Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Autobobography VII—Something There Is About You

This is a song about a woman. But although I was lucky enough to know several women who inspired me, I’m actually using this title because it’s the only song where Dylan specifically mentions his birthplace: Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin’ the hills of old Duluth.   

I was living in Boston in 2000 and not enjoying it enough anymore to justify the cost of living and the need to keep earning a high income. It certainly wasn’t a place where I could afford to retire. I was in a long distance relationship with a woman in Ohio so I moved there while I tried to figure out where in the upper Midwest to live next. I explored Madison and Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and Marquette, Michigan—all had strengths and weaknesses. Madison offered the most culturally but seemed too spread out; I liked the other two a lot but neither had much public transportation or seemed like a place I’d have much luck finding a decent job. 

So I decided to visit the largest town by Lake Superior. The bus station was in the west end of town and I didn’t like the look of the city until I got downtown and then to the eastern half of town where the Lake is. After exploring the city, I decided this would be my new home. It took three or four trips before I found an apartment which would allow Hijack, the cat who eventually kept me company for nineteen years. I buried him in the woods at Hawk Ridge, near a spot where I’d often sat on a rock looking out at the Lake. That was one of two losses in my life I don’t think I ever completely got over.

Beside the fabulous views of the Lake, what made Duluth work for me as a non-driving nature lover were the many trails in town. A minute off the sidewalk and I was walking by the side of a rocky creek with waterfalls and towering pines. Wildlife was common—nearby in the state was the only area where wild wolves had avoided being wiped out in the lower 48 states and they were sometimes spotted in neighborhoods, black bears denned in town and were often seen, pileated woodpeckers hammered streetside, peregrine falcons nested downtown, and large numbers of hawks and eagles migrated through, along with a very rare mountain lion. A long sandy beach extended miles along the Lake and made for a favorite outbound hike with a return trail through milkweed dunes and warbler woods. Over the years, I wrote some popular posts describing a few of my hikes in town. For many years I’d enjoyed all that Boston offered and still identify with the city in some ways, but I’d never had the feeling anywhere of finding home as I developed in Duluth.

When I moved here, I was happy to find that similar people had also discovered and moved to Duluth. One early event was searching for rare plants to stop a planned golf course (we won!). One of the leaders of that hike would go on to be the leader of the group Cloud Cult, and I later worked with his wife, who paints while the band plays, for a local environmental group. There were several organizations whose meetings and hikes I attended. One favorite was a nature and environmental book club. I didn’t do anything crazy like start going to parties but there were quite a few people I enjoyed seeing at all those events. I think most of them are still in town but I rarely run into them anymore now that the events have largely ceased. I’m not sure I’d go now even if they were still happening—as happened in Boston, eventually staying home is what I like to do best. I don’t hike those trails much anymore either—I originally stopped because I was tired of illegally unleashed dogs charging barking at me while on a trail next to a fifty foot drop. But even now that I could carry my bear spray, I mostly stick to walking by the Lake.

This was the town where Dylan had been born. I had a job in that hospital, working as a clerk for a spell, but I never did like it all that much, and one day the scalpel fell. Before that happened, I walked a few blocks one lunchtime to see the house where he lived for six years before moving to Hibbing. It later was bought by a Dylan fan and I guess it has a plaque now.

One thing I still love about living in Duluth is the way the Lake affects the weather so that there are many microclimates in town. It’s common for one part of town to be fogged in while another is sunny, snow totals can range widely, and there’s often a twenty degree temperature difference between neighborhoods.  Mentioning fog reminds me of one of the biggest losses while I’ve lived here—there used to be a deep, loud foghorn which blew and added mystery and individuality to the city. Unfortunately some people blew louder and more frequently and it was replaced by a pathetic little whistle.

The climate certainly seems to be changing. The winters aren’t as cold or as long, and the summers aren’t as cool (I used to love being fogged in for most of June). In 2012 while I was living in Yellowstone, there was a huge rain and flood here which caused widespread damage which is still being repaired. Two weeks ago, a similar event wiped out many of the highways in northwest Wisconsin—the bus I take to visit Marquette was out of service for a week. And a few mornings ago at 3:30 AM, the sky was lit up by nonstop lightning for an hour with 80 mph wind. Many trees were destroyed, some snapped in half, others with their entire root system torn out of the ground. I’d never seen a storm like this anywhere, even when I’d been in the vicinity of a tornado in Illinois or hurricanes in Massachusetts. Some homes and businesses are still without electricity.

I still like Duluth more than most places because of the Lake, but I don’t love the city or have the deep feeling of home anymore. I definitely believe it’s gone downhill (along with the rest of the country) since I first moved here fifteen years ago. (On the positive side there is a new animal shelter, and a wildlife rehab center is being built—I’d be volunteering at both except that they’re on the outskirts of town where the bus doesn’t go.) Part of my negativity certainly may be that I’ve gone downhill myself during those years, but it’s not my fault that I can rarely ride the bus anymore without hearing people talking about their drugs, crimes, and jail time. Still, I expect Duluth is where I’ll die, if I can keep a roof over my head until that happens. But unless something changes, I’ll likely be homeless before the end of the year and I sure won’t stick around for even a milder winter here. So maybe I’ll be migrating south too.

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