Iron Rangers

by Gary Charpentier

The assignment was spur-of-the-moment: The USA Round of the FIM World Observed Trials was being held again in Duluth, at Spirit Mountain, and I had never been there. While I find the concept of Trials intriguing, I had never been motivated to actually spectate. What caused me to scramble to get my press credentials only two days before the event was the fact that I could follow the original route of Highway 61 all the way up. That was the plan, anyway…

Frogwing and I departed early, in order to enjoy the brisk morning air and get out of the city ahead of any northbound traffic. I wanted to stop at several places along the way to explore the small towns and long stretches of forest and farmland at my leisure. Since starting Backroads Diary, I have learned to double and sometimes triple the normal travel time to any destination. This allows ample time to explore strange new worlds… seek out new life, and new civilizations… to boldly go… er, never mind. Anyway, it’s nice to have time to check out cool dirt roads and pull up to an old roadhouse for a simple cup of coffee without all that mocha-latte-chino crap in it. So we rolled down Ton-Up Hill and crossed the Lafayette Bridge all alone, turning right on 7th to begin our run on Highway 61 at Arcade Street.

I’ll skip the suburban interlude, as there was nothing happening this early in the morning. We switched to MN Highway 23 at Sandstone, because Old 61 is no more than a frontage road for the interstate at that point, and remains so pretty much all the way to Duluth. Along the North Shore of Lake Superior, it resumes a unique character, but that is a story for another time.

We arrived at Spirit Mountain in the early afternoon. Riding down the road towards the event, we were intercepted by cousin Eric Lexvold riding “Gypsy” my former Gpz 550. He had freshened the old girl up with Progressive springs and a Kerker exhaust, and she was looking and sounding better than ever. We rode into the ski resort together, and I checked in at the media center to collect my press pass for the World Observed Trials. After that, we went down to the main parking lot, where an exhibition of sorts was taking place. There were tree stumps and rocks separated by deep ditches, all in a small space surrounded by yellow tape. Into this ugly arena rode several of the competitors, one after the other, giving a crash-course on trials technique for newcomers. We stood and watched as world champion Doug Lampkin “cleaned” the exhibition stage to the ecstatic cheers of the substantial crowd. I nodded my head and acknowledged that no, I could never do that. Then I looked to cousin Eric and said, “OK, now where do we eat?”

We rode back to downtown Duluth, where we met Wade Young, cousin Chad, and his fiance’ Michelle. Chad, Wade, and Eric are the guys who gave me dirt-bike lessons in the first Backroads Diary. They decided we should eat at Chi-Chi’s, and though I usually try not to eat at chain restaurants, I was so hungry that I didn’t argue. This proved fortunate. The Chi-Chi’s in Duluth is far superior to any of the chain’s operations here in the Twin Cities. The salsa tasted fresh, rather than canned, and the food was well-prepared instead of the slapped-together fare I have endured at this franchise around home. After dinner we split up, and Eric rode with me to his home in Chisholm, up in the Iron Range.

We rode into Chisholm at sundown. The main drag through town, called Lake Street, is lined with tall flagpoles sporting the banners of all nations whose immigrants have settled in Chisholm over the years. We were riding westward, and all the flags were backlit brilliantly by the setting sun. Beautiful. That weekend, Chisholm was holding one of it’s many street dances, and most of the town’s population was already milling around on the main street in front of a sound stage and amongst various vendors selling everything from gyros to cotton candy. The atmosphere was electric, and as soon as we had parked our bikes in Eric’s garage, we headed over on foot to join the festivities.

We stopped in at Tom and Jerry’s Bar, where we met Eric’s friend Jon Thompson. Among other things, Jon is a Bob Dylan afficianado. He told us all sorts of lore about the former Bobby Zimmerman from Duluth and Hibbing, and ignited an idea in my mind about how to spend the rest of the weekend. After we had our fill of the street dance scene, we adjourned to Jon’s living room. There we listened to old Dylan tunes and talked philosophy and music late into the night, under the glow of Christmas lights still strung across the walls. It was way too late when we finally returned to Eric’s house, and I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

The Sunny Side Cafe is a 1950’s-style greasy spoon in the center of Chisholm. The three of us re-convened there on Sunday morning, drinking coffee and rehashing debates from the previous night. After a devine Western Omelet and a large glass of milk, I was ready to get back on the road. Eric and I headed out to Hibbing, site of the Hull Rust mine and boyhood home of a lad later to be known as Bob Dylan. Riding through the green corridors of Superior National Forest, we spooked a bald eagle, which took off from it’s perch and soared lazily above our heads. I slowed down to match his speed, and for about a quarter mile I rode in the shadow of his four-foot wingspan. He veered off into the forest, and I twisted the throttle to catch up to Eric. Just another magic moment on a motorcycle.

We rode through an area of empty streets, laid out in a grid pattern in the middle of a field with the street signs still standing. Eric tells me this was Old Hibbing. When iron ore was discovered at what is now the Hull Rust Mine, the entire town was moved about two miles away. We toured the mine, which looks like a mini Grand Canyon, and Eric told me that whenever they blast for new ore, the ground shakes six miles away at his house in Chisholm and dust rains down from the ceiling. We rode past the Greyhound Museum, which documents the founding of the great American bus company in Hibbing so many years ago. Unfortunately, we didn’t think we had time for a tour, so I’ve put that on my list for a future visit.

In Hibbing proper, Eric led me on a meandering tour which made no sense until we stopped at 2425 Seventh Avenue East. Here we stopped to take a photograph of Frogwing in front of Bob Dylan’s boyhood home. His family moved there when he was six from their home in Duluth. Then we rode past Hibbing High School, where the young Zimmerman developed that sense of rebellion which would serve him so well throughout his musical career. Last stop was Zimmy’s, a Dylan-themed bar and grill in the heart of downtown Hibbing. I’ve read about this place, and by all accounts the food is wonderful, but I will have to try that another time. We had a Coke there and looked around at all the memorabilia. Typical tourist stuff, it didn’t hold our interest for long. After signing the guestbook, we left Hibbing and headed south. Eric was going back to the Trials, and I was taking a longer ride home. So I guess I missed the Trials again. Well, maybe next time…


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