COLUMN: The empire of Iron Range past

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Once again, this is inspired by a blog post earlier in the week.

The empire of Iron Range past
By Aaron J. Brown

Last week the family and I headed out to Palo, another of the wonderful scrub-brush townships that surround the core iron formation of Range towns in northern Minnesota. We were visiting relatives because everyone on the Range has relatives in Palo if they look hard enough. If not, get to work on that. It’ll be worth your time.

It had been more than a decade since I’d been out in that neighborhood. I grew up in the swamps south of Eveleth and have since moved west, through Hibbing and now to the rural townships of the western Mesabi. Even though the Iron Range is a deeply interconnected region of around 100,000 people, it stretches along a 120-mile line east to west, a long haul for those on the fringes.

Our ride to Palo took us along the full length of Highway 16, or Townline Road, where I lived back in high school. We sped past the waste water treatment plant, over the bumpy roads of Cherry and past the old Forbes school on the crossroads of Highway 7, which is now a bar.

“Look, Henry,” I said to my oldest son, who went to his first day of kindergarten a few days later. “That’s where daddy went to school when he was a boy.”

“Hmm,” said Henry. The sign was stripped, the stucco faded and cracked. Half a dozen well used cars rested in the parking lot, waiting. Out back, the Saturday night crowds would later shuffle over the floor where I lined up to do jumping jacks. Maybe someone would do a jumping jack on the old floor. Maybe.

Past the Eveleth taconite plant of many new names, across Highway 53, a new road sprawled ahead, smooth, sleek and strange. The highway now curves away from the Makinen Store, rendering the former landmark invisible unless you’re looking for it, something you wouldn’t do without fairly intimate knowledge of Makinen. I used to bike out to the Makinen Store. There was a post office in that store, which was neat, or is if it’s still there. I thought about stopping to see but the new road kept turning, so I followed.

At this point I trusted my memory to lead us to our destination. I could picture the house and the road that leads there. I was certain that I would see the first road that led to that second road, but I didn’t. I saw a landscape of faded green, red-tinted highway, bright tan dirt, blue sky over unfamiliar waters. It’s OK. I knew there was a gas station a few miles farther. Indeed there was, ten years ago. The gas station burned down. I now remembered a friend telling me about this a couple years ago, but the story seemed arbitrary, something that would never affect my life directly.

A map might have saved us some time on this trip, but I’m not sure how much comfort it would have brought. In an Aug. 30, 2010 column at, David Schneider writes about the maps we really use. We don’t chart our lives over landscapes anymore, we pass our days completing many new tasks in the same small places, flipping around the very definition of change. To move is so often to stay still, trapped in our minds.

Centuries ago, explorers hand-drew maps of their exploits along unseen shores. They drew seas bigger than reality, and jagged coasts like monster teeth. This idea came to mind reading Schneider as he writes of today, “We redraw the past to fit our maps.”

Here my family’s journey of just 75 miles was made longer not because of a new destination, but because the route rested in memory, faulted. My crude cartography charts something other than the land: A Northwest Passage, a city of gold, the fountain of youth. My favorite line from Schneider’s piece, “The past of the mind is an empire. It is a great weight to bear.”

That’s our challenge here on the Iron Range. We move forward on a land that does not, will not, match the empire of our past. This is new country.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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