As I plotted a course across Pike Creek, eyeing the distance between stones, bubbles from a washboard riffle floated on the surface like constellations. Though it was miniature in scale and not at all consequential, I realized the crossing I was about to make, one that Charles Lindbergh made countless times as a boy, was not entirely unlike the sight he would have seen during his epochal trans­atlantic flight 90 years ago.

The first rock I stepped onto was the coast of Nova Scotia. The second, Newfoundland. From there it was a giant leap to Ireland, the leg that had been so many pilots’ undoing — and proved to be mine, as I crashed into the water. Fortunately for me, the consequence was a pair of soaked boots, not death. And fortunately for Charles, he made it over Ireland, on to France and into history.

I had set up camp beside the creek, in Charles A. Lindbergh State Park — named for the aviator’s congressman father — and followed its sinuous path with a single thought: What is it about this place that would inspire one of its sons to reach for such audacious heights?

Platted in 1848, Little Falls, about 90 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, is one of Minnesota’s oldest towns. In 1902, when the younger Lindbergh was born, it was as large as Rochester and, though it seems impossibly optimistic, there was talk of building an opera house.

The town’s claim to fame, and the state park’s main attraction, is Charles’ boyhood home, which invites visitors to take a peek into his childhood. To get there, I trailed through a forest of slender trunks until the Mississippi River revealed itself behind needled slats of pine.

Built into the precipice of a bluff, the gray-clapboard, white-trim house loomed from the river’s vantage. Square screens marked the porch where Charles insisted upon sleeping regardless of the temperature. Above that was the dormer window he breached to the rooftop, where he sighted his first airplane.

In the home’s shadow, I sat beside the riverbank to meditate. Charles recalled among his earliest memories watching the gentle whorls on the river’s surface from his crib. As a boy, after visits upstream, he would often cast himself into the water and let the current carry him home.

I thought about how the river is like an aerial route, connecting faraway cities. Viewed from the sky at night, you see the same dots of light linking distant destinations. A few drops of water will find passage to farms and cities along the way. Others will continue to the Atlantic and beyond. Those that evaporate might land anew over the pastures of Wisconsin.

Before retiring to my tent, I dined at A.T. The Black & White in downtown Little Falls, where a mural harks back to its old-time roots. I sipped Starry Eyed Brewing’s cleverly named, and tasty, Lindy Hopper IPA, then devoured a crispy Reuben sandwich with a refreshing side of creamed cucumbers.

Boyhood tour

The next morning, I arrived back at the Lindbergh house for a look inside. Tourists are greeted with Charles’ favorite cookie, Swedish party cakes, then pointed to a nook where he stashed toys. On a table rests “Tam o’ the Scoots,” an early “air pulp” novel. In the garage is the family’s Saxon Six automobile, which locals dubbed “Lindy’s first plane.”

The adjacent hangar-inspired museum packs more artifacts and anecdotes, but nothing was more telling about the boy than the bed in the corner of the porch, foreshadowing an enduring bond with nature, or the cement duck pond that Charles molded, flourishing his aptitude for engineering.

As I steered toward my next stop, I pondered Charles’ adolescence. His home was secluded by the river. His town was then a day’s drive from Minneapolis. Perhaps there is something about growing up in relative isolation, where everything seems an ocean away, that would beget dreams of crossing vast distances at unforeseen speeds.

Across the river at Linden Hill, where a pair of tycoons’ century-old homes offer tours and a unique site for weddings, I rambled back in time along the riverside to a perch of sharp granite outcroppings the Ojibwe called “Kakabikans.”

In the evening, I settled into a fireside picnic table with my typewriter. The click-clack of the keys echoed the whip-slap of my hands as I battled mosquitoes. Shrouded in the canopy, an owl signaled its domain. Stars smoldered amid smoky clouds.

I awoke that final morning to an autumnal chill that had eviscerated any inclination to imitate Charles’ sleeping arrangement. With hot coffee in mind, I traced Lindbergh Drive north into town.

At the crossroad that leads to the historic district, I hung a right onward to the river, passing a depot designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of the State Capitol, and Le Bourget Park, named for the airfield where Charles landed his silver monoplane on the outskirts of Paris.

Outside Pete and Joy’s Bakery, the Spirit of St. Louis flies across the window. Inside, where I found caffeine, enticing aromas and expertly cooked eggs, a portrait of Charles watches over patrons.

In the Shoppes of Little Falls, an incubator for artists and entrepreneurs, are leather flight jackets and model planes forged out of recycled materials.

The curious can follow a map of Lindbergh sites through the downtown business entanglements of Charles’ father, or into the cream-brick courthouse where the lawyer-turned-politician litigated.

Loosening connections lead to the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley and the county historical society’s Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Museum.

Jesus to Judas

Little Falls offers an enchanting portal to bygone times, but few sites outside the park hold any deep connection to Charles.

After graduating from high school, Charles left town determined to outrun his father’s shadow. Less than a decade later, he returned on a goodwill tour following his record-breaking flight to a jubilant crowd of over 50,000.

Almost overnight, Charles had become the most famous person in America, if not the world. The Army anointed him a colonel and the adoring public called him “Slim,” “Lucky Lindy” and “The Lone Eagle.” By the time his tour finished, a fourth of the nation had seen him not on screen or in newspapers, but in person.

He appeared destined to live in the annals of America as a favorite son until rumbling from overseas reached our shores. While Europe braced for war, Charles became the most notorious spokesperson for the isolationist group America First. He was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. At the same time, he developed a fascination with eugenics, feathering the tar.

Charles’ life abounded in contradictions. Perhaps therein lies my answer. After all, this was a man raised on a farm in rural Minnesota who became the world’s most traveled. An embodiment of globalization and the planet’s foremost isolationist. A holder of anti-Semitic prejudices who kept Jewish friends. A man whose half-sister once remarked about his withering reputation, “It’s as though he’s gone from Jesus to Judas.”

Before tearing down camp, I hiked to where Charles first landed a plane on home turf. What was once an open field has crowded to a glade hardly fit for even a helicopter. I trudged through towering, tick-dripping goldenrods until I reached the grassy center. There was a light headwind, and flying against the blue were intermittent strokes of white and a lone raven.

 

Jeff Ernst is a freelance writer in Dassel, Minn.