Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Two Harbors, MN

I rolled down the window. The breeze was chilly. Very chilly. It was early June, but northeast Minnesota did not seem to care.

In the late spring of 2006, I embarked on a week of fishing and sightseeing in the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota with my father. We were to meet in late afternoon on a Saturday, but I decided to leave Norman, OK, early on Friday. Early ended up being about 1 pm, but that still falls under the definition of the word in my book. The drive was solely to be I-35 until the town of Cloquet, after which various highways would take me to my final destination of White Iron Lake, a few miles east of Ely.

The drive on I-35 is beautiful in its vastness. The Flint Hills of Kansas are a particular favorite driving destination. Endless seas of grass in the rolling hills of commonly untouched prairies envelop the tollway for what seems like hours. The Flint Hills are a stark reminder of just how big this country is and how much more land there is to fill (or, hopefully, not fill). The horizon commonly features a road scarring the sides of these hills, with virtually nothing else in sight. Some see this as boring; I see it as excitingly untouched.

The trip involved a Steak 'n Shake stop in Kansas City (of course), a beautiful sunset in southern Iowa, and encroaching lightning in northern Iowa. Finally, the sky opened the floodgates (really) in southern Minnesota. Just north of Albert Lea, flooding of the interstate was common under overpasses. There was one overpass in particular I was afraid to drive underneath. However, the shoulders featured relatively little standing water, so I slowly pulled onto the right shoulder and inched my way past the bridge. Fortunately, there was little traffic on the interstate at this point, as it was around midnight. After successfully crossing this increasingly impassable stretch, the rain began to diminish and the skies began to clear. The lightning show and the torrential rain had already made this drive a very successful one, though. What can I say? I love storms.

I made it to Minneapolis before 2 am, and the commonly busy freeways were virtually empty. No one parties on stormy nights in the Twin Cities after midnight, I guess. The lack of traffic on these roads was eerie, with the typical urban onslaught of bridges and buildings unaccompanied by honking horns and exhaust fumes. I've had similar experiences in Cleveland, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, making me wonder if this is a Midwestern attribute of nocturnal city traffic. Whatever the reasoning, I was grateful, as I pleasantly gazed at the points of light emanating from buildings and factories decorating the panorama.

By this point, I wondered if I should stop for the night and get a hotel room. I had not reserved one anywhere, having no clue how far I could go before hitting the wall (figuratively, of course). I was not feeling tired, and I was a poor graduate student. The urge to pay a hundred dollars to sleep on a smelly bed was not substantially high. By North Branch, I decided to charge ahead and forget about a hotel. It was now nearly 3 am, and I guesstimated that I would be well past Cloquet by sunrise. I decided to instead drive to Lake Superior to see the sun rise over the water. This was one of the smartest road decisions I have ever made.

The summer solstice was quickly approaching, and the relatively high latitude region of northeast Minnesota features very early twilight. By 4 am, the northern sky was lighting up. It was beautiful to drive in the forests of eastern Minnesota, observing this slowly brightening sky to the north. This was something I had not experienced before, and I was astounded at how astounded I was with the view. I rolled down the window. The breeze was chilly. Very chilly. It was early June, but northeast Minnesota did not seem to care. Quickly adapting, I did not care, either. The sound of the breeze, the fresh smell of trees, and the whimpers of light on the horizon were enough to eliminate any discomfort from the cold temperatures.

I reached Duluth just after 5 am, and the sky was beginning to light up rapidly. Soon, oranges and reds began to appear on the horizon. After passing a small summit just southwest of Duluth, I observed an absolutely grand sight. The city lights of Duluth twinkling before a beautifully glasslike Lake Superior, underneath blazing colors of yellow, orange, and purple. It is a memory I will forever treasure.

After passing through the empty freeways of Duluth, I decided to trudge onward to the North Shore Drive, a beautiful stretch of rural highway along the northwest coast of Lake Superior northeast of Duluth. The sun would soon be rising. Music was playing in the car at the time. I am fond of movie soundtracks, and I was listening to the Superman soundtrack at the time. The song playing was "The Fortress of Solitude". The piece features a long stretch of atmospheric music, with prominent use of celesta. The celesta is one of my favorite instruments. The celesta sounds like a soft bell, and the celesta sequence in the piece gives me a sense of floating (appropriate, given the film). I'll never forget listening to that song while driving along the coast of Lake Superior.

I have discussed particular moments of pure happiness on my blog before. One of these moments, the one I will most treasure actually, occurred in 2002 in Carmel Bay. The sounds of ocean water hitting a beautiful white/gold sand, with rocks jutting out of the water like monoliths. I don't remember anything else about my stay at that beach. All stresses were gone; all of my focus was on the ocean, the sand, and the rocks. And the sound. If there is such a thing as nirvana, that was the closest moment I have had to it.

Driving along Lake Superior, I had another one of these moments. I remember the peaceful sounds of the song, the distant sound of water crashing onto the shoreline, the breeze of the air crashing into the interior of my car, and the furious colors streaking out from the horizon. All of my cares in the world were gone.

Just before sunrise, I reached Two Harbors, a beautiful port town in Lake County. I found a pullout and watched the sun puncture the horizon over the water. Sunrises are rare experiences for me, so the magic of that experience cannot be overstated. I watched as the sun decreased in size and left the watery horizon. I listened as ships approached or departed from town. I saw a few families launch their boats from a nearby dock. I heard birds joyously flying in the chilly morning air. For me, to experience the world simply by observing it is rare. It does not take much to make me a happy man. The drive to Minnesota, culminating in the beautiful sunrise at Two Harbors, was all that was required.


Ed. note: In future "Stories from the Road" posts about this trip, I'll go into specific detail about what makes this region so special. However, this is my most vivid road trip memory -- out of all road trips. I thought it deserved an individual post.