An Agate Original
A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. A map? Maybe even more.
With the development of GPS navigation (as everyone knows), you can get directions to practically anywhere, as long as you have an accurate address or some coordinates. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Looking at a little screen on a mobile device tells us almost nothing about the lay of the land we’re passing through or the orientation of one feature to another.
Not that I’m against technology. When my wife, Hilary, and I go on an outing, I often prepare by printing out the critical stretch of the route from Google Maps, because I like to have a picture inside my head of where I’m going, with a few details etched in memory. For example, on a recent trip to Montgomery, Minnesota—a town I’d never heard of—I knew before we set out that we’d take the exit from 169 into Jordan on Highway 21 and continue south, skirting New Prague on the way to our destination. I also knew, thanks to the map, that as we left New Prague we’d pass Eittlen’s Café, which seemed to be the best lunch stop in the area.
But neither my computer printout nor Hilary’s phone is likely to convey the majesty of the Minnesota River Valley as it winds its way south and west following the path cut by glacial river Warren thousands of years ago. And there’s something to be learned by opening the Delorme Atlas to the two-page spread that includes everything from Mankato and Faribault to Young America and Apple Valley. Not only are there lots of lakes dotting the southern part of that spread, but also quite a few marshes and streams connecting them. What we don’t see much of is the pale green that indicates woodlands in the vicinity.
An added benefit from looking at maps is that we notice things we aren’t familiar with and therefore would never be looking for. The Vincent Atlas of Minnesota is an excellent source of such discoveries. It was published 35 years ago and is long out of print, but it’s worth seeking out a copy for the topographical shading, which makes it easier to envision what sort of landscape you’ll be moving through, and also for the obscure historical sites that have been included, which range from historic farms and dwellings such as Hole in the Day’s cabin near Pillager (we couldn’t find it) to Pike’s Fort on the Mississippi River south of Little Falls (now under several feet of water).
As I was preparing for our trip to Montgomery, I was reminded of a few brick buildings we’d come upon years ago on the east side of the Minnesota River in the vicinity of Le Sueur—pre-Civil War buildings, if I was remembering correctly. In the Vincent Atlas I spotted something called the Ottawa Village Historic District just a mile or two downstream from the Traverse Des Sioux Historic Site. Was that the site? I’m not sure, and we didn’t make it that far south during our trip to Montgomery, so that discovery, or re-discovery, will have to wait for another time.
But looking at the Delorme Atlas, I noticed that once it passes through Montgomery, Highway 21 veers east, zigzagging between several lakes on its way to Faribault, while also continuing south as Highway 13 through open country to the town of Waterville. I’ve been to Waterville many times—on a bicycle. The Sakatah Singing Hills bike trail runs through Waterville on its way from Faribault to Mankato.
That’s interesting. Such connections bolster the web of towns, roads, and geographic features that’s taking shape inside my head, though they’d be unlikely to develop if I were interested in nothing more than finding my way from A to B.
On one stretch of the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, maybe three miles east of Mankato, it crosses the narrow “waist” of Eagle Lake. If you stop on the bridge here—and who wouldn’t—you’re pretty much out of sight of planted fields. All you see is the two halves of the lake with the shrubbery all around the shore, and perhaps a few dozen big white pelicans drifting in the water off shore, and a fleeting glimpse of a bittern or a rail in the reeds if you’re really lucky.
This is what Minnesota used to look like, you might say to yourself. And you might also give a thought to much larger Swan Lake, just north of the village of Nicollet on the west side of Mankato. Though it’s hardly more than a massive wetland today, it’s still prime duck hunting habitat. Market hunters used to bag thousands of waterfowl there every day and load them into waiting freight cars to be shipped non-stop to restaurants in Chicago.
The map on your mobile device isn’t going to tell you much about that.
By now I suppose you’re wondering what inspired us to visit Montgomery, a small farm town known for its early Czech settlers, in the first place. Hilary had spotted an article in the Star Tribune describing an exhibit at the Montgomery Art Center featuring the works of Edward S. Curtis, renowned for his classic sepia turn-of-the-century photographs of Native Americans whose dress and customs were at that time on the verge of extinction. Why in Montgomery? Because Curtis spent his teen years on a farm not far from there. Hilary’s book club happened to be reading Timothy Egan’s biography of Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, and we agreed to meet a few of the other members on a sunny Saturday morning at the Montgomery bakery, where we’d sample a Kolacky or two and then wander up the street to the art center.
The exhibit was interesting, and so were the conversations taking place between local residents who hadn’t seen each other in a while. I noticed that their geographic references ranged from Faribault and Cleveland (MN) to Henderson and Jordan—a reminder that the universe doesn’t necessarily revolve around the Twin Cities.
As we drove through New Prague on the way home, we noticed a sign alongside the highway advertising an all-day fund-raiser at the VFW for a veterans memorial, and we decided to investigate. The hall was located on the far side of town, and if it hadn’t been for the map Hilary called up on her phone, we never would have found the place. Eight bands were scheduled to play, though no mention was made of what kind of music they would be playing. The parking lot was half full when we got there, but there were only a few couples on the dance floor. A polka band was up on the bandstand, and the woman at the ticket booth told us that with one exception, all the other bands played in the same style.
Seven polka bands in the same town? That’s impressive. And it’s something you’d never learn by looking at any map. Which only goes to show that in the end, there’s no substitute for going there.
An editor and book designer by trade, John Toren also teaches classes in Minnesota travel and geography in the U of MN’s OLLI Lifetime learning program. He is the author of The Seven States of Minnesota, By the Way, and five other books. Find more of his writings at https://macaronic-john.blogspot.com/. This wonderful blog is dedicated to the subjects that have enlivened the print edition of his quarterly magazine Macaroni for more than twenty-five years: travel, films, food, ideas, music…you name it. In 2007, the magazine received an Utne Independent Book Press Award for General Excellence.