Literature of Travel II: Way up North

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The Epic Summer Road Trip 2013 was accompanied all along the way by books. I introduced this summer’s most important literary companions last week. Here are the others that were part of the journey. My intent is to talk generally about the pleasure and benefits of this ‘literature for travel’ rather than review any one book.

 “How the States Got Their Shapes” by Mark Stein is an interesting if rather dry account of exactly what the title indicates. It is handy to have along as a reference if not exactly exciting as a straight-through read.

 I knew that our journey would take us as far north as Winnipeg, Manitoba so I wanted an update about that spot of Canada without doing a lot of research or reading. I remembered a book I read with great pleasure awhile back, “Maple Leaf Rag” by Stephen Brook, an acerbically funny Brit. I pulled it from the shelf intending to read a chapter or so and wound up going back through much it because, even though it’s written in 1987 and feels somewhat dated, “Maple Leaf Rag” still manages to be informative, friendly-enough and chock full of chuckles.

 My favorite late night companion before I left was “North Country: A Personal Journey Through the Borderland” by Howard Frank Mosher. I grew up in North Country so the territory felt simultaneously familiar and exciting although Mosher’s journey extends all along the U.S. Canadian border, east to west. Mosher writes, From coast to coast it’s known as the North Country: an immense, off-the-beaten-track sector of America inhabited by remarkably versatile, resilient, and, most of all, independent-minded people, most of whom are still intimately in touch with the land they live on and with their respective communities. (p.3)

  Naturally I most enjoyed “North Country” when Mosher was in my home territory—Minnesota. I grew up just west of the Iron Range and hardly knew of its rough and rowdy towns until my brother and sister-in-law made their long-time home in Grand Rapids on the edge of the ‘Range.’ Hibbing is 35 miles to the east and ground zero for iron mining. It used to have an airport where my brother could pick me up when I flew home for a visit so I’ve had a few burgers and beers on main street but never made it to Bob Dylan’s old house. Mosher spends quite a few pages on the good/bad old days when iron mining was booming in the gigantic Hull-Rust Mine and “…every night was Saturday night …It wasn’t unusual to see half a dozen different fist fights raging up and down the main street simultaneously.” (p. 87)

 In my personal travels along the Minnesota/Ontario/Manitoba border, and the wildly picturesque North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth to Thunder Bay, I’ve come to realize my personal patch of north woods in Koochiching and Itasca Counties is just not that pretty or interesting—except to me. Mosher justifiably spends most of his Minnesota time in the northeast territory, but he does get to two border towns with which I’m quite familiar.

 Mosher reaches International Falls by way of one of those gas station/beer joints that hide out everywhere in the Minnesota woods. They all have a dispirited/cynical/friendly vibe and smell of cigarette smoke and old Grain Belt or Hamms (From the land of sky blue waters…comes the beer refreshing…) absorbed into every surface for the last 20 or 50 or 100 years.

 Mosher describes International Falls as having a “raw look” and he’s right. I drove here summer before last, taking the Canadian side of the border from Warroad MN to Fort Francis, Ontario, then through a cranky border crossing. Back in olden times, we’d just drive back and forth between countries with no one paying the least bit of attention. The ‘Falls’ is where those of us from South Koochiching made contact with the bureaucracy since it’s the county seat. It is primarily famous for being “the icebox of the nation,” so dubbed by the national media when iceboxes still existed and the temperature still dropped to 50° below zero. My only other personal connection with the Falls was when my classmates and I came here by school bus to tour the paper mill, probably the most exciting class outing of my high school years!

 Mosher is heading west and when he reaches Warroad, another border town, he says, “I imagine that I can sense the looming presence, just to the west, of the Great Plains.” (p. 115) My cousin moved from the woods of Koochiching County up here to the edge of Minnesota and the edge of the woodlands and it took some adjusting. It all starts to open up here and the sky will just get bigger and bigger until western Montana. My mother loved this kind of country, she being from ‘civilized’ South Dakota and never quite trusting the wildness of northwoods ways.

 This is simply a great book. I immediately wanted to change my routing and follow Mosher’s tire tracks exactly. When I have time to do that I’ll have an excuse to read “North Country” again! It is geography/sociology/history (social studies!) all wrapped up in a warm, nostalgic and beautifully written memoir.

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Paper mill on Rainy River, dividing Minnesota and Ontario.

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