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Monday, June 04, 2007

To the Heartland

Nan’s B&B in Minnesota
There was not a soul that I told about my upcoming Minnesota trek who did not respond with a look of curiosity and the response, ‘Minnesota?’, as if they misunderstood my pronunciation of 'Orlando' or 'Paris'. When I confirmed that I was really flying to Minnesota, they politely queried, ‘Visiting relatives?’

‘No’, I’d squeal back at them, with a Mr Toad’s Wild Ride sort of look in my eyes. ‘I’m going birding. Greater Prairie Chickens! Sharp-tailed Grouse! Scarlet Tanager!”

Only the birders I know ‘got it’, knew I was in for some terrific Spring birding along the Central Migratory Flyway.

Minnesota as a vacation destination was the idea of my long time birding buddy Don. I had invited myself along on his vacation. Overall we do quite well together as traveling companions, and despite the odd disagreement, we have thus far have managed to not murder each other.

I decided to go with Don because last year he went to Tennessee for a P.E.A.C.E. Corps reunion with some of his buddies and there he got in some opportunistic birding. During that trip he occasionally phoned to tell me about the incredible birds he saw, such as the swamp dwelling Prothonatary Warbler - a bird I would murder your grandmother to see. So, to me it seemed easier to just go along on to Minnesota with Don, rather than stay home and wait for excited phone calls about what great birds he was seeing and I was not. You know, some day I plan to get serious help with my bird-envy issues.

So, on May 3rd, we were off to Minnesota. On arrival we went to pick up our Alamo rental car. We’d decided frugally on a super economy car which the counter person warned us only had luggage capacity of a Yugo’s glove compartment. We hemmed, hawed and moved up to a compact car with a trunk the size of a breadbox.

‘Do you both intend to drive? That will be another $10 a day for the second driver.’

I was willing to lie and say I would not drive and if we had an accident we could switch seats but I didn’t want Don to know how dishonest I am willing to be when asked to shell out $10 a day for NOTHING. So, long story short, our $500 car rental escalated into a $1100 rental. In my book, car rental agencies are right up there with the Pirates of the Caribbean – a great ride but honestly, you wouldn’t really want to break bread with a filthy pirate , would you?

Negotiations over, we rolled our luggage into the garage to pick up our rental. The attendant was a sweet tempered man from Somalia, whose accent escaped both of us.

‘Pe’k ah ne caah you want een these roaws!’ he sang to us cheerily.

‘What?’

‘I say, you taahk any cah. Is free op gray, too-dah ohnly.’

We stared stupidly until eventually the man’s words sank into our heads; for totally unexplained reason we were getting a free car upgrade from a compact to a midsize car. Had we rented the initial super economy would be still have been able to drive away in a freely upgraded midsize car? Who knows. I only know I suddenly felt reallllly picky, like a robin, unsure what branch to nest on, moving twine and straw from one branch to another in search of some unknown branch factor. Aimlessly I scrutinized car after shiny new midsize car but they call came up short. Don trudged along, putting our half ton of luggage into one car, then another, all the while urging me to make up my mind.

‘This is a nice car. What’s wrong with this one? Look, it has air conditioning. It has leather seats that match your eyes. It’s clean.’
I snarled. Hair fell off of Don’s head. Eventually I was coaxed, by a bowl of cool water and a biscuit, into a white Ford Impala. The impala’s trunk was precisely large enough, but only large enough, for our luggage, which gave me the only credibility I ever felt towards intelligent design. I had the first driving shift, so Don was navigator. He’d purchased a spanking new, portable GPS system just for this trip. For those who shun technology, the GPS system is a plastic box the size of a large cell phone, with a mini-tv screen. Guided by satellite, a GPS guides you from point A to point B with fewer wrong turns than if you consulted a clerk at a corner Quickie Mart (only about 30% of whom speak English). Don keyed in our first Minnesota destination; Nan’s Bed and Breakfast.


A highly feminine female voice cooed, ‘Turn right in 500 yards.’

The GPS sounded like Angelina Jolie in heat. I felt irrationably envious. My own voice, to my own ears, resembles that of Tony Soprano - with a sore throat.

Don blushed. "I think I'll call the GPS 'Chachalaca'. It means ‘chatterbox’ in Honduran. You have to turn right, over there. Ok, turn now."

Chachalaca was also the name of a scrawny, wild bush chicken in Texas. Nothing sounded scrawny about this Chachalaca. ‘She’ dinged twice to let me know I had made the correct turn then breathlessly added, ‘make a left hand turn in .6 miles.’

“You’re going to make a left hand turn coming up,” Don explained.

‘Ding Ding,’ Chacha rang out. ‘Continue, bearing left…’

‘Ok, the turn is here, and now you’re going to continue on the left hand side,’ Don explained.

I ripped off Don’s head and handed it to him. There would be no more duplicate instructions for the remainder of the trip. Honestly, if you run across Don, be nice to him. He put up with a lot.
Nan’s Bed and Breakfast was perfectly charming and a great way to start the trip. Our rooms were upstairs in the beautiful home that was built in 1895. My room overlooked a cute little back yard and though Don’s room was smaller, both of our rooms had adorable old fashioned quilts on the queen sized beds. I don’t know if Don though his was adorable or not.

That evening I stood outside the B&B, my head cranked back to watch flights of Chimney Swifts overhead. It's been decades since I've seen Chimney Swifts, when I was a kid and my parents took me to Expo ’67 in Montreal. While I gazed skyward, Don met and greeted one of his Minnesota contacts, Chris; a really neat lady who like Don, had been in the P.E.A.C.E. Corps and also like Don, is highly gregarious. She greeted us with a C.A.R.E. package of some of the best cookies I’ve ever tasted and beautifully illustrated books on Florida waterfowl for each of us. She, like the remainder of the Minnesotans we would meet on the trip was one of the people that give the heartland its heart.

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