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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.

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