A few weeks back Teresa, Juniper, my brother in law David and his fiance Stephanie got in the car at about 7am and started driving to Detroit Lakes.  The city is in the heart of rural Minnesota, surrounded mostly by farm land and a few lakes.David actually drove the first leg.  It is a four point five hour drive by any account and as such breaking up the driving helps to stem onsetting boredom and fatigue.  There was a brief initial detour in Monticello to purchase a baby carrier, one that you wear in order to wear your baby, at discount from a family that used it only temporarily.  After pulling into the Perkins parking lot to meet the other party of our impending transaction, we spotted his vehicle and pulled up.  There’s something inherently shady regarding meeting with a stranger to purchase an item, wholesome as they may be.  The exchange of hard currency for hard goods, while devoid of a retail location, cash register, and MSRP, creates a brief moment of uncertainty.

That storm quickly staved off as the familiarity of his person reflected rural MN so wholly:  the late fall stocking cap donned, the worn snowmobile brand coat, the work boots and a five o’clock shade grown out a day or two.  Meetings concerning other parties on the internet are often initiated by different one member of a family that defects responsibility of carrying out said transaction.  This person was designated, this was likely one of many tasks on his list for the day.  True to word, the carrier was in good shape and the exchange of hard currency for hard goods was carried out without hitch.

Our  journey continued at the Monticello Caribou Coffee for caffeine and a few vittles.  Upon entering the parking lot, it was obvious that physically entering the establishment was likely to save time.  Smaller towns in Minnesota, like the larger towns, tend to have large queues of Sport Utility Vehicles lined up in the drive through–especially on weekend mornings.  We all pile into the store to order our choice of caffeinated beverage and snack.  David and Stephanie opt for healthier options while Teresa and I order lattes.  My knowledge of lattes has been and is still very limited, but it tastes good and has the caffeine which has become part of routine.  After getting our orders, the longer drive to DL begins.

The drive gets on with a rising sun and radio backed conversation.  The men are in the front of the vehicle while the ladies all reside in back.  The first few hours go quickly prior to Juniper deciding her carseat is no longer comfortable, at which point we fill up on gas and feed her.  This sort of thing is an inevitability with young children, only a matter of time.  It is an inevitability with adults as well.  They feel similar discomfort at different timeframes but withhold verbalizing it, if you are fortunate to ride with those types.

Teresa’s grandmother and step grandfather have lived together for over a decade.  Both are widowed.  They met and dated in high school after which they made lives and families separately.  After both lost their spouse, they found each other again.  It’s an amazing thing in itself, but to see them together after many years living in their country home is something else.  We live in a time when being educated has a sort of dampening effect on a great deal of the messaging you’re exposed to.  The more you know, the more you see through.  All of that is out the window here.  Everything is plain English, from plain people, and it couldn’t be any more true.

Russel and Arla live in a small town called Ogema, about twenty miles North of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.  For people unaware of rural Minnesota, it’s still very country, but a different type of country than the Southern regions of the US.  Most of the people are of Scandinavian decent and grew up farming.  The area is heavily Lutheran, churches usually outnumber gas stations.  Towns are typically measured in the hundreds of people and paved roads usually lead through towns, surrounded by gravel tributaries to the separate farm houses.

Our twenty mile excursion into Ogema followed a brief meal at the DL diner, which was interesting if solely for it being unconventional.  DL is by all rights a tourist trap, it catches all the unsuspecting passers through trying to enjoy the lakes during summer.  The restaurant in question charges too much for subpar food, has advertising on their mugs for local establishments, and warnings on their menu such as “no sharing plates” and “water $0.70 if not purchasing food.”  Any business in these towns has to make enough to support their business, but the convergence of all these little things make the dining experience pretty lame.

Diners in rural MN purchase their food from larger distributors and it’s normally pretty drab, though they do make good burgers and Sunday roasts.  This is an issue for my vegetarian brother in law and his significant other.   After said subpar lunch, we attempt to pay with a credit card and are refused as it is a cash only establishment.  By any measure, this is simply ownership refusing to pay an additional fee for using the major credit companies–the merits of which can be argued in great detail another day–but it’s still an inconvenience for us as customers.  We scrounge together enough cash to avoid an ATM fee and high tail it to Ogema.

You can count the number non residential buildings in town with your socks still on.  It became clear after passing through the major junctions that the dwindling number of those buildings meant we’d missed our turn.  A quick call and turn around got us to our gravel path.  Driving on gravel is much easier with experience, which was quickly reaffirmed by the lower speed David employed.

There are a few different types of gravel, and you can normally tell if the road has been grated recently due to the smoothness of the patches where tires would normally make path.  Loose gravel is dangerous, as is bending roadway; gradual turns that would not be an issue on paved road can be downright treacherous on gravel.  You learn to take turns slow and drive down the middle of gravel roads.  Hills pose a similar danger for this reason.  It’s safest to drive in the middle of gravel (doubled importance in winter) and because most people drive as such, when your line of sight is limited while climbing an incline, it’s quite often you’ll happen across another driver that does the same.  When this happens it’s very easy for one or both of the drivers to be surprised and react by pulling the wheel hard to the right, which can consequently cause “fish tailing” on looser roads.  All of these facts cause drivers to approach roads differently in rural Minnesota.  There are simply not that many people around these areas and getting help if you have an accident can take a great deal of time depending on your proximity to town.

The road we were on was not loose gravel, it was compacted well.  These roads often are comprised of soil mixes including clay like texture and over time they become very smooth.  During the summer you can walk on the surfaces and it feels very good on your soles due to the sun soaked heat of the ground and the juxtaposition comparatively to all the small, jagged rocks your feet will encounter on most road areas.

We took our time getting to their farm house, about two miles in on the smooth tributary from town.  If you look at most of the houses in these areas, you’ll find stuff that has simply sat in the same place for years and potentially decades.  There is no real use for much of it any longer, but people simply don’t dispose of it.  This would make it seem likely that these homes would begin looking like junk yards due to continual accumulation, but conversely most rural folks do not seem to buy a lot of new stuff.  They use what they have in most instances until it breaks down, at which point they will likely fix it.  If there is no repair available, at that point a new piece of equipment will be purchased.  It does not happen often.  Most everything on a homestead has its utility.

During the summer the land is green and fertile.  Gardens are lush with produce, dogs running about and clotheslines covered in with drying laundry.  During the winter, which is roughly seven months give or take, the land is covered with snow.  If a fresh snowfall, everything is bright white.  If it has been some time, the land looks mostly grey.  Day light hours are sparse, it will be dark by five o’clock most days.  We are arriving in Ogema in between seasons.  It is early November so it is cold enough that all the plant life has stopped growing but there is not yet any snow on the ground.  It is a period of preparation in this area due to the need to winterize vehicles and buildings for the coming cold.  Winterizing is a common term and includes maintenance, insulation, stockpiling and whatever else allows you to stay warm.

We enter their house and are met in the mud room.  Russel shakes my hand with warm eyes and a thanks for coming.  Arla is in the living room and we all amble in and organize to sit.  She immediately is given Juniper to sit and spends the next half hour playing with her, lit up.  She loves children.  It was a very simple moment of seeing someone who has lived longer than the majority of people simply appreciating the chance to see her great grand daughter.  It could have been any child however, you can see it.  Arla looks at a young child and sees the most beautiful thing life has to offer.  Russel smiles his appreciation of the youth and situation in kind.

Seeing these rural Minnesotans this day and how they live their lives reminded me of my childhood.  The houses, the farm land, the quiet.  All of it is reminiscent of a former life.  But the love of life from Russel and Arla is a new lesson.  It was plain as day that no matter how far you travel, what material goods you acquire, or tasks you accomplish, it will all be less important than this one thing.