Saturday, May 29, 1999
After pushing through Montana and North Dakota to reach hopefully more interesting Minnesota, we found ourselves trapped by Memorial Day Weekend. Also, by an extended tourist zone, a combination of the Upper Lakes district of Minnesota, and Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shore. After a half-hour of calling ahead, the closest motel reservation I could find, outside urban Duluth, was Ironwood, Michigan.
“Three-hundred-and-fifty miles,” I warned Tom, close to what we’d been averaging recently, though now that we’d left the green desert, I’d hoped to slow down.
“That’s okay,” he said, unsure what we’d be missing. And I didn’t know.
We’d already begun skipping things we’d really intended to see. Either because they were just a little too far off our road, or because stopping to read a historical sign, or take a picture of an interesting building—like the fish-shaped restaurant near Duluth—meant losing our lead in a line of slower moving trucks and RV’s. On a two-lane road, that meant having to pass them all over again—safely, methodically. Still, there was something quietly in me that knew I would have taken the time out if I’d been traveling alone.
When I originally planned the trip, there was no return date. I was just gonna wander freely till I got home. Then Tom wanted to come along and I was kinda glad—joking aloud, just to crack myself up, seemed slightly schizophrenic. I even liked having the dog with us, though I could have done without her licking my hand each time I stretched my arm behind the driver’s seat. (It wasn’t affection; she’s a salt junkie.) Besides, with Tom doing most of the driving, as he seemed to prefer, I was free to point things out, and—mostly successfully—to navigate. Though he did have to be back at his job in two months.
And sometimes I would have liked to dawdle, would have liked to see, for example, just how much of downtown Grand Forks had been rebuilt after the ’97 flood. We also passed more than a dozen old Federal buildings—banks, post offices, court houses—that were now converted to historical societies or museums. Even if each collection proved as repetitive as their turn of the century architecture, there was usually one new detail to be gleaned, some piece of local trivia that made all-too-quickly-forgotten lives revive. Was that bronze bust another tribute to railroad czar James J. Hill? Why was there a wooden stockade, mocked-up along a four-lane highway? Whose names were etched on the shiny plaques of several dozen tall white flagpoles, each flying a crisp American flag? Or how come a Duluth museum had both a restored black locomotive and an Air Force fighter jet mounted outside?
These were all losses, maybe larger than we knew, and I had to remind us both to e a s e u p. There were things we obviously had to miss, simply because of the route we’d chosen (What do you mean, you’re skipping Mount Rushmore! a friend of mine nearly shouted, when I explained we were trying to hold to the American border). But were there also things we were senselessly passing by, just because we doubted we had time?
Some of these came back in Soloway, Minnesota, a town so small its wasn’t even listed in my atlas. We’d hardly driven an hour out of Crookston, and it was really too soon to need a break. Plus, I’d just mentioned to Tom we might stop in Bemidji, a dozen miles ahead, mainly to see how it was pronounced. Then I saw this dilapidated, former school-looking building, now down to selling collectibles—not even worthy antiques—and I asked Tom to pull over.
We quickly found out it had been a grade school for many years, and the toilets in the men’s room were still so low they could’ve been Japanese. After that, it was gutted for a church, and passed through several denominations. But when even that carcass proved too expensive to maintain, and before the wreck was burned for fire practice, it became a Garbage Mall.
Much of the junk was trailer park debris: Clothes that could never be clean again. Books smelling like horses they once partly were. Autographed pictures of semi-never-stars. But on a dollar table outside in the sun, I found four shoe boxes of old postcards.
Most had never been sent. Many had that hand-colored, Second World War-look. Some, in their upper right-hand corner, had a rectangle reading Place One-Cent Stamp Here. When did anything last cost a penny?
A mint-fresh print of The Hollywood Bowl proclaimed: “This beautiful illuminated fountain of the Muses of Music, Dance, and Drama was completed by the Federal Arts Project at a cost of $100,000.” Above the gleaming statue were the puffiest white clouds L.A. has ever seen.
Another showed Beach Clubs, Santa Monica, California, explaining: “The mild climate of Santa Monica makes it ideal for bathing and outdoor life the year round.” Long before the water could rot a wet suit faster than you can gasp Toxic Waste.
And Wilshire Boulevard, Through General MacArthur Park. Even massive urban renewal can’t rescue this park left out in the rain.
There were other sites too: Skyline Drive, showing Shenandoah River and Valley. Virginia. Scenic U.S. Highway 66 in the Beautiful Missouri Ozarks. Upper Klamath Lake from Lookout Point, Oregon. Some of these places I’d seen, and they were relatively unchanged. But if Lanford Wilson wrote, “Every city in America used to be The Most Beautiful City in America,” the same could be said of this country. And that was kind of depressing.
Still, we also passed hopeful local signs, painted on small town store windows, or spelled on former theater marquees. They offered: Congratulations Justin & Cindy on their New Baby! Best Wishes to Brent & Linda on their Wedding! Congrats to All Our High School & College Grads! There weren’t a lot of actual movies playing—there certainly weren’t megaplexes—and what few films I saw advertised were month-old action flicks, already banished from even mildly sophisticated cities. But people living here seemed to be learning how to reuse the old places. These were fresh lives. And we did cross the headwaters of the Mississippi at a point where it easily slipped between my wide-spread boots. Towering there, I felt like concrete Paul Bunyan.