The Wagon Wheel Mystery

When we moved to the lake in East Bethel, Minnesota a couple of years ago we bought a house that had a lot of oddities, but at the top of the list were two very large old wagon wheels that had been placed in the landscaping on each side of the driveway. It still had the full bent wood encircling the metal and the old wood spokes are all still in place. They made things sturdy and to last back then. But why were they there? What was their purpose? Was it simply something
decorative, placed to define the end of the driveway? We did not think much of it, but when looking at the property we had decided it would be something we would remove early on. Before even giving them a thought we decided it was not our style.

Once we moved in we had a lot of projects that took priority over the wagon wheels, like getting rid of wood piles covered in tarps and changing out the carpeting that looked original, and of course exploring the lake with the kayaks and boats. We decided to make sure we had plenty of fun time, after all we did not move to the lake to be working all of the time. We knew some projects could wait.

Well it was good that we waited because time changed our attitude on those wagon wheels.

Along with exploring the lake in the summer we explored the local roads and parks in the winter. We started to notice the wagon wheels all over East Bethel and Wyoming (the next closet town
and the surrounding area). In fact the road we live on alone has four different properties with wagon wheels. Along County Hwy 22 our nearest large road, there are a number of properties with wagon wheels, and when we explored the side streets on our four wheeler, we started to notice even more wagon wheels. So many, that it sparked our conversation and curiosity.

Why so many wagon wheels? What is the deal with all the wagon wheels in East Bethel? I had lived in Blaine for 25 years, I’ve lived in Duluth and St. Paul, and I grew up in Pierz, Minnesota, but I have never seen so many wagon wheels in landscaping and displayed proudly as in East Bethel. I have traveled many times out west where the wagon trains were mostly headed. I did not see as many wagon wheels out west as I have seen here either. It made me ponder, especially while relaxed and walking my dogs around the neighborhood, what do these wagon wheels represent?

Over 150 years ago, families packed up their entire life into a wagon and set out on an adventure to find a better life. I cannot imagine the contemplation and decision making that preceded the actual move. The couples discussing whether the danger of the trek would be worth the reward of open land for homesteading that waited at the other end. They had a chance, not only at a new life, but a better life. They had to be sure that their wagon, with its strong wheels, could carry them the entire way over mountains, through endless prairie grass and crossing treacherous rivers. The trust, hope and bravery that must have gone into that decision is almost unimaginable today.

We even contemplate fun trips with some apprehension, and we have the internet to see every detail of where we are going, photos of every location we are going to, and we can read reviews on anything we are interested in doing. The amount of information we have to make simple decisions is endless. The lack of information that the wagon train generation had available to make life and death decisions are mind-boggling. Yet they had faith, trust, hope and an adventurous spirit that they would handle whatever life threw at them, because they were striving for a better life for themselves and for their children.

I would like to think that had I lived in the time of wagon trains, I would have been brave enough to load that wagon and see what the horizon brought. I would like to think I would have been selfless enough to know that making the decision would benefit my children and grandchildren more than me and making things better for my family would have been a driving factor.

Of course I cannot help, but reminisce back to the 1990’s when our kids and I played the computer game called, Oregon Trail and our entire family died every second game of either dysentery or we corked our wagon to forge the river and everyone drowned. As depressing as that sounds, it was a really fun game. It was challenging to see if one could get to the destination, and when we did without killing off the entire family, we had a sense of accomplishment until we started back at the beginning again and then lost everybody.

We had a lot of fun with that game, but the game hit home the realities of the real dangers the wagon train generation faced in making the decision to go. They lost about half their babies and their small children many times could not tolerate the disease and hardships. They were many times hungry and scared. I imagine myself as a mom, worrying about whether we would have enough food along the way for the family, worried and watching my kids for fever or the other dangers of the road like broken bones or encounters with wild animals. Of course the whole time also dreaming and hoping that we find our little piece of heaven on earth at the end of the long trek.

Why there are so many wagon wheels displayed in our area of East Bethel, I do not know. I know the area had a lot of Swedish settlers back in the day, but I am still in search of why so many wagon wheels survived and are so prominently displayed today here in this area of the county. I know I do not look upon these wheels in the same way anymore. I can tell you that these wagon wheels have a whole new meaning for me. They represent bravery and change. They represent hope, hard work and a promise of a better and more fulfilled life. I look upon them and remember the adventurous souls who were brave enough to change everything for the hope of something new and to trek into the unknown to find it.

The wheels inspire us to explore and to take chances and to always hope and look to the future and move forward. They represent courage for the unknown and strength in the face of fear. I am keeping my wheels as long as they hold together. As I drive in and out of my new lake place, a place my husband of 30 years and I bought to start our new empty nest life together, I am inspired to keep up the adventure, hope and spirit of the past, while looking to the future adventures that life will bring us.

Finding Inspiration

It is funny how sometimes a simple gesture or event can lead to tremendous inspiration. Many times, in hindsight, it is not earth shattering but leads to a feeling that lasts for years or even changes our thinking.   In 2008 I was attending a Bar Association convention in Duluth. The guest speaker was Will Steger, the Minnesota born polar explorer and now activist for climate change. This is a guy I have read about and admired for years. We all followed him over the years when in 1986 he completed the first unsupported dog sled journey to the North Pole. He went on to alsoIMG_5360 explore Greenland from South to North by dogsled, and in 1989 he went 3,471 miles across Antarctica again by dog sled. I remember seeing pictures of him and his team and his dogs back in the 1980’s and we were all impressed at how he and his team could survive in such harsh conditions. To say he was inspirational in the 1980s would be an understatement. This is a guy who had a crazy dream, but did what it took to follow that dream. Instead of thinking about wild adventures this guy went on wild adventures.

I knew Steger must be a tough and courageous guy, but it surprised me when I heard him speak at the Bar convention, and I realized how humble and likable he was. He definitely has a passion for educating us all on climate change and he should. This is clearly a serious problem that he has seen first hand. However, instead of preaching hate or blame, he is all about the educational piece and about a call to action for the greater good. His presentation started with how he was raised by great parents who let him explore his surroundings. He was clearly grateful to them for a good start in life and gave them a lot of credit. They let him explore even at a young age and to follow his dream, even allowing him and a friend or brother to take a boat down the Mississippi by themselves.

His presentation involved great pictures of his team of people that went on each expedition and of course pictures of his dogs, but also the pictures of melting glaciers and the loss of ice caps. He has been asked to speak frequently in Congress and all over the world on climate change, because of his knowledge and first hand experience and because he is an impressive and charismatic guy who can inspire us all. This is a man who inspires us to do better and to be better about protecting our environment through his humble quiet presentation. This is a noble thing, but I found deeper inspiration as I sat and listened to his presentation in that Duluth convention hall.

In 2008 I had three teenagers, ages nineteen, sixteen and fourteen and was getting to that point in my life where my kids were becoming more self sufficient. They were expecting and getting more autonomy and I expected good decisions from them and to be more mature than most of IMG_5359their friends. My husband and I were busy in our careers and busy with family things. Listening to Will talk about his family and how his parents loved him and expected great things from him, but did not hover, inspired me to give my own kids more leeway, but yet hold them accountable. I had few hard and fast rules, but I expected good grades, to be home at a decent hour, and they had to treat others with respect. I warned them that if they showed me that they needed strict rules by their behavior, I would be happy to give them strict rules. I never set a curfew and I never had to. They knew they had to be home at a reasonable hour depending on the day of the week and whether they had school the next day and what was reasonable depended upon their age and they knew that. They knew that if they were coming home late there better be a real great reason.

We lived on three acres of woods surrounded by acres and acres of preserve with a large pond attached to our property. The kids were always able to explore the woods with us when they were younger and by themselves or with their friends when they were older. We always encouraged outdoor adventures and encouraged curiosity through outdoor exploration. When my son showed an interest in hunting, I was fortunate enough to be able to send him out to my sister and brother-in-law’s farm in Ortonville, Minnesota, to oversee his first hunting experience after he went through gun safety training. When my high school senior daughter wanted to visit one of our foreign exchange students in Germany by herself that summer, we helped her work out the details to try the best we could to make sure it was well planned and safe and we let her go with our blessing.

My kids had no idea how much Will Steger may have inspired some of that autonomous parenting that we had in place. I have to say I was parented like that so I certainly leaned towards more independence for my kids, but a lot of their friends had really strict rules. I chose a different style and it worked.

I not only had inspiration for how I raised my kids as I listened to Steger back in 2008, but after the presentation I stood in line to buy one of his posters and to get his autograph and have a few seconds to talk with him and tell him IMG_5369how inspiring he was and is. I had seen the picture before. It was mainly of a beautiful blue sky hanging over the white blowing landscape of Antarctica. The dogs are curled in the snow in the foreground, tails protecting their faces in their harnesses waiting to get started for the day. Steger is in the picture in full Antarctic garb making the last tie downs on the over-full sled the dogs will soon be pulling across the harsh ice covered landscape. It is a beautiful picture for sure, but it represents so much more. As I stood in line looking at the poster, it was hard not to see past the beauty, to the challenge of what he had accomplished. This was no joy ride with sled dogs. This was a daily life and death struggle over more than 3000 miles. Some people had tried before him and died.

As I approached him I tried to formulate a nice statement to him, to express my admiration for him and his life’s work to educate us on environmental concerns. I have to say that my respect for him was also more than what he accomplished, but that he had in fact had a life of exploration and education as opposed to a run of the mill, work a day life. When it was my turn, he asked my name and we talked a little about the environment and he seemed sincere in his appreciation for my kind statements to him.

I shook his hand and when I left I looked at what he had written on the poster. It said, “Joan, Follow your dreams! My Best, Will Steger 2008.” Now I am sure he has written that line many times on many posters, but I felt like he was talking directly to me. It felt like he was telling me that all is possible and that no matter who you are, dreams are still important and you can work IMG_5366to realize them. This came to me at a time when it meant more than anything else. We were busy with our lives and sometimes overwhelmed with family schedules and it provided that inspiration to really think about our dreams and aspirations as individuals and as a family. To remember that toiling away is not the important part of life, but adventure and dreams are why we live.

I had that poster framed and I have had it in my home since 2008. I have read that statement “Follow your dreams” many times over the years and looked upon that young explorer in the picture willing to risk it all to follow his dreams. My dreams are not nearly as lofty, but they are mine. I look to the poster for inspiration in life and to stay encouraged in living life to the fullest and to have courage in pursuing my dreams. Inspiration can be found in little things. Use what works for you to stay encouraged in life and living it to the fullest.