The first thing the already jarringly cheerful woman behind the counter said to me when I walked into Coffee Landing was, “Wow! Those are some handsome shoes! What kind of shoes are those?”
Slightly taken aback, severely under-caffeinated, and suddenly aware that other patrons were now staring – only without the same sense of admiration – at my olive-green sneakers, I mumbled that I wasn’t sure what brand they were. I actually did know. But I sized up the roomful of gruff-looking, no-nonsense hunters and millworkers and decided I could not bring myself to announce that I was wearing Le Tigre sneakers (not sure if it’s pronounced “tee-gruh” or “tye-gur”, but either word seemed likely to invite eye-rolling in a small town like International Falls).
I don’t really like coming off as effete, unless I’m in a gay karaoke bar in Antwerp. I’m fine being sized up as an outsider – just not a clueless, tone-deaf outsider unaware of my surroundings. I remember when I moved to rural New Hampshire in 1997, and I registered my car at the DMV in this little town called Claremont (also the domain of gruff hunters and millworkers), the guy behind the counter filling out my paperwork asked me the color of my car.
“Midnight blue,” I replied.
He looked up at me wearily, arching his right eyebrow. “We just call that…blue. Ok?”
I nodded sheepishly, but in my mind, I thought, “wait, but Saab also makes a royal blue version…how are they going to know the difference?”
Anyway…back at Coffee Landing, the owner accepted my non-answer with a broad smile and declared, “I’ll tell you what they are. They’re NICE shoes!” Apparently she’s easily pleased. She then proceeded to take a breakfast order from one of the burliest, furriest guys in the place. He sauntered up to the counter and matter-of-factly ordered the “Lady Jane omelet.” Maybe I misjudged this crowd.
This cafe’s huge windows let in streams of light on this sunny morning. The converted storefront space has pressed-tin ceilings, whirring antique ceiling fans, and local paintings depicting lake scenes from nearby Voyageurs National Park, and the kitchen serves terrific food and dark, rich lattes made with beans roasted in-house. I ordered a straightforward spinach-feta-tomato omelet – the spinach was fresh and abundant, the grilled red-skin potatoes on the side nicely crisped, and the wheat toast accompanied by delicious house-made blueberry-jalapeno jam. Everything was perfectly prepared. Coffee Landing is breakfast and lunch only, most of the time, but I overheard the owner talking about upcoming karaoke nights, and mentioning that they’ve started serving pizza some evenings. This woman has big plans.
Finding Coffee Landing was a nice stroke of luck. I’d researched restaurants online the night before and found very little information. But a couple of Yelp scribes gave their favorable opinions of Coffee Landing, and that was enough for me. I’d not encountered many worthwhile small-town lunch or breakfast spots since leaving Sandpoint, Idaho a few days earlier. That may seem strange, given that I’d been road-tripping across America’s prairies and plains, where you might expect to find one down-home, old-school diner or cafe after another. But I’d struggled to find worthwhile food stops. In Minot, North Dakota, which is larger (population 37,000), I did try a local ’50-style diner I’d read good things about. My lunch was vile: soggy slivers of ashen iceberg lettuce drizzled with syrupy orange mystery dressing, a club sandwich the freshest ingredient of which were four pointy toothpicks, and coffee that tasted like it had been filtered through a pouch of topsoil. I felt completely relieved, a half-hour later, to find a local Starbucks.
There, I said it: sometimes finding a Starbucks, or a Subway sandwich shop, comes as a tremendous relief. I don’t think travel writers are meant to admit this. I’m ok with it, and have never been an indie-quirky purist when it comes to eating. I do avoid most national fast-food chains, simply because I find most of that food crappy, with a few greasy-but-tasty exceptions. But Starbucks and Subway are fine by me. Sometimes I just need a quick bite, as I’m covering a lot of ground on these trips. And other times I simply crave reliably decent coffee, or a predictably satisfying tuna sub. That being noted, I did flinch upon noticing the old-food-encrusted back of a scooper the “sandwich artist” at the Subway in Shelby, Montana nearly used to make me a tuna sandwich the other night. “Nooo!” I shouted, startling him moments before he dug the offending scooper into a fresh container of tuna. “I…uh…sorry, you know what. I changed my mind. I’ll have turkey.”
Still, when time allows, and I’m actually somewhere with a semi-decent-looking downtown luncheonette or retro steakhouse or drive-in burger joint, I’m in. That’s my ideal – partly for the food, and partly for the people-watching and eavesdropping (which, in fairness, is still good fun even at chain restaurants). And so here I spent a few hours at this outstanding coffeehouse, seated at a high wooden table, noshing and working on a few assignments at my laptop. It was a huge improvement over the seriously sketchy motel I’d awakened in earlier (I’m coming to realize that the Budget Host motel brand should be avoided, no matter how tempting the rates).
Whatever my appreciation for dive motels, this one fell slightly below my very lax standards for hygienic acceptability.
It was musty and threadbare, the toilet seat broken (as in, broken in two). When I went to open the door to my room, the plastic key-holder broke in half (I apologized for this upon returning the key in the morning – the proprietor assured me that it happens all the time). The owners were nice enough – after I lobbied for a nonsmoking room, I was told I could have room 148, but only if I promised not to touch any part of the second bed, because I’d paid for a room with just one bed. This seemed strangely logical to me, if really weird. But I promised, and I found it easy to keep my promise, barely wanting to touch the nest of thin, gray bedding on the one bed, much less the other.
I checked into my room with my usual evening snack of wine (a very nice McManis petite syrah that cost nearly as much as I’d spent on my room – wine is a much higher priority to me) and a bag of salt-and-pepper Kettle-brand potato chips. I eventually warmed up to my surroundings – the suspiciously puke-hued bedspread and cheap knotty-pine-panel walls lent a certain rusticity. And I slept fine.
The shower did have incredibly – almost sadistically – powerful water pressure, but the tiny bar of soap, made in India, smelled vaguely of ammonia with a slight hint of curry spices. One of the owners walked into my room in the morning while I showered. Reacting quickly to my protestations from inside the monsoon-shower, she retreated. As I walked out to my car a half-hour later, she apologized for the inadvertent break-in, encouraging me to stay as long as I cared to. I assured her that there were no hard feelings, and that I was ready to go. And go away I did.
International Falls has a couple of nicknames that suggest its intense winter frigidity: Frostbite Falls, and also “the nation’s Ice Box.” It’s separated from Fort Frances, Ontario by the narrow and winding Rainy River, a name that seemed somehow apt to me even on a bright sunny October day. This town of about 6,000 is the seat of Koochiching County, which sounds like a place overrun by ticklish kittens and puppies. I saw no cuddly creatures, unless you count the several white-tail deer I passed the evening before on Highway 11 (they and ruffed grouse are the favored quarry among Koochiching County’s throngs of hunters).
I desperately wanted to drive across the bridge into Fort Frances, which is one of the southwesternmost towns in Ontario, but the night before, as I entered little Warroad, Minnesota from infinitesimally little Sprague, Manitoba, I endured a 30-minute top-to-bottom, front-to-back, left-to-right search of my car by polite but thorough U.S. customs agents, and I decided it wasn’t worth risking a repeat of this tedious experience. Instead, I stood on the banks of the Rainy River, admiring the skyline of boxy, baby-blue, corrugated-metal buildings and cement silos (the gigantic Boise Cascade paper mill belches massive plumes of smoke over both towns and serves as the area’s largest employer). I eventually got back into my car and drove away, still yearning to experience what had now become forbidden and, therefore, exotic: Ontario. I can’t believe how big Canadian provinces are compared with U.S. states. I’d visited Ottawa earlier this year – at the east end of the province. The drive from Fort Frances to Ottawa is 1,109 miles, the same distance as New York City to Orlando, Florida.
I then started the easy 165-mile drive to my next stop, Duluth. Just out of town, I’d be passing the main entrances into the relatively young (est. 1975) Voyageurs National Park, a vast expanse of lakes and rivers that’s best explored by boat, and ideally over the course of several days. The park is also more of a summer destination – none of the park visitors centers were even open today. I knew I hadn’t time to see much, but I can’t resist national parks -the familiar chocolate-y brown road signs make me happy (this may just be a Pavlovian response to the color of chocolate). I drove to the closest of the park’s visitor centers for a view of rippling Kabetogama Lake, walked around the pretty boat launch, and returned to U.S. 53 to continue my journey to Duluth.
En route, about 100 miles southeast of International Falls, I stopped in Eveleth (in yet a new county for me, St. Louis). The community is one of four that make up the Quad Cities, in the state’s Iron Range region. These towns boomed in the early 20th century during the region’s iron-mining heyday but have steadily declined in population since World War II. My stop in Eveleth was just south of the airport, where I detoured a few miles down a deserted county road to a small park dedicated to the late (and very admirable, in my view) U.S. Senator, Paul Wellstone.
Almost exactly eight years earlier, Wellstone was killed in a small-plane crash several hundred feet from the memorial site. Walter Mondale was enlisted to run at the last minute in his place, but he lost to the odious Norm Coleman, whom Wellstone had been scheduled to debate in Duluth that night (also killed were Wellstone’s wife and daughter, the pilot and co-pilot, and three staffers – he had been, ironically, on his way to attend a funeral). Thankfully, Coleman was ousted in 2008 in an incredibly close election with progressive comedian-turned-politico Al Franken. I remember being very saddened by his death. But the peaceful trails that wind through his memorial site made for a relaxing, contemplative woodland stroll as the sun fell over northern Minnesota on this cool autumn day.