population 950), but alas, I was a day early; their taproom is open only on Friday and Saturday evenings. Dani assured me with a smile that she had been told the beer was good.
An interesting bit of trivia is that Hallock was among the locations used to shoot the Coen Brothers’ award-winning film Fargo, due to its reliable winter snow cover (which fortunately for me was gone in early May, but only by a matter of days).
Then it was off to the Canadian border on my last day in the U.S. There was no letup in the headwind, which blew at a steady 15 mph, although it was sunny with temperatures in the 60s, quite spring-like. Far, far Northwestern Minnesota is borderline unpopulated; the land is mostly swampy and intermittently forested with birch trees beginning to acquire their leaves. Here and there are sections that have been cleared and are farmed with big tractors with treads rather than wheels. The farmers are out getting the land ready for planting, although putting the seeds in the ground is still probably ten days to two weeks away.
The border crossing for U.S. Highway 59 (the number is preserved as a Manitoba provincial route) is not a busy one, open from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm only. If you want to cross at other times you must travel west 45 miles to Interstate 29. There were no other cars when I crossed, a little after 1:00 pm. The Canadian Customs and Border Protection officer was an older man, about 60, and we had more than ample time for conversation. He was interested in hearing about my trip, wanting to know where I had been and how far I traveled in a day and where I stayed. He concluded by shaking his head and saying, “That’s quite something you’ve done, all right, but I can tell you it wouldn’t be for me. By the way, welcome back home.”
My stated goal of traveling from Mexico to Canada was accomplished, but I could hardly end the trip at an obscure border crossing in the middle of nowhere. I still had approximately 100 miles (not the most direct route, which would have been about 30 miles shorter) and a little more than two days to reach Winnipeg. The few Manitoba towns in the beginning were just as tiny and far apart as those I had left in Northwestern Minnesota, so small as to show little evidence I was in another country. But eventually the land, still tabletop flat in the broad Red River Valley, begins to be better drained and more intensely farmed.
I arrived at my day’s goal of St. Malo, Manitoba, at nearly 6:30 pm, glad to be off the bike after fighting the steady headwind for 50 miles. It’s hardly a big place (population 1200), but it does have stores featuring familiar (to me) Canadian brands, as well as a bar/motel that was somewhat busy on an early Friday evening. It’s also the beginning of a section of Manitoba that was originally settled by French speakers; the French influence is retained by some of their descendants who continue to speak the language, and by the presence of a large, stately Catholic church. The language spoken at the bar was entirely English, and the patrons, who were interested in hearing about my bicycle trip, assured me that “there’s more of us than there are of them, but we learn both languages in school.” Even on the Manitoba prairie, Canadians can’t quite escape the language and cultural distinctions.
Dani Perez, a remarkable young woman and the pride of Hallock, Minnesota, who will be attending Harvard University this fall:
It’s still Highway 59, a provincial route in Manitoba:
The French Catholic church in St. Malo, Manitoba:
Posing with Jack, a patron of the bar in St. Malo: