We wake up and realize, with diluted pleasure, that we’re now in the Central time zone. This was our home time zone for so long that it’s always a kick to be back in it, but it means that our six hours of sleep actually took seven and we are once again leaving somewhere later than we intended to. That was all well and good when the reason for the delay was Utah’s theatrical and eloquent beauty, or the well-worth-it wait for Old Faithful to do its thing, or the pure perfection of Glacier National Park. But a time-zone change just puts us an hour behind.
Oh, well. We have a quick breakfast, with surprisingly Florida-like fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, served by a friendly waitress who sounds exactly like a character in Fargo (“Oh, yaah! Shurr!”), and then we’re on our way. The drive to Grand Forks is flat and quick, but we feel claustrophobic. Hard to understand why, but the sky truly isn’t as big here, nor are the horizons as far off, as in Montana. The abrupt change in beauty level from state to state reminds me of the transition from Texas (so flat, scrubby and boring) to New Mexico (instantly rolling, with prettier flora) when you drive east to west across their tops. Montana – 10. North Dakota – well, not 10.
Also, this North Dakota leg really is just like any of the countless road trips we used to take to Madison or Door County or Ann Arbor or Rock Island or Des Moines. It has a beauty of its own, but it’s too familiar a beauty to excite us. The Midwest is the Midwest is the Midwest – and North Dakota is apparently part of it, topographically, botanically and zoologically (a fairly grand term for the wildlife we see, which seems to consist mostly of insects, many of whom seek to bite us every time we get out of the car). This reacquaintance with bugs is very unpleasant. One of the unexpected benefits of our new home in the Pacific time zone is that there aren’t any bugs. I’m not at all happy with the itchy welts on my knee, ankle and neck. They take me back, and not in a good way.
We do make one stop – to take a touristy picture of the sign marking the geographical center of North America in Rugby – but other than that, we just book as fast as we can to Minnesota. (BTW, this geographical center of North America business assumes for some unclear reason that the continent consists only of the US and Canada. Evidently, though, even if Mexico and Central America were included, the center would still be somewhere in Pierce County, ND.)
We’re on our way to Lake Superior, still by way of US 2, which has been our host since western Montana. There’s now no interstate alternative, but the road remains quiet and mostly traffic-free with peppy speed limits of 70 (ND) or 65 (MN). US 2 spends most of its length winding through peaceful ranch land or peaceful farmland, of which there is a tremendous amount. There’s open space everywhere at the top of this country. The road occasionally and charmingly becomes the main street of some small or medium town (Havre (pronounced “Havver”), MT, Fosston, MN, Beaver Creek, you name the state, etc.).
Urban people that we are, we just can’t believe the smallness of the towns that crop up along the road, and not just on US 2. Every time we pass a Smoot, Wyoming (pop. 100 and completely dark at 9 at night) or a Dunkirk, Montana (pop. apparently two lean-tos 15 feet to the side of the road) or any of a hundred others in the states we’ve visited so far, we wonder who lives there and what they do and whether they love it or are dying to get elsewhere.
The first part of Minnesota is basically an extension of North Dakota, but just east of Bemidji, it’s a whole new ball game. Lovely Lake Cass (we think) opens up to the north and serves as a sweet gateway to the Chippewa National Forest. Suddenly, the landscape starts rolling even though the elevation trend is downward. The trees start standing up straighter and, bizarrely, the curvature of the sky seems to rise, too.
It’s a very nice run over to Duluth, where we leave US 2 just as Lake Superior appears before us, surmounted by the pretty bridges and buildings and green, green hills of the first city of any size we’ve seen since Salt Lake. To eyes and brains still agog over Bear Lake and Flathead Lake, this first view of Lake Superior is perhaps not as impressive as it might be. But it nevertheless feels like a refreshing splash of cool water.
After saying goodnight to US 2 (which we’ll see again in the morning) and enjoying a brief and surprisingly scenic stint on I35, we pick up MN 61, which reminds us first of Sheridan Road on the North Shore of Chicago, and then of the vacation destinations in Door County (our next stop). Instead of Lake Michigan or Green Bay on one side and dense forest or luxuriant pastures on the other, we have Lake Superior and ferrite-laden granite cliffs up to 800 feet tall.
Our home for the night is The Naniboujou Lodge, originally established in the 1920s as an ultra-exclusive private club with Babe Ruth, Ring Lardner and Jack Dempsey among its charter members. The private club concept fell victim to the Depression, and the Lodge is now a bright and colorful inn decorated in the style of the Cree Indians and proud of its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. We settle contentedly into Room 10 and listen to the waves of the greatest of the Great Lakes roll rhythmically onto the shore a few feet from our open windows.