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.