The Great River Road, Part 1: Itasca SP to Grand Rapids, MN

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A. A. Milne, Pooh’s Little Instruction Book

This may be the beginning of a great adventure tale. At least that is our hope. Some bucket list items require a little more energy, boldness, craziness, and gas than others. Channeling our inner Lewis & Clark, we have set out to drive the 2,340-mile Great River Road that goes the entire length of the Mississippi River. We’ll traverse ten states, going at whatever pace feels right at the time. We’ll stop for the occasional roadside attraction, antique store, historic site, or interesting eatery. We’ll hike trails, attend worship services, and have conversations with some amazing people across this great nation of ours. Going against my usual Type-A over-planning mentality, we’re going to try to be somewhat spontaneous. We’ll be open to whatever opportunities and sights God sets before us. Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” While Miss Keller probably never envisioned (sorry) driving the entire Great River Road in an RV, I think she’s on to something. So let the adventure begin…

Click on the following link to watch a short intro video, then read on.


August 22, 2015 – Day 1 – Itasca State Park to Grand Rapids, Minnesota

 Our previous blog covered Itasca State Park in some detail, so I won’t repeat that here. Our Great River Road adventure officially began there at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. We joined other tourists in walking across the stones that mark the official starting line, as Lake Itasca slowly and casually provides the waters for a small stream that will become a mighty river. After soaking in the significance of this place and moment, we attached our Honda Fit to the RV, piled in the RV like Clark and Ellen Griswold, said a prayer, and began our journey.

Bring it!
Bring it!

Our journey lasted 5 seconds. In what became the first of two “RV fails” in the first few miles of our journey, I messed up. Royally. In my rush to get going, I left out one critical step in hooking up the Fit. I kept the car in park, rather than putting it in neutral. So as I slowly accelerated out of my parking spot, something didn’t sound or feel right…and that became all the more apparent when a man ran out in front of me waving his hands and shouting something. I’m not sure what he was yelling, but “loser” and “idiot” would have been fair and accurate descriptions of me.

This sad episode in a Lake Itasca parking lot will go down in my personal pantheon of car fails. It ranks right up there with the time, while driving to Northern Burlington High School during my senior year, I suddenly observed a yellow traffic signal. Rather than accelerate through the light, I slammed on my brakes, causing my ’73 Mercury Montego to come to a screeching stop, while my right front hubcap flew off the car and sailed into a nearby field. As I pulled over and exited the car to retrieve my hubcap, several of my fellow high school drivers yelled at me as they went by. They said something about me being a “loser” and “idiot”. And then there was the time, a few years ago, when the control knob for our RAV-4 air conditioner somehow came loose and collapsed inside the dashboard panel. I did what any logical man would do…I set out to retrieve it using long BBQ tongs. Not only did I not rescue the knob, but I got the tongs stuck in the instrument panel as well. As I traveled to Scott’s Automotive to have Rob Hight fix my problem, I brainstormed possible explanations for BBQ tongs being lodged in the instrument panel. BBQ date night gone wrong? Driving With Tongs (DWT)? In the end, I brought Rob over to look at my instrument panel and simply said, “I’m an idiot and a loser.” He looked at the situation in disbelief, smiled, and silently acknowledged my assessment of the situation.

Aside from some nice skid marks across the parking lot, the Fit survived and a lesson had been learned. We exited the parking lot, crossed the diminutive Mississippi River for the first official time in the RV, and headed north toward Bemidji. Ten minutes down the road we had our second fail and lesson learned. We weren’t paying close enough attention and missed the marker telling us to turn right to stay on the Great River Road. Normally that’s not a big deal…just turn the car around. But on narrow, secluded two-lane country roads, you don’t just turn an RV around…especially with a vehicle in tow. After several miles, we finally came to a small Fire Department on the right with a small parking lot in front of it. I turned in to the parking lot…my second mistake of the day (well, third if you count the missed turn). You see the parking lot wasn’t big enough to execute a full turn around…and RVs with tow vehicles don’t do reverse. So, I had to put the RV in Park and exit, as Lil Jan mumbled something about “it’s okay, honey” or maybe it was “stupid loser”. I then had to completely disconnect the Fit, back it out of the way, reposition the RV, reconnect the Fit, etc. Aside from a 20-minute delay and my crushed ego, we were fine and got back onto the Great River Road!

Our first big stop was Bemidji…the first city on the Mississippi. Bemidji is perhaps best known as the home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, so we stopped by their statues to pay our respects. The city is also know for its fishing…walleye and other varieties on Lake Bemidji…and over 400 fishing lakes within 25 miles of the city.

We walked around the town in search of a Post Office, and stumbled upon The Least of These Social Change Boutique…a boutique and art studio with a bold vision: to change the world. According to the Bemidji Pioneer (local paper)…”the primary focus of this faith-inspired non-profit program is to engage individuals in volunteering their time, talents, gifts, and creativity to make our community and our world a better place. The new art studio will serve as a hub for both youth and adults to use creativity to raise funding and awareness for a broad range of social issues, causes and local and international non-profit organizations.” The owners, Jennifer Anderson and Jennifer Kovach, were in Uganda during our visit, but we had the pleasure to meet and talk to Heidi, a volunteer. Imagine that…the first person we met on the Great River Road is a volunteer…trying to change the world! How cool is that? Heidi explained that the name of the store is based on Matthew 25:40 which reads, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ The owners acquire local hand-crafted items plus fair trade products from around the world in order to raise money for those in need…both locally and internationally. I kept thinking it’s the kind of store that Amber Colon and Bob Dorsey (friends of ours from Florida) need to open some day. Amber and Bob, you and others can read more about this store’s mission on their Facebook page…

Checking out The Least of These Boutique
Checking out The Least of These Boutique

In addition to helping those in need through store sales, Heidi and other volunteers create sleeping mats for area homeless people. Each mat is made out of 1000 plastic shopping bags. They cut the bags into loops, cut off the handles and the bottom seam, and loop the loops together to make a continuous string of Plarn (plastic yarn). Next, they crochet the balls of Plarn into 3 1/2′ X 6′ mats.  Meeting twice a month at a local church fellowship hall, the ladies have made 28 mats so far (using 28,000 plastic bags!). Each mat comes with a luggage tag explaining what it is, who it is from (Bag ladies of Bemidji), and the following Bible verse for a blessing: “When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” – Proverbs 3:24.

Meet Miss Heidi Henson
Meet Miss Heidi…An Unsung Hero Making a Difference

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox may be the most famous Bemidji residents, but we were more excited to meet Heidi and learn about her volunteer work at this incredibly cool store with an amazing mission. Many talk about helping the homeless, and then there are a few special people who actually do something about it.

The Bag Ladies of Bemidji
The Bag Ladies of Bemidji

With a renewed faith in humanity, we left Bemidji and traveled east to Grand Rapids. After taking in a movie (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation…which was quite good), we set up “camp” for the night at the local Walmart parking lot. As I listened to the hum of a generator on a nearby truck before falling asleep, I thought about the homeless out there who would sleep at least a little more comfortably as a result of the Bag Ladies of Bemidji.

Despite a rough start to the morning with a few RV fails, it was a good first day…and our journey is underway!

Big Steve

Changing the World...One Mat at a Time
Changing the World…One Mat at a Time
Mat Instructions
Mat Instructions




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