Whirling West on a metal bird

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Baker Beach in San Francisco, California. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

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

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
~ Mark Twain, “The Innocents Abroad”

I live in the woods of Northern Minnesota. I drive 27 miles to work in one town and about the same distance to my kids’ school in another. Each Saturday I haul trash to the dump. Routine activities dominate weeknights — always the same — changing only with holidays, occasional illness or special tasks. Every other moment is spent in writing or with the family. Loathe to admit it, I rather enjoy this schedule.

But a few weeks back I got the chance to break my routine. I jumped in an airplane, flew to San Francisco, all to interview someone for a book I’m working on. Ironically, I had to cross half the country to find out what happened in Hibbing 100 years ago.

Though there were some early challenges, the interview was good (more on that some other time), but so too was the act of travel. That’s not to say I liked all of it. Rather, I needed it. Taking this trip was amazing, exciting, tedious and terrifying all at the same time.

Living as we do amid hundreds of employees of the Delta Reservation Center in Chisholm, I know many there who avail themselves of travel benefits. They appear smiling on my computer screen from locales around the globe like Carmen Sandiego’s Instagram feed.

I won’t lie. Sometimes I feel jealous over these images. That was before I found myself listening to the constant whoosh of the toilet vacuum in the back of a 737. My aisle seat next to the bathroom allowed my shoulder to serve as a bumper for every passenger’s hind quarters as they shimmied out of the water closet. I wish I could say I enjoyed it.

And yet, the miracle. In four hours I had traversed all land depicted in the Oregon Trail computer game. My small deposit of biological material hurtled through the night sky at 500 mph and landed safely in the Golden Gate City. It happened so fast that my late night had become early evening.

The Bay Area offers a mellow palette of color. Green mountains and the blue Pacific wash through a soft filter of nearly invisible vapor. The weather never changes: always gently cool, usually sunny. One local described the fact that some people keep their washers and dryers in the back yard to save space inside. One only needs to cover them with a tarp once or twice a year. He could recall two thunderstorms in the last 14 years.

The palm trees and lavender surely turned my head, but so to did the cadence of the strange language I heard spoken. Oh, it was English, but not Iron Range English.

At the Sportsman’s Cafe in Hibbing, one becomes accustomed to the din of hunting stories, fishing tales, reviews of heavy equipment and soft mentions of cancer, divorce and politics.

In the hip bars and chic restaurants of the Bay, people buzzed with talk of business opportunities, technology, and food even better than the expensive food they were currently eating.

I found myself talking with a gentleman who programs driverless cars. That’s a complicated business. You’ve got regulatory hurdles and political resistance. Plenty of people want to invest in them, but no one has figured out how to make any money doing so. Nevertheless, he keeps wheeling in paychecks to make it happen.

I said that people keep talking about automating the mining trucks back home. The problem is ice, I said. They can’t figure out how to make the robots drive on ice.

Ice is hard, he said. Real tricky. We’re working on that.

He said it the way people say the Yankees will win another World Series someday. Not this year, sure, but one of these years, no doubt.

Sometimes I felt brotherhood with the immigrants and tourists who spoke foreign languages. I suspect they spoke of topics I knew more about.

My part of the country languished my whole life in economic uncertainty. Now, I had landed in the single-most affluent place in America. The most striking lesson was how money failed to perfect the human experience. Whether your vice is alcoholism or workaholism, a bad neck from looking at your phone or a bad back from shoveling, people still had problems. Failed relationships. Unrequited ambitions. The realization that time passes all too quickly.

We just have different way of filling the holes inside of us. Different pet peeves and grievances, and people to blame. No, we’re not all the same. But loneliness and fear, hunger and pride run similarly through our veins.

You’ve got to be comfortable where you live. But you also need to know what else is happening in this world to ever get to that point. Sometimes you’ve got to break the routine to know what it all means.

You can’t come home unless you go somewhere. It’s good to be home.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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