Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Itasca State Park

On Valentine's weekend Scott and I stayed at Grandview Lodge in northern Minnesota, dined on Walleye, then headed west to North Dakota to take my nephew who is studying in Grand Forks to dinner, then on to Fargo for a museum job. On the trip west, because we had a couple of hours to kill, we stopped at Itasca State Park to see the head waters of the Mississippi.

Even living in Minnesota my whole life I've never been to the head waters before. But I knew all about them, thanks to William Thoma. William Thoma was in school with me from grades 1-12. That's important, because I went to Catholic school grades 1-6, and then moved to a public junior high and met the public school kids for the first time. The kids who went to the Catholic school with me were special, because we had been together the whole ride, 1-12.

William Thoma lived and breathed Itasca State Park from day one. Every report, every science project, every speech, every poster board was always about Itasca State Park. I am not exaggerating about this. At first we didn't notice. Then about third grade, I thought, "Now that's funny, I remember him covering this topic before." By sixth grade, everyone was like, "Really? Another report about Itasca State Park?" By tenth grade, when we had joined the public school kids, we talked about it openly, as in, "Does that kid ever want a date?"

But William never wavered. I remember he had a younger brother, and I wondered whether he too was a one note wonder about Itasca State Park. By the time I graduated from high school I considered myself an expert on the park, even thought I'd never been there.

All this came rushing back to me as we pulled into the visitor center at the park. The ranger behind the desk (yes, to all those not in Minnesota, our state park visitor centers are staffed in the winter, by hardy rangers ready to hit the cross country ski trails at the drop of a hat), showed us on a map how to hike into the headwaters.

"Ever heard of the Thoma family?" I asked her.

"Oh yes," she answered. "Mr. Thoma was the Itasca State Park historian. He and his family lived in the park every summer for over forty years."

I swear tears sprung to my eyes when she said that. If you've ever had a little wonder turn into a deep and heart-rendering awe in an instant you know how I felt. "Do you ever hear about their kids?" I asked.

"No," she said, "I was more friends with Mrs. Thoma."

We hiked to the head waters, and on the way I recognized every word on every interpretive plaque we passed. What a gift I got from William Thoma. And I savored it standing there in the snow at that little creek that further south becomes a mighty river. I'd been shown that spot so many times before, and now I finally knew it.