The weekend of the fourth of July I took a couple days off after the Monday holiday and drove up to Duluth on Saturday morning to visit Alan, an old friend. It felt like it had been a long time since I’d had a vacation.
Once I got on I-35 heading north and there wasn’t much traffic, I felt good. I opened the sunroof and had a cigarette. It felt awful good to be driving by myself on a sunny morning like that. I lost the signal for Bluegrass Saturday Morning on the jazz station in the Cities so I put on an album by a local country-bluegrass group. I finished my cup of coffee in short order and thought another one would be good and more importantly I had to pee bad from the first cup so I pulled off at Pine City.
I went in the gas station right off the freeway. I beelined for the bathroom. Its walls were gray tile and though it was clean and all, it made me feel very claustrophobic. I didn’t feel quite right so I left the bathroom quickly and went out and got a cup of coffee and some peanuts and paid for them and went outside.
The fresh air made me feel better. I didn’t want to get back on the freeway right away so I went along on the highway that I’d exited at, heading east. A mile down the road I came to the small town advertised on the freeway. I drove through and kept going east. I shortly left all indication of town and the highway was lined with woods and occasional pastures.
A few miles down a highway going north-south intersected the road I was on and I turned left. I saw few other cars on the roads, the land was quiet and lush in the long summer morning. Already it seemed as if a day of sunlight had fallen on the greenery but it wasn’t even noon yet. The sun fell on me, too, and I was warm and relaxed.
To my right, I saw a little lake nestled in some hills. On one shore sat a dairy farm with some cows in a feedlot. I couldn’t help but think of Little Shoe Lake and fishing out there. In the previous couple weeks I had fished on Little Shoe with the kids and the guys at least five times. When Miller and Landry were along they took one of the boys in their canoe because the kids were starting to get it and just need some more room. I’d told Ted about trout fishing and he wanted to try it (I think mostly because he was sick of being stuck on the bottom of the canoe) and I’d said we’d go the next weekend.
A pickup came up behind me. The passing zones were short and infrequent on the hilly, winding highway and he apparently wanted to pass. I dropped my speed a little and he went by. I figured it was just some guy with some place to be and I watched the truck disappear around the curve ahead. I wondered what he thought of me, who he thought I was.
I put Dylan on and had a smoke. When I’d gone 10 or 15 miles another highway went east-west and I turned west and went back to rejoin the interstate. I was happy that I got back on the freeway north of Hinckley, with its preceding miles of billboards towering over the roadside pines and its single freeway exit crowded with fast food restaurants and gas stations.
The land quickly began to look like the Iron Range. The lakes in wooded hollows within sight of the freeway appeared wild and quiet, largely because no one wanted to build an expensive cabin on a lake by the freeway. Twenty or 30 miles out from Duluth I passed what I thought of as a gateway to northern Minnesota: a sheet of exposed granite maybe 100 feet long in the wide median of the freeway. It was dappled with lichen and its shape was rough and irregular. I lit up the bat that I’d packed before leaving the apartment and turned up the radio.