Deep summer in Lake of the Woods County. My mother and I drive west on Highway 11, which runs along the Canadian border at the top of Minnesota. We are going to a picnic, she tells me, but it seems like a very long trip, even for our remote borderland where people go 70 miles to catch a drive-in movie. Eventually we turn onto a gravel road which narrows as evergreens crowd closer. It is hot, even in the forest, and mosquitoes buzz our ears. I am ten years old, and this is not my idea of a good time. I would much rather be at one of the white sand beaches on Lake of the Woods, swimming and picking up clam shells.
“This is Blueberry Hill,” my mom tells me at some point, showing me a small rise. “Are we gonna have to pick blueberries?” I ask. I like blueberries, but my elders worship them. They spend hours squatting in “good” patches deep in the woods or right in the middle of a peat bog, with bull flies dive bombing, biting hard but leaving no marks. “No, this is a picnic,” she assures me. “A very special picnic.”
Finally we emerge into a clearing with picnic tables and a rusty water pump. There are a lot of people but almost no kids. The usual picnic smells of roasting hot dogs and hamburgers. The usual picnic dishes of potato salad, watermelon, cucumbers sliced in vinegar and Old Dutch potato chips. Nothing special at all. I prepare to be very, very bored.
I load up my plate, eat and then wander off in the woods, leaving the adults to talk about the old days. After awhile I come into a clearing where the foundation of a house still stands. I see rosebushes and a large patch of rhubarb, a food staple in the northland. I go further, to another clearing, and see what look like remnants of a barn, lilac bushes planted not far away. I find an ancient enamel bucket that could have been a milk pail half-buried in the ground.
Little currents of sensation travel down my hands, out through the fingertips. I have stumbled upon a mystery. People used to live here. Who were they? Why did they leave? And does the picnic have something to do with it?
Those questions planted the seeds of my first novel, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.
They foretold a lifetime of exploring lost places, lost causes, forgotten people and things. And an obsession with writing their stories so they would not disappear from the earth.