PRAISE FOR Elisa Korenne’s debut book Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story.
“Big city girl marries a small town guy—that story. But never more engagingly told than in Hundred Miles to Nowhere. It’s full of humor, heart, and in the end proves that love always wins. Women will love this book, and I did, too.” ~Will Weaver, author of Sweet Land and The Last Hunter: An American Family Album
“An absolutely stunning debut. Brilliant, breathtaking and hopeful. Korenne is the ideal storyteller: part enchantress, part dogged reporter, wise, studious, generous. Her book is a superbly crafted journey into the unexpected riches of the rural American wilderness, and of the heart.” ~Josh Axelrad, author of the memoir Repeat Until Rich: A Professional Card Counter’s Chronicle of the Blackjack Wars
EXCERPT: Chapter Three – Being the Artist
Teeth too big for her mouth
Biting off a fair amount
All her insides are out
May 2006, New York Mills
The next four months sped by: the daily routine relieved by booking gigs along my route to Minnesota and shopping for outdoor gear for the canoe-camping trip. A week before my scheduled arrival in New York Mills, I packed my Honda Civic with all the musical equipment I would need for writing and performing, left a check for the cat-sitter, and turned west onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Performances with musicians and friends dotted my route. Local papers across the country told readers Elisa Korenne was coming to play Pittsburgh, Chicago, Iowa City, Minneapolis. On the stretches of road between gigs I wondered what would I do with four continuous weeks of songwriting. What would I do in a place where I knew nobody and my only occupation was filling the blank pages of my notebooks? My only break in the expanse of songwriting ahead of me was a three-day canoe camping trip led by man I’d never met.
New York Mills was a three-and-a-half hour drive across wide open spaces from Minneapolis. There were no other cars in sight. The thin strip of asphalt on which I drove was merely an interruption to fields and trees, more fields and more trees. There were no tall buildings to shield me from the sky; no people to watch to distract me from myself.
When a sign announced the exit for New York Mills, I coasted off the highway onto wet streets that reflected the sky in long puddles. Modest clapboard houses lined a wide road to the center of town. An old brick building on the railroad tracks had the words “New York Mills Creamery” molded into concrete above the entrance.
There were no traffic lights, just a stop sign with a flashing yellow light. The two main streets were wide enough for cars to park diagonally along both sides and empty of all the things I associated with a settlement of people. No string of pretty little boutiques. No pizza place. No sandwich shop. I couldn’t imagine how people lived, and what they did, in a town with such sparse amenities.
Beyond the few buildings and under the low-hanging clouds, a water tower was painted black on white with the silhouette of Rodin’s “Thinker” perched on a tractor. The Minnesota guidebooks had mentioned that New York Mills hosted the annual Great American Think Off philosophy competition. Maybe that was what people did here.
Across the intersection, a tiny park nestled along the railroad tracks with a picnic shelter. The wooden sign at the entrance read “Central Park.” I almost laughed out loud. New York Mills had a sense of humor—here was an appropriately-sized central park for a much, much tinier New York.
I followed the directions Lynn had given me across the railroad tracks and pulled into the dirt driveway of a gold cottage with red shutters. This would be the place I would call home for the next four weeks. Lynn, a generously proportioned woman with chin-length wheat-colored hair, stood waiting for me in the driveway. She enveloped me in a hug and led me through the backdoor making small talk about my trip. She swept her arms around the clean and airy kitchen. “Welcome to your new home.”
I dropped a small suitcase on the black and white linoleum floor. The cottage was twice the size of my apartment in Brooklyn. It smelled of wood, lemon, and a hint of finger paint.
The kitchen opened into a living room where another door offered a peek into a bedroom with diaphanous white curtains and a queen-sized bed.
Lynn handed me an orientation packet and keys. “Everything you need to know should be here. Feel free to call me if you need anything. Oh, and no need to lock your doors. It’s completely safe around here.” I weighed the keys in my hand. Lynn invited me to lunch the following day, spread her lips in a naughty grin and said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Her voice disintegrated into peals of laughter out the backdoor.
I walked to the middle of the living room and stretched my arms out as far as they could go. I had this place for four whole weeks. Four weeks to write songs. With no other obligations. The nervous tension I had been cultivating for the last week spilled out of me. A tingle started near my solar plexus and spread to my limbs. I jumped into the air, arms and legs reaching outward. “Wee hoo!” I yelled. The sound reverberated between walls, floor, and ceiling. This space was waiting to be filled with song. I sang a scale. The white walls reflected the notes back to me. I almost skipped as I relayed suitcases and gear from car to cottage.
My head was bent over a suitcase when I heard a sharp knock on the door. I started—who would be coming to visit me here? A woman with wild brown curls stuck her head in the kitchen in a cloud of turpentine and underarm sweat. She thrust a beribboned basket full of candy at me. “Happy May Day!” she said. “I’m Pam!”
A vintage skirt snagged on my watch. Before I could say anything, Pam was speaking again. “The kids and I made May Day baskets today.” She shoved the basket toward me, talking as if we were already well-acquainted. “Say, I’m on the way to the church but if you would like to come over, you can anytime. Artists always come over to watch television. I’m an artist too. My husband’s the doctor. Gary. We live a few miles out of town. Come by anytime. We’ll be watching Project Runway tomorrow night. You should come. Good to meet you. Say, gotta go. My number’s on the bulletin board inside. Call anytime. Bye!”
The screen door slammed behind her, and all that was left of Pam was the hint of her sweat in the air and the May Day basket swinging limply from my wrist.
I leaned against the door jamb, discombobulated, feeling like Alice after she fell into Wonderland. The New York Mills world seemed to have different rules than the ones I knew. I tried to mold the clay of my discomfort into yet another sturdy argument for why New York City was the right place for me. I couldn’t help but acknowledge, though, that no one had ever stopped by to drop off a May Day basket, or any other neighborly gift, during my years in New York City.
A pang of hunger pulled me out of my reverie. It was time to stock the cupboards. I picked up two sets of keys, car and cottage, and reviewed the map to the supermarket. I stepped out the door and lifted the key to the lock. I hesitated. I was in the country now. I could leave the door unlocked. I tucked the key in my pocket.
Two steps toward my car, a bungee-like pull sent me back to the door. I twisted the cottage key in the lock till the tumblers thudded.
The grocery’s produce aisle contained five globes of iceberg lettuce, some pink tomatoes, and a few bags of apples. Definitely no brown rice. I stopped at the car mechanic shop next to the Creamery building to discuss the repair of my Civic’s undercarriage, which had been broken by a wayward hubcap on an Iowa road. Unlike any service experience I had ever had, the mechanic was able to look at my car immediately.
While I waited, I decided I probably ought to meet Chris before I went into the wilderness for three days with him. That way there would be time to cancel the trip if he turned out to be an axe murderer.
When I returned to the cottage with my repaired car, I called him. He answered with a radio-voiced “hello.” I suggested we meet before the weekend. He suggested dessert the following night.
I went to bed wondering what Chris looked like.
After a productive morning of guitar and vocal exercises, Lynn pulled up to the house to take me to lunch. She drove a beat-up Toyota sedan with a large crack across the windshield. The roads to the restaurant went straight over long stretches of country till they curved suddenly to make way for a lake. Twice, Lynn slowed for huge tractors wider than the lane, one so high up off the pavement a car could have driven right underneath it.
At a table overlooking a golf course, a woman of about sixty waited for us. She had sparkling eyes and dark hair cut into a page-boy. “Lina is from New York City, too,” Lynn said. “She moved here ages ago.”
My lips parted in surprise. Who would choose to move here?
Lina’s whiskey-colored eyes crinkled around the edges. “I’ve been here about thirty years, now.” She leaned back into her chair. She was rounder than most New Yorkers, but her eyes, dark and fiery, could have belonged to my city.
She explained she had come to be closer to nature. She had followed the Back to the Land movement west and fell in love with the area. Her first husband had left, but she stayed and married a local man named Jerome.
I sipped water and felt its coolness travel to my center. I tried to imagine trading warehouse parties under the Manhattan Bridge for farmland in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. I couldn’t.
“You know,” Lina tilted her head at me as if she knew what I was thinking. “I’m not the first to leave New York for this area. The town was named New York Mills because it was founded in 1884 by a New York businessman who came here to build lumber mills.”
And he stayed? I choked on my next swallow of water.
After lunch, Lynn dropped me off at the cottage. I sat down and lifted my acoustic guitar. It was unnaturally quiet. I couldn’t hear trucks idling outside the windows, or the distant sounds of people. My leg twitched. After the camaraderie and conversation of lunch, I felt alone, isolated, a solitary being in the middle of emptiness. Even the vibrations of the guitar strings couldn’t fill up the void.
I put the guitar in its stand and grabbed the keys. Maybe I’d feel better—and could get some writing done—at a coffee shop with a few people around.
The coffee shop was in the old brick Creamery building. Framed prints of cows hung on yellow walls and milk cans filled the corners of a large space with too few tables. A stuffed Holstein cow stared wide-eyed at me from a plastic chair. The man behind the counter was tall and gaunt, with white hair and beard sandwiching a squinty glare. “You the new artist?” he demanded.
I almost dropped my handbag. “Uh, yes.”
“What kind of art do you do?” he barked.
I glanced down to make sure I wasn’t wearing a kick-me sign that said I AM THE ARTIST. “I’m a singer-songwriter.” I straightened my bag strap. “How did you know?”
He raised a pair of pale eyebrows and held my gaze for a long second before answering. “It’s obvious.”
I extended a hand over the cash register.“I’m Elisa. What’s your name?”
“Jack,” he grunted, keeping his hand to himself. “What’ll you have?”
I put my hand in my pocket. “What brand of Chai do you serve here?”
Jack grinned.“City girl, aren’t ya?” He bent down and there was the creak and whoosh of a fridge door. “Oregon Chai.” I ordered it. “Where you from?”
“New York City.”
“Figures. It’ll be right out.”
I sat down at one of the pale wooden tables and took out my notebook. The entrance bells on the front door rang, and Dan the mechanic entered and walked directly to my table. “Hello,” he said, voice soft. “I may have left a bolt loose in your Civic. I saw your car, and I thought I’d let you know.”
My lower jaw hinged to the side as I took in what was happening: a mechanic had sought me out, in the town coffee shop, to provide extra service.
I stared. Dan waited. “Oh, um, you need my keys?” Dan nodded. I reached into my purse. My key chain was a minimalist sculpture of brass crafted in Israel. Besides my car key, it held the keys to my Brooklyn apartment. It was my main link to my Brooklyn life. My hand tightened, metal carving grooves into flesh. I unclenched the keys into Dan’s open hand.
From the window, I watched Dan pull out of the parking lot in my car, feeling like he was taking one of my limbs with him. I could still feel the imprint of keys in my palm, but when I glanced down all I could see was the arc of my lifeline diverging in two craggy paths. I picked up my pen and returned to my notebook.
Twenty minutes later, when Dan handed me my keys, a volume of air I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in my lungs whooshed out of me. “Thanks,” I said.
I heard footsteps and Jack’s voice behind me.
“So, you’re going canoeing this weekend, eh?”
I craned my neck to look at him. “How do you know that?”
Jack was already walking to the counter. “Word gets around.”
My first time out on my own in New York Mills felt more personal than any experience I’d had in New York City.