Memory can be a funny thing. At 40 it gets even funnier.
Like when you find yourself planning a trip with the hope of forging new ground, exploring a new part of the world and establishing a new tradition for your family, only to realize when you get there that you have, in fact, been in this place before. The place in question? Duluth, Minnesota.
To be fair, I was much younger when I last visited Duluth. This was long before I managed to stumble over the other side of the hill. Not only that, but my experience of Duluth had, up to this point, been confined to a view from the floor of our van. This is where I would sleep through some insanely early starts to our yearly treks to visit extended family in Toronto. Little wonder I still don’t consider it a true road trip unless we leave before 5 a.m.
At this point, you might be saying, ‘Wait a minute now. Did you just say Duluth? Does Duluth really qualify as seeing the world?’ Well, it is technically a place. And the interesting thing about forgetting is you get to experience the place anew. So there is that.
Okay, so it might not be the far reaches of the world (for us anyways), nor would it be considered near the top of most lists of places to see before we die. I get it. But could it be a decent alternative to the Twin Cities? This was the hope anyways when I sat down to plan the trip.
You see, my wife (Jen) and I have long made a tradition out of heading to Grand Forks/Fargo on a semi-annual basis. And if we were feeling really adventurous, we would continue all the way to the aforementioned bustling Metropolis of Minneapolis/St. Paul. And yes, I admit, it’s not much of a unique tradition when you happen to be born and raised in Manitoba. And it most definitely is a tradition that transplanted Ontarioans… Ontarians… Ontarioians?… at least Manitobans has an easy ring to it… enjoy mocking at nauseum. But it is a tradition none the less. And it’s our tradition… that we just happen to share with every other hapless Manitoban helping to create a traffic jam at the Emerson border.
Here’s the thing. When you make this trek as many times as we have, you become very familiar with the way of the old (very straight and well paved) I29/I94 that connects us to the border. I once knew someone who made it all the way to Sioux City before realizing they neglected to make the necessary interchange on the South side of Fargo. Fools I said. And then I remembered that time I was so captivated (read zoned out) by the prairie landscape that I had inadvertently exited the Interstate and entered an old Country road. Which of course led me to nowhere-in-particular.
Yep, the interstate is so straight that I failed to notice I had made the exchange until I was far too up-close and personal with a few unexpected cows.
Also, it happened to be in the dead of night, so I guess I can’t really blame the landscape or lack thereof. But it does go to show that sometimes being too familiar with your surroundings isn’t always the best thing. Every once in a while it’s nice to shake things up and experience something new.
Needless to say, taking that exit onto the #2 Highway at Grand Forks a few weeks ago felt somewhat like taking that old Country road. This was not the way of the well-trodden road I was familiar with. The minute we left the I29 I could feel our surroundings beginning to change, and it was not long before the prairies themselves began to fade into the background.
You could smell the dust of the open prairies beginning to dissipate, and the scent of the lake water that once helped earned Duluth the moniker “zenith of the unsalted seas” begins to drift over the horizon. The speed limit slows, the pace grows a little less hectic, and you gain a picture of the smaller cities and towns that the interstate tends to hide in its wake:
Places like the commuter railroad town of Crookston, MN, home to the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the United States (Grand Theatre) and, in what should be familiar to Winnipeggers, the New Flyer bus manufacturing plant. I also noted a made-for-me coffee shop-bookstore fusion called the Novel Cup in passing.
We did stop there on the way back, but it turned out to be anything but novel. The grumpy old lady that ran the place seemed more interested in eyeing us up than serving us a quality cup of joe with a side of a good book.
Or there was the quaint town of Erskine, an old Scottish settlement equipped with a Russian Bakery (of course). There was also something we passed in the town called “Oof-da Tacos” that apparently sells Elephant Ears, but they are only open in the summer. I was, however, able to sneak a look at the world’s largest Pike, so that made up for it.
How about the old woods-town of Bemidji? The birthplace of Paul Bunyan and Babe, which, believe it or not, “are recognized as the second most photographed icon in the nation” according to the town’s website. I made sure to get in a shot of the classic pose (see attached picture).
When I was younger (and immature), standing beneath his legs was something that made me laugh. At 40 I guess it just makes me immature. Probably why my wife (Jen) chose to stay in the car. For the record, they both chose to stay in the car during a stop at Judy Garland’s Birthplace (Grand Rapids), but I think they were hoping I would come back with a heart and a brain. I digress.
And by the way, I’ve heard that the homemade chocolates at Chocolate Plus in downtown Bemidji are well worth it. You could even buy some, set it on the top of your head and go back for another pose underneath Paul Bunyan. But I’m sure you are more mature than that.
I do have to say, there is something therapeutic about the gentle hills that mark this part of the mid-west, and even though this wasn’t the other side of the world, this small change in scenery seemed a welcome breath of fresh air. It was enough to cause Jen to lean over and comment, “this is really pretty.” Understanding that she wasn’t referring to me, I was inclined to agree.
Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas
So why is Duluth called the “zenith city of the unsalted seas”?
Definition of “zenith”:
The zenith is an imaginary point directly “above” a particular location, on the imaginary celestial sphere. “Above” means in the vertical direction opposite to the apparent gravitational force at that location. The opposite direction, i.e. the direction in which gravity pulls, is toward the nadir.
Maybe a simpler definition that doesn’t require gravity or words like “nadir”:
“A highest point or state”.
Actually, this was one is my favorites:
“The highest point reached in the heavens”
A city for the Gods. The image of heaven itself. At first glance, it sounds like Duluth might have had something of a superiority complex back in the day, however, perhaps some further context might help put this into a bit more perspective:
The Fourth Coast
As the world’s largest inland waterway, Duluth’s shoreline was once considered to be the nation’s fourth coast. And this is really the most important factor in considering the Duluth in its hey-day (and even now in its modern incarnation)- the gradual development and growth of its port.
Being the only port with access to both oceans (Atlantic and Pacific), it was Dr. Thomas Preston Foster who first adopted the moniker “zenith” in an effort to capture the spirit of Duluth’s growing influence on trade as it pushed to prove itself a significant player in the Nation’s economic landscape. The simple truth was, Duluth had what everyone else wanted- an abundance of natural resources.
Duluth: A Place of Booms and Busts and Booms
Any history of Duluth- which was officially named after Frenchman Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, who arrived to make peace with the Ojibway and Sioux in hopes of securing trading and trapping rights- reveals a story of many ups and downs, booms and busts. Some of this mirrored the similar struggles of the Nation’s past (such as the Great Depression), while others were a reflection of Duluth’s unique position as a trading hub. Just as Winnipeg once strived to become the Chicago of the north, Duluth also competed against Chicago to become the fastest growing city in the Nation. The waterway, the port, and the railroad all made it seem like the opportunity was endless for this port side community. The modest population of today might hide this past, but one can still see signs of its potential underneath the exterior, such as the mansions and castles that showcase the fact that Duluth was once home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation, and one article says possibly even the world.
As with the rest of the nation, the decline of the railroad and changing economic trends took its toll, and eventually, the city was forced to give up its spot in the race for civic dominance. However, in the face of such hardship- and at a few points things seemed incredibly bleak for Duluth’s future- it also learned how to persevere. The way it survived, and, one might argue, learned to thrive, was by shifting its attention towards investing in its greatest strength- its continued relationship with the natural world that surrounds it. It was by investing in these resources that it was able to grow into a healthy, vibrant small-scale city. In this same spirit, a few years ago the city began an initiative to generate 18 million dollars over 15 years to invest back in its outdoor infrastructure. As of 2017 it now boasts “one of the largest urban mountain biking systems in the world” (the Duluth Traverse).
So while the Castle Glensheen Museum, built between 1905 and 1908 for Chester A. Congdon, might serve as an example of the cities potential past, a city that once sat on the cusp of greatness and which desired to become a beacon of opportunity for the rest of the nation to heed and to follow, the real allure of Duluth today, this “zenith city of the unsalted seas”, is now its modesty and its sense of escape. The famous Split Rock lighthouse that dots the North Shore Drive now shines a light on a different kind of rat race, a different way of life; and it appears to be paying dividends as it is attracting more and more young people to call it home. Just 3 years ago it earned the nod as the #1 spot to live on Outdoors annual Best Places to Live in the U.S. list.
“I do believe Duluth is making a comeback… We want to be part of this economic upturn.”
– Duluth Mayor
The city has done a few other things over the years to reinvent itself for the modern age. First, and this is not unlike Winnipeg, slower growth combined with intentional efforts to protect the historical heritage of its downtown buildings has allowed the old character (1872-1929 era) to be retained and restored into downtown storefronts/living. Second is the efforts by the city to reclaim the lakefront and port by integrating into an integral part of the city life and fabric. The third is by encouraging young entrepreneurs to move in and set up shop downtown with (regulated and deregulated) incentives. You can see the effects of this in the presence of a growing number of independent storefronts. As one article puts, they expected a resurgence and now the data is showing it.
Duluth: Culture, Spirit… and Food
The first thing you will notice on the drive into Duluth is the iconic lift bridge (the Aerial Lift Bridge) that spans the Duluth/Superior Harbour. The second thing you notice is the massive boat (William A. Irvin, an old ore boat) that hugs the shoreline of what is now called Canal Park. If the port defines the city’s past and character, Canal Park affords it culture and a future. This is where you find the nightlife, a social hub of activity. The opportunity to stroll up and down these streets to visit shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses (the local roaster Duluth Coffee Company is recommended), is now a favorite city past time. It is here where culture and nature meet, which is an essential part of the Duluth experience.
Now, while it might be a modest city these days, but it is worth nothing that Duluth does also have some claims to fame. It is the home of Bob Dylan. It boasts the United States’ only all-freshwater aquarium (the Great Lakes Aquarium). It is the birthplace of the American mall.
Most notably perhaps, it is the inventor of pie a la mode.
For our purposes, on both of the occasions, we found ourselves strolling the streets of Downtown Duluth and Canal Park, our main interest was food. And while pie a la mode would have certainly been welcome, we needed something more substantial.
On both of these occasions, we were also looking to try out a place called Pizza Luce, a restaurant that I had seen in Minneapolis but had yet to visit. When I saw it in Duluth I suggested we finally take the plunge.
The first time was a fail, as they were entertaining some local music that night and happened to be full to capacity. This turned out alright though as not only did we manage to make it on our second try the next night, but it also ended up pointing us in the direction of another local recommendation called The Duluth Grill.
An inconspicuous location and a simple exterior felt insignificant, but on the inside, we were greeted by an environment that feels nostalgic and colorful. And not only was this local institution featured on the Food Network, but it had some fantastic food to back it up.
The attention is on fresh and local, and it gives honest attention to those with allergies and preferences (I have celiac and was able to enjoy a fantastic mac and cheese dish which was otherworldly). A popular cookbook called the “Duluth Cookbook” is actually a product of this restaurant and it’s owner, and it is well worth the price. It showcases the city history and food trends quite well. I am kicking myself for leaving it behind, but budget trips dictate priorities I suppose.
But back to Luce… Oh that Luce. Creative pizza concoctions, nice environment, and tons of flavor give it two thumbs up.
Beyond Downtown Duluth
We stayed at a hotel just outside the city limits (Duluth Spirit Mountain Inn), steps away from Spirit Mountain Ski Hill, as we had planned to do some snowboarding while we were there. Given that we were there on a Sunday, I was also intrigued by their option of Sunday Fat Bike rentals (where they open the hill for these bikes to flip and slide and tumble their way down the hill), but the weather made this activity inaccessible, unfortunately.
The hotel, while fairly modest, was the perfect location between the heart of downtown and the hill, and serves as a nice entry point onto Duluth’s North Point Scenic Drive. And to be honest, it is likely there are few places you could stay in Duluth that wouldn’t be able to open your eyes to what the greater area of Duluth had to offer. Its relationship with the outdoors is just that prominent, and one of the most respected excursions is the North Shore Drive, a scenic byway that opens up from the skyline drive and the Duluth lake walk in the heart of Canal Park and takes you through the communities that dot the waterway.
Also worth mentioning, to the other side of Duluth you find the Apostle Islands, a series of summer islands that turns into ice caves in the winter, along with the many bike trails available to enthusiasts.
There is plenty that we missed on our brief visit. We (of course) barely broke the surface of things to do in the few days we were there, such as the vintage train that celebrates the arrival of the rail back in the cities heyday (the North Shore and the Mississippi railroad).There is the famous Grannies in Canal Park, and the famed shipwrecks that color the lakes lore (it was known as one of the most violent seas on which to set sail, and excursions to sea wrecks are available). And I really want to get back there around Halloween when they turn the boat on the harbor into a massive haunted house that is for mature audiences only.
But we got enough of a taste to begin to fall in love with the place’s majestic sense of beauty and culture and nature.
Duluth: Looking Back and Looking Forward
As I mentioned, I don’t remember much about the place from when I was younger, but the places en-route that I do recall (the town of Christmas, Michigan- surprise, surprise; the Mackinac Bridge) have helped play a role in bringing back to life this picture of my childhood. These memories allowed visiting Duluth to become a sort of looking back on my past, a meaningful exercise of self-reflection on days long gone. However, what I haven’t mentioned yet is that this trip also had another similar motivation for our son Sasha.
He came into our lives two years ago via international adoption, and a part of what inspired this trip was the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend who had shared a room with him during his time at the orphanage. That he now lived so close to us was an exciting revelation, and so this special young man that we now have the privilege of calling our son was also given an opportunity on this trip to reconnect with a piece of his past.
I have only ever been able to imagine what this journey has been like for him, being transplanted to a foreign Country and being asked to say yes to this new family that he had just met; and so it was here on the #2 highway, in the confines of a modest portside city in the mid-west, that we hoped to find a chance to celebrate this journey with him- not only in how far he has come, but also in helping him to remember and cherish the childhood experiences (good and bad) that helped to bring him to where he is today.
So there we were, forging new experiences together, remembering days gone by together, and strengthening our family together. As it is with any journey, veering off that old familiar interstate is when we choose to invite and welcome the unexpected. It is learning to anticipate this discovery, the expectation of what lies ahead, that brings with it the opportunity to breathe a little bit of joy into our lives. And however little or however much this joy happens to be, we know it is always needed and welcome, even on our best days.
Duluth might not be the other side of the world, but it did end up being a little piece of special.
“It’s where the St. Louis River, after plunging through pine-lined cliffs of Jay Cooke State Park, fans out to create a huge natural harbour, sheltered from Lake Superior by a narrow, sandy peninsula of land that stretches nine miles from Duluth, Minnesota into Superior, Wisconsin. The harbour rim weaves in and out of 49 miles of shoreline, containing 19 square miles of fresh water.”
Look Deep into nature, and then you understand everything better.
– Albert Einstein