Imperfect Duluth Days

I realized I was a northern Minnesotan on my first return trip home during my freshman year of college at an East Coast school. My mother collected me from the Minneapolis airport, and we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Forest Lake. The waitress came to our table, opened her mouth, and began to talk. I was immediately horrified.

The accent. It was real. The Fargo stereotype was true. I’d just spent an entire semester trying to project an image of someone who wasn’t from bumfuck nowhere. I’d patiently explained to scions of the Acela Corridor elite that no, Duluth was not a suburb of the Twin Cities, and that no, ice fishing was not a fictional pursuit, but something that real people actually did. And now, here was this polite, cheery waitress taking my order, and the poor woman had no way of knowing that the words issuing from her mouth filled me with dread.

Through trial and tribulation, I overcame my fear of the northern Minnesotan accent. Even though I’d sworn I’d never come back when I was in high school, I found my way to a home with the same sliver of a lake view I’d enjoyed as a child in Lakeside. The story of what led me from one point to another is tedious, its details ranging from the mundane to the intensely personal, and the source of far too many of my own words spilled out on blogs and in the lonely, booze-fueled journals of late adolescence. I am here, a Duluthian first and foremost among any commitments I may have to places, and ready to bore any unfortunate soul with an hours-long nuanced account of why this has come to be. I have even come to accept the accent, mostly. But there are still, admittedly, moments of doubt.

All of these moments come in the time of year that in other lands goes by the name of “spring.”

Non-locals will always express fear at our winters, but any true Duluthian knows this city is at its suckiest when the weather has warmed some. In winter, skiing and hockey keep me contented and busy amid the snow and cold; a veteran knows which streets to avoid on bad days, and blankets and a pile of books and a fireplace–if one is fortunate enough to have a fireplace–can ensure coziness on the coldest of days. (I’m not quite sure if the large-but-unusable relic in my apartment’s living room counts or not.) But when the state hockey tournament wraps up and the snow becomes too shaky for smooth gliding, we’re just left with a long, foggy tunnel between us and a summer of basking in lake breezes along the Superior Riviera. A bunch of scientists in a lab couldn’t come up with a better case study in seasonal depression than this stretch from March to May and yes, let’s be honest, most of June, too.

It’s the time of year when we gaze out our windows at the slowly melting heap of black residue that once upon a time was identifiable as snow. The detritus of the past six months emerges from the wreckage, and foul odors creep out of crannies that we didn’t realize existed. All cars have become some shade of greyish white, and woe unto the wishful soul who dares pass through a car wash for two or three days of cleanliness before the ghostly coating inevitably returns. It’s the time of year when an adventure on Duluth’s crown jewel, its trail system, will produce the melodious squelch of mud with every step, and—PSA from our friends with the city parks department—only exacerbate erosion and trail damage. Just stay off it until July, why don’t you?

I’m not entirely sure what we’ve done to invite the endless taunts that Duluth inflicts on us this time of year. A stretch of warm sunny days lulls us into optimism, only to dash our dreams in short order. Out on the lake, the ice floes tease us, drifting in and out at the whims of the wind, one day clearing out to reveal open water, the next day piling up in such numbers that one half expects to look out and see Ernest Shackleton and his crew beached amid the pack ice. Spring is the only time when I’ll concede to the Over the Hill Duluthians (in location, not age) that they have the better end of the deal, as they rise above the land of the eternal fog. Spring in Duluth is when we look at the forecast, which somehow still includes a squall of snow in mid-April, and a little part of us dies inside.

Even in this fairly tame spring to date, my disgust at yet another day of 30s and clouds has welled up yet again, and has spilled over into general bitterness with humanity. Poor humanity has done nothing to deserve this fate, unless I suppose we want to blame our ancestors for settling here in the first place. Last weekend added yet another episode of spring bitterness, as I naively decided to go for a run on the Munger Trail. Surely it would be clear, just like the Lakewalk always is in winter, right? Alas, I encountered nothing but a ribbon of whiteness. Stubborn Duluthian that I am, I high-stepped my way to Ely’s Peak and back anyway. So much for the shiny new running shoes.

This past weekend, a high school friend made a return trip to Duluth for the first time after four years of living abroad. Like me, she had longed to leave it as a kid, and unlike me, she underwent no conversion that could get her to overcome the dreaded accent. She was glad to have moved on. I patiently tried to explain that it was a different place as an adult, and there were lots of ways to have fun in Duluth in all seasons. We then got out of my car in Canal Park and were promptly bludgeoned into submission by a vicious lake wind that made it near-impossible to walk up the sidewalk. Once we were back inside and capable of hearing each other’s voices again, she rested her case, and the jury handed down a unanimous verdict in her favor.

Being a Duluthian in spring is a study in bipolarity. Some mornings drive us down into the doldrums, yet the next day that all gets lost when a brilliant orange sunrise sets the lake aglow. A melting snowbank once even revealed a $20 bill to me, which seemed like a kind, if inadequate, gesture of compensation from Duluth for the misery it inflicts. Duluth subjects its residents to an endless cycle of doubt and redemption whose highs are so much higher because we’ve seen what lies at the bottom of the abyss. Coping with such swings helps build character, and teaches some Zen to a Type A kid like myself who had to learn that some things were beyond his control. Even amid the slog through melting slush, this city produces reminders that yes, this is all worth it in the end. Sooner or later (probably later) summer will come, and we will all be redeemed for our suffering.

I’m still coping with the accent, though.

Karl Schuettler spits out occasional thoughts on A Patient Cycle, a blog that offers his take on a perfectly logical combination of topics such as Duluth-area affairs, the exploits of high school kids playing hockey, experiments in fiction, and anything else that wanders into his head.

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