Thursday, August 26, 2010

History on Two Wheels

It started with a wart. On my wife.
Some might define a wart as a pesky addition to one’s life that serves no useful purpose, stubbornly hanging on unless something specific and drastic is done to remove it.
Based on that definition, some might also say that I’m the wart in her life, but she assures me that I’m only mildly annoying and require no immediate action or removal.
In fact, the wart, in this case, was a plantar wart on her heel; mildly painful and flat-out annoying to my active spouse.
She had the thing taken off via some simple doctor’s-office surgery, leaving her with a slow-healing hole in her heel. After some learned suggestions from some friends while I was gratefully sitting out the dancing at a wedding reception, I did a little late research on some alternate methods of plantar wart removal. I was sorry I missed the chance to experiment on her unsuspecting foot, as sources listed a whole homeopathic plethora of do-it-yourself treatments, including the application of papya or pineapple or banana peel or aloe vera or apple cider vinegar or a paste of castor oil and baking soda. But my favorite was the one our friends suggested in the first place--Duct tape, that universal solution for virtually any need. I sometimes can’t help thinking the Genesis creation story is missing an important part, like “And God said, ‘Let there be duct tape and vice grip pliers, so all you guys can rest on Sunday, too.’”
But my real reason for telling you the tale of the wart is not to bring undue attention to my wife’s lovely feet, nor is it even an effort to extol the wonderful, multi-faceted qualities of duct tape.
It is, instead, a preamble to what came next.
It was a lazy Sunday, with no big plans in sight. We wanted to get out and enjoy the sunny day, but, thanks to the “hole in the heel” situation, a hike was out of the question. So was a tippy trip in our kayaks, since she had expressed a disinclination to dip her wounded foot into the muddy water that inevitably sloshes around in the bottom of the boats.
Me: “How about a bike ride on the Hennepin Canal?”
She: “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?”
It’s not that I’m lazy.
Well, maybe I am.
But it’s just that most of our hyperactive “let’s go out and...” ideas come from her lips, while I’m generally more inclined to suggest car trips that end up at an ice cream social or pie eating contest. Thinking this would be a good, active, foot-friendly way to spend the afternoon, she jumped at the idea before I had a chance to change my mind. We strapped the bikes to the rack on the back, then headed for the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park visitors’ center outside of Sheffield.
For those not up on the history of the canal, it’s a fascinating story of when obsolescence meets advanced technology. Put simply, the canal, which was to provide a commercial shortcut between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, was both ahead and behind the times when it was completed in 1907 after a 37-year construction process. During that time, the locks on the two big rivers had been expanded, allowing for larger barges than could be accomodated by the canal’s 33 locks. Moreover, the cost of other methods of transportation, including railroad, had fallen, in part, because of the threat of competition from the new canal.
The Hennepin was the first American canal built of concrete without stone cut facings. Although it had only limited success as a commercial waterway, engineering ideas used in its construction marked real advances, with the canal becoming a training ground for engineers that later worked on the Panama Canal.
We headed east along the little gravel path that was first established as a tow path for pulling barges. While we could occasionally hear distant traffic from the highways and byways that make their way near and across the canal, we were, for all intents, transported to a landscape and slice of countryside that has remained unaltered by man since it was created along a natural depression that roughly follows the course of the ancient Mississippi River.
There were things to see.
We traveled across a now-dry peat bog some 65 to 70 feet deep, that is left over from the retreat of the glaciers over 9000 years ago. We viewed the site of a fish hatchery once used to breed fish for the canal, that is now home to muskrats, frogs and wood ducks. We wondered about concrete slabs that were used as “boat ways,” where barges could be hauled out of the water for repair. We saw gliding Great Blue Herons of prehistoric size. We coasted across a lift bridge, built to give farmers access to their fields, that could be lifted by one person via the use of a large wheel and counterweights to make way for canal traffic. We sighted one of the many lockkeepers houses established for the men who maintained the canal in its short heyday.
We pedaled under bridges and along locks that featured technology that was unique to the Hennepin. We went, in fact, further than we had intended, always wanting to see what was after the next hill or winding stretch. And finally, we turned around and saw it all again from a different perspective.
I spend a lot of time in these pages talking about the things you can see if you stray off the beaten path. It never fails to stir me somehow when I witness the remains of those who have gone those ways before. I never get tired of seeing all there is to see. I never get tired of remembering.
I hope I never do.

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