A Hundred Miles To Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story

Two excerpts from the novel:


Sometimes, surrounded by the endless Minnesota sky, I believe I have come home. Other times, I am sure moving from New York City to rural Minnesota was a mistake.

It is morning, and I walk the half-mile down my gravel driveway, humming a melody that may one day grow up to be a song. Pastures unfold in every direction, separated by copses of aspen and pine, oak and maple. Like most autumn mornings while burgundy leaves linger on the oaks, I take Meadow for a walk. Really, the yellow lab is my excuse to walk myself. Every morning when I start my walk, I hope that, this time, motion will help me outpace my melancholy.

A breeze pulls the warmth from my body, stealing the last skin-sense of Chris next to me in bed. He was the reason I moved here, the beacon that drew me away from the concrete sea of city.

I am no longer sure he is enough to keep me here.

Regrets have escaped their trap again, and I am glad I am alone while they stalk me. Away from Chris, I stop pretending everything is okay.

I unravel a tangle of earphones and select a recent “This American Life” podcast, placing one earphone in my ear and letting the other dangle free. In my right ear, behind Ira Glass’s nasal drawl, I hear the background noise of New York City traffic. In my left ear, the chuckle-call of Sandhill Cranes. I cannot tune out one ear in favor of the other, just as I can no longer be only one version of myself.

I stand at the intersection of two lives.

In my old life in New York City, I woke to a world alive with activity. Trucks grumbled at idle underneath my window, and the air was thick with diesel and the scent of cumin from the Mexican restaurant across the street. The only sky was a thin slice at the top of my window.

In Minnesota, the sky has its own topography. Over a monotony of flat landscape, the sky is filled with crags and altitude, mountains and valleys, color and elevation. Today’s sky is an expanse of soft gray blankets. A pink sun shines through a small opening to the east, a crack of morning light beneath cosmic bed sheets. The air is thick with the promise of rain, and I inhale earth, pine, and sweetgrass, hoping the scents might cultivate the barren terrain inside me.

In New York City, I walked a purposeful vector to the subway, along the way accommodating crowds of pedestrians in a practiced dance. Over the course of four blocks I passed eight restaurants, four boutiques, a laundromat, a Dominican bodega, a gourmet grocery, and a Korean deli.

Meadow and I have walked the equivalent of four Brooklyn blocks and passed nobody. We are not even halfway down my driveway. The driveway bends 60 degrees toward the road, and I can no longer see my house, just fields lined by clumps of thorny mountain ash.

To the north, a rotting wood-plank deer stand is poised like a macabre Tinker Toy on stilts. The empty rectangle of its window stares at me, an unlidded eye where hunters rest their rifles and sight their prey. I am the deer before the hunter shoots. I long to run, but I don’t know which would be worse: standing as still as I can, hoping to blend into my surroundings, or bolting back to where I came from.

Satellite Dish Snow Bowl

Bring me winter
Freeze the ice on the lake
Give me quiet
And a place to hibernate

– “Winter Song” by Elisa Korenne

Among endless fields sprinkled sugar-white, the house at Oak Hol- low was a candy-cane confection of white columns and red walls. The dove-colored sky had shattered into bits and floated down to cover the earth in blankets of tiny, cruel diamonds. Sky fragments glittered on the roof between the twin pearls of tundra and sky. The oaks were many-armed gods, black calligraphy on a white page. In the black-and-white beauty, cold was the slicing jab of a broken bottle, its sharp edges keen for one who had not known cold before. It met me, and stole my breath.

“Have you been here through a winter?” was the second thing all Minnesotans asked upon meeting me, after “Ooh, yah, New York City to New York Mills, eh? Didn’t want to change the address too much then, didja?” When I answered I hadn’t yet lived through a Minnesota winter, the locals shook their heads and turned away.

“Don’t worry about it.” Chris pulled me close. “Winter’s not that bad here.”

Despite the focus that a quiet January had given to my songwriting, it was now February, and the sheer willful doggedness of winter was “that bad.” There were at least a couple of months more left of cease- less, white cold, and I couldn’t be a real Minnesotan until I had lived through winter in its entirety and chosen to stay anyway.

The cold of negative twenty degrees Fahrenheit burned like molten glass. Exposed skin seared as if blistered. Eyes pricked and ached. Nostrils tightened and stretched. Lungs stung. Hardened mucous pulled nose hairs and blocked airflow. I struggled to inhale frigid air. I breathed glass.

My new life in Minnesota was outlined in cold, circumscribed by cold, defined by cold, and determined by cold. Cold was my rubicon, my crossroads, my final test. If I could make it through the Minnesota winter, I’d be able to live here. Permanently.

The Internet went down during a snowstorm before a brilliantly sunny stretch of weather with skies clear as glass and turquoise as tropical seas, blue-bright as only cold could make it. The outside temperatures were ten to twenty degrees below zero. The wind blew in gusts. The two feet of snow on the ground had hardened into rockscape. My boots left jeweled caves in the sparkling sediment, foot-sized sinkholes with igloo-solid walls.

The Internet satellite dish was a bowl of snow.

On the first day of my life without Internet, I drove twenty miles and back through a snowstorm to a meeting that had been canceled over email. On the second day, I called friends to remind myself they still existed. Despite Chris’s absence on Friendster, and later Facebook, I learned that some in the rural Minnesota community were online. The Internet was now the arbiter of my social life, allowing me to contact the world I had left behind in New York City and keeping me current with my new friends in rural Minnesota, many of whom had disappeared behind snow-covered driveways. I was getting antsy.

A week into our Internet fast, we were invited to dinner at Chris’s parents’ house. We arrived early. Chris’s mother Betty was still cooking, and Chris joined his father in the garage to tinker with a boat engine.

“Do you mind if I use your computer?” I asked Betty.

“Not at all,” she cooed, waving her left hand so the modest dia- mond she wore glittered in the lamplight. I left the kitchen for the com- puter desk in the front hall. “Dinner will be ready in an hour,” Betty said from the other room.

When dinner was called, I was only halfway through my inbox. “One more minute!” I yelled, trying to speed up my typing and making a hash of spelling. I closed out of the Internet and walked to the dining room.

Everyone was already sitting at the table. Even Chris’s eleven- year-old niece and fourteen-year-old nephew had been peeled from their video games and were sitting politely, napkins on laps. Chris glared at me from across the table.

“Oh, um, sorry. I haven’t had Internet in a week.”

Chris’s father Ken asked, “Has the world ended while you were offline?”

I blushed. I wanted to explain about driving through the snowstorm because of the missing email, but the family shuffled in their chairs, impatient to eat.

We bowed our heads for grace and passed bowls of food around. I took small portions and scarfed down too-large bites while the others talked about Minnesota sports. I was finished first, but when I pushed my chair back, Chris glared at me. I scooted my chair back under the table. When everyone rose, I put my dishes in the sink and darted to the computer desk through the kitchen, but Chris beat me through the living room. I wheedled like a kid. “I wasn’t finished!”

“Too bad.”
“You were already on it for an hour. I want a turn.”
In that moment it was clear as diamonds that I needed to get on-
line, and that someone needed to remove the snow from the satellite dish. In my mind, that someone was Chris.

After breakfast the next morning, Chris built a fire in the family room and lay on the black leather couch he had purchased off the back of a truck. It suited the oak-paneled den much better than it had the lace-curtained living room of his gray cottage. I put my hands on my hips and stood over him. The heat of the fire made a warm pool on my back.

“Will you please fix the Internet?”

“Nope.” He sipped green tea out of a pottery mug. “I’m not going out there.” He pulled the faux-fur blanket farther up his chest. “It’s way too cold out.”

The fire snickered behind me. I swallowed a small scream of frus- tration and tempered my voice. “Come on, please?”

Chris nestled into the couch cushions. “I don’t need the Internet that much. I’d rather wait for the snow to melt than go out in that cold.” Snow wouldn’t melt till spring, which I understood might not arrive till May. I set my jaw and dug my toes into carpet. A log snapped and settled. I could look at this as an opportunity, my chance to redeem my poor performance with the broken furnace.

Chris put down his mug and fiddled with his cell phone. I assessed
the situation. The satellite dish was attached to the roof above the garage twenty feet up from the ground. There was snow. The wind was blowing.

I needed a ladder and a lot of warm clothes.

I brushed snow off the ladder and lifted my heavy boot to the first rung. I transferred my weight slowly, testing the hold.

Boot met ladder. Sole met step. My foot held. I inhaled. Cold outlined my lungs in pain. My face set with determination. As the pain of guitar strings had dug calluses into my fingers, the pain of the cold would callous me to Minnesota’s winter. I lifted my other foot to the second rung and climbed. The third rung. The fourth. I looked out on the white world of Oak Hollow from a new vantage point. Emptiness. Clean white under turquoise. Glorious.

I reached the top of the ladder and stretched my body up. My mit- tens made jazz hands well short of the snow-filled satellite dish.

I needed more height.

I was resourceful. I was desperate. I could figure this out. I went back inside, wriggled my feet out of my boots and shed my outermost layers. In the laundry room I collected more supplies: a telescoping cobweb duster, a broom, a broom handle, and duct tape. Chris was singing one of my songs to himself in the kitchen.

After duct-taping duster, broom, and broom handle together, a twenty-foot pole reached through the doors of three rooms, flexing and dancing in my hand. I wriggled my new tool in victory.

“How’s it going?” Chris asked through the wall cut-out from the kitchen to the family room.

“Check out my homemade snow-removal tool.” “Nice!” he said.
“Wanna come see?”
“No thanks.” A spoon clattered in the sink.

I suppressed the name I wanted to call him and threaded the ex- tended pole through the door to the garage, muscles tightening against the cold. I pulled against the tool’s weight to balance it upward, and watched the far end draw bouncing circles in the air over the tops of our cars. I teased the whole contraption out of the house and closed myself out with the cold.

The javelin quivered into stillness. I climbed. Then I was up the ladder in my puffy yellow coat, perched in slippery boots on a windy subzero day.

I was a long way from my Brooklyn apartment.

I took a steadying breath. From the top, the end of the duster barely reached the satellite dish. I stood on tiptoe, my right arm extended as far as it could go. One clump of snow fell into the space between coat collar and bare skin. Blood pumped cold through my neck.

I stretched farther. My boot slipped. I clutched the rails of the ladder and stabilized. I could do this. I twirled my spear upward in an arc. Broom met bowl. Grenades of snow dropped in explosions of sky dust. I inhaled diamonds.

My arms ached. My abdomen shook. My fingers were numb. The satellite dish was half empty. I hoped it was enough.

I carefully aimed the end of the pole to the ground in a curve that arced from white driveway to white roof. The oak tree regarded me, naked, brown, and grizzled, and I felt a new connection to it. I could be out here in the cold, too.

I pranced into the house, pride lifting my step despite the heavy snow boots. I smelled the warm, honeyed scent of Chris’s homemade caramel sauce.

“How’d it go?” Chris’s voice rose over the sound of clattering pots in the kitchen.

“It worked, I think. Hey, could you come outside and check that I’ve removed enough snow?”

I reached to unlace a boot. Chris’s footsteps scrambled up the stairs. “What are you doing?” I yelled.

“Checking the Internet to see if it works.” Chris’s voice came through the section of ceiling under my office.

I pulled at my boot, laces constricting sock at my ankle, pulling it off. I hopped on my half-socked foot, melted snow sliding off me to the floor, until my other boot released with a pop, and I ran, dripping and half barefoot, up the stairs.

In my warm, candle-scented studio, Chris sat at my French writing desk, my computer loading Gopher basketball scores.

“All right!” I yelled and tried to shove Chris out of my chair. He pushed me right back.

“I’m not done yet,” he said, grinning wickedly at me.

Read more in Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story. Available at bookstores, online, and at live events with Elisa Korenne. Learn more at www.elisakorenne.com.

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About the Author

Elisa Korenne, a Yale Graduate and award-winning songwriter known for her original songs about oddballs in history, left New York City in 2006 to be an artist-in-residence in rural west central Minnesota. Since becoming a Minnesotan, Korenne has become known as a pioneering rural artist. Gull Lake TEDx chose Korenne to be a featured speaker at their April 2017 conference. Prairie Public Television in Fargo, North Dakota commissioned her to create songs and appear in a series of ten mini-music documentaries of unusual people and events in the Upper Midwest...