Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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by Tom Snee


I once walked across the Mississippi River.

Before you become too impressed with that, let me say that it is not the Mississippi River of your imagination. It is not the romantic Mississippi that flows past the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, or becomes a small sea in New Orleans large enough to hold ocean-going vessels, or spills over its banks every spring and turns millions of acres of bottomland in the midwest and south into huge, dirty lakes. The image of the Mississippi River for most people is a river with steamboats and sternwheelers and rafts carrying little boys and runaway slaves, a huge, violent river that can change its course if it really wants to and can tear apart a riverboat with a snap of its wet, muddy finger.

But that's not where I walked across the Mississippi River. I walked across it at its source, at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. This is a great point of pride for many of us Minnesotans, that our state squirts out one of the most famous rivers in the world and sends it on its way into American history and American folklore. Many of us have paid homage to it by making a pilgrimage to its birthplace at least once during our childhoods. It is an impressive place, the birthplace of the Mississippi. Itasca is a beautiful lake, like so many of northern Minnesota's lakes, a long, narrow gash scratched out of the soil epochs ago by a glacier, then filled by the glacier's cold, melted remains. The water is even bluer than the sky it reflects on a clear day, and it somehow seems to stay blue even when the sky is cloudy. It's surrounded by immense stands of pine trees that dot its shore, providing a secluded, tucked-in feel.

The Mississippi emerges from a bay on Itasca's north side. It's a dramatic process as Lake Itasca chatters over a chain of rocks, each rock about the size of a melon, then swirls around for a moment before crawling northward through a twisting channel as the infant Mississippi River. Next to the chain of rocks sits what looks like a vertical log with an engraved message explaining to visitors that at this point, the river begins its 2,000-some mile voyage to the Gulf of Mexico.

Standing there in the river, you can't help but be in awe of that fact, that you are now directly linked to the Gulf of Mexico, 2,000-some miles away. You think of all the water molecules drifting past your ankles at that second and how, at some point in the future, those molecules will drift past Minneapolis and St. Louis and Memphis, carrying paddle-wheelers and barges and oceangoing ships - if it's not first siphoned off by a municipal water system, a crop irrigation system, or just plain evaporates - until it finally roars through New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico. And here it all starts, right in front of you, right at that very spot on those rocks, at that very inch, at that very centimeter, where the Mississippi River is born.

It wasn't until years later that I found out the whole thing is a fraud, a tourist attraction designed to be a pretty place for photo opps. The chain of rocks that supposedly mark the boundary between Lake Itasca and the Mississippi River was put there during a WPA project in the 1930s, and the rocks are held in place with an epoxy cement. Those first few hundred winding yards of river weren't dug out by the infant Mississippi as it took its first steps toward New Orleans but by workers made unemployed by the Great Depression and put to work by the state digging a river channel to create a tourist attraction. In real life, the Mississippi is not born by dramatically tumbling over a chain of rocks, but by simply emerging nonchalantly, undramatically and non-touristy from a mosquito-infested bog on the north side of the lake. In real life, the waters of Lake Itasca do not boldly create the Mississippi, they simply ooze into it, almost by accident.

The reason for this natural reconstruction and historical revisionism is simple; tourism. The state saw as early as the 1930s that tourism was becoming an increasingly larger part of the American economy, as Americans realized they could use the two recent inventions of the automobile and the highway to drive themselves far from their homes and their jobs and their bills and all the other problems inherent in life. Since then, tourism has become such an important part of the economy that it is now seen in many places as a sort of economic panacea that all but guarantees new jobs, new business and economic growth. It's been reaching new peaks since the 1980s, when Baby Boomers started making huge wads of dough and showed they were more than willing to spend it by going on long, expensive vacations. Ever since, city planners, chamber of commerce organizers and economic development cheerleaders have fallen over themselves trying to create "charming and unique" places or "quiet, relaxing get-aways," or, in the family-friendly '90s, "a place that's fun for the whole family."

In this process of reinvention, though, in this rush to provide relaxing getaways and family fun, one thing has been lost; reality. We have become so superficial that we want to see empty but cheerful tourist facades, and developers have become eager to provide them. Take Lake Itasca. A river as majestic, as powerful, as spiritual, as life-giving as the Mississippi deserves a grand entrance, a knock-em-dead first appearance. The Mississippi River is the defining river in our nation's history, a vital piece of our culture. It should be a tourist attraction because Americans should want to see the birth of something so important to our national pride. But do we want this vitally important icon of ourselves to be nothing more than drainage from a muddy bog? Would tourists flock by the thousands to a mosquito-infested swamp? Of course not. So the state of Minnesota took it upon itself to dress it up a little bit, provide the drama to the Mississippi that nature forgot, creating something completely unreal and fake but very tourist-friendly and sending thousands of visitors home happy every year.

The same reinvention has occurred hundreds of times since then, in other places across the country. Just look at Door County, Wisconsin, or Galena, Illinois. Or any of a dozen other blue-collar towns and cities ripped from their economic moorings by the wrenching changes of the global economy and the information age, listing and taking on water while other cities sail off to prosperity. Suddenly, in these blue-collar industrial towns and fishing ports, old banks and butcher shops and corner stores become up-scale, high-end boutiques selling overpriced Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger shirts with the city's name on them, and second-rate art galleries with names like The Aartvark selling third-rate landscapes to soccer moms from Schaumburg, and bookstores trying to be like little Barnes & Nobles, and tacky shop after tacky shop selling fudge and ice cream and cheap Indian trinkets made in Asian countries and t-shirts emblazoned with meaningless crests more elaborate than those of the oldest British families. The restaurants feature exposed brick walls and brass fixtures and Boomer-friendly menus selling the same dishes, like honey-mustard grilled chicken and lemon-pepper fish (the species of which is determined by whatever is most abundant in local waters) and garlic-rubbed whatever, which I will not eat because whenever I think of the word "rubbed" I can't help but picture some fat cook named Guido who has toiled over his hot grill all day and has finally decided to seek some relief by rubbing his hairy, sweaty chest with my nice cool chicken breast before he plops it on the grill and slathers it with honey-mustard sauce.

Of course, none of the blue-collar natives in these old industrial towns know who Tommy Hilfiger is, don't know a thing about art, never heard of either Barnes or Noble and eat their grilled chicken with nothing but barbecue sauce because only fags eat anything with honey-mustard or lemon pepper. But those people are missing the point because all these things are not for them, they're for the Tourists, the people with the bucks who will visit from other places with lots of their money and write big fat checks for overpriced crap. In return, the unemployed people can work for minimum wage selling the middle and upper-middle class people from other places their over-priced crap.  

Main Street, U.S.A., has become Fake Street, USA

A prime example of this is my own hometown, Duluth, Minnesota. I admit I am prejudiced about this because it is my hometown, but I can honestly say that Duluth sits in one of the most beautiful natural settings anywhere. Tree-lined, rugged hills loom over the city all along its 22-mile length, pushing it right up to the moody shores of Lake Superior, whose waters spread before it all the way to the horizon and spill into the sky. The scenery is simply breathtaking. I've taken friends there for the first time and all they can do is gape in awe, never knowing that such a place existed in the Midwest, never fully comprehending what all that blue meant on a map until they actually saw it.

Historically, though, Duluth never used this natural beauty to draw out-of-town visitors. What little tourist economy it had came during summer hot spells, when southern Minnesotans came north seeking relief from the heat and humidity with Lake Superior breezes that range from cooling to Absolute Zero and keep temperatures in the 60s, 50s, sometimes even 40s, in the middle of July and August. Aside from that, the city's tourist trade was limited to the "going-through" business of vacationers headed to resorts and campgrounds in the northern reaches of the state who stopped in Duluth on their way through to gas up and grab a bite to eat.

The reason Duluth didn't have much of a tourist trade was that Duluth was an industrial town. Its gritty west end was filled with huge steel mills and factories that belched smoke into the air and employed thousands. Ships plied the waters of its perfect harbor carrying loads of cargo to ports around the world. Vast rail-yards full of trains moved freight to other parts of the United States and Canada. Fish were hauled out of Lake Superior and lumber moved through from the vast north woods. The airport was home to two U.S. Air Force units and one Royal Canadian Air Force unit, defending the continent from Ruskie missile attack and employing thousands more Duluthians.

Duluth was a city that made things, then moved them around the world. Like Chicago, it had its own big shoulders. Lake Superior was seen as simply another industrial resource, its water a cheap and easy way to move goods and natural resources, its shores a cheap and easy place to dump garbage. Duluth also had that sulfury, gag-inducing smell of paper mills and seemed to be covered with a layer of permanent grime from the coal-fired steel mills. It was a tough and dirty place, not the kind of city that draws many visitors. That didn't matter, though, because Duluth was a prosperous, booming industrial town that didn't need tourists.

Then came the 1970s and the 1980s and Duluth's industrial gravy train went off the rails and fell several thousand feet into a canyon. In a breathtakingly short period of time, just about every part of Duluth's economy collapsed into a stunning and majestic pile of Third Wave rubble. Both air forces moved their units out of Duluth, the timber and fishing industries dried up from overuse, grain shipping was torpedoed by Carter's embargo on the Soviet Union. The steel mills and manufacturing plants were shut down, victims of the high costs of shipping things to and from a place as remote as Duluth, the high labor costs of a place as heavily unionized as Duluth, and of the factories own aging inefficiency.

Population fell from 120,000 in 1960 to about 85,000 when I graduated from East High School in the Orwellian year of 1984. Unemployment jumped to near 20 percent. Lonely factories decomposed, stores were boarded up, schools closed. Mothballed Great Lakes freighters rusted quietly while tied up in the harbor, unneeded because there was no freight to ship. Houses across the city sat empty, their unemployed owners finally giving up hope and fleeing like a refugee to find work in the boomtown of Minneapolis. I don't know how many of my elementary school classmates never made it to my high school graduation because their families finally had no choice but to move out and start from scratch somewhere else.

Duluth wasn't a town that made much anymore. It collected unemployment checks and welfare benefits.

To all of this, we Duluthians took a rather fatalistic attitude. One of my favorite t-shirt slogans of the time was "Duluth: So close to the end of the world you can see it from here." My high school graduating class had two unofficial class slogans; "Drugs, sex, we want more, we're the Class of '84," (which really didn't have much to do with the city's economic plight), and "Last one to leave Duluth, turn out the lights" (which did). What had been a thriving, bustling little industrial port had, in just a few years, become a desolate, post-industrial wasteland. Duluth was the poster child of the Rust Belt.

So right around the time I graduated from high school (and promptly left town for college in the Twin Cities, joining the economic refugees in a brighter place with better prospects) Duluth's grand high muckety-mucks looked at their economic scorecard and decided that if they were to keep their city from becoming a ghost town, they would have to change its economy. Manufacturing, defense and shipping just didn't cut it anymore. Duluth's economic future, they decided, lay in tourism.

Unfortunately, Duluth was as unappealing to tourists then as it ever was; about the only thing less scenic to out-of-towners than a steel mill in full-steam operation was a steel mill sitting empty and boarded up. So in the mid-1980s, the city completely reinvented itself. And we're not talking about a little reinvention here, either, a few coats of paint and a renovated building or two. We're talking about a complete and near-total makeover, the Phyllis Diller of urban renovations. Dozens of old brick warehouses, factories and breweries along the lakeshore and harbor front were either renovated or leveled. The piles of industrial junk that had accumulated along the lake for decades were hauled away. Lakefront hotels and resorts were built, upscale restaurants and trendy boutiques opened. The streets were paved with brick, replica Victorian street lights installed and an Indian tribe opened a casino in the old downtown Sear's store. Under all of this was dug a giant freeway tunnel so tourists could get to their recreational splendor more quickly and more easily.

And, judging by the results, all the hard work has paid off because Duluth is now a tourist boom town. Unemployment is almost non-existent, the area's population actually went back up for a time. In the summer, you can't get near the city's lakefront parks because of all the tourists and their cars. Duluth has become a jewel on the lake, a beautiful and charming old port town.

Problem is, all of it is completely fake. Duluth never was a beautiful, charming port town, it was a dirty, grungy, sweaty, swarthy, often smelly industrial town. Canal Park, where today children frolic and families walk together along the shore of Lake Superior amidst dancing fountains and kitschy public art, was once filled with dive bars and brothels that catered to sailors who had been cooped up at sea with 20 other men in a steel tube for months at a time and who desperately needed some hooch and pooch.

All of that was changed as Duluth reinvented itself, and rewrote its history. Tourists do not want to come to dirty industrial towns, they want to come to charming port towns. Reality was jettisoned to create the fake city the tourists expected. It had to be done. How else can a place like Duluth compete with the idealized, untroubled, small-town perfection of Disney's Main Street USA, without turning itself into Old Port World?

Unfortunately, tourists tend to believe the illusions. They actually think the Mississippi River babbles happily over a chain of rocks and that Duluth was picked up from the New England seaside and dropped into Minnesota. Fantasy becomes reality, and illusion takes physical form.

Of course, not every tourist attraction in America has thrown away its past to create a more tourism-friendly present. Chicago and Kansas City, for instance, are still as ruggedly tough and blue-collar as ever, and San Francisco has managed to keep much of its authenticity. Many of America's national parks have also managed to resist calls for increased commercialization and development and remain palaces of natural realness.

But, by and large, it's illusion that people want to see, and it's illusion that's being given to them. Perhaps the best example of this is in Iowa, at one of the country's more unusual tourist attractions. In a strange case of life imitating art, the Dyersville farm field where the movie "Field of Dreams" was filmed has become one of Iowa's top (and few) tourist attractions (it was the state's number one tourist attraction for a while, until it was passed recently by the bridges of Madison County, which exploded in popularity after the publication of Bob Waller's insipid romance novel, of which I've tried to read twice but have been unable to get past page 20 without feeling queasy). Each year, 100,000 people come to the field, which does possess a strange kind of magic that makes people act wonderfully civil and brotherly/sisterly toward each other. Complete strangers play catch in the outfield, never worrying that one might try to run off with the ball. A pitcher lobs easy-to-hit batting-practice pitches straight into the wheelhouse of a kid at the plate who he's never met, and behind that kid will run a line of kids 20 or 30 deep, snaking down the third-base line, around the backstop to the bleachers, waiting patiently to take their cuts at the plate without a single whine, cry or "but I wanna hit now" to be heard. I've seen adults, full grown adults who should know better, leave their expensive camcorders sitting alone in the bleachers or behind the backstop, completely unattended, and run off to play shortstop, never thinking someone might walk off with the camcorder that was left just sitting there, alone, unprotected, too juicy a target not to steal.

What's even stranger is that nobody does steal it. Try doing that in New York City, or even Des Moines.

The field actually straddles the property line of the two farmers who own the land. Al Ameskamp owns third base, deep short, leftfield, and most of center, while Don Lansing (whose house, sitting behind a windbreak of evergreens on a hill near right field, was Ray Kinsella's charming Victorian farmhouse in the movie) owns most of the infield, right field, and the rest of center. A high-tension power line running over the field (which was removed during filming) marks the property line.

What visitors (or are they pilgrims?) to the Field of Dreams see today is not what the first visitors (pilgrims?) saw when they visited after the film was released in 1989. By the time the film had made it to theaters and become a national sensation, Ameskamp had returned his side of the field to cropland while Lansing let his side go to the weeds. Neither had any idea that their 10-acre chunk of land would become a sort of mecca for movie fans and baseball fans, but as the crowds grew larger (and more disappointed at the sorry condition of the field of their dreams), the two farmers did something that goes against the instincts of anyone who makes his living off the land; they plowed it back under and uncovered the baseball field that lay beneath.

It must be noted that what Ameskamp and Lansing did was an extraordinary act. They plowed under 10 acres of very valuable, abundantly fertile, highly profitable Iowa farmland and built in its place a baseball field, simply because people wanted to see a baseball field there. In short, to paraphrase Ray Kinsella, they did something completely illogical. Admission is free, so the only money they make is from concession stand profits and a free-will donation box, which probably brings in more money than ten acres of corn or soybeans, but certainly not so much as to make them rich. Ameskamp even lets visitors take home ears of corn off the stalks growing past the outfield, costing him a few more bushels of crop, and a few more bushels of agribusiness profit.

What Ameskamp and Lansing did was the first kind and civil act at a place that has seen many more such kind and civil acts since. I once met a filmmaker at the field who was doing a documentary for a German TV network (it seems that if it weren't for foreign TV networks, most American filmmakers would never get work) and I asked him for his well-researched conclusions as to why people suddenly act friendly and decent there. His belief is that visitors admire the simplicity of the place. It's a baseball diamond in a corn field. That's it. No stadiums that cost millions of dollars in tax subsidies to build (under threat of moving the team to another city that will spend millions of dollars in tax subsidies), spoiled brat players who refuse to hustle out grounders and throw tantrums because they want to make $4 million a year instead of $3 million, no owners charging $500 for Personal Seat Licenses, which merely give the holder the right to spend another $50 per game to buy a ticket. No corporate sponsorships or advertisements (except a small sign for Scott's lawn and turf products, which provides free grass seed and fertilizer in exchange). The only commercialism at all are two shabby souvenir stands, one run by Ameskamp, the other by Lansing, that sell cheap T-shirts, post cards and other kitschy trinkets. The field, it seems, taps into that American yearning to return to our mythic past when things were better and simpler and easier and baseball was just baseball.

"This place is just so real, there's nothing fake about it," I heard a man say once while visiting the field, and for a long time, I agreed with him. Even a hardened cynic has to admit the Field of Dreams reminds you how good people can act and how simple life can be lived. Just before the 1994 baseball strike, when the players and owners had kicked their mudslinging and invective-spewing machines into high gear, a visit to the Field of Dreams restored my faith in the game itself, if not in the people who played it and ran it at the major league level. Something about it reminded me of the innocence of the game, and showed me just how much fun it is to pick up a baseball and throw it around, players and owners be damned.

But, of course, the Field of Dreams is not real, it's totally, completely fake. Absolutely, 100 percent artificial. The Field of Dreams was built by Hollywood, the ultimate purveyor of the UnReal in America today. Lansing's old Victorian farmhouse, where Kevin Costner kicked up his feet and watched the ghost White Sox play baseball, is fake. Before Hollywood arrived it was nothing more than a shabby old farmhouse covered with dirty clapboard siding that would not have captured anyone's fancy.

The Field of Dreams is about as real as that Old West town in the California desert that movie producers built so they could shoot exteriors of Old West towns. It's filled with Old West hotels and saloons and apothecaries, but when you walk through the doors of these buildings, inside you'll find nothing but empty space.

The memories that the Field of Dreams spurs in our collective subconscious and the good feelings it brings to our attitudes are not brought out by the field itself but by our memories of the movie and its disarming charms. But the Field of Dreams is not a baseball field, it's a movie set.

After all, the whole idea of a baseball field in a cornfield is not really that unusual in the Midwest. Just visit any small town high school and you'll find their football fields and baseball fields are usually surrounded by cropland on at least two sides. But these fields don't have the mythic quality of the Field of Dreams (and thus are not tourist sites) because they were not used as filming locations for beloved movies. They are simply real football fields and real baseball fields with little meaning behind them, and since they are real, they are not tourist attractions.

Besides, the Field of Dreams recently took a great big step back to reality when Ameskamp and Lansing violated the first rule of the Field of Dreams, which is to Play Nice. They had a falling-out a few years ago over how aggressively the field should be marketed and barely speak to each other anymore. Lansing wanted to maintain the purity and integrity of the field and keep commercialism to a minimum. Ameskamp, though, wanted to do more marketing and turn the field into a more commercially viable tourist attraction, which Lansing felt - without irony - was merely making it fake. When the two couldn't find a compromise, they argued testily for awhile before Ameskamp went off on his own and leased his part of the field to a professional management company called Left and Center Field of Dreams (named for the parts of the field he owns).The rift between the two continues today. A disturbing and unfortunate reminder that no matter how hard we may try to build a fantasy, its walls will never be strong enough to keep out reality. Which only leads me to my own reluctant conclusion that I have never really walked across the Mississippi River.


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