“Midway-North” is a photo essay about a road and an intersection in northeastern Minnesota. An excerpt in different form appeared as a post on Image Journal‘s Good Letters blog.
This is a story that isn’t a story and has no beginning, unless the beginning has been lost and is now a haunting in all things. In this story, there may be an origin and a destination or there may be only demarcations.
North or Old 61 to Midway Road, through Midway Township along the Midway River, which is bookended by the former Anishinaabe settlement of Fond du Lac, or Nagaajiwanaang, to its northeast and the churning root beer float of the St. Louis River to the south, north of where the St. Louis is held back—barely—by the Thomson dam.
You can hear the water’s force for miles.
An aggregate of journeys and trajectories, a tangled back and forth. Being in one specific spot and yet never really anywhere.
On the move.
Ghosts that are just past moving selves in aggregate, lines drawn looping through space, and do they touch?
Purple sky, ochre horizon.
Darkness a composite of shadows that moves with you though not precisely: always a step ahead or behind.
Through the night.
Snow, and a shadow overhead and around, not quite seeping into. A smoky blackness in the air. Or orange line of sun and purple sky.
Then a summer day, lonely with no excuse of cold and indigo blot of cloud. Frogs in the ditches. Tent caterpillars crackling under tires.
The drive down Midway, road so elongated you don’t notice the cliffs—basalt, granite, eons—until someone points them out.
I ride with others because I can’t orient, even in my small town and the outskirts: barely-there townships and roads that veer only toward themselves.
I think of small pathways: Midway to North. Look for the town hall, the church, for the dilapidated grey house with scorch marks at the roof.
Meningitis when I was four, a burned brain. Not only cell death, but death carried along the neural roads of synapses connecting the cells. What should be a journey becomes a stopping, an origin and destination with luck remaining but no means to travel.
I grasp landmarks and attempt to understand distances. When I’m both still and moving, what’s seen from the road grows into more than itself.
I attend to landmarks that later dissipate, rely on my own ghost to tell me where I’ve been, what is wrong and right and familiar, only to return again and again, heap lines of myself—unmoored—over a smudge of changed earth.
An old legend: you’ll dream vividly if you sleep where you can hear a train. It sounds true, doesn’t it, a piece of truth in it?
One summer, I lived in a house where six people had died, and I dreamed every night all night, and I didn’t know if I dreamed because of ghosts or because trains in the river valley passed and passed by, or because the trains came from the east where my home was and because I knew by their mourning that trains and homes are always changing shape.
Abandoned tunnel in a granite hill at Midway and Becks. You never realize what a glacier’s laid down until you drill a hole through it.
Tracks through the rock were laid by hand because a body was the only thing that would fit, the only moving thing safe against the cliff’s insides.
The Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railway brought ore from the Virginia yards to west Duluth, then to the Lake Superior docks, until the route through the hills was discarded in favor of a more direct path to the water.
Deep ditches: cattails and pussy willows and thick swamp. Algae and hydrogen sulfide of rodent rot, of water’s overtake and seepage.
The frogs deafen and echo at once, deep sound tumbling over deep sound in different minor keys as we pass.
Ditch: and my fingers spread wide to let the gelatinous eggs glop through and over, mucous a strange epochal mirror, protector in an origin story pocketed away in disgust.
Rank smell of under, of boots that could slip, of life and death so close in a birthing slime that they’re a snake swallowing its tail.
I heard the train on its way to the paper mill every night as a child. It taught me to be sad, to know that sadness could be a presence that visits rather than a gloom arising from within.
Sadness is a road, driven over and over, unchanged and never the same.
Eldes Corner Spring at Midway and Old 61 is open and free-flowing, a promise made by hidden things. Water for everyone if you bring a vessel, water moving and moving underground.
I never noticed the hills until I learned what they harbored. The railway tunnel, now decrepit. Healthy hill air surrounding the sanatorium, now abandoned.
Nopeming Sanitorium was convenient. The rail lines meant only an expansion, a further smoothing of forest into spread-open hospital for people with tuberculosis.
But newness stores old land under, where the old holds itself, watchful. A settling.
The Nopeming planners said the surrounding hills provided good air and chances for patients to take a full breath.
It sounds superstitious, but years later, research on what happens to air as it moves over a hill will emerge. Patterns of tumble, turbulence, and stir mapped.
Some things—movement out of the corner of your eye—you just know a century before someone draws the hump of hill, the curling arrows of sprightly respiratory health mounting the cleared woodland and traveling down into the valley.
Later, Nopeming became a nursing home, then it became too far back from the road to be anything but a secret.
At dusk, a shadow and a sadness. The air quiet and full. All that forest.
Lives lived behind the trees before space was something to be conserved or used up and houses grew nearer to the road. Before driveways became efficient, less a chance to consider your journey, your endpoint.
In the afternoon, you’ll stop for the same train at three different crossings.
I like this more than anything: what’s seen through the window of a moving car. The space between vision and glass and between glass and ditch and what’s beyond.
It feels like I can see more or see through when I watch the illusion of moving world. Birch after spruce after Norway pine and poplar. A tamarack like rusty luck.
The brain removes the motion blur of streaking lines connecting birch after spruce after pine and bleeding them into the sun, into the black of earth.
Vermilion and violet and sienna and seepage, the eye’s cross-contamination. A forestall against saccade, the eyes’ rapid movement as you move and think the world is moving and struggle to catch up, and do you dream more vividly if a train is near?
An incomplete list of ghosts, some living: the 113 elders who had to leave the sanitorium-turned-nursing-home when it closed in 2002.
Leaving the woods is a kind of death. Not a sad one necessarily, but still a ghost-making. Something stays behind to remember you to the space or to yourself should you return.
The hands that laid the track under the earth. Touching earth and stone is a ghost-making. Exhalations of soil and steel.
Language created by the eight homesteading families—four Finnish, four Swedish—in Midway Township, as they took words from their countries and molded them to how the new air and earth asked them to converse.
Language is a ghost-making. Words with so many ways to talk of snow, cold, and the prism of darkness. Words turned presence birthed by homesickness and lavender sky.
The Anishinaabe who hunted the deer that leap into the road. The Dakota who were the first to notice the good air cupped by the hills.
A driving out and away is a ghost-making. People made invisible drag invisibility with them. A settler looks at something over and over as she moves through, things she has lost or obliterated. A settler strains at all the things she will never see.
We went to the mall, to the great lake. We didn’t go very many places. We went away, away, and then toward, toward, and the toward was also in the away.
Sometimes home is desired and dreaded. Sometimes you can’t separate your ghosts from your descending shadows, your lavender air.
We were scared all the time, but we didn’t know why. Sometimes, fear is a presence that visits, strange comfort. Good company. We drove and made ghosts of ourselves all down Midway Road, looked out the windows for signs.
On Midway and North are two houses, one a man supposedly built for his new wife, the other a second home he built after she rejected the first.
Midway climbs up to North, then North pours down past the houses, and the clouds funnel into a deep horizon. The sky widens.
The story goes: she wouldn’t live in a house that looks like a barn. The grey barn-house—sloping sanguine eaves, stripped wood—is alive at the god-sky.
Frequent car crashes by the Dry Dock: speed, alcohol, blank space filled when you could have sworn nothing was there.
Old Midway joins Midway like a loose guitar string. What’s forgotten and waiting on these roads that go nowhere but into the new? What bows out beyond the sagging arc of them? Why did I never see the cliffs and hills until I heard the words?
Midway dead-ends in Canosia Township west of the Fish Lake Reservoir and east of Caribou Lake. On a map, it’s all blank space—nothing there—which means forest.
The tracks curve eastward to follow Old Highway 2, which loops itself a parallel universe, ends attached to the new road.
Don’t get lost on the old mining roads, my father warns; there’s no way out. I wonder later what he means; there’s nothing but a way out.
The maps are blank around the old roads, though I know there are creeks, fawns in the spring grass, fiddlehead ferns. Fedex Freight and FritoLay to the west.
A complete list of intersections, disregarding dead ends and roads whose names live only in someone’s secret heart: Becks, Old Highway 61, Ratika, Marigold, Tree Farm, North, Stark, St. Louis River, Morris Thomas, Old Highway 2, Highway 2, Old Midway, Hermantown, Maple Grove.
I take photos out the window as we drive, ignoring warnings that they’ll be noisy or streaky or dim. It’s late afternoon at the end of November and becoming very dark. It has just snowed and is about to snow.
The sky was grey all day, but now that both snow and dark are falling with their burned and glittering smells, pink and tangerine hem the edges.
Snow against the windshield, snow deep-ended from invisible horizon as if we’re lying under a funnel of it. Snow receding and charging and suspended, snow all trajectories at once.
The photos show what my brain won’t allow my eyes, connections between pine and spruce and poplar and sky and ditch and succumbing-to-ditch shoulder and asphalt worn bare into gravel into brilliant horizontal cascade.
The image changes too fast as I look at it through the window, and my camera catches it morphing through time and neighbor. There are no moments, only composites of moments, everything forming layers atop itself.
You may think you know a place so well—its history of mine and railway and breathlessness and free-flowing spring and pussy willow—that you fail to notice you are cupped by hills. You fail to realize you are held fast to your home by ghosts beyond the ditches, journeys many times over, and all the things you think you see.