This is the final installment of my Scenic Routes series, done in collaboration with Chevrolet. You can find links to the other posts in this series at the end of this story.
Almost exactly 300 miles north from the flat-cushioned, hard-armed computer chair I use at home, a solitary red Adirondack chair sits between two pines behind the Naniboujou Lodge on Minnesota’s north shore. On a crisp autumn day, the surrounding world offered me very little distraction. In that chair, I was alone with Her Majesty Lake Superior.
If, at the end of all this, I’m remembered by everyone with one lasting image, I’d like to be imagined sitting peacefully in that red Adirondack chair. At my side would be a bottle of single-barrel Four Roses, but you already knew that.
Taking the fast way – interstate highways all the way to Duluth, then the North Shore Expressway from there – I suppose I could travel 284 miles and be seated up there in just under five hours. If you ask the version of myself typing right now, in this dead-cushioned chair at noon after drinking five or six cups of coffee, sure: let’s go that way. Ask me when the caffeine has worn off and my head’s right, and there’s no way I’d suggest this.
There are small worlds along the way worth exploring. There’s Highway 95, the St. Croix Trail, which at times resembles a coffee table photo book come to life. Since we’re talking about coffee, you can get into a lot of that driving this way. There’s Highway 23, the road I grew up on. I grab a bite to eat on the way, because I’ve been trained to do so in my years of living here.
I reach Duluth, probably eat again, and keep northward on Highway 61 – the scenic route, not the expressway. I ignore the expressway as long as I can, stop at Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse for a little package of sugar-smoked trout, and proceed.
Doing all of this makes the drive 299 miles.
WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT TRUCKS?
Now is where I should disclose that Chevrolet invited me to make this journey in a 2019 Silverado Trail Boss and covered my gas and lodging. Now, I can’t tell you much about trucks. Most of the cars I’ve owned could be effortlessly towed by this thing, maybe even parked in its bed.
But I do know about driving, whether it be the 1800-mile road trips our family embarked on during my youth or the six-hour drives I take on a whim. So let’s start there, with how easy it was for this small car-driver to hop in this big ol’ pickup and go.
Sensors were everywhere on this truck. I was alerted promptly if anything was too close to my flank, or my front and back bumpers. I’m not wild about backup cameras, but the truck had one. Could you go through your whole life relying on these? Probably not, but these features made the adjustment from a small car to a big truck a lot smoother.
The front row seats reminded me of movie theater VIP seats, and the second row was spacious enough that I could eat a full-sized club sub from Hugo’s Pizza II comfortably in it. If you’ve seen one of these sandwiches, you know how big a deal this is. If you haven’t, or if you want to see it again, you can see it in its full glory here. What I’m saying is, the back seats were unexpectedly spacious.
And this truck looks just smashing in front of the Betty’s Pies sign.
If there’s one required stop along Highway 61, this is it.
The Betty’s Pies website tells the story of Betty Lessard, who in 1956 began serving coffee and donuts to fisherman at her father’s fish shack. Two years later, the fish stand turned into a cafe. The pies followed, and everybody followed the pies. This Star Tribune story tells how Lessard would wake up at 3 a.m. and bake 100 pies every Sunday. Lessard sold the restaurant in 1984, but visited regularly before her passing in 2015. Carl Ehlenz and Marti Sieber own Betty’s Pies today.
There’s a board in the front entry listing the day’s available pies, and it can clear in a hurry. Even at 11 a.m. the most sought-after flavors were getting sold out and yanked off the board during our visit. The staff hustles. You’ll probably feel like an extra body on a Where’s Waldo? page as you mill around the front entry waiting for a seat, but it’s not a horrendous wait. It’s the wait you expect when a local legend elevates to attraction status without losing its local love.
Do me a favor, help me help you here: if it’s below 40 degrees, get a cup of coffee and a slice of maple walnut pie. Just lose yourself in it. If you absolutely must have one of those legendary pie shakes, you don’t need me to co-sign for this but I would. My wife most certainly would.
The pies will satisfy you; the breakfast will be hearty and weigh you down some. If you plan on being sedentary most of the day, perfect. If you plan on being active most of the day, perfect.
Not too far from the Split Rock Lighthouse on Highway 61 is a wayside rest stop with a breathtaking view of Her Majesty. What makes this one different than the scores of other breathtaking views? This one has a parking spot on the side of the road, and the walking path is such that a panoramic view will have your photograph literally smiling. It’s right and just.
You can access this walking path one of two ways. You can do it my way, by scrambling across the highway like you’re trying to steal home in a baseball game, surfing down a weedy hill in your “fashion boots,” and stumbling to a stop just past the walking path. You could also do this my wife’s way, by finding that tunnel under the road and walking on that.
If your home has this kind of view, don’t tell me. I’ll steal that one, too.
You see all kinds of people while walking Her Majesty’s shores: lovers, explorers, photographers, simply curious people. I’ve been all of these people. I’ve worked through serious problems during dark nights on these beaches. I proposed to my wife just inches from the lake, in a torrential rainstorm, and I didn’t “get down on one knee” so much as “nearly slid into the splits.” I’ve also sat on big rocks for hours and done nothing. What you see above is where we held hands, hugged, and photographed ourselves smiling together until we got one that looked good.
Our audiobook of choice on this trip was called The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. It’s a reading of Erik Larsen’s 2003 non-fiction novel. It recounts events leading up to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, predominantly from the viewpoints of lead architect Daniel Burnham and serial murderer H.H. Holmes.
Around Burnham, the pressure of putting on a show grand enough to single-handedly elevate Chicago to the echelon of the world’s elite mounted and became crushing; around Holmes, people kept suspiciously disappearing. The stories are woven together like silk. If you need a good listen for the trip, here you go.
If you need a second breakfast after your Betty’s Pies, you can score one just off the highway at the Lockport Marketplace if you reach Lutsen early enough. At the very least, you can get a full tank of gas and some groceries. You can learn some history, too. The woman behind the register showed us a “secret” wall panel that opened up, and explained that booze used to be hidden in there during Prohibition. There’s one high-top table tucked away in a nook lined with coffee mugs. Drink one there, and get another to go.
Front-seaters in the Silverado have access to eight cup holders total, and thank goodness for that. We had two cans of Lift Bridge Mini-Donut Cream Soda, two bottles of water, two cups of coffee, and someone’s house keys occupying the holders.
We did a lot of standing next to Her Majesty during this trip, and Grand Marais is an excellent place for that.
Grand Marais has angles that might remind you of an introductory save city in a role-playing game. You know, the really nice one you check out before you venture off into the forests and volcanic hellscapes where all the monsters are. You’ve got that artistic backdrop, waterfront real estate right there in town, and a building with a giant fish dive-bombing through it. What more do you really need?
You need cinnamon sugar donuts from World’s Best Donuts, for one thing.
If you find them in October, it might be their last weekend before they close up for the winter. It’s a gift and a curse. In one hand, you scored a bag of those cinnamon sugar donuts – wonderful! But then you’re reminded again, this is it until spring. Should you just be happy with this bag, or should you buy 10 more bags full? What emergency could be settled with 11 bags of donuts, and would an emergency like that be difficult to manufacture? Choose wisely.
And like a good Minnesotan, or even a good visitor, you’ll swing in for pizza at Sven and Ole’s.
I’ve sat through impassioned opinions on both sides of Sven and Ole’s Pizza. I’ve heard praise heaped onto their pies through long-drawn out moans and repetitions of the word “amazing.” I’ve seen the jaded wave-offs from the unimpressed. “It’s overrated,” they say, as if this Grand Marais pizzeria was taken too early in a fantasy pizza draft and failed to produce the expected number of pizza fantasy points.
Where do I stand at Sven and Ole’s? I stand at the ordering counter, for as long as it takes, and I take a “Survival of the Fittest” approach to finding a seat. During our visit, The Fittest pulled two chairs down from the back bar – which was unmanned and probably not really available for butts at that time – and sat down there nonetheless.
Sven and Ole’s signature Uff Da! pizza has a bumpy surface akin to the gravel road my folks live on, in a good way. Toppings, lots of them, blanketed by cheese. Soft, sturdy crust. It’s pizza that reminds you of when pizza first made you happy, and then makes you happy again.
The Naniboujou Lodge is about 15 miles from Grand Marais. There’s very little else between there and here to sidetrack you, but you can find something if you try hard enough.
You can find the first four installments of my Scenic Routes series below:
A guide to coffee shops on St. Croix Trail between Stillwater and Little Sweden
An interview with Jeff Petcoff about the passion that drives Corktown Deli and Brews
A tribute to Highway 23 and the good food you can find at the small-town bars
Building Across Generations: The Story of Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse