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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Unexpected Places

Most people talk about wanting to visit famous places like London or Paris. I have always been fascinated with places that are quirks of history or geography. This fascination began in college when I took a course in US Diplomatic History. It was in this course that I first learned of Minnesota's NW angle--a piece of Minnesota that is detached from the rest of the US, separated from the mainland US by the Lake of the Woods. In other words, you have to go through Canada from the NW angle to get to the rest of the US. This is a quirk of history, when the border between the US and Canada was established without any detailed knowledge of this region. I once heard an NPR interview with people who lived in "the angle." I remain curious--how is life organized here? How does the mail arrive? How do healthcare and school systems work? What kind of identity to local people develop when they are more geographically attached to Canada than to the US?

I discovered another such quirky place when I was involved with the Overground Railroad, which helped send Central American refugees to Canada. We sent one of the families to Delta, British Columbia. When I looked on the map, I discovered a piece of a peninsula, jutting south from Vancouver, just far enough for the tip to be below the 49th parallel, the boundary between Canada and the US. From google maps you can see roads and developed on this little tip of the peninsula.

Besides these places that result from a quirky historical twist of fate, I have always been equally fascinated with life and perspectives that come from going to the "end of the road." I never fail to ask my friend who lives in northern Manitoba yet one more time--now how far is it from here to The Pas where we COULD catch the train to Churchill and Hudson Bay?

I did a term of service with the Mennonite Central Committee at the end of the road in the marshes of southern Louisiana. I lived 2 miles from the end of the road, several hours south of New Orleans, but was still 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Miles of wetlands and marsh separated the "end of the road" and the Gulf. With the erosion of the marshland due to oil drilling, the Gulf continues to move closer, changing the perspective of the local population and their sense of place.

My daughters exhibited great patience when my "end of the road" fascination led us to a drive to the south end of the South Island of New Zealand. I just had to see what life looked like at this end of the end--one of the southern-most points on the earth outside of Antarctica!

I also wanted to visit the Chatham Islands when we lived in New Zealand. These islands are on the edge of the international date line and were the first place to see in the new millennium. But upon investigation I found that flights went there only two times a week. I didn't think my daughters would have patience to spend more than 1 day on islands with only rocks and sheep. But occasionally I would still get out the map and look at it, speculating on what the world might look like from there. We were so close...and would never be closer...

While I still lament the fact that I didn't make it to the Chatham Islands (and have never made it to Delta BC or the NW angle of MN), several weeks ago I did visit another "end of the road." My mother, one daughter and I went to the Keweenaw Peninsula of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a piece of land which is the northwestern most point of the state and juts out into Lake Superior. It just seemed like if you live in Michigan, you ought to go to the end of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The Keweenaw, which means "portage" is an isolated spot at the end of the road within an already isolated part of the state. Michigan and its dunes are a big tourist area, but once you cross the Mackinac Bridge, the population drops dramatically. And then it is yet several hundred miles further, through Marquette, through Houghton, and then to Copper Harbor, the last stop.
The towns of the Keweenaw were all primarily mining towns, and the mines are now closed. Winter and summer recreation provide the majority of the income today, but the area is very much "at the end of the road."

When my daughter mentioned that she had never seen any of the original forest of Michigan, we decided to take a dirt road to one of the few remaining stands near Copper Harbor. Having missed one of the many turns, we ended up on a road that looked less and less traveled and more and more dangerous to the van. My mother reminded me of another trip she had made with me--across Vancouver Island on a logging road. She said to my daughter: "Your mother is adventurous." She then reminded me of the incredible grove of Douglas Fir trees we encountered along the way. Well, I do like to see what is at the end of the road! We eventually found our way to the right place and to the 500 year old white pine trees.

My curiosity is satisfied for now. But I really, really want to see the Chatham Islands...