Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

I have a confession to make, that may surprise some of you.

I used to listen to country music. And I wasn't just the occasional listener either. When we were in the car and my dad would turn on the radio in a matter of seconds I could name the artist and the song and start singing along in that high-pitched, off-tune way young kids do. I blame this partly on my roots. Growing up in Northwest Iowa, the only stations you had to choose from were light fm (hits from the 80s, 90s and today!) or country. I don't know what it is about the Midwest and country music, but we can't seem to resist the twang and narrative lyrics about life on the farm, dead pets, and lost loves. I sure fell for it.

My early collection of compact discs contained mostly female country crooners with names like Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McIntire, and Pam Tillis. As a family we listened to a lot of Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn (Boot Scootin' Boogie anyone?), Alabama, and Tim McGraw.

Don't worry, I didn't wear a cowboy hat or shirts with tassles. I wasn't that country. But I did know those songs by heart, and to this day can still belt the lyrics (in a slightly less off-tune manner).

The reason I bring up this nugget of nostalgia, is because yesterday for the fourth I took a trip out of the city to the country-stationed lands of northwestern Minnesota with my friend Kirsten and her friend Natalie. The whole experience reminded me of the small towns and rolling fields of my youth. Fourth of July celebrations with the family at some crowded park with neighbors and bbq and the staple: country music

Our reason for leaving the cities and heading out west (to Avon to be exact) wasn't completely random. Garrison Kiellor was broadcasting his show A Prairie Home Companion live from the edge of the Lake Wobegon Trail in Avon's city park. We arrived at what we thought was a decent enough time, 4 P.M. to a city crawling with NPR fans that made the pilgrimage from the cities in their nice sedans and hybrids. Cops on horses (not kidding) directed traffic to the tiny city center park.

We found an open spot to park our car next to the post office and joined the crowds carrying coolers and lawn chairs cutting across front lawns to make it to the stage. Kirsten steered us toward the front which probably wasn't the smartest idea. A woman with a clipboard gruffily told us to "Find a seat that way" and pointed at a tiny stitch of grass carved out between the rows of people. An "aisle", sort of.

People were packed in lawn chair to lawn chair shaded by umbrellas and playing cards to pass the hours they had apparently sat there to listen to Garrison Keillor. Not being an avid PHC listener I was shocked at the size of the crowd. We tripped and stumbled through the crowds and finally found a spot in the back near the vendors. We immediately dug into our late lunch and tried to shield ourselves under the umbrella of the family in front of us.

The show was amusing. Lots of local talent and Garrison Keillor in a red tie, camel suit coat, and blue jeans bouncing around the stage conducting the band and sharing the local news of Wobegon.Around 7 the broadcast ended and the crowds departed in droves down the small streets. We missed out on Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie but heard promise of a place 10 miles up the road called Charlie's Cafe with famous pies. We decided it was a good option, considering how backed up 94 east would be with the masses headed back to Minneapolis. Avon's police department apparently was short of help because it took us at least 20 minutes to go four blocks.

We made it to Charlies an hour before they closed. Charlie's Cafe is in Freeport, Minnesota. The only thing putting Freeport on the map is Charlie's. Upon exiting a large arrow painted on the side of someone's house points you in the direction of famous Charlie's 1 block away. The sign for the cafe itself towered above the rest in bright gold and red lettering, making the place look top heavy. The small cafe seemed crushed under the weight of the sign.

For all this pomp, I was expecting some darn good pie. Unfortunately so was everyone else that had been at Avon. The three of us crammed into a two-boother and our waitress, who looked a little frayed at the ends, informed us that they were "out of pie." Three words I am sure she had been repeating for the last hour to loads of hungry customers. I left her a nice tip at the end.

A stroke of spontaneous good luck did come our way though. I remembered that our other friend, Karina, lived close to this area and called her up to see if she was home-- and she was! Kirsten scribbled down some cryptic directions, full of mostly landmarks instead of street names. (pass through a small town, St. Rosa--population 74, see a red school brick house on your right, take a left by church etc.)

We drove out to her farm, windows down. I felt at home among the gravel roads, rows of corn, brick silos, and that familiar hog smell I know so well from Iowa. We took a "tour" of Karina's farm. Posing for photos with the cows and waiting for the sun to go down so we could see some fireworks.

Karina's aunt and uncle lived on a lake close by so we drove out there to sit on their dock, dip our feet in the water and watch the neighbors put on a series of amateur firework displays. The whistles and claps and the occasional "yeah baby" echoed across the lake as everyone watched the show.

It was a great ending for our impromptu trip. After a series of grand finales and the bugs growing thicker, we drove back on the dark curved roads to the cities, tuning the radio to one of several country stations. I sang along to the words of one of those familiar songs from my childhood: Independence Day by Martina McBride. The words I haven't forgotten.

Let freedom ring, Let the white dove sing, Let the whole world know that today is the day of a reckoning, Let the weak be strong, Let the right be wrong, Roll the stone away, Let the guilty pay, It's Independence Day

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