Monday, April 27, 2009

October 2: Manitoba Natural History Museum

I was still stuck in Winnipeg, and it was clearly time to get going. The weather wasn't going to get any warmer, that was certain. I kept calling the people I met in Spruce Woods, but they best they could get me was a ride down to Fargo. From there, maybe I could catch another truck to Minneapolis or some other point on the Mississippi and continue my trip.

On the other hand, there was something intoxicating about completing the remainder of the trip on my own power. I had made it this far already, so why not? If I started south on the Red I might make it far enough to be able to limp over to some tributary of the Mississippi. In fact, a tributary of the Red runs almost all the way out to the Minnesota River, which meets the Mississippi in the Twin Cities. The valley that connects these rivers actually crosses a continental divide, and during high floods the Mississippi and Red riversheds sometimes actually join across here, producing an unbroken stream of water from Hudson's Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

I decided I would paddle south. But as I walked to the Red River, I passed the Manitoba Natural History Museum and couldn't help but walk in. I had checked out of the hostel and so my backpack was completely full for the journey. I had to buy a locker, stuff it in there, and then finally wander around the exhibits.

The museum was surely built in the 60s or 70s; all the typefaces and design seemed to date from that era, and frankly I appreciated it. How nice to have hexagons, triangles, circles and playfully varied typefaces instead of the stark lettering of modern art museums.

The writing was as good as the design. Certainly better than my review here, I failed to take good notes so I am describing from memory, like a kind of dream. A dream in which placards warned about insanity-inducing biting flies, I could vouch for that, and a no holds barred attack on artificial water levels created by manmade dams.

I walked through a field of dinosaurs, sailed a nineteenth century vessel that had housed a score of men, wandered past giant boats that were pulled up and down the Red River. These boats were four times as wide as mine and probably twice as wide, and made of heavy oak. Crews of a dozen men would have to carry and push them over any obstacles in the waters I had travelled, just to trade a few furs.

By the time I reached the boat club, the sun was making itself comfortable on the horizon. Jim shook his head and said it would take too long to get out of the city that night, and I was sure he was right.

I walked back to the hostel, and told the girl at the counter, "Well, I guess I need yet another night." She smiled, scanned my credit card one last time, and handed me a room key.

Day 103 ended: HI-Winnipeg

October 1: Double Jeopardy

I'll give the answer first.

"I'm cleaning out my boat. There was so much mud in there it was developing its own ecosystem -- I had to throw out a rat and piles of moldy books." And a bunch of other trash too, but it might not have been a good time to go into exactly how much of his dumpster space I was using.

His question? "What *** **** do you think you're ******* doing? That ******* washer is for ******* member use only!" Actually I'm not sure I answered him at all. I never know what to do when someone walks up to me and starts cussing me out unexpectedly. It is so far out of my comprehension that I usually just stare back with a confused expression on their face. Usually they at least soften a bit, but not this time. I turned off the power washer but he continued.

"You shouldn't ******* be using that ******* thing. It's ******* ***. I've already had to put up with your ******' canoe."

"I'm sorry," I finally answered, "Jim said I could --"

Jim came running up from the docks and pulled the thick man away. When he turned back towards me he grinned evilly and cussed all the way back to the clubhouse.

Day 102 ended: HI-Winnipeg

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tinker time

It's time to fix up the boat so John Stiehm and I drove it over today to Leonardo's Basement, a workshop I have been volunteering at off and on. I guess they trust me; they've given me the key to the place so I can go in and work any time I need to.

I've tried to take photos of Leonardo's, but nothing I've shot has turned out real well. Fortunately a month or so ago a professional photographer came in and took some good ones for an article in the Minneapolis Tribune. I am hidden in the background in at least one of the photos.

Also, the average age in these photos is at least five times higher than usual at Leonardo's. Studio Bricolage serves alcohol so only people 21 and older are allowed to play Friday nights.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

September 31: Another day in Winnipeg

I ended up spending a week in Winnipeg, and although it may not be the most exciting place in the world, it seems that most nights I felt too tired to write up the day's events in my journal. Similar things happened while out on the river; when I realize I've gotten behind I usually make a bullet list of significant things over the last few days. But while I was working out my time spent in Winnipeg, I could not for the life of me recall what happened September 31, or even what day of the week that had fallen on! So, I decided when it came up I would just have to go over a typical day in Winnipeg and maybe some things that didn't make it into my other posts.

I believe the hostel had six bunks in the men's dormitory, but they seemed to have a policy against filling them all because there were never more than four guys in there. Although my schedule slipped later and later as I stayed in Winnipeg I was usually the first one up, to stumble around between the snorers and take my shower, get dressed.

Breakfast was often at the HI-Cafe in the hostel, which for real cheap would serve a pile of pancakes, hash browns, and eggs, plenty of fuel to get going in that cold city.

Almost every day I tried to find a pay phone and put in a call to the people I had met in Spruce Woods Provincial Park who thought they might be able to hook me up with a ride to Minneapolis. This never came through.

Out of habit I usually returned to the hostel before sunset, cooked myself a dinner out of a can, and usually ran into interesting people. There was Alex, from Rochester, a high school grad who ran butterfly houses at summer fairs and had won a year's worth of free movies by producing a first place student film. We played chess and watched the presidential debates with Tyler and Calin, a gay couple who subscribed hopefully to the hypothesis that Obama was far more liberal than his words or actions indicated. Monsu, a Pakistani, didn't care too much who won because neither one was likely to stop the unannounced bombing raids in his country's western provinces.

Melanie and I fought over pots and burners for a couple of night's before going out to watch a film at the nearby independent theatre about Hunter S Thompson. Melanie was a German, but she worked on a farm in Ontario which was powered strictly by clean energy: solar in summer, wind in winter.

I was at the hostel long enough to catch the vice presidential debates for a while -- there was an Ausralian couple watching as well, who told me John Howard had banned student unions because students shouldn't be forming organized labor movements.

There were other interesting folks who went through the hostel, but it became more difficult to meet people the longer I was there. My social energy lagged and more and more I was ready to move on.

Day 101 1/2 ended: (HI-WINNIPEG DOWNTOWNER)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

September 30: St Boniface

"Incomprehensible" is the word. Incapable of being comprehended -- or is that comprehood? No matter, the real question was whether the incompressibility -- I mean incomprehensibility -- incomprehension? -- was just me, or it was the exhibit, or if there was any difference. If a tree falls in a forest, and I'm the only one there, does it sound for anyone but me?

Let me backtrack -- back in a circle, back around the ravens and stars and pirate flags -- we are rewinding the film now, and so I walk backwards out of the Plug-In Institute for Contemporary Art. Pause it now. It is paused. I am in mid-stride, one foot hovering above the sidewalk in the direction of the institute. I am still in Winnipeg. The air would be blowing gently except it is also paused. Molecules quiver with paused kinetic energy.

Okay, let's take a breath. This is not going to be easy. Let's wander like ghosts into the institute and observe what happens. There is nothing there yet because the place is devoid of people. It is waiting for a live observer. Push play now and the physical me will enter.

I enter the institute, a storefront in this old mall. The walls of the first room ripple into shape -- and what shapes? Huge outlines of ravens, crows and cats, filled in with black sit menacingly on the wall. They are just pictures, they have no stories, no identities really, as meaningless as my dreams. I walk into the next room, painted black with colored strands tied between the ceiling and the walls and a television set in the front casts repetitive blurry shadows and also moans. It is like those nightmares where you are awake and cannot move a muscle. I compliment it. Fast forward now. you see me zipping through the few pockets of ironic cleverness in this pit of meaninglessness. Some odd witch costumes made of denim, and why all of the pirate flags? These things are worth at best a grimace and then I move on. I mean the cleverness of people trying to show how clever they are, not that of people in love with the creations of time.

We have zipped through, and now we will let the rest play out at walking speed. You can imagine me panting for breath out on the pavement, as though to recover from the incomprehensibility, but that would be too generous. I only sought meaning, so I walked to St Boniface, the French quarter and the cathedral.

There is a nice footbridge between the forks at Winnipeg and St Boniface, the old French quarter. It is suspension, an art piece where the support tower looms above you and braided cables hold up the bridge. There is a bar on the bridge, but I passed it. I was too busy staring at the Red River, flowing north beneath me, and the chill which crept silently into the air.

On the other side I kept to the river trails, until I saw a cemetery to my left. I crossed the road and walked through the cemetery to the cathedral -- an ancient structure which stood over the graves and me. In the center of its face, where a stained glass rose should have been, there was nothing but an open circle. Through the burnt-out cathedral's eye and roof I watched as clouds drifted across the disc until they were absorbed by the stonework.


September 29: Ride and Park

I finally had my bicycle back from the repair shop so it was time to hit the trails of Winnipeg. There are, in places, paved bicycle pathways in the town, but these are mostly restricted to parks where people can drive in and putter about for half an hour. There isn't anything like the developed river pathway system that Calgary has. There are ad hoc dirt trails by the river in certain locations, but it is never clear which have deadends until you try them, and get stuck in boulders, fences, and fallen trees.

Winnipeg's exclusive means for supporting bicycle commuting is labelling certain roads as bicycle routes. This is a common approach which can create some confusion, because even in communities which do this, it remains legal to drive and cycle on all roads. The point I think is simply to suggest that cyclists use certain roads when possible to create a safety in numbers on certain routes. This can create the confusion that bicycles are not allowed elsewhere, but in Winnipeg the road I was taking had signs posted which suggested the opposite confusion was also at play:


I eventually found my way to Assiniboine Park, and was wandering about in the English Garden when I heard "Cool bike!" shouted from around some bend in the bricked path. I had missed this refrain completely in Portage, and in Winnipeg it was certainly rarer than in Brandon, perhaps because there are other cool bikes, or the city is more anonymous.

The voice belonged to Naomi, who with her friend Mary quickly ascertained that I wasn't hip to her music scene but we shoul have lumch together anyway, somewhere in the Leo Mol sculpture garden in half an hour.

Leo Mol was apparently a Winnipegonian (???) sculptor working in Bronze, and for all I know his life's work has never escaped from the confines of this garden. I walked among the bears, the nymphs, and the heroes, waiting for the appointed time. There was Io, riding a bull, her hair in twin ponytails, perhaps to resemble a cow's horns. There was a man proud to be from Winnipeg, the city which had one so much for him he started its first cultural fund.

The building I thought we were to eat lunch in was locked; I spent a quarter hour trying to find it, but when I couldn't, I just shrugged and walekd away.

Away to the zoo. It had been cloudy all day, and by the time I got to the zoo I was quite chilled, even wearing two jackets. I spent all the time I could in the tropical house, the monkey house, and the little Australian exhibits to warm up.

When it comes to zoos I am quite spoiled, having grown up in the St. Louis area. The St. Louis zoo is still the best I've been to. It has all the well-known large land animals, and collects a number of the small, overlooked ones as well in its reptile house and insectarium, where my sister worked for a couple of years. And although there are always a few dilapidated displays, the St. Louis zoo charges no admission, which is incredible, and sets me up for disappointment when I visit other zoos.

I began to notice that the Winnipeg zoo made some strange decisions about its displays. There was an indoor glass case of "North American birds" which featured a robin, a towhee, a killdeer, and any number of birds I had recently seen quite free, at no cost and not bounded in a small cage with others. Then I began to notice some other curious selections; sure, they are interesting animals, but is a raccoon exhibit really necessary? Who hasn't seen white-tailed deer? I began to wonder if there would be a grey squirrel cage as well.

There was not.


September 28: My body is a cage

I believe the gate operates as follows. There are a number of steel bars suspended on tracks in the ceiling. A number of these are designed to lock securely in dimples in the floor; the keyholes are located as roughly waist height. The bars are joined by horizontal chains so that the entire passage is blocked. We can see just a few people on the other side of the gate. They walk about calmly, talking to one another.

One wears navy pants and the medium blue buttoned shirt that identifies him as security. His face and hands are black, and his hands hold keys.

All but that lucky few stand this side of the gate. There are dozens: a dark man in dark clothes clasps his hands behind him and leans forward and bak like a pendulum. A woman with a blond ponytail wears a baggy jacket taps her purse with long fingernails, the clasp of the purse so it clacks once a second, exactly. One teenage girl clasps at the chains, expectantly peering through at the clock high on the wall, on the other side. The clock is nearing one and a couple more of us grab at the bars. I and most present hang back to assure ourselves we are not so desperate, but I suspect we are. I try to read them but if I make judgments based on their appearances, it is because that is all I see. There is more to it than that, of course -- like me, they are trapped outside this cage. I can only guess what brings them here, and most of my guesses are also cages.

What brings anyone to a library? I have heard some criticise literature as escapism, or perhaps only certain genres, and maybe they are even right. If these people are escaping from something, what is it? Maybe it is like this: for one book, the man escapes his darkness, the woman from her femininity, the teenager from her awkward years. There are heroes in an unheroic age, those too poor for eccentricities, people born too early or too late for their calling. So it is like this: the man would have been a feudal lord, the woman a Martian colonist, the girl -- hasn't made up her mind yet. The world is trapped outside the library.

A lonely bell rings and the guard meticulously unlocks the gate. He puts the key in each hole one -- at -- a -- time, until the metal lattice of a gate crackles open and the crowd runs inside. I hold back, walking in, to maintain my composure.