AS OLD COUNTRY BROTHERS belted out popular songs from The Eagles, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton and many others, volunteers across the backyard of Christ Lutheran Church created, baked and delivered homemade wood-fired pizzas to an appreciative crowd. Randy and I were among those attending the last of the summer Holy Smoke concert series and pizza nights Wednesday at the church on the hill on Faribault’s east side.
In its sixth year, Holy Smoke is about more than excellent thin crust pizza and music. This is also about a coming together of community on a perfect August evening in southeastern Minnesota. This is also about giving back. Proceeds from the three summer gatherings benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity and HOPE Center.
A message printed on some volunteers’ t-shirts and on a bench dedicated to Pastor Craig and Carol Breimhorst (the pastor died of COVID-19; the first death in our county) references Isaiah 55:12, fitting Scripture for this hilltop church edged by trees and a sweeping lawn descending to Minnesota State Highway 60.
There’s joy in that biblical reference just as there’s joy among those who make Holy Smoke happen. A ticket taker, whom I thanked, tapped her hand to her heart, showing me from whence her joy rises.
I found the same enthusiasm among the crew tending the wood-fired pizza oven. The heat flaming inside to 700-plus degrees made the work station at times uncomfortably hot. But they forged on, baking pizzas.
Inside the fellowship hall, other volunteers layered sliced tomatoes, meat toppings, cheese and more onto rounds of dough.
In the kitchen, three women worked, two doing dishes, the third snipping chives.
Still others rolled pizza cutters across pizzas hot from the oven, pizzas ready for more volunteers to carry to hungry customers. The wait time is short, especially if you order a quarter of a pie.
From my observations, the entire pizza-making and delivery process runs smoothly. Everywhere I saw smiles. Smiles on the faces of volunteers, beginning with the greeter who met us at the door. And smiles among those eating pizza and enjoying the music of Gregg and Jeff Sartor. I felt the joy.
Holy Smoke is an event for all ages, from kids blowing bubbles, rolling down the hillside, running across the lawn and climbing on rocks ringing a tree to older folks relaxing in lawn chairs.
This is a mostly bring-your-own chairs, own napkins (I’d also advise paper plates, wet wipes and a portable side table) event, although limited picnic table space is available.
Mostly, Holy Smoke seems about community. About connecting. About conversations. About supportive businesses. About joy.
In the loveliness of the summer evening, I heard the hills sing. I heard the trees clap. And I tasted some “holy smoke, this is good” smoked brisket pizza.
NOT AGAIN. My reaction zipped in a flashpoint of disbelief over yet another young Minnesota man shot and killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis.
The latest to die is Jordyn Hansen, 21, formerly of Faribault. He recently moved to Otsego in the northwest metro to live with an aunt and uncle. There, according to his aunt who was interviewed by a reporter from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, they hoped Jordyn could recover away from a previous lifestyle that amplified his mental health challenges. He had a history of mental illness and substance abuse and had been in treatment.
Both cases involved families seeking help in a crisis. Both involved police response. Both involved knives and tasers and six gunshots that killed two young men. Each only 21 years old, with families and friends who loved them.
I could cite many similar cases, but I’ll leave it at that as I process how upset I feel about the deaths of Jordyn and of Kobe. I can’t put myself inside the heads of responding police officers. Nor was I there to witness what unfolded during each emergency. But I can, as a mother and community member, express my deep concern for this ongoing loss of life among those experiencing a mental health or other crisis. Why does this keep happening? And how can we “fix” this so no family member has to worry about their loved one being shot and killed when they call for help?
Jason Heisler left (in part) this powerful comment on Jordyn’s gofundme site: …preventable should of never happened to this beautiful boy and his family. A mental crisis is not a crime.
Let me repeat that: A mental crisis is not a crime.
I am grateful to the many professionals, individuals and organizations (like the National Alliance on Mental Illness) that are working hard to improve mental healthcare and the response to those in a mental health crisis. Through education, training, advocacy, understanding, awareness, compassionate response and intervention, change is happening. Yet, the pace of change feels too slow. A key component in all of this is listening and communication. The approach to individuals in a mental health crisis needs to be thoughtful. A shift in attitudes to recognize that mental health is health should be the standard, not the exception.
I encourage you to help cover Jordyn’s funeral expenses by donating via his gofundme page or giving directly to his family. Thank you.
WATER RUSHES IN A SHEET over the dam, a powerful wall of water spilling from the 600-acre Lake Zumbro reservoir into the river below by Mac’s Park Place & Campground in rural Mazeppa.
Until several months ago, I was unaware of this hydroelectric generating plant along the Zumbro River in southeastern Minnesota. But Randy and I discovered the Rochester Public Utilities facility after turning off Wabasha County Road 21 onto a gravel road that led us to Mac’s at the base of the dam.
I stood in awe of this structure with a spillway spanning 440 feet and a height of 55 feet. Constructed beginning in 1917 and operating since 1919 under ownership of the RPU, this hydroelectric generating plant is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s truly an amazing feat of engineering and construction. Renowned engineer Hugh L. Cooper led the project.
Not only are the dam and powerhouse impressive, but so is the natural setting in the backwoods of the river valley. Here trees fill the hillside across the Zumbro from Mac’s. In the greening of spring, when we visited, the scene was wild, scenic, beautiful. I expect autumn would yield a hillside flaming in color.
On a Saturday afternoon in May, anglers angled for fish in the placid river, the roaring dam nearby, dwarfing their size. Access to this seemingly popular fishing spot comes via Mac’s, which charges a fee for non-campers.
There’s power here, in this wall of water. I heard it, saw it, felt it.
But then I experienced the power, too, that comes with this natural setting. The power to quiet the spirit in the placid river, the rock formations, the tree-filled hillside… The Zumbro River can be harnessed, but not tamed. There’s an undeniable wildness in this place that yields peace.
Randy and I discovered Mac’s, at the foot of the Lake Zumbro dam, during a day trip into the Zumbro River Valley. It’s a restaurant, bar and campground. A hidden, at least for those unfamiliar with its location, community gathering spot.
Our stay was brief—long enough to enjoy drinks and cheese curds outside before securing permission to enter a gated area along the river. If you aren’t camping and want to fish here, you need to pay given the privately-owned riverside location. The river draws plenty of anglers from inside and outside the campground.
My impression of Mac’s links this place with the word “fun.” From meat raffles to bean bag tournaments, from live music (by the likes of The Smokin Coyotes, Ledfoot Larry, Fat City All-Stars and more) to karaoke, from burgers to buckets of beer, everything about Mac’s shouts a good time. I expect folks party hard here.
The grounds were abuzz with people, ATVs and golf carts in a packed campground, not a quiet outdoors camping-in-nature type of experience based on my observations. And that’s OK. Different folks like different experiences when escaping routine life.
I delight in discovering places like Mac’s. There’s something about a homegrown backroads business that draws people in. I picked up on a sense of community here that stretches far beyond camping, dining, drinking and fishing. People are connecting, enjoying life here in the Zumbro River Valley between Mazeppa and Oronoco.
Please check back for one final post focusing on the river and the Lake Zumbro dam.
BACKROADS IN ESPECIALLY remote rural regions often yield an eclectic mix of discoveries. Like those spotted along a gravel road off Wabasha County Road 21 in the Zumbro River Valley between Mazeppa and Oronoco in southeastern Minnesota. A homemade roadside sign for Mac’s Park Place drew Randy and me to take a path into the unknown.
What we saw remains somewhat of a mystery, especially Mabe’s Deer Camp. Was this once a public place for hunters and others to gather? Or was this (is this) a private hunting retreat for friends and family?
And who is Mabe?
I expect locals could tell me lots of stories. Or I can spin my own backwoods river stories about Mabe’s, imagination running rampant.
That’s the thing about backroads. You see oddities that leave you wondering. And sometimes it’s OK to wonder, to not have all the answers. To delight in the simply seeing. In-the-moment appreciation for that which unfolds before you, unexpectedly.
TELL ME: What oddities have you discovered along a back country road?
BACK COUNTRY ROADS often lead to interesting discoveries. Places that reveal America at its grassroots basic. Such is the road leading to Mac’s Park Place. And such is Mac’s.
It was the homemade sign posted along Wabasha County Road 21, which winds through the Zumbro River Valley, that caught the attention of Randy during a day trip in southeastern Minnesota. I missed the sign sporting an angler and a fish along with a list of all Mac’s offers:
That roadside signage was enough to make Randy reverse course and aim down a gravel road to Mac’s Park Place along 406th Avenue, rural Mazeppa. The restaurant/bar/campground is located between Mazeppa and Oronoco along the Zumbro River.
This is an area lovely in natural beauty. Winding river. A bit of backwoods wild. The ideal setting for a place like Mac’s, perhaps not widely-known to those without connections to the area.
Check back to see what I saw along the route to Mac’s, and then at Mac’s. I wondered at some point if we should continue on, not quite knowing what we were driving into…
Those two words are a reference to Psalm 46:10 which, several years ago, became a bit of a mantra for me thanks to my friend Steve. Steve is quiet, a man of sparse words. So when he speaks, people tend to listen, really listen. He holds a deep faith. And when he pointed me to a specific verse in a Psalm that would remind me often to “be still” and hear the voice of God, he knew exactly what I needed.
This past week, Shriver’s book has based my morning time of quiet, of prayer and devotional/inspirational reading. I recommend this reflective collection of short themed chapters ending in prayer to anyone, whether a person of faith or not. I fully agree with Shriver’s advice to take time each day for quiet reflection, for thought and for a centering that calms. Be still.
Her inspirational book covers so many topics—empathy, listening, gratitude and much more—that, if we choose to practice them, will make our lives better and this world a much better place, We are, after all, all connected, Shriver writes as she calls for kindness and love to prevail. None of this is new. Yet, to read her words, from her perspective and experiences, reminds me that none of us are truly alone, unless we choose to be alone. Each of us deserves to be valued and appreciated. Heard.
She encourages each of us to pause before we pass along something we’ve read or heard as truth. Like Shriver, I have worked in journalism and understand the necessity of verification, of truthfulness. She calls for a social kindness movement. I’ll take kindness period in a world where kindness feels more and more elusive.
In the end, Shriver holds hope. And I do, too. Hope has been my focus word for many years. Hope, centered in my faith, has carried me through some especially difficult times. We’ve all had them—the struggles that stretch and challenge us. I hope you’ve never felt alone in difficulties. I haven’t.
I need to read books like I’ve Been Thinking…, to remind me of hope. To uplift and encourage and inspire me. To remember always to rest and reflect. To be still.
TELL ME: How do you work at being still? And what does “be still” mean to you?
IF I WAS TO CLIMB the hill behind my house through the tangle of weeds, wildflowers and woods, I would reach Wapacuta Park. But it’s easier to take the street and then the mowed hillside to this Faribault city park.
Years ago, this was the go-to spot for our family—for the kids to zoom down the towering slide and scale the massive rock in the summer and to slide down the sledding hill in the winter. Today it’s a place to occasionally take the grandkids to play on the updated playground.
To the west, along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Waterville, Sakatah Lake State Park also reflects the Dakota influence in its name. The native Dakota called the land thereon Sakatah or “singing hills” in their native language.
We are a state with many location names tracing back to the Dakota—Mankato, Wabasha, Wabasso, Sleepy Eye, Winona, Winnebago… Even the name Minnesota comes from the Dakota Mnisota, meaning “sky-tinted waters” and referencing the Minnesota River.
On a mid-June visit to Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, I thought about the Dakota who lived on this land, including at a village on the point separating Upper Sakatah and Lower Sakatah Lakes. I imagined the Wahpekute gliding across the lakes in canoes, angling for fish in these waters.
Then, as I followed the Wahpekuta Trail, I wondered about hunting and berry picking and perhaps mushroom gathering in the denseness of woods.
And, instead of campers in these trees, I imagined tipis.
I have much to learn about the Wahpekute. But at least I hold basic knowledge of their early presence here, of their importance in the history of this place I call home.
WHEN HE HEARD ME rant for the umpteenth time about “people just don’t get it, they don’t understand,” he advised, “Then you need to educate them.”
He, my husband of 40 years, is right. Venting to Randy about offensive terminology and uninformed/misinformed comments and attitudes about mental illness does nothing other than temporarily ease my frustrations. Speaking out, writing, based on my observations and experiences, can make a difference. So write about my concerns I will, with the disclaimer that I am not a medical professional.
Today—on the heels of recent offensive lyrics by Beyonce’—seems the right time to share what’s bothered me for way too long. The pop singer used the derogatory term, “spaz/spazzin,” in her new release, “Heated.” Although she was referencing spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy causing motor impairments in limbs, and not mental health, the analogy fits. Her word choice proved offensive to people who are disabled. And rightly so. To her credit, Beyonce’ acknowledged her unintentional slur and is changing the lyrics. Just like Lizzo, who used the same wordage not all that long ago.
For the millions who each day bravely face mental health challenges and for those who love them, everyday careless language can hurt. Words like crazy, insane, nuts, it’s all in their head, off their rocker, out of his/her mind…are hurtful. As hurtful as the lyrics sung by Beyonce’ and Lizzo.
Recently, while reading a Good Morning America Book Club selection published in 2021, I came across this phrase: “the usual terrible but addictive schizophrenic medley.” In the context of this fictional story, the character was not talking about anything mental health related, but rather about what she was seeing on Instagram. I stopped reading and considered how insulting those words, especially to someone diagnosed with schizophrenia. I doubt the author intended to offend. But she did.
IF YOU HAD…
Now you might say I’m being overly-sensitive. But consider if you, or someone you loved, was diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, whatever, and uncaring words (which I can’t even think of) were tossed out there. It’s no different for those diagnosed with bi-polar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder…
I’m thankful individuals undergoing cancer treatment and/or who have survived cancer, for example, are not subjected to negative/offending words and behavior, but rather are supported with encouragement, fundraisers, even hot dishes delivered to their homes. That type of care and attitude should be a model for how all of us treat individuals dealing with a mental health crisis and their families. We should respond with equal love, compassion, care and understanding. And tangible support.
CHANGING ATTITUDES, BUT MORE IS NEEDED
I recognize attitudes toward mental health are changing, that, as a whole, we are growing more informed, finally beginning to reduce the stigma of brain disorders. But much work remains. Individuals in a mental health crisis should have immediate access to care. Busy, understaffed emergency rooms are often the first-line treatment option. I don’t know of a single doctor who would send a person experiencing a heart attack home. Individuals in a mental health crisis, the equivalent of a heart attack, deserve the same immediate life-saving care. Yet the wait to see a psychiatrist often exceeds six weeks, at least here in greater Minnesota. That’s unacceptable.
There’s a need for more mental healthcare professionals and in-patient treatment and recovery centers. There’s a need for more funding, more research. Insurance companies should not determine care/medications or refuse to fully cover mental healthcare expenses.
IT STARTS WITH EACH OF US
At a grassroots level—that’s each of us individually—more compassion, support, understanding are needed. A few years ago I walked into a southwestern Minnesota brewery and spotted a man sporting a jacket advertising a neighboring brewery. Imprinted on the back was an image of a straitjacket. I could not believe what I was seeing, especially after also reading the offensive name of the brewery. Later I looked online to read the brewery’s list of “Crazy Good Beer” with words like manic, catatonic, lobotomy, kookaloo… in the craft beer names. Simply writing this makes my blood pressure rise. I wanted to rip that jacket right off that beer drinker, so strong was my anger in that moment. Imagine the uproar, for example, if a brewery used words like chemo or radiation in its beer names or used an IV drip as its logo. Somehow a straitjacket is OK? Not from my perspective.
Imagine, too, if you have gone through cancer treatment and someone said you will be fine now that you’ve completed treatment. In the back of your mind, you recognize that the cancer could return despite the treatment. It’s no different for someone with a serious mental illness. Drugs work for awhile and then they don’t. Medications and therapy help manage symptoms, but there is no cure. Symptoms can return. Relapses, crises, happen.
GRATITUDE & RESOURCES
I appreciate every single person who has made a concerted effort to understand mental health, mental illness specifically. I appreciate organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which works tirelessly to support individuals and their families who face mental health challenges. I appreciate NAMI’s advocacy work and education. I appreciate mental healthcare professionals. And, most of all, I admire those individuals who deal with mental illness—whether depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bi-polar… They are among the strongest people I know and they deserve, yes, deserve, our love, compassion, understanding, support and respect.
HE REBUILT HIS FIRST ENGINE, acquired for $25 from a classmate, nearly 50 years ago while a senior at Healy High School in Pierz. He recalls the deconstructed engine as a bit of a mess. But Randy was up to the challenge and successfully rebuilt the engine for his first car, a 1964 Chevy.
Fast forward to July 29, 2022. This past Friday, Randy clocked out of the job he’s held for the past 38 years and 10 months as an automotive machinist at a southern Minnesota auto parts store. A corporation purchased the business in early May and immediately announced plans to close the profitable and successful machine shop by the end of August. Closure came a month earlier with sale of the machine shop equipment.
Friday evening part of our family gathered at 10,000 Drops Distillery in Faribault to honor Randy for a life-long career with roots in that central Minnesota high school small engines shop class. He was, Randy notes, the only student to use the valve and seat grinder in one entire school year.
Today he’s an expert in his trade with a technical school education in auto mechanics and auto parts management but, more importantly, with a brief mentorship followed by decades of experience as an automotive machinist. Much sought after. And, always, always booked months out with work.
I asked Randy to make a list of all the machine shop work he’s done since entering that field in 1979 after several years working as an auto parts counter person. I handed him a legal-sized envelope, recycled as notepaper. He sat on the end of the couch writing for the longest time in block print that is almost too small for me to read. He filled both sides of that envelope.
Complete valve jobs: includes replacing valve guides, valve seats, valves and springs.
Repair cracked heads and blocks.
Cylinder reboring, honing and resleeving.
Pressure testing heads or magnetic crack inspection.
Removing broken bolts, E-Z outs, taps and drill bits.
Resizing connecting rods and fitting piston pin bushings to within .0001 of an inch.
Cleaning, degreasing cylinder heads, blocks and various engine parts and other parts for industry.
Press work with a 50-ton press: pressing U-joints, wheel bearings, front wheel drive and rear wheel drive axle shafts, ring and pinion bearings, forklift wheels and other items needing to be pressed apart or together.
Rebuild drive shafts with constant velocity U-joints.
Reline brake shoes.
Impressed yet? I am and so are the thousands of customers who came to Randy for their automotive machining needs. Some stopped by on Friday to thank him, to express their dismay at his unexpected job loss. Randy was reliable, incredibly skilled, excelling in his craft. Customers included car and farm implement dealerships, farmers, garages, marinas, golf courses, the Harley dealer, grain elevators, construction companies, local canning and food companies and other industries, classic car and vintage tractor collectors, do-it-yourselfers and city, county and school maintenance departments, and probably some I missed in this list.
It all started back in high school with that rebuilt engine for a 1964 Chevy, today a classic car Randy wishes he still owned. Today he owns a history as a hardworking and dedicated automotive machinist who truly was among the best, and remaining few, in his field here in southern Minnesota.
I asked Randy what skills he needed to be a successful automotive machinist. He thought for a moment and then said, “knowing how an engine might perform when the work is completed.” I will attest to his knowledge. He can listen to an engine and often immediately diagnose a problem. Yes, he’s that good. An aptitude for math and being detail-oriented are also necessities.
I’m proud of my husband, for how he’s served southern Minnesota and beyond (he had a repeat customer from Sioux Falls, SD). He’s been a real asset to the area considering all of the automotive machining he’s done since 1979. His last day on the job came with mixed emotions. It’s not easy losing your job unexpectedly after 39 years. Randy teared up when talking about the customers who popped in on Friday to thank him. And when our son called from Indiana while we were at the distillery, I know that touched him, too.
In the end, he carried his “office” home in a small cardboard box filled with professional plaques, business cards, a job quote…and a sheaf of carbon paper. Randy carries with him, too, the memory of 43 years of working in the automotive field, of interacting with customers, of knowing he has always, always, done his best.