Ignoring Lake Superior is impossible, but turning your back on the big water for a while brings oft-overlooked treasures into view.
From a little apothecary bottle, I pour Lake Superior Oatmeal Stout Syrup on my breakfast. I gaze out the big window, over the rooftops and power lines, and see a sliver of green-teal Lake Superior framed with a strip of green Wisconsin trees under a gray sky.
It's a fitting moment that captures the theme of this trip to Duluth. I came to explore Duluth's treasures beyond the lake. Don't get me wrong. I love Lake Superior so much I wrote a book about a storm that smacked the city a century ago.
I can't get enough of the sandy strip of Park Point, the timeless mood of Canal Park, the 4-mile Lakewalk and the little maritime museum under the Lift Bridge, where a fire ax still hangs from the doomed freighter Mataafa, which was wrecked during that 1905 storm.
This time, though, as goofy as it sounds, I put up the blinders, faced away from the lake, hiked the hillside haunts and explored the hardscrabble hangouts of Duluth -- off the water.
Sometimes, despite best intentions, I cheated. The gnocchi with Gorgonzola and basil pesto and warm spinach salad at Va Bene Berarducci's Caffe were almost as delicious as the view of the lake and the Lift Bridge. Other times, I stuck with the game plan and was sorry. The Lake Superior Zoo, perhaps because of the 3 p.m. Skunk Spectacular, proved a bit of a stinker.
Mostly, though, from the scenic Seven Bridges Road to the Sunday night cribbage tournament, Duluth delighted me.
Part bar, part museum
Out amid the urban neglect and depressed sprawl of West Duluth, there's a time machine masquerading as a bar. The Kom-On-Inn is wedged in a skinny, triangular building at 332 N. 57th Av. W. Inside, more than a dozen 1950s murals of Duluth's bygone industrial age wrap around the tavern's walls. An electronic dartboard obscures one of the masterpieces. (Can't say that about the Louvre.)
Duluth painter Art Fleming's homage to the old Coolerator plant, the Regal Supreme Brewery, Radford's Woodwork of Distinction and the National Iron Co. include only a few human figures and a couple of old-school trucks and cars. It's 99 percent factories and industry, Duluth's long-gone yin and yang, spread out amid an aural backdrop of a deafening jukebox.
Lake Superior barely makes an appearance in Fleming's panels, an unlikely treasure trove of Minnesota folk art if ever there were one.
But who's counting?
The big lake's tendency to dominate all things Duluth obscures something else just like the dartboard in the Kom-On-Inn: While hordes flock up the North Shore for the Superior Hiking Trail, they overlook Duluth's terrific series of parks, trails and swatches of wilderness literally minutes from downtown.
My favorite was the Lester-Amity Trail and its signature Seven Bridges Road that crisscrosses for 4 miles over the churning brown water and volcanic rock of the Lester River and Amity Creek. According to the handy signs along the way, the Ojibwe had a phrase, "Busa-Bika-Zibi," that translates roughly to the "river that flows through a worn place in the rock."
There are actually nine stone-arched bridges, with crafty detailed rock work, along Seven Bridges Road. They started going up in 1899 along former Mayor Samuel Snively's road and took nearly 30 years to complete. The second bridge cuts past the shells of some old hockey rinks with weathered wooden boards, a quintessential northern Minnesota reminder of the region's favorite sport.
There are oodles of hikes to take in and around the white pine, cedar, spruce, aspen and birch trees. We stop to chat with some steelhead salmon fishermen working the lower parts of the Lester River just before it spills into Lake Superior.
A couple of 70-year-olds
Seven Bridges Road links up easily enough to Duluth's sprawling Skyline Drive, which skims along the hillside some 25 miles to Spirit Mountain. The fall colors and autumn raptor migration at Hawk Ridge attract throngs toward summer's end, but the panoramic views are worthwhile year-round.
Climbing Enger Memorial Tower, an octagonal, five-story icon cobbled together from Minnesota bluestone, is both spooky and revelatory with lush gardens surrounding the area -- at least during Duluth's small window of a growing season.
I track down Bob Dylan's first home, the second story of an otherwise forgettable yellow duplex at 513 N. 3rd St., if for no other reason than Bob turned 70 this year. His family moved to Hibbing when he was 6, but Duluth is finally trumpeting its native troubadour with a Bob Dylan Way and tour for devotees (www.startribune.co/a526).
Bob isn't the only Duluthian turning 70 this year. Wade Municipal Stadium, home of the minor league Huskies, came out of the Works Progress Administration and is one of the last remaining ballparks of that era. It's a line drive away from the Kom-On-Inn in West Duluth. Tickets are as low as $6.
But my favorite entertainment comes on Sunday night just at the end of the Chester Park Trail, another of Duluth's easy to overlook swatches of green space. An ad for a cribbage competition caught my eye in the local weekly Reader, so I head up the Burrito Union Bar at 1332 E. 4th St., a fun pub for the University of Minnesota-Duluth crowd.
When I saw cribbage night, I envisioned old toothless types muttering "15-two, 15-four." But the 16 participants in the single elimination tournament averaged about 22 years old. A $25 bar tab hung in the balance.
I knock off Garrett, a Domino's delivery guy from Hermantown, in Round One. Elsa, a UMD student from south Minneapolis, cleans my clock in Round Two. My gut full, I circle back to my hotel, which, I hate to admit, overlooks Lake Superior.
Seems that as hard as I try, there's no escaping Lake Superior during a weekend in Duluth. But I'm glad I at least tried to look the other way.
Staff writer Curt Brown's book on the 1905 Duluth storm, "So Terrible a Storm," was recently released in paperback by Voyageur Press • 612-673-4767