Jerry Nelson: Duluth day tripping
Duluth stretches out along the shore of Lake Superior, the city and the lake intertwined like wisps of smoke rising from a campfire. My wife and I recently vacationed in the Zenith City to take in the sights, the sounds and the food.
We stayed at a hotel which sits at the foot of the Duluth’s most iconic structure, the Aerial Lift Bridge. This was a wonderful thing, as our close proximity to the Duluth Ship Canal enabled us to watch gigantic freighters glide past just outside our hotel window. We soon learned that it’s customary for passing ships and the lift bridge operator to salute one another with friendly blasts of their thunderous air horns. We also learned that cargo ships tend to ignore the bedtimes of weary tourists who are hoping to get an uninterrupted night’s sleep.
We strolled the shoreline of the world’s largest freshwater lake. The temperature of Lake Superior is a constant 39 degrees. Chilled air rolls off the water, whispering echoes of the glacier that birthed this inland sea 10,000 years ago. It felt as if we were standing in front of world’s largest open refrigerator door.
Eager to get a different perspective on things, we booked a tour aboard a vessel called the Vista Star. We cruised beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge and out into the open waters of Gitche Gumee. Peering across the endless aquatic expanse, I knew that Canada was out there somewhere. Thanks to that doleful Gordon Lightfoot song, I knew that so is the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The Vista Star is over 90 feet long, but it looked like a bathtub toy when we passed by a ginormous ore boat.
The tour included a sweep of the Port of Duluth-Superior. The taconite and grain-handling facilities appear to have been built by a race of giants. The industrial scale of things reminded me that we were at the terminus of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway.
Our hotel was in the area called Canal Park, once known for its rusty scrap heaps and scrappy denizens. The old warehouses now contain trendy little shops; sparkling hotels and family-friendly restaurants are everywhere. I would guesstimate that there are more brewpubs in Duluth than there are fire hydrants.
There is a thriving music scene in the city. After all, this is where Bob Dylan was born. If you can make it in Duluth, you can make it anywhere. But sometimes a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
One drizzly evening, we motored the cobblestone streets of the old downtown and saw a lone busker strumming his guitar on a street corner. Raindrops were all that fell into his guitar case. And the next morning, as we ate a late breakfast in a basement bakery, a quartet of young street musicians spontaneously began to play at the front of the room. The music was pleasant and the price was right.
We explored the streets of Duluth, which is two miles wide and dozens of miles long. At one point, we stumbled onto an area that was infested with soaring, century-old mansions, piles of brick and stone that were built by railroad and lumber tycoons. It was as if we had traveled back in time to the glory days of the Gilded Age.
It appears to be a law in Duluth that everyone own at least one kayak. Fat-tired mountain bikes were a common sight and most Duluthians (Dulutherans?) wore backpacks – to hold their emergency spare kayaks, I suppose.
Call us wild and crazy, but we decided to visit the Duluth Rose Garden, which sits atop of I-35. It was the first time we had admired flowers as trucks and cars whizzed along beneath our feet.
Many of the flowers seemed to be blooming late. I imagine the chill waters of the nearby lake may have had something to do with this.
Not wanting to miss anything, we drove up to Enger Tower, a massive, 80-foot-tall hexagonal stone tube that’s perched on a hill high above Duluth.
I opted to visit the top of the tower, which can only be accessed via a stairway. After trudging up approximately 10,000 steps, I finally reached my goal. I was treated to a commanding vista of the Twin Ports area, the silver ribbon of the St. Louis River to the right, the sparking infinity of Lake Superior stretching to the horizon. A cool breeze caressed my sweaty brow.
It was the perfect allegory for a vacation: all your hard work is rewarded by a moment of beauty and serenity. The only thing that could have improved upon it would have been an ice-cold brew. Fortunately, we were in Duluth.
If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.