William Least Heat Moon wrote a great book.
I have no idea if it ever made it into the NYT or into any book charts, but it inspired me something fierce when I read it. It was a lucky find at a book store here in Hamburg that carried English books for triple their original price in a time before the internet and amazon, or even less amazon.de.
He had, after losing his job, the crazy idea to travel all over the States in his van, using only the Blue Highways, and he wrote this book about it.
Actually, maybe it was even this book that turned me off the “regular” sightseeing and into wanting to discover the small wonders and the people in the places we went.
So when I joined my husband in the States in 88 while he was training for his new job, I did not want to go to the big cities (well, with the exception of NY), but wished to see the country itself.
So we went up north from Minneapolis, all the way to International Falls, because that was at the end of nowhere.
Least Heat Moon had this way to categorize the diners he visited into “calendar categories”: the more of those were hanging in the place, the better the food was. He stated that he had eaten extremely well at four calendar places but never came across a five calendar restaurant and then wondered how awesome the food there might be….. makes me think right now about the categorizing of tornadoes, but not going there right now.
International Falls, now.
If you ever want a town that has nothing, that is the place to go.
The paper mill might be worth attention, the smell permeates the entire area. or at least it did then, no idea if it still exists. Our motel was clean, the people were nice, but that was about all of it. The liquor store was a trailer on some gravel yard, and I can’t really remember if there was anything else noteworthy. It was cold then, even though it was May, the river and the lake were still frozen.
Now I’m a hopeless romantic, and my husband and I were on something like a second honeymoon, and Canada was just across the bridge, so I suggested we go over the border to have dinner that night. This proved to be no mean feat, because as Germans we had, of course, US visas in our passports, which included a green paper that you had to return when you left the country again. It took a convoluted discussion with the border control to make them understand we would only be gone for a couple of hours, but they were nice and let us cross into Canada and Fort Frances, the village on the other side.
We drove up and down the main street of that sleepy place, found a book store (of sorts) that had maybe five books, about twenty different magazines on weapons and a hundred on fishing, a couple of uninviting diners, a video store, and nothing else. After an hour of futile searching for a nice restaurant we gave up and returned over the bridge.
The Canadian border patrol greeted us with the words: “Oh you’re back, ey?”
Slightly disgruntled, we asked him where he went when he wanted a really nice meal, and he replied, “We never eat in Fort Frances. We always go across the border to International Falls.” and then went on to give us the directions to Thunderbird Lodge about 20 miles east out of town.
We did go there, and what a gem that was! Just like out of a travel prospect, with boardwalks out to the lake, a great deck, a large log cabin in the middle of the woods with a huge open fireplace, quilts over the sofa, Indian paintings on the walls and wonderful, wonderful food.
There were no calendars at all that we could see, but linen table cloths and napkins and very fine crystal glasses, too.
On our way back south, we went through a small village called Eli, lost somewhere in the Minnesotan wilderness, not much more than one street, but I loved it.
Sometimes when you come to a place and you get out of your car, there is this instant love feeling. Something just is right – the smell, the light, the sounds, not even necessarily what you see, but how it feels.
I had that with Eli, Minn., and many years later, with Floro, Norway.
In Floro, when my friend and I reached it, it was cold and raining, and we were tired from the long drive down from Alesund, and I just stood there in the rain and thought, this is it. This is the place I want to live. Eli felt the same.
A while later, we drove south from Minneapolis along the Mississippi (hey, and what a discovery that was ! The Twin Cities lie on the Mississippi! The same one that runs through New Orleans!) and saw many other lovely places. Somewhere down there – I have forgotten the name of the town – is a Quaker hotel where you can ask for a cat for your room. Honestly, I’m not kidding you. They offer a room cat to spend the night with you. And they served us the most amazing chicken soup.
So yes, I still love the small places. The heart places. The places where America lives.
PS: William Least Heat Moon’s book was on the NYT bestseller list for 34 weeks. just googled him.