Subterranean Homesick Blues

An archaeologist, two bottles of whiskey, and the cavemen of the Mississippi: Digging for the city beneath the city

Viking sleeps in the riverbank den and wanders during the day. He cooks inside and keeps a stash of clothes. "I've got a raccoon living in there. I've got a bat. The turbine of the mill, that's my chimney. That's where the bat stays during the day. Does his stuff at night. He's cool; he don't bother me. I got a badger."

"Groundhog," interrupted Dave.

"It's a badger."

The remains of the day: Minneapolis's Mill District in its 19th-century form (top) and today
The remains of the day: Minneapolis's Mill District in its 19th-century form (top) and today

"Groundhog. They look a lot alike."

"You ever even seen it?" Viking said with an emphatic slap of the belly. "It's a full-grown flabby-ass badger." The day had grown hot, and Viking had grown very drunk. He yawned and crawled back toward the mouth of the burrow.

"When are you going to open that?" Dave said and pointed at a bottle of vodka that Viking was cradling beneath his arm.

"When I get done with my nap," his companion growled. The man who called himself Viking crawled back into the hole and took the bottle with him, and Dave watched them both go. After a minute or two, he fell silent.

When I left, he was staring out down the sandy, scrub-covered riverbank and sucking thoughtfully on a cigarette. Up above the river, cranes were turning the shells of the west bank's mills into office complexes and luxury high-ceiling loft apartments. It was, as Clouse said, a city built on a city. Two whiskey bottles hidden beneath an old timber beam suddenly began to seem a very significant find. It was like knowing that men were waiting out a Minnesota summer in caves beneath the ruins of the old mills, where men who were probably much like them and whose names are now forgotten had worked their entire lives and had stashed their liquor in the rafters. From the Stone Arch Bridge, you could not see the opening in the bank without knowing where to look for it.

A woman in white Lycra shorts came trotting by, dragging a small, sad-looking dog behind her. The day was bright and warm, but it did not seem so fine anymore, and I could not say why.


A guided walking tour of the St. Anthony Falls milling district will be offered at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, July 10; (612) 627-5433. Reservations are required.

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