Rocky Taconite.

In the Land of Rocky Taconite.
Duluth to
International Falls, MN

Field review by the editors.We're excited about Day 4's itinerary, lofting us into Minnesota's northeastern flange, the " Land of Rocky Taconite." During pre-trip planning, we bitterly disputed the targets, arguing anticipated merits of the Sandpaper Museum vs. Iron World. Consensus and teamwork yields a "win-win": an S-shaped route that hits nearly everything ... AND dumps us at a haunted lodge at the Canadian border by nightfall.

We head up Highway 61, along the northern shore of Lake Superior, and before long we are in Two Harbors, scrutinizing Pierre the Voyageur. He's 20-feet tall, a French explorer holding a paddle. The design is boxy and blocky, like the cubist Bunyan we encounter later in Bemidji. At one time he talked, and his eyes moved -- but not today.

Pierre wears only a racy, short jacket -- because his legs have been painted flesh color, not pants color. Pierre's dignity compromised to save the cost of an extra can of paint. Is nothing sacred?

Sandpaper Museum

Two Harbors, Minnesota

Sandpaper Room.The Sandpaper Museum ain't all we hoped for. It's where the 3M company started, and where sandpaper, 3M's first product, was invented. It is essentially two rooms in a dull historical house that must be unlocked by a Chamber of Commerce guide. She confides that many 3M executives, eager to prove their corporate loyalty, make a pilgrimage here to see where it all began. We'd be likewise inspired by the sandpaper samples and sanded products (shoes, tools, etc.) if we worked in the abrasives industry ... but we don't.

Rocky Taconite

Silver Bay, Minnesota

In Silver Bay, the bulbous metalloid face of Rocky Taconite brightens our morning. A Reddy Kilowatt kind of anthropomorph, Rocky is made of quarter inch steel plates, holds a pick in hand, and wears a miner's hat. He stands on a boulder of taconite, the ore that saved America's steel industry when we learned to extract iron from it after the pure ores in the Mesabi Range were exhausted. Rocky assumed his perch in 1964. A plaque on the taconite notes that Rocky commemorates "the transition of taconite to steel," is "symbolic of a new era," and honors the "genius" of those who figured out how to change "a useless rock into a valuable product."

St. Urho

Finland, Minnesota

St. Urho is the patron saint of Finland, supposedly, and a very popular fellow in Minnesota. Two statues of sanctified grasshopper-skewerer grace the Land of a Thousand Lakes. We encounter our first of this trip in Finland (the town), an "interpretive" Urho. Carved by Don Osborn in 1982, it's an 18-foot-tall head with a tiny grasshopper carved in the back. According to locals, the head was supposed to be 30 feet tall, but the wood was rotten. A more entertaining chainsaw sculpture beckons across the street: a ten-foot-long fish holding a beer keg, up on a pole, outside a bar named Our Place.

A single, meandering, two-lane road takes us through miles of trackless, attractionless woods north towards Canada. There is really no reason to drive here, except that beyond lies the town of Ely (pronounced "EE-lee" - rhymes with "really"), home of the Wolf Interpretive Center and the Cabin of the Root Beer Lady.

The WIC is mostly a bust. The interactive howling booth -- once a prime draw — has been dumped and this place has gone PC and educational. It does still have lifelike statues of fearsome-looking wolves on the back lawn. We recommend arranging small children in terror-struck poses in front of these statues for some memorable vacation pix.

Cabin of the Root Beer Lady

Ely, Minnesota

Now, the Cabin of the Root Beer Lady -- that was something! Dorothy Molter brewed root beer at her isolated cabin for many years, quenching the thirst of thousands of canoeists. Dorothy is long dead, and these days her cabin is crowded with Root Beer Lady fans, who peruse her artifacts and then sit down to watch a l-o-n-g video documentary on a tiny TV. [Read the complete report]

Afterward, while others murmur reverently about Dorothy's solitary lifestyle, Doug's only question is: "I wonder how she got carbonation in her root beer?"

It's a long drive down from The Land of Too Many Trees and back to towns where Man leaves his easy-to-interpret trail. We stop briefly at the Soudan Underground Mine. According to the guard it's "the deepest place you can go in America" -- like a half mile or maybe ten miles underground -- but no way can we spare the 90 minutes it would take to do the tour.

The Lake of the Loon

Virginia, Minnesota

The huge Floating Loon in Virginia, MN, is caught in a sunbeam on Silver Lake, bright against a backdrop of locust trees, wildflowers, and the belching smokestacks of an unidentified factory. The circular gravel road in Olcott Park, the prime loon-viewing vista, is lined with cars -- but no one dares venture outside into the gale force Minnesota winds. They sit inside and eat their lunches and look at us. And we look at the loon. It was first floated by the "Land of the Loon Festival Committee" in 1982 (replacing a smaller, vandalized loon built in 1979). The World's Largest Floating Loon is fiberglass over a metal frame and 20 feet long, although you'd never know it. It's tethered to the bottom of the lake by a long cable far, far out in the water, spinning and bobbing merrily in the wind-whipped waves. At this distance, it might as well be a life-size loon.

Hockey Stick.Virginia also provides a few other minor targets: a big Uncle Sam statue at a car dealership along US 53; and the " Mineview in the Sky," a viewing platform that overlooks the abandoned Rouchleau open pit iron mine. The C of C lady was proud of the "nicely graded road" that leads up to it, and the gift shop has an excellent assortment of bleak open pit postcards.

Big Hockey Stick

Eveleth, Minnesota

Just down the road from Virginia is Eveleth, home of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the World's Second Largest Hockey Stick. The stick fills a downtown vacant lot: it's 107 feet long, weighs over 3 tons, and has an accompanying 700-pound hockey puck (probably the world's largest). The stick reportedly has enough wood to make 3,000 regular-sized hockey sticks, although Eveleth really could use that wood to spruce up the sagging facades along Main Street. This is a brawny, blue-collar burg, winning no points for eye appeal. Cooperstown it ain't.


Iron Man, Chisholm. Iron Man and Iron World USA

Chisholm, Minnesota

Heading west, a 36-foot-tall brass and copper iron miner towers over Chisholm. The Iron Man is all-the-more impressive by being perched atop a 55-foot-tall fused mass of rusted iron rods and beams. Titled "The Emergence of Man Through Steel," if this gleaming, brass-colored miner had been waving his shovel, he'd be taller than Birmingham's Vulcan! Cross-eyed, he stares down at the McDonald's strategically located across the street.

Pellet Pete.Next to the big miner is America's only iron-themed amusement park. Sadly, like the Wolf Interpretive Center, Ironworld USA has succumbed to the forces of political correctness. It's now "Ironworld Discovery Center" and all the good stuff touted in 1995 tourism lit is gone. Instead, the IDC boasts a History of the Civilian Conservation Corps exhibit, an Iron Range Interpretive Center, and a recreated pioneer cabin. Actors sing songs, praise ethnic diversity. Someone croons "When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie" in the nearly-empty ballroom -- it's Italian heritage day. Otherwise it's eerily quiet (true, it's a weekday...). Taconite is used as a landscaping medium. The only vestige of the Iron World of yore is a small, solitary statue of Pellet Pete, an anthropomorphized, grinning pellet of taconite on tank treads.


Bus art.On to Hibbing and the Greyhound Bus Origin Center, which is the high point of the afternoon. This museum, created by a rabid Greyhound bus fan, features promotional items, films, uniforms, and a collection of historic buses.

[Read the complete report]

Then it's two lane driving to the Canadian border, and the fabled town of International Falls. Along the way, we snap the Big Bluefish in Orr, and pose on the Leaping Walleye photo op in Ray.


Fish photo op.One of us -- in fact, the same one of us who cracked his skull in Spring Green and befouled the car in Fountain City -- is under the delusion that International Falls is some kind of alpine, nature-dripping Eden. Instead, we quickly discover that the town is a center for pulp processing. For those unaware, giant piles of pulp smell. Bad. Thankfully, outside of July and August, it rarely gets warm enough to generate bad smells in International Falls, a town that proudly bills itself as " Icebox of the Nation."

A nice Chamber of Commerce lady graciously arranges a room for us at a lakeside fishing resort, far out of town and upwind from the pulp plants, where we will sleep (sort of) in a haunted room! As we stagger along the Lodge's balcony to meet our ghosts, relaxing fishermen mistake us for fellow anglers. One, savoring the darkening lakefront, raises a beer can and announces "It doesn't get any better than this."

Road Cheese home. On to Day 5: International Falls to Minneapolis, Minnesota

October 20, 2014

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