Road trip

Just dropped off a couple of teenage summer campers, and now I’m on my way home, tooling through a rain-swept two-lane highway in the middle of a Northern Minnesota forest. Thirty-five tribes, from White Earth to Leech Lake to Lower Sioux, call this area home. I’ve been behind the wheel for five hours when I pull into the Northern Lights casino outside of Bemidji, which glows like an oasis of sin and civilization amidst the strip malls, churches, and miles of lunar landscape.

The parking lot spills over with dozens of license plates sporting the logo from the nearby Denny Hecker Toyota. Ahead of me, a battered van with a battered “Coleman” bumper sticker lurches forward toward the thrill of the black jack tables and the comfort of the neon.

Like the Culver’s burger joint in Cass Lake, the casino is doing brisk business this Monday night. There may or may not be a recession in Northern Minnesota, but depression is at every turn: I troll through the joint looking for one smile, one sign of life, one piece of evidence that suggests that the entertainment choice for the evening — staring blankly into blinking slot machines and not uttering a single word to the zombie on the chair next to you — has been a good one. Nothing.

I see dead, desperate, people. Working white folks on the reservation whose country has been overtaken by socialists, abortion rights activists, black presidents, and Latina judges, and so they have ended up here, drowning their disappointment with games of risk. An institutional meanness permeates the place, typified by the sight of the huge man wearing a “Don’t Like My Attitude? Get In Line” T-shirt that makes me want to get out of there fast, and so that is what I do.

Back in the car, it is the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. President Obama is on the public radio station talking about reaching for the stars, shooting the moon, and universal health care. On the soft rock station, Tracy Chapman sings about how sometimes a lie is the best way to go. On the Jesus station, an Irish preacher tries to make his listeners feel guilty for being alive. On the classic rock station, ELO’s “More Than A Feeling” moves a grown man in ways a grown man should not be moved. On every other country station, male singers brag about being a hero or a zero, and damned if they don’t all sound like they’ve got broom handles stuck up their perfectly pleated denim butts.

I pull into a gas station to fuel up. Inside, amidst the magazines and fruit, I talk to a young dad who holds his preternaturally alert son in his arms. I make the kid giggle and the dad laugh, and it’s nice to connect, probably because I miss my son already. Plus, it’s been raining hard, and I’ve had white line fever and Bruce Springsteen’s “Wreck On The Highway” on my mind.

God is everywhere here in God’s country. On the radio, in the knick-knack shops, at the rest stops, on the billboards. Especially the billboards. Like the one that says, “God’s Stimulus Package” over a picture of four babies in a cardboard box.

I listen to the Twins-Oakland game for the rest of the way and finally get off at the Lyndale-Hennepin exit, where I’m greeted by the sight of two homeless men squabbling under the freeway bridge near the Basilica. A mile down the road, I come upon a melee in front of Leaning Tower. One young man is beating the hell out of another, a crowd gathers, more fists fly, and another young man runs into the traffic, smashes a bottle, and glares. I deke around the glass and a couple more flying bodies and go on my way, mayhem in my rearview mirror, and wonder what the good people of Cass County would make of the Mill City tonight.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.