Travel. The word itself is so easy to say; the word itself sums up the voyage: it starts with a hard T, like the lurch of a train leaving the station. The word doesn’t arrive anywhere in particular; it trails off and gets lost. The mystery of the experience in two simple syllables. Travel.

So why does every episode of travel always end with me in a motel room at 10 AM, drinking room coffee, watching cable TV? What am I doing wrong?

Perhaps it’s my choice of destinations.

Went up to Duluth this weekend. For those unfamiliar with these parts, Duluth is a big sprawling urban amoeba on the shores and hills by Lake Superior. It’s a working port - the big long ships still call, and the heavby summer air is still cleaved twice a night by the great stern chord of the lighthouse whistle. But the big days are behind the town; it’s remade its old waterfront warehouses into chain restaurants, boutique hotels, coffeeshops and the full panoply of family distractions: an aquarium, an IMAX, a train museum, a maritime museum. Bike trails, promenades. A shiny painted overlay on the old rusty bones of an unremarkable industrial outpost. Duluth, with its nautical history, its foghorns, its steep bluffs and clannish folk, is quintessential Minnesota - as much as the flat parched lands of southwestern Minnesota, or the lake-belt that runs diagonally through the state. The state’s variety is remarkable. We could be a nation of our own.

It’s been too long since I’ve been out of town, off the highway and down a two-lane blacktop road. One of the joys of summer: the slow crawl through a small town, reading the names on the cornices, noting the grave ancient bank on the corner (now Liz’ Consignment or The Coffee Nook), passing the City Park with the obligatory veteran’s memorial. Every town always gave at least one, it seems. At least. Then the town drops away behind you, and you’re into the big green peaceable place again, the black line before you the only sign of human endeavor.

We turned on a road named after the people who settled the land a hundred years before, crossed the tracks, and there we were: my wife’s family reunion. She comes from Italian immigrant stock, and her family is lucky to have one of those tireless biographers who traces everything back to a plot of land in Lombardi. She’s followed the course of every person who sprang from the two couples who made the crossing. Once a year they’re invited to come to the reunion, and perhaps half make it. It’s quite amazing to see the face of the patriarch in the old sepia photo and observe how it persisted through the generations - the details blur, like a rubber stamp that’s been used until the letters lose their definition. Gnat was the only child there, so perhaps she was regarded as The Next Great Hope. (Everyone else’s children had grown up, or were in that teen-state when they would be mortified to attend such an event.)

We played in the grass, went down to the pond, studied bugs, chased balloons across the field: a perfect rural afternoon, right down to the early evening freight train. The whistle sounds - the rumble rolls down the hill - you can’t help but turn and watch it pass, listen to do the wheels and the tracks converse: cankity cank, cankity cank. Then nothing. Then birdsong. And the last time you heard a train in the city was . . .? They hide the trains nowadays. They hide them out here.

We left around eight and headed into Duluth. The approach to the city is almost comical - the freeways have an almost Pieranesian feel, with huge towering ramps flying off in all directions, roads joining and splitting apart, exits leading to gigantic bridges that throw themselves across impossible distances. It’s a bit much. Duluth isn’t that big. But it’s spread up and down a hill, so the ramps and roads require an astonishing amount of engineering that makes you think you’re entering Metropolis. No: just Duluth.

Hard-working, cold, damp, shopworn, paper-mill-scented Duluth. Vertiginous Duluth, with its ski-slope roads; Proud Duluth with its old civic structures from the great era of prosperity. Quaint boutique Duluth, with its grim industrial waterfront rehabbed for the Starbuckers. That’s where we stayed, of course. The Canal Park Inn. From the price of the room, and the description - we booked “a lakeview room” - I thought it would be a nice little place, but whoa: dump.

That might be okay, if it was an interesting dump, a dump that still had all the markings and fixtures of a motel c. 1963, but it had been haphazardly renovated over the years, and there wasn’t any Kennedy-era panache remaining. We schlepped our bags down a dim hallway to our room, opened the door, and were greeted with an almost eyewatering aroma of disinfectant and cigarette smoke. I did a quick inventory:

Busted lamp: check

Cheap drawer with one thin blanket made of that lightweight material that doesn’t keep you warm at all: check

Gargling toilet: check

Cracked and stained bathroom with a Pyscho-era shower nozzle: check; ancient gooey deposit of surficant spuzz in the soapdish: check

Fine-grit sheets: check

Towels that made you feel as if you were drying yourself with a Triscuit: check, check, check - that’s all the towels we get?

Wife and child went down to the pool; I called up my wife’s cousin, who’d come along for the reunion. I’ve known him for years, see him every other year or so. Brilliant guy. An actual Scientist! who researches brain chemistry, and always has interesting stories about the wonderful things they’re doing to rats these days. Plus, we can talk in Simpsons Lingo for hours if need be. We went On The Town, sampling the various bars in the Canal Park area. It was heaven for me, since our final resting place, Grandma’s, is a museum of old signage and neon. It’s the apotheosis of the junk-yard-thrown-at-the-wall, but there aren’t any pitchforks or old license plates; nothing but painted tin signs and restored neon.

I’ll say this in favor of the bars of Duluth: we had three Belvederes apiece, and I winced when the check arrived. Well, best face the music. . . oh my: $25.50. That’s ONE Belvedere in Manhattan.

Back to the motel. Good night to loved ones, pillow-smiting, zzzzzz. A fitful night, since Gnat kept waking, and I got no more than six B-grade hours of sleep. In the morning they went to visit another cousin while I took the opportunity to take pictures - lots of good ghost signs in the Canal Park area, and an archectural bonanza a few blocks away downtown.

Superior Street is designed to ignore Lake Superior. It’s the most remarkable thing to modern eyes - the downtown’s main street turns its back to the splendor of that vast heaving lake, and pretends it’s an ordinary street in a very important city. it’s almost as if they were ashamed of the lakefront, because that’s where the rough and rude business of the ports was conducted. Downtown was a genteel place. Acknowledging the lake would be like saying HI your favorite hooker as you escort your wife to a fancy-dress ball. I’m sure I’m wrong about this, and there are very good reasons why downtown’s so diffident towards the lake. All I know is that it’s a fascinating street, and rather sad at that.

Yes, yes, I know, everything makes me sad. Old signs make me sad. Old magazines make me sad. Other people’s childhood toys make me sad. Corn makes me sad. Whatever. But downtown Duluth was a very prosperous place in its time. It’s not emptied out, but you can tell the retail traffic has fled to the mall. Some stores died so fast they’re still standing - I found a sign that belongs to a certain vanished chain, and while they took down the letters they didn’t take down the sign. As if a sign like this needs letters, eh?

Okay, well, here they are.

Back to the motel. Got some coffee and a danish at a local Caribou coffee, went back to the room, packed for everyone, and waited. Watched a lousy Arnie movied called “Eraser”. Did not watch the lake. Why? Because the windows of our lakeview room actually looked out on the glassed-in corridor, and people were always walking past. The clientele was pretty skeezy, and people seemed to pause and linger a tad when they saw open curtains. So I sat in the dark and finished my coffee.

We went to the aquarium before we left town. Never thought I’d say his about an aquarium, but: lacked fish. It had fish, but it didn’t seem overly burdened by them. Perhaps it was because the aquarium dealt with local fish, and you’re not going to see tropical colorations up here. You see big thick trout. There’s a reason “Finding Nemo” didn’t take start out in the Great Lakes.

Hit the city limits two hours later; picked up a grateful Jasper from Nana and Uncle George’s house (I trust them with my child AND my dog; that’s what fine people they are) and went home.

Travel backwards is Levart. I like that word. It has purpose and direction. And now, fully levarted, I’m off to bed. The big one with soft sheets. You can go home again, you see.

As long as you didn’t leave the iron on and burn the joint down.

Amazon Honor SystemClick Here to PayLearn More