National Geographic: In Search of Lake Wobegon

Original Publish Date: December 2000

Originally published in National Geographic, with photographs by Richard Olsenius from the book In Search of Lake Wobegon

Twenty-five years ago, for amusement, I invented a small town where the women are strong and the men good-looking and all the children above average and started telling stories about it on the radio, and ever since then people have asked me if it’s a real town, and if it is, then where is it exactly? I used to say it’s fiction. “Oh,” they said. “Sure.” But they were disappointed. People want stories to be true. They don’t care so much about your gifts of invention as the fact that your story reminded them of people they knew when growing up. They want you to say, “The character of Darlene is based about 95 percent on my cousin Charlotte in Dubuque. I only changed the hair from auburn to blonde and made her more chesty.” So I started telling people that the town is in central Minnesota, near Stearns County, up around Holdingford, not far from St. Rosa and Albany and Freeport, northwest of St. Cloud, which is sort of the truth, I guess.

Thirty years ago I lived in Stearns County with my wife and little boy in a rented brick farmhouse south of Freeport, an area full of nose-to-the-grindstone German Catholics devoted to their Holy Mother the Church and proud of their redneck reputation. We moved there for the cheap rent—$80 a month for a house and half-acre vegetable garden, a great boon to a struggling writer. Beyond the windbreak was a couple hundred acres of corn, Cows stood in the pasture and studied us. The Sauk River was nearby to canoe on, and Watab Lake to swim in. It was a land of rolling, well-tended hog and dairy farms punctuated by tidy little towns, each with a ballpark, two or three taverns, and an imposing Catholic church with a cemetery behind it where people named Schrupp, Wendelschafer, Frauendienst, Schoppenhorst, and Stuedernann lay shoulder to shoulder. There were no Smiths to speak of.

When I invented Lake Wobegon, I stuck it in central Minnesota for the simple reason that I knew a little bit about it, and most people, if they know Minnesota at all, know the scenic parts—the North Shore, the Boundary Waters, the Mississippi Valley—and nothing about Stearns County. This gave
me a fairly free hand.

I said that Lake Wobegon (pop. 942) took its name from the Ojibwa word that means “the place where we waited all day for you in the rain,” and if anyone asked why the town appeared on no maps, I explained that when the state map was drawn after the Civil War, teams of surveyors worked their way in from the four outer corners and, arriving at the center, found they had surveyed more of Minnesota than there was room for between Wisconsin and the Dakotas, and so the corners had to be overlapped in the middle, and Lake Wobegon wound up on the bottom flap. (In fact, the geographic center of the state is north of there, in Crow Wing County, but never mind.)

To the German Catholics I added, for dramatic interest, an equal number of Norwegian Lutherans. The Norwegians, ever status conscious, vote Republican, and the Germans vote Democratic because the Norwegians don’t. The Catholics worship at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and the Lutherans at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church (David Ingqvist, pastor), home of the National Lutheran Ushering Champions, the Herdsmen.

“Gateway to Central Minnesota” is the town slogan. And through the gateway over the years came a procession of characters. The three boys who drive to Iowa one February morning when they hear of Buddy Holly’s plane crash and discover his blue guitar in the snowy field. The stolid Father Emil who says, in regard to abortion (and much else), “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?” and the town handyman Carl Krebsbach who repairs the repairs of the amateurs, and Bruno the fishing dog, and the irascible Art of Art’s Bait & Night O’Rest Motel, its premises studded with warnings (“Don’t clean fish here. Use your brains. This means you!!!”), and Dorothy of the Chatterbox Cafe and her softball-size caramel rolls (“Coffee 25¢, All Morning 85¢, All Day $1.25, Ask About Our Weekly Rates”), and Wally of the Sidetrack Tap, where old men sit and self-medicate. It was Wally’s pontoon boat, the Agnes D., on which 22 Lutheran pastors once crowded for a twilight cruise and weenie roast, and when the grill fell over and the crowd bolted and Agnes D. pitched to starboard, they were plunged into five feet of water and stood quietly, heads uplifted, waiting for help to arrive. It’s a town where the Lutherans all drive Fords bought from Clarence at Bunsen Motors and the Catholics all drive Chevies from Florian at Krebsbach Chevrolet. Florian is the guy who once forgot his wife at a truck stop. Her name is Myrtle. She is a hoot.

The stories I tell on the radio always start with the line, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” and then a glimpse of the weather. It’s a fall day, geese flying south across a high blue sky, the air sweet and smoky, the woods in gorgeous van Gogh colors, or it’s winter, snowflakes falling like little jewels from heaven, trees glittering, the bare limbs of trees penciled in gray against the sky, or it’s spring, the tomato plants sprouting in trays of dirt on the kitchen counter, tulips and crocuses poking out of the ground, yellow goldfinches arriving from Mexico, or it’s summer, the gardens booming along, the corn knee-high, and a mountain range of black thunderclouds piling up in the western sky. And then I go on to talk about Norwegian bachelor farmers sitting on the bench in front of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery or the Chatterbox, where large phlegmatic people sit at the counter talking in their singsong accent. So how you been then? Oh, you know, not so bad, how’s yourself, you keeping busy then? Oh yeah, no rest for the wicked. You been fishing at all? I was meaning to but I got too busy. How about yourself? Nope. The wife’s got me busy around the house, you know. Yeah, I know how that goes—and so forth. And I slip into the story, and take it around the turns and bring it to a point of rest, and say, “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon,” and that’s all there is to it.
Two years ago, after my telling people for years that Lake Wobegon was near Stearns County, the county made a section of Great Northern railbed into a bike trail and named it the Lake Wobegon Trail, thus putting my imaginary town on the map, and last spring I decided I had better spend a few days driving around the area, to see if it was there or not.

Minnesota is a state of decent hardworking rural people, most of whom live in cities and don’t care for them much and prefer the outskirts where you can own two or three or five or ten acres—what real estate agents call a hobby farm, with room for a garden, an immense yard, a dog kennel, a shed, a snowmobile, and a satellite dish, and so Minneapolis and St. Paul sprawl far out into farm country, the outer citizens commuting an hour or more each way so as to enjoy the illusion of rural life. There are trace elements of hobby farms almost all the way to St. Cloud, the Stearns County seat.

The eastern approach to Lake Wobegon is Division Street, St. Cloud, a four-mile strip of free enterprise in full riot, the fast-food discount multiplex warehouse cosmos adrift in its asphalt sea, the no-man’s-land of 24-hour gas stations that sell groceries and photocopies, and the shiny plastic restaurants where, if you ate lunch there for the rest of your life, you would never meet anybody you know or get to know anybody you meet, a tumult of architecture so cheap and gaudy and chaotic you wonder how many motorists in search of a drugstore and a bottle of aspirin wound up piling into a light pole, disoriented by flashing lights and signage and access road signs. And then the cosmos peters out and you emerge from hell and come into paradise, rural Minnesota.

You drive past the rolling fields, the valleys of little rivers, and every farmstead is different, some more formal, with white painted fences and all the buildings at right angles; others seem to have grown without much supervision and are strewn with old vehicles and historical artifacts of an appliance nature. Some are exposed, nearly treeless, and others are barely visible from the road, deep in their woodlots. Some have a limber and attentive dog who will take a run at you if you slow down.

There are major poultry operations in the county, vast prison tamps of chickens, and a big mail-order outfit, and some big granite quarries near Rockville, blasting out millions of cubic feet of rock every year. (West of St. Cloud is a sign, “Buy Direct/ Monuments,” and an outdoor display of dozens of gravestones arranged as if in a cemetery, but the faces are blank.) At the Rockville quarry stand stacks of 24-ton blocks of granite with striated grooves down the sides, including Rockville Beige and Diamond Pink, two local granites, and also Mesabi Black, and Lake Superior Green, and black granite from Africa. There never was a Minnesota Granite Rush back when the rock was first discovered; it’s too much work getting the stuff out of the ground. And I never mention quarrying in the Wobegon saga because I don’t know the first thing about it. I only talk about abandoned quarries where teenagers go to swim and drink beer and neck.

The county appears to be prospering: population up 35 percent since 1970, new prefab industrial buildings cropping up along the main routes, trucks at the loading docks, forests of billboards as you approach Freeport and Avon and Albany. Avon (pop. 1,144) even has what looks to be a suburb on the east side of town, with suburban street names like Angelfish Avenue, Barracuda, Char. The dairy farms are as trim as ever: new silos in evidence, the big hip-roof barns well kept, the cows themselves look professional, courteous, goal oriented. Corn prices are low, but farmers here raise corn only to feed cows, and milk prices are still good enough, barely, to live on.

(One farmer told me that barns start falling apart if the cattle are evacuated; cows keep the temperature and humidity up, and if they are sold off, the barn goes to pieces fairly quickly. A symbiotic relationship.)

Holdingford (pop. 638) is the town that looks most Wobegonic to me. It has a fine little downtown of elderly brick buildings and a big thriving grocery and a classic four-legged, cone-topped water tower (torn down after my visit, I was sorry to hear), a graveyard full of big stones, and down by the river the Holdingford Mill, a jewel-like assembly of galvanized-metal cylinders and boxes and sloped roofs, and a faded old red boxcar on an abandoned siding that would have been headquarters for a gang of boys except it is smack in town, too close to enemy lines.

I dropped into Mary’s Family Restaurant, formerly the Rainbow Cafe, for coffee and oatmeal raisin cookies and eavesdropped on a fellow reminiscing about the great Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. He was 14 at the time, and it made a big impression on him. He and his brothers walked out of a second-story window onto the snow and dug a tunnel to the barn. He talked about logging up north and picking potatoes in North Dakota and earning a buck twenty-five a day. “Today everybody wants to make 20 bucks an hour and not do any work,” he said. There were four of us at the counter, and none of us disagreed with him. I myself would prefer to not do any work for much more than twenty bucks an hour but didn’t wish to discuss it.

New Munich is the town closest to the farm my family and I lived on. You drive past the sign (“Welcome to New Munich, Home of Munichfest,” which shows a dancing couple smiling, holding beers in their free hands), past Spinners Bar and Grill, New Munich Meats, the Munich Hofbrau, and come to the church, a big dramatic brick church trimmed in carved sandstone, with a bell tower, clock-faces on all four sides, and magnificent heavy doors with big black hinges, a veritable cathedral in a town of only 335. Nothing about this modest village prepares you for the grandeur within—the inlaid tile floor and the high columns with figured capitals, the rose windows in the transepts, the lovely statues with the compassionate faces. I thought I had based Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility on this church, but I could see that I didn’t get the baroque feel at all. Such a huge sanctuary, leaping arches, big organ and choir loft in the back, organ pipes, all illuminated by tall stained-glass windows: If I’d put it in Lake Wobegon, nobody would’ve believed it.

It’s a county of many grand churches: St. Benedict’s in Avon, with its red roof and bell tower, and St. Rose of Lima at the end of two rows of tall cedars in St. Rosa, and Seven Dolors in Albany, an orange-brick beauty that glows in the setting sun, and Sacred Heart in Freeport, a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof. But the church in New Munich stands out as a mighty architectural shout, an exuberant brick crescendo meant to astonish farmers and shopkeepers for all time and bring doubters to their knees.

Freeport calls itself the Dairy Center of the World, and in Charlie’s Cafe the cook does not stint on dairy products: The banana cream pies are big enough to be bowling trophies. I had a grilled-cheese sandwich, a bowl of chili, and a slab of pie, and felt my belt and collar tightening. I got up and walked along the main drag. I saw an old man walk out of the post office who reminded me of Florian Krebsbach, a man in a brown porkpie hat and pale blue polyester suit and green plaid shirt with a string tie with an agate on the clasp and wearing white shoes. When I lived here 30 years ago, Freeport was my post office, my supply station, and once I went into the bank and asked a loan officer if I could borrow money, offering my fiction as collateral as a farmer might borrow against his corn crop. The officer said he didn’t think so.

Freeport was a railroad town, and the tracks ran along the south side of Main Street, and now the tracks are gone, and the one-sided Main Street remains, like an architect’s rendering. Down the street is the Pioneer Inn. The Sidetrack Tap in Lake Wobegon was modeled after it, a gloomy smoke-filled sour-smelling tavern, cluttered with neon beer signs and deer heads and mottoes (“Don’t Sleep In Our Bar, We Don’t Drink in Your Bed”), except the Pioneer Inn has been cleaned up and remodeled, the sourness expunged. A few guys at the bar were talking about fishing and the lottery, neither of which was paying off for them lately. One of them said that Big Watab Lake, southeast of there, is 120 feet deep and home to some mighty pugnacious fish, none of which he had caught lately.

The Central Minnesota Arts Board lists two dozen theater companies and music groups in the county, but it doesn’t mention the dozens of taverns and cafés that are the actual centers of culture here. Like Fisher’s, an old screen porch of a supper club in Avon, open only in the summer, where you bring your own whiskey and they supply the glass, the ice, the baked walleye dinner with salad. Places with names like the Corner Bar, Sportsman’s Bar, Tip Top, or the Buckhorn, where gentlemen congregate for the purpose of enjoying a cold one and solving the problems of the world. They plant themselves in a booth, or lean against the bar, and they enact a classic four-character play: There’s the Reader, who has come across an interesting item in the paper (“I read that within five years they’ll have figured out how to throw a bunch of genetically engineered enzymes into a steel tank full of wet silage and turn it into milk”), and there’s the Grouch, who maintains a dark view of human nature (“the big corporations are behind it because they want to clear out the little guys and put in 10,000-acre farms”), the Worrier, always a little nervous about something (“genetic engineering or not, I just can’t see things getting better anytime in the foreseeable future, I’ll tell you that”), and the Big Fella, the guy who holds back until the topic is exhausted and then gives the final word (“people are not going to buy artificial milk. That’s been proven. You can bet on it”). They sit and hold forth on politics (corrupt, on both sides, always has been), global warming (hogwash), golf (a huge waste of time), the Internet (ditto), education (not what it used to be), women (creatures of superstition and pointless ritual), the benefits of physical exercise (when it’s your time to die, you die, whether you walk two miles a day or not), and they take turns buying rounds, and if you happen to believe that mankind is on the verge of a new age of enlightenment and progress, these gentlemen will have a fine time pulling your chain.

Being there, drinking a beer, looking down the bar toward the others standing 15 feet away brought back a sudden clear memory of 1970 and sitting in the very same spot near the door and overhearing men talk and wishing I knew how to join in that conversation. A sudden jolting memory I had put away for 30 years.

Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970. No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. Several times I stopped at neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence and was met in the yard by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went away. In town the shopkeepers and the man at the garage were cordial, of course, but if I said hello to someone on the street, he glanced down at the sidewalk and passed in silence. I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn’t have long hair or a beard, didn’t dress oddly or do wild things, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal.
This fear of outsiders was explained to me years later by a Stearns exile who said that the German population was so traumatized, first by the anti-Teutonic fevers of World War I that forbade the use of their language in schools, then by Prohibition that made outlaws of decent upstanding beer drinkers, that they never could trust auslanders again. A strange face is, to them, a cruel face. My German neighbors were a closed community, and I wasn’t in it and had no part of it. Proximity does not bestow membership.

I accepted this because I come from similar people. Mine were Protestant fundamentalists, who lived by the Word and not by the opinion of others, and were wary of strangers, and didn’t go in for small talk, period. We were taciturn people to start with who could sit in silence for long stretches and not feel uncomfortable. If strangers came to the door, they were dealt with and sent on their way. They were not people of the Word, and their friendship meant nothing to us.

As I sat in the Pioneer Inn and recalled the years I spent in Stearns County, it dawned on me where Lake Wobegon had come from. All those omniscient narrator stories about small-town people came from a guy sitting alone at the end of a bar, drinking a beer, who didn’t know anything about anything going on around him. Stories about prodigals welcomed home, outcasts brought into the circle, rebels forgiven: all from the guy at the end of the bar. In three years only one man ever walked the 15 feet to find out who I was—he walked over and said, “You live out on the Hoppe place, don’t you:’ I said that I did, and he nodded, satisfied that now he had me placed, and turned and moseyed back to the herd. There was nothing more to say. So I invented a town with a bar in which, if a stranger enters, he is, by God, without fail, intriguing to the regulars, and conversation ensues and he turns out to be someone’s long-lost cousin. In order to be accepted, I had to invent a town like the imaginary friend I had in second grade, David, who walked to school with me. The loner nursing his beer at the end of
the bar is starved for company. He and his wife have little to say to each other these days, and in the long shadows of a winter night, in extreme need of society, he drives to town and sits at the bar, where his pride and social ineptitude get in the way. He has no idea how to traverse those 15 feet without feeling like a beggar, so he goes back home to his typewriter and invents characters who look like the guys in the bar but who talk a blue streak, whose inner life he is privy to, and soon he
has replaced the entire town of Freeport with an invented town of which he is the mayor, the fire chief, the priest, the physician, and the Creator himself, and he gets a radio show, and through perseverance and dumb luck and a certain facility the fictional town becomes more famous than the real town, and now when he goes to Freeport, some people come up and say, “You’re Garrison Keillor, aren’t you.” A person could write a story about this.

I respect Stearns County for its egalitarianism. It may look down on strangers, but it looks down on all of them equally, and it doesn’t look down on people because they have less money or do dirty work. And it has a real culture. It doesn’t draw its identity from the media, it draws it up out of the past, like well water. The media world is a small town of its own, and information is the currency—who’s up, who’s down, what’s new, what’s newer—but here the currency is character, as expressed in stories. So I made up stories about its character, morphing some of my old fundamentalist relatives into German Catholics.

I had a train pull up on a sidetrack in 1938 and an aging Babe Ruth step down and wave to the crowd. He was with the Sorbasol barnstorming team that played the local nine that afternoon, and the Babe hit one so far it was never found again. The ballpark is still there. The Whippets play there, and in the spring middle-aged men who have smelled the April air come with a glove and toss a ball around. Here beside the tracks is the foundation of an old grain elevator that, one Saturday night in the summer of 1942, as various couples sat and smoked and drank beer and necked in their cars along the train tracks, went up in a pillar of flame 500 feet high, and people leaped from those cars and tore for cover and the churches were full the following Sunday. Most of those couples married soon afterward, and most of the marriages lasted. Not a true story, but when the thing blew up, it seemed real enough. The cemetery in Freeport is behind the church, but in Lake Wobegon I put it on a hill, which Freeport doesn’t have. It was there that Clarence Bunsen gave his famous Memorial Day address.

The VFW honor guard stood at parade rest in front of the monument to the Grand Army of the Republic. Their feet hurt, their jackets pinched, they needed a drink. The crowd stood waiting on the grass. A boy recited:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
“This is my own, my native land!”
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand?

There was a tremendous long silence, and then Pastor Ingqvist gave a nod and Clarence stepped forward and said, “If there were one time when words truly seemed inadequate, one occasion when silence seemed so appropriate, it would be here and now. It would be more fitting if we were silent for two minutes and looked around us and thought of our people here and their gifts to this country.” He stepped back. Everyone looked around at the markers and the little flags fluttering and listened to the breeze in the leaves. An oriole sang. And then someone blew his nose. The whole honor guard was crying. Old men with rifles to their shoulders dug down in their pockets and got out their big red hankies and blew.
And afterward they pressed around Clarence and shook his hand and said it was perfect, they’d be grateful to him for the rest of their lives. He didn’t tell them that when Pastor Ingqvist nodded to him, he suddenly remembered that he was supposed to speak, and a wave of guilt washed over him that he had forgotten Memorial Day, the day of remembrance, and he wanted to cry out, “I am not worthy!” And then he felt steady again. “It’s not about you,” he thought. “You’re not the reason they’re here.” And he stepped forward and said his piece.

I feel the same way about Stearns County and Lake Wobegon. It isn’t up to me. I can’t re-create it. I find that if I leave out enough details in my stories, the listener will fill in the blanks with her own hometown, and if a Freeport girl exiled in Manhattan hears the story about Memorial Day, she’ll put it right smack there in that cemetery with those names on the stones, and she may think of her uncle Alcuin who went to France and didn’t return, and get out her hanky and blow. I’m not the reason she’s moved, he is. All I do is say the words: cornfield and Mother and algebra and Chevy pickup and cold beer and Sunday morning and rhubarb and loneliness, and other people put pictures to them.

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Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

I read the newspapers, and there was our man in London hobnobbing with the queen at Windsor Castle and exulting in it — “We had a great feeling. I liked her a lot. She is an incredible woman, she is so sharp, she is so beautiful, inside and out.” — which echoed what he’d said about U.K. manufacturing: “They have product that we like. I mean they have a lot of great product. They make phenomenal things, you know, and you have different names — you can say ‘England,’ you can say ‘U.K.,’ you can say ‘United Kingdom’ … the fact is you make great product, you make great things.” And they have a great queen and she and he had a wonderful tea together and the tea was tremendous and so were the scones, inside and out.

That’s how I feel this summer, very happy, though I’m a Democrat and know I should be troubled.

One reason for my cheerfulness is that I’ve stayed indoors except for walking to and from the car. I’ve preferred the indoors since I was a child but was shamed into taking long hikes in the woods because, as devout Christians, we should look upon nature as God’s handiwork, the trees, the birds, the firmament, the whole thing, but now that I’m 75 I just do as I wish. Indoors is where the coffeemaker is and my laptop computer. It’s where one finds a nice clean toilet rather than a public restroom that looks like Paleolithic people have been using it to eviscerate their goats.

A second reason is that I’m in the midst of writing a book. Work is a necessity of life. Retirement can be fatal.

Another reason for my cheery demeanor is that my wife is the critic in the family; she has better taste and discernment, she talks out loud to other drivers on the road (“If you’re going to turn, turn, bozo.”), she casts a critical eye on architecture (“That’s not a church, that’s a warehouse”) and the clothing of passersby (“Look at that man and promise me you’ll never wear a bright orange shirt with a blue tie and white polyester slacks”), and she is absolutely right on the mark. This leaves me free to coast along in easygoing contentment.

This weekend we were in Greenville, S.C., where I enjoyed phenomenal shrimp and grits, great iced tea, incredible company, and a beautiful hotel, beautiful inside and out. We attended a birthday party. There were other people in attendance who may not have been liberal Democrats, just as in any large group you may find people who don’t love grand opera or haven’t read Proust, but in my current live-and-let-live mood, I didn’t bring up the subject. And at the end of the day, my wife and I saw an ice cream stand and walked up and stood in line at the counter. An enormous pickup truck went by, tailpipes roaring, bumper stickers proclaiming the driver’s loyalty to the Confederacy. Fine by me. The war ended a hundred and fifty years ago, but if it’s that important to you, bless your heart. We ordered our ice cream, vanilla and Moroccan mint for her, caramel with hazelnuts for me.

It was only ice cream, but it took my mind off whatever may be happening between Putin and our man in Helsinki, whether Putin has our man’s credit cards and car keys, or just his Twitter password — that ice cream gave me a good feeling. The product was phenomenal, so good I thought maybe the cows were English or British or from the U.K. or all three.

I ate my ice cream slowly. Scripture says, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” which is an extremely high standard of behavior, but I did my best. My wife sat next to me, her thigh against mine. I thank Him for her, for the firmament, and also for caramel ice cream. If it be His will, I intend to have a hot fudge sundae tomorrow.

Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

It makes a person appreciate summer more when you’ve had a miserable winter, so I’ve got that going for me. Dismal dark cold days for which there are no useful pharmaceuticals, depressed Democrats around you, and then a day of freezing rain, which, thanks to the ice in the downspouts, drains through your dining room ceiling while you are at yoga and you come home from two hours of humiliation in the company of slender millennials to find your antique table covered with wet plaster. That is what you need in order to fully appreciate July.

Of course it helps to be married to the right person. Early in the courtship stage, the subject of camping, canoeing, rock climbing, needs to be brought up, right after sexual preference and before religious beliefs, if any. I met my wife in New York at a restaurant. She was not wearing hiking boots, she didn’t smell of insect repellant. We’ve been mostly quite happy ever since. She is a runner but I can deal with that. She runs, she comes back, she doesn’t need me to run with her. I stay home and read great American novels.

There are not many great novels about camping, except for Grapes of Wrath and Red Badge of Courage, and in neither book is camping done for pleasure. The campers were fleeing the Dust Bowl or they were pitching their tents at Chancellorsville, preparing to die. Nothing recreational about it.

Why have practically no great works of art come out of the camping experience? Name one Beethoven symphony, one Van Gogh painting, one Shakespearean sonnet inspired by a week cooking over an open fire and sleeping on stony ground. You can’t name one.

Answer: because camping is about boredom. The campers I know are your usual left-wing environmentalists who are in a daily fury reading the newspaper and seeing those names in the headlines, Pruitt, Giuliani, McConnell, Pompeo, Pence, Ryan, Stormy Daniels, Cohen, Manafort, and the one that rhymes with “hump,” and they decide that two weeks’ backpacking on the Appalachian Trail will clear their minds and when they return, they are very subdued. Ask them about the hike, they’ll e-mail you photos, many of the rear end of the hiker ahead of them. A week on the trail is a refugee experience and most hikers decide that having a coffeemaker and innerspring mattress is more important than ideology. It’s the truth. Offered the choice between a two-week canoe trip and becoming a Republican, I’d choose door number two. A liberal Republican, but still.

I’m sorry you asked me how I feel about camping. I would’ve written about the trade war with China instead, something of real import in our lives, but instead you get this harangue. I apologize. But I was a camp counselor once, in charge of a dozen teenage boys, taking them on canoe trips, all of them suffering the fear of snakes, severe constipation, hearing tall trees falling in the night, one of which might have your name on it. Those boys would be in their early sixties now and I’ll bet not one of them has occupied a sleeping bag since then.

As I write this, I am sitting in a cabin by a lake. It is surrounded by woods but there is a screened porch, a refrigerator, a flush toilet and toilet paper. On that canoe trip with the boys, we ran out of toilet paper and one boy used leaves instead. There is a particular brand of leaves that does not make good toilet paper. I hope he is all right. Thank you for listening. Have a nice day. Stay home. Be happy.

A series of poems read by Garrison

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for July 23, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 23, 2018

On this date in 1903, the Ford Motor Company sold its first car, the Model A. Ford used all the letters of the alphabet from A to T, but not all of them were manufactured and sold; most were just prototypes.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 22, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 22, 2018

It’s the birthday of painter Edward Hopper, who lived and worked in the same New York City apartment from 1913 until 1967, and who once said, “Maybe I am slightly inhuman. … All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to walk on the moon. It was actually July 20 in the United States, nearly 11 o’clock p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but according to Greenwich Mean Time, it was already almost 3 a.m. on the 21st.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

It’s the birthday of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch. Of the 366 poems in his collection Il Canzoniere, 316 were in sonnet form–and today we call that type of sonnet “Italian” or “Petrarchan.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 19, 2018

On this date in 1848, the first Convention for Women’s Rights opened in Seneca Falls, New York. Reporting on the event, the Oneida Whig wrote: “This bolt is the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 18, 2018

It’s the birthday of writer Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for her memoir Eat Pray Love. She said: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you…Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 17, 2018

On this date in 1867, Harvard Dental School, the first university-based dental school in the United States was founded. Prior to the 19th century, dental treatment options were extremely limited: If you had a toothache, you went to the barber-surgeon — or even the blacksmith — to have the tooth pulled, with no anesthesia.

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TWA 25th Anniversary Shirts

TWA 25th Anniversary Shirts

For 25 years, Garrison Keillor has been highlighting poetry and the written word as well as pertinent literary and historical dates in a 5-minute radio segment and podcast. This brand new T-shirt commemorates that history, with The Writer’s Almanac logo emblazoned across the front chest along and “25th Anniversary” on the sleeve. This lightweight, fitted poly/cotton blend is available in sizes S – XXL.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 16, 2018

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was published on this date in 1951. The book took Salinger 10 years to write, and it was at one time the most banned book and the most frequently taught book in the country.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who founded the literary analysis technique known as deconstruction and who famously proclaimed that “there is nothing outside the text.”

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Writing

Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

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Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

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What I saw in Vienna that the others didn’t

I was in Vienna with my wife and daughter last week and walked around the grand boulevards and plazas surrounded by imperial Habsburg grandeur feeling senselessly happy for reasons not quite clear to me but they didn’t involve alcohol. Nor paintings and statuary purchased with the sweat of working men and women. Nor the fact that to read about the daily insanity of Mr. Bluster I would need to learn German.

The sun was shining though the forecast had been for showers. I was holding hands with two women I love. There was excellent coffee in the vicinity, one had only to take deep breaths. Every other doorway seemed to be a Konditorei with a window full of cakes, tarts, pastries of all sizes and descriptions, a carnival of whipped cream and frosting, nuts and fruit. A person could easily gain fifty pounds in a single day and need to be hauled away in a wheelbarrow.

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A good vacation, now time to head home

I missed out on the week our failing president, Borderline Boy, got depantsed by the news coverage of crying children he’d thrown into federal custody and a day later he ran up the white flag with another of his executive exclamations, meanwhile the Chinese are quietly tying his shoelaces together. Sad! I was in London and Prague, where nobody asks us about him: they can see that he is insane and hope he doesn’t set fire to himself with small children present.

London was an experience. I landed there feeling ill and was hauled off to Chelsea hospital where a doctor sat me down and asked, “Can you wee?” I didn’t hear the extra e so it was like he’d said, “Can she us?” or “Will they him?”

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Man takes wife to Europe by ship

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

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A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Making myself useful for heaven’s sake

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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The Quotable Keillor

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
― Garrison Keillor, We Are Still Married: Stories & Letters

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“If you lived today as if it were your last, you’d buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn’t you?”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“I can see how I could write a bold account of myself as a passionate man who rose from humble beginnings to cut a wide swath in the world, whose crimes along the way might be written off to extravagance and love and art, and could even almost believe some of it myself on certain days after the sun went down if I’d had a snort or two and was in Los Angeles and it was February and I was twenty-four, but I find a truer account in the Herald-Star, where it says: “Mr. Gary Keillor visited at the home of Al and Florence Crandall on Monday and after lunch returned to St. Paul, where he is currently employed in the radio show business… Lunch was fried chicken with gravy and creamed peas”.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“The rich can afford to be progressive. Poor people have reason to be afraid of the future.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

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A friendly column, nothing about him whatsoever

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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