Podcasts have been my go-to source of entertainment while driving for a few years now,
which means Aaron Mahnke’s “Lore” has been the soundtrack of my recent commutes. The podcast is a great listen if you’re a fan of odd history, urban legends, ghost stories, and other bits of folklore. Each of Mahnke’s episodes coherently gathers together some subset of legends with a common theme, and the runtime is roughly on par with my 25-minute drive to work. I’m a logical, agnostic sort of person, ultimately. I don’t believe in the actuality of ghosts, spirits, aliens, and cryptids, but I enjoy the romance of their possibility. To hear Mahnke tell of the monsters of the near past, apocryphal though they might be, you almost have to wonder if some recent change drove all the “faeries” and spirits away. I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if we paved our roads over them.
To elaborate, I make a weekly visit to a high school friend, the William Burroughs to the Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady of my youth. For a while, William has been living in Wright, but unfortunate circumstances have caused him to move to Palisade. Having grown up in McGregor, I’ve known of Palisade for years. As I grew up a ways south of town, however, the best I could tell you about the place–guessing from the name–is it’s some sort of fortification. Thus, I’ve needed to learn a new best route to visit William.
Google Maps is a godsend, most of the time. As I will be leaving from work most days I visit William, Google tells me the quickest route will be to head up Hwy. 47 until I reach Dam Lake Street. That’s easy enough; my school bus went down Dam Lake Street nearly everyday for 12 years. From Dam Lake Street, I’ll then need to turn onto Nature Avenue. Still, no trouble there, I assure myself.
Nature Avenue is straightforward enough, a paved route that runs up to Hwy. 210 between 47 and 65. I get comfortable as Mahnke elaborates on the first murder to occur in the state of Georgia. The security of the asphalt quickly fades away though. For most of the way to 210, Nature Avenue is nothing but dirt.
I have driven down 47 and 65 most of my entire life. They are as normal to me as eggs and bacon for breakfast or a pink evening sky. But Nature Avenue, nestled comfortably between those two unremarkable thoroughfares, seems to have intersected some sort of veil, once the pavement ends. The trees grow thick, and the path meanders. On the desolate reaches of old decorative maps, Mahnke observes, they used to scrawl the message, “Here there be monsters.”
If there are monsters along Nature Avenue, I haven’t seen them–yet. There also aren’t many people and just a handful of homes. Some appear occupied; others clearly aren’t, save the brownies and kobolds left behind by their former residents. The road that is Nature Avenue is littered with forks, and it takes a surprising amount of concentration to keep to the right path. I’m not sure Aitkin County lies down those turns, or even a place within the bounds of Minnesota. At one point, the avenue crosses a stretch of reed-filled swampland. I’ve crossed that road years ago in a recurring dream, where water slowly rises and subsumes the road, my vehicle suddenly and unwittingly drug into inky depths.
But not too far from that swamp is 210, a paved haven. Familiar landmarks return. Fleming church passes by, as does the Long Lake Conservation Center. There are cars on the road once more. Sooner than later I’m with William. Another asphalt road runs nearby, keeping us safely rooted in civilization.
I met an odd man once along Hwy. 47. Some may recall the first feature I wrote for the Messenger on the long lost Jewett community near Malmo. While I was stopped to photograph the Jewett road sign, this man pulled up beside me and said he was happy to hear I was interested in Jewett. He told me he was part of the Woodtick clan, and his family had lived in the area a long while. He drove off, and no one I’ve talked to since has been familiar with a “Woodtick clan.” It’s worth noting that the old Jewett road is also made of dirt. Perhaps wherever such roads run, the veil separating out the unknown gets just a little bit thinner.