Spirits of Palisade
Stopping at a tiny cafe just off the Great River Road, I only expected to eat a quick lunch…
It was Day Three of my road trip along the Great River Road, and things had been moving slow. While I’d seen all sorts of beautiful sights — from the sun rising over the headwaters of the Mississippi River, to a storm coming in over the seemingly endless expanse of Lake Bemidji, to the moon highlighting Pokegama Dam as I sat by the first campfire I had successfully built on my own — I hadn’t found any stories yet. Aside from the three campgrounds my dog, Layla, and I had slept at so far, everything appeared to be closed. Tourist season ends early in Minnesota. Having experienced many winters there as a teenager, I felt silly for not have factored that into my trip planning.
Leaning against my car in the parking lot of the second (incorrect) address I had found for an Arts & Heritage center in Grand Rapids, I pored over my guidebook*, feeling a bit dejected. Maybe I should just head down through Brainerd to the next campsite and set up my tent early. There was supposed to be a major thunderstorm that night — I should start my campfire early, too.
Then, I spotted a tiny section in my guidebook about a cafe just off the river road with “some of the best pies in the land of great pies.” Comfort food sounded great at that point, so I climbed back into the car with Layla and left Grand Rapids, following the slowly widening river towards lunch.
Pulling into the tiny town of Palisade, my heart sank. It was like a ghost town, without a living person to be seen. The cafe was the first building I encountered on the one-road town, and it looked completely empty. I parked on the street, made sure Layla had plenty of water and air in the car, and hesitantly walked inside.
The cafe looked more like a diner, with cracked vinyl booths, a counter with stool seating, the smell of greasy food, and a refrigerated glass case showing off pies and canned sodas — or “pops”. It was empty aside from four men. The man behind the counter seemed surprised, but smiled and placed a menu at a booth for me. There was an elderly man at the counter, finishing an ice cream cone, and two men at the booth next to mine, all of whom ignored me as I walked past. Everything was quiet as I went over the menu and ordered a burger topped with cheddar, a fried egg, and bacon, and some fries. There was something eerie about the quiet, despite the sun shining resiliently through the clouds outside. I decided I’d be getting out of this town as quickly as possible once I’d eaten.
As the man who appeared to be the owner returned from running my order to the kitchen, the man at the counter stood and walked towards the door, mumbling “See ya, John.”
“Take care, Howard!” the owner called. He then leaned against the counter and addressed the two men at the booth next to me.
“That guy,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “He comes in here every day. Always orders the same thing — a bowl of soup, a can of mountain dew, and an ice cream cone.” He continues on, telling us Howard owns the same cattle farm his father had, and still runs them despite being 95 years old. He only recently told John he’s looking into possibly selling, and “finding something else to do for the next 95 years.” The two men chuckled appreciatively and the vibe in the cafe seemed to warm.
The men began asking John about the old photographs hanging right above my booth, and he leaned over me to point out different photos and talk about the town’s founding. I silently cursed myself for not having brought in my camera, and surreptitiously tried to start a voice recording on my phone, to no avail — the recording app had been accidentally deleted, and there was not enough service to download it.
I was just going to have to write everything down as soon as I got back to my car and hope it was enough.
John left briefly to bring my food from the kitchen, and I eagerly dug into a thick, perfectly cooked burger as he leaned against the counter and surveyed all three of us sitting in the booths.
“I don’t know if you believe in ghosts, but I do after running this place.” He told us how a former patron, from long before he had owned the cafe, had taken their own life and now haunted the building. The lids on the canisters behind the counter regularly threw themselves across the room, icy cold winds blew through the restaurant even in the middle of summer, and lights turned themselves on and off with no explanation — he’d even had an electrician check it out, he assured us. “I wouldn’t believe it, except I’ve seen and felt it all myself.” He said he and the waitresses played pranks on each other occasionally, but couldn’t replicate what the spirit did.
The subject abruptly changed as John asked where the two men were from. They explained that they’re from Grand Rapids, and are heading towards the Soo Line for a long weekend. They began to discuss hunting, and I stopped paying as much attention, my focus on savoring the burger in my hands.
A couple entered the restaurant, and John moved away to greet them. I’m startled and drop what’s left of my burger onto my plate, scattering fries, when one of the men turned to me. “Where are you from?”
“Oh. I’m visiting from Nashville. Tennessee!” I clarified, as they looked confused. John was just passing by our tables and stopped, eyebrows raised. I quickly explained my road trip and that I was seeking out creative people and places to write about all along the Mississippi River. John enthusiastically asked about Nashville and the area, and it turned out he was actually planning to move to Middle Tennessee as soon as he could sell the cafe. He and his wife had already found a buyer for their house — but the cafe was proving a more difficult sell. Palisade, population 166, isn’t exactly a booming town, and business from tourists on the nearby Great River Road and Soo Line Trail seems to be dwindling each year.
John returned to work, and the men asked more and more questions about the trip. As the conversation faltered, I returned to my burger, and one of the men, who had introduced himself as Gary, stood and approached the counter. “I’m ready to pay for our lunch and the young lady’s.” I protested, surprised, but he insisted. He told me he thought that it was inspiring that I would do this on my own, and surely a good, free meal was the least he could do to help. I thanked him and asked for a photo. He seemed flustered, but then as I was pulling out my phone, he twirled and moved his hands as if he were dancing to “Walk Like An Egyptian.” Laughing, I asked him to do that again for the camera, but he just turned red and smiled, leaning agains the counter.
Gary made sure I got a slice of chocolate cream pie as well, and then he and his friend took their leave. I sat there feeling a little flustered and was about to dig into my pie when John ran through the dining area and out the front door, clutching a package of Ding Dongs and calling goodbye. I froze in confusion. Was he just… leaving the restaurant? They were still open, right? I shrugged, ate a couple bites of my pie, and sank back in my seat, groaning over the perfect, melt-in-your-mouth sweetness of the chocolate. Suddenly, a soft voice just behind my shoulder said, “Oh, you’re eating my favorite pie!”
The voice belonged to Barb, a waitress who had taken over so that John could rest before the dinner rush that evening. I assured her that I understood why it was her favorite, and finished my slice of pie as she bustled around, occasionally throwing curious glances my way. After I finished, I stood to leave, and Barb stopped me from behind the counter to tell me John had told her about my trip, and she asked if it was true that I was driving the whole length of the Mississippi River, all the way to where it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. I nodded, and she smiled widely, her eyes crinkling with joy. She began asking questions about all sorts of small details, from what I would do if something happened to my car to whether I was using a bedroll in my tent.
“Oh, you are so smart! Good for you!” she exclaimed after every answer. Calling me “smart” seemed a strange reaction at first, but as we talked, her mannerisms and smile reminded me more and more of my late Grandma Emma, and I felt completely at ease.
After hearing about my tent, Barb became very enthusiastic. “Well, I could do a tent!” she cried, and then began to tell me about how she used to go on road trips as a young woman and still hopes to drive the entire Great River Road someday.
“I once drove all the way out to Yellowstone on my own,” she told me. She had planned to work there all summer, but only wound up staying and working for three weeks before moving on to explore some more. She tells me about other road trips, including one to Seattle, where she fell in love with the city and their flea market. “Everyone talks about the people who throw the fish, but I was very unimpressed by it. Why do people love it so much? I did think it was a beautiful city though.”
At 75 years old, Barb had worked at Palisade Cafe for four years. I asked what she planned to do once John sold the place, and she told me she was already planning to put her home on the market and move into an apartment for retirees just a few towns away. “That way, I can just lock the door behind me and go whenever I please. Drive wherever I’d like when I feel like it. Maybe down to Nashville sometime! I won’t have to worry about making sure my lawn is mown or the sidewalk shoveled.”
We leaned against the counter and talked for quite a while before I said goodbye. Barb’s energy and enthusiasm, John’s stories, and Gary and some of the other restaurant patron’s kindness had rekindled my hope about this road trip. I had been there for a few hours, much longer than expected, and was definitely going to be arriving at my next campground after the rangers had left for the evening.
Being late seemed worth it after my experience in Palisade Cafe. I felt no rush as I walked Layla up and down the main street, barely two blocks long. I lingered to take photos and wonder over the ghost town appearance, which I now knew hid something special. The flag in front of the town hall flapped wildly, echoing around the once again empty street. The clouds were thickening, and the sun appeared to have given up its fight. It was time for me to move on. I vowed to come back someday, even if Palisade Cafe was closed. Despite my initial impression, I found myself wishing I could stay and learn more about Palisade.
Ghosts or not, there was clearly quite a lot of spirit in this tiny town.
As of the publication of this article, January 2019, Palisade Cafe is still open for business and receiving 5-star reviews on Google from local & traveling visitors. Be sure to stop by for a slice of pie or an ice cream cone if you happen to be traveling through Aitkin County, Minnesota!
*the guidebook I used for this road trip was Road Trip USA: Great River Road by Jamie Jensen
For more stories from my road trip of the Great River Road,
stay tuned right here to
Meridian Creators, and keep an eye out for my book,
THE GREAT MEANDER, available January 1st, 2020!
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