Friday, April 17, 2009

The Small Town of Welch

There is a story by Jack London called The League of Old Men. It is centered around a Native American Man named Imber who describes the coming of white men to North America. He relates the observation that white men seem weak and harmless but he has come to know they will take over the world. There is nothing that can stop them.

Imber is like all of us. The human race has brought about a wave of change that is far beyond our control. We observe technology and muse about it, but we don't appreciate what it is. We think we are in control. But like the indians who took in the starving white man and his short-haired dog we are caught in an irresistable wave of change. In our day to day life it is hard to appreciate, but on some days we are fortunate enough to be given some perspective.

I have a friend who calls me on occassion and asks if I would like to go paddling with him. He is a generation ahead of me, retired now. He knows people around here and he knows about the land. Like me, he is drawn to nature.

We put in into the cannon river in the town of Cannon Falls by a bridge. The day is warming quickly and we shed one layer of clothes before we even get on the water. The green canoe well worn. It's a good canoe, but any sign of newness has been washed and ground away. We slide into the water as if we belong. It's mid April and there are no leaves on the trees yet, but the wind is calm and the sun is warm.

There is just enough water in the river to float us through an occasional rapid. The river is still wild here. The bridge recedes behind us and we are in nature. We go with the river for miles, paddling the canoe with kayak paddles. Geese are staking out territory and woodducks take flight around every bend. An occassional bald eagle rises from the trees along the river bank disturbed by our passing. Our discussion wanders, punctuated by exclamations about the things we see. After a couple of hours we approach our destination, the very small town of Welch.

The tiny town of welch is situated deep in a valley next to the Cannon River. It is surrounded by hardwood forest. Red Tailed Hawks ride the thermals above rock outcrops that rise out of the forest above the town. Under the oaks, maples and cherry are layers of limestone and sandstone. The valleys are cut so deep into the surrounding rock that near the bottom by the town they are as deep as the water table. Water flows from the hillsides. Some houses have artesian wells. This flow feeds the river itself.

I have a friend in Red Wing who comes from a farm in Welch. She made the comment that when her Grand parents came from Sweden they chose the land they would homestead. They evidentally passed over the rich farmland of Goodhue for the less productive land in Welch with it's bluffs and valley's because it reminded them of home. The rugged terrain of the area that many would see as an impediment attracted them.

I don't know for sure why the town of Welch never grew, but it seems that it is so far down in the valley with poor access and no land to build on that it could'nt have grown.

We pull the canoe from the water by my car which we left here earlier. As we walk up the bank I reflexively reach into my coat pocket for my car keys. I suddenly realize I peeled off my coat with the car keys in it and left it in Bruce's car in Cannon Falls. We are stranded. I will have to call someone for a ride. I pull out my cell phone and after several tries at dialing realize there is no cell phone service here.

Welch is a very small town. I don't think it could be any smaller and still be called a town. In fact it makes me wonder what the definition of a town is. There is a post office though and I walk over there thinking they may have a phone I can use. It is a small brick building that doesn't look big enough to be anything. There is a little sign that says "open" in the window but for some reason I doubt anyone will be inside. The door is open and I walk into the "lobby" which is about the size of an elevator. There is a window and a counter and there is a man behind the counter. I tell him our predicament and ask to use the phone. He looks at me and tells me my cell phone will work if I just go a ways down the road towards the ski Village.

Suddenly as I stand before the little window and the man behind the counter I feel like I am outside the city of OZ and the most powerful wizard has told me to go away. I try again. "Don't you have a phone here I can use?" He says, "where are you from?" I say "Red Wing, its a local call." He warms up as if to say "well, why didn't you say so", and asks me what number to dial and stretches the cord to me.

I lean in through the post office window to take the strain off the cord and say "I hope no one comes while I'm blocking up your window like this." He says "Don't worry, that won't happen."

After my call I head back to my car, the boat and Bruce who has been waiting all of this time. As we stand in the sun with the river running by I see a black lab in the distance. I think to myself, "what a life for a dog, no leash, warm sun, no traffic and all of the dead fish you can eat".

The dog ambles up to us, he is wet and wagging his tail. I scratch the wet dog behind the ears. Another dog, a golden retriever, appears and trots up to me to have his ears scratched as well.

The dogs wander down to the river and come back with a stick. Each has an end. They start a half hearted game of tug o war. The retriever gets tired and lays down in the dusty road still holding his end of the stick. The lab keeps pulling and drags the retriever, who is laying on his side, a couple of feet. Then they both drop the stick and the retriever gets up.

Both dogs trot down the road to meet a neighbor who is approaching. He owns the retriever and warns us not to pet it because it's been rolling in dead fish. Bruce knows the neighbor who offers us the keys to his car and we tell him "thanks", we already have a ride coming. After the neighbor leaves and we continue to wait Bruce points out a house of someone he knows. They are elderly and have moved to assisted living in Red Wing. Bruce tells me the man was born in the house and until recently lived there his entire life.

This is a different world, it's not all sunshine and soaring hawks and I don't think I would give up my current life to live in a house along Welch road, but I would be sorely tempted. I want to reach out and touch it and know what it is. There is something here that is disappearing and I am sad to see it go.

No comments: