Road deconstruction season in northern Minnesota

PHOTO: Dean Hochman, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

People seem testy this summer. Is it the news? The local economy? Or is it because our drive to work has become infested with dump trucks and the oily smell of steaming asphalt.

It’s road construction season. Nothing unusual there. In Northern Minnesota, summer stands as the only time for street, road and highway work. And usually there’s just too much for crews to do before the ground freezes.

After all, building paved roads in frostbound Northern Minnesota represents active defiance of nature. It’s like trying to maintain a statue of George Washington carved from mashed potatoes. (Also an apt metaphor for preserving the Republic).

But this year, I find nearly every route from my country home to Hibbing, Chisholm or Grand Rapids marred by chaos. It’s not just “transportation infrastructure improvement,” it’s an elaborate psychological experiment.

See, all construction sites require care. You must slow down and pay attention. However, not all construction sites are alike. There are different types.

TYPE 1: The road is closed! This is easy to figure. They need to redo the whole road, so they close it entirely. This closure and all corresponding detour information is posted clearly five miles behind where you enter the road, ensuring you never see it until the judgmental glare of a shovel operator sends you back in shame.

TYPE 2: The road is open! Yay! You just need to slow down and stop randomly while giant Transformers-sized vehicles pass within inches of your Chevy Cruze. Just pay close attention to the sign holders, who seem about 85 percent certain that the “Stop/Slow” sign is facing the right way. 85 percent. That’s … pretty good.

TYPE 3: The road is open, but it certainly should not be! Same as Type 2 except you are in clear danger. The sign holder can be seen working the rosary on your behalf, for “Stop” or “Slow” can’t protect you now. Only God.

TYPE 4: Hard to tell. You’re behind an Arizona-plated camper the size of a General Electric AC6000CW diesel locomotive engine. All you can see is the driver in the rear view mirror darting around his cab like a frightened lemur. This will be fine. Probably.

TYPE 5: They’re replacing two straight roads with a large circle. People in Hibbing know this well, what with the burgeoning roundabout forming the armpit of the Highway 169 Beltline. This is exactly like fitting a square peg in a round hole. Every bit as fun for the peg as it is for you.

Yes, we complain about road construction, yet few push farther than that. It is plain that we are every bit as annoying to construction workers as we are to them. It’s just another awkward family gathering, over soon, until next year.

I’m always struck when crews unearth what’s beneath a highway. Modern people tend to look at roads as fixed parts of the landscape, as natural as the rivers and trees. But of course roads are no such thing. Forests are scarred, rivers bridged, dirt compacted to make what we call a road. Whenever workers dig up roads, we see the bare truth — that it is dirt and rock alone that suspends us from the seething ball of magma at Earth’s core.

It is Prometheus’s fire below that warms our mantle. And above, fire heats the overlay laid down as a fresh modern carpet for our steel horses to gallop across the land.

Now, if only we know whether it would take five extra minutes or a half hour to get through Taconite, or another 20 to get across Hibbing. After all, we moderns have places to go.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 23, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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