No matter where I’ve lived, meandering has been a constant of my daily routine. Up until this past spring I wandered the streets of downtown Minneapolis, drifting through the shadows cast by skyscrapers of glass and steel. Now that I live in the countryside just west of the Twin Cities, the concrete sidewalks are replaced by gravel roads. And apart from the occasional silo, the towers are made of cottonwood, oak and maple.
Before this year, I had been a mere passerby in these parts, visiting the cabin on weekends as one does. It’s been nearly a century since a lack of air conditioning (combined with the advent of the automobile) drove my Norwegian ancestors from Minneapolis in search of a lakeside breeze. In all the years that followed, no one in my family stayed for more than a season. Until now. Is it still called a cabin if you live there?
Perhaps a better question is: Why would a single, 30-something hipster leave the millennial mecca of Minneapolis for rural Minnesota? The short answer is that I desired a change, both of scenery and career. And I desired a simpler way of life. So, with Walden in mind, I resolved to spend a year living at the cabin and hacking away on my typewriter.
Soon after the move, on a day when the skies were filled with vernal flights of migrating birds, I spotted a solitary doe foraging in the soybean field that lines the cabin’s driveway. As I continued down the path, inching closer to where the deer stood in the field, she locked eyes with mine. I expected her to bolt, but she didn’t so much as flinch as I passed nearby. I wondered if my skinny jeans betrayed the absence of camouflage in my closet.
In the city, I used to make the acquaintance of shopkeepers and waiters who staffed my favorite neighborhood spots. Our conversations were always perfunctory, though I always knew their names and they knew mine. When I began to see the doe on a regular basis, I realized I had made a new kind of acquaintance. It seemed only fitting to give her a name. So I started to call her Bella, saying “Hi, Bella, good girl, Bella” in a soothing manner whenever our paths crossed.
Barreling down the driveway in my car on a sultry summer day, I startled a doe and two fawns. They darted into the soybean field, but I could see that the fawns hopped between the planted rows with all the glee of children hopping between puddles in a parking lot after the rain.
The doe sprinted ahead of the fawns, her white tail erect. I wasn’t sure it was Bella. So I rolled down my window and called to her as I always do, “Hey, Bella, good girl, Bella.” Her gallop slowed to a trot and then a stop. Her tail softened and wagged sheepishly.
Down the road and around a bend sits a church celebrating its sesquicentennial. I drove past it a thousand times before I ever dared to stop. The gothic steeple and sunken gravestones resting at its side had always steered my imagination toward fantasies worthy of Hitchcock.
As I ambled about the cemetery on an off day for the Lord, I searched for a link to my family’s past. In the old-growth maples that scrape the skies, yellow-shafted flickers (a sort of woodpecker) punctuated their tremolo calls by hammering on rotted branches. Etched into the gravestones were the surnames of sons of Anders, John and Erik, but I couldn’t find any of my forgotten ancestors.
As I knelt to examine the inscriptions on a grave, I started to daydream about their bygone lives. But my thoughts were quickly shattered by the unmistakable boom of a gun. I turned to see a neighbor, shotgun in hand, marching through a cloud of smoke. I contemplated fleeing or cowering behind a gravestone. Before I could move the man halted over his prey in a patch of tall grass. Whatever he had shot, it had died as quickly as my comfort.
During a recent early morning stroll, a flock of bronzed grackles sought refuge in the burnt orange and emerald green towers of the country. They were screeching like a thousand rusty hinges as a red-tailed hawk circled above. The sun peeked over the skyline, glistening as it melted the frost from the field of golden soybeans. Bella’s fawns frolicked in the field, rattling the dried bean pods with their hoofs as their mother stretched her legs.
In the distance, wood ducks and buffleheads were fleeing the lakes amid echoes of gunfire. I thought of Bella, and remembered that November in Minnesota is marked by another season of sorts. I recalled the sign staked in a cornfield down the road that reads “Pray for the City.” And then I offered my own intercession: “Pray for the Deer.”
Jeff Ernst is a writer, daydreamer and perpetual sufferer of wanderlust. Though he will always be a Minneapolitan at heart, Ernst currently lives in Dassel, Minn. Find him on twitter or instagram: @jeffgernst.