One of my favorites stories to tell about Highway 23 is the one about my job-shadowing day at KBJR, the NBC affiliate in the Duluth/Superior area. This was my during my senior year of high school, winter of 1998-99. I was to job shadow Dave Jensch, then-News Director at the station (he’s now the Vice-President and Station Manager).
But first, I had to guide my 1988 Plymouth Sundance out of Holyoke and up a stretch of road so thoroughly snowed over by an overnight blizzard, you could hardly call what I drove on a road. For all practical purposes, I was braving a 32-mile-long, knee-high snowdrift. But I made it.
For three hours, I drove with a surgeon’s focus. I didn’t even turn the radio on. I just sang quietly to myself, “Left, right, cha-cha-cha! Back, forward, cha-cha-cha!” for the whole three hours – and that’s not an exaggeration. I slid down curvy roads into valleys, and somehow my car climbed back out (cha-cha-cha!). I fishtail danced over Mud Creek, through Pleasant Valley (cha-cha-cha!) down Mile-Long Hill, over the St. Louis River, and into the big city (cha-cha-cha!).
I parked my Sundance, tromped on into the building, and stomped a mess of snow loose from my legs in the building’s front lobby. I remember Jensch walking through to meet me and saying, “You’re 10 minutes late, Frank!”
This was back when journalism was journalism, deadlines were deadlines, and a smoke was a smoke. I don’t smoke, but I would have that morning had somebody offered me one. I might have chain-smoked a whole pack.
Those who grew up on the small towns connected by Minnesota Highway 23 know this road’s beauty … and its dangers. It could fit right into Gran Turismo as a woodsy road course, but it could just as easily strike a mean Big Buck Hunter level. I still hear my mom’s warnings when I drive this road now, nearly 20 years later. She’d say it every time I walked out the door, hard, like she was swinging a hammer: “WATCH for DEER.”
The stretch I grew up on – my turf – starts just off I-35. You take Exit 195. It’s the exit for Askov and Finlayson – the towns, not the bougie outdoorsy fashion line keyed by Minneapolis guys. Anyway, you relieve yourself at Banning Junction, and head northeast toward Duluth.
Right away, this stretch of highway gives you a hill to charge down, a striking view of the Kettle River, and an uphill slope on a rock formation similar to the ones you see on Highway 95 north of Stillwater or down in the Driftless Region.
And every town on the way, from little ol’ Kerrick (pop. 64) to big ol’ Askov (pop. 346, with their own high school and everything!) has their town watering hole. Trucks and cars will be arranged “aisle-esque” in the gravel parking lot; snowmobiles and four-wheelers might be lined up near the back of the lot; and motorcycles might be grouped near the entrance. Big banners are hung to welcome hunters, snowmobilers, and Vikings fans.
It would be easy to assume the bars on Highway 23 are just bars, offering little to eat but perhaps frozen pizzas or deep-fryer schlock. But in reality, the establishments on this highway are delivering roadside meals with care. A good meal isn’t hard to find on my turf.
Take Doc’s on 23, in big ol’ Askov. Tara Dobosenski and Jimmy Kroon – who own the original Doc’s in Sturgeon Lake – expanded their brand where the old Ringers Bar stood. That’s where I had a cake-like meatloaf coated in a dense, dark gravy on my first visit. I’d slice off bites of meatloaf, smear them through a side of mashed potatoes, fit 97 percent of that into my mouth, and three percent on/in my nose.
I’m still working my way toward the steaks, famous burgers, and award-winning smoked beef brisket, but I’ve had the pig wings. You’ll get three bones heavy with pork steak. Their appearance lands somewhere between those of a meaty rib bone and the chicken wings I once loved at Minneapolis’ Saint Genevieve. They come with sauce, but you probably won’t use much of it.
They’ve got breakfast, house-made pizzas, and nightly specials. If you can hand the keys off, the Doc’s Ultimate Bloody Mary is an art piece you simply can’t miss out on experiencing.
If you’re driving north at night, Highway 23 is blanketed in a perfect dark. Beyond your headlights, there’s only the outlines of trees and blurry clumps of tall grass lining the roadway. It’s a sleepy way home, that’s for sure, but those deer. This is no place to meditate or check your Facebook notifications. Turn on something lively and keep watching those blurry clumps – or as I like to say “Put your deer goggles on.”
Bruno is about eight miles up from Askov, and that’s where you find the Bear’s Den. There, owners Carly Storebo and Josh Day made a mission out of sliding out the best burgers on the highway. Far as I can tell, they’ve succeeded.
The original Bear’s Den burned down in 2014 and was re-opened in 2016. The kitchen was overhauled and a general store was installed. When I spoke with Day for a story previously, he repeated a pain back to me that many of us on this highway knew very well: “When you live in Bruno, it sucks to drive 16-18 miles to get a gallon of milk. Same thing for a meal. That’s a 35-minute drive [total].”
They’ve got the California Burger I want when I’m too far north to reach Lions Tap, and a BBQ and Bacon burger you might find a little too perfect if you’d spent the day getting muddy on the ATV trails or sitting in a hunting shack seeing nothing all day. At least in Bears Den, there’s a 754-pound bear in the front window you can gawk at.
Let’s talk pizza. When was the last time you saw an Old Western-looking saloon across the street from a decomposing auto shop and thought, “I bet they make really good pizza there.”
That’s an oddly specific example, but that’s because I drive through Kerrick a lot.
If the population sign is still true, Kerrick is home to 64 people. There’s a Northview Bank; a post office that’s only open from 7:30-11:30 a.m. during the week; a boarded-up body shop that looks like its ready to twist and collapse under its own weight; and the North Pine Saloon.
The North Pine Saloon has been a lot of things over the years. Until this year, it was called the Rack Shack. I had a burger there last year and didn’t care for it, but new management upended the building earlier this year and introduced house-made pizzas with the renovation.
They lay the cheese on pretty thick, not “break Instagram with your cheese pull” thick but still pretty thick. The crust was bendable, but not flimsy or soggy. They use a pretty nice sauce. The difference between that burger and my pepperoni pizza drove the point home hard: this is a new place now.
They kept the old mural behind the bar counter, though, and I’m glad for that. I couldn’t imagine this place without it.
Go further north and you’ll pass the Duquette Tavern, where you can score breakfast in the mornings and sandwiches in the early evenings (I say “early evenings” because the kitchen closes at 7:30 p.m. during the week, much to my horror when I last stopped in just after it had closed up). You’ll pass the Nickerson Bar and Hotel, you’ll pass an empty patch of land right by the County 8 exit. That’s where Holyoke’s Hitching Post bar used to be. It burned down nearly 20 years ago now.
From there, you’ll descend into those river valleys I slid down that morning, over Mud Creek, under the railroad bridge, through Pleasant Valley, down Mile-Long Hill, and over the St. Louis River – but you might notice the glowing sign peeking out from the trees at the bottom of that mile-long hill. It’s got a faded Old Style Shield and the name, WABEGON.
Now, I don’t know exactly where it happens. But sometime between the moment you decide to pull off the highway and the time your tires roll to a stop in front of the Wabegon, you cross over from Minnesota to Wisconsin. That’s the first way it’s unique.
An article by Perfect Duluth Day suggests the bar might have first been built as a house back in 1932. What I know now is we’ve knocked pool balls around tables and looked like fools, and doubled down on that look by sloppily sucking down plates of spaghetti. We’ve stressed out little tables with huge taco orders. We’ve taken big bites into hard shells, and left mounds of tortilla shrapnel in our wake. And of course we’ve had burgers. You can see their whole menu here.
And that’s where your journey up Highway 23 ends and you cross the St. Louis River into Duluth. Do you dare make that stop at Hugo’s Pizza II as you head through the Gary New Duluth neighborhood? Think of their club sub. Would you dare not?
This is the third installment of the Scenic Routes series, done in collaboration with Chevrolet. Be sure to check out my guide to coffee shops on St. Croix Trail and Little Sweden; and my interview with Jeff Petcoff of Duluth’s Corktown Deli and Brews.
Clarification was added to this article after publication that I stopped into the Duquette Tavern right after the kitchen had closed. It was pretty clear before, but now it’s really clear.