By Kathryn Ganfield
Coyotes had yipped long into the night, but we had slept well. While my husband rolled up the wet tent, I hiked our three kids to the edge of Blue Mounds State Park, through drooping stands of sunflowers and cup plant. Freed from the constraints of the tent, the kids were like unruly pups on the path, tumbling over each other, nipping, yip-howling.
We found a farm at the end of the trail, birds winging wildly round the silo. The kids slowed at the sight. My oldest daughter asked me to name the birds, and I guessed barn swallows. But then thought better of it—the birds had no forked tails—and I said, “No, chimney swifts.” There was a raptor too, turning its gyres high above us, but I wasn’t good enough a birder to identify it against the dazzling morning sun. The water taps in the park were shut off due to E. coli, and I saw how dirty and damp we were in the light of the day.
Back at the campsite, our van was dirty and damp too. It wasn’t pretty. But it held my favorite scent. An aroma earned over thousands of miles of travel: grain, earth, woodsmoke, nylon. Not pretty—but deep, rich, and layered.
By the time we were packed up, the sun was already too high for our liking. As much practice as we had had, my husband and I were no faster at taking down camp. We strapped the squirrely kids into their car seats, only to let them out again to climb up to the prairie observation deck. They wanted to spot the park’s bison herd but ended up chasing their blowing sunhats through the switchgrass.
It was mostly a straight shot north on 75 from Luverne to Pipestone. On the roadsides, white wind turbines spun, their sharp-shinned blades cutting unclouded skies. The orderly march of fields and farms was broken only by glacial erratics, huge blocks of granite left behind in the Ice Age. Grazing dairy cows seemed unmoved by the boulders dotting their pastures.
We were worn. Ground down by the open road. We’d been through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota—and back again. The car seats were crumby, the van windows smeary with handprints. Our National Parks passports brimmed over with stamps from parks, monuments, and historic sites. More than a little grateful it was our last morning, we pulled into the prim and tidy town of Pipestone, Minnesota. Home to one more park for our passports: Pipestone National Monument. My husband and I wondered if stopping here was too much to ask of our kids. But we didn’t know when we’d next find ourselves in this far southwestern corner of the state.
So, at the edge of town, we took Reservation Road to the monument. Here, RV parks and gas stations gave way to a broad swath of virgin tallgrass prairie split by a ribbon of stone quarries. Established in 1937, Pipestone preserves the best-known quarries of catlinite, a soft red-brown stone nestled within harder quartzite beds, much prized by Indigenous people for carving ceremonial pipes.
The visitor center, circa 1958, was long and squat like the ranch houses that dominated that era. The façade studded with quartzite blocks in warm hues of rosewood, amber, and melon. We headed inside to show our park pass to the ranger and get a map for the kids to squabble over.
Passing through the double glass doors, I was strangely transported to my Babcia’s house in North Oaks. I was there at Pipestone, but my senses and memories intermingled. I was in both places, in two times, of two minds. My eyes absorbed the visitor center. The ratios of white walls to wood paneling, tile floor to low-pile carpet. Long-beamed light fixtures dangling from vaulted ceilings. So familiar to me. My Babcia—Polish for grandmother—lived in the woods in a house of this same ranch era, built in 1959. But it wasn’t just the visual similarities that moved me. Mostly I was transported by the smell.
I can call up the scent of Babcia’s house any time. I inherited her china cabinet, and behind its glass doors, perfectly preserved, that curious smell lingers—clean yet stale. I don’t know how, but her scent was there at Pipestone. I tried to sniff out the parts that made up the whole: wood shavings, talcum powder, brass polish, pencil lead? I grasped at the past.
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My Babcia accumulated. Her home was a museum of things: doe-eyed Hummel statuettes, flouncy-skirted Royal Doulton porcelain ladies, glass-encased tchotkes, Polish crystal stemware, two Christmas trees, gilt-framed portraits of the nine grandchildren (she dressed us old-fashioned, girls in lace and velvet). A silver-plated tea and coffee service rested on the sideboard in her dining room. Each lidded container was filled to the brim with hard candies: Werther’s caramels, coffee nips, toffees, pastel mint meltaways. In the drawer beneath the double ovens in her kitchen, she saved chicken wishbones in a gallon-sized plastic bag.
When we moved Babcia to an assisted living facility, it took us two months to clean out her house. We rented a dumpster and placed it under the second story deck, letting her accumulations fly and fall into the bin below. We said to ourselves, “She’s a child of the Depression, she couldn’t throw anything away.” So, we did it for her. We tossed and tossed.
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In the visitor center, my children grabbed for stone cutting tools—a rasp, a hacksaw—and scribbled on blocks of pipestone. Rock dust made a nimbus round their blond heads. A chalk scent enhanced by the warming action of the metal blade. At my Babcia’s, it emanated from the fireplace in her walkout basement. As a kid, I watched TV down there, my face cool and clammy, my back warmed by cherry embers on charred logs. I think she liked her grandchildren quiet and subdued.
I was lost in thought. I realized the kids would saw clear through the museum exhibit if I didn’t wrench the tools from their hands. They ran off to the gift shop, where we found artisans sitting in booths, demonstrating their carving techniques and answering questions from visitors. I admired their work, but I was uncomfortable too. Claustrophobic at the thought that living, breathing humans were trapped under glass in a museum display case.
We ushered the kids outside into the past-noon sun. By this point, the map was tattered and torn, but we could see the only trail easy enough. The Circle Trail is a three-quarter mile loop through the prairie, to the quarry, crossing Pipestone Creek and back to the visitor center. We descended into an abandoned quarry that may be 3,000 years old. The red rock walls towered high above my three, five-, and six-year-olds. The rock face smooth and clean, save for some squirrel-littered black walnut shells, and a little rude graffiti that my oldest attempted to sound out.
The trail beckoned us on. The tall prairie grasses and wildflowers thrummed with pollinators. We were within a 300-acre virgin, native prairie—one of the few remaining stands in Minnesota. It has never been plowed. Once, there were bison here that churned the earth with their hooves, driving the prairie seeds into the soil and nourishing them with their droppings.
But I found it a much more orderly place that day. Every feature on the trail was labeled, lest a visitor miss it: “Caution—poison ivy,” “Smooth sumac,” “Stay on Paved Trail.” The “Old Stone Face” had two side-by-side signs saying the same thing. I should have felt suffused by nature, but I was distracted by the signs. I worried this was less a wild place than a showpiece.
Was I so affected because we’d just come from the West, and its wilder, wider spaces? In the Badlands, we gave wide berth to the rattlesnake that denned beneath the campground dumpster. In Yellowstone, a wildfire smoldered in 22,000 acres around us. The fire’s smoke bruised the August skies and pushed herds of bison and elk across our path. Now, it seemed, with every mile homeward, we were more constrained. More bottled up.
Or perhaps it’s that I think neither prairies nor grandmothers should be too perfect, too bound. I always wanted Babcia to share her Polish language with us. As much as we loved her cooking, she never taught us her recipes. I wanted to play games with her, walk with her in the shady woods behind her house. Instead, she dressed us for church, for photo shoots, for dining on popovers at Dayton’s River Room. Were we her showpieces too?
My Babcia and her house had a sheen of order and perfection. Appearances were important; she was like a curator. She didn’t reveal to us the depths below her surface. Not unlike a tallgrass prairie that hides two-thirds of itself under the soil. How can I ever know all that is buried? I can’t.
Perfection is a trap I won’t fall into. So, I let the kids run far ahead, free and unbottled. I listened to the prairie. I held still until I heard the bees beat hard their wings in the coneflowers and free pollen to the wind. The breeze lifted my hat, and I found the pipestone’s pulse. The stone holds heat and cold. It forms faces. When carved, it reveals effigies. I saw then that the prairie and the quarries are bigger and freer than the highway boundaries suggested. And I know the quarriers do their true work far away from the prying-eyed visitors in the museum and on that manicured Circle Trail.
Babcia is gone now, her secrets too. But like the strong-hulled prairie seeds carried far by birds and currents to root anew, her heritage lives on in me. I can say the same of my grandmother and of Pipestone: there was, and is, a vibrant heart beating beneath a crafted veneer.
Kathryn Ganfield is a memoirist, essayist and nature writer. She’s always lived in river towns, where everything old is made new again. Born in Portland, Oregon, she grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and still calls it home. Her work has appeared in The Talking Stick and Haute Dish.