Looking through notes and pictures on my phone there is no indication of having done anything in Iowa. On the itinerary I have listed Grotto of the Redemption, Lost Island Water Park, Field of Dreams, the American Gothic house, and Arlington Cemetery as points of interest, but I know that none of those destinations were reached. I must have at least stopped for a meal somewhere while driving through the state, but without any record of my passage there is no memory that comes to mind. Sorry Iowa. I wish I could say my recollections could reflect my experience while within your borders, but I am just as flawed as every other human being.
Minneapolis was another one-night city stop, a means of pausing between one previous destination and an upcoming one. Before checking into my AirBnB I zipped over to the American Swedish Institute just before closing. It is both a mansion turned museum and a cultural center celebrating Swedish history. As my ethnic heritage is dominantly Swedish I felt drawn toward the Institute. The long drive did not allow for a proper run-through, but I tried to take in as much as I could during the forty-five minute visit.
I dedicated my time to touring the Swan Turnblad Mansion, the 19th century estate of Swedish immigrants Swan and Christina Turnblad. The family donated the home in the first half of the 20th century so as to share and educate about the art, culture, and architecture of Sweden. The ceramic tiles and stained glass work, although not parallel to my taste in interior design, were impressive in their craftsmanship.
Dinner afterward was at a quaint and chic sushi restaurant. For me perhaps the only two downsides of travel both abroad and in the United States are long, uncomfortable airplane rides and the scarcity of sushi and Mexican restaurants. Back at home it is not uncommon for me to eat Mexican dishes and sushi several times in a week. You can imagine the small joy I felt when I arrived minutes before the restaurant’s happy hour ended. The ever-present appetite for raw fish was quenched after weeks of camp meals.
The AirBnB hosts, Kara and Shante, are mother and daughter. I gave a quick hello to Shante upon arriving, but her mom was the one I primarily interacted with during the brief stay at their home. The evening was spent reading in bed and catching up with my dad on the phone.
Before departing for Voyageurs National Park in the morning Kara invited me to sit with her and her mother (Shante’s grandmother) for a cup of coffee and some company. The pair of them were two of the kindest, most genuine people I had come across in weeks. They asked questions about my travels and why I had decided to take on such an extensive road trip, and Kara shared about the connections she had made through both her experiences as an AirBnB host and an Uber driver.
A self-described introvert, she is similar to myself. As an introvert I am often comfortable in the familiar, such as at home, and also when out in the world, but I also crave meaningful connections with others. Whether it be a conversation while in line at a café or with a stranger I come across while camping, I find genuine human connections gratifying and rejuvenating. I can be easily animated and engaging during one-on-one conversations or in small groups, and become a smiling, muted accessory when part of a large group of new faces. Kara, I feel, is somewhat of a kindred spirit in this regard. She is an exceptional host and woman. Thank you for being present, taking time to get to know me, and sharing your home, Kara.
Voyageurs National Park lies snuggly to the Canadian border and is made up of bountiful forests, lakes, and islands. I had made reservations for three nights at a lone campsite on Moxie Island, a moderate piece of land relatively close to shore. A ranger I had spoken to on the phone months before explained that my arrival would be during the tail end of the busy season and I need not worry about finding an available kayak or canoe to rent for transportation to my campsite. This advice turned out to only be abstractly true.
I often stop by the visitor centers at national parks before getting situated or exploring as it is a helpful starting point and reminder of what the park has to offer. As I had never camped on an island before, let alone been to Minnesota for more than 24 hours, I had plenty of questions for the lone ranger on duty at the tiny Kabetogama Visitor Center. At first hesitant to give me an opinion as to where to rent a kayak, she eventually gave me a suggestion for a rental place just a few miles away. I soon found out that it was to be a bit of a wild goose chase.
The lakeside vacation resort I had been directed to did not have kayaks for public rental, just a couple on site for their cabin guests. The man in the office, whom I believe was one of the owners, generously called around to a few other vacation “resorts” for me without being prompted. The cabins he sent me to were run by an elderly man who was just as friendly, but he was unwilling to help. He had a small handful of sea kayaks on hand, but again, they were typically meant to be used by cabin guests. He had no problem renting one out to me, but wasn’t keen on me transporting the kayak to the boat launch at the Kabetogama Visitor Center five miles away. Everyone who rented his kayaks launched from his property. He sent me to another location.
Thankfully the people at the third place were extremely accommodating. They were just as surprised as the other business owners at my explanation for needing a kayak. “Wait, so you’re going to kayak out to Moxie Island? And you’re going to camp there by yourself?” Apparently most people don’t camp on the islands unless they have a boat. Kayaks were used primarily for recreational, not practical, purposes.
After having help loading the obscenely long sea kayak onto the top of the Forester, a young man on staff offered to follow me to the boat launch so he could help put the kayak into the water. Upon arriving at the shore I asked about the life jacket and paddles that were to accompany the water vessel. He quickly apologized for having forgotten to grab them and insisted on making a quick trip to retrieve them for me. Midwesterners were really living up to their reputation of being some of the most openly kind and hospitable people in the U.S.
After failing with the first attempt of launching the packed sea kayak into the water, barely avoiding an embarrassing full body topple into the green lake, I carefully pushed off from shore with a second attempt. During the nearly hour long journey to the island I felt empowered by my adventurism. I was a woman free to bend the rules and expectations of the norm. Showered by the glow of dusk, I made my way to Moxie.
Setting up camp was anything but difficult as I was used to the routine and had limited supplies due to the restricted capacity of the thin kayak. Dinner was an unheated packet of some unremarkable dish. The absence of a propane stove or fire was not entirely terrible. The simplicity and remoteness of the island camping experience was soon to be revealed as less ideal than the early evening preview led me to believe it was to be.
I miraculously had great cell reception so during the first few hours on Moxie I called my dad for a chat and then quickly searched online to see what sort of animals I should hope to see in Voyageurs. I knew that a presence of bears was to be expected in the surrounding forests on shore, but to my surprise I read that bears, along with being expert climbers, are superb swimmers and island hop in search of food. My comfort level dropped immediately. I have little unease during the day while in bear country, but getting a peaceful night of rest was something I had yet to accomplish. There I was on an island with no easy or quick way of getting back to shore if needed, and the only notable neighbors I could expect to see on the island were black bears.
At some dark hour that first night I was awoken by a sound of something slapping the water only yards away from me. After the brief state of drunk-like drowsiness that only takes place between sleep and wakefulness, I bolted upright with eyes wide and heart threatening to suffocate me. The nearby slapping of the water brought to mind a nature documentary scene of Alaskan grizzlies pawing at a stream for salmon. The sound seemed too pronounced to come from the paws of a raccoon. Without so much as a moment of hesitation I grabbed the flashlight, canister of bear spray, and large knife I keep next to my sleeping bag and leapt out of my tent. “Hey bear!” I bellowed while shining the flashlight toward the area that was my cause of alarm. The sound stopped. I spent the next half hour talking at the darkness and anxiously looking for a glow of eyes to be reflected at the end of my lights beam. Whatever animal had been the cause for my fright was seemingly gone. I finally retreated to the tent and cautiously fell back to sleep. Dawn couldn’t come soon enough. The night continued with many more awakenings caused by the slightest of sounds.
At first light I wearily crawled outside. I much preferred the advantage of sight during daylight, so I forced an early start to the day. I entertained myself by attempting to fish, paddling around with the kayak, reading, and sunbathing. By the end of the day the romantic feelings of adventure that had commenced the island excursion were long gone. I suffered through a second night of uncomfortable, interrupted sleep. By the morning of the third day I decided that I was going to head back to shore. Staying for a third and final night secluded on an island was wholly unappealing. The moment I landed back on shore there was an unmistakable, full-bodied sensation of relief. I had made myself stay on the island for longer than was comfortable or enjoyable, and I had done it in spite of myself. For some reason I felt that I needed to stick it out, prove to myself that I could handle anything. But once I was back on shore I instantly realized that there shouldn’t have been anything to prove. I already know that I am capable of taking care of myself in any number of situations. This journey across the U.S. is not about being miserable for the sake of being brave, it is about being brave enough to listen to my inner voice and following it toward every opportunity of freedom, joy, awe, and growth inducing challenge. It was a lesson in the bad habit of self-suffering and punishment, something we all do to ourselves from time to time.
“You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt with. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding.” -Cheryl Strayed