September 24th, 2020
My hands wrapped around a fresh latte in the autumn chill, I smile at another mini pelican statue. “Ha,” my mom laughs. “He’s a dalmatian!” And sure enough, this pelican sits in front of the fire station, spotted and donning a red helmet. Maybe the fiftieth statue-d bird I’ve seen today.
Let’s flash back a little bit. How did I end up wandering in this pelican-plagued land?
This morning, our fridge door fell off. Yep, that’s right, the fridge door in our RV fell clean off, and we couldn’t fix it. So my mom and I had just made a 20-minute trek to the nearest Family Dollar to buy a styrofoam cooler and save the day. We already planned to go “out on the town” today before setting off for Wisconsin, so this was only a minor major inconvenience. See what I did there?
In just a denim jacket and dress, I’m cold, so we stop in the famous (in the county) Muddy Moose, one of those center-of-the-community spots, that serves espresso, pastries, and even burgers. At 8:30am, though, I don’t see a single burger being flipped; what a shame. The mini- pelican that protects Muddy Moose is casually sipping a glass of wine. He’s classy.
As I sit holding a massive styrofoam cooler on my lap in a small-town diner in a state I’ve never been to, I reflect on how people have their whole lives here in this town filled with pelicans. They’re born, grow up, have children, have jobs and hobbies and… full, vibrant lives. And yet, before today, this place wasn’t even on my radar.
I wonder… what are their stories? And who will write them?
I watch a flock of older men order endless pots of black coffee as they chat about old memories and new happenings. Some wear veteran’s hats, and I think about the things they must’ve seen, the history they witnessed.
A younger woman with long black hair peeks out at me from under her spectacles. I can almost hear her thinking, “Who are those people, and what’s with the cooler?” I smile, hoping it conveys, Yeah, we’re from out of town. And she smiles back, of course, because the people are nice here.
I like the way the woman at the counter shapes her “os”. “Oh,” she says, in that Minnes-Oh-ta accent, “do you want whipped cream on that latte?” I try hard not to smile. I’ve never heard that accent in person before, except once, in North Dak-Oh-ta.
People-watching isn’t something I do often, scared that I’m being creepy, but when I do, it’s rewarding. Because when I watch people’s behavior, and witness their little quirks, I feel like I’m getting to know them, and by extension the place that they’re from.
Today, in Pelicanland, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in - because I am. I’m a girl from Missouri and this place may as well be foreign, despite being not all that far away. So I’m happy to sit, sipping a latte, and soaking in all that I can.
The vibe of this town fascinates me so much that I research its history. And so I discover the reason so many of this cafe’s patrons are tall and blonde - people settled here from Norway. I realize that the Native Americans were the first to call the river that flows through this town the “Pelican” - so we can thank them for the statues. The more I understand their history, the more I understand their present.
We thank the woman at the counter and leave, ending up where I started this story - in front of the fire department. Which means it’s probably time to tell you the name of the town. Oh, you didn’t realize it isn’t actually called “Pelicanland”?
Pelican Rapids, Minnesota is one of those small towns you might never visit if it weren’t for, say, the fact that it houses the world’s biggest pelican statue. Yep, that’s right, in addition to the hundreds of mini pelicans, there’s also a very, very big one in the center of a city park. I spent one night here, and I fell in love with this town, and I would’ve loved it, Pelican Pete or not.
My mom and I keep walking a little longer. When we arrive back at our beautiful campsite, it’s time to show my sisters some of the cool spots in town.
First item on the agenda?
The giant pelican state.
The most-photographed spot in town, Pelican Pete stands tall and proud on a platform atop the rushing white rapids. Earlier this year, the citizens of P.R. even masked Mr. Pete, showing their commitment to COVID-19 safety measures. By the time I come along, though, the pelican had unmasked, so I stay safe by social distancing ✌🏼😆
After, we do a ‘lil photo shoot with the richly-colored autumn leaves. Because who could resist?
I spend some time wandering, as I do, by the bank of the river, gazing at the trees’ reflection in the water. I get lost in my thoughts and I like it there. Feeling mental clarity the way I only do when I’m alone, I stare at the river, and let my imagination sweep me off my feet.
By the time we have to leave, I feel like I know this town - I know its’ spirit, and I know its’ character. From the first few hours we spent here, I realized how unique it was, with its’ own charm. It makes me wonder, how many other Pelicanlands are there in America? Ok, maybe there are no other pelican-themed small towns. But how many other interesting and creative towns, with their bright and colorful personalities, are there? How many places I would easily pass over as a speck on the map, are truly a hidden gem?