søndag, april 09, 2006

Park Point, Duluth

Duluth was needed…and so horribly easy to do that one (i.e., I) wonders why one (i.e., I) does not take 24-hour trips more often. The car’s willingness to fail at any moment comes to mind, but that’s a hideous excuse. I won’t use it. So:

I worked like mad Friday from 6 am to noon, which was not necessarily an easy feat on the tail of Thursday night’s Tartan Day celebration. I traveled in the way I normally do: pell-mell. Threw nearly a full clean load of laundry in a suitcase, sat upon it sitcom-style to close it—beads of sweat, unintended grunt—put two extra pair of shoes in a target bag, grabbed my computer, verified I was carrying a cash card (and id and proof of insurance) and hopped in the car. Like that, I was on my way.

Two hours and 30 minutes later, I descended upon the city of Duluth via its network of twisting bridges and over/under passes. I swept along the hillside and thought to myself, “The signage up here sucks.” (Clearly I had not yet decompressed if signage was on my mind. Hey: Relax your sphincter, animal.) I passed the stacks of taconite and gravel, the massive rail system for loading these heaps into barges, and frightfully angled cuts in the rocks upon which it’s all built and that made me think this place had a violent origin: all dynamite and death.

Have you seen this place? Driving in you’ll see many tall narrow homes in the hills, things that remind me of the homes in old American paintings—which is to say paintings depicted on the cover of Hawthorn books. I set up camp in the Radisson tower, the architecture of which resembles a kaleidoscope. It offers a “waterfront view,” which means the waterfront is 400 yards of parking lots and taconite offloaders away.

(Note: The Sleepnumber Bed is interesting, but I feel no change in my life from that. The waterfront, though, had power.)

Downtown Duluth is constructed of more shades of uninterrupted brown than a city should use, and the windowless white AT&T communication tower resembles something that might have been built by the Soviets or maybe China before the China boom, but all in all Duluth has a good vibe. It has the feeling of a city that knows it must make some changes; it’s just injuriously patient and cautious about making them. How ‘bout a little color Duluth? Just a little, really, would do wonders. Please take a page from other harbor towns.

The evening was going to be spent a mile down the road at Carmody’s, a not-yet-opened Irish pub for which my buddy Bill did the interior work. In the short span before that, and while I’d still some daylight, I drove out to Park Point, which is a little rugged beach at the end of a long spit seldom wider than 50 meters. The spit is largely a road with homes on either side. No side streets. From time to time, there’s a break in the houses to reveal scrub-spotted dunes and a little beach. That’s it. It’s a sandbar with a park at the end.

So I parked out a ways, out where it feels like the end, though I can't be sure it is, and crossed over the wooden boardwalk that opens onto the beach and Lake Superior. I’d one of only two cars in the lot, and I paused a moment before the water was in view.

Large bodies of water are redemptive even for those of us who live so far inland. Perhaps in this portion of the country we also have the advantage of the sound of wind whipping through the arms of old white pines, and that sound very much resembles the sound of waves about to break; but we do not have as easy access as we’d like to open water. Lake Superior, cold though it is, is a gem.

A ways down, a young woman sat beneath a green blanket with two kids. They sat upon a rotted birch log, and while I stood watching the waves they rose and walked towards me. They seemed to contemplate leaving. There was some sort of discussion and the children kept very close to her sides, though it did not seem to be for warmth and one of them seemed too old for such clinginess. I wondered if perhaps she was not their mother but an older sister, or maybe they were people in extreme circumstances: homeless or from a broken home or on the run...as such a group could be in a mid-80s movie. You’d root for them.

You would.

So they walked toward me. It took them 5 minutes for they walked slow and the sand was heavy.

I’d been warm when I stepped onto the boardwalk but now that I was on the beach I zipped up my sweatshirt and kept my hands in my pockets. I remembered a description from a Wallace Stegner novel about a man whose coat pockets were loose as if he’d long walked about with apples in them.

They approached. They said nothing. They passed very near me and stood not far away. We all watched the water rolling over itself, listened to its shushing. My nose began to run in the chill. Not even the gulls were out with us.

In a different place in my life, even a week on either side of this encounter, I might have said something to them. I might have sought that story. But I took the time as my own. They didn’t seem to be in a dangerous situation, but I sensed they were lonely. It was just they’d caught me on a day on which I very much wanted to be alone with the water.

I left. When I looked back, they were watching me and starting a slow walk in the direction of the boardwalk. The scrub grass poking from the dunes lashed at the wind. For a moment, I thought I’d made a mistake, so I waited in my car to see if they came over the hill. I waited to see if they’d show up and signal me and I’d find out all the awful things I once imagined were true. But they remained on the beach. For all I know, they’re still there, and they’re playing with my thoughts.
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