City Immortal – Duluth, Minnesota
I thought I’d try my hand at writing a travel article about a place I never thought I’d immortalize in pen – the city I’m from. I’ve traveled my entire adult life, looking for any kind of escape from this town. Yet, of all the places I’ve ever seen, it is one of the most interesting.
Duluth, Minnesota is a legend alive, a place that everyone has heard of but no one knows exists. It has history as ancient as the Anishinaabe, as adventurous as the Scots and the French who settled in the beginning and made peace with the natives. We still live side-by-side. No matter what your background, in Duluth you are part Native American.
It was later on, with the influx of other immigrants, that problems arose with the Anishinaabe people. The Scots being a tribal people, tended to marry into the tribe. They left their mark on the city in the frowning, darkly beautiful Gothic architecture. Churches and homes are built from black stone and the more important buildings are proud and imposing castles, dwarfing the downtown area with their turrets and spires.
Duluth is the perfect Lovecraftian city. It is situated upon a hill that slopes down into Lake Superior, at what is called The Nose of the Wolf, the tip of the lake which looks like a wolf’s head on a map. The city is stark and mysterious, wreathed in fog and the endless moment that is winter.
It is a port city of the old days. It is a Scottish memorial. It is a Scandinavian immigrants’ refuge, a place that the world’s hardiest people have called their own.
There is nothing like a winter storm in Duluth. The wind screams and shakes the houses, even those made of stone. The waves on the lake can be higher than thirty feet. This is no pond – what we call a lake is an inland freshwater sea. It is 400 miles long, 160 miles wide and almost 1500 feet deep at its deepest point. Destruction comes often from the lake – she is a beautiful, dark, cold and deadly woman. One day she will love you and cradle you in her arms; the next she will draw you indiscriminately into her frozen depths.
The Edmund Fitzgerald is her most famous wreck and there have been countless others. Long ago, during one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit the lake, the sailors on a ship called the Mataafa, thought they were finally home safe and sound. At the harbor mouth the waves suddenly turned the ship sideways and slammed it into the pier. On one end of the ship, the men were able to burn the trim in the captain’s cabin to stay warm. On the other end, the men all died of hypothermia. Seven to ten minutes is all you have in Lake Superior in late November. This is common knowledge. Everyone in Duluth respects and fears the Lady of the Lake.
Of course, it is always the people who make a place what it is, and its true appeal is the character of this San Francisco On Ice. Although the city was named after the French explorer who discovered it and the Scots who built most of it, it is the later Scandinavian influence that is remembered now. Those of us with Scots ancestry say it was always the way of the Norse to invade our lands. No one here is American – we are Scots, Irish, Finnish, English, whichever nationality was handed down from our forebears.
There is rivalry among us in humor – bumper stickers with such slogans as “Finnish Driver: Thank you for not laughing” and “You take the low road, I’ll take the Highlander.” Also, because the Canadian border is about 100 miles away, that makes us – and our accents – more Canadian than American.
The culture of the town ranges from the staid, placid and middle-aged northern Minnesotan – the types you see in realty commercials and billboards for banks – to its talented and vibrant youth. The punk and Goth scene once was prevalent here, probably because of the sometimes depressing nature of this place. There are still traces of that culture.
It is a very political and liberal town. We have had so many anti-war rallies recently, it’s like living in a 1960s microcosm.
Young musicians include the hardcore blues guitarist, Steve Johnson, and the up-and-coming death metal group, Irritant. Everyone in the scene knows everyone else, so connections abound. This town was once home to Sinclair Lewis and Telly Savales. The movies, Iron Will and The Good Son were filmed in and around the Duluth area. The shots of the ocean in The Good Son are actually of Lake Superior.
This was the land of the punk coffeeshop, painted black and choked with the acrid smoke of a thousand cigarettes – a place of protesting every injustice under the sun and living the granola lifestyle. Duluth’s underground is one of the most amazing and talented. Bob Dylan lived in Duluth and Hibbing (my city of origin). We say that a place like Duluth fosters the creative types because for nine months out of the year, we have nothing else to do.
Food is a subject we take as seriously as hobbits might. We would probably kill for Top the Tater, a
combination of sour cream and chives that we use as chip dip. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. People
are addicted to it – anything dairy, in fact, particularly, cheese. I remember when I lived in
Hawaii, I thought the milk was incredibly bland.
We eat kielbasa, bratwurst and a strange concoction that is labeled “hotdish.” I advise anyone to avoid “hotdish.” It is a combination of any three foods you can think of, baked in a Pyrex dish and burned on the bottom. I have no idea where it started, but it is not the best of Minnesotan cuisine. That award would probably go to Top the Tater, which I once called in a parody “Minnesota Crack.” Otherwise, we tend to eat a lot and heartily. It is necessary for survival in the harsh weather, but tends to make us larger and stronger than most people and can be detrimental if any of us move to warmer climates.
I have also noticed that women here are treated as equals. We are a true pioneer people – the men are men, the women are men. Living elsewhere has made me painfully aware that it’s not generally accepted that I, as a woman, can take most guys any day. Then again, so can most women from
Northern Minnesota. Unfortunately for us, that makes us rather unpopular in places where men would prefer to think they are the stronger sex. My father – a formidable fighter and weightlifter (and my two uncles – auto mechanic and Air Force pilot) argue on the side of equal rights. Some people say it’s because we’re Scottish, but I have the feeling that everyone looks at things the same way in Duluth.
Summer is the time we wait for, the reason we live through winters that can be colder than those in the Arctic Circle. Duluth becomes a three-month paradise, a Jimmy Buffett beach town with one of the most beautiful beaches in all of North America. Canal Park is the perfect little beach town, filled with souvenirs, seagulls and the general laid-back seaside attitude.
Because the city is nearly overgrown by forest, everywhere you turn you can find your own private waterfall. The most surprising of these is when you are walking down Fourth Street, a pretty busy thoroughfare. If you stop to look over one of the bridges, down below it, you will see a twenty-foot waterfall and a beautiful park, hidden in the middle of the city. Elsewhere, kids swim at The Deeps, a section of one of the rivers where you can jump off a fifty-foot stone cliff into the water beside a waterfall.
The rivers are boundless and as private as you might imagine the serene pools of some tropical paradise. There is true privacy here, whereas in a tropical paradise, that is not always the case. Summer is like A Midsummer Night’s Dream woven with a long party. There is a Bluesfest in July, bonfires on the beaches. You can spend nights walking in the gorgeous Rose Garden with the moon and stars reflected on the water. Great romances have begun here – some of the greatest I’ve ever heard – and a few of them are my own.
For years I tried to escape this place, its slow-moving ore ships and its eternal winter. But I always return around summertime. There is something that pulls me back and brings me home. Even people who have recently moved here decide to stay, and if they don’t, they always come back. There are so many facets to this city, so many wonders.
There are strange quirks and wonderful people here. For example, I host an event called, The Gathering, in which many loudmouthed young Scots get together at a local hangout restaurant dressed to the nines in kilts and tartan every other Tuesday. We plan to stage the Battle of Bannockburn this summer.
I think of this place – its creative force, its mystery, its general weirdness and its love of
genealogy and history – and I wonder how I could have ever wanted to run away. There is an eternity here, in these hills and in this quiet, powerful lake that weaves itself into the personalities of all of us. It gives us our strength, our will to survive, our history, and in the end, it calls us home.