A Year In Provence for the “Prairie Home Companion” crowd, or Coop for fans of indie music, my memoir Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story explores what happens when a singer-songwriter moves from New York City to rural Minnesota for love, and finds there’s more to life than music.
HUNDRED MILES TO NOWHERE: AN UNLIKELY LOVE STORY
By Elisa Korenne
First 3 chapters
Sometimes, surrounded by the endless Minnesota sky, I believe I have come home. Other times, I am sure moving from New York City to rural Minnesota was a mistake.
It is morning, and I walk the half-mile down my gravel driveway, humming a melody that may one day grow up to be a song. Pastures unfold in every direction, separated by copses of aspen and pine, oak and maple. Like most autumn mornings while burgundy leaves linger on the oaks, I take Meadow for a walk. Really, the yellow lab is my excuse to walk myself. Every morning when I start my walk, I hope that, this time, motion will help me outpace my melancholy.
A breeze pulls the warmth from my body, stealing the last skin-sense of Chris next to me in bed. He was the reason I moved here, the beacon that drew me away from the concrete sea of city.
I am no longer sure he is enough to keep me here.
Regrets have escaped their trap again, and I am glad I am alone while they stalk me. Away from Chris, I stop pretending everything is okay.
I unravel a tangle of earphones and select a recent “This American Life” podcast, placing one earphone in my ear and letting the other dangle free. In my right ear, behind Ira Glass’s nasal drawl, I hear the background noise of New York City traffic. In my left ear, the chuckle-call of Sandhill Cranes. I cannot tune out one ear in favor of the other, just as I can no longer be only one version of myself.
I stand at the intersection of two lives.
In my old life in New York City, I woke to a world alive with activity. Trucks grumbled at idle underneath my window, and the air was thick with diesel and the scent of cumin from the Mexican restaurant across the street. The only sky was a thin slice at the top of my window.
In Minnesota, the sky has its own topography. Over a monotony of flat landscape, the sky is filled with crags and altitude, mountains and valleys, color and elevation. Today’s sky is an expanse of soft gray blankets. A pink sun shines through a small opening to the east, a crack of morning light beneath cosmic bed sheets. The air is thick with the promise of rain, and I inhale earth, pine, and sweetgrass, hoping the scents might cultivate the barren terrain inside me.
In New York City, I walked a purposeful vector to the subway, along the way accommodating crowds of pedestrians in a practiced dance. Over the course of four blocks I passed eight restaurants, four boutiques, a laundromat, a Dominican bodega, a gourmet grocery, and a Korean deli.
Meadow and I have walked the equivalent of four Brooklyn blocks and passed nobody. We are not even halfway down my driveway. The driveway bends 60 degrees toward the road, and I can no longer see my house, just fields lined by clumps of thorny mountain ash.
To the north, a rotting wood-plank deer stand is poised like a macabre Tinker Toy on stilts. The empty rectangle of its window stares at me, an unlidded eye where hunters rest their rifles and sight their prey. I am the deer before the hunter shoots. I long to run, but I don’t know which would be worse: standing as still as I can, hoping to blend into my surroundings, or bolting back to where I came from.
PART I: THE WATERING PLACE
CHAPTER 1: Accepted
Forget what you’ve seen, this is a new dream
Trust me, I truly believe
It’s our biggest chance yet, so step up and place your bet
—“The Next Big Thing”
December 2006, Brooklyn, New York City
The first thing I learned about Minnesota was that it wasn’t where I thought it was. That was Missouri. Minnesota was between Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and the Canadian border.
With a New Yorker’s myopic view of my own country, this information didn’t help me much.
But I was a veteran traveler, and I knew how to prepare for a trip to a new place. I borrowed every book on Minnesota that I could find in the New York City public library system. A pile of ten dog-eared travel guides teetered above lyric sheets on my desk, each in turn explaining to me that Minnesota had over ten thousand lakes, the people of Minnesota were as nice as they were reputed to be, and the one thing a visitor to Minnesota must do is go canoe camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.
I had never before considered Minnesota as a place to visit, let alone live. I hadn’t believed the invitation from the New York Mills Cultural Center until my neighbor Jane pulled the letter from my sweaty hand and confirmed it.
“You did it! I told you you could get into an artist residency.” Her hip canted to hold her front door open; the rock music from her speakers thumping into the cement-block hallway separating our apartments. “You even got a stipend.”
“I did?” I swiped at the letter. At my mailbox in the narrow vestibule at the entrance to our building, I hadn’t gotten past “Congratulations.”
Jane pushed the door further open with her hip, letting me into her haven of modernist furniture and books of poetry. The architecture of her apartment was identical to mine, one floor below, but her sleek minimalism was poles apart from my maze of mismatched thrift-store furniture and musical instruments.
Jane pulled an atlas from her bookshelf and flipped to the Minnesota page. She traced her finger to a tiny dot in the northwest quadrant of the state. “New York Mills. In Otter Tail County,” she said.
“Otter Tail County,” I repeated softly, heart thumping along to Jane’s rock music. The rhythm traveled to my feet and shook my hands, and soon I hummed and wriggled my hips as the meaning of the letter sunk in.
I had been invited to be a resident artist for one month in a small town in Minnesota. I was going to be able to work on my songwriting in a county called Otter Tail. Otter Tail. A name that evoked wildlife, farmland, trees.
My glee at leaving the city felt like a betrayal. Eight years after moving here, I was still trying to make the City into my first real home. By the time I applied to visit New York Mills, I had lived in New York City twice as long as I had lived anywhere else in my life. After six elementary schools, four states, and five countries, I had come here to settle down. I had traveled across six continents for school, work and play, and finally found myself drawn here: the place where I would establish my roots.
It had been a relief to finally settle in one place. To live in an apartment I wouldn’t have to pack up for a while. To be so familiar with my street that my body knew how many steps it took to get to the laundromat, the grocery store, the sandwich shop.
Where I would settle had never been in doubt. All my life, New York City had been my true north. No matter where I traveled, my internal compass always pointed to the skyscrapers and boundless energy of the city. I had been born here. My parents had met here. My relatives lived here. Most of the people I had known from high school in Pennsylvania and Yale University in Connecticut had found themselves pulled to the City like metal shavings to a magnet. Throughout my travels, I always knew I’d return. But eight years into my city life, I still felt like I was looking in from the outside.
I was sure an artistic trip to a far-away place would cure this unfortunate illusion. Visiting a world as different from New York as Otter Tail County would prove through contrast—I was sure—how much I belonged here. I would return home from the middle of nowhere and remember why I had chosen New York City.
Jane stepped into my makeshift dance floor between her Ikea couch and the bookshelf. “Hey, I gotta get back to writing,” she said. She returned my letter. Her door shut behind me with a steel clank, and I was trapped again in the dim, cement-block hallway.
Jane was a successful poet. She had won awards for her writing and spent most of her days working on her next book. She was the one who had introduced me to artist residencies—places that gave artists time and space to create. It sounded like bliss to me, a singer-songwriter constantly trying to juggle the freelance consulting I did to pay my rent with the obligations of booking gigs, writing songs, recording, and managing an ever-changing roster of side-musicians.
I walked across the landing, slower now, past the apartment where the faded man with mild eyes lived. He was the symbol of all I didn’t want to be: a person still living alone in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the thick of middle age, never having made it, never having seen the world, let alone changed it.
I intended my life to be different. I would make a name for myself as a singer-songwriter. My Smith Street apartment was a jumping-off place where I would gather myself and bloom before planting myself in a larger garden.
But I hadn’t gotten far. In fact, some days I was sure I had moved backward. For the love of songwriting, I had given up a promising international development career. Once upon a time, when I had started an international nonprofit, I found myself talking to heads of Fortune 500 companies in corporate Board rooms. Now, I struggled to play two or three $50 gigs a week. With my first acceptance to an artist residency, I was finally heading somewhere.
The New York Mills Cultural Center had listened to my edgy and elegant acoustic and rock music and liked it enough to invite me to write songs for the entire month of May. One whole month away from the daily routine of subway tunnels, honking traffic, and concrete horizons. I had been awarded fifteen hundred dollars for being a songwriter, plus time and lodging to live and write for a month.
I was going to the prairie to be an artist. I would gain artistic credibility and return to New York to relaunch my life.
I called up an image of myself playing guitar in the midst of an amber wheat field. My stifled laugh sounded like a gunshot in the closed hallway. Guitars looked a lot better backstage at CBGBs than they did in a field.
I hugged my acceptance letter to my chest and scrambled down the linoleum-covered stairs to my apartment, my cozy nest of solace, my retreat from the noise and motion of the city. A velour L-shaped couch took up most of the main room. The exposed brick wall was covered with souvenirs from my travels: two marionettes from Thailand, a wool blanket from Bolivia, a carved fertility statue from Ghana. My wheeled Ikea desk was jammed into the corner between dresser and stove, until work required me to pull it into the center of my living room.
I swiped my arm across the desk to clear a space in the center, shifting a mishmash of half-written songs, guitar picks, and a costume necklace. I placed the acceptance letter carefully on the surface and stepped back to see how it looked in my apartment.
It looked good.
Maybe this artist residency in Minnesota was the antidote to my dissatisfaction. Maybe I would find what I was looking for in Minnesota.
I didn’t know what that was, but I knew I hadn’t found it in New York City.
The next day I hopped out of bed and padded barefoot to the desk. The letter was still there. Congratulations. Sincerely, Lynn Kasma, Executive Director of the New York Mills Cultural Center. It still looked good.
CHAPTER 2: Bothered in Brooklyn
If one day we’re supposed to meet
Then you’re someplace now doing something I can’t see
Sometimes I try to imagine you
And what you’re doing while I wait here for you
—“I Don’t Yet Know You”
January – April 2006, New York City
There was no time to linger in admiration of my acceptance letter. The residency was in May, and now I had to earn money to support my music habit. Today’s consulting work included a client meeting with the director of a nonprofit. She expected me to deliver a report on how recently-released convicts could achieve self-actualization. My personal life didn’t make me an expert, so I had some research to do.
After putting the final touches on my report, I dressed in business casual and took the subway into Manhattan to the nonprofit’s Wall Street office. The meeting went long, and by the time I exited the building, the sidewalks were crowded with people in suits.
With a freelancer’s luxury of scheduling, it was rare for me to be on the subway at rush hour; I usually tried to avoid the crush. Every molded plastic seat was filled. I wedged myself between standing passengers. I balanced, clutching the steel grip-pole, tugging and pulling against the train’s motion as it rocked and stuttered a halting path to Brooklyn. Somewhere under the East River, a seat opened. I whisked into it before another person could take it.
Sitting, I could comfortably watch the other commuters, ranks of motley New Yorkers, bodies touching, eyes averted. Some read, others listened to earphones. While my neighbor napped, head bobbing sideways till it touched my shoulder and snapped up, I stared out the subway window at the flat black non-view of tunnel walls. I imagined green pastures and wide spaces, and wondered, yet again, whether life would be better in the countryside.
I pulled my New Yorker magazine out of my purse. As I tucked magazine between elbow and thigh, I spotted a familiar face in the front of the car. It was Jodi, whom I had known since our mothers met while walking us in strollers on the streets of Queens. Once upon a time, Jodi and I had written scraggly mirror-print letters on teddy-bear stationery between my home in New Zealand and hers in Staten Island. Today we lived four blocks apart in Brooklyn. Me, an aspiring songwriter. She, a big shot journalist. Me, alone. She, with her new husband, Ron.
Jodi sat; Ron stood over her, sheltering as an oak tree. Both were reading: Ron the Times, Jodi a book. They bobbed and swayed in unison, an unseen bond yoking their forms together. Their quiet communion was acid on a raw wound. Jodi and Ron read separately, but they were together, even in repose. Surrounded by the crowd, the two made one.
In the gap between their mutual belonging and my solitude, desire cut through me like a blade: I wanted what they had. Maybe this was the belonging I had been looking for in New York City, in my career. Maybe home was not a place, or a destination, but a connection to another person.
They hadn’t seen me. I dropped my gaze to my magazine and exhaled with relief.
I should have said hello. I should have waved. I was too far away for conversation, but I could have given up my seat and gone to them, walking my hands across the subway poles like monkey bars. It had been weeks, maybe months since I’d seen Jodi. There was always something to catch up on.
But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t wave. I could barely look at them.
I had dated. I had dated a lot. I met guys at parties. I met them online. Nothing had yet worked out. Finding love was not something I could control. It was safer to place my bets on another type of fulfillment, and I was putting all my chips on my music career.
I trudged from the subway. Too tired to cook dinner, I picked up take-out at the Chinese counter with the bullet proof glass. Curled up on my couch, I picked at fried dumplings. I took a bath in my grime-ringed bathtub and soothed myself with a half slice of heavily frosted chocolate cake from the bakery down the street. The purple flowers on my Calvin Klein sheets looked muted and sad in the tube of light from my reading lamp. Sleep was interrupted by intermittent road noise till the diesel roar of rush hour jumpstarted my morning.
On a music-focused day a few weeks later, after a morning of songwriting and returning emails to potential venues, I allowed myself to indulge in planning my Minnesota adventures. All the guidebooks said canoe-camping in Minnesota was not to be missed. I started by calling a list of outfitters near the Boundary Waters. I asked each one whether they might have a group trip available for me to join in May. By the time the third outfitter said no, I asked why. “May is too early in the season for most people up here. It’s too cold.”
From deep in my memory, I recalled freshman year in college, when one of my friends in Theater 101 used to tell hair-raising stories of delivering newspapers by bicycle during a Minnesota winter. He claimed his eyelashes iced together, and sometimes his eyes would even freeze open. I was convinced he was exaggerating for dramatic effect. Now I began to wonder if maybe he hadn’t been.
The outfitter continued, “If you could get a group together yourself, we’d be happy to offer you a private guide.”
I signed off, and decided to advertise for canoe tripmates on Minneapolis Craigslist, the Internet bulletin board.
Sitting at my wheeled desk in my brick-walled living room, I read three email responses to my Craigslist post. One was from a manic-depressive woman hoping the outdoors would cure her mania. Two were from young-sounding men who thought a canoe trip would make a great date.
I gave up on Craigslist and dialed the number for Lynn Kasma, Executive Director of the New York Mills Cultural Center. Her voice trilled with enthusiasm to hear from an upcoming visiting artist. After introductions, I leaned the phone against my shoulder and tugged at a pulled thread in my pants. “Is there any chance you might know someone who could help me organize a canoe camping trip to the Boundary Waters? It’s too early in the season for the canoe outfitters.”
Lynn laughed from deep in her belly. “I know the perfect guy for you.” A siren began to wail outside my window. “Chris Klein is one of our Board members. He’s an experienced outdoorsman, a triathlete, works in his family’s insurance business, and is an all-around good guy. He’ll be happy to take you canoeing. I think you’ll like him; he’s got a sparkle to him.”
She gave me his contact information, and I set down the phone. The siren’s pitch dropped as it moved away from my building.
My hand was still on the phone receiver when the fantasies began. Chris was a tall, muscular man with a sharp jawline and a week’s worth of backwoods stubble. He was the silent type, a mountain man, only inclined to speak when he had something to say. He was a man strong enough to carry two backpacks and row across oceans. Maybe Chris would be my chance at what I saw between Jodi and Ron on the subway.
I broke off my daydream. You haven’t even spoken to the man yet. He could be married. He could be an axe murderer.
Then I remembered I wasn’t looking for love in the Midwest, I was trying to go on a canoe-camping trip. I emailed him.
A couple of weeks went by, and I didn’t hear from Chris. My series of daydreams spawned spin-offs, Chris’s face always a blur. In the first fantasy, Chris hammered a tent stake into the ground then stepped back to admire his work. The camera of my mind panned wide to show him silhouetted on a steep mountain slope in boreal wilderness. In another daydream, a solitary Chris stood on a rocky shore with a spear made out of a tree branch, surveying the glassy surface of a lake.
Two weeks later, I still hadn’t heard from Chris. During one otherwise unproductive day when I was supposed to be creating a program plan for a technology nonprofit but was instead noodling on my guitar, I called Chris at his office.
“Klein Insurance.” The woman’s Minnesota accent scraped my ears.
“Hello. Is Chris Klein available?”
Typing sounds and distant conversation filled in the woman’s long pause. “I don’t think so. Who’s calling?” The ‘oo’ sound of ‘who’ came out of the woman’s nose.
My normal speech felt rushed compared to hers. “This-is-Elisa-Korenne-I’m-the-upcoming-visiting-artist-trying-to-get-in-touch-with-Chris-about-a-canoe-trip.”
The pause felt longer than a red light. “Who did you say?”
“Elisa Korenne.” I slowed down to match the woman’s pace. “Please tell him this is regarding the visiting artist.”
“Okay, dear. I’ll tell him.”
I dug my fingers into my temples and scrunched up my eyes until the sounds of the traffic outside my windows came into focus and then receded into background noise.
I needed to know more about this man.
I typed “Christopher Klein” into Google. A long list of entries about Christopher Kleins filled my screen, not one from New York Mills. I narrowed my search to Minnesota. I changed the spelling of Chris’s name. No luck. I searched the social networking website Friendster. Nothing. MySpace. Nothing again. Linked in? He wasn’t anywhere.
The next day, I returned from a gig to discover a message on my answering machine. “Hallooooo…(pause) this is Christopher Klein calling you back.” A cheerful masculine baritone surfed the diatonic scale, relishing every wave and curl of each long flat nasal vowel. I stopped breathing for a second. “It’s a bee-you-tiful day here in west-central Minnesota,” he said in the practiced swagger of a radio DJ. “I’m looking forward to talking to you.” I squinted in disbelief and pressed repeat. “Hallooooo…” His accent was the one from the movie Fargo I had thought was an exaggerated punchline.
I dumped my messenger bag on the desk and plopped down on the couch, jostling my two curled-up cats. They stretched, disgruntled. I patted each of their heads and called my friend Maggie. She answered with her usual gleeful, “Hiiiii-eee!”
“Maggie—you are not going to believe this guy I’m supposed to go on a camping trip with!” I put my feet on the armrest and scooped the nearest cat into my lap.
“Did you Google him?”
“Yes. I couldn’t find him.”
“What about Friendster?”
“Mags, this guy is not on Friendster.”
“Everyone’s on Friendster! Maybe you spelled his name wrong.”
“No Mags, really. Listen to his message.” I held the phone to the answering machine. “Hallooooo…” The message was even more alien on the third listen. I put the phone to my ear. “Well?”
Maggie’s laughter bubbled into my earpiece. “This guy is definitely NOT on Friendster! Wow, I’ve never heard an accent like that. I thought that accent was made up for the movie Fargo.”
“I know!” I yelled into the phone.
After agreeing that the only way I was going to learn more about Chris was by talking to him, we ended our call. A bit breathless, I dialed the home number Chris had left on my machine.
“Halloo,” the baritone voice came at me live and in real time. I sat up straighter on the couch.
“Hi, this is Elisa Korenne, the upcoming artist-in-residence.”
“Well, hullo there. How are you this fine evening?”
“Um, fine… thanks. Did Lynn Kasma tell you I was looking for someone to go camping with?”
A beat. I picked at a cuticle. It was still his turn to speak. He didn’t. “Oh, good,” I said. I waited a few more milliseconds, the couch edge digging into my legs. “Would that be something you might be able to help me with?”
“Sure,” he paused. “Except the Boundary Waters…well, that’s a bit far away from here.”
“About six hours’ drive.”
I hadn’t realized Minnesota was that big. Chris continued. “It’s been a busy time for me at work, so I was thinking it might be easier if we stuck a bit closer to New York Mills. There’s a river about an hour away that’s a beautiful paddle ride. It’s called…” I wasn’t sure, but it sounded like he said ‘Curling River.’ “It’ll take about three days, and there are some great camping spots along the way. I’ll find some people to go with us.”
It wasn’t the Boundary Waters, but it was canoe-camping in Minnesota. We set the date for the first weekend in May.
When we got off the phone, I logged into MapQuest to learn more about the river that would be the site of my mighty canoe-camping adventure. According to the Internet there was no Curling River in the entire state of Minnesota.