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Saturday Essay Posts

El Camino del Tiempo

We are migrants, one and all, on el Camino del Tiempo, where even the housebound and hunkered-down awaken each morning somewhere they were not yesterday. We’ve emerged from the mists of history and the dreamtime of an infant’s amnesia, and set forth by wildly disparate means of conveyance toward the receding horizon. Signs signal a tomorrow around the bend, but tomorrow is a ghost-town appearing only on the maps, and you can’t get there from here.

So here we are, and there we go, by bullet train or afoot across the trackless wastes, but always on el Camino. Always schlepping our blood on its way down the generations. Always the short skirts and tight pants of the baby-making dance, and the will to carry on.

I marvel at the elaborate ruses concocted to transport one’s genes down el Camino. Marvel at the termite tenacity of these roadside encampments we call cities. Marvel at the hive-life of our super-organism, striving for a meal and a place to sleep and a place to dance the baby-making dance. I shudder at the nighttime photos from space of our settlements glowing golden. Earth burning like the oil lamp it’s become. And between the cities lies the darkened land, yet to trade stars for streetlights.

Thoughts on Anchorage: Community makes self-reliance possible

In the late 1990s, before it reorganized in bankruptcy, Sun Country Airlines flew out of the Humphrey Terminal at Minneapolis/St. Paul. It ran specials on undersold planes, and I received an email alert, I think, about round-trip tickets to Alaska for $300. It seemed so far away for so little money. I was a graduate student in the College of Agriculture on the Twin Cities campus; I was making $12,000 a year. This was cheap, it was an extravagance, an adventure, a story to tell.

I boarded the plane in Bloomington and disembarked in Anchorage. (It was the first time I had been to an airport with signage instructing passengers how to check and reclaim your gun.) The bus took me downtown, and I looked for a hotel. In the years before travel websites and mobile phones, this was hard — I had to walk toward hotel signs and hope for vacancies. There were few; the flight was cheap, but the hotels were booked; I spent twice what I spent on my ticket on my hotel, at what felt like a dive for the price.

I was young and weighed less than half what I weigh now, so I started walking. I walked to Cook’s Inlet, which was muddy. “Captain Cook” was not a real person to me, and so his inlet meant little. So, too, did Mt. McKinley mean little to me — Mt. McKinley, also called Dinale or Denali or Bolshaya Gora/Большая Гора, Densmore’s Mountain. The history of its naming means more to me than the mountain. I was more interested in a business dedicated solely to pull tabs.

Ripped at the Blue Crab Bar in 2008

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Before OMC Smokehouse took over the building at 1909 W. Superior St., it was home to the Blue Crab Bar, which closed due to foreclosure in 2009. But in 2008 the ol’ Sultan of Sot visited the Blue Crab and published this report for Duluth’s weekly Transistor.]

There are two ways to get on my list of favorite bars: 1) Cater to a bunch of weirdo regulars who are constantly shitfaced and causing a scene, or 2) Sell 34-ounce beers for $3.50 or less. You’d think the latter would automatically produce the former, but for some reason the freak vibe has failed to catch on at the Blue Crab Bar, in spite of the cheap swill. Still, it’s one of my favorite places, and there are rare moments of crazy if you are patient enough to wait for them.

Tonight, as usual, about eight people are spread out in the room. They are mostly keeping to themselves, either staring at the TV or engaging in soft chatter. The bartender disappears on a smoke break for about 10 minutes of every hour.

New to Duluth

There’s much to love about our enchanting city — the breathtaking views, the closeness we feel as community members, the intimate connection we have with Lake Superior and its surrounding environment. Those reasons are exactly why, back in 2013, my then-fiancé and I chose to move to Duluth from Fargo, N.D. We wanted to live somewhere with an entirely different aesthetic from the Red River Valley yet be close enough to visit family and friends on weekends. The North Shore of Lake Superior was, and still is, a perfect fit.

As a newcomer, it took me an unexpectedly long time to feel bound to our community — more so than other cities I’ve lived in. Most of my initial connections were with coworkers and members of the Rotary Club of Duluth, which I joined through work. These individuals took my husband and I under their wings, providing advice and recommendations for what neighborhood to live in, what doctors to see and what companies to call for air conditioning repairs or garbage service. I trusted these men and women, and to this day, they haven’t let me down.

Goose Chase: An Interview with Duluth’s Goosinator

In 2016 the city of Duluth purchased a remote-controlled glider designed to humanely chase away geese. “The Goosinator” was acquired from an eponymous company in Denver, Colo. at a cost of about $3,000 plus shipping and handling. The city made this purchase with the express goal of ridding Bayfront Festival Park of an increasing abundance of goose feces, a consequence of the recovering Canada goose population. In large amounts, goose feces diminish the park’s appeal and utility, and can cause illness in people and pollute the lake.

Two years on, the Goosinator agreed to meet with me for an exclusive, first-ever interview.

No one in the newly-opened Dovetail Cafe & Marketplace recognizes the Duluth park maintenance worker hustling in from the cold for an interview, but he draws notice all the same. The Goosinator stands about 20 inches tall and, at almost four feet long, has to sit sideways as I help him into a chair at a table made of reclaimed birdseye maple. He wears an outsize, toothy permagrin. He’s bright orange. And he seems perfectly at ease with the sideways glances, thanking me with a wry smirk as I pass him the Cascara Tea I took the liberty of ordering him. After all, he’s used to being the focus of attention, as it’s a prerequisite for his unusual line of work.

North Country Trail in Wisconsin: Nemadji River Valley

If you’ve ever hiked Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail to the Wisconsin border you know the trail ends there, but doesn’t really end there. Despite a sign on a tree that reads “Southern Terminus of SHT” and a separate post sticking out of the ground that reads “Not a trail,” there is clearly a trail there leading into Wisconsin. But it doesn’t go far.

The rest of the text on the terminus sign explains: “Spur trail from here to be built by North Country Trail to a parking lot in WI. Trail now dead-ends ahead.”

I explained all that 17 months ago in a Saturday Essay titled: “North Country Trail: Wood Tick Flats,” which was the first report on my quest to hike the North Country Trail across Wisconsin. That summer I covered exactly zero miles on the trail, which is not a great start to a 200-mile journey. If you read that first North Country Trail essay from June 2017 you know I didn’t hike on the trail that day because the grass was long and loaded with ticks. So I waited and saved the hike for a day with more favorable conditions … 17 months later.

What I lack in ambition I make up for with tenacity, right? My motto is: “Never quit. Take a nap and try again later when you feel more up to it.”

Boys

I’m done. In a little more than a month I’m going to stop hanging out with men who mistreat women. Kind of.

Let me try to speak more precisely: after the next few weeks are up I will still be spending a lot of online and IRL time — pretty much every day — among boys and men who, most often without realizing it, expect girls’ and women’s deference, use whatever level of force is necessary to ensure it, and punish girls and women who defy those normative expectations. When I say “normative expectations” I mean that the dominant social and cultural expectation for girls and women to please boys and men is so normal that it seldom gets questioned because it rarely really even gets noticed. It just is. It’s always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not, like oxygen. It permeates. It’s definitive. It defines our culture to such an inherent degree that folks who dare to name it look crazy to everyone but each other. Folks who publicly question or defy it on the regular court repercussions along a continuum more broad and real than you might realize.

None of that stuff is going to change in a few weeks.

Womaning

At first it’s impossible to understand — this thing happening to you. Imagine yourself at 12, or maybe 13 — or God help you, 19 — whenever puberty finally gored you with its long-awaited tusk. Maybe you’re the girl waiting for her breasts, standing with her shoulders back behind Tammy, the girl who got her boobs in fourth grade, praying it’s somehow contagious, and your proximity will tit you up before your Cup Noodles even fully soften. Maybe you’re the girl who thinks she’s pissed herself on the playground, only to look down and see her crotch a deep, angry red: you’ll have to be done with four-square now, because you’ll need to change into your gym clothes, or call your mom to come get you. Maybe you’re the girl who imagines the lips of other girls, who stands as close to Laurel as possible in lunch line, to smell her delicious hair, and you’re waiting to develop what all the movies and all the people say is inevitable: an exclusive taste for boys.

Maybe you held hands with Ben one time on the way home from swimming, and you were too young, and it made you feel dirty to do it, like you stole the money out of the collection bin at church, or got caught touching your privates in the unlocked bathroom by your father. You are on one side of this thing, but also on the other. You are neither and both.

It feels bad.

Ripped at Midget Wrestling in 2008

[Editor’s note: The NorShor Theatre operated as a strip club from 2006 to 2010, and all manner of amoral activity took place there. For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Ten years ago he paid a visit to the NorShor to take in the rasslin’ martches.]

Lovers of the fine arts, like me, know it doesn’t get any better than strippers and midget wrestling. If you can see them both in the same building, and there’s a guy with a backpack who is graciously offering to share his hallucinogenic mushrooms with you, it’s time to chant U-S-A! U-S-A!

Yes, tonight the stars of the Micro Wrestling Federation are bringing their “MidgetPalooza 2009 World Tour” to the NorShor Experience strip club. Of course, it’s still 2008 on my calendar, but it’s probably not a mistake that the year 2009 appears on my ticket in three places. I like to think the MWF is like an auto manufacturer and releases the next year’s line of midgets early, so fans feel like they’re on the cutting edge of wrestling innovation.

The Wilbury Index

There are certain dignities and indignities that come with old age. Most of us would like to be considered wise, but we also want to run fast and be sex symbols. All of that is relative, of course. There are plenty of intelligent teenagers and elderly imbeciles. I ran a half marathon when I was 31 and people twice that age were passing me.

The word “old” is as relative as the attributes associated with it. You can join the American Association of Retired Persons at age 50, collect Social Security at 62 and retire from your job at a wide range of ages or never. I think I was 27 or 28 the first time one of my friends seriously commented that we were “getting old.”

Well, sure, we’re all getting old. But when are we actually old? Do our looks and physical/mental fitness have anything to do with it, or is “old” just a number?

I say it’s just a number, because I can’t, in seriousness, walk up to more wrinkled people my age and ask, “what’s it like to be so old?”

Tribes

You will know the tribes by their bumper stickers. Those watch-your-back talismans affixed to our minivans. We’re social animals, desperate for extended families, but tribalism which served us well in ancient times now splinters a humanity hungry to be whole. The myth of the staunch individualist ignores accomplishments of our collective will, yet individualism is precious, and herd mentality both dangerous and dull. Think of that frightful tribe, motivated by unconditional loyalty, its mindless chants filling stadiums in crude rituals of domination. I’m speaking, of course, about Green Bay Packers fans.

Thankfully, Vikings fans are a pale imitation of their namesakes from Scandinavia, those longboat marauders, as vicious and cruel, it is alleged, as many a hedge fund manager. But the Vikings got over it. They traded their battle axes for Volvos and social democracy. Instead of kidnapping they’re exporting cheap furniture, because Us against Them will get you only so far.

A handful of close friends is a blessing beyond measure. How do we hold onto that without circling the proverbial wagons? How can tribes expand and blend like living Venn diagrams without falling into in-group ethics? How do we “coexist” as one tribe’s bumper sticker suggests? “Don’t Tread On Me,” says another’s, twisting the sentiment of revolution for reactionary effect. A rattlesnake, poised to strike, illustrates the theme. Along with this less-than-veiled threat, drivers approaching our blindside must be warned we are insured by Smith and Wesson, and deputized for vigilante justice. Tailgate at your own risk, and don’t step on my snake.

In the Company of Men

I recently heard the name of a man I hadn’t thought about for a quite a while. He’s someone of little consequence to me, but he said something on the day I met him that I will never forget.

I can’t help but view what that man said to me through the lens of our current news cycle. We are hearing a lot about men who behave badly toward women. Very badly in some cases. The current political climate is also reminding me that the men who do bad things are often protected by other men who hide or minimize that bad behavior. I am hopeful our political, economic and social structures that have allowed men to get away with bad behavior for many millennia are changing. But the fact remains that we live in a world where some men see women as inferior, and that kind of thinking can lead to some pretty terrible things.

Hearing that man’s name triggered a traumatic memory. I’ve managed to not interact with that man since the day we met, but chances are good that my luck will run out and I will see him again someday. I hope I’m lucky.

This man did not hit me, or hit on me, or sexually assault me. But his behavior did cause me harm. It happened a little over three years ago. I met him through a mutual friend. We were walking together with our friend and having a conversation about the similar work that we do. In the midst of our conversation, the man, who I had met just hours before, called me a bitch.

Only Three and a Half

I felt homesick. Lonesome for Ms. LaCount and the soft comforts of our home. Gloomy in my stomach and behind my eyes because of some absence or presence I couldn’t discern. I’d expected all that. I also felt like I might barf every time I looked at or just thought about food. That was unexpected.

It was Wednesday, August 14 of this year. On Sunday the 11th I’d paddled away from Crane Lake, MN, headed east toward Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry point #12 on Little Vermilion Lake. I planned to reach Lake Superior by way of the Grand Portage on Saturday the 17th or maybe the day after that.

The anticipated homesickness had come on full-force during the second day. I didn’t enjoy the sensation, but I knew I could deal with it, and I did, by reminding myself of how lucky I was to be in that place doing what I was doing and just continuing to move forward. The unanticipated pukiness had imposed itself midway through the first day. It got worse any time I tried to choke down a mouthful or two of sustenance and it was, partially because of the mental state a relative lack of food helped create, a tougher problem to solve.

Words and Phrases That I Hate

What follows is an incomplete list of words and phrases I dislike. There is no real rhyme or reason to them; some are things I’ve encountered in my school or work circles, while others are just things I’ve stumbled across here or there. I list them in rough order of hatred, beginning with the most repulsive and concluding with the merely annoying.

Resiliency. This is an awful word devised by someone who deserves to be expelled from the urban planning field. The perfectly good “resilience” says the exact same thing in one less syllable. Even that is overused to the point of emptiness, but at least it doesn’t sound like an invented piece of jargon designed to make one sound intelligent. Which is exactly what it is.

Any scandal ending in “-gate.” This construction stopped being amusing circa 1974. Now it just shows a lack of creativity.

Outstate. This is a Minnesota word invented by Twin Cities people to refer to people who are not like them. It implies that people not in the Twin Cities are somehow out of the state, and plays into the conceit that Duluth, Worthington, Moorhead, Grand Marais, and Little Falls all share something other than the misfortune of not being the cool big city. Attempting to use it innocently with a resident of Greater Minnesota (an acceptable alternative) is a good way to lose any credibility you might have aspired to.

So long, West Duluth Kmart

The Kmart store in my neighborhood closed last weekend. Now there’s a giant empty space in the Spirit Valley Mall in West Duluth, with a faded area above the doors where a sign once read: “Big Kmart.”

It took more than 30 years for the store to run itself out of business, and I’d probably need a degree in finance and a long look inside the books of parent company Sears Holdings Corporation to ever understand. How does a neighborhood’s only department store — a place that’s known for always having lines at the cash registers — go out of business?

The answer to that question might be that retail stores are struggling in general, and any store with massive overhead costs that provides a lousy shopping experience doesn’t stand a chance. And the West Duluth Kmart was a lousy shopping experience.

The lines at Kmart perhaps weren’t due to the high volume of traffic, but instead the understaffing at the store. Target or Wal-Mart might have a dozen checkouts open at once; Kmart seldom had more than two.