Highway 53: Herbie Rides the Range

This is my Sunday column for the April 1, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune

SCENE: Jesse, a dejected-looking boy of 12, looks out over the Mine Overlook south of Virginia, Minnesota, in the heart of northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He speaks with his mentor Mort, the kindly retired miner who staffs the gift shop.

JESSE: Aw, shucks, Mort. They’re going to reroute Highway 53 and spoil the entrance to town where my single mother runs a family pizza restaurant where all the kids like to hang out.

MORT: (pushing his thick black glasses up his sizable nose) I know, Jesse. An old agreement between the mining company and the state from in 1960 means that the state has to pay to move the Iron Range’s most traveled road so the mines can access a new body of ore. The State Department of Transportation has to choose between two routes, one that would go over the Auburn pit just to the west of the current route and another that would arc dramatically east of the city.

Sometimes I don’t know what this world is comin’ to, Sadie. (Mort caresses black and white photo of late wife).

JESSE: Well, gee willikers. That Auburn route sure looks good, but they’d have to build it so it could withstand mine blasts near there and have tunnels for those big mine trucks. Those things must weigh a gabillion tons.

MORT: 240 tons, Jesse … some of ’em. And the other route would involve a big new expensive bridge and cross the water-filled Rouchleau Pit, creating a new entrance to town.

JESSE: Yeah, Mom’s pizza place would lose customers and we’d have to move to the man camp in North Dakota where dad lived … before the accident.

MORT: Don’t talk like that, Jesse. Your mother’s pizza is so good people drive from miles around. What with her takin’ in all those street toughs and teachin’ ’em job skills, no one’s gonna let them close her down. And that Rouchleau route would go over the ore reserves; they’d just have to move it again down the line anyway.

JESSE (sniffs): I suppose, but the state and city of Virginia appear to be in quite a pickle.

(Suddenly, a white 1960s vintage Volkswagon bug appears to peek around the corner of the gift shop).

HERBIE: Beep Beep!

MORT: What the tarnation?!

JESSE: Mort, am I having another of my spells?

MORT: No, Jesse, that car ain’t got no driver! But it’s movin’ around, communicatin’ non-verbally.

JESSE: Hi there! Do you understand me?

HERBIE: (bouncing on front tires) Beep Beep!

JESSE: Hey, look, Mort. He’s got the number 53 on his hood. Is that your name? 53?

HERBIE: (flashes lights at framed velvet painting of retired Minnesota Twins first basement Kent Hrbek behind the counter). Beep Beep!

MORT: His name must be Herbie! And he has the same number as our beleaguered highway, soon to be rerouted in the name of progress.

(Herbie opens his doors).

JESSE: I think he wants us to get in, Mort. Let’s go.

MORT: I’m gettin’ too old for this.  (They get in).

HERBIE: (peels away) Beep Beep!

MORT: Slow down there, youngster!

JESSE: Weeeeee! Herbie, you’re the fastest!

MORT: He’s headed for that ramp!

JESSE: Awesome!

MORT: No, Jesse, you don’t understand. That’s Dead Man’s Ramp. They built it during the WPA. It goes nowhere, just shoots off the dumps by Virginia.

(Mort and Jesse scream as Herbie reaches the bottom of the ramp. Herbie flies from the ramp, far higher than expected, creating a sense of awe in his passengers).

JESSE: Jeepers!

MORT: You are one special car, Herbie. Even though you are made of foreign steel.

JESSE: Wow, Mort. Look down there at all the mine pits! I’ve never seem them like that. Did people really move all that rock?

MORT: Sure did, Jesse. Thousands of men and women mined that formation for more than 100 years, creating the modern United States but leaving behind a great scar in the earth and local dependence on a mining economy. These pits and dumps represent the divergent interests within our region’s very soul. Do we attempt to continue on as we always have or do we seek to break loose from the chains of the past?

JESSE: I wonder what it means for kids like me? Lookout! We’re about to land!

(Herbie lands safely with a loud thud, near what appears to be the perfect place for the new highway).

HERBIE: Beep Beep! (He opens doors, Mort and Jesse emerge).

MORT: What’s he saying, Jesse?

JESSE: I believe he’s telling us that we should tell all the big shots in town that the future route of the highway should be built to last. That we should set aside our parochial concerns to build a transportation artery and economic system that will last generations.That we should temper the influence of the mining companies with an independent community spirit that will last forever.

HERBIE: (slamming doors open and closed, bouncing on front tires) Beep Beep!

MORT: Ha ha! Well, let’s just try it and see what happens.

JESSE: Planning for the future just plain makes sense, doesn’t it, Mort?

MORT: Sure does, Jesse. Let’s go get some pizza.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show, next airing 5 p.m. Saturday, April 7 live from Bemidji’s Chief Theater on 91.7 KAXE and KAXE.org.

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