My introduction to Hibbing, Minnesota took place by a gate at the end of a pine needle-strewn forest road, where I met Steve, an elderly man whose clothing clung to his body like an afterthought, making a last-ditch effort to contain the ruddy skin and wispy white hair jostling for exposure at his every missed button, torn hole, and sandal gap. Steve quizzically looked me over as if to say, “Well, this is unexpected,” but upon hearing that I was drawn to the campground he was guarding because of its Finnish socialist history, assured me that he was “not Finnish but most definitely a socialist,” fumbled with the chain keeping the gate closed, and let me into the Mesaba Co-op Park.
It had been a long day, helping tape a radio segment for my Fargo-based internship in the ninety-degree heat. I’d mentioned casually to my coworker that I had my roommate’s car at my disposal for one more day and that I was considering taking it to Hibbing. It was just that kind of fanciful idea you let roll around in your head because you like the sound of it but rarely go through with. But as soon as I had let it spill, she told me I could borrow her tent if I was planning to camp. Sure, why not, I said. At least I could decide when I’d get home. She swung by her house at the end of the taping and entrusted me with a set of single-person camping supplies.
Though I was sweaty, though my head throbbed, though it was already 4 p.m., and though I had wasted precious daylight laying on my bed considering whether I really wanted to drive four hours right at that moment, I realized something—I need to do things like this while I’m young. When I’m old, I’ll stay home and relax. So within half an hour I had camping stuff, an old hat, my notebook, a change of clothes, and some random foods—can of sardines, quarter loaf of bread, raw carrot, lemonade shandy—packed into my roommate’s car. I lit out.
I had not lied to Steve: the Mesaba Co-op Park, with its 1929 Finnish socialist founding and McCarthy-era FBI surveillance, was my destination. One hour out of Fargo, I called the place, and, though it has been restricted to co-op members since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota voice on the other end of the phone gave me the go-ahead to spend the night there, begrudgingly at first, but warmly upon testing me with the fact that the park’s members are “friendly people” and hearing my assurance that I am friendly too.
“Steve will open the gate for you. I’ll tell him you’re arriving around 8:30.” Satisfied and secure with my accommodation, I rolled through central Minnesota and all its marshes and pastures, thick with grass, its red barns and serene horses, its rustling soybean fields and dreamy woods. I felt more like a motorist, in that 1960s tourism brochure sense, than a driver. The two-lane road flirted with me, beckoned me around curves and dared me to accelerate down gentle slopes, only to arrest me with sudden bucolic vistas. Time passed like a song.
But Hibbing is not like the rest of Minnesota, a far cry from the lakehouse-laden side roads I was whizzing past, the fields and fencerows, American flags and golden retrievers. Hibbing puts on no airs. It is not seemly, for in some ways, it cannot be. It is the linchpin of northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range, which contains the richest surface-level iron ore deposits in the United States, deposits that gave this nation half the iron it has ever forged into steel.
Approaching the town, a four-lane highway materializes, rolling up and down hills with huge vistas over darkening forest. Strange pipes and shafts loom over the highway. There’s no more farmland, just town after town spilling into each other, towns with names like Taconite, Marble, and Calumet, the last of which proudly describes itself to visitors as “Home of the Hill Annex Mine” on its welcome sign—no equivocation here. Mounds of mine tailings take up the space that does exist between towns—eerie in the way they jut out of the reeds and trees, crumbled and sunless, only just starting to grow with scant aspens.
The Iron Range is ethnically different—its industry attracted immigrant groups rarely seen in the rural Midwest, like Slovenes and Finns. It’s politically different—white and rural, but unionized and voting blue. But, most viscerally, the Iron Range feels like the portal to the Great North, unfurling beyond my borrowed Civic like the hoarfrost undertow of God’s creation. A different domain, a wind-beaten principality within the larger state of Minnesota, a confederation of frontier settlements digging the future skyscrapers and screwdrivers of the nation out of the ground shovelful by shovelful. Or, maybe, those of the past. Like most other regions of the United States economically dependent on resource extraction, the range’s economy has been flagging for decades. Young people are leaving and those that stay face dwindling work, lagging services, and growing crime. A century of mining has contaminated water supplies. Many mines have already been abandoned and filled with water, new lakes for Minnesota’s ten thousand. Off the highway, the chassis of cars sit rusting in yards, whose grass grows unmowed around them. Approaching night darkens the last few turns until Mesaba. Lights come on in lone windows of mobile homes, offset from the road. And it’s as the sun pulls its last rays behind the piney horizon, leaving the sky with just a blue memory of light and the woods below with just its shadows, that Steve finally wins his battle with the padlock and I roll into Mesaba at minimum speed.
He lets out a sound somewhere between a cough and a retch, something he would proceed to do every minute or so of our short time together.
“Let me show you where you can stay.”
I follow Steve up the campground’s one road to a knoll cleared for two or three tents. Only one spot is taken tonight, by a father and his two children. They’re local co-op members. “Sweet kids,” Steve informs me. I start to put up my tent, but realize that I’ve forgotten to bring a hammer.
“I have a crowbar!” A shirtless little boy from the other tent shouts, and brings me a crowbar almost the size of his own person. His sister watches from afar.
“Are you going to stay here tonight!” she yells.
I yell back, “Yes!” and set to hammering my stakes in. Their father pops out of the tent and apologizes in advance for the early time at which they’ll get up.
“We have to get to church on time,” he says.
By now the long northern light has faded and it’s dark under the trees. Moonlight casts the park’s small lake a deeper blue, visible through a few scattered tree trunks behind the knoll. Back in the other direction, one streetlight, positioned next to the tiny bathhouse, makes a circle of yellow light on the gravel road. Walking that way, I brush my teeth in the bathroom, paint-chipped and built more for spiders than people. This forest night is quiet—isolated crickets, frogs, and night birds trade decibels with the occasional snapping twig. Stars shine through pine boughs. I hear the family watching a movie inside their tent, barely glowing with LCD screen light. Steve crosses the patch of lamplight on the road, coming from somewhere off to the side, walking back towards the gatehouse he sleeps in. I hear him retching as he recedes into the dark, and I fall into the shallow, wakeful sleep of wilderness. Morning comes before the sun has risen.
Later that day, I’m at Hibbing’s main attraction—a very large pit. Three miles long by two miles wide, and over five hundred feet deep, it’s the size of a great geologic formation. Yet there are no smooth, weathered edges, no sandstone waves, no river at the bottom. This pit is raw and dirty, like it was dug out yesterday. The walls are made of harsh, loose rock that God didn’t intend for the sun to see. Nothing grows at the bottom—just puddles the size of ponds and toy-small machinery moving around. Mist sweeps across it in sheets, obscuring and revealing distant bluffs at times, the mirage of a town, a factory. It’s more like the negation of space than any kind of space at all.
The designers of the viewing area for the pit were onto something. It’s perched on a mountain of mine tailings with a view. For safety’s sake, it’s mostly fenced and walled, excepting four viewing platforms—concrete passageways like short cross-sections of a ten foot-wide rectangular tube. It’s like a dictator’s balcony in some apocalyptic film, except all there is to look at is the pit, the rain, and a lot of empty air. Those lonely concrete portals take me out of my life for a second, and I feel like I’m drifting above the pit, mixing with the wind and rain and the whiffs of a distant future. Someday, the aspens that already crowd mined-out bluffs will descend into the pit. Rainwater, trapped by the pit’s exposed bedrock, will slowly fill up and make pools, rivers, a lake. Every foot of earth strafed by man’s machines and wrecked by his explosives will smooth over, weathered. It will acquire a river bottom and cliffs. It will be the geologic landform it’s always wanted to be and these concrete viewing platforms, these portals high on the pit’s edge, will be discovered by some alien race, who will hypothesize and discuss theories until they conclude that it could scarcely have been anything but a temple. Maybe they’ll be right.
The thing is, this is a famous pit: the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Mine on the northern outskirts of Hibbing. It’s the largest open pit iron mine in the world, the preeminent pit in a region of pits.
Starting in the 1890s, strip mining, a new technique that involved skimming off a shallow layer of earth and loading exposed iron ore directly into railroad cars using steam shovels, allowed for larger mines than the underground ones that had already existed in northern Minnesota. By decade’s end, pit mines were springing up left and right. In 1901, Andrew Carnegie’s newly-founded U.S. Steel consolidated the Hull, Rust, and Mahoning mines. The new mega-mine churned out iron ore at an unprecedented scale, and the brand-new town of Hibbing, named for the German-American prospector who had first discovered ore at Hull-Rust-Mahoning, grew with it.
In 1921, Hibbing was moved two miles south so that U.S. Steel could access the iron ore beneath the townsite. By 1960, Hibbing had grown to 17,000 people, and its mine, described at the time by the National Register of Historic Places as a “combination of more than nine open pits operating from what appears to be a single hole in the ground,” had produced over one eighth of all the iron ore used in American steelmaking since 1890: the battleships of two world wars, the bridges of a hundred rivers, the cars of a thousand towns, and the nails of million houses. And still the pit grows, raw and dirty, one foot of earth at a time, toy-like machinery crawling over the bottom.
Oh, yah, yah, everybody is in a union here. All the miners are in the union. It’s a very, very strong union country. Like, see, my husband was president of his chapter for years until he retired.
I’m talking to the volunteer at the viewing area’s gift shop, a repurposed shipping container with hardwood floors and “Hull-Rust-Mahoning Iron Mine” postcards. A wispy woman of about seventy years and about one layer of eye shadow too many, she waves her hands as she speaks and rounds her Os the Minnesotan way. Her name tag reads “Loretta,” and union talk makes her eyes light up.
And when the mine—you see, the mine can shut down for a few weeks sometimes because that’s just how the market goes, with the demand—when the mine shuts down for three weeks, four weeks, they get their union payments until it reopens again. So it’s very, very good for the workers to be in that union. Always been that way.
She reels off into a tale about the Androy Hotel in downtown Hibbing. Yes, I say, I saw it that morning. With Renaissance revival arcades and an old-fashioned electric sign on the roof, it’s the tallest building on Howard Street, Hibbing’s main drag. “Regarded as the ‘Grand Hotel of Northern Minnesota’ for half a century,” the National Register of Historic Places says, hosting “banquets, balls, graduation and wedding receptions, and political conventions.” It was opened by the mining company after they moved Hibbing two miles south, a kind of compensation, along with the town’s palatial high school, known for its high price tag and brass doorknobs.
Well, when Loretta was in high school, a friend of her brother’s or a brother of her friend’s worked there—she speaks like some rollicking wind, the feelings toppling the details—and told her about the union galas they’d have. All the bosses from across the state would gather there. And one night while she was waiting tables at a café on Howard Street he ran in and said The company is shooting at the union! They ran out to see a parked Cadillac riddled with bullet holes. Real shooting, here at the Androy, Loretta tells me, electric with memory now, because she reckons the mining company wanted to take out the unions, and they had the gangs come up from Chicago and scare ‘em a little, leaving just a gaggle of cravatted bureaucrats and a bullet-holed Cadillac glinting in the Minnesota night.
Now it’s an apartment building. Closed in 1977, the hotel stood vacant for seventeen years until some locals got together to reopen it as an apartment complex for seniors. That’s what it is now, and it meets a need—20% of Hibbing’s population is over the age of 65. There isn’t enough work to keep young people around. The American steel industry atrophied in the 1980s and 1990s, and most of America’s remaining mills deal with scrap metal and pig iron, a low-grade steelmaking byproduct. Demand for the Iron Range’s richer taconite is fickle—Loretta reiterates that the mine often shuts down on a dime because of a dip in price, leaving workers stranded at home until economic conditions allow it to reopen again. The unions tide them over during these three or four week stretches, but it’s still not the best deal. Automation, a constant factor since Hibbing’s founding, leaves the mine needing fewer workers even as output remains stable, impacting not just miners but every other business in town that relies on them as customers—hospitals, schools, restaurants, shops.
And the company always liked immigrants. Yes, yes, they always come in to work for less than the workers who had the union, so that’s why the immigrants were always dangerous for this mining area. The workers really needed that union to protect against it.
Hell-bent on tangents, skidding around the curves, Loretta continues on about her grandparents from Yugoslavia—her grandfather, who went straight to work in the mine, and her grandmother, who came from a nicer part, a hilly part with fruit trees, and kept talking about it in her broken English till her dying day. The contradiction is glaring. But as the idea sits in my head, I understand what she means. A strike was as much an opportunity to be taken advantage of as it was a resolute display of solidarity, and desperate immigrants make great scabs. It may only take one generation, bruised by the company and its mine, to see itself as American, and the struggle its members have shared teaches them to protect every gain they’ve made in this hard country. On the edge of this pit, old homelands are soon forgotten, and politics are different, shaped by distinct forces and needs.
My conversation with Loretta lulls, and I realize that the couple buying small chunks of taconite for their thrilled young son has left. The other volunteer, busy with them until now, shuffles up to us. He’s got a sagging eyelid and an emphatic limp. White stubble and pockmarked skin blend into one another across his cheeks. He looks bent.
Yeah, I worked in the mine all my life, he rasps. Yeah, this one.
He then introduces himself as Robert, and I bring the conversation into the present.
“What are the politics like around here?”
As recently as 2008, this white, rural swath of Minnesota delivered thirty-point margins to Democratic presidential candidates. It’s a legacy of the radical, almost warlike labor organizing that swept through the area in the early 20th century and the generations of those radicals’ children who continued to wrest benefits and raises from the hands of U.S. Steel. It may be bolstered by the memory of Yugoslavian, Finnish, Italian, and Jewish families struggling against the racism and exploitation they faced from native-born Americans. Thrown into the pit on the edge of town, where not much united them besides their laboring status, these immigrants banded together and learned to support the party of the working class, not the party of businessmen, social conservatives, and upstanding town hall elites. But that’s changing now—anti-elite anger targets Democrats, especially in resource extraction towns like Hibbing, threatened by the double punch of environmental regulation and free trade the party now stands for. Across the country, places like this turned to Trump. In St. Louis County, where Hibbing is located, Romney lost by almost thirty points in 2012. In 2016, Trump lost by less than twelve.
I hate Trump, Robert growls. He’s a racist. He spits the last word out like a wad of the dip he’s chewing.
Well, Trump had some good ideas, about trade and all that. But he’s such a terrible man. But with Biden, he’s just too old, and we’re just confused. And you know, in our community…
Loretta is looking out the window now, which perfectly frames a bird levitating in the gale. She tells me about the high incidence of cancer in the area, especially among miners, which she blames on environmental pollution caused by the iron industry. It’s happening down in the pit as we talk—air and water react with exposed sulfur deposits, creating sulfuric acid that leaches into surrounding water bodies and elevates their acidity to a toxic level. She sees these things, and more, as a part-time nurse in town.
You know, some people here say “oh we have such a great community” but look around! What do you think those sirens are? “Oh, speeding tickets I guess.” Right! Speeding tickets! Drug busts is what it is! Just last week police found, they found 100, 150 pounds of cocaine smuggled by somebody from Chicago. He was undercover, he started a bounce house, you know the inflatable houses, a bounce house company up here to smuggle meth and cocaine! I see it, trust me, I’m a nurse and I see it all come through the emergency room.
“The overdoses?” I ask.
Yeah, overdoses, injuries, crazy people. And they got especially crazy during the COVID—why do you think those people, those people in Washington did the January 6th? They had nothing to do, they got crazy!
But the knowledge does not scare or repel Loretta. She’s old enough to retire with good benefits, but is genuinely grateful to be in a position to help and to know. This is not a person to be duped by ideologues or demagogues because this is not a person with pretensions.
Robert nods slowly. The rain has stopped by now and the three of us take a collective breath, having slowed our conversation from a joyride to a meandering roll. I sense that it’s my time to go, so I buy two postcards of the mine and thank Loretta for the conversation. She wishes me well. Robert follows me outside for a breath of washed air and a chance to finally spit out his wad of chewing tobacco. We walk over to one of the post-apocalyptic viewing platforms and look at the sheets of rain receding. The pit opens up beyond us again.
Clearing his throat, Robert does not miss a beat, packing some more dip behind his cheek and starting to chew. He explains that this all belonged to U.S. Steel. Though I’m feeling the end of my time at the pit approaching, I ask him about how the company treated him and his fellow miners. He explains the fraught pension negotiations he went through before retiring. I catch only half of his explanation through the raspy syllables sliding into one another, but I understand what he’s saying. Eventually I bid farewell to Robert, too, and shake his hand.
U.S. Steel always found a way to screw us, he concludes.
To screw us. Those words, that dead thud of a five-ton hammer and broken rock vibrates in my head as I walk off across the bald mountain top. Looking back, I see Robert spit on the ground again, looking out over the big mine.
The busiest shop on Howard Street that Sunday morning, on the main drag, was the Sportsmen’s Restaurant. Even in midsummer, there was an air of wintertime coziness in there, as if it was already preparing for the region’s only real season. It must have been the small windows, the vapors of baking and coffee in the air, or the conversational hissing and sputtering from the kitchen. I sipped tea and ate house-made blueberry pie while one of the waitresses mopped up a milk spill behind me. Her two look-alikes worked behind the counter, sisters probably, looking like Art Deco statues with their chiseled brows and noses, strong shoulders, and steely gazes. The regulars were getting their daily dose of hot coffee and wry banter—Santa Claus-looking guys with camo caps and earrings, high school girls on their way to a softball tournament, a slicked-up native son home for the weekend from Minneapolis.
A couple blocks off Howard, Hibbing’s central water heating plant exuded steam like a hacking cough and shed flakes of red brick like dandruff. Like some sort of mortared beast, it looked ready to lurch forward on its iron haunches any moment now, shaking off its needlessly ornate cornices to expose the naked machinery within. F-150s stood silently in front of it, and crabgrass advanced over neighboring driveways. Flags did not wave, and neither did the people walking their scraggly dogs around the scraggly block. They opted instead for some kind of faint internal clanging.
Hibbing’s most famous son left it fast. “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents,” Bob Dylan once said. This town and its “souped-up cars runnin’ full blast on a Friday night,” its “corner bars with polka bands” held little for Robert Zimmerman. “Ran away from home seventeen times, got caught and brought back all but once.” On that final time, he became Bob Dylan, “rode freight trains for kicks and got beat up for laughs, cut grass for quarters and sang for dimes.” He became the vessel for a myth of himself. One moment he’s demonstrating in Washington Square Park, louder than any bullhorn for a generation of anti-this, anti-that liberal boom kids. The next he’s spinning yarns about floating down the Mississippi in a raft, eating alligator steak, communing with the drunken wraiths of blues singers. Then he becomes a haze of drugs, or a homesteader with a gun, a rabbi and a bodhisattva, a dark man in a three-piece suit in the motel parking lot at night. A pimp, a saint, a gambler. He is as manifold as America itself. “I contain multitudes,” he repeats. Maybe he became America, America who is always running from home, America who is always becoming something new and shiny. “You call yourself what you want to call yourself,” Robert Zimmerman said. “This is the land of the free.”
I am, I admit, a fan, so I go to the little stucco house on 7th Avenue East, as ordinary as ordinary gets, where a plaque above the door reads “Childhood Home of Bob Dylan from 1948 to 1959.” Down the street is the high school, newly graced with a monument recognizing the Nobel Prize of their alumnus. Diehard fans walk this stretch, thinking, like me, that this is how he must have walked to school. They reconstruct a map of bygone businesses he hung around, everything from his father’s furniture shop to the café where he met his first girlfriend. They write about this strange little pilgrimage on blogs and Reddit posts. Walking around downtown Hibbing on this cloudy summer day, I, too, wonder about the subconscious influence the town may have had on him. I try to formulate a theory of Bob Dylan as a Hibbing artist the way Bruce Springsteen is a Jersey artist. But I fail. He’s only written one song about his hometown, a plaintive number called “North Country Blues” from his activistic 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’. In it, he traces the well-worn story of mine shutdowns—it’s much cheaper down in the South American towns, where the miners work almost for nothing—and their social costs—the mining gates locked, and the red iron rotted, and the room smelled heavy from drinking. It’s the story of a mining family, not quite analogous to his own merchant parents, and accompanies similarly detached, journalistic songs about the era’s social issues. But Dylan does seem to sneak himself into the last verse, giving us his only musical reflection on his hometown, the key to his absence there, and maybe even proof that he is not so unlike many others in Hibbing:
The summer is gone, the ground’s turning cold
The stores one by one they’re all folding
My children will go as soon as they’re grown
Well, there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.
The Mesaba Co-op Park’s members cooperatively own its 240 acres and the lake, campsites, dance hall, yurts, and sauna they contain. It was founded in 1929 as a space for the area’s Finnish immigrants to gather in peace. The immigrants were the target of constant discrimination and harassment—“No Finns or Indians allowed” signs were common—on account of their heavy involvement in the Iron Range’s early-20th century mine strikes, and their general penchant for political radicalism. Finland was part of the Russian Empire until 1918, and many Finns had taken the side of the communists in the years leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Stateside, the immigrants joined the American Socialist Party in droves, started Finnish-language leftist newspapers and social clubs, and on a country road just outside Hibbing, Minnesota, they established Mesaba. As the community gained a stronger foothold in America, the park became a gathering site for national labor unions, Minnesota’s left-leaning Farmer-Labor Party, and even the Communist Party of America, which was led from 1959 to 2000 by Gus Hall, an Iron Range Finn who grew up going to Mesaba and helped build its dancehall as a boy.
During the Red Scare of the 1950s, FBI agents collected the license plates of cars entering the park. The fearful atmosphere and the gradual assimilation of second and third-generation Finns suppressed membership in the following years, but soon the park was given new life by young people interested in environmentalism, the anti-war movement, and cooperative organizations. That’s where it’s at now, a picture of Planet Earth raised on the flagpole next to the hand-painted Tervetuloa sign—Finnish for “welcome”—by the dancehall door.
But the place’s radical history is, literally, still lying around. In corners of the dancehall, you’ll find rows of children lined up in sepia photos, all wearing matching hammer-and-sickle jumpsuits. The label says “Superior, Wisconsin – 1925.” Hanging on the wall is a rough painting of a man with a sly smile: “Raino Tanitila – Died Fighting Fascism in the Spanish Civil War.” Old cabinets and chairs hold history books and pamphlets. Many of these antiques were bought from other regional “Finn halls” when they closed down, when their constituents became American. And Mesaba, surviving partly because of its adaptability to a new generation of leftist causes, has become a kind of museum, not of the objects per se, but of a spirit, a feeling that must’ve flitted through the sparks of midsummer fires and through the eyes of migrants dreaming and fighting for a decent new home.
Driving back to Fargo in the afternoon, with the tiredness of campground sleep and the back end of my youthful wanderlust creeping up on me, I get a chance to reflect on my early morning at Mesaba, swept up as it was by the day’s sightseeing. The Iron Range’s four-lane highway is behind me and I’m back in the narrow roads and leafy woods of lake country. The sun has come out and dries puddles off the asphalt. I know the route now, from Fargo to Hibbing and back, so time passes slowly, like afternoon syrup.
From that morning, I remember the feeling of getting into water that’s warmer than air. The cold dampness of night still lingered among the pines and cattails on the shore, but the sun was already painting the surface of Mesaba’s lake a deep gold. Swimming out into it was like an embrace. Totally counter to what I had expected while shivering on the shore, I actually wanted to get more of myself in the water, warmed by a summer of sun caressing its shallows. The fickle air could not say the same. So I dove in again and again, completing short laps of breaststroke. My swim trunks felt like a ridiculous vestige of civilization, so I took them off and skinny dipped. I was away from encroachment, away from destruction, away from almost any person. I felt like a member of nature. Lazily kicking my legs, I imagined my skin turning green and my tongue extending to catch mosquitoes. I imagined my toes elongating into roots, digging into the soggy lake bottom, my torso flattening into a floating lilypad. I imagined washing up on the shore and drying out, contorted, like driftwood, until fungi and resin and ice did what they do. Naked in the water, I felt good. Standing once again on the wooded shore, feeling the air dry the water off all my skin, I felt good, too. Putting my trunks back on was a sad abdication, and I understood the logic of a nudist colony.
I ate a simple breakfast of peanut butter on bread with a plum and packed up my tent. My neighbors still slept. Steve came in and out of the dancehall holding a kettle. I watched the bark peeling off the trees and the grass curling in the dew for a few more moments, then went to pay the groundskeeper for my night’s stay.
I found him dipping apple slices in peanut butter and drinking tea on a sap-stained picnic table outside his tiny gatehouse, a half-squashed cap sticking to his unruly head.
I greeted him back and pulled out my wallet. The price was $25, but between my twenties and his crumpled ones, a change-making arrangement was not found. I got a five dollar discount, negotiated in an air of leftist indifference. Yeah, whatever, twenty works.
Steve and I struck up a conversation, not a surprise for two people drawn to this place by a peculiar interest in the land and in leftism. He’s the only co-op member I got to talk to, but the fact that he invited me to apply for membership hints at many more like him. Doesn’t matter if you live in Chicago. Come up for one of our work parties, he says, referring to the periodic member gatherings that do most of the maintenance around Mesaba. I’m telling you, you’ll love it. You’ll hear a lot of interesting stories. Visions of attendees flash through my head. Large, white beards perhaps, or floor-length hair. A healthy mix of leather craftsmen, psychiatrists, and truckers. Maybe a miner or two, a smattering of Twin Cities intelligentsia. I pocket the application.
Steve is vague about his past, but I make him out to be a sort of nomadic poet. He’s only been living at Mesaba for a couple weeks, and the inside of his gatehouse attests to his light living—all he’s added to the place’s simple cot, desk, and bookshelf is a duffel bag, an open notebook, and some simple food set down here and there. Speaking with some conviction now, Steve reveals to me his secret.
But you know what I’ve got? I’ve got eight, ten phone numbers in my phone, friends that I can call and say “Hey, I need help,” and they say “Yeah sure, of course, what do you need?” Like this place. And you know what? That’s worth more than anything I could own. So I travel around, writing my poetry, pretty much—and now he chuckles, amused at himself—living off the kindness of my friends. But it’s worth more. That’s my currency. You know, when I die, that’s what I want to have in the bank.
I learn only the basic contours of how he chose that life. He had worked a fairly standard job—a teacher? A carpenter? I can’t remember exactly. In some kind of unspecified order, there was a divorce, retirement, a kid in San Diego, a trip to Southern California to get medical treatment, the resultant bankruptcy. A rock album recorded along the way. Then the old house in Ely, Minnesota, one hour north of here, was sold, and Steve was set free with a little bit of money and not much else besides that currency he has in the bank, the one he aims to die with.
What is that currency, exactly? Maybe there’s no word for it. It might be a feeling, a singing kind of feeling, the reason why Bob Dylan, performing in Manchester, England just after leaving his acoustic folk roots and going electric, responds “I don’t believe you” to a cry of “Judas!” in the audience, smiles and shouts “You’re a liar!”before launching into “Like a Rolling Stone” in a rumbling crescendo of spite and joy with a quick command for his band to “play it fucking loud!” How does it feel, he belts in the chorus, to be on your own, with no direction home? He sings it like a celebration. No direction home. Maybe it’s that feeling. And I don’t know if I can say much more about Hibbing, Minnesota.