Herrmann Monument, New Ulm, MN
Wednesday, we broke camp early, with a bit of dew still on the tent fly, and headed for town: the pastry shop, closed Monday/Tuesday, was open, with the sticky buns worth the wait. Then, off to check out the Amish country around Harmony, near the Iowa border. We saw one buggy on the way in to town, but the town wasn’t much–a few furniture outlets on the edge of town, yet another small midwest town.
So, we headed north, hoping to find espresso in Rochester. The GPS took us downtown to a Starbucks, across the street from the main entrance to the world-famous Mayo Clinic, with no parking for blocks, so we ended up at a Caribou Coffee out in the ‘burbs: no joy here for Judy’s wifi-cranky iPad, so westward ho toward Mankato for lunch out of the grocery bag in front of a HyVee grocery, a midwest chain we had first discovered in Iowa. On the way, we followed the GPS, which directed us to a torn-up and closed county road, totally missing the fact that MN 14 had been rerouted as a freeway. After wandering gravel roads for nearly an hour, running into dead ends and coming back to the missing highway at several points, we finally arrived at an overpass over the new freeway and spotted an interchange only a short way behind us. The GPS kept guessing which dirt lane we were on, while zooming toward Mankato on the new freeway.
The growth in the Midwest is astounding, as if the recession never happened. Huge swaths of former marsh, woodland, and farmland are being transformed into freeways, industrial parks, shopping centers, and residential complexes. We bypassed the old river city of Mankato entirely, then across the prairie and back down into the Minnesota River Valley to New Ulm, which we had passed through last week.
This time, we stopped long enough to climb to the top of the Herrmann Monument, which celebrates the 9th-century victory over the Roman Empire that created the 1000-year German state, broken briefly after the fall of Hitler’s 3rd Reich by the Iron Curtain division of Germany into two countries. The ultimate downfall that precipitated Hitler’s violent attempt to establish another 1000-year hegemony was engendered by the Prussian expansionism that gave rise to the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s and the Great War of 1914-1918. The latter resulting in the economic destruction of Germany on the eve of the world-wide depression of the 1920s and 1930s.
European instability during the latter third of the 19th century prompted many Germans to emigrate to the United States, with New Ulm as the center of German culture in central Minnesota. This cultural connection was strong enough to resist the suppression of Germanic influence during the 1914-1918 war, when German language and customs disappeared from daily life in less homogeneous towns and cities across America.
We stopped behind the public library to plan our next leg, and were engaged in conversation by a J. Hesse, local resident who was attracted to our Bike Friday tandem mounted on our rather brightly colored Jeep. It is difficult for us to tour unobtrusively with such distinctive livery. But, then, Midwesterners are a friendly and curious bunch: we have had more casual conversations with strangers here than anywhere else we’ve been.
In between stories, we managed to find affordable lodging ahead, hopefully on the edge of the coming storm that would bring torrential rains to most of southern Minnesota. Litchfield became our goal for the evening, a town of no particular significance other than travel economy. We checked in, walked next door to an all-day breakfast café, and retired, as the rain began.
In the morning, we headed west, in light rain, to check out Spicer and Green Lake, where we used to meet periodically for reunions of my grandmother’s and great uncle’s families, until my grandmother’s passing in the mid-1960s. Road work once again sent us off-course onto quiet country roads, and foiled our plan to circumnavigate Green Lake. The once-quiet country lake is now completely ringed with expensive homes, and the road was closed on the north side of the lake for repairs. We pressed on toward St. Cloud and Rice, where Judy’s mother was born, in hopes of locating any of her distant relatives in the local cemeteries. The GPS was again of little use on the way, as the roads had been moved and businesses in small towns are too ephemeral to persist long enough for the relatively static databases shipped with GPS units to find them. Rice was once again a lost quest: we had searched briefly in 2000, the last time we had been through this part of Minnesota, and a more thorough search of several cemeteries in the area did not turn up any familiar names. Half-remembered facts we thought we heard when we were children don’t always translate to actual places when we go to look for them, 60 years later.
Although the inclement weather had not reached this far north, most of the fabled 10,000 lakes (actually, once counted at nearly 30,000) are concentrated in northern Minnesota, and the recent late spring rains and heat had hatched out the first wave of mosquitoes, making camping less desirable. Also, the start of the short summer vacation and weekend water play season meant crowded camps and full motels, with high-season pricing. Our search for affordable lodging led us somewhat off our target zone of the major bike trails–Heartland and Paul Bunyan, Trails–so we ended up at Staples, an Amtrak whistle stop 50 km west of the PBT. Our frequent-traveler plan points had accumulated enough to get us a deep discount on motel rooms, at not much more than campground rates, without the mosquito battle, so we are done camping for a while, at least until we head west next week. Meanwhile, we plan to get in some more bicycling and also hunt down my ancestral home and place names, with the help of my second cousin, whose family remained in the area.