The other day I spied a photo an out-of-town friend had posted on the internet, a rosy sunset against rippling water. An L-shaped dock cast shadows across the glassy reflective pond; the sky held long, pink clouds that painted the river in layered color.
Somehow, I took one look at that picture and said, “That is my wedding sunset.” And it was.
Maybe it’s a bride thing, some hypersensitive memory deal where your big day is a blur of people and action and ceremony and fun, save those little slices you can recall in perfect detail.
What I found most interesting about the photo, though, was the conversation it sparked, with lots of our friends who came to the wedding from out of town starting to plan their next visit. Camping, bluffs, boat rides, Shakespeare fun, fun with the kids—it started to make me remember how lucky we are to live here.
My introduction to Winona came the year before I moved here to work, tagging along with my dearest friend Alexis (Lutterman) Spier. She’s a homegrown Winona girl, a Cotter graduate, and we met in the dorms at Saint Cloud State University our first year. She came as an absolute blessing, as moving into a nine-story building crammed with 18-year-olds blasting pop music from their shoebox rooms somehow really tugged at my shy-strings, and I didn’t immediately make many friends I wanted to keep.
The day after I met Lexi, her best friend Sarah Frisby was killed by a drunk driver on her way home to Galesville from a friend’s house in Winona. Sarah was a vibrant, glowing, beautiful young woman who loved music and poetry; she loved Shakespeare, loved watching old black and white movies. I will never forget Lexi, standing inside my tiny dorm room and telling me what had happened, her face twisted in sorrow. She has told me ever since that I remind her of Sarah, that I came just in time to help her through all that pain. And although I never met Sarah Frisby, somehow I can conjure up her face in my memory, this beautiful young girl with whom I share a name, a girl who was born five days before me, and who was robbed of the life she so relished.
Although Lexi’s family has moved out of Winona, she has always come to visit a few times a year, sporting a long list of people to see, places to go, beloved old haunts to stop by and remember. So on that first trip with her to Winona, I was lucky to be led on a tour that brought me to all kinds of interesting places. We stopped off at Watkins for some lotion that Lex just can’t live without; we had a fancy fish dinner near the river, and we hiked along the trout stream picking agates on Chuck Johnson’s property, where we camped out and had a bonfire, fireflies swirling through the night air.
I remember thinking, as we drove away from the rising green bluffs framing the river valley, that this is the kind of home town that lucky people are born to. Not the transient dirty rush of the suburbs, where no one is left from your childhood when you return, not the anonymous cramp of the city. Winona is a town that, despite all of the big things going on here, holds a kind of small town charm that won’t let go. It’s not just beautiful. It boasts families that go back generations, people who really care about the area and one another, people who pay attention and remember and cherish the history that is at every corner. The more I get to know Winona and the surrounding region, from the backwaters to Bloedow’s, the more I am proud to call this place my home.
Some of us are born here, some stumble upon the Winona river valley area. Some come here to work, some come as young brides or grooms. For me, that first visit was enough to fall in love, and it felt like fate was giving me a chance at a wonderful dream when, a few months later, I landed my job at the Winona Post. So while I might not be a “born and raised” Winona area gal, I have adopted this place as my new home town, the one that I love, and wouldn’t trade for the world.
And those girlfriends of mine, planning their next trip here while reminiscing over my wedding sunset? Well, let’s just say they’ve been bitten by the bug, too, like so many who can’t stay away once they’ve stopped and played along these river banks, once they’ve started to memorize the slope of these hills reaching up to a sky that never, ever, seems to end.