Picture this. I’m twenty years old. My mom and I are fighting over the ’67 Wagoneer my dad gave me as a high school graduation present. The Jeep was, until Dad bought himself a new Pontiac, the family car. Thing is, despite Mom’s schedule of hair appointments, tennis outings, bridge matches, and volunteer activities, she and I are expected to “share” the Jeep. Me being the eldest—six years older than my brother Dave, eleven years older than my sister Annie—I don’t share very well. Ditto for Mom. So when the daily ruckus over who’s going drive the rattling, wheezing, cantankerous Jeep gets to be too much, I decide to buy my own wheels. Problem is, I’m working as a janitor at General Cleaning for four bucks an hour (buffing the tile floors of the First American National Bank) and paying my own way through UMD. So I don’t have cash to spend on a car. That’s how I end up with a broken down, rust infected 1963 Chrysler 300; the best car I can afford.

Despite the fact that I’m not a native son—I was born in St. Paul and moved to Duluth before kindergarten—my formative years were spent here, in the hilliest town east of San Francisco. Having attended Piedmont Elementary, Lincoln Junior, Denfeld High, and UMD, I consider myself to be a Duluthian. Like others who share that label, I learned at an early age to negotiate the steeps of this place regardless of weather. In fact, I took my driver’s test in a blizzard. Those of you who hale from more geographically sedate places, well, be honest: You don’t brave driving to or in Duluth when there’s snow in the forecast. Non-Duluthians just don’t buy that Duluthians can safely navigate our town’s perilous streets in winter. And yet, I’m living proof that we do.

Back to the Chrysler. I bought that car from my buddy Shane. Shane managed to amass a small personal fortune before he began college. Part of Shane’s wealth was automotive. Before his twenty-first birthday, the kid owned two Caddies, a Plymouth, and the Chrysler 300. He wanted fifty bucks for the Chrysler. I got it for half-price: complete with a busted power steering pump, an inoperable driver’s door, suspect brakes, and four bald tires.

A Saturday in January. I’m making a beer run across the old Arrowhead Bridge between Duluth and Superior before meeting up with my pal Larry. The drinking age in Minnesota and Wisconsin is 18 but in Superior, just across the St. Louis River from Duluth, you can buy Buckhorn for three bucks a case and get sixty-five cents back for the returnable bottles. I’m heading down 24th Avenue West in the Chrysler, thoughts of sipping cold beer on my mind. Just to be clear: I haven’t had a lick of anything stronger than milk to drink before driving.

The road conditions on Piedmont Avenue are snowy but manageable even for a rear-wheel-drive iron sled with bad tires. But as the hill steepens towards the Big Lake, as I get closer to Five Corners—a messy intersection that disappeared when the DOT gave us Mondale Drive—the snow turns to rain, which, because it’s below freezing, becomes ice. As I approach a stop sign, I tap the brakes. Nothing. I look to the left. I look to the right. There are no other cars entering the intersection as I slide onto 24th Avenue West. I take my foot off the gas. Doesn’t matter: gravity urges the car downhill. I pump the brakes. Still nothing. The old sedan, the heater roaring to keep ice off the windshield, the broken springs squeaking with each pothole, picks up speed. At 10th Street, I try the brakes again. The car does a complete one-eighty. I’m now looking uphill, back towards where I came from and the Chrysler shows no signs of slowing down. The only saving grace to my situation is that, unlike the idiot behind the wheel of my car, no one else is stupid enough to be on the road. The Chrysler leaps and plunges like a bucking bronco as it enters and exits plateaus announcing intersecting streets. I have my shoulder harness locked in but I’m pretty sure it won’t do me a lick of good if the Chrysler collides with a semi-truck at the bottom of the hill.

In my youth, it wasn’t uncommon for grain trucks to take shortcuts to the grain elevators located on Duluth’s waterfront. Every year, local television stations ran clips documenting the destruction wrought by runaway tractor-trailers full of corn or wheat or oats that lost their brakes on Duluth’s hills and ended up in the living rooms of unsuspecting citizens.

That’s gonna be me, I think, my gloved hands gripping tightly to a steering wheel that offers no solace. I’ll end up crashing into Rikala’s front porch, I fret, visualizing a friend’s home in line with my accelerating trajectory.

At the intersection of 24th Avenue West and 8th Street, I brake again. A rear tire catches pavement. The Chrysler whips around and faces downhill. The car continues to slide until, near 5th Street, I’m able to slam the passenger’s side front tire into the curb and stop the car.

That summer, I give the Chrysler away. The following winter, a snowstorm buries Duluth. Even with places to go and people to see, I have my pride. I don’t borrow the Jeep from Mom despite the fact it has four-wheel drive. Instead, I carry my skis to the top of Piedmont Avenue, slide ski boots into bindings, secure safety straps, and push off. I glide towards Lake Superior, making occasional turns to control my speed, until there’s no more hill to ski. On the flats, I pole and skate to West Duluth. I arrive at a familiar front yard. Larry, dressed in a snowmobile suit and helmet, is sitting on the seat of an idling Ski-Doo waiting for me. I release my bindings, hop on the rumbling yellow machine, and wrap my arms around my friend. Larry hits the gas. The snow machine floats around drift-encased cars and trucks. A mile later, we roar onto the Arrowhead Bridge. We pass the bridge’s toll station without slowing. There’s no one on duty but I know this: We wouldn’t have stopped to pay the toll even if the tollbooth had been manned.

(An edited version of this essay was read on KAXE’s The Great Northern Radio Show before a live audience at the Lincoln Park Middle School in Duluth on 11/12/2016.)

(c) Mark Munger 2016





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