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 doesnt 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 its 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. Its 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; its 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 states variety is remarkable. We could be a nation of our own.
Its been too long since Ive 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 veterans memorial. Every town always gave at least one, it seems. At least. Then the town drops away behind you, and youre 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 wifes 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. Shes followed the course of every person who sprang from the two couples who made the crossing. Once a year theyre invited to come to the reunion, and perhaps half make it. Its 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 thats 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 elses 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 cant 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. Its a bit much. Duluth isnt that big. But its spread up and down a hill, so the ramps and roads require an astonishing amount of engineering that makes you think youre 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. Thats 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 wasnt 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 doesnt 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 - thats all the towels we get?
Wife and child went down to the pool; I called up my wifes cousin, whod come along for the reunion. Ive 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 theyre 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, Grandmas, is a museum of old signage and neon. Its the apotheosis of the junk-yard-thrown-at-the-wall, but there arent any pitchforks or old license plates; nothing but painted tin signs and restored neon.
Ill 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. Thats 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. Its the most remarkable thing to modern eyes - the downtowns main street turns its back to the splendor of that vast heaving lake, and pretends its an ordinary street in a very important city. its almost as if they were ashamed of the lakefront, because thats 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. Im sure Im wrong about this, and there are very good reasons why downtowns so diffident towards the lake. All I know is that its 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 peoples childhood toys make me sad. Corn makes me sad. Whatever. But downtown Duluth was a very prosperous place in its time. Its not emptied out, but you can tell the retail traffic has fled to the mall. Some stores died so fast theyre still standing - I found a sign that belongs to a certain vanished chain, and while they took down the letters they didnt 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 Id say his about an aquarium, but: lacked fish. It had fish, but it didnt seem overly burdened by them. Perhaps it was because the aquarium dealt with local fish, and youre not going to see tropical colorations up here. You see big thick trout. Theres a reason Finding Nemo didnt take start out in the Great Lakes.
Hit the city limits two hours later; picked up a grateful Jasper from Nana and Uncle Georges house (I trust them with my child AND my dog; thats 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, Im off to bed. The big one with soft sheets. You can go home again, you see.
As long as you didnt leave the iron on and burn the joint down.