Living, loving and appreciating what’s in front of us

Northern Minnesota: There is magic in small town life

| December 08, 2017

Article originally featured in Hometown Focus

 “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” –Dr. Seuss

Growing up in a small town can be frustrating, especially as a teen. I can still remember feeling endlessly disgruntled with the lack of dining and entertainment options in the area. It seemed all businesses were secretly involved in a game of Russian roulette, each year taking down another shop, threatening aim at anyone daring to open something new. To combat boredom, my friends and I would gather enough spare change to gas up my ancient Chrysler Lebron and pile in, Duluth-bound. We’d complain to anyone who’d listen about how “lame” our hometowns were and discuss plans to escape this “frozen tundra where dreams go to die.”

That’s how we saw it at sixteen. And now more than a decade has passed and, sadly, it appears this attitude continues to plague high schools like a rite of passage. It even persists in some who’ve left the area and look back on it through the disgruntled lenses of their teen years and early twenties. But if you ask me, I couldn’t be more grateful to have grown up in Hibbing and the communities that surround it.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case.

In high school, I hated being bored. I looked toward St. Paul/Minneapolis with envy as I sat across from my best friends in Country Kitchen, coffees at the ready. We’d lament about all we couldn’t do locally before “settling” for having a bonfire, going cliff diving, camping at Carey Lake, swimming at McCarthy Beach, stargazing at Maple Hill Park, or playing cards in the basement while singing along with our favorite albums. We’d make lists of ways to avoid dying of boredom- a very real concern- but first I’d have to thumb through pages upon pages of short stories, poetry, and the plays my friends and I had written before I’d finally locate a spare sheet to scribble on.

I didn’t know it then, but being “bored” was a huge blessing. Sure, I remember the fun of shopping the Miller Hill Mall and attending concerts at the Excel Center, but the memories that matter most, the ones that stick to the ribs, didn’t involve busy activities. They were simplistic in nature. Like that ride to the mall when my crush called my old Nokia cell phone to invite me over for a movie night. Or my friend I and getting lost for hours on the way to that concert and how we went from laughing to crying to laughing again because we didn’t know how to read a map. Let’s not forget the evenings of walking through hay fields discussing our dreams, or giggling as we canoed in circles because we didn’t know how to row. Those are the moments that meant something to me. Not going out to eat or buying shoes.

I’m a writer today because instead of having social media and non-stop distractions, I learned to entertain myself. I can’t imagine writers like Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Mitchell, or John Steinbeck complaining about the lack of local Starbucks or a Macy’s as they penned the great American novel.

And to the credit of these small towns, they’re doing the best they can, and what they do happens to be pretty wonderful. There are traveling concerts arranged by the Mesaba Concert Association, Christmas and Halloween villages, running events, Mesabi Trail biking events, street dances, parades, author signings, sledding and skating festivals, fishing contests, firework shows, craft shows, community classes, masquerade balls, archery tournaments, hunting, educators and entertainers constantly cycle through the Minnesota Discovery Center, Ladies Night Out events, plays, snowmobile races, craft beer festivals, etc. Publications like Hometown Focus dedicate entire booklets each season to all the attractions because there are so many.

So anyone who thinks there’s nothing to do simply isn’t paying attention. I certainly had no idea these events existed back then. I guess I was too busy making memories.

Whether a busy metropolitan or a quaint mining town, you have to take the good with the bad. When we allow a few negative people or unsavory encounters to paint an entire area and the people in it in a distasteful light, we’re the ones left in the dark; we miss out.

I constantly find myself taken aback by the kindness of others here. Cashiers chat with me like old friends, fellow shoppers (not workers) have returned my cart from the lot after paying me a compliment. I see people open doors for each other with big smiles on their faces. Our neighbors have dropped what they were doing to help us build our deck, and others have surprised us by plowing our driveway while we were at work, or leaving books on the stoop and delivering baked goods just because. We’ve had unspoken races to see who can shovel the other’s walkway first.

One winter, a couple I didn’t know willingly missed their doctor’s appointment because they insisted I wait in their warm vehicle the entire hour it took for the tow to arrive after my car broke down. I had a meal at a sit-down restaurant paid for by strangers one table over. I’ve witnessed people buy groceries for the person behind them in line. At Kind Mind, the meditation instructor generously used the donations to purchase winter wear for the homeless. My husband constantly stops to help people change tires, shovel/push out cars stuck in the snow, and recently he helped pull a stranger’s riding mower out of the ditch after it tipped and got stuck. His actions aren’t rare around here, not by a long shot. Most of the people I know would give you the shirt off their back without a second thought.

While I could go on, the point is, it’s always been this way. I just couldn’t see it. My old attitude of “just passing through” created a depressing tunnel vision I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Trouble is, once you get accustomed to honing in on the negative aspects of something, it’s a hard habit to break. You can trick yourself into hating anything. Imagine what might happen if we taught ourselves to find the good. Or to quit playing the comparison game and instead learned to enjoy all that’s available to us right here and now.

While it’s easy to get caught up in what we lack, what have in this area is the foundation that character and lifelong memories are built on. I wish I would’ve known. As an adult, I now look back on the first time I fell in love, the heartbreaks, the friendships I made here, and lessons each taught me, and my heart fills with gratitude. It was a small town that provided a gorgeous backdrop to learn and grow as a person as new ideas and dreams took root. It molded me into who I am today, and I wouldn’t trade that for all the entertainment and high-end shops in the world. Those experiences are what I’ll cherish as I travel through life along with the memories of the people who mattered and the immense joy they brought me.

So let’s not make the mistake of confusing busyness for happiness, and let’s not wait until years later to discover the magic that was in front of us the entire time. In the heart of the Northwoods, that magic is available to all- just as soon as we take our blinders off and look around a bit. And that’s the real magic, isn’t it? Learning to be at home wherever you are and loving those you’re with.


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