You knew it had to happen, right? On a trip around America that has taken every possible detour to look at Americana and roadside attractions, at some point it was inevitable that we would come across the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Today, I knew I was going to see the ball of twine, but I never anticipated meeting JFK, who built it. No, not the president, of course. The other JFK.
We slept in an extra hour this morning, because we gained an extra hour when we reached the western extreme of Michigan. What better way to spend an extra hour, when you’ve been running non-stop for seven weeks than sleeping?
We left Ironwood, Michigan, thinking we were heading toward a spot in Wisconsin where John Dillinger had engaged in an epic shootout with the FBI before escaping on foot. The location is now a lodge/cafe, and there are still bullet holes in the wall. It’s also where they shot a portion of the Johnny Depp movie Public Enemy. Right up our alley – a little pop culture, a little history, all blended together. Just as we pulled out of the parking lot, though, Mama Google warned me that the place didn’t open until 5:00 PM. Since it was 10:00 AM, and the place was only an hour away, that plan went out the window.
So, we headed toward Duluth, Minnesota, figuring I would find something along the way that was interesting or unusual. That’s where JFK and his ball of twine entered the picture. JFK is James Frank Kotera, and in a world where most people are drawn in shades of grey, he is drawn large in vibrant, full-color.
To meet Mr. Kotera is to know him, as he will hold nothing back. I glanced through his visitors log he keeps and saw that he gets several visitors every day, from all over the world. I believe he tells each and every one of them his story, and here it is, paraphrased from memory.
On April 3rd, 1975, he was in his bedroom when he felt the hand of God on his back. He had an interesting conversation with God that went something like this:
“James, this is the real God.”
“The real God? Right here in my bedroom?”
“Right here in your bedroom. James, you need to quit your drinking and straighten out your life, or you will never be the famous JFK, the twine man.”
Now me, I would have already mentioned that there was already a pretty famous JFK, but Mr. Kotera is a better man than I. He listened to God and told me this morning that he has never had another drink since that morning.
For some reason, he waited to get started on his life’s work, but on the 4th anniversary of his conversation with God, he started building his ball of twine. Thirty seven years later, he is still working on it. He told me he had already worked on it for several hours this very morning.
“Over and under, over and under, and it will never fall apart.” He said that in a sing-song voice that made me suspect he had said it perhaps a million times before.
I was tempted to say, “Wax on, wax off,” but I already loved Mr. Kotera, so I didn’t.
Have you seen the late-seventies movie Being There, starring Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardner, or perhaps read the novella of the same name by Jerzy Kosinski? If not, the basic plot is that Peter Sellers plays a simple (exceedingly simple) man who only talks about gardening and television. Every one who encounters him hears the same simple homilies and respects his wisdom.
Mr. Kotera is the closest I have ever come to meeting a real Chance the Gardener. I’ve never met anyone who is so happy, so satisfied with their lot in life, so convinced they are doing exactly what they should be doing every day. I felt blessed to have met him, and will not forget him or the life lessons he effortlessly imparts.
Here are a couple of pictures I took at his place.
By the way, the sign says “Dump and Twine Man” because he still works three days a week at the dump, which he also loves. That’s where the decorations on the stakes all came from. Of course, if you’ve driven miles out of your way to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, eventually I’ve gotta show it, right? Here it is:
JFK keeps meticulous notes and measurements about his ball of twine, and he told me that as of this morning, it weighs 22,200 lbs. As you can see, it’s actually more of an “egg” of twine now, as opposed to a “ball,” but Mr. Kotera explained that is a function of the very heavy twine resting on the concrete blocks – he can’t build around the middle any more.
I said, “Unless you got a crane in here, lifted it up and set it on a new base.”
He nodded. He was way ahead of me, as usual. “Yep. $8,000.”
Enough said. It will continue to be the World’s Biggest Egg of Twine until someone wants to kick in eight grand.
I knew nothing could top the experience of finally realizing the ultimate roadtripper goal of finding The World’s Largest Ball of Twine, but it was only noon, so we had to go on with our day.
We drove on across Wisconsin. When we drove down some roads, the falling leaves came at us like an early snowfall, almost hypnotizing us, and decorating the road. Some roads just looked like this:
So often this past week, we’ve felt like we were driving right into a postcard.
In Duluth, I was tempted to go by the home that Robert Zimmerman was born in. Who? Oh, right. Bob Dylan. Most people associate him with Hibbing, Minnesota, where my friend Joni Furry is from, but he was born and lived in Duluth the first six years of his life. We didn’t make the trek across town, though. Here’s a small confession: although I love his songs, I’ve never loved Mr. Dylan as a recording artist. I listen to Dylan songs most every day, but typically sung by other artists. In the interest of moving along, we passed.
What we couldn’t pass up was the Aerial Lift Bridge. When we were in St. Augustine, Florida, I mentioned that I love drawbridges. The Aerial Lift Bridge takes being a drawbridge to a whole new level. Here’s a picture of the Aerial Lift Bridge as it normally sits:
That lower span is where cars drive across. However, when a large ship needs to pass through, instead of simply opening up like a normal drawbridge, the whole lower span raises and raises, until it is 135 feet in the air.
This bridge is a rock star in Duluth. Crowds gather to watch it go up and down, and the Maritime Museum next to it has a schedule on a television screen that shows when it will rise next. We got there in time to watch American Mariner go through. The American Mariner is 715 feet long, so it gave us a great comparison for the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was 730 feet long. Here it is:
And here’s what the bridge looks like when it is raising:
And back down again, the American Mariner safely on the other side:
We both thought that watching the bridge raise and settle back was amazing. At 5:00, they were opening it again to let a thousand foot boat through. We were tempted to hang around for those hours to watch, but we didn’t.
Now, about Paul Bunyan. A lot of places here in the North-Central part of the United States lay claim to the legend of Paul Bunyan. There are statues of him scattered all over several states. Different places claim to be “The birthplace of Paul Bunyan.” It’s a fun argument, because like all the best arguments, it can never be settled. As we drove on into Minnesota, past several dozen of the lakes that give Minnesota its nickname, we saw this impressive fellow.
When I was a young boy, I was fascinated by the adventures of Paul and his blue ox, Babe. As an adult, I seem to have lost that magical believing. Still, it was a cool statue.
By the way, we talked about driving to Brainerd, because of the Paul Bunyan statue that was shown in the movie Fargo. We love Fargo. It’s an all-time Top Ten movie for us. I can quote from it obsessively. However, in doing a little research, we found that none of the movie was shot in Brainerd, and that the famous Paul Bunyan statue was something the Coen brothers had constructed just for the movie. So, no Brainerd for us. Still, there is a rumor of a woodchipper in Fargo. Now, that would be something we would drive to see. 🙂
Until tomorrow, cheers, and safe travels!