The Great River Road, Part 3: Little Falls to Bloomington, MN

“When I was a child on our Minnesota farm, I spent hours lying on my back…hidden from passersby, watching white cumulus clouds drift overhead, staring into the sky. It was a different world up there. You had to be flat on your back, screened in by grass stalks, to live in it. Those clouds, how far away were they? Nearer than the neighbor’s house, untouchable as the moon—unless you had an airplane. How wonderful it would be, I’d thought, if I had an airplane—wings with which I could fly up to the clouds and explore their caves and canyons—wings like a hawk circling above me. Then, I would ride on the wind and be part of the sky, and acorns and bits of twigs would stop pressing into my skin.”  — Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St Louis

August 24, 2015 – Day 3 –Little Falls, Minnesota to Bloomington, Minnesota

Childhood matters. The so called formative years are ones that have a profound and lasting impact on a person’s development. Some experts suggest the formative years happen from birth to age 5, when 90% of a child’s brain develops (50% for Bama fans), along with 85% of a child’s social skills, personality, and intellect. Others point to the adolescent years because of the strong influence that time has on the rest of one’s life. Early experiences tend to set the pattern and lay the groundwork for what will follow. Was your family close? How did you spend your time? Did you have exposure to things or ideas that fascinated you or challenged you? Did you grow up in the hustle and bustle of a city or did you catch lightening bugs in jars and watch the stars at night in the country? Was God and faith a real part of your life or was it more of an abstract concept? Often you can trace what’s important to a man, along with his activities and accomplishments, back to early experiences in his youth…his formative years.

Young Lindbergh Rafting Mississippi River
Young Lindbergh Rafts the Mississippi River

Many years ago a young boy grew up on a farm on the Mississippi River near Little Falls. He had chores and responsibilities, but also had plenty of free time to explore and think and dream. With no cell phone, television, or video games to distract him, he had time to explore the Mississippi River on a raft and venture across his family’s sprawling wooded farm. He had time to dream big dreams and let his imagination run wild. His fascination with the motors in his family’s Saxon Six automobile and later his Excelsior motorbike led him to study mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. While there, he became even more fascinated with the wonder and potential of airplanes. His formative years laid the groundwork for a quite interesting and (mostly) impressive life. He became a husband and father, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and an international celebrity. As a scientist and inventor, he joined with a French surgeon to create an early artificial heart, and joined with Henry Ford to develop World War II bombers. As a lobbyist, he fought for preservation of the environment. But his great love, the thing that sparked his imagination the most, was flying. He became a mail pilot, an Army Air Service Reserve pilot, and a barnstormer or daredevil pilot. The man whose childhood had been shaped along the banks of the Mississippi River also liked a good challenge. So in the 1920s, when a hotel owner offered a $25,000 prize to the first pilot to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, our young dreamer and explorer jumped at the chance. The rest is history. On May 20th, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his monoplane named Spirit of St Louis. After 33.5 hours in the air, he landed at Le Bourguet Field near Paris, making aviation history.

Charles Lindbergh House
Charles Lindbergh House

So we went to his childhood farm. We hiked the woods of his family’s property, which is now known as the Charles A. Lindbergh State Park. We walked the banks of the Mississippi River behind his childhood home. We saw the opening in the forest where he landed his first airplane, a World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. We wondered what life must have been like for him as a youngster on that farm, dreaming big dreams and making big plans…during his formative years.

View of Mississippi River from Lindbergh House
View of Mississippi River from Lindbergh House

That got me thinking about my own formative years and how those early experiences shaped my future life. Mainly, I remember that on long trips, mom and dad would let me sleep behind the backseat along the back window in our car. I could stretch out for hours at a time, unencumbered by seatbelts or having to look at my older sisters. Many times I would wake up alone and in a daze, sweat beads running down my face, while me family was inside eating at a restaurant. Sometimes there would be a sweat stain in the shape of my head under the back window, with mild sunburn on one side of my face. I think maybe they rolled down the windows and quietly snuck away to save money and “let Steven rest”.

Landing Strip for Lindbergh's Jenny Airplane
Landing Strip for Lindbergh’s Jenny Airplane

I’m not really sure how these travel memories from my formative years affected me. But I suspect they have manifested in two ways. First, truth be told, I now live full-time in a van down by the river. Second, growing up and even to this day, I’ve enjoyed using the sun and a magnifying glass to set living things (mostly ants) on fire. Just as my parents used the back car window and sun to nearly kill me, I now take out my bitterness on the insect world. With considerable skill, I can often zap an ant or small beetle in seconds with a focused ray of sunshine on his thorax. Ants in motion are more challenging. Proper technique involves synchronizing the magnifying glass speed with the ant’s speed while keeping the sun’s rays in focus at just the right angle. If you can just get the back ankles on the ant to light up, he’ll curl into a writhing ball and it’s game over. I’m not proud of this. But I do it well, much better than young Lindbergh ever dreamed of.

I’ve even mentored others in the art. As a teacher at Foundation Christian Academy, I once co-chaperoned an 11th grade field trip to the Alafia Rendezvous, the largest living history event in the Southeast, featuring demonstrations and portrayals of frontier life before 1840. Two of my students…I don’t want to mention names…so let me just say Leebler and Bunker…purchased a magnifying glass from one of the vendors. As the 20 or so of us strolled the grounds, the two of them positioned themselves between the sun and our principal, Mr. Smith. I thought to myself, “surely not”, but that was my only thought. Mr. Smith was talking to another student as he strolled along, unaware of the drama about to unfold on the back of his bare but moderately hairy thighs. I was aware but did nothing. I’m not proud of that, but as someone who had spent his formative years in the hot sun in the back of his parents’ car, the moment seemed fair and right…even cathartic. With careful precision, one of the boys…might have been Leebler…focused the sun’s rays on the back of Mr. Smith’s thigh, as I watched in delightful horror. Within seconds, Mr. Smith jumped as if stung by a bee, as a small puff of smoke billowed into the January air. He took it in stride (literally), the boys high-fived, and I felt like the torch had been passed (literally) to the next generation. These were, after all, Leebler and Bunkers’ formative years.

Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park

After scratching our hiking and history itches, we piled into our RV and headed south for Bloomington. If a secluded hiking trail in the middle of Charles A. Lindbergh State Park is at one end of some societal scale, the Mall of America is at the other. The largest mall in America, it receives over 40 million visitors annually, the most of any mall in the world.   It has a gross area of 4.87 million feet, enough to fit seven Yankee Stadiums inside. It features more than 520 stores, along with an aquarium, a miniature golf course, and the largest indoor theme park in the United States. We had pretty clear objectives for this behemoth of a shopping mall/entertainment complex. I wanted to walk a couple of miles, drink a cup coffee, and look at large Lego formations. Lil Jan wanted to buy a dress and not get lost. I succeeded on my three objectives. Lil Jan failed on both of hers. I understand getting lost…the place is massive. I hadn’t been so lost since trying to determine the linkage between meatballs and sectionals at the Tampa IKEA. But how does one not find a dress at the largest shopping mall in America? I don’t get that. Sometimes women baffle me. I wanted to help her, but wasn’t sure how to ask the question at the information booth…

Me: “Uh, excuse me, ma’am, but my wife wants to buy a dress but is having some difficulty finding one. Are there other stores in town that would have a better selection?”

Customer Service: “No, sir, I’m afraid not. There are over 520 stores here. This is one of the largest three malls in the western hemisphere. If something is made, it’s probably here.”

Me: “So there is a larger mall with more selections in the eastern hemisphere.”

Customer Service: “Well, yes, I believe the largest mall is the South China Mall in Dongguan.”

Me: “Dongguan it, we should have gone there!”

Customer Service: “Was that supposed to be funny?”

Me: “No, ma’am.”

I eventually found Lil Jan near the giant American Girl store. By that, I mean an American Girl store that’s very large…not a store that caters to plus-sized girls born in America. (Not that there would be anything wrong with that.) She said, “Let’s just go. I didn’t find a dress I liked.” Of course not, honey…not at a dinky little mall like the Mall of America.

Day 3 of our Great River Road adventure was in the books. We overnighted at the Bloomington Wal-Mart…and made plans to take on Minneapolis in the morning.

Big Steve

Lil Jan Doin' Big Things
Lil Jan Doin’ Big Things
Along Hiking Trail, Lindbergh State Park
Along Hiking Trail, Lindbergh State Park

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