Manitou Inn

When roads close out in the country south of Duluth, there's no telling where you'll end up. A gravel road leads up a beat-up strip of asphalt, and that crumbling path leads you for miles, across Wisconsin state lines and to the foot of Pattison State Park. There, you'll find the Manitou Inn.

If you're lucky enough to get this far lost, stop in. Shoot the shit with a stock-car driver, and let some of the Northland's finest fried fish come at you in stacks. You can get to Superior if you keep driving north, but I'd suggest holding your horses.

The Basics: Your best bet is their Facebook page for an Internet scoop, as a similarly-named spot in Pikes Peak hoards the Google results. Need Funyons or cigarettes? The Manitou Inn's got you covered.

A hot day, an isolated building, gravel lot, and a wayward schmuck: A great many movie deaths have begun that way. You hear the crunch of the rocks under the tires, watch the dust rise and dissipate, and the first foot step out of the car. You just know someone's in for it. In my case, I thought I was in for a quick beer as penance for mooching their WiFi out in the lot.

"What do you know?" a young man asked as I found a bar stool. The front of his T-shirt featured a bull (or was it a moose?) shivering with his hooves over his midsection, and the words TESTICLE FESTIVAL printed over the top of the chest. I looked at the enticing stains on the grill surface, took one sip of the stout he poured me a sample of, and suddenly I was in it for the long haul. That's what I knew.

Fish Fry

The Manitou Inn boasts checkered linoleum flooring that looks 100 years old, peeling away like skin after a bad burn, and a counter so clean you could eat off of it (which I may have done with a bite of my meal). At this time on this Friday, the only other man drinking at this counter was a camo-capped antique of a man. As he mouthed his bottle of Mich, this young cat working the bar -- Chad was his name -- gave me a shockingly articulate rundown of Oscar's Chocolate Oatmeal Stout. We bonded over beer, and that was pretty cool.

I waffled between a $7 cheeseburger and the $8.95 fish fry for a few minutes before settling on the fish fry, and let me tell you: I don't make good decisions in Douglas County too often, but this was arguably the best ever.

The beer-battered fish was a revelation: I'd shied away from fish fries for years, and was briefly saddened by that as I ate. The breading was crispy, but not brittle; it could be effortlessly cut with a fork, without flying into smithereens. The fish was straightforward and fresh; it came with tartar sauce but I rarely used it. It was so easy to eat, I plowed through three plates. The bar fries on the side just made this meal unfair.

That I stayed for two hours and barely played Angry Birds speaks to Chad's excellent service and fish I just couldn't back put down. That's how you keep customers in the middle of nowhere when they arrive, as a crew of construction workers and ersatz old men proved as the day stretched on. In the end, two craft taps and three plates of fish ran me less than a $20. I don't know if I can ever pass up a fish fry again, and I don't know if I'll ever drive straight to Duluth on a Friday again.

I might have to make a main route out of whatever madness landed me there.

Straight Outta II

Where can you chomp into a top-flight spicy cheeseburger, one that's kicky but straightforward, one that pairs exquisitely with a Surly Furious tallboy? Surprise! You can find it at Palmer's Tavern in little big ol' Hibbing, home to old-school service and new-school televisions, home to old-school prices for new-school flavors.

You could say it's a little bit off the path geographically; but, as far as I'm concerned, it's the path's fault for not leading us here to begin with.

The Basics: Depending on who you ask, the Iron Range could be four cities or it could be a quarter of the whole state. For the purposes of this account, we're going with Wikipedia's definition.

The present owner is the granddaughter of the original owners. Under various names, the doors to Palmer's have been open for over 70 years. You can find them just off Hibbing's downtownish Horward St., and on the web at palmerstavern.com.

Palmer Collage 1

It's hard to tell which way Hibbing's main street is trending. Long-empty, dystopian storefronts abound, but a new shopping hub called Howard Court looks fresh, and the Brickyard -- Hibbing's most happening club -- looks alive and well. You can still get a killer steak and eggs plate at Sportsman's, but you can only get saddened at the once-iconic (I think?) but now shuttered Zimmy's. Two blocks east of the strip, on Third St., is Palmer's.

Don't be so quick to assume this is some hole in the wall. Step inside and you can't help but notice the barely-chipped bricks and untarnished wood panels that envelop the room. You can't turn your head without seeing the game. Flat screens, all of them, resolution for days. Vikings jerseys from all eras, beautifully preserved in glass casing: Moss, Carter, and Jake Reed above the door, Kyle Rudolph and Marcus Sherels by the emergency exit. If you're a Vikings fan, this joint's a memorabilia wet dream.

Wait ... are those Packers pennants on the ceiling? Hmm.

On my first visit, I was part of a seven-man crew that filled up a shiny Vikings logo-clad table. On my second visit, my buddy Eliot and I bellied up to the bar. I got the Boshi Burger both times, the deliciously trashy creation of cook-slash-dancing instructor Steve Shopp.

It comes out of a kitchen space roughly the size of a home bathroom, and there's very little to figure out: jalapenos, jalapeno bacon, jalapeno mayo, pepperjack cheese. The bun absorbs the juices without getting soggy. The Boshi doesn't play footsy, but it doesn't roundhouse you through the back wall, either. Ketchup was never needed.

Eliot Burger

The fries are nothing remarkable, freezer crinkles methinks, but you get a good portion for $2.50 if you're into it. While I'm on the subject of prices -- wait, let me give the Twin Cities folk time to sit down. We good?

This burger and a Furious tallboy together, $11. Eleven.

The prices are welcoming, and so are the people. The waitresses, the bartenders, even the leather jacketed man in the bald eagle bandana talked about his grandkids and sent us off with a handshake. There wasn't a single prick at Palmer's, either time we went in.

The Boshi Burger is a microcosm of the entire Palmer's experience: It's done well but not over-thought. It's comfortable but not snooty. There are few establishments, anywhere, who put it all together as well as Palmer's. You could say they're one of a dying breed, but they'll live forever if they keep living like this.

Nantucket Air Mast

"Can I survive a 1200-foot fall?"

I asked myself this as I watched myself cruise toward a lush, beautiful forest near Augusta, Maine. We were about to land -- that is, our bodies were being yanked back to Earth one way or another.

"Is treetop impalement possible? What if I bounced off enough branches? Would I live?"

CHAPTER 1: NORTHGRAVES

"Looks like we're across the aisle from each other," said my wife in the gate entry line. "There weren't any seats available next to each other."

It was weird until our flight number was called and only seven people got in line. I mean, it's not like people exactly flock to Augusta, but still: only seven? Rather than walk through a tunnel, we were marched right out onto the tarmac. A bucket hat-rockin' young lady herded us and took attendance. Six names, all here, plus Northgraves.

Northgraves. One word. "North as in up, graves like where you put the dead bodies," were close to if not his exact words. It just didn't compute for the attendant (North is a first name now, after all). "NORTH ... GRAVES." He spoke with his hands, fingers like pickles, palms like Thickburger patties, very loud hands. The attendant figured it out, or maybe she didn't, but he flew.

The plane rolled up, a Cessna 402 that looked like something out of a cereal box. The attendant opened the door, which pulled down and doubled as the boarding stairs. This wasn't a joke. We were about to fly over half of New England in this.

We walked up the door and got seated while the attendant shut the staircase behind us.

CHAPTER 2: SORRY HONEY

I don't remember why my wife wasn't talking to me this time, but she dove eyes-first into a People the instant her belt was fitted. The tiny air vent above her seat didn't work, but mine did. It allowed air from outside to blow in directly onto the top of my head, the way it does through your car's dashboard vents. On the Cessna, this is called "air conditioning."

The middle-aged woman who conducted herself like a well-seasoned jet setter felt compelled to hurry into the co-pilot's seat. I'm not kidding: this woman, if she wanted to badly enough, from her seat, could have reached over and fiddled with dials or jerked at the steering wheel. She was the co-pilot. If I'd have gotten that seat, I could have been the co-pilot. Next time.

I was in Row Three, staring forward into a shitshow of ebony hair. It was a man, about my height with hairy arms and his sleeves rolled up. I can respect a pair of carpeted forearms and a good mess of hair. Hell, I might as well have been sitting behind myself.

We were ordered to shut off our cell phones. The plane rumbled and shook down the runway, and trudged into the air like it was doing an afternoon chore. My wife turned a page, and the man behind me kept dicking around on his phone.

Of course it was Northgraves.

Here is a picture of a sandwich made with grill cheese sandwiches as the bread because I wasn't on the phone during the flight because THEY ASKED US NOT TO BE.

Here is a picture of a sandwich made with grill cheese sandwiches as the bread because I wasn't on the phone during the flight because THEY ASKED US NOT TO BE.

CHAPTER 3: DUNKING AN AIRPLANE

Takeoff was definitely something. I'm surprised no screws were shaken loose. Through the apocalypse, Tucker remained undeterred.

Have I not brought up the pilot yet? That sharply-dressed babyface with the sharply-cut hair, Tucker. His long arms and legs made me assume he was a nightmare match-up in varsity hoops. In conversation with his co-pilot, I overheard things like "three years" and "first." For all I knew, he was skipping practice to fly us out to Augusta.

I bet he can dunk, though. Come to think of it, he looked a lot like Kristaps Porzingis.

His soft-looking hands led us through turbulence within turbulence. You know how bartenders lift that shaker over their heads while making your drink? During our ascent, I felt like one of the ice cubes. Ever gone 10 miles on ice, fishtailing all the way? That's what being level felt like. At least my air conditioning worked.

I saw sailboats on the Atlantic, seemingly miles from anything else. I saw houses, humongous houses. I saw Cities and tried to guess where I was. In time, fright became tribute. Chaos became peace. A seat in a 747 may as well be a seat on the bus, but there's no mistaking it in a Cessna. You're flyin'!

You know what they say about what goes up, though.

CHAPTER 4: NOTHING ELSE, JUST "CHAPTER 4"

A woman was seated in front of my wife. I couldn't see her face, just an overgrowth of cinnamon hair and hands that looked overcooked. She was reading a book about biochemistry, or at least a book with "biochemistry" in the title. My wife, meanwhile, had moved on from Kardashian drama to ... wait, JENNIFER GARNER IS SINGLE NOW?!

It began.

I felt the plane jerk out of its level tranquility and dive toward the Earth like a dart. This is when I saw the trees whizzing by out the window. The ebony shitshow was somehow asleep. Northgraves, not really thinking about him right now.

This was the fourth time I'd ever been in an airplane, of any kind. I thought about the Japanese, and how they feel about things coming in fours. My eyes zoomed and locked onto Tucker. I watched his dials and tried to make sense of the numbers. He hadn't mentioned anything about grabbing oxygen masks or calling a priest yet. I waited for a command.

The woman in front of my wife was freaking the fuck out. Her hands went from tepidly swimming around each other to sweeping her bangs back and pressing themselves over her ears. She rocked a little. Her head got freakishly close to her lap. The nose of the plane jerked downward, jolting the sleeper awake. The woman curled up into a seated fetal position. I wondered if she was going insane right in front of me.

The plane jerked downward again. Oh, shi --

CHAPTER 5: INSIDE OUT

You should have seen the interior.

The seats reminded me of the buckets in my first car, and this earthy tan polyester covered the ceiling. I couldn't stand up without hunching over a little, and one of the escape doors? One of the escape doors was a window. Tucker and maybe his co-pilot could have realistically fit through it. The rest of us would've been stuck jumping out through the stairs.

It got us to Maine, though! I stepped onto the pavement, stretched, and headed into Augusta's "airport." It was more of an office building, really. Attendants wheeled the bags in on a luggage cart, the type you see at hotels. I collected ours and we parted.

My wife, having spent the last hour leafing through celebrity marriage dysfunction, was no longer angry at me. She asked how I enjoyed the flight.

I shook, I swayed, and I rumbled. I got queasy, I probably prayed once or twice, and I obsessed over dials. I do lots of scary stuff, but nothing that could realistically kill me. I could have fallen out of the sky, but I didn't.

I said, "I thought it was awesome."