Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Highway 19 Revisited

On Saturday morning I hit the road out of Minneapolis very early in the morning. I am in the mood for a bit of a driving trip, and although the straight distance I cover will be only 65 miles, my odometer will put on 150 miles or so.  My intent is to wander around southeastern Minnesota along the small state and county highways on the way to my destination south of Red Wing.

Because Mrs. Mercurious is out of town traveling with her girlfriends, I am driving down to check on her aging parents at their rural home. But on the way I am also planning to stop in for a long coffee session with my oldest friend, whose wife, as it happens, is also one of the girlfriends traveling with my wife.The four of us are old, old friends. I'm expected at my in-laws at 10:30 or so, and calculating the recreational drive time plus an hour or two talking politics and philosophy with Steve has produced my early starting time.

The dawn is just breaking as I approach the south edge of Dakota County near the boundary of Goodhue county.  It's fully clear far to the east where the sun breaks, but the overhead sky is mostly cloudy. The sunrise has turned the sky salmon pink, casting a warm light on the fields of corn and soybeans, which are finally beginning to dry due to the first hard frost that hit the countryside last week.

It's early enough that in the dairy farms on either side of the highway, the cattle are all hovering around the barns, intuitively gathering there for the first milking of the day. So the only livestock out in the pastures in the early morning are the beef stock and occasionally some sheep.  The livestock graze contentedly with heads down; because of the low, oblique sunlight, elongated shadows extend out like stretched silouettes on the ground westward from all the grazing animals.

This topography is on the very eastern edge of the great upper midwestern prairie, and the farmlands in this area are rolling flatness. Far off to the south and east, I can see the edges of the big hills that mark the beginning of the bluff country lining the Mississippi river valley.

A bit later, I'm a few miles away from Cannon Falls and the highway is relatively deserted, but far behind me in my rear-view mirror, I see the headlights of a car approaching at what is clearly high speed. The car's low profile is no sheriff or highway patrolman, though, so out of curiosity I increase my speed thinking that it will be interesting to see how fast this fellow is going.

I'm going 80 or so when the driver approaching fast from behind smoothly shifts lanes to pass me, after appropriately signaling. The driver nods his head briefly as he passes, seemingly in acknowledgment of another driver who rather likes the sensation of speed on an early morning on a good highway. He's a young man, maybe in his early 20s, driving a Camaro that might be older than he is. The car has clearly been well cared for but has none of the ostentatious souped-up trappings with which some kids dress up their cars.

Almost immediately upon merging back into the right lane, he signals his intent to exit onto Highway 19, which coincidentally happens to also be my destination: it's part of the meandering path I intend to take this morning.  For a brief moment I have that middle-aged fatherly impulse to frown and shake my head at the excessive speed and potentially dangerous behavior of this young man, but instead find myself smiling a little. It's rather pleasing to see the joy of a young man with excellent driving skills and great reflexes fully at ease with the operation of a well-functioning machine that he understands so well.

The young man is a very good driver, and although fast, he's not particularly reckless. As we pass through the small town of Cannon Falls, he obeys the speed limits precisely—considerably more so than I would at this time of the morning. He makes no effort to scream away from stop signs with smoking rubber; he accelerates firmly but without excessive ego. It's not until we safely reach the outskirts of town that he hits the power again, and I follow him at a safe distance, not because I'm concerned for his safety or outraged by his behavior, but because it's enjoyable to watch.

As Highway 10 moves east out of Cannon Falls into the start of the hilly bluff country with winding turns, he uses his lane precisely but without violating their boundaries, cutting to the inside of sharp turns, smoothly accelerating coming out of the turns to keep his vectors changing. He clearly knows the road well; as we approach the turns, he seems to know which of them he can approach with fair speed, and those for which he'll need to brake going into the curve.

About 10 miles into the drive, the young man smoothly cuts off the highway onto a dirt gravel road, barely breaking stride at all. As I pass the point where the intersecting road meets the highway, I see him moving away in a cloud of mustard-colored dust, still doing perhaps 50 or 55 mph, fish-tailing slightly, but skillfully countering with small compensations of the steering wheel.

That explains a lot. Rural kids learning to drive on these gravel roads know a lot about how to control the inevitable sliding on corners, how to drift correctly through turns, precisely how much to accelerate and how to brake correctly without losing contact with the road. Later this morning, in fact, I'll be revisiting similar roads, where as a youth I squeezed past roaring milk trucks barreling through turns going in the opposite directly. Kids who grow up learning how to drive gravel roads at 60 miles an hour find driving on paved highways and freeways almost boring in their simplicity.

On this early morning, the young fellow is simply enjoying his proficient  skill with his machine on an entertaining road with interesting turns at a time of day when there is little hazard. It is a little dangerous, yes, but what is youth for if not to enjoy that feeling being  healthy and fully competent and a bit immortal?  Soon enough it will be replaced by more sensible caution and boring self preservation.

I now have Highway 19 all to myself as it now enters the real bluff country nearing the Mississippi valley, and the road gets increasingly interesting, with nice vertical movement and good turns, engineered with just the right banking pitches. It is a well designed highway, very well built, and it is a joy to drive on in an early autumn morning.

Coming out of the last turn, I come close to winning my Thanksgiving dinner. Four huge wild turkeys are walking across the road. They are safely on the shoulder as I pass them, and there is no braking or swerving necessary. They look back at me indignantly as I pass by.

Out of this last turn, Highway 19 straightens out as it comes to an end. I have perhaps a hour of meandering driving left, including a short stretch on well-known Highway 61, but most of it will be on unknown country highways and a few gravel roads before I will pull into Steve's riverside home for coffee and muffins.

As I approach the right hand turn from Highway 19 onto Highway 61, the big Mississippi Valley is visible for the first time, and the high bluffs of the Wisconsin side of the river, closer now,  have the early autumn color of hardwoods beginning to redden.

The song playing on the car's radio through my I-phone makes me smile. It is in no way apropos of the moment—there's no real poetic synronicity here— but Jose Feliciano's famous acoustic  rendition of an iconic Door's song elevates my general well-being to a level that's nearly painful in its expansive pleasantness:

"You know I would be a liar
If I was to say to say to you
Girl we couldn't get much higher"

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quiet Evil involving Saint Francis

On a breezily balmy, cool night in early September, I take an evening walk, and as is sometimes the case, on the way back I pause to sit in a small sanctuary on the grounds of the nearby Catholic church. A small statue of Saint Francis stands opposite a small wrought iron bench, and the little sitting area filled with flowers is partially enclosed with short shrubs. On a nice night, it is a very pleasant place to sit and reflect for awhile.

From the nearby neighborhood, I see a 60-something woman smoking a cigarette approach. She is wearing a bathrobe and slippers and is leading two frantic little black dogs on retractable leashes. She climbs the concrete steps onto the pristine lawn that fills the space between the chapel and the rectory, walking in a direction that's not directly toward me but which will take her right by my location.  She's out for the nightly constitutional with her dogs, and this possibly is her normal route in the evening.

Just before she gets to the little grotto, her dogs stop to have their evening crap, simultaneously. The woman looks around in the falling night for a moment, then continues her walk without cleaning up after the ugly little brutes. Then she arrives at the little sitting area, sees me then jumps back, startled. The dogs begin to snarl and strain at their leashes in my direction.

"Don't you dare take a step this direction," she barks at me. "While my dogs are eating you, I'll be calling the cops." She backs this up by fumbling for cell phone, apparently tucked into her pajamas somewhere well south of her waist band.

I think, "Really?"  The snippy little dogs would take an hour just to gnaw through my trouser leg, much less do any skin damage. Moreover, a pretty mild kick would punt each beast well back down into the parking lot (I have a friend who used to describe such mean spirited little purse dogs as "rats on a rope"). And finally, what in the world is threatening about a middle aged guy with a greying beard sitting quietly in a church yard contemplating a stature of St. Andrew?  I'm not the one out in public looking like a trailer park escapee and letting ugly little dogs crap on the pretty grounds of a churchyard.

Now, the civilized, compassionate thing to do would have been to introduce myself, apologize for having startled her,  and reassure the woman that I posed no threat. After all, nobody develops a character like this unless through some inherited or learned fear, and unwinding such a thing requires that you contradict those fearful expectations.

Instead, I do a slightly evil thing. I remain utterly motionless, and stare past the woman  into the distance, ghostlike in the semi-darkness. This will, I know, be far more unnerving to her and cause her to remember the event for a long time, possibly even interfering with her sleep tonight.

I'm a bad, bad man.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fountain of my Youth

Elsewhere in these pages, I've mentioned the name "Hay Creek," a geographic place name that depicts both a tiny freshwater stream in south eastern Minnesota, and also the name of the small township nestled between limestone bluffs where my childhood home was located.

Hay Creek—I'm talking about the little stream now,  the "crick" as we pronounced it— has always held a somewhat mythological significance for me. This might seem strange, since I grew up only about 7 miles from the mighty Mississippi River itself— the same river mentioned so prominently in the first real novels I ever read, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Certainly I grew up in awe of the mere idea of "The River."

 But it was little Hay Creek that held the deepest meaning for me. I was perhaps 4 years old or so when I traced the dry gully bed that ran behind my childhood home to the point a mile or two away where it emptied into Hay Creek, with its musical, flowing waters, its small trout hovering motionless in the shadows, and crayfish clinging to the bottoms of rocks.  And I quickly realized that Hay Creek itself emptied into the mighty River itself at some mysterious point in the distance, and that the River itself eventually found its way to the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean itself. During big rainstorms or the spring melt,  when the gully turned into an active stream on its own under the outflow of waters off the hills, I pondered how long it would take those waters to reach the Atlantic Ocean. With a childhood that was a little uncertain and a lot unpredictable, the certain, steadfast cycle of waters, from sky rain to run-off from the bluffs, to the gully, to the creek, to the River and to the Ocean—was exceedingly reassuring to me. It was a very concrete idea I could hold onto.

The creek was the principle area of play for kids growing up in the township. The "big city" kids of Red Wing were swimming at the chorine-filled municipal swimming pool, while we learned that the creek had natural deep spots at its ox-bow turns, and that if you build your own dams from rocks on the downstream side, you could create even deeper pools to swim in. While the town kids were catching hideous bullheads along the mud flats of the Mississippi, we were snagging much more interesting little brown trout by plying the shadows beneath the big timbers of old railway trestles that spanned the creek.

From time to time over the years until I was 13 or 14  I occasionally made efforts to try and figure out where little Hay Creek began its official run. The maps put it somewhere to the south, near a little town called Goodhue, but in those days before Google Earth, it was hard to pinpoint it.  The lateral distance covered by Hay Creek, as the crow flies, was only 12 miles or so, although its sinuous turns certainly at least tripled or quadrupled the actual length.  In my mind's eye, I imagined the creek to start at some mysterious natural spring bursting forth from the side of a bluff somewhere in a hidden valley.  I did know for certain that it was more than just a watershed runoff creek, because even in the driest weather, the creek ran with some water—enough so that small trout and crayfish could continue to exist even after two or three weeks of the sunniest drought.  From the time I was six years old or so, I occasionally took adventurous daylong hikes upstream, thinking that I would discover the source of Hay Creek, like some young Meriwether Lewis in Converse sneakers. On two occasions I found little tributary feed streams, both of which were indeed fed by small seeping springs that oozed up in cow pastures and flowed down to bolster the flow of the creek. But the ultimate source always eluded me. Each time, daylight ran out before I finished my expedition,  and I always ended up calling home from a farmer's kitchen or saloon owner's bar to have my Dad come and pick me up. Wisely, he knew that I needed the quest and did not manhandle the exploration for me by chaperoning these adventures himself. Instead, he patiently picked me up when I called him from 8 or 10 miles away on some early evening in August or September, foiled again in my search for the Heart of Darkness.

About the time that junior high school started, new adventures beckoned (they had long hair and wore bikinis), and I lost interest in finding the long-lost headwaters of the the 12-inch deep, mighty Hay Creek.

So I never did find the source of Hay Creek. Until recently.

A few days ago, on a drowsy weekend when my wife and I were already visiting her parents (they still live in the same county where we grew) I dialed up the territory on Google Earth, and carefully tried to trace the upper ends of the Creek and pinpoint the location. It's a method only possible, really, with satellite views of a rural countryside—not an available technology 50 years ago.  The exercise was prompted, I suppose, by the recent passing of my father. I'm sure there was a bit of nostalgia in my choosing to resurrect my search for origins at this particular moment.

The next morning, just as dawn broke, I drove out into the countryside to a point where high-tension power lines crossed a little gravel road, then followed the utility lines inland and downward, across a deserted railway bed,  to a point where two small drainage ditches joined and crossed beneath a farmer's field access road, through a 16"in wide culvert to become something like a tiny little creek. The waters only barely flowed at all, but once there is discernible motion and flow, you're looking at more than a puddle.

To all intents and purposes, this was the start of Hay Creek's ultimate run to the ocean. Though I could see, even now, that it was by no means a definitive beginning. The little drainage ditches themselves continued a bit further, and when I followed one of them, I saw that you could make the case for the creek beginning in a single crease that passed through the middle of a single alfalfa field, where it appeared that a microscopic seep spring moistened the grass enough to create a tiny rivulet. Hay Creek had been named most appropriately, indeed, because its source seemed to be the middle of a hay field.

Later that morning, I drove back into Red Wing to pinpoint the spot where Hay Creek entered the Mississippi. To my surprise, I found that the terminus was no more definitive that the stream's beginning. As it approaches the River, Hay Creek first feeds into a large marshy area a couple miles from the Mississippi itself. Environmentally, this is a happy occurrence, since  the creek waters undoubtedly carry some fertilizer residue from the many farms along its route, and the marsh lands help scrub the water before it goes any further. Then, Hay Creek resumes in a tiny outlet flow, passes under the Highway 61 of Bob Dylan fame, and quietly enters the Mississippi River in a muddy little delta, a faint echo of the massive delta where the Mississippi will eventually find the ocean 2,000 miles downstream at the bottom of the continent.

So in the final measure, this mythological stream of my youth proved to have no real drama in either its beginning or its ending. You might think that this was something of a disappointment to me, but it was not so. At my age and with my experience, the fact that beginnings and endings are hazy, imprecise affairs is no longer unexpected news to me, and in fact is a little reassuring.

Nothing is less certain than a beginning or an ending, and it's because of this that world allows for so many interpretations and possibilities.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Overheard: August 29, 2014

In Will Rogers State Park in Los Angeles. Two young women wearing "come get me" dresses and F me heels, tottering up a very steep hill toward the polo field. The first one said, "I told him. If you want to date a woman like me, you have to act like a man." The second one nodded and said, "Yeah. He needs to step it up if he wants to play in our league."

Silence for a minute. It's a steep climb on a warm day. 

As they reached the edge of the parking lot, the second one said, almost gasping, "My feet are killing me."

The first one, very evenly. "Yes. But at least we saved the $12 on parking."