Travelogue: An Easter Weekend "Up Nort"

Easter weekend is usually a major travel period worldwide. I know this from previous years, when I was traversing parts of this country.

Granted, I do not have a religious reason to travel on Easter weekend. Nor do I have family to see, especially when there’s some personal issues with air travel at this time. However, I found a reason to get away from the routine of home and find a new place to visit. Plus, to enjoy the nicer weather that the month of April is supposed to bring. 

Of course, I have to remind myself that I live in Minnesota. April can bring showers, snow, slush, very warm weather, mosquitoes…you name it!

Easter weekend travel is not unusual for me. Back in 1997, I took a rented Chevrolet Corsica for an immersion into my new home territory of the Washington, DC area. Eventually, I ended up in West Virginia. Talk about a new place to visit! It was…for lack of a better term…a religious experience.

Some 24 years later, I had been hankering for an overnight trip to one of this state’s favorite destinations – Duluth. After all, it is the second-most visited destination in the state of Minnesota – according to Explore Minnesota Tourism. In fact, the entire northeastern part of the state yielded 20% of all travel in 2019, edging out the central part of the state by a single percent. 

With that said, my plan was to stay overnight in Duluth with a day trip further afield for Easter Sunday. Then, trek back home after my final destination. I can guarantee you that it will be a very long trek – but quite doable. 

The first thing I have to do is to get the right vehicle for the job. Something that has plenty of performance, while returning great fuel economy. I rented what I would think was the right car for the job – a 2021 Toyota Corolla LE. 

It is a basic compact car without being too compact – or, too basic. It comfortably seats four, though it’s more important that it was comfortable for me. 

Also, it was familiar. I reviewed a 2020 Corolla Hybrid LE sedan last year, which had the same equipment level as this model – except for the driveline. Incidentally, that Corolla Hybrid was supposed to go on another road trip. Thanks, personal health issues!

For the projected amount of driving I wanted to do, this 2021 Corolla LE seemed like the right vehicle for the weekend. 

It began on Good Friday – and it was a good Friday for a morning drive. I wanted to get up to Duluth to reacquainted with the place for the first day. You really have to when you drive up here for the umpteenth time. Granted, it was a few years since I spent the night in Duluth.  

I noticed one significant change in downtown Duluth. It appears that the old sauna has been replaced by the Flame bar. The original Flame continues to operate on South Tower Street in Superior, Wisconsin – across St. Louis Bay from Duluth. This location is in addition, but specific for the Minnesota crowd. It is good to see that there is a nightlife gathering place for LGBT folks on the Minnesota side of the Twin Ports area. 

After a lunch near Miller Hill Mall, I meandered the “back way” into my overnight stop of Cloquet. The seat of Carlton County is a bit of a working class community. There are mills and other industrial complexes in town around the Saint Louis River. There is an old business district west of Minnesota Highway 33 that almost felt like a ghost town with so many empty storefronts. The administrative side of downtown Cloquet seems to be OK. 

I took the opportunity to unwind and relax at my hotel in Cloquet. I did not expect to gallivant around town at night, as I might if I stayed in Duluth. Besides, I needed enough rest to tackle a drive into personal uncharted territory. 

It was back on the road early Saturday morning. A rough night’s sleep helped to motivate me out the door of my hotel and back on the road. A breakfast in the Iron Range – Virginia, to be exact – helped push my next goal travel-wise. Normally, I would loop around the Iron Range and come out through Grand Rapids back to The Cities. Not today.

This time, I continued north to International Falls. This border city became the northernmost place I have been on this planet. It was a bit unremarkable, save for a small business district near the US/Canada border. The city was dominated by a paper mill on the Rainy River, but I found some charm around town. 

A funny thing happened when I arrived in International Falls.  I ran into a friend of mine from The Cities whom I’ve known for 20 years now at a gas station in town. He also trekked up this way, but for the night. We spent a couple of hours catching up on practically everything – friends we lost, our work lives during the pandemic, and new things in our lives. Who knew that you would wind up seeing friends in far flung places?

Would I cross into Canada and Fort Frances, Ontario? No. For one, I have not renewed my passport to do so. My old passport was left at home for that reason. Also, border crossings in and out of the USA continue to be restricted due to COVID-19 considerations. That also includes restrictions currently in place in the province of Ontario. 

My drive back to Duluth was a repeat of this morning’s run. Running alongside Voyageurs National Park and the Superior National Forest yielded plenty of woodsy landscapes all the way down into the Iron Range. 

My last night up north is spent at a hotel located between Miller Hill and downtown Duluth. A quick bite to eat to bring back the room indicated my need for rest and relaxing after an exciting Saturday drive. 

Believe me, I was tempted to take an Uber down to the new Flame to check it out. Alas, my body and conscious passed on that opportunity.

It was Easter Sunday. The day where Resurrection and Easter Eggs fight for meaning in today’s sideways society. It seemed like a good time for another new destination to accomplish. 

My destination was Grand Marais. This lovely lakefront community has been talked about – a lot. It is a prime romantic getaway for Minnesotans, as well as a launching pad for adventures into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It is truly the North Shore personified, including all of the tourist traps. 

Just to think that I was about a half hour away from another USA/Canada border. 

After a quick turnaround in Grand Marais, I was homeward bound. Full of accomplishments travel-wise. Not just in destinations, but of geographical benchmarks. 

On a side note, I had brunch at The Vanilla Bean in Twin Harbors oil my way south towards home. This place has great food! I highly recommend it!

There were some takeaways from this in-state road trip. First, expect the unexpected anywhere you go. Plus, we should be preparing for when things do open up at the declared end of this pandemic. It just feels that we’re almost there…but, not quite. 

The one thing my longtime friend and I said during our conversation in International Falls was to, perhaps, that we can hang out again at the end of this pandemic. To be able to meet new people in our lives, and visit our favorite places again. That is, of course, contingent on whether it is safe to roam our communities and the world again. I do miss the people who live in these areas whom I wish to see again. I understand that family and adhering to pandemic protocols comes first, but it would have great to see you.

And, yes, we are getting vaccinated. I received my first dose out of two of the Pfizer vaccine prior to this road trip. I cannot wait to be fully vaccinated, too. 

Another part of my conversation with my friend from The Cities in International Falls focused on why I have been doing these road trips. As a media person, my curiosity wanted to see how other places have been dealing with this pandemic after the initial shutdowns a year ago. I wanted to experience it – from Northwestern Iowa to the North Shore of Lake Superior. Again, I point to the risk of doing these Travelogues during these stirring times. So far, my curiosity had been whetted, while meeting goals of new destinations and experiences. 

Perhaps we will get to the point where we can freely move about the country – and the world. We’re so close to doing so. See our friends in far-flung places again. All we have to do is to again reverse the trend towards heading into a third spike, keep on following the guidelines, and stay healthy. Once we do that, we will roam this Earth without restrictions again. 

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle was rented by Victory & Reseda for this story. 

All photos by Randy Stern

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