To see where I’m from, make a loose fist with your right hand. Turn your arm so the inside of your wrist faces your solar plexus—if you look down, you should be able to see straight through the dark tunnel formed by your cupped fingers. Now, extend your index finger, then slide your thumb out to rest just behind its accusatory tip, between the first and second knuckle joints.
Your hand is now roughly the shape of the world’s largest freshwater lake, Superior. Your wrist extends back through the locks at Sault Ste Marie; your arm offers a lazy throughline into Lake Huron, bending at the elbow toward the general vicinity of Erie and Ontario; Michigan’s oblong floats in the space between your forearm and front. Somewhere, a step to your right, is the sea. Some people say Lake Superior is shaped like the head of a wolf, with Isle Royale as its narrow eye; after years of making the gesture described, I see only a hand, pointer finger extended, indicating the place I grew up the same way a silver yad indicates your place in the text when reading Torah: there. Just there, at the tip of your finger.
You’ve heard of us, even if you think you haven’t. We are in The Great Gatsby, as a stop for Jay Gatsby—still going by James Gatz—to buy “a blue coat, six pairs of white duck trousers, and a yachting cap.” The protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s short story “Beautiful Grade” recalls how, “as a boy in Duluth, he’d once imagined a monster, a demon, chasing him home from school.” Duluth is where doctors told Cheryl Strayed’s mother she was dying of cancer, and, as Strayed details in the first chapter of Wild, “from the room where she died I could see the great Lake Superior out her window.” But the easiest touchpoint—the most reliable—is Bob Dylan.
I joke that there are exactly two Jews from Duluth: him and me. Born Robert Allan Zimmerman, he left for Hibbing before he even hit bar mitzvah age and remains notoriously opaque on the subject of his early life, but he’s Duluth’s most famous son by far.
Recently, New York’s Public Theater welcomed a Dylan jukebox musical called Girl from the North Country. Dylan’s representatives had reached out to Irish playwright Conor McPherson to see if he’d consider writing a show from Dylan’s songbook. McPherson decided to set the story in Depression-Era Duluth, a decade before Dylan’s birth. The action centers on a small boarding house, where the married proprietors, their adopted daughter, and an assembly of guests clash and connect for the duration of nineteen musical arrangements. An unexpected smash-hit success in London, the show came to America; it will open in Toronto next spring.
Theatre critic Vinson Cunningham wrote of the show’s setting that “the town could be any hard-luck place north of the Mason-Dixon Line and remote from the coasts.” But I can hardly think of anything less true—Duluth is a port town, the westernmost point on the Atlantic seaboard. “Duluth, even though it’s two thousand miles from the nearest ocean, was an international seaport,” wrote Dylan in Chronicles. “Ships from South America, Asia and Europe came and went all the time, and the heavy rumble of the foghorns dragged you out of your senses by your neck. Even though you couldn’t see the ships through the fog, you knew they were there by the heavy outbursts of thunder that blasted like Beethoven’s Fifth—two low notes, the first one long and deep like a bassoon.”
I suspect Girl from the North Country features chugging-train sound effects—both “Slow Train” and “Duquesne Whistle” are in the show, after all—but I’m dying to know if, at any point, a foghorn blows. That sound would prove the difference between a story that’s actually set in Duluth and one that’s just using its name.
Like anywhere, Duluth is relentlessly specific. Each year we hold a race called the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon to honor an Anishinaabe mail carrier. We are home to a blue stone tower dedicated by the king and queen of Norway, a haunted thousand-footer ore ship, and the only Aerial Lift Bridge in the country. The dirt is red from iron, and sometimes it is colder there than it is on the surface of Mars.
When we first moved to Duluth, my mother and I lived in an old junior high school that had been converted to a cooperative living space for artists. Some of the apartments still had blackboards on the walls. The lights in the hallways were never all turned on at once, giving the building the perpetual ghostliness of a school after-hours, just before or after some community event—a winter formal, a PTA meeting. Instead of class projects tacked to bulletin boards, the walls displayed eighteen-foot murals of rat mazes, or Joni Mitchell lyrics in peeling glitter glue. At night the radiators banged and leaked black liquid. My mother built mirrors in our apartment, and the occasional piece of furniture. A bench she made—the Fairytale bench, it’s called—still sits outside the building’s central gallery space.
I went to elementary school two blocks north and one block east of the co-op. Named for William Nettleton, one of Duluth’s founding fathers, it was the same one Dylan went to for a while, though I neither knew nor cared at the time, preferring to spend my playground hours tunelessly singing the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” with snot freezing to my upper lip. At Nettleton I assembled my “Lake Superior Alphabet” assignment, learning the abecedarian specifics of Duluth’s geography, economy, and ecosystem all the way down to Z for Zebra Mussels. My illustration for R, Riptide, depicts a blonde woman pulled by the deadly current into a sea of blue scribbles, the bubbles rising from her lips spelling out, “Help me!”
A citywide referendum in 2007 gutted the central corridor of Duluth’s independent school district after voters were given three options on how to respond to declining enrollment; given how many residents graduated from one of Duluth’s three high schools, it wasn’t hard to see why the vote swung toward closing some schools. Nettleton—along with my middle and high school—is now closed. As of June 2018, the entire building—three stories of orange-red brick, sandstone arches over the front doors—was slated to be sold for $165,000. That first apartment now feels like foreshadowing.
Duluth seems to have been a flashpoint for economic anxieties stretching back well into the 19th century, when it was a town of no more than three thousand. Doctor Thomas Foster exalted it as a new center for commerce, “the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.” J Proctor Knott, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky, mocked this starry-eyed stance in a speech to Congress later called “The Untold Delights of Duluth,” intended to deter funding for a railroad bill that would have ceded public lands to railway companies in order to bolster infrastructure around the Twin Ports.
But the town expanded anyway. By the peak of its the shipping boom, the city housed more millionaires per capita than New York City, and stood poised to surpass Chicago as the standout port of the western Great Lakes. Then the dense iron ore from the Range dried up, as did American industrial manufacturing. In the 1980s, a billboard along Interstate 35 read, “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the light?”
These days, the record still oscillates. We’re Outside Magazine’s Best Place To Live In America 2014! New York Post’s 10 Best Christmas Towns In America! We’ve bounced back from economic oblivion! But also—the terrible economy made people vote for Trump! And why bother going outside when we’re the fifth-coldest city in America?
Superlatives aside, Duluth does seem at odds with itself, like one of those towns pop-punk singers are always trying to leave. I remember a tongue-in-cheek Tumblr post from 2013 that said as much, spelling our name wrong: “Deluth, MN. That place is a shithole.” Some Twin Cities punk ethos might have trickled up I-35, but laying claim to the same scene rocked by Prince or the Replacements feels disingenuous—instead, we have Dylan, slowcore darlings Low, Trampled by Turtles if you’re into bluegrass, NPR Tiny Desk star Gaelynn Lea. The local music scene thrives, but feels atomized, the only stylistic unifier a vague pervasive mournfulness, like cold wind through trees.
Dora Malech published a poem in the New Yorker called “I Now Pronounce You” that begins with the line “Our friends are getting married in Duluth.” When I read it I wondered: who are her friends? Do I know them? At 86,000 people, the city—the third-largest in the state—is small enough to feel cramped, un-anonymous; there are precisely enough strangers to lull you into believing you’re invisible. Then, without warning, a one-time math teacher or soccer teammate or fired coworker turns a corner and the fantasy collapses.
Somehow this effect is amplified in the winter. It’s like a dream: the rooms feel dim, disorderly. Everyone you’ve ever met appears in bizarre combinations, strings of lights glittering around their shadowy faces. Once Alan Sparhawk sat next to me at a jazz show in the restaurant where my ex-boyfriend used to work as I watched a different ex-boyfriend play bass in his father’s trio. The boyfriend—the bassist, not the line cook—used to drive me around at night in his parents’ gold Buick, playing Drums & Guns, while feather-sized snowflakes dropped soundlessly from the black sky. No song sounds as much like winter in Duluth as “Belarus.” I couldn’t tell, for a minute, whether or not it was really Sparhawk I was looking at. I felt certain I knew him, though we’ve never met.
Growing up in Minnesota, I never thought of myself as Minnesotan. I had no roots there, had not even been born there; I shared no significant cultural or historical connection to any piece of it. Minnesota’s identitarian touchstones—Scandinavian heritage, Prairie Home Companion—struck no chord in me. I hate being cold, and spent the six-month winters performatively complaining while my rosy-cheeked friends flung themselves into winter sports with hearty abandon. Once I experimentally joined in a pickup hockey game at the community center ice rink. A friend’s mother shouted from the sidelines to tell me—purple-lipped and shivering in my black wool car coat—that I looked like Anne Frank. To say I wanted to get out of town fails to illustrate how plain it was to me that I would leave, that leaving was the only way to build a reasonable life.
The second I left, being from Minnesota became one of the most salient facts about me. In college I had dozens of conversations like the one between Ruth Hussey and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story: Hussey, in her Academy Award-nominated turn as photographer Liz Imbrie, downplays the dissolution of her first marriage by saying, “I was just a kid in Duluth.” Hepburn, sharp and radiant as always, leans in and says “Duluth. That must be a lovely place. West of here, isn’t it?”
I found myself lifting my hand to make the lake, pointing out my place, over and over, to new acquaintances who didn’t know Minnesota from Montana. Moving shifted me from disinterested observer to sudden, unexpected expert, though I was hardly qualified. When I started working at my college’s affiliate radio station I could sing maybe two and a half Dylan songs, but I’d arrive to parties and one of the other DJs—a black-haired, merry-faced Italian boy from Brooklyn, who looked like he’d stepped out of the previous century—used to cry “Girl from the North Country!” and press a sweating Keystone into my hand.
A few of my friends met another Minnesotan and got so excited about it they called me to come meet him, thus creating the opportunity, years later, for me to add my boyfriend’s family to the list of Minnesota Jews. (His grandfather’s family were kosher butchers, shochets, on Duluth’s West End; little Bobby Zimmerman is a distant cousin. When pressed lightly on the subject of his most famous childhood playmate, his grandfather said only, with an impish shrug, “Bobby was a weirdo.”)
I found myself collecting anecdotes about Duluth, picking them up the way I once picked polished glass and agates and smooth dark rocks off the lakeshore, as though I’d eventually find some use in the amassed collection. Perfect Duluth Day, the online equivalent of our local alt weekly (R.I.P. Duluth Rip-Saw, once the flashpoint for a groundbreaking freedom-of-the-press suit), also catalogs “References to Duluth in Film/TV or Other Media Posts.” Such a project seems bizarrely possible, unlike catching every reference of a larger city—cataloguing every pop-culture mention of Minneapolis would likely seem less “fun project” and more “local historian’s murderboard”—but offers enough of a challenge to keep the mentions from seeming like one-off curiosities. The archived posts currently span three pages.
The smallest things became stories. Sometimes I’d say the names of places along the shore and see reflected in other people’s faces that I named not a place but a setting, as from a Grimm fairytale or an unfinished Gillian Flynn novel: Hawk Ridge. Knife River. Castle Danger. Spirit Mountain. As a child I learned Lake Superior is so cold that the bodies of sailors who drown in it do not rot, but instead saponify, so they sink to the lake’s floor like wax figures. I recounted this any time anyone mentioned “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which happens more often than you might think. When I told friends in California about how I’d come home from high school every day and build a fire in the woodstove to heat the house, they screamed. It was dusk, August; we stood outside in an in-ground pool, goosebumps crawling up our arms, palm trees swaying overhead. Minnesota never seemed farther away.
“You’ll never see another town like Duluth,” Dylan said in a 2009 Rolling Stone interview. “It’s not a tourist destination, but it probably should be. Depends what season you’re in there, though. There are only two seasons: damp and cold. I like the way the hills tumble to the waterfront and the way the wind blows around the grain elevators. The train yards go on forever too. It’s old-age industrial, that’s what it is. You’ll see it from the top of the hill for miles and miles before you get there. You won’t believe your eyes. I’ll give you a medal if you get out alive.”
Bob Dylan might be Duluth’s most famous export, but I’d only ever use the words local genius to describe Maria Bamford. A Duluthian born and raised, she’s the mastermind comedian behind Lady Dynamite, a chaotically funny Netflix series that transforms her life into absurdist metafiction. Each episode in the show’s two short seasons integrated blue-tinted flashback sequences of Duluth, and covered many of the same themes present in my personal favorite piece of her work and perhaps any comedy work, The Maria Bamford Show: a one-woman webseries wherein Bamford makes a faux-documentary about moving back to her parents’ house in Duluth after a severe mental and emotional breakdown. I have never seen Maria Bamford around town, but when she opens her mouth she is as familiar to me as breathing—the fever-pitch singsong of her accent, the tics and quirks of her impersonated family and friends.
The entire series is filmed inside her parents’ house, with the fuzzy and haphazard cinematography of a laptop webcam, even when action is stated to take place elsewhere. At first this lo-fi production seems cozy, homespun, but as the show progresses, so does the claustrophobia of the staging. Bamford contorts herself between furniture, into beige-carpeted corners––wherever the camera goes, there she is.
At eighteen, I rode my bicycle down Park Point, the world’s longest baymouth bar, and sat on a driftwood log looking towards the oil refinery on the opposite shore. (Superior, WI, across the bay, feels to me like Duluth’s shadow-twin, the Pottersville to its Bedford Falls. The oil refinery in question exploded last April.) “This town is sand beaches and northern forests, untouched rocky cliffs and sprawling industrial wastelands, ships without sails, a sea without salt,” I wrote. “I am from nowhere and so I love everywhere and this town isn’t everywhere because it’s not anywhere. It’s as placeless as me. It’s cold and strange. Everything is unfamiliar.” The tone is halting, but the sentiment still rings true. I wrote those words the year I moved back into my mother’s house—suffering, like Bamford, from profound anxiety and depression, though I didn’t yet know it. Years later, I saw her webseries and sobbed, with laughter or tears I remain unsure, texting everyone who grew up with me that they had to see it.
I did get out alive. But then I came back—to Minnesota, anyway, if not to Duluth—on Halloween of this year. My costume is uprooting yourself from the life you’ve built to return to your home state during a lowkey quarter-life crisis created by economic uncertainty, I texted my friends. Spooky!! Scary!!
I have no particular pride in being from Duluth, or from Minnesota in general; what I do have feels like an inexhaustible need to explain that it exists, that it is a place more specific and more strange than anyone who hasn’t lived there seems willing to imagine. Under the wholesome aw-shucks affect of the Upper Midwest lives something wilder, something weirder, born of the ice-sharp terror of true winter. When the snows come through—when rivers freeze and summer ends, I guess—it is like living on the moon.
To create the story of escape, the nowhere-town must exist; in order to develop a romantic yearning to get out of this town there must, necessarily, be a town to get out of. It is not profound to be from somewhere, because everywhere is somewhere—it’s just that some places don’t feel like it. Duluth isn’t nowhere, but it still doesn’t know how to be somewhere. The myth hasn’t quite cohered. I haven’t quite put my finger on it. Not yet.