Minnehaha Falls – It Doesn’t Mean ‘Laughing Water’

Some claim that Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan is the second “biggest “waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Of course, that depends on how you personally rank your waterfalls – do you prefer width, height, volume… hell, even spray?

Tahquamenon certainly wins if you define your waterfalls by distance from a major center of civilization. It was a long haul to the falls through the rugged, lonely backcountry of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That it was worth the drive speaks to the undisturbed amber-hued magnificence of the mighty Tahquamenon.

I capped that particular trip off by watching a freighter pass through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie. Or, rather, crawl through. In your head, you imagine this grand passage of industrial might and unflappable steel filling you with awe and appropriate reverence, but the reality is incredibly slow and a bit boring. Although I must say that the Canadian accent of the lady over the PA was nothing short of incredible (“ya”, “aboot”, “eh?” – she said everything you’d hope to hear from an honest to God canuck).

Not that I regret any of it. But imagine my chagrin when I discovered that not only do Minnesota’s Twin Cities have locks, but a waterfall just a few minutes due west of the Mississippi that’s taller than the mighty Taquamenon. Yes, that’s right – these Minnesotans are spoiled beyond belief. At 53 feet, Minnehana Falls is a full 5 feet taller, or one Jean-Paul Sartre greater in height.

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Minneapolis in the fall.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’d rank that as impressive. The Twin Cities are unfairly blessed for a Midwestern city.

As if it’s any consolation, Minnehana Falls has lost a fair share of girth over the decades, a problem any aging male can identify with. However, unlike your typical elderly male, the reduced girth has actually increased its flow. Minnehana positively roars, gushes like, well… I’ll spare you any further innuendo. You get the point.

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If it makes you feel any better, the Minnehana Falls do run dry on occasion. In fact, when Lyndon B. Johnson visited in 1964, Minneapolis had to revive the impotent Minnehana with hydrants, a sort of Viagra for rivers.

OK, OK – I’ll stop. I promise.

Back on track, here: Minnehana Falls is quite a sight to behold in autumn. Draped in gold, auburn, and green, it flows like a gown over bands of limestone, shale, and sandstone. A rustic stone stairway constructed by the Works Progress Administration takes you down to the bottom, and if you squint, you can escape the urban jungle surrounding you and transport yourself back to the great American wilderness.

It’s as if you were traveling with Lewis and Clark – except you can head back upstairs and get a vegetarian walnut burger or raw oysters at Sea Salt, right on the park grounds. Even a craft beer. Isn’t that convenient?

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Minnehaha Creek.

Stay below and follow the trail along the Minnehana Creek and you’ll finish at the confluence of the creek and the Mississippi River. From there you can catch a glimpse of the Ford Dam, originally constructed by Ford Motor Company, an impressive structure that powered an immense assembly plant.

To think, Henry Ford even harnessed the Mississippi River. Heady times, man.

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I regret to inform readers that I was unable to score a “jucy lucy” in Minneapolis – a fatty burger stuffed with cheese indigenous to the Twin Cities. It wasn’t for want of effort. I dropped hints to Molly and her brother (our host) all the weekend, whispering jucy lucy faintly in their ears while they slept and planting other bizarre subliminal messages whenever possible. Yet Molly’s vegetarianism won the day again, and so I ate curry mock duck at Mai Village and poutine with mushroom gravy and veggie chorizo at Muddy Waters instead.

You want to pity me, but don’t. The poutine was delicious, albeit probably the most unhealthy meal in human history, with globs of cheese, a fried egg (!), and fries that oozed a thick, artery-hating grease. You hear all the time about how active the Twin Cities are, how citizens love the outdoors – and, no joke, I once saw someone sunbathing by Lake Calhoun in 50 degree weather – but surely they need to stay active with food like this.

Bottom line, I left the Twin Cities as impressed as always. It’s everything old Midwest cities should be, a healthy mix of old and new, grit and spit-shined, urban and suburban. I’d rank Minneapolis-St. Paul second to Chicago in the Midwest, and that’s no small shakes.

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This picture is clearly not the best way to show off Minneapolis. It’s a shame that you can a picture like this of virtually any American downtown, even a nice one like Minneapolis. Cars really did rip the country to shreds.

The Vanishing Point

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The sidewalk is empty. I’m alone. The doors are shut, the windows closed. I can hear everything, but there’s nothing to hear. The birds are quiet, the leaves are gone. It’s wonderful, it’s nothingness.

The sidewalk runs on into the horizon, converging on the vanishing point, from which I can see no further. What happens when you reach the vanishing point, I wonder? Do you cease to exist, multiply into infinity? I’ll probably never know. With each step, it moves away from me, taunting me.

A van glides down the wet pavement, breaking the silence. It sounds like someone is peeling off a bandage. I kick a puddle and watch the drops fly through the air.

There’s little culture here, nothing much to see. Culture, I suppose, is in the dull, mechanical repetition of life inside your home, the home identical to the all others on block. It’s HBO’s Game of Thrones or The Glenn Beck Radio Program. It’s a Microsoft Xbox controller or a Stouffer’s Family Size Lasagna Italiano in the oven.

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The sidewalk brought me here, to this quaint scene of Middle America. From the semitas of Ancient Rome to a life as a flâneur – a gentleman of leisure – in ol’ Gai Paris, I walk, timeless, ageless, endlessly in my quest for the vanishing point. I’ve seen it before and I’ll see it all again before I die.

I travel, on average, 3 miles an hour. The speed limit for th cars is 25 miles per hour. I watch the van, a red Ford E-Series, disappear in the abyss of the vanishing point. I imagine a loud tearing sound, like thunder. It’s another piece of cultural ephemera, gone in but a pinprick of light, just as the chariots and carriages that preceded it.

When Europeans first arrived, America was – believe it or not – startlingly devoid of sidewalks. So they built some, first with wood, then gravel, brick, and – finally – cement. As our great country urbanized, we kicked the peddlers and protesters off the curb with laws and ordinances, decreased the width of the sidewalk to make way for cars. Jaywalkers were outlawed, kids shooed into the backyard.

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The streets were dangerous, the sidewalks too close, and the stores too far. The sidewalk, that great carrier of civilization, emptied out.

Except for me.

Perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic. People still walk their dogs, after all.

I turn the corner, the vanishing point momentarily withdrawing from view. I expect to see it again, but I’ve hit a dead end. The sidewalk stops abruptly in front of the wide, green lawn of a spacious suburban home. Is this, my friends, the vanishing point? Have I, in fact, reached my destination?

For a moment, I cease to exist. Orange light pools in the spot I once stood.

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Dickeyville Grotto

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The sun was blood red over the Mississippi. It gushed upon the horizon, purple and orange. A cold breeze from the north weaved its way through the husks of corn drying dead on spindly stalks. Alternating rows of crops and grass repeated ad infinitum across the hills.

I was somewhere in Wisconsin.

We took a left on Great River Road. We passed Sunset Lanes, a bowling alley that looked like small airplane hanger, the parking lot packed with American trucks. A brown barn with antique gas pumps out front advertised itself as a flea market. Above a dingy, nondescript repair shop stood a water tower with the town’s name, “Dickeyville”, emblazoned on it in thick, black letters.

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Old homes and squat motels lined Main Street. Here was a gas station, there a diner. We turned the corner, the sun low, the shadows long. Two kids rode their bikes up the empty, cracked sidewalk. A steeple poked into view, the tiled, angular spire piercing the dark blue sky with startling ferocity.

Something unusual caught my eye. A grotto, a cave, next to the church. A man-made stone building bedecked with bits of seashell, shards of tea cups, a petrified tree trunk, and all bound together with poured cement. It leaped forth from the ground in a profusion of organic shapes, as if it might slither into the ether at any given moment.

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The handicraft of Father Mathias Wernerus, an immigrant, it’s part ode to religion, part ode to patriotism. He spent roughly a half-decade of his life affixing the stones, inspired almost undoubtedly by Father Paul Dobberstein’s famous grotto in West Bend, Iowa. There’s a shrine to Jesus. A shrine to Mary. A shrine to Christopher Columbus. His fervor knew no bounds. Stone rope unites Wernerus’ creations, entreating you to stroll through his imagination.

Warnerus’ final vision is smaller in scale than Dobberstein’s work, but no less impassioned. It’s the masterwork of an artistic savant, bursting with childlike enthusiasm. Mary is in in the main grotto behind glass, the entryway to her shine resembling the open maw of a primordial monster.

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You can’t help but ask: why? Why build such a monument in an out of the way town in American’s heartland? Wernerus once believed his grotto was destined to be a great tourist attraction. But did he build it in search of glory? Or a feeling more divine?

Dobberstein was inspired to construct his grotto after a bout with pneumonia. Wernerus, strangely enough, died of pneumonia in 1931.

He’s gone, but because of his grotto, never forgotten in Dickeyville, Wisconsin.

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