I was walking through Manhattan recently, making my way up 5th Avenue to check out all the Christmas displays like a typical Midwestern tourist, when I looked up and realized something odd: I was standing at the foot of the Empire State Building, an instantly recognizable spire that I had been eyeing for blocks. But when I gazed up from directly underneath it, there was no way to identify it from a hundred other heaving high-rises in Midtown. When you’re standing that close to a landmark, all you can see is glistening light against the night sky.
For some reason I couldn’t stop staring at it, couldn’t stop thinking about how it applies to a whole blizzard of other thoughts that have been clouding my mind these days.
When Prince died, I felt it from the ground floor: in the welled-up eyes of my friends and colleagues who had just lost their hometown hero; outside of Paisley Park as we all crumpled; and in the bending, swaying mass of thousands of people who couldn’t seem to get close enough to First Avenue after the sun went down that night. It was like all we wanted was to climb up inside that building, to touch his star, to reach out and feel him as he drifted away. And somehow it didn’t occur to me until two days later, when I finally worked up the courage to go online and look through bleary eyes at the pictures of every recognizable landmark and statue across the globe glowing purple, that I’d been gazing up at the most well-known skyscraper in the world this whole time.
I’ve never felt a grief like this. I’ve lost family members, and I’ve watched the people closest to me grapple with the deepest, darkest depths of loss. But this was something different; it was massive, but also oddly intimate. How could I explain to anyone what it felt like to lose an icon that I also somehow viewed as a local treasure and respected as a human and a friend?
My mind can’t square the fact that the Prince I knew — in my headphones, playing in front of me on stage all those nights, joking as he walked the halls of his studios — was the Prince everyone knew. Maybe that’s selfish, or provincial, or Minnesotan.
To ride this excruciating building analogy to the top floor, spending these past few months attending all the tribute shows, beautiful and emotional and epic as they may have been, and returning to Paisley Park as a tourist has felt like stumbling through the gift shop of something too beautiful to be captured on a postcard or in a souvenir snow globe. He is and will always be a global landmark, an instantly recognizable symbol, and it makes sense that everyone who looked up to him wants pay homage to him in their own way. But adrift in a sea of grieving souls, nowhere has felt quite safe enough to get truly, mind-numbingly sad about the realization that my own relationship to him, my writing about him, and my enjoyment of his music will never feel the same.
And so I ended up suspended in something that I suppose you could call a funk, though there hasn’t been much funky about it. Holding still hasn’t really been making it better, so a few weeks back, I got in my car and started driving.
It was a Thursday, and I was supposed to be writing, but the words haven’t been coming easy these days. Driving, at least, feels like something resembling forward motion, and it was a nice enough day to watch the apple orchards and pumpkin stands whiz by.
Without thinking I steered my car toward Chanhassen, a drive I’ve made more times than I can count. I-394 to 169 South to the Crosstown, which I usually take to get to Paisley Park. But there was no reason for me to be out at the Park this day, so I kept on heading south, further and further until the freeway exit ramps turned to stoplights turned to stop signs, green grass and harvested cornfields flooding the horizon.
I’d had this journey on my mind for weeks. I wondered if I’d work up the courage to actually do it. Ever since Prince died, I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene in Purple Rain where he tells Apollonia to purify herself in Lake Minnetonka. She’s eager to earn his respect and so she strips down to her panties and leaps in, only to discover that the water is ice-cold and she’s been set up to look like a fool.
“That ain’t Lake Minnetonka,” Prince says, eyebrow raised, then ditches her on his motorcycle, leaving her standing alone naked, shivering and furious.
The scene feels mean, but also somehow playful, and obviously sexual. It’s a mating ritual played out in skin-tight leather pants and set against a distinctly Minnesota backdrop, with the water shimmering in the autumn sun and the luminous fall leaves only adding to the seduction. And of course the Kid comes back for her after all, pulling up his motorcycle and waiting for her to start climbing aboard before pretending to take off again.
When I talked to Apollonia about it a couple years ago, her memories only added to my romanticization of the not-Lake Minnetonka scene. She spoke of driving around the countryside in Prince’s purple limo, and squealing with glee at the first sign of farm life, something the L.A. girl had never set her eyes on before.
“Look, there’s cows! Those are real cows!” she remembered telling Prince, and I can practically see her now, leaning out the window to breathe in the pungent air, her permed Hollywood hairdo wafting in the country breeze. She looked back into the limo, saying, “It’s so beautiful here. You’re so lucky to live here.”
Driving south on 169 that day, Apollonia’s voice rang in my ears along with Prince’s, who once told Oprah that he lives in Minnesota because, “It’s so cold it keeps the bad people out.” As the suburbs faded from my rear-view, it was easy to imagine Prince riding on these North Country roads to clear his mind, and turning off the highway one day into a small town called Henderson to walk along the river and collect his thoughts.
I first read about Henderson in Jon Bream’s long-out-of-print book Inside the Purple Reign, a collection of Prince research that he published back in 1984 to coincide with the release of the film. Everyone knows that the water Apollonia jumps into wasn’t actually Lake Minnetonka, but it turned out that only the people of Henderson, Minnesota, population 875, knew the real location along the banks of the Minnesota River where that scene was shot.
So here I was, 33 years later, pulling my car off the highway onto a country road that wound around the river and toward a tiny little town. Since the trip was so impromptu, I hadn’t called anyone ahead of time to see where I might go, and I started to beat myself up, wondering how in the hell I was going to find a seemingly obscure location on a Thursday afternoon in a town that looked like it had all but closed up shop for the day.
I drove past a little post office and library, momentarily getting my hopes up that a librarian might be able to shine a little light, then sighed as I read a sign that it was only open a few days a week. I drove past a closed historical society, wondering what memories might be encased inside. And finally I drove up and parked outside of Henderson’s City Hall just as a police officer strolled inside.
The cop eyed me suspiciously as I got out of my car and followed him in, but then relaxed into a knowing smile when I asked the woman behind the reception desk, “I’m …. I’m here … for Prince?”
The woman had heard this before. She started fumbling around her desk for highlighters and maps, then pulled up a bookmark on her computer to guide me to the exact spot in Henderson where the scene was filmed. She was around my age, meaning we were born around the time Purple Rain was filmed, but in her words, “I mean, it was probably the biggest thing that will happen to Henderson.”
“All kinds of people came out here the week after he died. All kinds,” she said. “It’s slowed down now. But you can still find it on our app.”
It turns out that Henderson, population 875, indeed has an official app, and on that app you can find the links to the article written by the Mankato Free Press about the not-Lake Minnetonka filming, and a pin that you can drop on GPS to help find the hard-to-describe locale. Due to highway construction, there wasn’t a clear-cut way to get to the location from downtown Henderson, but she patiently gave me step-by-step directions on how to find it.
Before I left, I couldn’t help asking if there was any lore about Prince’s visit to the town.
“I know he ate at the diner,” she said. “The whole diner was shut down so he and his crew could eat there. That’s about all I know.”
I clutched my marked-up map in trembling hands. I still wasn’t sure why I needed to do this so badly, or what I would find once I got there. I got back in the car, punched the coordinates into my GPS, and set off down a winding gravel road.
The first thing I saw when I turned onto the road where the not-Lake Minnetonka scene was shot — Henderson Station Road, where Prince and Apollonia were also filmed riding a motorcycle down the dirt path, which would later be set to the song “Take Me With You” — were the cows. Beautiful, stoic cows ambling their black and white bodies across a bright green field. Apollonia’s voice echoed once again in my ears.
“Cows! There’s cows!” I said under my breath, a lump finding its way up my throat.
I drove past farms and fields, past a car full of men in camo pulling shotguns out of a trunk and heading into the woods to go hunting (gulp), past an SUV that slowed down as it passed me, scoping me out. I had the distinct feeling I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I kept on pressing ahead. I stopped at a few clearings and got out to glimpse the river, but nothing looked quite right. And then I saw it: the train trestle that the woman had marked on my map, and which you can see Prince skidding underneath in his motorcycle as he ditches poor Apollonia.
And here’s the part in the story where I have debated telling you the truth. Because baby, I broke the law. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the penalty is for wandering into a plot of land that’s clearly marked with a “No Trespassing” sign, but if it’s anything like where I come from in small-town northern Minnesota, I’m pretty sure it’s not so much a “call the cops” type situation as something that might find me face-to-face with one of those camo guys with the guns.
I mean, the lady gave me a map. And I had come all this way, both literally and emotionally. So I wasn’t about to stop now.
I got out of the car and started walking toward the river, a path that was intersected by a huge, sloping hill and a set of train tracks that ran overhead. As soon as my combat boots sunk into the ground, I realized that the earth was completely soaked by the rain we’d had the day before. And so I slowly trudged through the muck, up the hill and over the train tracks, and then slowly lowered myself onto the leafy terrain in front of the rising water.
“Wow,” I gasped, looking around, realizing I was about to be standing in the exact spot that Prince would have parked his motorcycle, when suddenly, the ground wasn’t there anymore — all the leaves that were scattered on the riverfront were masking a giant, slippery mudslide of water-soaked earth, and before I knew it I was completely wiping out and heading for the not-Lake Minnetonka tides.
When I stopped moving, my hands were buried in the muck, my jeans covered, my boots completely submerged.
“Oh my God. I almost fell into Lake Minnetonka.”
I laid there laughing, then heaving, then crying, like full-on ugly crying, the kind of snotty agony that is best enjoyed alone. Then I went back to laughing again, then sucked it all in and fell silent, watching the water roll by. I still felt like I might be in danger of being caught, but by God, I had finally found a place to be alone with Prince.
I started snapping pictures furiously, from down along the river’s edge and up on the train tracks, taking in the trestle bridge from all angles and finding a spot in a clearing of trees that looked almost exactly like a picture I’d seen of Prince glancing out at the waters. I looked in vain for a concrete slab extending out into the water that Prince once knelt down on, and I knelt down on the river’s edge myself, thinking about how dramatically the water had reshaped the land over the past 33 years, and how much Prince had changed in that time as well. I thought about how I was born the same year that Purple Rain was filmed, and how Prince had been a global superstar literally the entire time I had been alive. Maybe I felt so discombobulated because my body was just figuring out how to exist in a world that didn’t have Prince in it.
When I got back in the car, I was completely encrusted with mud. But I didn’t care. For the first time in a long while, instead of driving around in silence, I put on “Take Me With You” and let Prince carry me home.
The view of the “Lake Minnetonka” spot from the Henderson Station Road
A still from the “Lake Minnetonka” scene in Purple Rain
Standing where Prince and Apollonia once roamed in Henderson
The Minnesota River from beneath the trestle bridge in 2016