Back in January of 1997, my friend Keith and I took a drive across Wiscosota and Minnesconsin with my cousin Matt, a California beach boy searching for a real northland winter. Our road trip launched on the eve of the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl XXXIII appearance. A handmade Packer flag crafted from a pillow case was taped to the bumper of Keith’s sedan as we drove 300 miles across frozen farm fields and snow-covered forest to Title Town. The idea was to celebrate an inevitable Packer victory in the shadows of Lambeau Field.
I’ll save our tales of mischief and revelry for another time. This essay is about gas stations – very cold gas stations.
Gas is needed to get from St. Paul to Green Bay in a V-8 Chevrolet. Somewhere in the middle of Wiscosota we stopped at a convenience store and pulled up to a service island. A snowmobile was parked at an adjacent pump and its driver was filling a tank under the seat. Matt’s jaw dropped like he had just spotted Bigfoot munching on a cheeseburger.
“Whaaaaatttt????” he said, as he grabbed a cheap point-and-shoot camera and jumped out of the car.
I joined him as he ran up to the sled driver. He wore thick, camouflage-coveralls, boots as big as beer kegs and green-and-gold stocking cap — Packer colors.
“They let you drive that right up to the pumps?” said Matt. “Can I take your picture?”
“Sure,” said the snowmobile driver, he was a friendly bigfoot.
“Sorry,” I said. “My cousin here is from San Diego, he’s never seen a snowmobile at a gas station before.”
The man laughed: “Ha, you don’t have to gas up those surf boards do ya,” he said.
Matt snapped a few photos and we were back on the road.
Welcome to Minnesconsin and Wiscosota, where the gas doesn’t freeze but you better fill your tank because if you run out of fuel in the woods you will die.
There’s a Holiday gas station in Duluth that sits at the northern terminus of I-35. Aaron Rogers could throw a football into Lake Superior from the stack of plastic windshield cleaner bottles outside its front door. The wind roars over the miles and miles of frigid, freezing lake water and slams into its service island like a semi without brakes on Thompson Hill. A direct hit. These north arctic blasts are constant and painful. This is the Coldest Gas Station in America. Here, on a windy winter day you pull up to the place and pray for the old days when a pump jockey would greet you with a friendly “Fill-er Up?”
Except that would never happen in the 21st Century. They don’t make people strong enough anymore to do this kind of work during a Duluth winter.
So instead you turn off the engine — only because it’s state law — step out of the car and into the cold. You fumble with your credit card, push worn out buttons, wait for a beep then jam a frozen steel nozzle into a hole half the size of a hockey puck.
And then you wait. You wait for the pump to fill your tank. The wind blasts your face like a hotel air-conditioner stuck on max. Your fingers go cold and sting like they’re pinched in a wood vice or trapped in the jaws of an angry rottweiler. Death at the coldest gas station in America is slow and painful.
When the tank is full you rip out the nozzle, jam it into the pump and dive back into your vehicle where it’s warm. There’s no waiting for a receipt.
Outside of July and August — when Lake Superior temperatures hit 60-degrees — it’s always Super Bowl season at the Coldest Gas Station in America and surf boards are nowhere to be found.
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