RENVILLE, MINN. - You had to be tough to settle in this part of the world a couple centuries back, whether you were a fur trader leading an ox cart among its thousands of wetlands and marshes, or a Sioux trapper snaring muskrats and beavers to swap for trinkets and annuities.
Renville County -- a land nearly barren of water today, save for the Minnesota River, and nearly barren, too, of grasslands -- once was as wild as any place in North America. Part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, it was governed first as part of Michigan Territory, then Wisconsin Territory, then Iowa Territory and finally Minnesota Territory.
The other day, I was highballing out of country west of here, headed home, the South Dakota border not too far distant in my rear-view mirror. Snow melted on both sides of Hwy. 212, exposing tilled farmland that a week ago seemed locked forever in winter. The blacktop was dry, traffic nearly nonexistent, the radio played. Nowhere were the bison and elk that once roamed hereabouts, nor the grasshoppers, prairie fires and mosquito clouds that took their measure of men, and ate them up.
I was running behind. But Renville has been a part of my life for a long time, and there were friends there I wanted to see. A quick right, then, off the highway, a few blocks south, a few more east, and there it was: Ren Villa, part nursing home, part assisted living for seniors.
When I was in college in Morris, now many years ago, I met a fellow student who also hunted and fished. Like me, Willy Smith didn't have any money. His waders were patched and his old Remington scoured of its bluing.
But he had a dad, Bill, who owned a Renville hardware store full of outdoor gear, and a mother, Mary Lou, who liked nothing more than to make chili and bake pies. Both indiscriminately distributed their largesse. Food for Willy was food for me. Ditto fishing lures and shotgun shells from the hardware store. They really couldn't help us enough, and were happy to do it.
I walked down a few hallways, and down a few more. Bill and Mary Lou reside in the assisted living portion of Ren Villa, and their kids -- Willy has two brothers and a sister -- have decorated their apartment to look much like the home not many blocks away that they lived in most of their married lives. The same curtains and the same couch. The same photographs of grandparents, parents, kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.
For as long as I've known Willy, his family has owned hunting land not far away in the Minnesota River Valley, a backwater tangle of cedars and oaks. Every opening day of duck season while Willy and I were in college, and nearly every opening day since, we've hunted there.
The early years were pretty good, and we'd finish the day with a few mallards, wood ducks and teal. Bill hunted with us then, and after we cased our guns, Mary Lou would be waiting in a shack on the land, ready to dish up chili. Afterward, she cut into freshly baked pies. Good times, these, and any birds we had in the hand were an afterthought.
I hadn't called, so Bill and Mary Lou didn't know I was coming. They were watching TV. Bill moves more slowly than he once did, and Mary Lou doesn't see so well. But they're the same people.
We told some stories. I could have recounted the one about Willy and I cleaning out Bill's hardware store on our way to fish one spring on Kabetogama, on the Canadian border. We left Renville with rods, reels, even a boat and motor. Mary Lou packed sandwiches for the trip, and through Willy's car window slipped him some cash for gas. "Make sure you share it with Dennis,'' she said.
So, time passes. Now, Willy's kids and my kids make a big deal of the duck opener in the Minnesota River Valley. Grandma and grandpa don't make it to the shack anymore, but they're waiting for us when we gather at day's end in Renville. Some things don't change, and you really don't want them to.
We talked until the shadows outside grew long against the melting snow. I really needed to be on the road. Bill and Mary Lou were doing fine, I left knowing that, and they made me feel better about the drive home.
They always did.
Dennis Anderson email@example.com