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December 1991

A nice place to visit

by Robben Leaf

Henry David Thoreau, a model Explorer, wrote: "I have traveled extensively in Concord." Finding myself with Thoreau-esque tools (good shoes, warm clothes and a cheap apartment–that’s all) and noticing that the last Explorer Rag was heavily dominated by Matt Bergstrom articles (which are wonderful, but he shouldn’t have to do the Rag so to speak all by himself), I have decided to donate my time, energy, and environment to you good readers. I give you Red Wing.

As I leave my Place, my gaze is drawn to my right, where Barn Bluff dominates Downtown. The Bluff grasses have become brown, as if the chill air wasn’t enough evidence of the approach of winter. Soon enough it will be black, burned as it is every year, by people who imagine themselves vandals. In fact, the bluff needs to be burned each fall to maintain its Prairie wildlife. It is said to be the only remaining patch of true Prairie within scores of miles. I have watched it burn several times. It is a mesmerizing sight when it is dark.

The trees blanketing the other bluffs are the reason the Mississippi Valley around Red Wing is considered far and wide to be among the most beautiful of autumn displays. These trees have now started to turn, and for the next few weeks all the glacier-carved limestone bluffs will do their best to imitate the actual, briefer blaze of Barn Bluff. The bright yellow and reds, mixed with the browns of early-turning trees and the greens of later ones, are truly worth the trip to Red Wing, and we will soon be beset by the usual flood of tourists. It feels a little strange, being a Townie.

I walk the six blocks through downtown to the river, and look up at the exposed limestone face of Barn Bluff, about a quarter mile downriver. It looks nothing like a barn now, but apparently it did to the explorers who first came down the river from where the Twin Cities are, to establish a town at the site of a Native American village, and name it after their chief, Red Wing. Part of the bluff has been blasted away, exposing a great deal of bare limestone rock, to accommodate the Eisenhower bridge (dedicated by Ike himself) and Highway 61, the same highway Bob Dylan sang of. That song is about Red Wing; legend has it that Dylan did a stint at the State Correctional Facility for juveniles located at the east edge of town. The records at the facility, however, indicate that he did not.

I turn left, putting my back to Barn Bluff, and wander upstream. I pass the old paddleboat that’s always moored at Levee Park, and head for Bay Point. Bay Point is an oddly-shaped peninsula, sheltering many boats in the bays it creates. On the downriver side float the famous and historical gin-pole boat houses. These are metal shacks floating on barrels, tethered by rings to gin-poles– long, straight poles driven into the bottom of the bay. These boat garages rise and fall with the river, and many boats remain there all winter, suspended from the roofs of their garages above the ice. I sit at the end of a dock between rows of boat houses and watch the ducks which always gather at this calm, quiet place. They beg for a crumb, but I don’t have any.

Eventually it becomes too cold to just sit there, and I get up to return to my Place. I have to wait at the railroad tracks across from the station as a train passes, heading southeast, downstream along the river. It doesn’t stop, but the trains carrying cargo from the Cities seldom do. After its passed, I walk uphill through downtown, back to my Place, to warm myself with a hot cup of tea.


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Robben Leaf