Notes from a Minnesota roadtrip, Week Three

Springtime in Duluth

My first view of Duluth harbor on an icy-cold, clear day. I was surprised to see chunks of ice still floating in Lake Superior. Photo by Mark Baker.
"I made it!" Yours truly from the still-icy shores of Duluth. Photo by Mark Baker.
This Google screen capture shows the first part of the route for this blog post. I started in Bayfield, Wisconsin, and then drove over to Duluth, Minnesota. From there, well, I went just about everywhere else. Photo by Mark Baker.
This screen capture shows the second part of my journey for this post, moving south from Hibbing to the towns of Stillwater and Red Wing and few other spots around southern Minnesota. Photo by Mark Baker.

This leg of the journey first took me over the border from Bayfield, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Superior, to Superior's behemoth port at Duluth, Minnesota. From Duluth, I made my way north along the shoreline up to Grand Marais. From there, I moved into the interior, hitting the hipsterish town of Ely (pronounced "eel-lee," gateway to the Boundary Waters) and the old mining town of Hibbing (the place Bob Dylan misspent his teenage years). After that I bounced around and eventually wound up in southern Minnesota, at the über-charming town of Stillwater and the more down-to-earth Red Wing (where they still make the shoes). I marked up a couple of Google maps here to show you the journey (above), but good luck trying to figure it out.

Duluth has been on my bucket list since I was a kid, pouring over maps and road atlases of the United States. It always looked so "north" to me, I wondered what kind of city could spring up in such isolated conditions (I know, strong words for a kid from Ohio). What I found was a surprisingly dynamic port city that's transitioning quickly from heavy industry to tourism. It has the lake views and foodie and craft-beer scene to make it all work.

Both Duluth and Hibbing, actually, have close bonds to my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. Duluth was the port that shipped the iron ore that powered the Youngstown mills for decades. Hibbing was where the ore came from in the first place. One of the Hibbing mines even bears the name "Mahoning," the name of the Ohio county where I grew up.

As I traveled around the state, it became increasingly clear that April is really a between-time in these parts. Too late for winter hikes and snow-shoeing and too soon for summer activities like biking and kayaking. The resorts, parks and rivers along the way were pretty empty. While I did manage to get out into the fresh air here and there, I decided to focus my attention (and my camera lens) on the actual towns I was passing through.

I've always had a thing for American small towns. They're generic, in a sense, with their "Main Streets" and rows of two- and three-story brick buildings on both sides, but that familiar streetscape can hide some remarkable diversity. You might say each place is different in its own same way, and it was those differences I was trying to suss out as I bounced from place to place. Minnesota has plenty of great small towns.

The pics here (in no particular order) are some favorites from Duluth, Grand Marais, Ely, Hibbing, Stillwater and Red Wing.

The view out over Lake Superior from Duluth's Lakewalk, a path that rims the lake for several miles. Photo by Mark Baker.
The view from my hotel in Duluth, the Park Point Marina Inn, looked out over a US Coast Guard base. Photo by Mark Baker.
I loved the northern town of Grand Marais and particularly places like this, the Hungry Hippie Hostel, about 8 miles out of the center in the middle of nowhere. Photo by Mark Baker.
The way a farmhouse bedroom is supposed to look. This was one of the rooms at the Hungry Hippie Hostel, near Grand Marais. I got a good look inside the place, but it was unfortunately a little too far away from the center for me to consider staying. Photo by Mark Baker.
The local bowling alley in the northern city of Hibbing, an old mining town that's gone from boom to bust (back to boom?) Boy Dylan spent his teenage years here and apparently liked to hang out at this place. Photo by Mark Baker.
Classic small-town America. The Lakeshore Liquor store in Ely, Minnesota. Photo by Mark Baker.
After Duluth, I headed up the North Shore highway to visit Grand Marais. It's a beautiful town on Lake Superior, with a small natural bay and this iconic bait shop. Photo by Mark Baker.
Can't resist a muscle car. I caught this one just outside of Red Wing. Photo by Mark Baker.
The pretty town of Stillwater, on the St Croix River, just east of St Paul, is apparently the birthplace of the state of Minnesota. It's here where settlers first met in 1848 to petition the U.S. Congress for Minnesota's statehood. Photo by Mark Baker.
The logo of Leo's Grill and Malt Shop in downtown Stillwater -- still looking much the same as it did in the 1950s. Photo by Mark Baker.
The North Shore town of Grand Marais is apparently no place to party at night out of season. I stepped out of my restaurant after dinner around 9pm, and this car was one of the only ones around. Photo by Mark Baker.
The 'Jugoslav' National Home in Ely, Minnesota. Photo by Mark Baker.
I had a terrible hankering for fish tacos on this trip, and being so close to the water didn't hurt a bit. This was probably the best taco meal of the trip: at LoLo American Kitchen in Stillwater. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Gunflint Tavern in Grand Marais is the best place in town to eat. I went in for lunch one day and asked what they had gluten-free. Tamales! I'm still not sure why they bothered to sprinkle cheese over the corn husks, but the tamales themselves tasted pretty good. Photo by Mark Baker.
That's why they call it 'Minnesota Nice' -- even the signs are polite. Photo by Mark Baker.
It used to be the clearest signal that you were in a small town: the local Ben Franklin store. Many around the country have folded, but this one in Grand Marais was still going strong. Photo by Mark Baker.
The locals in these parts are pretty friendly. I'm usually averse to asking people for permission to take a photo, but this lady in Duluth was like 'Hey, can I be in your photo!?' Photo by Mark Baker.
The coolest neighborhood in Duluth these days is a strip of restaurants and bars and breweries along W Superior St, about 2 miles outside of downtown. A run-down area that's been rediscovered and now a great place to hang out. Photo by Mark Baker.
The interior of lively Corktown Deli in Duluth's trendy 'Lincoln Park Craft' district. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Lake Superior salad at Corktown Deli in the 'Lincoln Park Craft' district. Smoked fish and wild rice -- works for me! Photo by Mark Baker.
The State Theater in downtown in Ely is awaiting a new savior. Photo by Mark Baker.
Sign on the exterior of the Portland Malt Shoppe, on Duluth's Lakewalk near downtown. Photo by Mark Baker.
Bob Dylan is mainly associated with the mining town of Hibbing, where he spent his teen years, but he was actually born in this house, just outside of downtown Duluth. Photo by Mark Baker.
Duluth's gritty downtown is getting a big-time makeover as it transitions to a Historic Arts District. The landmark Norshor Theater stands at the heart of this redevelopment. Photo by Mark Baker.
Classic old-time ice cream parlor along Duluth's Lakewalk. Photo by Mark Baker.
Welcome to Duluth! Photo by Mark Baker.
The glamorous master suite at Red Wing's historic St James Hotel. Photo by Mark Baker.
An old gas station in downtown Red Wing. Photo by Mark Baker.
The outside view of Leo's Grill and Malt shop in downtown Stillwater. Photo by Mark Baker.
Entrance to the old VFW lounge in Ely. Photo by Mark Baker.
Hibbing's once-glorious Androy Hotel was facing the wrecking ball a few years back, but local activists rallied to save the most impressive building in the small downtown. Sadly, no longer a hotel, it's used as a home for the elderly. Photo by Mark Baker.
Hibbing's enormous mine -- partly named 'Mahoning,' the county in Ohio where I was born -- was closed to the public on my visit, and this was the closest I was able to get. It's so big and deep, people refer to it as Minnesota's "Grand Canyon." Photo by Mark Baker.
Tac-Tran school buses line up in Hibbing, where Bob Dylan went to high school. Photo by Mark Baker.
Downtown Ely is lined with old taverns like this one. The town itself is filled 50-50 with hipsters and hunters (or at least that's how it looked to me). Photo by Mark Baker.
A pretty morning by the bay in Grand Marais, north of Duluth along the shore of Lake Superior. Photo by Mark Baker.
The stunning view over Red Wing, Minnesota, and the Mississippi River in the distance, from high atop a bluff in the town's Memorial Park. Photo by Mark Baker.

Comments

  1. I received this comment via email from an old friend with a soft spot for small towns:

    Ah, Duluth looked awesome with clear cold skies — probably no pollen — like in NYC right now.
    Winter is my favorite season anymore — allergies rough this year. Pristine air looked great.
    Your trip looked interesting, I liked those old towns. Loved the Bob Dylan stuff, too.

    Every old town now has an “arts district”, kind of becoming a cliche, but good to see the revitalization!
    I think that small town gems off the beaten path should be the millennials’ trademark approach to travel – — to counter the baby boomers’ resorts and self- indulgent high living, exotic place trend —
    maybe you can start the trend by writing articles targeting the millennial hipster marketplace.

    Can’t wait for the Ohio Rust Belt Lonely Planet edition.

  2. Pingback: The American Maps Issue: Maps, Spam & Pan Am » The Statesider

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Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

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Mark Baker