29 Observations on 10 Months Back in Duluth

30 Jun

Disclaimer for the joyless: this is all meant in good fun

1. So many things that seemed big when I was growing up seem small now, though this is hardly a point of concern.

2. Even in a year with a mediocre winter, Duluth winters are still fun. Springs, on the other hand…

3. Main Street hits dangerously close to home.

4. This Perfect Duluth Day poster diagnosed the city’s dating categories with remarkable accuracy.

5. But seriously, can I get a do-over on romantic high school escapes? Because this city has so many of them, it’s remarkable. What a waste not to take advantage of them.

6. Every stereotype you have of Iron Rangers is probably accurate.

7. The perverse pride I take in not owning jeans or flannel grows by the hour.

8. And yet, even if I’m overdressed and spend most of my life on some different intellectual plane, how can I resist diving into a dive bar without any irony?

9. Other than the people and Liquor Lyle’s, there is very little I miss about Minneapolis.

10. Basically everything inland from the shore is a swamp. Seriously, try developing anything beyond the ridge without finding a wetland.

11. Forget the moaning about the springtime fog: the lake is a net plus for weather most of the year, and you can’t beat the view.

12. There is an inverse relationship between the amount of time I spend in Hermantown and my happiness. (Okay, maybe I’m just bitter about the flat tire I got there last weekend, and bored by lopsided hockey. Still, I’m amused when I encounter its residents trying to describe their exurban abodes as being parts of neighborhoods.)

13. Flying out of an airport with a five-person security line is worth more than a few extra pennies.

14. When growing up, I used to make fun of the fact that there was a local TV show called “This Week in Mining.” I realized I was in too deep when I started thinking that show sounded interesting.

15. It is sort of heartwarming to see some of the same old people I remember complaining about Duluth politics in my childhood continue to complain about Duluth politics in front of elected bodies so many years later.

16. Sort of.

17. Duluth may have some good city council and school board and hockey coach drama from time to time, but it’s got nothing on Cloquet.

18. Most stark portrait of working class America: Chestnut Street, Virginia.

19. I have a lot of work to do.

20. Best makeover: Lincoln Park.

21. Serious credit to Superior for its recent efforts to revitalize its downtown, though with Sunday liquor sales now starting up in Minnesota…well, it had a good run.

22. Even after many months of running down nearly every street on the east side amid half marathon prep, there are still fun little corners I stumble upon that I didn’t realize existed.

23. The architecture, even in states of faded grandeur, aspires to something that I’m willing to pay a bit more money for.

24. That warmth that comes with East reunions doesn’t fade.

25. I continue to fail in my quest to find anything meaningful to say about Proctor.

26. So many in this area are drawn to cabin life, but I struggle to see myself going that direction: how can I commit to life on one lake when there are so many to explore?

27. Summer may not be an actual Thing in Grand Marais.

28. Subarus are a gift from God.

29. It is hard to find time to write blog posts that go beyond silly listicles when working full time and trying to be athletic and maintaining a decent social life unless one is spurred by travel, sporting events, or regularly scheduled material. (Good news: I’m going off the grid tomorrow through Wednesday. With any luck, inspiration will follow.)

Stolen Time

20 Jun

While perusing the sprawling and unwieldy Word document in which I barf out thoughts for blog posts, I stumbled upon an article I’d stashed away for my post on my Georgetown reunion some months ago, but forgot and only now rediscovered. It’s an essay by Joseph Bottum, a 1981 Georgetown grad who has gone on to some prominence as a socially conservative intellectual, and once stole the hands off the clock tower on Georgetown’s Healy Hall. The theft of the clock hands on Healy is a timeless Hoya tradition, and after a period of relative rarity, it happened my senior year.

Bottum floats the thought that he and his co-conspirators were metaphorically trying to stop time, but concludes that they probably weren’t so clever. They were young, he says; they didn’t know what the passage of time meant, not really. I suggest he give his college-age self a little more credit: I titled the photo below “Georgetown Is Timeless” after snapping it back in 2012, and was definitely aiming for a certain symbolism. A 22-year-old is certainly capable of recognizing the march of time, of knowing that things aren’t as they used to be, and high school and college graduations tend to bring out the earnest reflections that stem from a first encounter with farewells, even if we know these are temporary and relatively painless shifts. Bottum’s point, however, is that these early markers of time’s passage mean little when weighed against the heavier ones that come with more final farewells.

HealyHands

For the luckiest among us, any consciousness of human mortality takes its time in rearing its head. Life progresses from one stage to another in smooth transitions. We have this vague sense of when changes are supposed to occur, and life’s failure to conform rips holes in our very conception of time. Bottum drives at this when he talks about how death seems different, depending on one’s age. When people my age die, it’s a shock and a tragedy; when people Bottum’s age die, it’s a bit too soon but an acknowledged possibility; a generation older, it’s no great shock, the natural passage of time. But time’s contours rarely behave in such an easy way, and before long each one of us is tested by something that disrupts this flow, great or small. No moment is more formative, and while I’d wish it on no one, it can also stir forth some of the most admirable human qualities in response.

Early brushes with mortality tend to age us prematurely, but they also distort all the time that came before them. Those preceding moments now seem all too short but linger forever, make one wonder if the way we flow through time, measured in minutes and seconds and hours and all lined up in perfect linear form, doesn’t mistake its true nature. Go deep into quantum physics and it will all break down, yes, but maybe the disconnect registers on a more immediate, deeper level, one that lets certain moments endure for an eternity while so much of our day-to-day lives fades into an unremarkable blur. No matter how long these moments may last on a clock or a calendar, their end will inevitably bring the sense that time has been stolen from us; time we’ll never have back save in the recesses of wandering minds. And so we preserve it there, make sure we never forget, and use it as best we can to form us in who we become.

We don’t need to steal clock hands to rebel against the march of time, but the thieves of Healy Hall do have lessons for us, whether we’re aware of them or not. When we become aware of stolen time we come in tune with far broader forces, and they ground us, make us believe things like the quote I shared on this day three years ago. When we know where we come from and know why it is we want to get to wherever we’re going, we can steal some time back ourselves.

Happy 19th, bro.

Georgetown Beauty, Georgetown Power

8 Jun

My time at Georgetown was a complicated four-year blur, one I’ve struggled to relate back to non-Hoyas without falling into clichés. This past week’s five-year reunion was a chance to revisit it in all its madness: old friends together again, another afternoon of pitchers at The Tombs, of reminiscences of past exploits and ruminations of future plans, plus some hopeless overplaying of “Despacito.” I took a couple of extra days in DC to get some more one-on-one time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and to run the Mall, dine in Union Station, and wander up around Dumbarton Oaks, those old haunts of a wide-eyed college kid. With time and distance the peaks and valleys fade into a haze, and above all I’ve come to realize how ridiculously fortunate I was to live out those four years.

After some time away, the most striking aspect of Georgetown was its beauty. There’s the beauty of the neighborhood, the first thing to strike me upon my arrival in DC ten years ago: pastel rowhouses, lush gardens, brick and cobblestones, perfect urban form, sheer aesthetic perfection. There’s the beauty of the campus, with its historic architecture and well-manicured lawns perched up over the Potomac. Sure, there was an unfortunate brutalist phase, but we’ve moved past that, and the most recent stuff, tasteful blends of modernism with the old brick and stone motifs, will stand the test of time in a way plenty of contemporary architecture won’t. And then there’s the beauty of the people: Georgetownites, both students and townies, men and women, are a remarkably attractive bunch. A walk around Georgetown is a constant brush with high fashion, sunny dresses, bronzed skin, casual elegance, and a certain excess of boat shoes and salmon shorts. My wardrobe for the weekend wasn’t exactly the one I break out for lazy Saturdays in Duluth.

Georgetown also knows how to throw a party to show off that beauty. Nearly any weekend night features a glitzy affair somewhere, with girls wobbling down cobblestone streets in high heels. College-era parties brought together the attractive people on back patios and rooftops and at the occasional event at an embassy. (They’re technically foreign soil, so lower drinking ages apply!) After final exams my senior year, there was a full week of university-sponsored partying, with various bar crawls and sporting events and a boozy journey to a farm somewhere out in Maryland. It culminated in a ridiculous night in which the university shut down Union Station to throw a final ball, its grand classical halls reimagined as elaborately themed rooms. The pomp and circumstance of commencement brought out Kentucky Derby caliber attire from the attendees. Reunion was no letdown here either, with a party at the Ritz-Carlton one night and candle-lit tents strewn around lawns on campus the next. These carnivals of beauty allow Georgetownites to revel in their own awesomeness, as inheritors of a claim to status available only to a select few.

I don’t have any illusions about what makes all this beauty possible: an incredible concentration of wealth. The neighborhood overflows with money and power. My graduating class featured more people from families in the top one percent of American households than it did from households poorer than my (very middle class) childhood. Most of my friends are now either employed by companies or attending graduate schools with very recognizable names. The dumpy off-campus house I lived in my junior and senior years, a rowhouse barely over 1,000 square feet with no garage and an eternal slick of Natty Light on its floorboards, sold for $910,000 last year. I could get myself a mid-level robber baron’s mansion in Duluth for less.

Moreover, a view of the Hilltop takes on a new light that it didn’t really have a decade ago. An electorate motivated by disdain for controlling elites is flexing its muscles, and there are few schools that scream “controlling elite” quite like Georgetown. While it may not have quite the prestige of the best of the Ivies, it has an East Coast bluebloodedness to rival any of them, to say nothing of the fact that it is located just two miles from the White House. Georgetown, with its steady flow of politicians in and out of the front gates, is as well-entrenched as any school in the status quo of the past half-century. The phrase “Georgetown cocktail party” has long been a slur directed at events for an out of touch ruling class, and at times some Hoyas do pretty well to live up to that ideal. Hoyas live a world apart, and Middle America has taken note.

Before heading back, I was curious to see if some of the snobbery I recall encountering as a freshman was impenetrable privilege or merely just the antics of pampered teenagers that one wasn’t apt to find in a Midwestern childhood. Said elitists are a minority, but among at least some, the standoffishness is indeed real. A friend and I theorized that this especially pronounced at Georgetown; for a certain brand of East Coast elite, it’s a second-tier school that comes up short of an Ivy, and the pressure to prove oneself looms large. These strivers don’t necessarily exude active disdain, but such a rigid class consciousness is also not something one finds in a place like Harvard, where simple acceptance is proof enough that one belongs. Whether we’re right or not, that struggle to break down barriers remains the greatest strike against elite schools. Some of it is just a desire to do as well as one’s parents, and to continue in the same orbits or edge into yet higher echelons; it’s hard to blame anyone for that. The trouble comes when those who enjoy Georgetown status fail to recognize it for what it is; when those who were born on second or third base think they’ve hit doubles or triples and make few or facile efforts to understand more. (I’m certainly not saying I started out at home plate, either.)

Even so, it’s a bit strange to now watch my former classmates (and myself, I suppose?) get labeled as the elite establishment, as children of a corrupt breeding ground of power and privilege that reinforces this country’s divides and sneers down at the plebes in Middle America. Above all, it’s just silly to picture most of my old peers that way after I spent four years having sloppy college parties with them, flailing about in certain classes with them, and joining them in a collective effort to figure out what one earth we were doing with our lives. Even though we’re five years older, so little had changed among us Hoyas, either in looks or in temperament: we’re still mostly a group of ambitious but uptight kids in search of the occasional release. Some of them have now maneuvered themselves into positions to make far more money than I ever will, and others of us are reaching out to grasp levers of power. We’ve been groomed for these sorts of lives, and are probably as qualified as anyone to lead them, but that does little to undermine the fragility of human experience, even in a world with so many layers of seeming sophistication. So few of us know exactly what we’re doing, and are often trapped in our own insular little worlds, no matter how outwardly cosmopolitan we may appear.

In spite of these critiques, the pride I have in those four years has only grown as I settle into a life in a land far from Georgetown. I certainly don’t mean to say Georgetown put me on a different level, but it also gave me a perspective that is fairly unique in a place like northern Minnesota, and while the world I now live in is far from Washington, I can still navigate that sea and enjoy it. I now hold a master’s degree from a flagship public university as well, and while that school gifted me with an irreplaceable group of peers and a handful of excellent professors and instructors, Georgetown now shines that much more brightly in contrast to some of the instructional mediocrity and bureaucratic rot I experienced at that institution. (There I go being an elitist again, I suppose.) I came away more convinced than I used to be that Georgetown deserves the status it projects, and that simply being there prepared me more for leadership roles than any sort of management education could have. Its brass runs a tight ship, and the academic and personal support networks are excellent. Georgetown also has a soul: its efforts at moral formation push above and beyond most other elite schools. The Jesuits still linger, even in a world where their level of commitment is increasingly alien.

At its best, Georgetown gives its students a few magical years of self-discovery, and an outlet for the hyper-ambitious among us who wouldn’t feel like we’re testing our potential to the extent that we should if we just stayed close to home. John Thompson Jr. likened Georgetown to heaven, and a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? Any philosophy that tries to suppress that instinct, whether equality-obsessed liberalism or a more conservative ethos that lashes out at people who seem to rise above their stations, is fighting a losing war against the human psyche. I’ve joked that the Georgetowns of the world aren’t part of reality, but they are very real. I lived it, and will continue to live it in certain ways for the rest of my life.

To any northern Minnesotan who wonders how I could defend such a different world, Georgetown fuels my hunger to do what I do, and paradoxically, the intellectual backdrop I lean on to do it wouldn’t exist without these dips back in those swampy waters. To the Hoyas who struggle to understand why someone gifted with all of that privilege would give a measure of it up to head back to some northern Minnesotan woods, remember how fragile Georgetown’s beauty can be, something that I suspect the passing years will underscore more and more. The most powerful determinants of a life well lived lie beyond that narrow world, and its unquestioned perpetuation has consequences far beyond DC. But that beauty is a source of power and wonder, and drives us to heights we’d otherwise never know. Georgetown forever.

Take Me Back to Georgetown

1 Jun

I am headed to Washington D.C. this weekend, back to the site of my four-year undergraduate whirlwind. It will be my first trip there since graduation five years ago. And while I’ll be tempted to quote a favorite fictional character upon her return to a swampy capital when I first catch a glimpse of it from the airplane window, that would be some fairly shallow cynicism. Those four years at Georgetown were as rich as any I’ve had, and their legacy grows ever more obvious as time goes on.

I’ll save a more thorough reflection on what those years now mean after what is sure to be a blur of a weekend. For now, though, I’ll just gush a little bit about my excitement over revisiting some of those old haunts. (Hopefully these haunts don’t have anything to do with their demonic friends from The Exorcist, that Georgetown-based 70s horror novel and film whose author, Hoya alumnus William Peter Blatty, passed away earlier this year. There was always something symbolic about finishing another grueling D.C. run by bolting up the Exorcist Stairs just off the south end of campus.) I can be critical of my alma mater and the world it so often inhabits, and also of the city its sits in that both lured me in as a starstruck kid and also set me firmly back on a path to northern Minnesota.

 

No more sneak previews of next week’s post, though. I have a brutally early flight to catch. I’m off to revisit the great federal city, home to clean marble and festering political swamps, to stunning wealth and beauty and abject poverty, and to an old Jesuit university on a hill overlooking the Potomac. It is a fascinating, complex place, and lives in its own reality, for good or ill. John Thompson Jr., the storied basketball coach, said it best, as he so often did:

HeavenGeorgetown

Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

24 May

J.D. Vance, in a review of Janesville: An American Story in Commentary magazine:

Having grown up in a blue-collar family that has largely abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, I have an unusually high tolerance for the many profiles of Trump voters in struggling industrial towns. Lately, however, even I have grown weary of what Noah Rothman calls “decline porn.” There are only so many words in the English language, and nearly all of them seem to have been used at least three times to help the denizens of Williamsburg and Dupont understand red-state voters and dying factory towns. Enough already.

Vance penned the most orgiastic piece of decline porn in recent memory, Hillbilly Elegy–apologies for my juvenile enjoyment of this metaphor–but there has been no shortage of titles in this genre, and a survey of this blog will find me devouring much of it, from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, from George Packer’s The Unwinding to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Brian Alexander’s Glass House. It need not even be American; I could carry on with examples for a while. Decline porn is a fertile ground in contemporary non-fiction, and its best works tell haunting tales of realities that anyone vaguely involved in the shaping of political or economic trends must wrestle with. They also tap into a into a lament for things lost speaks to a certain part of the human psyche and permeates my own writing at times. Someone who knows me well can probably psychoanalyze this wistfulness easily enough, but I come back to it for reasons that are philosophical as well as personal, and I could devote a lot of words to defending it in those terms. Meditations on loss go back to Eden and the early creation myths, as Paz so masterfully explains in the last chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It’s a near universal human trait.

Despite this, I don’t consider myself a declinist. That golden past usually had its own ugly features, and nostalgia and selective memory whitewash the worst of it. Coping with change is also one of the greatest engines of human ingenuity and heroism, and if noting else, it’s remarkably educational for those of us looking not to repeat past errors. If we fixate only on decline, we become depressing, tiresome people who are locked into a single lens and not much fun to talk to at parties.

Still, Vance likes Janesville. Despite the oversaturation of the genre–porn is everywhere these days, after all–its author, Amy Goldstein, gets to the heart of the flawed human stories, and instead of merely lamenting loss, looks to assess the responses to it. This one would likely strike home for me, too: my earliest memories are of the short stint my family spent living in a small town just north of Janesville, Wisconsin, and my mother worked there for a time. Unfortunately, Goldstein comes to fairly depressing conclusions. The basic tools of the trade in economic development, Janesville argues, have done little good to stem the tide of decline. Neither have worker retraining efforts, a rare point of bipartisan consensus on putting communities back to work. It adds up to a depressing summation of post-industrial America, with no obvious way forward for anyone.

Unless, of course, there might be any exceptions to the trend out there. I happen to be living in one.

Duluth, Minnesota is not heaven on earth. Its economy is not booming, its poverty rate is high, and there has been a rash of opioid overdoses, as in so much of the America exposed so ubiquitously in decline porn. But I will submit that it’s important to think about what it could have been, and that Duluth’s story is as much a triumph as any medium-sized Rust Belt town. In the early 1980s, its unemployment rate was second only to Youngstown, Ohio, which is not exactly great company to have. Population plummeted, manufacturing packed up and left, and a billboard asked the last person to leave to turn out the lights.

Most Rust Belt cities remain mired in the post-industrial swamp; the few that have broken free, like Pittsburgh, are the large ones that operate on a very different scale. And yet Duluth has charted a respectable course since it hit rock bottom in the 80s. Unlike every other Rust Belt city, its population has been stable since 1990, instead of continued shrinkage. (See the table on this page for comparison cities.) The city is basically at full employment. Income growth around the greater Duluth area, while not on par with the booming coastal metros, does outpace the stagnant national average since 1990. The median income within the city itself, while not stellar ($40-some thousand), is a clear step above the Eries, Akrons, South Bends, and Scrantons of the world. The city’s image rehabilitation has been thorough, as it now comes off as an outdoorsy playground for Twin Cities residents on vacation. The Trump tide made little headway in the city proper (though precinct-level data challenges some aspects of the dominant media narrative, and suggests Trump was largely a rural and exurban phenomenon in Rust Belt states, not something that happened inside its former industrial engines). Sure, “we’re better than Flint!” isn’t exactly a winning slogan, but it’s important to understand what the odds were, and what could have been.

There are two ways to explain this.

The first is one of leadership and vision and a certain Duluthian exceptionalism, which us Duluthians would certainly like to believe. A lot of credit in this line of thinking goes to Don Ness, the young mayor who served from 2008-2016 and brought the city’s debt under control and led a massive rebranding effort. But he had some strong forerunners. At the height of the crisis in the 80s, Duluth elected 29-year-old John Fedo. Unlike the consensus-driven and generally beloved Ness, Fedo was a warrior who wasn’t afraid to make enemies to push through his vision, but he also operated in a very different environment, and push through his vision he did. Fedo’s strategy was Keynesianism par excellence, with a junkyard reinvented as a tourist district and work crews set to work rebuilding streets for the sake of work and little else. Those efforts endure in obvious ways. His more market-oriented successor, Gary Doty, tried a lot of things to revive the economy, and while not all of them stuck, the general thrust was positive, as the city landed companies that are the cornerstones of the aviation and healthcare clusters that remain among its most promising foundations for sustained success. Beyond those three mayors, there’s the political influence of some clever longtime political operators who knew how to bring in the benefits like Jim Oberstar and Willard Munger, who were ahead of their time with ideas for building trail networks and capping freeways.

We can’t just credit the politicians, though. Duluth’s rehabilitation always had strong support from a loyal private sector, which continues to support changes through development and philanthropy. Pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci was a complicated figure with a complicated relationship with Fedo, but he did bankroll a lot of the changes in Canal Park. Several other big names in business left their mark, as did some of the legacy families whose early 20th century wealth continues to support local foundations and scholarships. That old money remains a boon to Duluth, as does a strong civic culture with its roots in Scandinavian immigration and a thriving arts scene that allows the city to punch far above its weight.

This, however, feeds into the other explanation, which has much more to do with structural factors than any brilliant maneuvering by the people in charge.

First off, geography has had its say. We call Duluth a Rust Belt city because it used to be a manufacturing center on the Great Lakes, and suffered the loss of that economic base and a drop in population comparable to other Rust Belt cities. But it’s isolated from the rest of them, and that may contain some spillover effects or a general sense that everything is going downhill. Instead, it sits in Minnesota, home to one of the wealthiest and most white collar metropolitan areas in the country in Minneapolis-St. Paul. As a regional center with a university and some hospitals, Duluth has some staying power that an Akron, just down the road from Cleveland, may not.

Local geography makes a difference, too. While Duluth isn’t overflowing with buildable land, it has had some pockets for new subdivisions that allowed for continued new home construction. Duluth has also proven somewhat resistant to the mass suburbanization of other Rust Belt cities; while there has certainly been growth beyond the city limits, it hasn’t come at major expense to the city’s tax base. A tour of the other Rust Belt cities will show that none of them has a Congdon: while some of the larger metro areas do have wealthy suburban neighbors, basically none of them have concentrations wealth of any size within the city limits. (The only real exception, surprisingly, is Charleston, West Virginia, which benefits from the machinery of a state government that most Rust Belt cities lack.) For that matter, precious few Rust Belt cities have many Lakesides, Woodlands, or Piedmonts, those stable, comfortably middle class neighborhoods that allow for upward mobility and keep perceptions of public schools afloat. Many of these neighborhoods (and even little nice blocks that don’t show up in census tract data) are fairly isolated, strung out along Duluth’s 27 miles of ridgeline and separated by streams and parks. Even though they are older, they feel fairly suburban, and the park-like nature of the whole city just makes it more resistant to changes that might march smoothly down more cohesive urban grids. It has so many different little pockets, and that diversity begets resilience.

Speaking of diversity, Duluth has always been a very white city–yes, a 1920 lynching probably played a role in that–and the relative lack of racial dynamics make it distinct from a lot of Rust Belt cities that convulsed with conflict in the mid-20th century.  White flight didn’t happen in Duluth on any meaningful scale, and while I wish I could claim this was due to some enlightened thinking on behalf of Duluthians, in reality there probably just weren’t enough people of color to set off that chain reaction. (Typically, this happens when the non-white population hits about 20%; Duluth remains over 90% white.) While the center of Duluth has hollowed out like basically every American city, Rust Belt or not, that probably had more to do with a declining old housing stock and poverty among white people. Other than perhaps some very recent school-driven outmigration, the growth in Duluth’s more suburban areas had much more to do with an abundance of buildable land and desire for space and newer homes than anything related to the people in Duluth itself. The city has been crawling toward greater diversity over recent decades, and if that trend continues or accelerates, Duluth’s response could well determine its future.

All of these factors are most likely intertwined in feedback loops, the causes impossible to separate from one another. There are few obvious lessons here, and some of Duluth’s strengths are accidents of geography in a city at the end of the line in the far north. But the relative successes are real, the leadership examples are real, and some of the things Duluth needs to do to remain an exemplar of Rust Belt success are clear, and cut across all such small cities. It needs to maintain its strong neighborhoods, keep its schools afloat, and prepare for an increasingly diverse future. Continued growth in diverse economic clusters will build a stronger safety net against future crashes. Concentration of poverty will only exacerbate divides and cut off pathways to eventual mobility. Duluth also needs to think on the level of a regional system, so that its future doesn’t devolve into squabbles between the city proper and the outlying areas. They’re all interconnected, part of one economy and one labor market, and their fates are intertwined.

As addicting as the decline porn may be, I’d much rather have an amorous adventure with something real, and with something that can learn from the past and grow into a future with me. It’s all right there before us.

Exit Dave Esse

13 May

In a spring of job-related bombshells in Cloquet, the fate of a high school hockey coach may seem like a minor affair compared to a controversy embroiling that city’s police department or the closure of an 85-employee match and toothpick factory, the last of its kind in America. But hockey is no small thing in Cloquet, and sometimes a coach’s plight can have far broader messages about the state of amateur sports and beyond. The tenure of Dave Esse, the hockey coach who amassed a 282-176-28 record over 17 seasons as the head coach of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, has come to an abrupt and highly suspect end.

Esse was a true throwback coach who demanded excellence at every turn, and would say so when players did not give their all. He was a street fighter, and not just in a metaphorical sense: once, following an on-ice altercation between Duluth East and Cloquet, he challenged Mike Randolph to a fight in the parking lot. His teams were rigidly defensive-minded and tough warriors, no matter the talent level. It was Esse’s way or the highway. He was a schemer of the highest order; it is Esse, not Randolph, who deserves Elk River’s ire for some of the more questionable decisions to come out of 7AA seeding meetings over the years. And when he got a team to buy in, they matched their coach’s image, as pesky and sure of themselves as anyone out there.

Esse’s tenure was a tale of two halves. His early years were a glowing success: six section final trips in eight years, four playoff wins in six tries against archrival Duluth East (despite usually being the underdog), and two State Tournament trips. In neither of those Tourney years were his Jacks the most talented team in 7AA, but they found ways, both through Josh Johnson’s goaltending and David Brown’s goal-scoring binge. This was Cloquet’s longest run of sustained quality, and the Jacks pulled it out with a combination of star power and feisty, relentless effort.

The later years were less kind, but this had much more to do with a precipitous drop-off in talent than anything behind the bench. The Jacks still put up a serious fight over those nine seasons, pulling a memorable playoff upset over Grand Rapids and twice taking 1- or 2-seed Elk River to overtime. Lists of the best coaches in the state often align with their teams’ on-ice accomplishments, leading some to wonder whether the praises heaped upon a Curt Giles or a Lee Smith are really due to any brilliant coaching maneuvers or merely the good fortune of having many skilled players come through their system. If those critics ever wanted an example of someone whose talent level wasn’t always there, but routinely got teams to play as more than the sum of their collective parts, Esse was their man.

If there was a knock on Esse, it was that some of his most talented teams didn’t quite find a way to get it done. The mid-2000s teams, more talented than 2005 Duluth East and deeper than 2006 and 2007 Grand Rapids, really should have found a way to win another section title or two. And with a coach so completely committed to a team system, parents of star players didn’t always think their kids were getting their due. This all blew up during the 2012-2013 season, when Esse had his one post-2008 team that was a realistic contender for a section crown. This attempted firing, an amusing scenario in which politically powerful father of two talented players tried to accuse the good old boys’ network of denying his goalie step-son playing time, ultimately amounted to nothing. The team, however, seemed remarkably flat after that flare-up. Its aftereffects lingered, too: not only did the sons of the father in question leave for juniors after that year, but so did Karson Kuhlman, the best player on that squad.

The incident that drove Esse out this past week bears some obvious similarities. The instigator in this case was the greatest hockey player to ever come out of Cloquet, a 16-season NHLer who came home after retirement to raise his kids. Said hockey player and his family built something of a reputation for themselves in youth hockey, earning ejections from arenas for their antics. But when the player’s son made it to high school this season, Esse decided to bring his old man on board as an assistant coach.

I was immediately skeptical. Was there any way this would end well? Perhaps Esse, as canny an operator as there was in high school hockey, thought his best chance was to bring the father into the fold, rather than having him grumbling from the outside. From the press clippings, it seemed like it worked out last season, and everyone said the right things. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. The facts as we know them now are thus: Esse dismissed his troublesome assistant last week, and while the details aren’t all out here yet, retribution was, clearly, swift. “With great sadness,” Esse stepped down on Friday morning. At this point, I don’t blame the man for moving on.

The timing of this saga throws Cloquet hockey into tumult. After a run of successful youth teams, it looked as if the Jacks were about to announce their arrival back on the state scene. Now, their future is unclear, especially since a couple of the rising talents are the offspring of the man responsible for Esse’s ouster. Their father, after all, was one of the first Minnesotans to leave high school early for other hockey opportunities. Will they follow suit?

There will be plenty of time to sort out that drama, and to see who will want this job opening, given both the potential and the toxic dynamics surrounding it. This is a time to reflect on 17 memorable years of hockey in a town that loves the sport, whether Cloquet was going toe-to-toe with Duluth East and Grand Rapids for 7AA titles or fighting to prove that it could hang with more talented opponents. But we shouldn’t sugarcoat the ending of his tenure, either: Dave Esse’s fate is a sorry statement on the state of high school sports, and yet another incident of political power trumping a track record of exemplary efforts. He created some enemies, as any strong-willed person will over such a long time period, but he also has a legion of loyal former players who appreciate what he instilled in them. He deserved far better.

Highway 61 Revisited

7 May

When I was a small child who wouldn’t shut up, my parents would just strap me into the car seat and take me for a drive. It worked every time, and put Baby Karl to sleep. As I learned on my whirlwind West Coast road trip last summer, a good, long drive still has the power to lull me into a satisfied place. Perhaps no road can do this better than the one lining Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, a pathway woven through childhood memories that also looms up in vague visions of the future.

Minnesota Highway 61 runs some 150 miles from the end of Interstate 35 in Duluth to the Canadian border. It was decommissioned from federal highway status a few decades ago and is no longer the continuous highway that ran from Bob Dylan’s birthplace down through the heart of Blues Country to New Orleans, but it remains the only connection between the U.S. and Canada through Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. The highway is an engineering achievement, often blasting its way through the thick Duluth Complex and the volcanic extrusions that jumble together in the headlands on the Shore. I drive this road with some regularity; no year is complete few trips up the Shore for hikes, runs, and skis. Work takes me up this way at times as well, including a trip to Silver Bay and the old Finland airbase site just this past Wednesday. But while this voyage has a few ulterior motives, it’s primarily dedicated to the ribbon of road.

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The view from Mount Josephine toward Canada

The North Shore is a tourist playground of rocky beaches and cascading streams, rustic beauty frozen in time. Resorts and vacation homes that range from humble cabins to palatal lodges with floor-to-ceiling windows out on the lake dot the way along 61. The greatest of these is the house atop Silver Creek Cliff that was once rumored to belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, that illustrious alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. I’ll have to dust off an unfinished short story that took place in a house modeled after this one. But that castle is just one of the retreat homes on the Shore. There are also the homes of the Encampment River People, the residents of a cloistered community north of Two Harbors whose sole purpose in life appears to be yelling at people who disturb their peace; north of Ilgen “City,” I pass a house on the market for $5.5 million that looks worth every penny on its Sotheby’s listing. Real estate now excites me. I’m getting old.

These vacation homes are a far cry from some of the Shore’s most distinctive markers: the ore docks of Two Harbors, the taconite plant in Silver Bay, and the ghost town of Taconite Harbor, home to a now-idled power plant. These and the occasional logging truck are the only vestiges of the industry that led people to first settle on the Shore. While doing my homework before my visit to the Finland airbase, I stumbled across a forum devoted to these shuttered military installations, where a few aging former servicemen and their children who lived their early years on the base at the height of the Cold War reminisced on their time atop a hill in rural Lake County. Despite the desolation and cold—many of them were not native Minnesotans—they almost universally called it the best years of their lives. Now, the base sits vacant aside from a few apparent squatters, a superfund site at the end of a crumbling, precarious road. In place of the solidarity of years on the base, the Shore has now often become a playground for people who live somewhere else.

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Intermingling rocks at a wayside south of Grand Marais

I’m guilty as charged today. This road trip emerged from a plan to test out a new pair of trail running shoes, and their maiden voyage commences at Oberg and LeVeaux Mountains, two peaks that flank the Onion River and its eponymous road just south of the Lutsen ski resort. I start with LeVeaux, the longer hike up an oblong bluff rising 900 feet above the lake. I don’t see anyone else on this 3.5-mile loop, which features some muddy slop to mar my new shoes, a bridge over the rushing Onion, and a climb up the north face, some lingering drifts of snow tucked in at its base. The stark solitude here exudes both a complete rightness and a wistful loneliness, two peaks twinned in my first eight months back home. The trail that circles the summit doesn’t offer nearly as many views as other hilltops in the Sawtooths, but there is a superb look back to the south and west at its far end, as clear as one will ever see it with no leaves on the trees quite yet.

Oberg, meanwhile, is bustling with hikers, including a father who, when asked by his young daughter why that guy was running, immediately replies that “he’s being chased by bears.” The run here is easier than on LeVeaux, so it’s easy to bounce along and repeat those old clichés about climbs and endless pursuit. Yes, I need more of this. The views fan out in each direction as I make the circuit, with long looks down at both Superior and inland Oberg Lake. I do, however, opt to skip the overlook at which a man with his significant other appears to be pulling down his pants. I careen back into the parking lot, both tired and wishing I’d found myself a longer route.

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Oberg Lake

I stop for a spell at a wayside to put some thoughts on paper at a bend in the highway where I can enjoy views all the way north to the breakwater in Grand Marais. I press on to that town whose name is better left untranslated, which stirs to life at the start of another tourist season. Downtown bustles with the precise pace of a place that knows what it is and makes it work. I’m tempted to stop in a gallery to find some local art to check off one of the boxes on my ever-expanding apartment decoration checklist, but restrain myself and settle for a sandwich from the Java Moose. (Alas, the tamale cart is nowhere to be seen.) It’s been a good five years since I was last in Grand Marais, and that last visit mostly involved the hospital after a friend separated his shoulder on a Boundary Waters trip, but it’s just as vibrant and quirky as I remember.

My plan had been to turn around at the Devil’s Kettle at Magney State Park a short ways north of Grand Marais, but then I decide, what the hell, I’ll go to the border. I’ve only crossed here once before, on a childhood vacation to Thunder Bay most memorable for the words my mother uttered when faced with the hike up Sleeping Giant. I have a vague memory of Mount Josephine, which towers over the last settlement in Minnesota, Grand Portage; I’d forgotten how much the highway climbs to cross this final rampart before the Pigeon River. If we ever decide to build a wall with Canada, this portion of the border is already covered. I’m rewarded with a stellar view from the wayside, with Pigeon Point and a few islands at the mouth of the river dotting the azure lake.

The last stop on Highway 61 is a few hundred feet from the customs booth at Grand Portage State Park. A paved path traces its way along the Pigeon, which bursts its banks with spring rains. I am spattered with spray long before I see High Falls, a torrent down into the ravine that separates two nations. When the sun emerges, rainbows proliferate, and the torrents thunder with such power that water rockets back upward in fountains off the rocks below. It’s the most impressive waterfall in the Midwest (even if half of it is in Canada), and it’s not hard to imagine the misery of the Voyageurs as they struggled to find a way around it. This is the end of the road.

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The gateway to Canada

After one last glance at the land of maple leaves, Tim Hortons, and Justin Trudeau, I turn around and head south, past the signs telling me how to translate kilometers into miles. I swing off 61 in Grand Portage and search for a hiking trail up Mount Josephine, but its parking lot has spawned a sixth Great Lake, and with some clouds rolling in, I’m not too disappointed to head on my way. I meander through the heart of the Grand Portage Reservation, which boasts a shiny new school whose playground teems with children, alive on this otherwise desolate stretch of shore. Much more alive, at least, than the old Voyageur fort at the Grand Portage National Monument. It sits in sad in repose, still closed for the season; in one part, orange construction fencing stands in place of the wooden palisade.

I get another dose of the Shore’s limited brushes with history beyond this little corner of the planet when I stop in the hamlet of Colvill to wander along the beach. This was the old summer home of Col. William Colvill, the commander of the First Minnesota regiment whose suicidal charge at Gettysburg ranks among the most crucial military maneuvers in American history. The First Minnesota suffered an 80 percent casualty rate, but stuffed the Rebel advance and may just have saved the nation as we know it. Shot twice and left with a wrecked ankle, Colvill found solitude here as he gimped down this rocky beach, recovering from the horror of war. I follow in his footsteps, any of my more plaintive musings paling in comparison to what weighed on the old Union hero.

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Nowadays, elsewhere in northern Minnesota, I’ve seen a surge in the number of Confederate flags flying from pickup trucks. History is rarely as decisive as we’d like to imagine. What endures a century and a half later is the sense of duty of a man like Colvill, who was the first Minnesotan to enlist when the War Between the States broke out. That sense of compunction, unfathomable until we realize there are things that we, too, would fancy to think we’d drive to the end of the earth to achieve. It’s all somewhere in the pursuit, I muse as I brush a little mud off my leg.

The return trip drags more than the venture northward, as I’m repeatedly stuck in columns of slow-moving traffic. Tourist season is indeed upon us. By the time I’m passing Gooseberry Falls I decide I deserve a beer, and swing down to the Castle Danger brewery in Two Harbors. I sit at the bar and unwind, even as I remind myself how much I have to do to align dreams and reality. Along one road, however, they already blend, and I head home with little doubt that I could just drive this highway into eternity.