By: Art Efron
We had already enjoyed a beautiful day visit to Kathio State Park in north-central Minnesota, when we decided to go back for another foray. We drove in and soon reached the little house where the park ranger was located. There was a uniformed man on duty, so we asked if he could recommend a hike, not too demanding, that would be nice for us to take. He showed us a map, and pointed to some lines marking a trail. This trail is just one mile long, he said. You walk it and you come out at a place that's close to where you went in. This pleased us, and we started off right away.
After survival, then thriving.
Aitkin is a very small town north of Mille Lacs lake in central Minnesota. ( It has “pop. 2165,” according to the AAA Tour Book). One very hot day in August 2012, we drove there from our rented house on the lake. The VIRTUAL CENTER of Aitkin, as I see it, is the collaboratively managed Coffee Shop on Main Street. There I found plenty of lounge chairs and couches loosely placed around in this shop, along tables good for having a snack and writing a note. During the day, the two young people taking care of the place switched over to two other young people who continued to take care of customer orders. I don’t think any “owners” were ever on hand, nor did either of the pairs of young people seem to be “the manager.” They just worked together. I stayed in this place for hours, using its air conditioning, reading for fun, and just relaxing. We were waiting, supposedly, until a certain late afternoon hour when we could access our pre-boarding passes for our flight home from the Twin Cities the next day. That was the pretext: the place was just made for idling, at any desired length of time. It felt like “welcome and stay a while.” I enjoyed hanging around, sitting around, reading, snacking, chatting, observing the young people and old, and the children who came with their parent. I’ve been in plenty of coffee shops, but they all have a commercial purpose. They are businesses. This one might also be a business but there is no feeling of there being one.
The shop, though, had no city newspapers, so we talked with one clerk about where in town we might find a copy of the one newspaper of note hereabouts, the Minneapolis Star Tribune. As soon as we went out onto the sunny walk, about to begin our two block trek to the gas station where there might be a newspaper, a middle-aged gentleman who was getting out of his car, interrupted us. “Excuse me, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you talking about getting a Minneapolis paper. Well, I have one, and I just finished reading it. Let me give it to you and you won’t have to go looking.” And he did. I went back inside, feeling the happy surprise I often have, when someone has done something for us, unasked. Later in my stay, a woman overheard us saying that there didn’t seem to be much to do in Aitkin. Ruth’s explorations had not drummed up very much. The woman, though not wishing to intrude on us, eagerly told us about the one museum in town, one located not on Main Street but a few blocks off to the side. It was getting toward their closing time, but she assured us that the place was open: she knew it was, because she turned on her little phone and found the hours. She also told us that she had lived for years in Los Angeles, but had returned not long ago to Aitkin where she had grown up.
We didn’t have much time remaining on the museum’s daily schedule, but we trudged there in the heat, and soon were enjoying this strange little place. Of all things in the world, it was featuring a display of interesting objects brought home from Haiti by some local doctors who have been going to the countryside there for the past many years to help out with free medical care. These objects were not purchases, but gifts from the people they had encountered, given in appreciation for the help. The main purpose of the museum was to honor the work of the person for whom it is named, a local artist whose name is spelled “Jacques,” but is pronounced, according to his own Minnesota preference, JACKIES. Francis Lee Jacques (1887-1969) had been an art collector, but was mainly a painter and water-colorist of the local flowers, trees, birds, mammals, skies, and waters. We saw a selection of his work on the walls. Not experimental, and yet not “copy-ism” either; it was realism done with a warmth of attention and a distinctive flair.
On the way back to the coffee shop, we stopped at a very small bakery; I had noticed it on the way to the Jacques Art Center, and now could almost taste the cookies that must be in there. We entered, and looked at the nearly bare walls and the simple display cases that seemed to have been in place for many years. Before long, an aged man came out from the rear to wait on us. He seemed shy, and I think rather sad. I tried to speak with him, and was able to extract from him the fact that he had been the baker here for 47 years. I wondered if he would reach the 50-year mark. From my brief exchange of words with him, he did not seem to care if he made it to that time or not. I complimented him on carrying on his genuinely local business for such a long period, but if he appreciated my remark, he did not show it. If anything, he seemed a bit puzzled that anyone would notice. This bakery was an old-time place within a nicely kept old-time hamlet, and this bakery was not going to be around much longer. The cookies were good.
We returned to the coffee shop before its closing time of 5 p.m., and printed out, finally, our boarding passes. For the tenth time that day, I gazed at a sign on the wall that had delighted me: UNATTENDED CHILDREN WILL BE SERVED AN EXPRESSO AND GIVEN A FREE PUPPY.MILLE LACS KATHIO STATE PARK is located to the south, down the shore about ten miles from our house. It is large: over 10,000 acres. We paid it two visits. On the first, I learned right away from a flyer we were given why this park is named “Kathio.” The term is the result of a double error: a misunderstanding of a mis-understood French term, dating back to the time when the French had a few explorers up this way. It is an absurd derivation, and a charming one. It comes from the time when Seiur duLhut was settled at the location that is now the city of Duluth. DuLhut had to send out some emissaries (and some ransom?) to free the famous explorer Father Hennepin, along with two of his companions, who had been “abducted” by some Native Americans. There is another state park named after Father Hennepin, a few miles further down the road and around the lake from Kathio. It is a very small, pretty park, and has the absurd advantage of being named after Hennepin--who never had been there. But to get back to the Kathio, besides its name, it is a distinguished anthropological site, with Indian artifacts dating back some 9000 years. It was the home, we read, of the ancient Mdewakanton Dakota. (Eh?) By the 18th century, many of the Dakota had left for places in what is now southern Minnesota, and in case any of them hadn’t, they were driven out in a battle they lost against the Ojibwe, who were moving in from the east. That is referred to as the “massive” 3-day battle of Kathio. However, it may never have taken place—maybe they just left).We walked, on our first visit, along some grassy areas near the lake where traces of the aboriginal settlement could be seen. The preservation project has been extensive, and continues on to excavate, slowly, a little each summer, for more evidence. That walk we did on our first visit, but the best part of that day was the easy hike along a boardwalk, where we saw several of the types of trees, plants, and birds that are actually there. This walk was arranged in a circular pathway, with informative signage, leading away from the “Interpretive Center,” and then back to it. The Interpretive Center itself was laid out in a deliberately unimposing fashion, as a modest circular structure that we just seemed to come across at the end of the road. It had no large signs, and no overbearing heights. Yet it was not small. Inside was an exhibit telling about the species to be found in the park, and recounting the establishment of the park. There was no eating place, and no food was available. A large poster told of the illegal shooting of a beautiful, well-antlered buck. A buck was pictured on the poster, shown in mid-leap. The perpetrator had been caught, and brought before a judge. His bounty was confiscated, his hunting license revoked, his wallet heavily fined, and he had to pay a bill for taxidermy. (I forget whether he had to serve a jail term. Maybe I just would have liked him to). But the best thing about this place was a circular porch around it edges. You just stepped out on it and were at the edge of the woods, but lifted about 15 feet from ground level. Ruth was able to spot and hear two of the lovely species of birds that the inside write-ups had described.
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