Lost and found in Cook County

I’ve been working and playing music a bit in Duluth and Cook County this year, and Monday I had the good fortune to be tooling down Highway 61 while KUMD’s “Highway 61 Revisited” specialty show played two hours of Bob Dylan tunes, in what has to be one of the more mystical radio-listening experiences I’ve had of late. 

As Hibbing’s favorite son sang songs from one of his first demos, and as the Lake Superior National Forest and Lake Superior cradled me and my minivan in a nest of silver caps and tall timber, I wondered about the America that Dylan has sung about for over 50 years, about all the words and chords he’s spilled, about all the vivid paintings he’s painted of real live bleeding people, and about the gauntlet of racism, sexism and stupidity we find ourselves running through, once again.

This part of the country claims Dylan proudly (Dylan Days is May 16–25), for his has always been a clarion voice in crazy times, born of the Iron Range and ringing out as a wise calm amidst any storm, just as Duluth and Cook County at the moment feels like the sanest port on the planet: The town that time, trends, and tumult forgot.

A sturdy intellectualism and stout spirit marks so much of the place, and everywhere you turn there seems to be a confab of folks with ruddy cheeks and crow’s feet carved by north woods winters who seem to know, innately, that being part of nature and cultivating good chi is where it’s at.

“I’m very simple,” a woman with glowing wind-blown skin told me at Papa Charlie’s on Lutsen mountain last weekend; “I need good live music and a good co-op, and I’m good.”

Yes, she is. You can feel it. “Chill” is the operative word here, and the combination of wilderness (I cruised past a wolf devouring a deer at the edge of the forest outside Cloquet Monday afternoon) and the million-yard stares the lake affords is primal, wild, and seductive, and has inspired more than one city kid to howl out loud for a place where the human animal can go to think, be, and thrive in peace.

To that end, I’m reminded of a woman I met a couple weeks ago in the middle of the forest. Some friends and I made a wrong turn off 61 and found ourselves deep in the woods. I pulled off at the first sign of civilization, a three-vehicle trailer park, and knocked on one of the trailer doors.

After a few minutes, a woman in a flannel nightgown came to the door. Reading glasses hung from her neck and she was holding a romance novel, whose neon green typeface and rippling blonde pecs sparkled in the sunshine. I asked her if she knew where Lutsen mountain was, and, after corkscrewing her face and looking shyly over her shoulder, she admitted that though she’d lived there for a while, she had absolutely no idea.

Turns out Lutsen mountain, the area’s most popular attraction by far, was seven miles away. But to this woman, contentedly whiling away the afternoon in the middle of the woods, it might as well have been Mars. 

I’ve thought about that woman ever since, living about as far off the grid as a person can get, and I’ve wanted to go back and ask her what she knows about the world, if she’s happy, and if she even asks herself such things.

Instead, when I got home I grabbed the dog and we headed to the Rose Gardens, which are starting to burst, and watched the sunset and moonrise. He romped and I ducked under the canopy of trees on 42nd Street to get out of the rain, and as the lake traffic teemed and the city encroached, I closed my eyes, sucked in the sweet pine air, and made a vow to carry the North Shore with me the rest of the way. 

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.