It’s Almost Memorial Day, And I Can Remember Not Being Here

     Saturday was low-key as well, for reasons I mentioned in my last post. Coming along the street, I saw a middle-aged bald guy sitting on the bench, starting at the sidewalk. He had his head down, and looked like he was going to be sick. I thought that he’d leave by the time I came, but he was still there. He didn’t say anything. For a swarthy skinned guy he looked pale, and just mostly started at the ground. I hoped it wasn’t going to be one of those nights where I was going to be able to guess what he had been drinking.

     Tips came out about even, but somehow were also more disappointing. I hate to say it, but sometimes, I wish people would not tip at all. For example, one younger guy listened for awhile, then proceeded to tip two pennies into my case before going off, all with the air of a much wealthier man who had just slipped the host a Ben Franklin to get a better restaurant reservation. Now, I’m not saying this man is cheap, and I suppose some might say I should be thankful for everything, and in a way I am. I always say “thank you” and the like, my manners are not compromised. And perhaps, of course, two pennies is all he had on him, I wouldn’t know. But getting two pennies for a is tip has all the satisfaction of getting those minuscule credit card points for every dollar. You know they’re worth something, but in actuality they mostly just sit there and give you the false sense that you are slightly richer.

     Anthony was setting up his food cart. It was slow for him too. From Anthony I learned three things about what became known as our mutual enemy, the Other Food Cart. First, that they served clam chowder, hotdogs, and something else I can’t remember (but sounded unappealing in the heat). Second, that they had trouble parking their trailer, and left in on the street for awhile before the cops moved it along, and finally that they probably had set up too close to him, as the city gives out spots and they were only a street length away. But oh well. We couldn’t do anything about it, so we just were content to give a few dark looks in their general direction. At least their generator had already warmed up today. As we both had dead time, we talked awhile, and Anthony told me about how he still made money doing this on the weekends in the middle of winter. Even then he made a good profit, and operating a food stand at two in the morning in the middle of winter in Fargo impressive. He was definitely a hard worker.

     The guy on the bench started waking up, going from “listless and about to throw up” to “moderately coherent and amiable.” In other words, he was still drunk out of his brains, but too tired to stand up and be a real jerk about it. He occasionally yelled at me to play Johnny Cash, but I ignored. A young lady bought one of Anthony’s cheese steaks and sat on the other side of the bench from him. She of course was almost immediately surround by at least two guys. A middle aged one, with a beard, glasses, and a cigarette, was particularly aggressive and she looked like she didn’t want to be there. I thought she’d blow him off, but he eventually got her number and they walked away together. However, she must have given him the slip at some point, because I saw him calling out to her to “wait up,” but later he was walking alone. As often happens. Eventually the drunk guy on the bench ambled off too, but came back and took turns listlessly wandering around the street, sitting on the bench again and talking to everybody, and finally just meandering away for good.

     A girl with her friend asked me to play the harmonica, and I indulged. I fingerpicked “Don’t Think Twice” for the solo, and she told me how she had learned “Georgia On My Mind” just by fingerpicking for hours and going section by section. She said her dad said she had to practice hard to be good at it and made her do it, and now she fingerpicks better than her boyfriend, who strums. It apparently makes him frustrated. This was impressive, mostly because she learned the opposite way than most guitarists. She also was probably better than her boyfriend, but I didn’t tell her that.

     As I was playing, a balding guy in about his thirties came by and sat down quietly to listen. He looked familiar, and I saw that it was Peter, who the reader may remember I had met several years ago (“Vigilance, Banjos, and Teenagers”). I said “Hey, aren’t you Peter?” and he was, and that he was really surprised I remembered. He apologized for being drunk that night four years ago and getting weepy, but I said that was okay. I was surprised myself that he remembered way back when too. He seemed more low-key and morose tonight, and we chatted a bit (it’s always good to see friends on the street, you don’t get too many), caught up on life and the like, and then eventually he headed off. He was looking for food tonight, as he said being drunk basically killed his diet anyway. We said our goodbyes. I stayed on my corner, and he headed off for the pizzeria down the street. I was sort of sad to see him go. I think he was a kind soul.

     Sometimes I get high schoolers come by, who don’t know what to do with me but try to act cool anyway. Some curly headed kid from Moorhead high (he wore the t-shirt) came by towards the end of the night and asked if I’d play “Bob Dylan” but immediately said that he “wasn’t going to pay me.” I was in the middle of a song, and I said I’d finish this one up first. He asked if he paid me whether I’d play Bob Dylan, and I said I might move this song along a little faster. He walked to the side, turned around, and looked through his wallet. He only found twenties. I said “Don’t worry about it” (which was my way of being polite and saying “Okay, well, you’re not going to pay, just enjoy the music or go on, but don’t keep pestering me for songs”) and he said “I won’t.” He then thanked me for my hair though. I got a haircut the next week.

     Some nights aren’t eventful, but that’s okay. Not long after that, I packed up, and quickly said goodbye to Anthony, as one to two-thirty in the morning is his rush time. I went down the street to see if Greg had come back yet (he had not, I wondered where he got to lately). Past the hot-dog stands, the late-night crowds, and the guys trying to corner girls for their last shot of the night, and watching the break-dancers across the street was Peter. He was holding a cardboard box in his hand, and had obviously gotten his pizza. I went to say “hi” and we chatted for a bit. He thought the break-dancers were pretty good. He said once he sobered up he was heading home on the motorcycle. I asked him if he wanted a ride, and he said thanks for being concerned, but he knew what he was doing and would be okay. We said “goodnight” again and I headed off into the night.




The Quiet Nights of Lunacy

     As I’ve written before, Memorial Day is often a break for the nightlife and street music scene in Fargo. The college students are gone, presumably broke and humbled, but will return in September. Of them my busking mentor, “Homeless” Herb Stone, used to say business was good in the fall because they all thought they had their parents’ money to spare, and thus were good tippers. Memorial Day is also the time that annually sees Fargo become a ghost town. The people who afford it go to lake cabins, and the people who can’t try to figure out which friends and family members will let them go to theirs. The remaining street pedestrians, including the ones with nowhere to go and the ones who have to work at one of the few places still open, stay and drink. Thus about late May is when the ratio of “average weekenders” gets tiled more toward the crazy. The heat brings them out, and the lack of anywhere else to go keeps them in.

     On Friday night, I didn’t have too many people. The most annoying part was a new food stand, just across the street. I arrived there about 11:45, and heard something like a jackhammer which was the engine to their cart starting up. Mercifully, when a car or large group would go by, it would be muted, but sadly traffic was low. I told myself I’d give it fifteen minutes, and twenty later they stopped. One of the employees would come by me throughout the night to get her drink out of her car parked nearby, sit for awhile and drink it, then return it to her car.

      An older guy walked by, carrying a grocery bag full of something in bottles or cans. He was tall and skinny, had a baseball cap and glasses on, and was missing teeth. He sat quietly next to me while I played “Irene Goodnight” and one or two other Hank Williams songs. He then asked if I could play “Orange Blossom Special” but I couldn’t remember all the words. I instead played “A Boy Named Sue” and he liked that one, giving me a silent thumbs up. By and by he asked me to watch his stuff and walked over to the bar to go to the bathroom. I hate doing that, especially if there is alcohol there (I don’t need any reason for the cops to stop) but it seemed like an okay night so I let him without any fuss. A middle aged lady stopped by, with the sort of bewildered but coherent look that comes from drinking enough to be inebriated but not enough to be stumbling around. She sat down on the bench, and when the guy came back they cozied up there and talked for awhile. They were a pretty polite audience.

     Most of the crowd had been okay. There is usually a theme: some guys will yell for a heavy metal cover (usually Metallica, but tonight it was Slayer) and the girls will ask for John Mayer. Always John Mayer…. My standard answer when asked if I “know them” is to say “Not personally” and most of them don’t bother to stop after that. At any rate, I got a request like that from one girl coming up the street, answered the usual way, and then she said “Watch out for the crazy guy.”

     I was about to ask “Which one” but as usually happens, they make themselves known. A Native American guy I had met before, although not by name, came up and down the street, weaving- but not stumbling- from side to side of the sidewalk. He usually hung out with some other guys down the block, and tonight he had the same bright green “UND Sioux” sweatshirt on that he always did, although the night was hot. We had usually had a good relationship in the past, or at least one in that we were okay with the other one being around. I think I had played him some country music on request once. At any rate, he came up weaving and shouting along the sidewalk, something about that that the girls had conned him out of some money, and he’d find them, and all other sorts of declarations. He stood there at the corner yelling at them, and screamed that someone had taken his money and he was going to call the cops (or something), and he’d get it back.

     As he walked by, the man hadn’t noticed me yet, and as his back was turned I looked down at my own case full of one dollar bills, and realized that this wasn’t a great position for me to be in at the moment. I furiously began to hide them, and he trotted back and sat down on the bench, occasionally yowling at passerby about fraudulent and deficient financial issues. He looked at the old guy and lady still on the bench said they were probably “in on it” too.

     At this point the old guy got up to get his bag that was still beside me, and I handed it to him. “Headed out?” I asked. “Yeah,” he answered saying something about it had gotten way too crazy. I didn’t blame him. Guys like that usually have good instincts, although it wouldn’t have taken a specialist to realize it was time to go, and a paranoid guy declaring that the world owed him money was a probably a pretty good sign of lunacy even to a novice student of human nature. In a past year I might have waited Sweatshirt Guy out, but I have since learned that there was no point to that. I thanked the older man for listening and said to have a good night, and then packed up myself and went down the street. I figured I would see if anyone else was around and give this guy a few minutes to cool off before I tried again. If he was still there, I was headed home.

     Turns out Damian was down the street, the same guy I had mentioned in posts before. He goes by another name, but I can never remember it so I go by his real one. He usually has a mohawk, but today had smoothed it down and was wearing a newsboy style hat. He almost looked conservative. He brings out a stool and sits on a corner. Damian likes folk songs, but tends to do a lot of punk stuff, although his guitar is acoustic. We had met off and on for four or five years now.

     I told him why I was there, and he said the guy had come down the street earlier pretty mad about money. At least Sweatshirt Guy is consistent. Damian and I were chatting about that sort of thing for awhile, and in the meantime Bob, a guy who was hanging around Damian and came over to introduce himself to me, was there too. Sometimes, guys like that just like hanging with musicians for the night. Bob eventually disappeared, Damian was on a break and smoking, and we were joined by Kassie, who was clear to tell me it was spelled with a “K”. She was a blond twenty something musician with hip glasses. She leaned up against the lampost and smoked a cigarette while we talked. I still don’t know if that was her name, because I heard about three others in the course of one conversation, but it’s what I was going with here. She was one of the few female musicians who plays music around, and the only one I know of who plays on a street corner here, although I had only met her that night.

     After awhile Bob reappeared with plastic bags full of food and Poweraid for Damian. Damian was a little embarrassed, I think, and tried to give it back, but Bob was very adamant. Damian didn’t eat pork anyway, so he gave the ham sandwich back to Bob, who didn’t seem too concerned. We talked for awhile, before Kassie wanted to find a beer and I wanted to try my corner again, so we said goodbye.

     Sweatshirt Guy was nearer to Damian’s corner now, but at this point was just staring off into space and presumably contemplating the mysteries of the universe and loose change, so it looked like I was in the clear. I made it back to my spot, and played the rest of the night, which was at this time about forty-five minutes. A few guys, including a bearded twenty-something really got into it, and I got a few more tips, but other than that nothing much happened.

      And so ended another Friday night.



In Which I Lied, Played Again, And Discover Lyrics Are Important

     Reluctantly, I tried busking again. I wasn’t rushing to do so, but the days had been warm (following an unusually cold winter and spring), and crowds were out. Also, I had set for myself a financial goal I wanted to make, and had recently gotten my classical guitar situated with a peg on the bottom, so I could put on a strap. Taking all those things together, I threw the guitar in the back of the car and headed out for the night.

     It’s not that I hate street performing- many of the people, if not a small majority, are nice, or at least have the grace not to pay attention if they don’t want to listen. It’s less abusive than some other jobs I had, and often (at least measured by hours) pays better. What I don’t like are the moments where I have to “babysit'”, or the constant worry that someone will try to rob me. Anyone who read my past blog entries for the past several years knows that it has happened, or in the case of stealing, attempts have been made. Also, it’s just draining. I try to sing and play over crowds, sirens, motorcycles, and I just get tired, while drunks wake up and want me to be as bombastically energetic as they are.

     I liked busking better since Anthony arrived. He owns a restaurant downtown, the V.I.P. Room, and around ten thirty or eleven sets up a mobile food stand where he sells Philly cheese steaks. He was one of the nicest guys on the street, and even hired me on occasion to play at his restaurant. Another reason I like him around (besides the fact that it adds an air of legitimacy to “The Corner”) is that it’s good to  have someone you know nearby, just in case something goes down. He greeted me this night as he was setting up and told me that in the past week or two some other people had sometimes some other people had been playing in my spot as well. I guess I need to get out earlier.

     My first customer was a younger lady in a black dress, who stopped me during a song and asked if I know any more modern songs, because she wanted to sing with me. I said I didn’t, so she asked if I knew “Amazing Grace”, which I did, and she wanted to sing along. Thankfully, she was a decent singer, although I had to help her with the words sometimes. She was joined by her friend, who picked up a verse she (and admittedly, I didn’t even know), although he managed to sing it exactly one half step flat the entire song. They still liked joining me though, and tipped me before they left.

     As the night went on, I got a few handful of tips, some from guys in groups, and a good amount from two young women dressed for the night out. A college student asked me about music, a few bachelorettes gave tips, one giving  me a mint from a restaurant (“It’s all I have!” she smiled) and so on with such usual events of the night. It was mild and cool, and the students were already largely gone, making the crowds dwindle more than the last week or two.

     I did get a twerker. It happens, but regrettably. Even more regrettably, it was during “My Back Pages” which isn’t really a twerking song anyway. One of the more annoying parts of the job is that in another situation, I thought this would be funny, but now everyone films everything, so I eel have to look composed for Youtube. Case in point, eventually she went away, followed by a couple guys who were hanging on, and told me I was “staring.” I didn’t even have my glasses on at the time, so probably not. The girl later came back to twerk again, this time to a gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away.” Lyrical context is important in situations such as these.

     Not much else happened that night. People were friendly, and in a decent mood. The guy who had previously threatened to stab me came by, but he left after awhile without saying anything. A guy in about his thirties, with a ponytail, gave me a twenty. We chatted for a while about guitars and stuff. He went to North High School, and asked me if I knew someone, but I didn’t. He eventually headed off into the night too. A middle aged lady in a blue shirt had been listening sort of just around the corner. She gave me some change but apologized because she didn’t have more. I said that was okay.

     I finally quit playing about one thirty, after about two hours, and put my things away. A lady with a bulldog stopped by, and said she was hoping to hear me play, but with many apologies I told her my voice was shot, which it was, and I was headed off. I said goodnight to Anthony, and walked off home. I checked near Dempsey’s- Greg wasn’t there that night, but another guy, an older, soft-spoken man with a silver goatee who introduced himself as Andrew, chatted with me. He had been playing down the street, but hadn’t had the greatest night. I eventually said goodbye to him too, and went back home.


What Happened at DAPL, Part One

     Sometime in the spring of 2016, a protest camp was set up in the middle of the prairie, along the Cannonball River in south-central North Dakota. It originated with mainly Native Americans opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline, a pipeline which aimed to link the productive Bakken oilfields in the northwest corner of North Dakota all the way down to Illinois. The camp was Ground Zero of resistance to the project. Led by Native Americans, it initially was based on environmental and health issues connected with the pipeline, as well as integrating local cultural aspects to the resistance, but later it grew into a site of first national and then international focus.

     My purpose is not to extrapolate upon the issue at hand here- anyone who wants to can look up that on their own. There are enough people who already claim superior geological, legal, or (when all else fails) spiritual credibility on the matter than myself, and who already will gently and succinctly tell me all the reasons I am wrong anyway. This usually happens in all caps in the comment section. My aim is not to take away from those good people, who have taken the time to carefully think about why I incapable of seeing reason, one way or the other. It’s simply to tell the reader what I saw when I was there.

     My own motives for going to Cannonball were decidedly less clear than those for holding the protest, although not by much. At the time, desperate for any sort of publication, I was writing for free for a small, (but for-profit), paper out of Fargo, which maintained that this was ” good exposure”. I didn’t like it- having been a musician, I knew what “exposure” meant. It means you’ll be hungry and no one will care, because I am told I “love what I’m doing.” Many times I was told it was my privilege to be working for loose change, or for free, without my say on the issue, but no matter, I digress- desperate to get my name in print somewhere, I was giving it a shot.

     This paper, The High Plains Reader, actually already had someone covering the protests, a writer (who, for the following reasons, I hesitate to use the word “reporter”) that made it clear that there was no guessing where he stood on the issue at Cannonball. Decidedly anti-oil and pro-protesters, he sent reports back every week or two. Writing in as grandiose terms as could be imagined, he referred to all actions that happened (such as protesters walking up a hill and praying at stoic security guards) as “battles,” and the covers of the High Plains Reader were filled with titles like “Blood and Oil” with the appropriate dramatic artwork to go with it.

     Having been there, I can’t speak to seeing any blood, or actual oil, for that matter, but having later witnessed what would be termed a “battle” I can only say that if General Pickett had been granted such a similar charge, he would not only have ended up with all his men, but probably would have time for some breaks, food, and a few television interviews on the way to the Union position. But I digress again. Since the other writer was covering the issue (although he wasn’t there the week I was), I asked my editor if I could write about artists there. She thought that was a good idea, told me were coming from all around the world. To some extent, this was a cover to get a press badge, but I did intend to follow through on the proposed project, if I could. With that I took off to the west.

     I drove from Fargo, stopping only briefly for an errand in Bismarck. It had been a warm November, and coming down through North Dakota that evening, the state glowed red and orange as the sun set in the late afternoon. Highway 1806, the most direct route to the site, had been blocked by protesters, and later I would find the two burnt-out cars at the roadblock there, so I went west and took Highway 6, going to 24, east into the town of Cannon Ball. To be fair, this was at the recommendation of the other writer, who once he heard I was not trying to take his story, was helpful enough.

     Somewhere on an old road next to a pit stop (called, fittingly, “Cannonball Pit Stop”) there was a handmade sign directing me to Sacred Stone Camp. This was lucky, because I would have had a hard time telling where to go otherwise. As I turned right, signs pointed to a “Historical Marker” which was located in the gravel  parking lot. As I went by I saw a round stone- assumedly it was a round stone from the Cannonball River, from which it got its name. However, I have heard that such stones are not carved out anymore since the river was dammed up. I went through the town, wondering if I did something wrong, but eventually I went past a gate with a metal grating, and finally there was a sign pointing toward the camp down the road on the right, along with another one that said no “No Alcohol, Firearms, DAPL” (Dakota Access Pipeline). I took a right and went down an old dirt road to the entrance and had my first view of Sacred Stone Camp.


The entrance of the protest site.

     Passing another gate, I stopped at a stop sign. My car sat on the top of a hill, and in the distance, over tents and cheap structures, was a river. A windmill blew on the hill to my right, which I later found out makes electricity for the camp. On my left were some structures, if they can be called that. They looked like a hybrid of yurts and cheap building materials, with colorful cloth and flags flying on them. Off in the distance was the pipeline, across the river, which mostly just looked like a construction site.

     Nearer to me, sitting on a pile of rags or clothes was an older, dark skinned woman who introduced herself as Storm. She had long white hair, tanned skin, and was sitting cross-legged at the entry point. Now, I’ve never been to San Francisco, and would obviously never have seen what it was like in the sixties. But I think she could have told me all about it. She asked me why I was here, and I said generally curiosity, but also that my editor has wanted me to research art.

     “No photos, audio, or media of any kind” she told me.

     That led to mildly uncomfortable moment, but I guess I didn’t raise suspicion, because she let me through. There are a few perks to looking unassuming, and one is that I can go about anywhere and people don’t think I can do anything harmful. She also directed me to the kitchens, and hinted I should try volunteering there. I think she thought I looked like the sort of person who would fit in making food, although I don’t know why. She told me where I could park and camp.

Directly in front of me were big teepees, which she said I could not go because that was for the long-term protesters, but I could go to the left. I went down the hill, along a hardened dirt road, and turned on a grassy path. Two big hills were on either side, and there was some scrub in the valley. Otherwise, it was all prairie.

     I passed a firepit, and tents lined the side of the road. Some were up on the hill, where I saw the silhouettes of people climbing in the evening sun. I saw a license plate from South Dakota, decided they seemed trustworthy, and pulled in beside them and set up my tent. I was followed by a couple of twenty-somethings from Colorado, who asked if it’s okay to park there, and I said yes, as long as they weren’t running over my tent. They didn’t, so they set up camp too.

     At about this time, being curious as to what people here were like, I took a walk down the way, and ended up talking to the guy from South Dakota. He was a tall and big, with glasses and a Seattle Mariners cap. He said his name was Zeke, he was a photography student, and was here with his professor from the Black Hills. We talked a while, and he said he had come up from Rapid City a few times before, partially on photography assignment but also because he just wanted to. I talked about main camp and press passes I had been hearing about, and he said he’d show me around to the kitchen. We walked there, and although already some people were lined up they said they wouldn’t be serving until seven. Coming back Zeke told me how the whole camp would soon be lighting up from lights generated by electricity. We walked past some of the more permanent fixtures, and meeting some friends at a trailer, he started talking with them. Zeke later told me he was Native American too. I stood around a moment before catching his eye, and he said he’d talk to me later, so I went back to camp. I was having trouble getting my own stove to work, and seeing myself around a dry prairie with an open flame probably wasn’t the best thing, so I went back to the kitchen.


The hastily taken photo

     If you want to find out what is going on, in some ways, long waits in line can be your best friend. As an added bonus, the cell phone reception wasn’t great, so people were actually talking to each other. Lines are when people talk, laugh, and complain, but mostly complain, because it’s a food line, and they’re hungry. Was I an eavesdropper? I answer by saying in this case, I was a writer, and there are a few privileges I choose to grant myself with this title. In short, public speech is the best way to know what the “vibe” of a place is.

     This particular line was long, and they served only “women, elders, and children” first. An older man was in front of me, talking with some middle-aged women from California about how he had hitchhiked here from Michigan with two college girls who came down from there.

     “They didn’t seem to mind, and I didn’t, so I came” he said.

     A fourteen-year old boy, who was gangly and constantly interrupting the man, threw in bits and pieces of conversation when he could. He said that some people would consider him a child, but he wouldn’t, and he was going to stick around in line. The ladies from California thought they would do so as well, although a college-aged girl behind me thought it was weird they would even ask her do that, because she said she “wasn’t used to it.”

     The hitchhiker kept chatting and said the girls had gone back to Michigan for college that weekend, so he was here until it got cold or when he could find another ride back there. He did say after many days that he “couldn’t stand himself” and went to the casino to get an eighty dollar shower. He said that the casino told him that they were booked up until Thanksgiving, so he went to the bar for a beer and asked the girl attending him if there was a faster way. She said to try booking online, he tried it, and got into the casino. He at least seemed clean to me.

     The group talked about a couple things, clean energy, the pipeline, and the boy interrupted when he could to tell them his own opinions, such as how Bernie Sanders was the only good choice for president. The ladies from California agreed. There was something wild and manic and self-righteous about him that wasn’t quite settling for someone that young. It wasn’t right for someone old either, but when you are younger you are often fortunately forced by circumstance to at least consider that you may be wrong at times. The line moved and we went forward. A little girl with pigtails, maybe his sister, said that he could eat first, but he said he was only fourteen days away from being fifteen, and then he’d be a grownup.

     “Are you an elder?” the little girl asked.

     “No” he answered.

     “Then come with me” she said, pulling his arm. The boy refused, and said again that he’d be an adult soon.

     I found my place in line, and they had paper and Styrofoam bowls and plates, and a mix of metal and plastic silverware. I took a paper bowl with flowers. They had bison meat, vegetables, rice, bread (“garlic, cheese, or one of each”?), and a salad. It was served by young, college-aged girls. One looked at me and asked where I was from. I said “Fargo” (which made me one of the least interesting people there to most) and she said I looked just like someone from her school. I asked her where that was. She named a town in Idaho, and I said no, I wasn’t. She served me and looked at me funny, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. I took the salad last and left back toward my campsite, where everyone ate. The bison tasted pretty good, but later I’d find out that farmers who raised bison nearby had been finding them killed, most likely by some of the protesters. I regretted taking any.

     The rest of the night I wandered back and forth around camp. The skies were dark, and would have been beautiful for stargazing, except for two things: one being that a bright crescent moon formed on one side of the sky, the other being that electric lights went on through the camp and across the river. These combined with bright floodlights from the what I thought were the pipeline made everything have the ambiance of the outside of a prison.

     I found some cell phone reception, and talked for a bit, then wandered down by the teepees. There, upside-down American flags were hanging, and I passed an old car and a small wooded area near a creek where someone had built a sort of treehouse. It was clear that these people were here for the long haul. Walking back from the wooded area, I passed by cars with words like “Water is life” written in soap on them, and more teepees. Near the kitchen was a wooden, solar paneled structure, which the hitchhiker had been telling the Californians would be some sort of charging station. Further down were stacks of firewood, and “restricted” tents that said “men, women, and children.” There was a med tent too. I wandered around more and saw more campfires and teepees nearer to the river, but no one said “hi”. I’m sure I was just a flash in the night, and there was no need to say hello. This was pretty much a transient camp, after all. I met a stray husky, and was nervous, but he just sniffed me before going on his way.

     I decided to stop at a campfire, and chose one I had previously eavesdropped on. They had a good little group around, and asked if I could join, and they were okay with that. One of the people there was a photographer named Chaz. He had been a medic in the army, having joined at nineteen, and looked a lot like the Mari Maraheshi Yogi, if the Maraheshi had worn skinny jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He had a long beard with big gray streaks. He said he spent his time between Denver and Cancun, which he said was cheap to fly in on Frontier (everyone there all said “I love Frontier!” so I guess it’s a thing). He was pretty interesting. He was working on a manuscript and a historical novel about the Mayans. I overheard him saying how frustrating it was being on a beach in Mexico and trying to write when everyone was having fun.

     There were two men from Minnesota (Twin Cities area) were on my left, although one was originally from Kuwait (but I believe mentioned that he was Palestinian), and he seemed to have resided about everywhere in the Midwest, because whenever someone mentioned a place he’s jump in and say “I lived there!” He said that schools in Kuwait used to have corporal punishment, which made the students study more, but now they were kind of bad because they didn’t do it, and everyone dropped out.

     A twenty-something girl was there in a wool coat and hat, who was very toothy and smiley. I never got her name, but didn’t completely trust her, probably because of the smiles. Another, blond-haired girl was there who had grown up in Thief River Falls. She reminded me very much of the sort of girls that I met at college, in that many who came from a small-town became the most liberal. But I do not know if this is the case, I always liked small towns myself, and thought that they were a very solid background. Chaz said how people in little towns looked at him weird, although the girl, in a sudden revelation did say sometimes in a small town they were more open-minded because they were forced to deal with people, but in a big city you could just find groups like you.

     Her husband, a bearded man in a hoody, sat beside her. Frankly, he was just arrogant, and when asked, he said he was just from “Eastern Europe.” He kept his bare feet near the fire, and his wife was clearly enamored with him and his jokes. He was very quick to throw in quips about the US. They had an interesting take on politics: I think they were of the agreement that Trump may win, but maybe it would be good that he “destroys” the country. There is some reasoning I just don’t try to question. He and his wife talked about water in Bulgaria (where I assume he’s from) and how’s it’s just everywhere and you can just drink in springs. Thief River chimed in about fracking, which of course, they didn’t like. She said you would have to test streams in North Dakota.

      Then the conversation moved on about alternate energy and how bad oil was. The Palestinian said he was there because the US should honor their treaties, others because of oil, water, ect. They asked me what the opinion was in Fargo. I said that it was mixed. It was a more liberal town, and we talked about Grand Forks. Minnesota Guy thought it might be more conservative because there was a military base there? I confirmed that was possible. I said that it was still a university town.

     The Palestinian talked about wind energy. He said “You probably know this better than me” and continued without stopping to see if I did indeed know better. He said that North Dakota was going at one time to be full of wind energy, and should be coated over with wind farms. I didn’t have time to reply before everyone else said “Yeah” and so did not bother confirm or deny my opinion of it. I told them about the paper I was writing for, and said it was more left leaning (Smiley said “progressive” when she rephrased it). At another point she said “Oh look, Orion!” It was true. For the first time that winter I saw Orion rising up from the sky. “He was getting up” said the Bulgarian. His wife tittered. “We are all stardust” he said, to a general murmur of agreement.

     This whole time a thermos was in the fire, and two twenty-something girls who had walked around (they were greeted but didn’t want to stay) then came back. They were both from Portland. One was an Asian girl with glasses and a high-pitched voice. She had just finished her masters in medical research, and I asked what she wanted to do with it (besides research). She said that she wanted to teach, although many look at natural medicine. She asked about me, and I said I was from Fargo.

     “It’s good that we have people from North Dakota” she said.

     The other girl was pretty, in that sort of hippy way, and didn’t talk much. I gathered that she was also from Portland, and didn’t go to school. The first girl was originally from the Los Angeles area. She had a jug of something Thief River and Smiley wanted (Soma?) but I didn’t know what it was. Smiley was surprised you could get it in jugs, but the girl said you could in Portland. She thought that made sense. They sort of made their hot chocolate and left not long after. Bulgaria hit a stick on the log and said he was making music. His wife laughed, and I eventually turned in. I think Smiley said something when I left because they all laughed.

      I didn’t find the food very filling, gave up on the stove, and just rehydrated some food cold, and went to bed. It wasn’t too bad a night- in terms of temperature. It was cold, but not intolerably so (I had brought layers). The hardest part, I found, was that between the lights, being surrounded people, and the lack of cover on the open prairie, this was the most public camping with which I had taken part, finding a place to relieve yourself if you didn’t walk to the disposable porta potty a quarter mile away was an awkward business. Somewhere in the distance coyotes cackled, and I heard soft birds, maybe swans, toward morning. Sometime in the night, the wind picked up and flapped against the tent (or maybe I didn’t tighten my rainfly enough).

     Then at first light I was awoken by a man saying that it was time for morning prayer.



Notes on Going Down The Mississippi

     Since I was fairly young, I had always wanted to go down the Mississippi River in a canoe. Naturally, this was partially because my first novel was “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which was followed at a later date, by “Huck Finn”, but also in part just for the idea that going down a river led to something. I suppose I grew up in a river town, growing up in Fargo, although one tends to think of the Red River as sort of a very long, winding lake to which one end is about an inch higher than the other, so that the river more of by obligation than actual desire to match, say, the grandeur of the Mississippi or the Nile, is forced to run in a direction rather than sit still, where I always suspected it would rather be. However, a river is a river, and between that and the creeks and lakes of Minnesota, as well as the Atlantic Ocean in Massachusetts, I had more than my share of boyhood adventures on some body of water, and for living in a landlocked state at least appreciated it.

     I think, though, the aspect about a river that most appeals to someone like me is that it’s always going somewhere, and that makes it easy to follow. Lakes are ambiguous, oceans are intimidating, but rivers always promise that you’re at least moving, for good or ill. In particular, the Mississippi strikes a chord for Americans in a way most others don’t. Much of that is due to Mr. Twain, but it’s also akin to it being the US’ geologic and cultural backbone. Most rainwater in the United States will eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico, and with it and its sister, the Missouri, more or less form the much argued boundary from what is the “East,” and what makes the “West.” There are plenty of advocates who give the Missouri prominence in this regard, but those arguments have been hashed out for about two hundred years now, and I don’t pretend that they’ve gotten any clearer in that time, just less spoken of. I also don’t need to go over the background of each, as Twain, once again, has already done that in his “Life on the Mississippi.” Arguments aside, I wanted to go down the Mississippi.

     Of course, besides Twain and the American mythos that comes out in any discussion of the river, was simply that I went to visit its headwaters from a young boy in what is known as Itasca State Park in Minnesota. There the river begins its journey from some well-placed stones marking its exit from the lake of the same name. Surrounded by pine trees and a sandy shore, in summer it’s usually well-packed by tourists taking pictures, especially next to the post which lays out what exactly it is we’re looking at.


Me standing by the marker at the headwaters of the Mississippi, in Lake Itasca

     A friend of mine (an attorney, as well) swears that this is false. He adamantly believes that the Mississippi begins at another source, Elk Lake, flows into Lake Itasca, and that Itasca gets all the undeserved credit for such a distinction. I adamantly argue back, but to no consequence. The matter between my friend and I remains unresolved.

     Either way, visiting the headwaters, with its sandy bottom and clear water, one can wade across the Mississippi (and many times more, as the case may be), hop across the rocks, or walk across on a little bridge some ways down. I seem to remember being young and watching someone take a canoe down that direction, but I cannot remember entirely now. I do, however, once distinctly remember a family putting some small yellow ducks, with messages directed to New Orleans, and watching them go down the stream.

     When I was old enough, I began to look at canoeing down it myself. There was indeed a water trail, and maps, published by the state of Minnesota. There were even some campsites. Having lake canoed, but not often river canoed at the time, I convinced my father, a veteran of Missouri creeks and a St. Louis native himself, to go down with me. And so we went.

    Sometime in 2015, after getting the appropriate gear, my mother were dropped my father and I off at a fishing access in Lake Itasca. It was a cloudy day, and there was a small threat of rain. We went across the lake and toward the headwaters and the tourists, making the first portage over the rocks themselves. Kids were pretty curious, and one red-headed boy asked where we were going. I told him, and we set off. Mom had come around, and the dog tried to follow us along the boardwalk, wondering where we were going without him.


Coming around near the beginning of the headwaters.

     It was a good thing we were in a canoe: it was shallow at the time. Once or twice it scraped the gravel, but the water moved pretty fast. Going back a second bridge, we said goodbye to mom, and threw a few more things in the canoe. Following that, we moved on out of the park.

    The first thing I learned about the Mississippi, at least at the beginning, is that it’s a lot like the Red- it’s more of an “unwilling mobile lake.” Dark dirt made up the banks where fens and grasses towered above us. An eagle flew around, but overall it was pretty quiet, although the rain held out.

     The river, however, didn’t have much care for either straight lines or consistency. It constantly moved, backtracked, moved again, doubled over, and just for practice, did a few flips and elaborate flourishes you don’t usually see except in an eighteenth century signature. In short, it didn’t go forward a great deal. Constantly we would look ahead, see some trees off in the distance where we assumed we had to go, then spent the next several hours taking the most inconvenient and inhospitable way to get there. The weather held, luckily, as there wouldn’t have been much of a place to pull over anyway had we wanted to.

     We didn’t get too far down the river, and that night we spent at a campground the state of Minnesota had provided, called “Wanagan.” It was fairly luxurious, for a campground- it even had a shelter. It rained that night, and I explored some of the access trails leading back into the woods. Cell phone service was out. It was definitely located in the back-country.

     The next day we pulled our gear from where we had placed it under the canoe. It was still cloudy, but was clearing up a bit. We went down the river, which finally went in some stony hills instead of a marsh. Here there was a dam, and we portaged our gear around it. It was followed by some light rapids, which weren’t too bad. They were under the shade of trees and some rocky hillsides, and were shallow enough that I think we only got stuck a bit once or twice. Generally, we aimed toward the “V” in the river, as one is supposed to anyway. The sun came out, and we passed a meadow on one side as we transitioned back into the traditional unending fens and grasses.

     We went on through these again, in their usual tedious glory, before coming up on some powerlines and a water gauge, which regarded the river as low. This was different than the DNR estimates, but there was nothing to be done about it anyway. We passed under some county road, and reached the second campground, called “Coffee Pot.” We stayed there for a bit (and never could find the water they had there) before moving on. Although early, we stopped at a campground called “LaSalle,” which stood on top of a bluff overlooking the river. It was a pretty site, but also a tick-infested nightmare. As usual I explored the woods a bit, but only found poison ivy. We spent the night there and the sky was clear. The next morning we headed out again.

La Salle. The sun goes down sometime around 10:30 here.


La Salle, facing the river.

     The next day, to make up for lost time, we set out again early. Mostly it was, as always, winding fens and muddy banks, if they could be called that. The grass was so high that we couldn’t see much anyway, except pine trees in the distance. There were one or two more portages, before we started getting around the high sandy banks of near what they called Pine Point Landing on the map, but I’m not sure we ever found it. Here the river was deep, but truly confusing. I leaned over the side sometimes and looked at the waving underwater grasses just to see which direction the current was running. The water was muddy, but finally well over our heads, should we fall into it. The most confusing moment was at one point where the river met with a body of nefarious water called Rice Lake. Water ran into both, but as it was north and the river ran east, we took the correct route.

     Wildlife was generally surprised at us, but not too common. Some beavers left in the approach of our canoe, making underwater paths with bubbles. Some grebes, the shy and somewhat rare waterbird here that I used to see in the lakes, back when they were quieter, flew off quickly. A mother mallard tried to ferry away her ducklings, and occasionally some deer would appear. After that, not many other animals were seen.


Somewhere between Fox Trot and Iron Bridge.

     We had left in June, when the water was highest, and now entered a part of the river that was cautioned as being too full of “excessive vegetation” later in the year. Before travelling I had read a blog about some “free spirits” who had attempted the trek in August. They were constantly stuck, wading in muck, and getting lost, but I was inspired. Not because of what they did- I figured they were straight-up morons- but if they could manage I probably could as well.

     We passed through the grassy vegetation, but had found cell phone reception and checked with the ranger to see how high the water was, it was still good. We passed the “Fox Trap” campground and decided to push on to Iron Bridge, where we stayed the night.


121 Fox Trot shelter and campsite.

     Here the river started changing. A house stood in the distance across the river, and we could hear traffic in the distance. I think there was a dog barking as well. Storms passed by the south of us, and we watched them go by: big rainy clouds on the horizon that made our own bright sun look watery and clear. That evening, I watched the river do something I had noticed back at LaSalle, which was as it cooled off it formed an almost perfect outline of itself as it reflected in mist above the water. Somewhere the grebes made their odd throaty sound that sounds like they were choking.


Watching the storms go by at Iron Bridge

     For the last stretch of the trip, the river had changed. Iron Bridge was on the edge of the last fen, and from here on out the river looked like a small river, not a muddy creek just pretending. It went through woods, and houses and docks stood along the sides as we went. Sometimes the trees were cut down, but once or twice we had to get out and carry the canoe across by land. There was another campsite, Silver Maple, but we were happy we hadn’t pushed on to that, as the mosquitoes- who thus far had remained somewhat morose- were terrible. Not long after we saw our first motorboat, and soon a few more. The river widened, and, well, finally looked like a river. Soon we were in Lake Iving, just south of Bemidji.

     It was good that we were ending. The sky clouded, and storms were coming. In the lake, we saw people having the sort of parties you see in Minnesota, where they all stand in bathing suits about knee deep in water and drink beer, but those started packing up and driving away in their pontoons as the waves got worse. Going west to reach the mouth of Lake Bemidji, the winds rose, although we got some respite in the more protected larger lake.


Leaving lake Bemidji, just before the storms hit.

     Finding a fishing access, we pulled off. Mom and the dog came by and we put the canoe away. Ironically, Bemidji would have been one of the worse places to get stuck- we couldn’t have camped, or even got a hotel, as they’re always booked. Tornadoes and winds were sweeping around the area, but besides one stop to fix and tighten the ropes on the canoe, we were fine.

     And thus, armed with a copy of Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” was my first experience on that river.