World’s Tallest Salesman

World’s Tallest Salesman

IMG_3763Towner, Rugby, Minot.  Where was I going?  Some where in north central North Dakota, that’s about all I really needed to know.  The trip was four months away.  It was early April, and I was in North Carolina, in the Triangle, for work, but had managed a side-trip to visit my sister and her husband on the coast, near Jacksonville.

My brother-in-law’s grandfather was to turn ninety years old in August.  Due to circumstances outside of his control, my brother-in-law would be unable to attend the birthday.  My sister, on the other hand, intended to attend the festivities.  She loves the grandparents.  I, too, would be attending the birthday party.  Who was going to be at this party, again?  I think I met the grandparents – once – at Meg & Bruce’s graduation.

I’m not entirely sure who initiated the conversation.  Myself, volunteering to attending the event, or my sister asking me to attend.  Maybe somewhere in the fuzzy middle.  Maybe there was not really an ask whether Meghann would want me to go with her, and maybe there was not really me making an explicit volunteering.   I honestly cannot remember.

Where did I just say I would go in early August, was it Towner or Rugby?

_DSC3328Plans firmed up somewhere in early summer.  Meghann would fly from Raleigh, NC, to Bismarck, ND.  I would drive to Bismarck, and we would then drive to…where were we driving to, again?  Two or three hours north of Bismarck, maybe.   Near the Canadian border?  Close to the border?

August seemed to have arrived, as did the trip.  Shortly after noon, I was on the road.  Didn’t I just drive through Bismarck, less than a month ago?  Yes, yes, I did.

I tend to have, what I consider to be a minimal needs plan.  An MNP is something that has the least number of steps required to have an event be successful.  It is something akin to the Minimally Viable Product of software development and project management.  It is not that I am against details and minutia,.  When I am driving, there usually is little need for me to do things like plan my exact stops for fuel or food, or even figure out the the fastest route between points A and B.  Beverages and food get packed in a cooler in the car, the car tells me when is likely going to be in need of fuel, and Google Maps finds me a decent route.  All I really need to think about, and it is often a brief thought, is when do I need to leave, to be at the place I need to be at?

12:00pm on Friday, August 5th, is the answer to that last question.  Basically, I needed to be to the Bismarck, ND, airport by 7:00pm.  It’s a 6.1/2 hour drive with 30 minutes built in for fuel and bathroom breaks.  Five miles over the speed-limit; I would get there with a nice cushion of time.  A couple cold Bragg’s vinegar+juice drinks in the cooler, a few snacks, and Gareth Emery‘s album, Drive: Refueled, on my phone, I headed out.  The track, Long Way Homeseemed fitting; I pressed play and headed westward.

Meghann and I pulled into the driveway of her brother-in-law’s house in Bismarck, close to 7:20pm – Meg’s flight had been slightly delayed.  Her brother-in-law had nicely offered us a couple rooms at his house for us for the night.  I still really did not have a clear picture where we were going to be driving to the next day.  North.  Towner, maybe Rugby.  Why were staying at this house?  It was an incredibly nice gesture, allowing us to stay at his house.  Sleeping on an air mattress felt very early-twenties-college-esque.

I was the first to wake in the house.  Other guests had also showed up later in the night.  Meg’s brother-in-law forgot that he had also told some friends from out of town that they could stay at his house.  It really did feel like I was back in a shared-college-house.  I ducked out for coffee and returned to find the house still a sleep.

Once Meg was up and called some of her in-laws who had a better idea of where things were going to take place and when, we kIMG_3769new we had the morning the kill in Bismarck.  After breakfast we headed to the capitol grounds for a walk – Bismarck’s annual Capital A’fair arts & crafts festival was taking place.

After enough wandering, we headed out.  Meg was on the phone a bit with her in-laws.  Two aunts might be in Garrison.  We headed to Garrison.

Miscommunication.  The aunts were going to be Minot.  We were in Garrison when we found this out.

Garrison, North Dakota, is a small town.  A small upper midwestern town.  Like many upper midwestern towns with water supporting fish, fish that tourists like to catch & eat — the town has a large fish statue.   Garrison is located just north of the east end of Lake Sakakawea. Other upper midwest towns that one could happen upon a giant fish statue include Bena, MN – they are home to a diner shaped like a muskellunge, or the fiberglass walleye in Kabetogama, MN, or, not to be outdone, Garrison, MN, also has a large walleye statue similar to its neighboring state’s Garrison.  Most places that have waters that contain walleye fish, will also have signage and statues proclaiming that place to be The Walleye Capital of the World.  Not to leave Wisconsin out, in Hayward is home to the North American Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.  A giant muskellunge statue can be found there.

We headed to Minot to meet the aunts at a McDonalds for coffee.  Driving to Minot, I kept thinking of a book that I had read a long while ago, Big Mutt, by John Reese.  It takes place in the North Dakota bad lands – which were just to the west of where we were driving.  The book has nothing to do with visiting family in North Dakota.  It’s just one of those odd memories that gets triggered periodically by place.

The aunts recalled meeting me at Meg & Bruce’s graduation – years ago.  I probably did meet them, but that graduation was a month prior to one of those hard turns in life – our father having a stroke.  It is like when I think of around Thanksgiving 2014.  I immediately think of our grandmother, Clarice, passing away.  However, two days prior to Clarice’s passing, I was best man in a wedding; that fact rarely crosses my mind.  Those perceived larger events tend to over shadow those seemingly smaller ones.  I’m sure I met the aunts, they remembered me.  They gave Meg some old family photos; gave each of us a hug, and we were on our way.

IMG_3774Towner.  That was where we were going.  The festivities were in Towner, ND.

A family, in general, is odd to an outsider.  It might even be weird.  There is nothing wrong with this.  Every family has that relative, maybe it’s a cousin, or a cousin’s spouse that gets talked about in hushed tones.  You know what went on with them, but you still act like you are ignorant.  Maybe there is an uncle who hugs just a few seconds too long.  Every family has these characters.   Some characters are just perceived to be stranger or weirder by outsiders than other characters in the family.  Every family is a bit of a community, even if the members of this community are scattered around the country.  The birthday party went off without a fuss.  Meg and I, not being much of meat eaters, managed to eek out a meal of pasta salad (we eat around the pepperoni), potato chips, and mixed fruit.  Many tributes were raised to the birthday boy; he is much loved within the family.IMG_3778
I am not sure how long we were actually in Towner.  When a few people left, Meg took the cue that it was time to head to Rugby – the nearest town with a hotel.  Rugby is a twenty minute drive east from Towner.  When we pulled into the hotel’s parking lot, the sun was still hanging a bit above the western horizon.  We were in the hotel for a short time.  At 8:30pm, I ran to a store in town to pick something up for Meg.  That was about the first time all afternoon and into the evening that I actually knew the current time; the store closed at 9:00pm, but it was just across the road.

The next day, Sunday, we had a small window of time to get in some small town attractions.  Rugby claims to be “The Geographic Center of North America.”  I immediately started to wonder how this was determined.  Was a map used?  What was the projection of the map?  Would the center be different if the projection was Albers Equal-Area Conic Projection versus Robinson Projection?  What is different with this center from the Geographic Center of the Nation, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota?

IMG_3780In addition to the Center monument, which just happens to be in the parking lot of a souvenir shop, Rugby has the World’s Tallest Salesman Exhibit.  It was closed, because it was Sunday and still early in the day.

I started to think about these road side attractions as we drove out of Rugby.  Next stop: Silva, ND.  Yup, another road side attraction.  This time, it was a bank vault in a pasture.  You see, Silva, ND is a ghost town.  There are a few buildings remaining of the what used to be the town.  Down a dirt road for a few miles, a left down another dirt road, and we had arrived.  Before leaving the hotel, I had read about Silva.  It was originally home to Cliff Thompson, the World’s Tallest Salesman.  As it turned out, Cliff only lived in Silva until he was seven years old.  He eventually ended up in Portland, Oregon where he practiced law, presumably as World’s Tallest Lawyer.  Like many small towns, a certain segment of that town’s populace build a cottage industry around the hometown hero who, often, has moved on from that town.  Some towns’ heroes have long passed away, like Cliff Thompson, who died in 1955.  Other town heroes are still around – like Bob Dylan – who is claimed by my hometown of Hibbing, MN.  Small towns are like families, a bit weird to outsiders, but perfectly normal to those that reside within them.

Back to Bismarck where I dropped Meg off at the airport.  With Long Way Home streaming from my phone to the car’s stereo, I headed home.   I stopped at two more small town attractions, both fitting into the same category of World’s Largest of certain types of bird.  In Steele, ND, you can find the World’s Largest Sandhill Crane.  And, in Rothsay, MN, you can find the World’s Largest “Booming” Prairie Chicken.  Sadly, the prairie chicken statue does not “boom.”

Small towns and families are weird, but, hell, you cannot help but love both of them.



_DSC7472I spent the past weekend on the Range.  That’s what those who inhabit the region call it, that’s what I called it when I was growing up there.  The Range.  While traveling to the Range and to my specific destination of Hibbing, I stopped in Duluth.  Compared to an average Saturday morning and the time I would get up, it was very early.

I love arriving in Duluth at this early hour – minutes after sunrise; you get the feeling you have the town to yourself.  Maybe there is a jogger or another amateur photographer in the harbor area waiting for that rosy-red-orange sliver of sun to sidle up at the edge of the horizon – out there, where the big lake bends with the curve of the Earth.  Battling the wind and heavy spray from the lake, I took several photos, and then headed back to the car to roust the hounds up for a pee-break.  My hands were getting a bit numb — two of our hounds were with me. The coonhound and basset just wanted to get their business taken care of and then back into the warm car.  The coonhound looked at me with a bit contempt – all while nearly getting his own urine blown back at him; the look was that of seriously? you lived in this area for how long; and you miss this place?

With the hounds packed up, the camera and lens separated and wiped down from the mist, I headed to a cafe in the Lakeside neighborhood.  Breakfast with a couple friends.  Good coffee, good cafe-food, good company; one of my friends reiterated that I should come to Hawaii in December for his wedding.  I said I’d give it serious thought, but at the moment, I needed to get on the road again.

Heading north from Duluth, you pass through Hermantown, and onto Pike Lake; as the highway curves and then flattens – going east/west – you pass the familiar Fisherman’s Corner, then a Dairy Queen on one side and a gas station on the other.  You then cross a Midway Road.  There is a distinct feeling of crossing into a different region.  While living in the Duluth area, and those sporadic travels back to the Range, I  noticed this division, this line that Midway Road draws, but never really had noticed it as much as I have the last few times I have headed back home.  And heading back to Hibbing is something that I have done more of since moving to the St. Paul area than when I actually lived in Duluth.

The drive to Hibbing was uneventful.  The drive was that kind of drive where you are watching and are fully alert, but when you try to recall what was witnessed on the drive, you draw a blank.  Maybe I recall seeing the small grouping of white pines just before the juncture of Highway 33 with Highway 53 near the Cloquet River.  Maybe I’m just conflating the dozens and dozens of times I have take that exact same road north over the last 15 or so years.  Did I actually and actively look at the building in Cotton that was once a Bridgeman’s ice-cream shop, but now is vacant and for sale?  Blended memories.

Hibbing, Winter 2014
Hibbing, Winter 2014

Hibbing is and was Hibbing.  Those who have lived in Hibbing, and have lived the majority of their lives there, might be standing too close to discern trees from forest or vice versa.  There is nothing wrong with this.  My parents likely fall in this category, even though both spent a few years during the 1970s, living elsewhere, I feel that because their span of years in Hibbing since their return is greater than my age, they qualify.  There are also the individuals who have never ventured to the northern region of the state; those individuals, too, know little of the string of towns and cities in the state’s rust-region.  Then, there is a cohort of individuals who spent an amount of time on the Range – two years, four years, maybe twenty years, but for reasons – whether a conscious, thoughtful decision, or just wandering thru a bit of their life – they left, but have reason to return now and again.  I fall into this category, my sister falls into this category, I have a colleague who also falls into this category. As an aside, the picture above is of what you might expect if you looked to the west, down Howard Street in Hibbing; it was taken this past winter – there was no snow this past weekend; the temperature did go below freezing at night while I was visiting, but, during the day, it was remarkably spring-like.

Puttering around Hibbing in my Volkswagen, I often found myself reflecting upon or evening humming a song by Canadian folk singer Nathan Rogers (son of the late Stan Rogers).  The song is called Hibbing (lyrics here).  The song paints a fairly bleak picture of Hibbing, to an extent, however, it is spot on. It is spot on with the boom and bust of the mining cycle and the rhetorical grind mining.  The lyrics, laughing at the tourists in their silly foreign cars, flashed across my mind as I filled up the tank of my car with gas at a station near my parents’ house; a family – I assume family – of locals – I assume locals – just stared at me; they walked and moved but their eyes stayed on me, on my foreign car.  I overlaid staring in place of laughing as I ran through Nathan Rogers’ words with my inner monologue.

Internally, I feel like I am one of them.  I’m still a Ranger, I’m from Hibbing, aren’t I?  That group of individuals does not know that.  They do not know that I lived in Hibbing for nearly twenty-one years.  They do not know that, as I teenage, I jumped into and swam in that rusty mine pit Nathan Rogers’ sang about.  The family just saw my car and saw me; two things they hadn’t seen in town before.  Maybe, I’m just self-conscious.

357ec8df10ca83c4f2e33ccde455ab4e317e382e3fb28f11b535ae742af65a0f_fullI spent much of time, while in Hibbing, visiting with my mom and bit with my dad.  We talked about a bit of this and a bit of that.  Some politics; my mom and I watched The McLaughlin Group.  It was an enjoyable time.

My mother and I did take a walk-thru her mom’s house.  The house that my grandmother occupied for many decades.  Clarice, my mom’s mom – my grandmother, passed away just before Thanksgiving, last year.  Walking thru the house felt weird.  Even though I had stayed at the house since Clarice’s passing, the house, this time, was nearly empty, save for a bit of furniture, which was being used to stage the house for its sale.  The front porch did not smell like the front porch of my grandmother’s house.  Whatever was the source of that familiar scent had been removed; cleaned out by my mom’s brother or maybe even my mom.  Traces of the scent stirred when I moved an empty box.  It was quickly replaced with the sharper smell of clean.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.17.43 PMWandering around the small backyard, I remembered several of photos or videos that had been take of people and things in that backyard.  Somewhere, I have a photo of my grandfather in a similar lawn chair.  But, he has aged quite a bit and he has a nasal cannula hooked into his nose – a plastic tube leading to an oxygen tank; he wore a light green or tan plaid-like lightweight shirt and had a hat.  The photo is from the early 1990s. I am now the owner of the light mesh fedora that was perched atop his head. I probably also have the shirt somewhere, too, in the back of a closet; likely pressed up against half a dozen or so of his wool coats.  Maybe I’m conflating photos, videos and memories of photos and videos, again.

I videoed a walk-thru of the first floor of the empty house with my phone, and messaged it to my sister.  My mom and I locked up the house and left.  So many memories of people and gatherings at this house.

I grabbed the dogs from their slumber in my parent’s basement and then headed north.  I wanted to get a bit more time to myself in the woods before completely packing up and heading south back to my regular, present day reality of living in St. Paul and working in Minneapolis._DSC7488



Here in St. Paul, this evening, it rained extremely hard.  When Melissa and I left the university for the day, the outdoor temperature, according to the thermometer in the Volkswagen, was hovering north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  The air had palpable qualities to it; throughout the afternoon, thunderstorms had been popping up all around the metro area.

These hot days, often stifling nights (on an extremely pleasant note, once the front moved through our area, this evening, the temperature dropped over 20 degrees), remind me our my childhood.  I could trot out one of those bullshit stories out about how things were different and much harsher when I was a kid; granted, the Jokela house, in Hibbing, did not have air conditioning (that house still does not); that’s not the point.  Early in the summer, as a kid, meant that, soon, my cousins and their mom – my mom’s sister – would be driving from their home north of Denver, Colorado, all the way up to Hibbing.

As very young children, my sister and I would fly stand-by with our mom to Colorado – to visit her sister Jane and her boys – our cousins. Mid-way through the 1980s, things flipped; Jane and the boys would drive up to Hibbing instead of us flying out there.

Looking back at my childhood, it seems so fleeting; just a flash in the pan, yet, I distinctly remember how it was such a brutal-feeling event when the cousins would packed up, and drive off in their minivan.   I would cry, my sister would cry.  It would be another hot and humid August to slog through, and then, the drudgery of public school would be upon us, again, the day after Labor Day; we would not see the cousins until the next summer.  There was no email or instant message in these days; you could call your cousin on the phone, but that was not the same as riding bikes – in person, swimming – in person, making model cars – in person, or being spell bound – in person – by the tales of adventure that could be had in wilds of rural Colorado.

For the most part, the bond all of us cousins had was a complete fluke.  We all happened to be relatively close in age; there is month between the oldest cousin, Michael, and my sister; there is three months between myself and  Ryan; Jon was the outlier, being the youngest, there were a couple years between Ryan and him.  There was four years in age between the mother-siblings; my mom being the older of the two.  If my mom had settled down earlier and her sister later, there might have been too much age between cousins for a bond to form.

As we children aged out of being mere kids and started to age into being mere teens, the cohort that was the cousins began to fall apart.  Michael noticed girls, and soon, when summer arrived, Jane would head to Minnesota with just Ryan and Jon.  The golden age of this cohort stands out strongly in my mind.  We fished on Perch Lake at a cabin our grandfather rented.  We hiked and made adventures in the woods around the cabin.   We put on hundreds of miles on the four-wheeler our dad had.  We would have imaginative games – often based loosely on whatever movie we had seen at the movie theatre earlier in the week.

The cohort that was the cousins abruptly fell completely apart when Jane died in late June of 1998.  Even if Jane had not passed, I wonder how much longer the cohort could have lasted.  Meghann, my sister, was off attending college, as was Michael.  I would be college-bound within a year; as would Ryan.   We were all moving in our own direction, and it was not toward one another.

I visited Colorado once or twice in the early 2000s; and again, when the cousins’ father passed away in 2010.  For the most part, all of the cousins have taken their own path.  Meghann has been living in Japan for the last three years; I have been in St. Paul for the last two; Michael and his wife live in Louisiana, and Ryan & Jon still call the greater Denver area home.

Even with Meghann living in Japan, thanks to technology and a penchant for travel, she and I have remained pretty close.  The Colorado cousins are a bit of a different story.  Jon visited Melissa and I once in, Proctor, in the 2003; he brought his big shaggy dog with for the trip.  As Jon hit his early twenties, like the rest of us, he took his own path.

The early twenties, so it seems, can be a hard inflection point.  You take a corner so hard, that you lose things that are trailing you.  It is much like when Melissa and I moved in together; it was an abrupt move that severed the weak links I had with college roommates.  Similar things happened with friends left in Hibbing when I moved to Duluth to attend school.  You hit a fork in the road, and, as Yogi Berra said, you take it; whether those in your surroundings take the same branch of the fork — that is a different question.

All is not lost, however.  I do not think the cohort will ever reunite for a another round of building a model of Cole Trickle’s 1990 yellow & green Chevrolet, nor do I think we will ever again pretend to be characters from Young Guns, the Great Outdoors, Crocodile Dundee, or any of the Police Academy movies, but there does remain chance to reconnect with absent kin.

Related Post: Summer Has Arrived (written: July 5, 2010)