COLUMN: On the other side of the forbidden ridge

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. This piece may or may not be based on my experiences strolling around the vicinity of a certain local mine last week.

On the other side of the forbidden ridge
By Aaron J. Brown

For two generations, young people from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range region have grown up shrugging about the mines. Mines open and close, shrug. Blasts shake the earth but not so much as to alter anyone’s routine. Cable, VHS, Satellite, DVD, Dial-up, DSL, broadband, 3G … iron nugget? It’s like pig iron but new. Shrug, and shrug again at the predictable landscape, spanned by haul trucks and steam clouds. The future is elsewhere. Who works in the mines anymore, really? People’s parents, and not always. This was proven in 1982. 1990. 2001. 2008. And so on. Ask any kid from the Range today. Just ask. They will shrug. They have their reasons.

I love driving the back roads from our house in the Itasca County woods on the western Mesabi. Because we live a good spell northwest of Nashwauk, on the fringe of the Grand Rapids school district, people figure we’re practically off the Iron Range. But on a dark night you can see the light rising off the city of Nashwauk, Keewatin Taconite and even Hibbing Taconite, dull halos glowing on the horizon. All manner of creative routes allow clandestine escape to various corners of the Iron Range. The “back way” involves dodging in and around Hibbing Taconite or U.S. Steel property. You can get directly to Chisholm, or Britt, or Ely, without seeing a four-lane highway or stoplight. And why wouldn’t you do that, if you could?

One of the things I enjoy about this is how you end up driving along the tall berms along the outer edges of all the mining property. These tall ridges block view of the mine and prevent, or at least slow, the encroachment of looky-looes from the roadside. The grass along the sides is always a special kind of green. Not the deep green of a well-manicured lawn, or the dark green of a pine tree, but rather a pale yellow green, a green that reminds me of playing hide and seek in the ditch down the road from Eveleth Taconite as a boy. It’s a green that needs some cigarette smoke, bleaching from a July heat and a January wind to get just right. This green does not exist in paint form.

I’ve always had some idea of what’s on the other side of these ridges, obviously something mine related. Some variation of haul trucks and scarred red earth. But working in “the idea business” the way I do doesn’t tell you what’s actually over there, it only allows you to imagine. The people I know from the mines talk about schedules at the plant, tonnage or what large piece of equipment is presently malfunctioning. The view over the land berms is an afterthought, the sort of extraneous information similar to the title of a textbook I read but didn’t assign to my students.

Well, one must never trespass on mine property. Lord knows the mines have enough problems keeping local street toughs from painting colorful words on their signs and fencing. So the question becomes what MIGHT be over one of these ridges IF you should park your car, shimmy under the gate, and hoof it up the hill with your professorial sport coat flapping behind you like the cape of a greatly misunderstood, somewhat unpopular superhero. All of this is totally hypothetical. No one would actually do this. Why would they?

But if you did, one might see something unexpected. Where you might have assumed dirt and rocks, you might instead see a body of water, a tailings basin marked by worn wood poles protruding from the water, lapped by waves, glistening in the sun. You might not see any equipment whatsoever, just a vast, expansive space that is neither empty nor full.

Few see this part of the Iron Range every day. We drive by the few times we don’t take the freeway. We shrug. What happens over the ridge is a mystery to us, but everyone else sees the truth from a passing airplane. Never assume you know what’s over the walls of boredom, routine or tradition. It’s the future, a future of our own making. And it’s right here.

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

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