Bunyan’s Last Stand
[Editor’s Note: This post was submitted by the immensely good-natured aspiring astronaut and supposéd author Jeremy Pokela. It is my sincere hope to solicit further brief essays from a range of Minnesotans with regards to their reflections on everybody’s favorite North Star. I’ve also included pictures that were taken as part of an ethnographic research study of Akeley, Minnesota. Please enjoy!]
Every summer I vacation with my extended family at a small resort in Northern Minnesota. Around 40 of us gather every year, to reacquaint ourselves, to fish and swim, to relax, to be ourselves. We’ve been going to the same lake for over 30 years, the same week in July. Every year seems like a reflection of every other year. My memories fade together, indistinct in terms of what happened in any particular year, painting a picture in my brain of just one perfect summer vacation. Mainly this is because every year I do pretty much the same things I do every other year. I read a book or two, I go rollerblading on the trails that used to be railroad tracks, and I sit around campfires listening to my family sing and tell stories.
But part of it has to do with the consistency of the surroundings, most of the cabins seem to be unchanged from my memories of them as a child, the raft floating out on the lake is identical to the one I remember jumping off of as a 9 year old (from which my nieces and nephews have taken my place). And sitting on the last corner before the lake comes into view, right as you’re leaving Akeley is Bunyan’s Gas Station:
Bunyan’s is a strange place, on the one hand it is a testimonial to the idea that Akeley is the birthplace of the Legend of Paul Bunyan. With pictures depicting the characters found in the legends, along with descriptions of the events that led to their creation, painted along the walls of the gas station. And a museum devoted to the world’s most famous lumberjack. On the other hand Bunyan’s is the nexus of a nonexistent town, Hooch Lake.
Built of false fronts, the town of Hooch Lake is a single street, running parallel to the highway extending from the gas station on one end to Hooch Lake itself on the other. The town of Hooch Lake is approximately 200 yards long. There are 20 distinct buildings, each decorated in its own style. Some seem to exist merely to extend the distance covered by the town, others attain a frightening level of detail, covered with signs proclaiming (with long, painfully unfunny, descriptions) what they have to offer the hypothetical residents.
The lake after which this fake town is named is small, manmade, weed infested, horror show. In the middle of the lake, floating on a decaying pool lounge chair, is a female mannequin. Her hair is a frizzy, gray mass, but her makeup is perfectly applied. She is clutching an empty beer bottle in her left hand, despite the fact that her left arm has been severed at the shoulder. Her left leg is a shattered ruin, but she still appears quite calm. She is enjoying her day on the lake, nothing is going to bring her down. The whole tableau has a disquieting effect, which is not, I think, what was intended.
This year Bunyan’s was closed down. Someone told me that it had gone out of business in June. Looking through the windows you could still see products on the shelf, even a carton of cigarettes tucked behind the counter. But the lot was empty, the pump handles bagged up. The weeds in the field by the museum tall and unmanaged.
It was strange, and it was campy, but it was unique. And in a world where everything seems to strive to become exactly like everything else, and suburbs spring up out of nowhere replacing real communities with McDonalds and Wal-Marts, we seem to be in a never ending race to destroy anything that isn’t easily replicable. Maybe it was inevitable that Bunyan’s closed. Or maybe it was just a gas station on the edge of a dying town. Either way I already miss Bunyan’s. My vacation memories are forever changed.
[The full selection of photos, including each individual storefront of ‘Hooch Lake’ can be inconveniently viewed here]