Visiting McGregor wasn’t just a visit to the hometown of a beloved author. Strayed’s first book, Torch, published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin, was part fiction and part memoir, so visiting McGregor was also a way to deepen my experience of her novel that I love so much. She fictionalized the particulars so she could safely depict the culture of a made-up small town in sparsely-populated northern Minnesota (although Midden has exactly the population of McGregor in 2000). Strayed writes from the mother’s perspective in Torch: “The sign on the highway had said ‘POPULATION 408’ and she thought what she always thought when reading such a preposterous number: Who were the eight?’”
Strayed describes Midden this way: “The library was not a library, but a milk truck painted green and parked two days a week in the Universe Roller Rink lot. The mayor wasn’t a mayor, but Lars Finn, whose real job was at the feed store. The firefighters weren’t firefighters, but anyone who volunteered, guys with big guts and a lone woman named Margie. Even the clinic was a sham; no actual doctors worked there, though whoever did was referred to as a doctor anyway.”
My husband and I drove a few blocks along the main road through McGregor. He said, “I think that was it.” We turned around to explore. The streets had names like Main and Center. The numbered streets went as far as 3rd.
Over the next couple of hours, we stopped by the used bookstore, the bowling alley, the ice cream shop, the library, a bar, and a gift shop. At most businesses I would approach a staff person and say, “I’m a fan of Cheryl Strayed’s, and I’ve come here to see her hometown. Where do you think I should visit?” I remembered hearing Strayed say she had been to McGregor after the publication of Torch. So a couple times I asked people if they knew where she had given a reading. I was hoping there would be a picture of her, or some other tribute to the celebrity this town could claim as its own.
The ice cream shop was out of ice cream.
“We have pie today.” The woman behind the counter spoke in a take-it-or-leave-it tone that made clear we were not only outsiders, but we had already increased her suspicion by my posing in front of their hand-painted sign of a giant ice cream cone boasting “20 flavors.”
My husband and I headed to the library. Behind the counter, a man with two gray braids and a knowing smile said Strayed’s reading hadn’t taken place there, but it might have been “at a local watering hole.”
A tavern called Len’s Lookout is the setting for a few scenes in Torch. Strayed writes of it: “The front windows were plastered with papers—advertisements for Labor Day festivals, the Lion’s Club Corn Feed, something at the VFW, someone who would do your taxes, another someone who would trim your horse’s hooves—with neon beer signs above.”
We went to Mark’s Bar, one of several taverns in the area. I was directed to a congenial woman who waited on customers. She told me her daughter knew Strayed growing up, and her son had gone to school with Strayed’s brother. When I said, “I think Cheryl Strayed is so wonderful,” she nodded. Then she whispered, “But she went through a hard time.”
Her hard time is what the novel Torch is about, though fictionalized—a young woman, Claire, losing her mother to cancer, just as Strayed at age twenty-two lost her mother to cancer. Strayed writes: “What she felt, after days of sobbing, was that she would never again shed another tear. That her body was now a piece of ice. She remembered the way she felt like an inanimate object during those long days at the hospital, and now, she realized, her transformation was complete.”
At a McGregor gift shop three young women—a customer and two clerks—were laughing. Repeatedly, their chuckling paused just long enough for one of them to say something else, and laughter erupted again. When at last the customer left and the room quieted down, I emerged from the rows of gift items to say I was visiting McGregor because I was a fan of Cheryl Strayed’s. I said her photo, book ads, and books were everywhere in the Northwest, and I was hoping there might be a place in town that celebrated her.
One of them said she hadn’t read her books yet, but her friend had. Then she looked around, lowered her voice, and said, “She told me it was just like it is here.” She looked around again, and then back at me. “Exactly like.”
Though I haven’t returned, I expect McGregor has come to more fully appreciate the opportunities Strayed has given it for tourism and community pride. In my mind, the bookstore has reopened and dedicates a table near its entry to multiple copies of her books. Mark’s Bar displays a poster of the movie “Wild” (Reese Witherspoon in the role of Strayed) thumbtacked above the beers on tap. The gift shop sells day packs and tote bags printed with her quotes. Snapshots of Strayed are pinned to a bulletin board in the ice cream store–now with enough customers to make it worthwhile to keep at least one of the promised twenty flavors of ice cream stocked. The photos show Strayed from her days in Aitkin County, cheerleading at the high school, waitressing, and enjoying the companionship of her mother.