Small Town Stories

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165 miles paddled. 1,355 pounds of litter. All removed from the Minnesota River in the past 16 days. This is the way the story unfolds as we come into towns along the Journey.

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Two strangers enter a small town cafe, appearing worn from their travels. Clearly not locals, as no one here knows them or their story.

Both tall and slim, yet fit. Sporting beards, shoulder length hair, and worn clothes. Neither is loud-spoken and both survey the scene as they enter.

Calculating and aware of their surroundings, they make eye contact with all who meet their gaze. Nodding their wide brim hats warmly, they shift decisively toward a corner booth with a window. They quickly overwhelm a nearby outlet with a variety of electronics in need of a charge and order a coffee, black. Certain to ask the name of the server as they order.

Sitting back, they sip their coffee. Directing their gaze out the window they allow calmness to settle around them. After a few moments they begin laying down plans as they pull out maps and journals, then they begin typing furiously on their phones.

The server stops by again and they order a meal. The same meal, no differences, making the order easy on the server and cooks. The server breaks into small talk with these strange outsiders. “Where are you from? What brings you here? How long are you in town?” All likely questions that get the conversation rolling.

These outsiders light up with a glint in their hazel eyes, answering animatedly, excited to connect with another soul in this new place. The server notices the striking photos they are editing and the stories they are writing into their phones, sharing an adventure online.

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Soon the server slips back around to the other patrons, gathering orders, refilling coffees, chatting with the locals. Word gets around that these two strangers are friendly, kind-eyed, and on a Journey. One or two at a time, some of the locals stop over to chat, asking what brings them around, how they got here.

Many patrons noticed they had walked to the diner, no bikes or cars involved. Word is they canoed here along the river. They are paddling the length of the river, quite an adventure indeed. They are cleaning up the litter they find along the river as well, over 1,350 pounds of trash thus far. Only 165 miles into the journey. Wow, nearly 100 pounds of trash per day?! From our river? No way!

That just can’t be right. We love our river. We take pride in our river. We take care of our river, right? Can’t seem to think of the last time anyone went out just to clean it up. When was the last time I went out to the river, fishing or boating, even to sit along the banks, just to listen and learn from our river’s infinite lessons? It’s been here so long, it’s so ancient. Being so constant, so old, so persistent, it seems fine. Except when it used to be normal and accepted for folks to put their trash and old cars on the ice at the end of winter, making bets on when the current would flush it away as the ice melted. Yea, better than that these days. But how much better?

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We walk in, a crowd of local stares greet us. We nod, head to the corner with a view to do our work. Time to write a blogpost. Time to edit photos. Time to update the trip progress and charge our electronics. We order coffee, black, and get acquainted with our server.

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Soon the locals stop over, asking questions, curious about us. We answer openly, excitedly sharing our experiences and story. Sharing the lessons in compassion, hardiness, and fluidity learned from the river.

We ask the locals about the area, the river, and how it affects their lives. Gathering history from the area about the way the river has been used and treated, and about the community and it’s inhabitants.

We hear about past canoe trips in Canada, about old-timers putting cars on the ice and making bets on the date it would fall in, and about how involved the community is with the health of the river now. We hear about folks looking to grow the recreational use along the river to bring up local economy.

We hear about naturalist vs. farmer debates on river use, livelihoods, and water quality. Stories get heated sometimes, about drain tiles entering the river or the feeder tributaries, sometimes about the fear of losing valuable croplands to expanding buffer strips or regulations on drain tiles.

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We aren’t on this journey to pass judgement, we are here to do what we can to make our world a better, more unified place. To connect people with their river, with new ways of looking at contentious issues, and to inspire a connection to the river and a reason to care for its health.

I mean, we need water to live right? Well, we need water to farm too. A question comes up in my mind, can’t we learn to be naturalist farmers? Maybe neither side is totally right, and likely I need to learn a whole lot more about these areas and issues, but couldn’t both sides compromise and meet in the middle?

I’ll leave you with that thought for now, just a little something to ponder as you order your next cup of coffee. Will it be in a mug or a disposable cup that might end up in your river?

-Paul Twedt


If you want to see more from our journey, be sure to sign up for updates from the blog, as well as following our Journey on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube. Also, we can raise the stewardship ethic better together than we can alone, so please consider sharing this blog and journey with your friends, family, neighbors, and local media outlets!

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