Road Trip Notebook: A Town in Minnesota

Water tower, Alvarado, Minnesota.

Alvarado is a town of about 300 souls, 18 miles northeast of Grand Forks, North Dakota, on the exceedingly flat plain that spreads out from the Red River of the North. (No, not all plains are pool-table flat. Just ask the ones that call themselves “Great.”)

The water tower is right down the street from our dad’s first boyhood home. And that house is across the street from the site of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where his father, the Rev. Sjur J. Brekke, was minister. All of that was a while ago. Dad was born in 1921, and his father was called to a congregation on the South Side of Chicago, Ebenezer Lutheran, in 1925 or ’26.

I’ve been to this place several times. Once with Dad, in 1988, when we were headed back to Chicago from a trip that had taken us to the Little Big Horn. Once the weekend before Christmas in 1998, when winter had really set in and high temperatures was in minus single digits Fahrenheit. Once in 2018, on a family heritage adventure with Kate, Eamon and Sakura. And again last month with my brother John.

We did have one conversation with someone in town on this last trip. A neighbor of the house where our dad’s family lived stopped as she was driving by and asked, “What’s up, guys?” So we told her our story of century-old roots — it was just a few days after what would have been Dad’s 100th birthday — and I had pictures of the house as it looked back then all queued up on my phone to show if anyone asked. But there wasn’t much to the conversation, really — I think the neighbor wanted to satisfy herself that these two incipient senior citizens perusing the premises next door were on the up and up.

We took some pictures and moved on to the next town down the road, Warren, where our dad was actually born and they still have a drive-in theater and weekly newspaper, among other attractions.

Road Blog: Continuation of the Foregoing

Moonrise on Interstate 15 south of Nephi, Utah.

Well, my brother John and I got back to our starting point here in Berkeley a few days ago. So the travelogue here is a little fractured. I have told myself that maybe if I could limit my road trip postings to a single paragraph, then maybe I could keep up a daily record. But one thing usually leads to another in the narrative that forms in my head. And brevity poses its own challenges.

So here we are. I last posted a week ago yesterday, Friday, September 17, from Chadron, Nebraska, after crossing the 100th Meridian. What happened after that?

Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation. Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Casper, Wyoming. Interstate 80 and Interstate 15 on a long drive from Casper to Las Vegas. A tough Sunday drive down I-15 and associated superhighways to Los Angeles. A couple of relaxed days in L.A. hanging out with my son Thom. Then a drive through Kern County backroads and oil fields, then I-5 up the San Joaquin Valley and across the passes and valley back to the bay shore and Berkeley.

I’ll circle back to some of that. There’s much more to say, including this one observation after three weeks and two days away from home: No matter how much time I give myself to explore this world of ours, I want more.

Road Blog: The 100th Meridian

Nebraska Highway 12, the “Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway,” in Keya Paha County. Everyone we encountered seemed law-abiding. Someone stopped while we were taking pictures of the sign to make sure we were OK.

We left Chicago on Wednesday morning and made it to Sioux City, Iowa, following what’s become a typical late-ish start (10:30, say, due to how slow I am to get ready) and quitting just at dark. It means we’re on the road for 10 or 11 hours each day.

Thursday we left Sioux City at about the usual time and spent the day zig-zagging back and forth across the Nebraska and South Dakota border as we headed west on two-lane roads, mostly on Nebraska’s Highway 12 and, further west, on U.S. 20. Four hundred miles or so later, we wound up in Chadron, Nebraska.

Someone — one would guess tourism-minded state and local officials and hopeful Chamber of Commerce folks — has styled Highway 12 “the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway.” I can attest that the route is scenic, with sweeping vistas of the rolling country along the Missouri River on the road’s eastern end that transition slowly into the high plains and beginning of the Sand Hills on the west. My only complaint, and you knew there had to be one, is that there’s no ready explanation along the road or on the Outlaw Trail websites about why, precisely, it’s called that.

One of the sites advertises an “adventure of friendly people, scenic sights and the history of Native American Tribes, outlaws, cowboys and pioneers. … Communities have museums waiting to be explored and murals waiting to be viewed. This region offers seasonal opportunities to hunt fauna or flora with arms or camera.  Please check on the current Covid situation.”

Highway 12 crosses the 100th Meridian west of Greenwich in Keya Paha County (‘keya paha is “turtle hill” in the Dakota language, per what I see online). I have an app on my phone that gives a very precise reading (to four decimal places) of latitude and longitude. When we got to the approximate locale, we parked at a crossroad and I walked about 1,000 feet back to the spot the app indicated was very nearly precisely the exact location of the meridian (“very nearly precisely” because the app would jump between 99.9996 and 100.0005 degrees with a single stride east or west).

John and I both took pictures to commemorate the spot. I wish I’d taken a shot of the little mark I gouged out on the road’s shoulder to mark the location.

See that fencepost? It’s just about exactly on the 100th Meridian.
Nebraska Highway 12, looking east into the humid eastern lowlands from the 100th Meridian.
My brother John lining up a pinhole camera 100th Meridian shot on sparsely traveled Nebraska Highway 12.

Why bother with the 100th Meridian? In the late 19th century, John Wesley Powell, the early explorer of the Grand Canyon and first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed that line of longitude as marking the boundary between the wetter more humid areas of the eastern United States and the more arid regime of the West. Subsequent research found Powell’s observation to be spot on — though his other important ideas about the implications for development of the western United States have been largely ignored. More recently, scientists have been assessing how the dry transition that occurs along the 100th Meridian appears to be moving east due to the influence of climate change. You can read more here: “Whither the 100th Meridian? The Once and Future Physical and Human Geography of America’s Arid–Humid Divide. Part I: The Story So Far.

I’ll also note before posting that we have not one but two 100th Meridian museums on the Plains: one in Cozad, Nebraska, one in Erick, Oklahoma. Next time I’m roaming around out here. …

Road Blog: Heading West

Bell tower. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, near Stanhope, Iowa.

We left my sister’s house on Chicago’s North Side at what I consider to be a humane hour, 10 a.m., headed across the northwestern suburbs to the series of toll roads that would lead us out of the metropolis and toward the Mississippi River. We got off the interstate routes in western Illinois and took U.S. 30, part of the old Lincoln Highway, across Iowa. We made a stop at the country church north of Des Moines where my father’s father’s parents and some distant cousins are buried. Then we raced across western Iowa to Sioux City, where we are tonight.

Our route after leaving the church — St. Paul’s Lutheran — took us through Stanhope, a little town I am sure my great-grandparents, my grandfather and my dad knew. We stopped at the one gas station in town to fill up. I walked in to the small store attached to the station to get a cold drink. There was a tall, gray-haired woman working at the counter.

“Hi, there,” I said.

“Hi,” she answered.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Great,” she said. “How about you?”

“Same. Beautiful day,” I replied.

“Yes it is,” she said. “Just like it was thirty-one years ago.”

“Thirty-one years ago,” I said. “1990. What happened on September 15, 1990?” I half expected to hear that a tornado or some other misfortune had befallen the town.

“I got married,” she said.

“That is a great thing to celebrate,” I said. And deciding to ignore the possibility that that marriage was over for one reason or another, I added, “Are you doing anything? Going out to dinner tonight?”

“No, not tonight,” she said. “Had to work. And so did he. But we’ll do something this weekend.’

And that was our conversation. Then we were back on the road and rolling through towns with names I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen them and double-checked them.

Road Blog: Stopping by Woods

Thorn Creek Woods, just outside Park Forest in Chicago’s southernmost suburbs.

My siblings and I were lucky to grow up in a place, just at the outer edge of Chicago’s southern suburbs, where nature was close by. For a crucial period of our growing-up years, we lived in a house my parents had built on a one-acre lot in the middle of a forest. During the summers, especially, we almost lived out of doors — camping, exploring and even learning a little about the life of the woods.

Until last weekend, I hadn’t taken a long walk in the woods in decades. Most of my visits to the area have involved checking out our old house and marveling at the fact that a good-sized residence on a wooded acre could be on the market for the low six figures (or even less; the place sold for $99,000 about three years back).

But since my brother John and I are here on our long road trip, we had the rare circumstance of all four sibling being in town together. So we got together and drove down to the woods on Saturday afternoon. The immediate purpose: to do something to remember our mom, who had a significant hand in the campaign to stop the nearly one thousand acres of forest from being knocked down for tract housing in the late 1960s.

Strolling an old haunt.

A lot has changed out there. Instead of walking out into the woods from our backyard, we accessed them by way of a trail that starts at a nature center just outside Park Forest. (The center building is an 1860-vintage Lutheran church that was moved about four miles in the mid-1960s to serve a new congregation, then later repurposed for the forest preserve.)

The woods themselves look different. Some areas are densely overgrown, others have little vegetation (but plenty of poison ivy) under the forest canopy. So ravines and gullies that used to be pretty much obscured by undergrowth are much more obvious.

A stand of fir trees that was apparently planted in the 1940s or ’50s has bolted. When we were kids, our neighbors and others used to go out and cut some of the firs for Christmas trees; now many of those trees appear to be seventy or eighty feet tall.

The Will County Forest Preserve District has installed wooden walkways through areas that are typically wet and put up a series of bridges over Thorn Creek. There are signs now marking trails through the trees. And a nice viewing platform on the edge of a seasonal wetland.

None of the improvements felt intrusive, and plenty of what we remember is intact. For instance, much of the gravel road that used to wind its way from just below our house to a Remington Arms plant on the other side of the woods is still there.

Probably the best measure of how satisfying it was to be back in the woods is that we continued walking and talking and exploring until it was nearly dark. Just as we did when we were kids.

The sibs (Ann, John and Chris) and me.

Road Blog: Dad

December 26, 1921: Stephen Brekke, nearly four months old, with his mother, Otilia Sieverson Brekke.

Is there an organizing principle to this trip?

Well, yes, sort of. Our dad was born a century ago — 100 years ago today, as a matter of fact, in a little town in northwestern Minnesota. We’re headed there now in honor of the occasion.

The observance will be a low-key one, perhaps befitting the mostly low-key nature of the honoree. One of my motives was to drag my siblings up to this corner of the country—Alvarado, the town of 300 where my dad and his parents lived until he was four years old, and Warren, the slightly larger town and seat of Marshall County where he was born. I was partly successful — my brother John is with me, and we’re making slow, picture-taking progress east. I’ll wait until another time to get my brother Chris and sister Ann to journey up to the distant upper Midwest.

So: Happy birthday, Pop. We remember.

Road Blog: The Murk, Continued

Sept. 2: Highway 33, near Tetonia, Idaho, looking toward Grand Tetons from the west.
April 2018: Google Streetview image of the same stretch of Highway 33 in image above, near Tetonia, Idaho, looking toward Grand Tetons from the west.
Sept. 2: Jackson Hole from Teton Pass.
Sept. 2: Grand Teton National Park
Sept. 2: Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming,
Sept. 1: U.S. 93, north of Ely, Nevada.
August 31: Along Nevada Highway 376.

Moving East With the Murk

A predictable circumstance of this trip: that we’d see at least patches of wildfire smoke as we travel east. I mean, we’ve all seen the stories this summer, and the fires in California and elsewhere are still putting out major volumes of particulate matter. Even so, the image above, a screenshot of the map at fire.airnow.gov, is sobering. (That little blue dot at left center of the image is where we are now.)

Beryl Markham’s memoir “West With the Night,” an account of her history-making career as an aviator (including the first solo east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic) came to mind.

We’re now traveling east with the murk. Not nearly as hypnotically poetic as the image of flying into the twilight and the unknown. But we’re chasing our own sort of twilight adventure.

Road Blog: Lee Vining to Ely

A pyrocumulus cloud rises above the Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe — 85 miles from this vantage point at Panum Crater and Mono Lake.

I started out last night with a mini-exploration of the names of the towns where we started and ended, Berkeley and Lee Vining.

Lee Vining is known to lovers of the eastern Sierra and habitues of the greater Yosemite region as the town that’s perched just above the shore of Mono Lake and at the foot of the road across Tioga Pass, the highest highway route across the Sierra. According to one local account, the name Lee Vining had its origins in real estate marketing. A landowner in the area was subdividing his property for home lots and didn’t think the existing name of the place, Poverty Flat, would do much for his venture’s prospect. He wanted to call the community Lakeview, but the Post Office informed him the name was already in use. His next choice was Lee Vining, a Gold Rush-era prospector who had operated in the area.

I’m recapitulating all of that just to say there is no neatly tied-up story to explain the name of Ely, Nevada, where I am tonight. “Ely,” pronounced “EE-lee,” not “EE-lie,” could refer to any number of men who had some influence hereabouts in the late 19th century. It’s late, and I’m not up to weighing in on who might have had the strongest claim. The rest of what I can tell you about Ely is that it’s a mining town — copper mining has been its mainstay since the first decade of the 20th century, and one of the landmarks you encounter as you approach town on U.S. 50/The Loneliest Road in America from the west is a series of immense man-made mountains consisting of mine spoils. They suggest the bases of incomprehensibly large, unfinished pyramids, mostly dun-colored but with variations in the shading of the earth packed into the towering, symmetrical slopes. Somehow, those gigantic, well-sculpted features — t that not made an impression on me during past trips through the area. They did today.

***

The daily highlight: John and I ate breakfast at the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining — it’s a well-known destination for trans-Sierra travelers — then spent a couple hours hiking around Panum Crater, near the south shore of Mono Lake. The landscape is austere and exciting, and for John, who is a glass blower by profession and vocation, it was extra-cool to see the all the obsidian, black volcanic glass, strewn in huge masses in the crater’s center.

One startling sighting was a rapidly growing mass of pyrocumulus generated by the Caldor Fire, a good 85 miles away near Lake Tahoe. We didn’t encounter smoke ourselves until we were well on the way to Tonopah. From there, we drove up Highway 376 through the Big Smoky Valley, which was too socked in by wildfire smoke to see more than the dim silhouettes of mountains on either side of us.

Tomorrow, maybe: Golden Spike.

Road Blog: Berkeley to Lee Vining

August 30, 2021: Half Dome from Olmsted Point, on the Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park.

From George Berkeley, 18th century philosopher, slaveholder, and eventual inspiration for Manifest Destiny, to Lee (or Lee Roy) Vining, Gold Rush-era prospector and sawmill operator. And now us, tucked away in a little motel at the foot of the Sierra. What a 300 years it’s been.

With just a little packing to do and a few errands in the offing, we cast off our lines at 11:30 a.m. to take to the open road. But first, a couple more errands. Then we returned home a bit later to grab a couple things we had forgotten. Then we cast off again, and the winds, along with Toyota hybrid technology, carried us clear across the state, up and down Yosemite Valley, over Tioga Pass, to this place named after the sawmill guy.

We haven’t been flooded with out-of-town visitors in the last couple of decades, but when someone from back in the heartland or Atlantic seaboard has shown up on our doorstep, I’ve generally had a couple of things I really want them to see: San Francisco Bay from the vantage point of the ferry, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Berkeley Hills and maybe Mount Diablo, the Oakland Coliseum, the Mission (the neighborhood, not the church) in San Francisco. It’s an idiosyncratic list that makes me think about all the cultural treasures I’m leaving out.

Yosemite is another of those “must-see” destinations, though it can be overrun with other folks who have the same idea and could be seen as a bit of a cliche. But I’ve taken a couple nephews who were making their first trip to California up to the national park for a quick look and a short hike up from Tioga Pass, and I’m convinced it’s the kind of experience that will stay with them. In a good way. It certainly sticks with me.

Which brings us to today. The original plan for the launch of our Berkeley-to-Chicago-by-way-of-sugar-beet-Minnesota road trip was to stop at Lake Tahoe. But the lake has been socked in for most of the last month with hazardous or near-hazardous levels of wildfire smoke. And now a wildfire that has spread relentlessly for more than two weeks appears ready to vault the Sierra crest and run down toward the lake shore.

So, ignoring the feeling that this looks like I’m trying to escape facing a disaster that’s threatening tens of thousands of people, I looked for an alternative route east. Yosemite is it. And for the most part, it felt like a better day than anyone has a right to expect in the midst of our multiple calamities (see yesterday’s post). The weather was hot, but once we climbed into the foothills from the San Joaquin Valley, the haze we saw from wildfire smoke grew less and less. Yosemite Valley was magnificent as always, a show of light slowly transforming monumental granite. The drive up to Tioga Pass was sedate and sunset crossed the peaks around us and dusk ascended.

Then a quick run down Lee Vining Canyon to Lee Vining the town and a motel stay. If I haven’t said it clearly: really a fantastic day.

Tomorrow: Tonopah and the Loneliest Road.

My brother John. Olmsted Point, August 2021.