Hill People: on Lanesboro and Love

In the morning we drive. It's hot and sticky, something I mind only in a vague way--it's just the world working--but because it's my husband beside me, and as he's reminded me a thousand times, he can't take his skin off, we have the air conditioner on, the windows up, the changing landscapes passing us by in glimpses and sun-soaked blurry scenes. We're smiling, singing old high school songs.

Neither of us have spent time in southeast Minnesota before. It's always been southwest-leading roads, beckoning northeast shores, that deep central heart of the state dotted with lakes. But we keep hearing about the Root River Valley. For some reason, there's a pull, so we've fueled the car, packed crisp apples, and now follow lines on a map. First, we pass through farm country that looks no different than the central and western plots we've known our whole lives. There are new names, though: Hampton, Cannon Falls, Zumbrota, Pine Island. We ask each other: Could you live here? Could you live there? Because it's a day of wondering, of looking back and ahead, of understanding that there is so much we haven't yet seen.

At the little town of Chatfield, we turn left. Why not? There's a small back road. And both of us have whispered to each other this year about our preferences for these, for fewer lanes, for slower speeds, for a well-placed stop sign. We've decided not to rush today. And that's a good thing, for the road is so windy, full of so many hills suddenly, steep drops and thin rocky inclines, that going fast here is not an option for anyone above sixteen--and we've commented on that too recently, our getting older, the small lines appearing at our eyes, the feeling that life is full upon us now, our tendency to be more careful. As we turn right and travel a road with rollercoaster hills so regular and smooth we throw our hands up and out of momentarily lowered windows, I think, Maybe careful is all right, if it leads to this, if it means I care about this moment, and so many others like it, in a deeper way. Careful doesn't have to mean scared.

Then we enter Lanesboro, a village of 754 residents, full to bursting this Saturday afternoon with day-trippers, like us, unlike us, licking ice cream melting in cones, slinging babies on hips, renting inner-tubes and canoes and kayaks, talking to each other, touching each other, making the most of their summer. We park our car in some shade by the library. Before we cross the street, we hold hands.

In the afternoon, after we've spent the twenty minutes or so it takes to walk around most of the town, peek in some shops, and talk to a few locals, we rent two bikes. They are new and fancy and white. We both like them, and it's only minutes before we're on the Root River State Trail, feeling our bodies propelled down into the valley, down to the river, across wooden bridges, under branches with leaves the size of our faces and limestone ledges hundreds of feet above us on both sides, past purple and white and orange flowers with names I don't know. We stop on the long bridge where the south and north branches of the river meet, and watch sixteen-year-olds climb up on the high, hot metal of the bridge and leap into the churning wet. Could you do that, we ask each other, Would you do that? We guzzle our cold water and observe the people below us on inner tubes and in canoes, so like us, so unlike us, and continue on.

When we reach Whalan we stop at the pie shop for refills of water, and the girl behind the desk offers me her very own nectarine, after I inquire about fruit. There's a moment when I recognize myself in her, recognize my teenaged self: polite, a little shy, anxious to please. No, I say, thank you, though, and we return to our bikes and head back the way we came. I think about that girl. What is her life like, I ask my husband. What are her dreams? We wonder together where, ten years from now, she'll be. For most of the ride we are covered in shade, and the breeze on our necks is cool and refreshing, sweet, like fruit.

In the evening, after more strolling, menu-checking, after a fine meal on the river, and dessert, we begin our drive home. It's been a good day, but tiring. We have sweat on the back of our shirts. Still, at my urging, we take a different route out of Lanesboro. I want to find a lookout. We've been all day in a deep valley, places of beautiful corners and cathedrals of trees, but now I want to see. I want a hill to stand on where we can look back on everything that we've crossed over. We turn right onto a road that isn't on our map, that seems promising in the way of vistas--I'm following my instincts. But the road soon changes to a pale grey gravel edged by miles of thick corn we cannot see over. Corn. We bump along. I think several times about turning around. I consider my expectations: too big.

But, then we emerge. And we are high. Up on top of these southeastern bluffs, surrounded by rolling hills and at the foot of a wildflower meadow.

In my dream-life, my husband leads me out into this field and sings in my ear while we spin a while, slowly. He picks a few black-eyed Susans, holds out a bouquet. He's done both before. Maybe he takes his guitar from the trunk and we write a song right there. It is, after all, our five-year anniversary.

But it's hot, remember, and humid, and late, and he's not checked NPR all day, and there were those hills we biked up on our way back to Lanesboro, on our way here, to this place in our lives, all those hills. Could you live here? Can you see yourself there? Did you imagine this, those years ago, darling?

The truth is, my husband deeply appreciates air-conditioning, and he'd been out of it all day, for me. So this time I don't ask him to come with. I walk into that field alone. And I think, as I look out at the landscape, about how we are most often up but sometimes down, how we are cold and hot, and fast and slow, and rocky and smooth. How we are like and unlike everyone else on earth. We know we have the right fuel in the car, and so much of it, my God. We are careful like that. So let's take that turn, who knows where it leads. It could be up or down, right? We could be disappointed at the other end: more corn, more corn, more giant, sustaining corn. Or we could be mesmerized. Struck full with gratitude. A hilltop field so wide and beautiful it doesn't matter if one of us is in it and one of us is not, because when I look back I realize it encompasses us both.


  1. Lovely, as always, and congratulations! Our 5 year was on the 30th...yours? Also, I couldn't help, reading this last scene, but hear Lucinda Williams sing The Side of the Road:

    You wait in the car, by the side of the road...

    If only for a minute or two
    I wanna see what it feels like to be without you
    I wanna know the touch of my own skin
    Against the sun, against the wind

    I walked out in a field, the grass was high, it brushed against my legs...


  2. Why am I not too surprised that we have another thing in common. Ours was the 29th, but hey--same weekend! It was a hot and happy one in MN.

    I adore those lyrics, and am going to go find the song on YouTube stat. Perfect.

  3. Worth about 521 listens. Beautiful!

  4. A beautiful piece of writing. One of the best you have posted. I'm so glad you invited all of us along. I loved the bike ride, small town, and field of flowers. I love the way you and your husband ask "could you", and "what if" questions. Your description of the day, full of live and love and full of curiosity and observance made an excellent story to share. We are so lucky that you did, and congrats on five wonderful years!

  5. Thank you, Bill! To me, you're the king of these kinds of posts, so your thumbs up means a lot. This part of Minnesota was unlike anywhere else I've been in the state, so it was extra special to experience it with my extra special love. :)

  6. Beautiful, Emily! But where did you eat dinner??

    There's a lovely B&B on a hillside overlooking the valley. I really want to stay there sometime.

  7. Riverside on the Root! Have you ever eaten there? I had delicious stuffed portabella mushrooms. I'd try to describe them and the ambiance, but I'll leave that to those more skilled at such things (you!).

  8. No, but I do want to eat there. And Keri's too.

  9. A great piece, thanks for sharing. It had wonderful momentum and energy, and just enough detail.

    That photo of the field full of wildflowers is a beauty.

  10. Lovely; thank you! I always used to imagine myself living in places we passed through. There are only so many ways and places to live your one and only life.

  11. Thanks for commenting, Greg! That photo is my favorite, too.

    And yes, Penelope -- I often wish I could live five lives at once (without that being stressful and strange). There's so much good on this earth that I want to experience. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  12. Sweet post...those written from the heart are the best, don't you think? Thanks for sharing and congrats!

  13. Achhh, Emily, this is a beautiful piece about, as is always the case with you, so very many things, all of them rendered with such a deft touch.

  14. Thank you, Amber! As I continue to learn, from the heart is the only way to really write.

    And thanks to you too, Mayumi. So many many things! Is it ever any other way?


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