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 glinting past us in glimpses and sun-soaked blurry scenes. We're smiling, singing old high school songs.

Neither of us has explored southeastern Minnesota before. It's always been southwest-leading roads, beckoning northeast shores, or that deep central heart of the state dotted with lakes. But we keep hearing about the Root River Valley, its name whispered and wound like a bit of lore. So we've fueled the car, packed crisp apples, and now trail lines on an old faded map.

First, we cross through farm country stitched with squares and ts that looks no different than the central Minnesota 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 peering back and ahead, of understanding that there is so much we haven't yet seen.

At the little town of Chatfield, we turn east. Why not? There's a quiet 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. Today we've decided not to rush. And that's a good thing, for the road is so windy, full of so many sudden hills, 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, our getting older, the fine lines appearing at our eyes, the feeling that life is full upon us now, our tendency to be more careful. As we turn south 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, teasing 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 are each atop one and 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 brake 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, sleepy and dappled, so quiet with life, we stop at the pie shop. The girl behind the counter offers me her very own nectarine, after I inquire about fruit. There's a moment when I recognize myself in her, my teenaged self: polite, a little shy, anxious to please. No, I say, but thank you, and we return to our bikes and 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 sheltered 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 savory meal on the river, and dessert, we begin our drive home. It's been a good day, but tiring. Sweat stains the back of our shirts. Still, at my urging, we exit Lanesboro on a different route. 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 north onto a road that’s not on our map, that seems promising in the way of vistas—I'm following my instincts—but the pavement soon changes to a pale grey gravel edged by miles of thick corn we cannot see over. Corn, that most common of fences. We bump along. I think several times about turning around. I consider my expectations: too big.

But then we emerge.

And we’re high. Up on top of these southeastern bluffs. Surrounded by green rolling hills. At the foot of a wildflower meadow.

In my dream-life, my husband leads me into this field and sings in my ear while we spin a while, slowly. He plucks a few black-eyed Susans, holds out a bouquet. He's done both before. Maybe he grabs his guitar from the trunk and we write a song right there. It is, after all, our five-year wedding 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 step into that field alone. And I think, as I breathe in that undulating 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. 


Emily Brisse has her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in publications including The Writer’s Chronicle, Midway Journal, and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. She teaches English in Minneapolis, and writes online at Landing on Cloudy Water.