Several years ago I was listening to a book review on the radio. In passing it documented a not so well known part of our history. German Prisoners of War in the Midwest. One such town was Algona, located in the  north west quadrant of Iowa. 

There is a museum in town that provided information about the activities occurring in 1943, as well as World War 2. In 1943 the fighting was changing in favor of the Allied forces. There was an increased need for the US to house prisoners. Countries in Europe were turning away the influx of captured soldiers. The US made the decision to house German captured troops in the US . Thousands of POWs were  shipped to the Midwest, where they sat out the war.                                                                

POW camp Algona was a main camp, and oversaw 34 branch camps, spread out over four states. Some of  branch camps were located in Moorhead, Owatonna, New Ulm, and 31 others. The camps were built quickly and when they were done, they were deconstructed just as fast. The camp in Algona was built in 1943 and torn down in 1947.  It became the National Guard Armory, and a municipal airport.

 While the prisoners were there they lent themselves to the industry of the town. The POWs cleared land, detastled corn, and eviserated chickens. They were a great help to the community. Not only were they involved in physical labor, many of them were gifted artists, musicians, and wood carvers. Some of the prisoners carved a nativity, 60 pieces hand carved.   To this day it is cared for by the First United Methodist  church.

Many of the guards for the camp were deemed unfit for oversea service.  There were numerous escape attempts. Most returned to camp within a few days. One can only conjecture the reason why they came back.

“What is there to do in Iowa?”

There were a lot of predictions about the presence of Northern Lights last night.  To see them has been a desire of mine. 

The first attempt was a number of years ago.  News outlets promised a good showing. My adventure loving daughter asked to ride along. She had recently been diagnosed with Cronhs disease and was so weak, the best she could do was curl up in a blanket on the passenger’s seat. We had a choice of heading up to Milaca or over to Alexandria. We made the choice to go to Milaca. It was the wrong choice. The lights turned on in Alexandria and were a no show in Milaca.  We started out about 7 pm and didn’t return till 3am. Much of the time she slept. I look back on that night with tender fondness.

The second time was not a memorable experience. My wife doesn’t remember it at all, and what I remembered was that I felt bad that she was along for the ride when I had no clue where I was going. Yet, she stuck with me even in my confusion.

When we got to the lake, the scene was idyllic until we stepped outside. We were met by a reception committee of blood suckers. Frogs near the  shore called out with sounds like jaws harps. A few cars came and went. We were there from 9pm to 11:30 and did not see any Aurora Borealis like lights in the sky. We got home 12:30 and both agreed that we had made the right choice being closer to home.

What does it matter that I have not found the Northern Lights? Maybe I’ll find them and maybe I won’t. What is crucial is that we have been on a journey. On a journey, there is no guaranteed outcome. You can’t know what you will discover.

Ultimately the question I need to ask myself is, did I journey well?  Did I journey well  with my debilitated but determined daughter? Did I journey well with my kind hearted wife, encouraging me to find my dreams? Did I journey well yesterday as we chose adventure over frustration?

Maybe someday I will find the lights. But it will not diminish my sense of wonder of those I travel with. 

Superior is the other side of the channel from Duluth, as well as the city at the top of the Minnesota and Wisconsin border.  Up from Duluth on Hwy 2, we crossed a bridge that soared high above the back channels of the Duluth Harbor, and then landing us back down onto Harbor View Road.  We were looking for a restaurant called “The Anchor Bar.” The roads were all torn up and our GPS was sketchy.

I have to be honest, the outside was not what you would consider a 5 star dining experience. There were multiple types of siding on the wall, and we parked in weeds growing up through a gravel parking lot.  A plain sign on the front of the building identified it as the correct place.It was dark inside. Lining the walls was paraphernalia from boating and fishing. As we had been on the road for a few hours, B and I needed to use the bathrooms. I didn’t see the interior of the women’s, but the men’s was the size of two airline lavatories, squeezed together.  

We located the person we had come to see in the hall outside of the bathroom. It was my wife’s childhood neighbor and friend (CF). She and her husband are dairy farmers in Ashland Wisconsin, which is a distance from where we live. Whenever B would document our vacation trip along the north shore, CF would see it and contact us to encourage us to meet her in Duluth/Superior. This last time we set up a time to meet as we passed through Duluth. She was as good as her word. She drove the one and a half hours to do lunch with us.

We decided to meet out on the deck. It would be lighter and not so noisy.  The food there was wonderfully inexpensive and B pronounced the hamburgers there, some of the best she has ever tasted. Our bill for two people was $9. Pretty amazing.

B, a retired senior management  and CF, a dairy farmer, spoke of different career paths. But, when they got to reminiscing about the fates of the people they knew, differences melted away.  They were who they had always been, good neighbors and good friends. It felt affirming to realize that time had changed in some areas, but also their willingness to go out of their way to validate their bond. And we found a local burger joint to boot.

 

We drove through the mountains on a narrow two lane road. The long ride from Memphis had placed us in the Smokey mountains at dusk and then night. We came into Bryson City and after finding a room for the night, went out for Mexican food. The whole mountain town is built on the sides of ridges. Driving up several switch backs, we were really high above the road we had come in on.  We were here to ride on Great Smokey Mountain Railroad in the morning.

The train left the station at precisely at 10:30 am. We were comfortly seated in a climate controlled car with a meal served on the way. Shortly after leaving the station, a banjo player and guitar player entertained us with some blue grass.

Then there was Tim. He billed himself as a story teller and a mountain man. He talked about how many mountain peaks he had climbed. He had white hair and a white beard,  that would have made Santa lust. His voice was that of a prophet. He roamed from car to car keeping the passengers amused. One rant was passionate about ginseng and how greedy people are stripping and depleting the forest of of such a powerful root.

The train stopped for an hour break at a park consisting of several restaurants, and a couple of wilderness outfitters. One hour later the whistle sounded and we all gathered for the return trip.  At 3pm the train arrived back at the station and all passengers got off the train and funneled into a gift store.

As I was walking to retrieve my car, I saw Tim one last time. He was sitting in front of a storefront with the name, “Storytelling Center” sign behind him. I nodded and he nodded in return. Later I looked him up online. He is a man who is on a mission to keep alive the culture of the people of the Appalachia. He is located in the small mountain town of Bryson City and he works to make the world a better place. On the train he told stories with passion and a deep love for the mountains and the people there.  He is a teacher, working to create grea
te understanding with every person he meets. What he is working on in is to make the world a better place one person at a time. So he hitched a ride on a tourist train and shared what he knew with people he didn’t know and created deeper understanding of the world we live in. I doubt I will ever be able to see ginseng again without seeing the fiery and wounded eyes of the story teller talking about the cost of greed.

Our daughter graduated from college today, from Concordia Moorhead. What an achievement! Her brothers, her sister, and their two kids. We drove into Fargo to find a place to celebrate. The first place we came to was an Irish pub theme to it. We all sat do
wn and then were informed that no one under 21 could be in the pub. Management refused to serve our party because we had a 3 year old and a 1 year old. The pub wasn’t even that full.

We left, frustrated but ready to find someplace else. Which we did. Turns out that it is the company you keep more than the place itself that makes for a good time.

 

Memphis is a city of contrasts. In the morning we made our way to Beale Street. Rock and roll is a night time affair so even at 11m congregants  wandering the street didn’t seem quite awake yet. A band was setting up, but it took a while so we missed them.

We made our way to the Peabody Hotel where watching ducks was a spectator sport. Five ducks live on the top floor of the hotel. Every day  at 11am they march into an elevator on the top floor and when they emerge on the first floor, they waddle down to a fountain located in the main lobby. They entertain themselves there until 5 pm where they are observed shaking their tail feathers and marching back to the elevator to take them back to their penthouse suite. There is some jostling for position from the tourists in the lobby as they awaited the advent of the ducks.

Ducks are not very complicated. People are. We visited the NationalIMG_0932.JPG Civil Rights Museum. It is built around the Lorraine Motel, the very same building where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by a sniper. Having seen it in pictures, now to see it in real life brought the past to the present. So much has been done, so much remains . As we walked the plaza, a Caucasian family of four gathered close to where MLK was gunned down. The mother pulled out a selfie stick and extended it. They all pressed their faces close and smiled for the camera, because that’s what you do when you take a picture. Smile!  At such a sacred site? Is it sacred? I guess each of us have to answer that question for ourselves.

The trailer was packed, our car was packed and our daughter’s car was packed. She was headed to Memphis to start a Master’s program to become a licensed dietitian. We left our home around 8 am. We realized that it was going to be a long drive, an optimistic 12 hours.  All told, it turned into 18 hours, between the weather and the trailer.

The first part of the trip went smoothly. By lunchtime rain developed and for the rest of the day we drove through bands of showers that poured so fiercely that you couldn’t see the road ahead, and the large trucks were a faint outline ahead. After about 10 minutes the storms would pass, and the road would continued.

The sunset came and it got harder to navigate. Hazard lights, rain, and dark made the drive more difficult. To break up the drive we agreed to stop for dinner. Because of deitary needs we headed for a restaurant called St. Louis Bread Company. It looked similar to a Panera Bread, diet issues solved.

On my way to the restaurant a fire engine came barreling out of the station in front of me, lights flashing. Colors exploded in my face and I jammed my foot on the brake until the truck passed and night had returned.

It turned out that St. Louis Bread Company was a Panera Bread right down to the header on the receipt.  Broccoli cheddar soup never tasted so good. We as red-eyed travelers, convened on what to do next. After a short deliberation it was decided that it would be best to spend the night and head out in the daylight hours. We were all fast asleep soon after entering hotel for the night. The next day traffic cones and shifting lanes confirmed that we had made a good choice, a very good choice.

Heading back from Wyoming, we spent the night in Wall, South Dakota, home of the infamous Wall Drug. This town proves  that with enough signage anything can be turned into a cash dropping destination. Monopoly is the game played here. The only businesses in town are shops, motels, and restaurants, all in the Wall Drug motif. A case in point were the motels. They all looked the same, and all were priced the same.  The only differences we could tell were their distinctively  familiar signage and the size of their breakfast bar. What we struggled to comprehend was why Motel 6 cost over $100 a night. Inquiring at the Best Western, which looked a lot like Motel 6, we were quoted a similar price. It became clear that we were going to pay up or drive a distance for a better price.

After a pricey night’s sleep, we set off for the Badlands. Heading East on Interstate 90, we turned onto the loop drive. We paid our entrance fee and received a map to the National Park. Opening the material Barb noticed that the map and Siri were not on in agreement. We pressed on, Siri’s protestations falling on deaf ears.

For the next several hours we drove by lookouts and buildings that were on the map, but in the wrong location. As a result of this condition we drove deeper into the park with a increasing sense of confused wonder. The sights were breathtaking. One minute we were driving through green high plains grass. The  next moment the landscape would bottom out with deep impassable canyons. Over the eons wind and water had carved out breathtaking pinnacles, cliffs, and crevasses. High above, the green high plains grass ended abruptly resembling verdant toupees covering naked Mother Earth.

As we wandered, we speculated what Siri’ knew’ all along. The visitor’s center and the overlooks were not where the map said they would be. Deep in the park we encountered a road marked ‘Exit’. An arrow pointed the way out the park. We looked for that road on the map, and finding it, Badlandsallowed us to regain our bearings. We realized that we had entered the second exit to the park rather than the first. Siri and the map were correct.

I feel foolish admitting how turned around we were.  And yet, we were. Our disorientation was as unsettling as the Badlands themselves.

And with all that confusion we never did check out dinosaur fossils. We were just happy to get out of the park with our senses and perspectives intact. In the future if Siri and I are not in agreement, I promise to spend a little more time getting into Siri’s virtual head.

 

 We have passed the city of Mitchell, South Dakota many times while heading to other destinations. Signs for the palace along highway 90 have enticed us to stop. Well, actually not. But having seen the signs for enough times over the  y’ears’, I guess we were just worn down.

Driving through downtown, we followed signs, directing us deep’ear’ into the city. When we arrived, I have to be honest, it didn’t feel like a palace. It had a rather large storefront, with onion shaped spires on the roof, reminiscent  of a Russian orthodox church. The large mural designs on the side of the building were made out of  corn, the cobs sawn in two. It is said that when winter comes, the corn in the murals feed the birds and the squirrels throughout the long cold season.

The 125 year old building, hosts different venues during the year. They have announced  they have started ‘corn’struction this y’ear’ with plans created by an ‘ear’chitect to upgrade the palace. Entering the palace,  there was a reverential focus on corn, the founder of the feast.

Having a daughter who attends Concordia Moorhead, we have had our fill of Corn-laced slogans. The mascot for the college is the fighting Cobber. Their battle cry is “FEAR THE EAR!” (Not that I have felt f’ear’ in the presence of cobs, either with or without kernels.)  Students assert that they are part of the ‘Cobb’ernation.  School events like parents weekend and Homecoming, have been promoted as “Join the Cornspiracy,” and “Born to be Corn”.

Being inside the palace, it felt like we were walking the halls of Concordia Moorhead. The style of the inside of the building, as well as the seating looked very similar. In the center of the arena on wood floors, a make shift gift shop had been set up. There was the opportunity to purchase  a multitude of corn related novelties.  There were exhibits extolling the properties of produce that had sustained them for years.

We left the palace with the knowledge that we could cross that off our list with no need  to return. In the end we took a selfie with ‘Corn’elius. All in all the experience was just, well… ‘corn’y! 


We arrived at the monument as part of a never ending line of vehicles. The parking lot wound around the base of the site. We found a spot across from the visitor’s center. We waited 10 minutes for a grey haired gent to decide he was ready to leave. Sometimes it is amazing to see people who are so clueless of what others needed.

A hike around the tower allowed us to view the monument from many different angles. It was breathtaking. It could be seen from miles away, a chub of rock rising out of the surrounding forest. Up close the we had a better sense of how massive it was. The cracked rock soared to about 1200 feet. If you looked close you could see climbers as small as ladybugs halfway up, scaling the surface of the wall.
Signs were posted along the path, requesting that we respect this sacred site by staying on the trail. Brightly colored prayer cloths fluttered from branches in the light breeze, God’s to-do list.
There are many stories told about the origin of this monument. Science and myth collide. For more information follow this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devils_Tower

In the last month the monument has been in the news. Native people want to change the name back to Bear’s Lodge. Others want to keep the Devil’s Tower moniker. The argument reminds us that there is hell to pay when relationships are forged by force, and falsehood.