My Swedish cousins were very confused by the walk through the woods down to the Mississippi River. “How far are we from Minneapolis?” they kept asking. And we would repeat: we’re in Minneapolis. This is part of Minneapolis. We’re in Minneapolis right now. They gazed at us in frustration, unsure what part of their excellent English was not getting through. “But how far? How far to get to Minneapolis?”
The urban park land that stretches from just upstream of Minnehaha Falls down to the Mississippi is mitigated, human-focused land. It’s not wilderness by any reasonable definition. And yet the small wilds, the contained wilds, have their place—not to substitute for larger conservation efforts, but to preserve specific landforms. And more, to set aside green space not as a thing that city dwellers visit, but as a thing that we live with intimately.
The park navigates the space between human and wild expertly. At the top of the Falls, there are lawns, even small cultivated gardens. There are statues and plaques. Picnic tables and a bandshell and even a little restaurant that’s open in the warm months. And there is the destination on the official tourist checklist: the Falls themselves. The statue just upstream ties them in explicitly with Longfellow’s poem (though it would otherwise have nothing to do with the area—Longfellow’s Gitchee-Gumee—Kitchi Gammi, Lake Superior—is three hours north). All of that is the farthest thing from wild. But if you take the stairs to the bottom of the falls, a trail leads along Minnehaha Creek, to a wide, grassy meadow with no amenities, except that it’s fun to run around in. Follow it a little more, into the trees, and before you know it you’re alone, you and the bunnies and the squirrels, heading down to the Mississippi.
Close to the Falls, the WPA stabilized the streambeds against erosion back in the 1930s. Those walls have been rebuilt and expanded into a pool area slightly downstream. When I was eight, we took my great-grandmother there on a picnic, and she told us about how she would take the streetcar and walk to get down from Nordeast Minneapolis, where she grew up, for Sunday School picnics beside Minnehaha Creek. Our family was so poor then that Great-Grandma couldn’t afford the white dress she needed to participate in her high school graduation. But they could still enjoy the park, even before its WPA improvements. When we brought her back, she was so shaky she needed my dad’s arm, but she could get there. She couldn’t go up to the Boundary Waters into the wild woods. But this, with shaky steps, with help, she could do.
I didn’t know how soon that lesson would apply to my own life.
Further along, the main signs of human habitation are a stretch of boardwalk where the trail tends to get mucky in the spring, and a bridge and bench at the confluence with the Mississippi. And, of course, the trail itself. The other people you meet here are quieter than the people at the top of the Falls. There are conversational hikers, friendly hikers, but the kids’ birthday parties, the raucous laughter, are left back in the entirely human environment of picnic tables. Between that and the half-wild environment of hiking trails, there is space and the sound of water. It is a very short walk.
Sometimes you need the walk to be short.
“But we have seen her in the woods,” One of my Swedish cousins said, when I was diagnosed with a major balance disorder. More than anything else, that spoke to the frustrations I was feeling. They thought of me as sure-footed, swift and eager to show them my favorite natural surroundings. I thought of myself that way.
I spent a lot of the first year inside. I did the things I absolutely had to do, but when even the most level paved ground pitches and yaws under your feet, it’s hard to add unnecessary tasks to your day. One of the hardest things about disability—especially as you make the transition from hoping it will be temporary to realizing it won’t—is figuring out how to keep the parts that are most important from who you were before.
I couldn’t make a trip to real wilderness. I couldn’t reach the sorts of sprawling forests needed to make life possible for countless species including our own. But even on a bad day, like my great-grandmother, I could take someone’s arm and get to the bridge over the falls. I could inhale the smell of iron-rich Minnesota soil in the water, almost like blood in my nose and mouth. On a better day I could make it down the stairs into the woods. I could take deep lungfuls of the quiet green smell. I wasn’t very far away from people. But I could be away from people, in one of the places I have always belonged.
The Falls park let me be the person my cousins had seen in the woods and find the limits of how I could be that person based on how I was feeling that day, not defaulting to the worst-case scenario like I’d have to on a long trip. And that gave me strength to keep going while we were figuring out an imperfect solution that would allow me “real” hiking trips later—on good days, in good months. The Falls park didn’t demand my best days. It was there for me every day.
Once I was back on my feet, I took a friend’s kids to the park around the Falls, and the thirteen-year-old wanted to know what we were doing there. “Is it the tallest waterfall?” she asked dubiously. “The most volume of water?”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, “and it’s ours.”
Certainly there are things that make the Falls unique—geological, historical. I love The Laughing, Leaping Water, a blog about the history of Minnehaha Falls and Minnehaha Park. But what I love about the Falls are the things that make it beautiful, the things that make it ours. If we let our experiences of the natural world be reduced to a tourist checklist, we miss what’s important about them. We miss the details.
You can experience the Falls, the walk down to the Mississippi or the nearby Minneapolis lake parks on a single visit. Coming back over and over, you learn to understand them. How high is the water? Is that typical for the season? What does it mean for the months to come? What does the water smell like? Did it smell like that the last time the leaves and the grass smelled like this? What does the combination tell me? Is there a lot of garlic mustard around the path down to the river, a little, buckthorn instead? How are we doing with removing those invasives? How far does the ice extend this year down the path into the sunny section? When do the Falls freeze? When do they melt?
You can smell the air, look for invasive plants, admire the swirling currents in the water as it passes, on your first visit. You should! They’re great! But they’re even better in context. This place has so much to teach us.
When you stand at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek with the Mississippi River, having walked the length down from the Falls, you’re watching the lifeblood of the center of North America. It’s all part of the same gigantic system.
Maybe the Indigo Girls told you that “the Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down.” Amy and Emily wouldn’t lie to you about something like that. It’s true, and Minnesotans are supposed to make a pilgrimage to that unassuming spot. But a pilgrimage takes time. The headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca are four hours north of Minneapolis. Great for a weekend trip, no good at all for every day. You can’t make a pilgrimage like that for just a minute on your way home from work. When you’re having a bad day, you can’t flee to the smell of freshwater and trees if it takes four hours to get there. When I heard that my beloved aunt’s surgery had not been effective, that she would have to live with a debilitating condition for the rest of her life, I did all the things I needed to do, updating other relatives, running errands, holding her hand while she cried. And on the way home, I went back to the Falls.
My Swedish cousins love to hike, and to walk in parks and gardens near them in Stockholm. But for them, the two never meet. Parks and gardens are planted, cared-for, manicured. Beautiful. But not a bit wild. There’s no gradient of setting from the managed to the natural. There are grand monuments, mighty rivers and beautiful natural forests, but nothing like this semi-wild park in the middle of Minneapolis.
The grand and the mighty are worth experiencing. But bucket list tourism doesn’t give a sense of rhythm and scale, and it can’t work its way into a city dweller’s daily life. The things that make Minnehaha Falls Park less wild make it accessible. People who don’t have a car for a four-hour drive or the money to rent one can get off the lightrail very near the Falls. People who can’t hike to the confluence—like my great-grandmother, like me some days—can still walk or wheel to the top of the Falls and take the water in, take notice, take stock of what’s the same and what’s different. Someone’s bicycle abandoned in the rocks at the head of the Falls, a mitten frozen in the ice dams. Leaves upon leaves upon leaves. And they can come back tomorrow, next week, the end of the season: has the bicycle gotten pulled out? Is the ice thawing around the mitten? Are we done with leaf season? On a day you’ve gotten bad news, if you live in a city, you may want to go hide in the woods. You know it doesn’t actually work like that. Your life is still there. But this mitigated, urban wilderness gives me a piece of those woods to flee to, to breathe in, to make myself part of.
Pristine, no. But beautiful, and ours.
Read Johannes Punkt’s interview with Marissa here.