To the North Shore of Lake Superior and the Minnesota State Fair

Two weeks later, on the 27th, I flew north to Minneapolis. It was, again, State Fair time. Picked up a car and pointed north, to spend a day or so on my beloved North Shore of Lake Superior before heading to the Fair. It was a perfect summer day in Minnesota. It’s often said that the state has two seasons, winter and road construction, and I got caught in the latter, major work on Interstate 35, which slowed me way down. But by 12:30 I was tucking into a bowl of soup and then a big-as-your-head caramel roll at Tobie’s, halfway to the big lake. It was such a treat to crest the hill above Duluth and get the first glimpse of that vast inland sea (I think I’ve written here, perhaps many times, that Superior contains 10% of the world’s fresh water). In fact, it was thrilling, way cool. I cued one of my favorite Minnesota artists on my new iPhone, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, who plucked as I rolled down the steep hill into Duluth. On the horizon were big ships, the aerial bridge, grain elevators, rail yards, all the stuff of a port.

I stopped in Two Harbors, at the office and store of the Superior Hiking Trail Association, the folks who have built and maintained the awesome trail that runs from Duluth 150 miles northeast to the Canadian border. P1090048Bought a map and some lovely note cards, visited briefly with a volunteer, then headed 10 miles more to Castle Danger, then up a dirt road to the trail. Did a brisk three-mile hike to an overlook to try my legs and my new hiking boots.

Crow Creek (dry) bed, near Castle Danger

Crow Creek (dry) bed, near Castle Danger

All worked fine (though my knees were sore the rest of the day). Got back in the car and drove another 75 minutes to Grand Marais, seat of Cook County and a place I’ve known and loved since 1957. The weather changed quickly, from scattered clouds to total cloud to light rain.

Checked into the Trailside Cabins, which I found on line, and specifically to cabin #2, called Tiny Tim, which truly was small, and totally northwoods. P1090056Simple, perhaps spartan, but the room was clean, the bed was firm, and the hot shower was reviving. Headed into town at six, ambling around the usual haunts – to the bay by the old East Bay Hotel, then south to Artists’ Point and out along the breakwaterwhere Jack and his buddies waded for coins almost a decade earlier. Indeed, I called Jack to report that there was a lot of booty in one to two feet of water!P1080959

Artists' Point

Artists' Point

Ambled back into town, to the Gunflint Tavern, for a pint of Summit Stout (from St. Paul), and a yak with stoolmates on both sides, then a couple blocks west for a superb dinner of local whitefish at Chez Jude, a wonderful small restaurant I first visited two years earlier, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of my first trip to these parts. I visited briefly with chef/owner Judi Barsness, which was fun. You always know you’re going to get a good meal when the chef is the owner, and is on the job. A reminder that foodservice is a tough business. By the end of the meal, I was plumb wore out.

Historic sign marking the start of the Gunflint Trail

Historic sign marking the start of the Gunflint Trail

I was tired because I woke up in the middle of the night, and couldn’t get back to sleep. Rare, but for a reason: the day before, American told me that they were not going to renew my contract, which was the foundation of my one-man business. Without those dollars as a base, I just don’t think I can keep on trying to build a life as an independent consultant. So another chapter of life is coming, a new opportunity. My job this fall will be to find a new job. It will happen.

Got back to the Tiny Tim cabin. The light rain was still falling, and it was 58º. I was freezing, but I kept the windows open. Brushed my teeth and climbed under the covers to bring this journal up to date (the laptop served as a sort of bedwarmer, welcome indeed). It had been a good day in this special part of the world. I am a Texan, naturalized and acclimated and proud, but there are also solid roots in Minnesota, especially in the north.

Slept hard. Up before six, in light rain, out the door, intending to do a pretty long hike that morning. Stopped at the Erickson gas station for a coffee, donut, and yogurts, then north on Highway 61, 20 miles to Hovland, and up 3 miles on the Arrowhead Trail (at that point, I was less than eight miles from Canada).

On the Superior Hiking Trail, above Hovland

On the Superior Hiking Trail, above Hovland

I wore shorts and my Gore-Tex rain jacket. Onto the trail, a truly a wonderful route, classic North Shore: up and down, across the faces of huge rock outcrops, curious mushrooms and fungi, small fields of lichens, views of the lake (well, you could sort of see it). About 1.5 miles in, I was already soaked and my socks were too low, causing some chafing. A good time to turn around. Was back at the car at 8:10. I brought a towel from home, which was welcome; dried my head and face, ate the breakfast, and drove back to Tiny Tim. The hot shower was truly therapeutic.

Motored back down the hill into town. First stop was Joynes’ Department Store, a fixture in Grand Marais, loaded with great stuff. Bought a pair of Wigwam brand hiking socks, telling the clerk it was out of sequence – I already had the blisters! Then to Sivertson’s, an art gallery that through the years has supplied us with wonderful local art. Bought a little coaster with a bear on it. There was some wonderful art, but I was due at the State Fair art show the next day, hoping to find a nice piece of work. And another thing: seeing the lovely scenes of the North Shore made me a little gloomy about having to sell our place up here. We miss it.

The lady at Sivertson’s directed me to the local (and much better) version of Starbucks, the Java Moose. The rain resumed, so I motored over and ambled in. The crowd was a mix of locals and hiking-boot tourists. Comfy, good coffee, and free wireless, so I worked my e-mail, then brought this journal up to date. The window offered a wonderful view of the harbor. The U.S. and Coast Guard flags were straight out from the northeast wind. Winter was coming!

Classic Minnesota pothole, parking lot, Betty's Pies

Classic Minnesota pothole, parking lot, Betty's Pies

I drove back down the shore to Betty’s Pies, not far from our former log house, for a tuna sandwich and a slice of her famous pie. Bought Jack a T-shirt. I had some extra time, so I drove few miles on to Two Harbors. In dozens of trips along Lake Superior over five decades, I had never been into downtown, nor down to the vast iron-ore docks (the Mesabi Range, 70 miles northwest, was once the richest iron deposit in the world, and it has helped fuel U.S. industry for decades).
Lake County Courthouse

Lake County Courthouse

I meandered around, snapping a picture of the Lake County Courthouse, with a dome covered in silver tiles in a fish-scale pattern, then down to the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range train depot (1907), an august structure. The Transport Geek snapped pictures of steam locomotives,
The Mallet's drive wheels

The Mallet's drive wheels

including a Mallet, largest of its kind in the world (600 tons, whoa!).
The Edna G. and iron-ore loading docks

The Edna G. and iron-ore loading docks

Drove down to admire the huge, elevated ore docks (the ore drops in chutes into “lakers,” the big vessels that ply the Great Lakes), then over to the lighthouse, now a B&B.P1090098

At 2:30 I met friend Bob Ryan for a cup of coffee in Duluth. Bob is a resort developer (he sold us the log house), Notre Dame classmate of Cousin Jim, and all around good guy. I had not seen him for seven years, and it was good to catch up. An hour later, I crossed the harbor, south into Superior, Wisconsin, and took a last look at that big lake (how big? well, it holds 10% of the world’s fresh water, that big).

Superior the city was down on its luck. Industrial jobs gone, downtown looked like a small version of Detroit. Being Wisconsin, bars seemed to be the anchor of the economy.

Not a lot of change in Superior

Not a lot of change in Superior

Sad. I headed south 65 miles on Wisconsin Highway 35, passing a tavern about every five miles (how do they all stay in business?).

At five, I rolled into The Lodge, the big lake home of friend Mark Lacek, who I’ve known since I joined Republic Airlines in 1984. Hadn’t seen him in years, either, nor met his wife Susan, and young daughters Emmy and Alli. Mark and I repaired to comfy chairs to catch up. He’s one of the most imaginative people I’ve ever met, simply full of ideas, many of which he has built into great businesses. Business journalists would describe him as a serial entrepreneur, and that’s sort of right, but it doesn’t really capture his creativity and spark. Nor would it capture his good humor, solid values, and sense of giving back.

About a decade ago, Mark and Susan lost a nearly-born daughter, Faith. Their devastation – the nightmare of any parent – led to the creation of Faith’s Lodge (near their lake place), a place where family and friends grieving after loss of a child can go to find comfort and perhaps some measure of peace in the woods. After dinner (we headed out for a Wisconsin tradition, the Friday fish fry), Mark played a song he recently wrote about their loss. Yep, he’s a songwriter and musician, just planted a vineyard and orchard, and so forth. As I discovered on a plane ride to L.A. in 1985, Mark just wears you out with his ideas! I am lucky to know him. Between Bob and Mark, it was a day with people with very strong values and a lot of drive.

Was up the next morning at 5:30. State Fair time! P1090106Pedal to the metal, and was back in St. Paul and onto the fairgrounds before eight, smiling broadly, jumping inwardly. So cool, back again. I headed over to the animal barns for a quick look at poultry and sheep, then back across the site to the art show, which opened at nine. As regular readers know, Linda and I have bought a piece of art there many times in the past 25 years. For 2009, the deal was different: you bought and paid for the art on the spot, then would pick it up after the fair closed. Once again, the iPhone proved to be amazing – I snapped pictures of three candidates, two watercolors and a pastel, and e-mailed them to Linda. I had favored one, and she picked that one, so it was unanimous – “Country Road,” a watercolor by Judy Fawcett of suburban Woodbury.

I spent more time in the art show than in previous years, some of it with one of the staff members, artist David Steineck, who kindly led another fellow and I on a tour of the works he found most notable and intriguing. David’s knowledge and basic (not highfalutin’) perspective made for a really nice time.

With the art task done, I ambled through the Creative Activities building, pausing to chat with three woodcarvers, among them P1090110Harley Pierce, carving a plate of basswood in a Swiss style. So much talent on display there – weavers, knitters, carvers, furniture makers, cooks, oh my. After that, a chat with a stranger on a park bench, then over to listen to some teen drummers from Sheltered Reality, a group formed to help alienated kids belong. Well, okay, it was more than listening – they asked for 20 volunteers from the audience to join, and up I went. I got a free CD for my enthusiasm.P1090120

That worked up a thirst, and at noon I found a chair in the beer garden, and a large glass of Summit Ale. There were four chairs at the table, so I invited Philip and Diana to sit down. This was Talking to Strangers paradise. They stayed awhile, then it was Jenn and Clint. Last was Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, who wanted to talk

Elizabeth, who wanted to talk

She was eating a hot dog and looking like she needed a chair, so I invited her to sit down. She was long widowed. She wanted to talk, and I was glad to listen. We visited a long time, about her kids, her life, her neighborhood in northeast Minneapolis (she had lived in the same house for 43 years), and about the fact that she and a band of girlfriends have visited Vegas every year since 1961! I stayed two hours.

Headed back to the animal barns, engaging 4-H members who were washing and grooming their sheep and cattle. A teenage girl was brushing Jade, an 18-month-old Jersey heifer. I mentioned that it seemed rare to raise anything other than a black and white Holstein. “Why no,” she said proudly, “Jerseys are the second-largest dairy breed in the U.S.” I gently pressed her for the numbers: 93% of the nation’s milk cows are black and white, and 5% are Jerseys. Truth is, the 4-H show at the fair gives city folks a distorted and misleading picture – industrial agriculture is far less diverse than it appears.

Junk sculpture made entirely of stuff the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hauled from state lakes and streams

Junk sculpture made entirely of stuff the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hauled from state lakes and streams

P1090135

Ambled through the swine barn, then had a nice, longer conversation with Aaron Marquette and his mom Lisa, who raise Texel sheep just west of Minneapolis. They’re trying to sell directly to consumers, and we talked about the challenges of modern animal husbandry. Prices were good, 97 cents a pound, and the Texels (named for their place of origin, one of the Friesian islands in the Netherlands, a place I visited on my first trip to Europe in 1971) grew fast, reaching market weight of 110 to 130 pounds in four months. Chatted briefly with Merv Dobson from Nolalu, Ontario, a hamlet west of Thunder Bay (and less than 50 miles from where I hiked the day before). Merv was down to show his Clydesdale draft horse, Rex.

Blue-ribbon-winning felt mittens

Blue-ribbon-winning felt mittens

Walked back to the Creative Activities building for another quick look-see, ogling some absolutely stunning glass works by Mr. and Mrs. Engebretson, and some wonderful woolens. It was 4:30. I had stayed longer than I had in years, and was worn out. At six I met Bud Jensen, my 12th-grade English teacher, and his wife Jinny, for dinner in our old neighborhood in St. Paul. Had a great and fun meal. Bed that night was in the Radisson Plaza Hotel downtown, booked when Linda was planning to come with me). Lights were out before 9:30.

Up at six, out the door into 49º cool, nice, then out around the gorgeous lakes of south Minneapolis,

Lake Harriet

Lake Harriet

and to breakfast with high-school classmate Claudia Gisselbeck Sutherland at Zumbro Café in the swell Linden Hills neighborhood. Good to catch up with Claudia. At 9:30 it was pedal to the metal to the airport, with a couple of fast detours around road construction. Home by 2:30. I packed a lot into three days!

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