Quiet Surprises

path in Minneopa State Park

originally appeared on One Minnesota Writer, November 10, 2021

I’m writing this week’s post in a very quiet house. The sky is that Novemberish palette of bone-chilling grays and dirty whites, the hues that indicate winter has turned its gaze to us. This pause before Thanksgiving still holds bare ground, fallen leaves, pumpkins on our front steps. No snow yet. Autumn is fighting to stay a little longer.
I can’t decide if I like this quiet or not, this unoccupied space that has settled in since we said goodbye to Truffles the doxie last week. Not that it matters whether I like it. This is what is here right now. Quiet: the quality that I used to seek out when we had a house full of dogs and kids and there was not much quiet to be had. After such a long time of not-quiet, this doesn’t feel quite right. I keep waiting for something besides me to move, to sigh, to rattle and clamor.

But stillness and quiet have their perks. Like a blank slate. Like clean snow. Like a beginning.

Over the weekend, Mick and I were missing our dog. So on Sunday we left for the day, drove to one of Minnesota’s many state parks via a meandering back road route. We have a very old guide to Minnesota’s parks and we picked out Minneopa State Park, near Mankato, as our day’s destination. The old guidebook said the largest waterfall in southern Minnesota was there and we said, hey, good enough. Let’s go.

Mick wanted to navigate without the help of our Honda’s GPS. He is old-school in his love of maps, so he took the passenger seat and I drove. Mick directed me through the Minnesota River Valley, through Chaska, Henderson, Le Sueur, St. Peter, and assorted tiny specks of towns. We saw lovely wooded hills and flocks of birds and one stunning vulture perched alongside the road. There were clusters of pickup trucks here and there and we remembered it was the deer hunting season opening weekend. After two hours of meandering on unfamiliar roads, we got to the other side of Mankato and found the Minneopa State Park entrance. What our old guidebook didn’t say, because it was printed too long ago, is that Minneopa has a bison herd living on its grasslands. We were delighted. And when we learned that the park road went right through the middle of the herd’s grasslands, we were amazed. Off we went.

park entrance

The park has fencing all the way around the area where the herd roams, with gates on each end that are opened at 9:00 a.m. and closed at 3:30 p.m. every day except Wednesday. Signs are posted admonishing all visitors to please stay in their vehicles. As we drove under the 15 m.p.h. speed-limit, we saw the herd off to our left, munching on grasses and just hanging out. We had our binoculars with us, so we got a really good look at these gorgeous prehistoric-looking animals. Then we followed the road to the other gate and found the road continued up to an old mill, The Seppman Mill, which produced flour in the late 1800s, and a walking path that went alongside the bison enclosure. There were informational signs that talked about the herd and about the site; we learned that each bison needs five-and-a-half acres of grassland to survive. Guess we can’t have one in our backyard.

The most sobering thing I learned – or, rather, was reminded of because I’ve read this before – was how millions of these regal creatures were slaughtered by non-native people who settled here and saw a chance to make money. With no plan for how this business would affect the environment, the bison were nearly wiped out. That this small herd is living in Minneopa State Park and doing well there is a bit of hope that perhaps something has been saved.

Old Seppman Mill

After strolling around the mill area and learning what we could, we got in the car to go back through the herd again. There is no other way into or out of the mill area but to go on the Bison Drive. This time, we met the bison head-on as the whole herd strutted down the middle of the road on their way to a different grazing spot. We pulled over and just sat while the herd came at us then veered off to one side as we stayed in our car. They had no interest in us, but we were awed by them.

bison heading toward us

Eventually, we found our way to the afore-mentioned waterfall, which was a little less grand than we’d hoped. Our drought had reduced the flow, of course, but it was still pretty. I made a note in our old guidebook about the bison as the reason I would come back to this park.

Minneopa Falls

Then it was time to think about getting a bite to eat. We were all set to grab something at a drive-thru and take it to a picnic table somewhere to avoid being inside a restaurant when I got the bright idea to find a nearby winery. This was not a job for Mick’s old-school map, so I pulled out my phone and did a search. The nearest one was Javens Family Winery about eight miles from where we were. Off we went on another back road until we found the place nestled among hills and forest with vineyards off to one side of the house. We were the only people there on such an unseasonably warm November Sunday. As we pulled up, the resident springer spaniel greeted us, followed us into the tasting room, and waited while we ordered flights and picked out some locally-produced cheese, sausage, and crackers. As we took our lunch outside onto the vast patio, the dog followed us, plopped down between us, and stayed. He stuck around even when two more people showed up. We learned his name was Cooper. I think he knew we were missing our own dog. In fact, I’m sure of it.

A dog named Cooper

We sampled four reds and one white wine, bought a bottle of 2015 Marquette, and said goodbye to Cooper. On the ride home, we stuck to the main roads as it was getting late in the day and it would be dark earlier since we had switched back to standard time overnight. But we both felt like it had been a restorative sort of day, spent mostly outside with very few other people around. Quiet, but not too quiet.

I know I’ll get used to our house being this quiet and it probably won’t take as long as I think it will. In the meantime, perhaps planning Sunday road trips is just the thing. Well, planning and then letting ourselves be surprised.