Hitting the Road Instead of the Books (p4)

26 06 2018

(Read Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3)

The first week of our big road trip was filled with familiar landscape, down paved roads lined with oak and maple trees, just barely starting to transition from green to yellow and orange. The air was crisp in the mornings, but the sunshine streamed in that giant bay window in the afternoons as I drove westward.

A virtual ‘orange-a-topia’ awaits us

We began to develop a comfortable routine, with some small adjustments to our daily packing. We didn’t spend more than a night in any town, and most nights were spent planning the next day’s route over a dimly lit road map, with our 3-inch-thick printed USA campground directory. We had fun sharing our quaint Midwestern novelties with Gwendolyn the goose, but were most excited to gain distance from Michigan, to start reaching less familiar territory.


darwin_mnThe night we reached the border to Minnesota, we were giddy with excitement. Tomorrow, we could hardly believe it, we would finally get to experience the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota in person! We didn’t know how much of Weird Al’s song would ring true, and what was simply written in satire. Would there BE a souvenir miniature ball of twine?? Surely, at the very least, we would be able to give them our money to receive postcards and a bumper sticker, which would be added to the growing collage of stickers covering the windows of the bus.

worlds largest ball of twine starter kit souvenir darwin mn

The next morning, we rose with the sun, ate a cold bowl of cereal followed by a hot shower, and packed up the bus for Darwin, Minnesota. I buckled my seat belt, stepped on the metal pedal to the right to prime the carb, and fired up the engine. “Today’s the day, Gwen!” I hollered over my shoulder to our beloved travel companion. She rode in the back of the bus, gently perched atop a pillow like the royalty that she was. She smiled back at me from the rearview mirror, and off we went!


Jamie gripped the curled and tattered edges of the atlas to keep the wind from turning the pages, as he navigated us down two-line country roads. Darwin is not exactly a thriving metropolis, and getting there definitely required the scenic route. We didn’t have an actual address for the Ball of Twine, and were simply driving towards the tiny black dot on the map, hoping we’d be able to figure it out without too much difficulty.


The sun was shining strong, casting heavy shadows straight down when we turned onto County Rd. 14 at noon. We had been listening to our Weird Al cassette tape on repeat for an hour straight, joyfully singing at the top of our lungs, the song that brought us to this day. There, in the middle of the tiny town square, stood the wooden pagoda, just as it had been described. 21,140 pounds of string (according to Weird Al), sheltered in a plexiglass-sided shrine, with all the glory of a miraculous piece of toast with a Jesus profile burnt into it. I pulled over to the side of the road, parked the bus, and out we leapt.


I pulled out my camera, double checked that I had film in it, and began to document this glorious culmination of years of planning. There was a large sign next to the pagoda that substantiated the facts shared in the song, along with additional historical information, all of which is still permanently burned into my brain to this very day. Francis A. Johnson was a farmer who got a bit carried away with his excess baling twine, developing a ball that eventually required a tractor to rotate it with each new addition of twine, in order to create this perfect sphere. For 29 years, he worked on his art. He originally housed it at the farm, until the Ball’s infamy prompted a relocation to the town’s center, so that all 276 residents could enjoy its majestic glory.


Just 7 years earlier, I could have actually reached out and touched the Ball with my own flesh, to truly commune with the Twine, but, alas, the high security required in the 1990s led to the protective layer of plexiglass. It was disappointing, but I respected that this was for the good of the Ball.


Grinning like a giddy child, I circumnavigated the pagoda, to ensure that I captured every fathomable vantage point, before walking across the street to the nearby visitors bureau. Inside, I was greeted by a cramped little welcome center, replete with all the terrible tschotchkes I had hoped for. I bought the blue button, 10 postcards, a mini ball of twine, and, of course, 2 large, rectangular bumper sticker to affix to my bus, Sam.


With tears of joy, we sat outside in the grass to enjoy our peanut butter sandwiches while staring at the Ball of Twine. When we finished our al fresco lunch, we waved farewell to Darwin, and headed north. Just in case you are still planning your summer vacation, the town’s “Twine Ball Days” festival is in August!


Next up? World’s Largest Prairie Chicken!





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