Amongst the mosquitoes and lakes, the logging roads and the OHV routes that double as snowmobile trails in winter, the dispersed camping, the infrequent forest-maintained vault toilets, with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area just to the north and the largest freshwater lake on earth a short drive east, settled quietly alongside the conifers and horse flies of Minnesota’s Iron Range, sits The Trestle Inn (www.trestleinn.com).
It’s just a bar, I know. But it’s a bar with a burger called The Train Wreck: a beef patty, a layer of bacon, topped with a bratwurst patty, and ultimately covered in cheese. It’s a bar built out of trestles from a long-forgotten early 20th century railroad bridge. The Trestle is a north country oasis with cold tap beer, and most importantly, an ice chest next door to fill a cooler. The next available ice is almost 15 miles east via dusty, sometimes-maintained northern Minnesota logging roads. That’s over an hour, round trip, on a good day.
Our Caravan, Pt. 1
My 1983 Vanagon Westfalia had no business caravanning with a well- modified Classic Range Rover and a 1962 Series IIA Rover through the Iron Range. Sure, I could keep up with the Series at its max highway speeds (50mph? 55mph?), forcing the Rangie to slow to our pace. But off-tarmac? I was the off-road weakling of the group. And following these two drivers, I knew I’d find myself holding the gas pedal steady at 2,000 rpm’s while feathering the brakes to control acceleration through some forest mud hole, wishing I had a different gear ratio.
Yes, we were on this trip, “…taking it easy, we’ll mostly just canoe the lakes and maybe hike a bit.” And yes, we did stop to buy firewood that was already cut and split outside of Tofte, MN, at the pay-on-your-honor woodsman’s farm. But why would these things stop us from following a little red line in the Gazateer map book indicating an un-maintained forest road in search of more “natural” firewood on the way to our first night’s campsite? After a little back- country smashing around, we found plenty of wood and continued on our way. No harm, no foul, I suppose.
The Superior National Forest allows dispersed camping, but with the more relaxed nature of our adventure, we sought out designated ‘rustic’ campsites (sites that have few spaces, don’t accept reservations, have no fees, and offer a vault toilet as their only amenity). Some people in our small caravan had been to this part of the forest on canoeing and fishing trips before, and we followed their lead to our first stop on Ninemile Lake, near Finland, MN.
Priority One was to set up camp before the sun went down. Priority Two was to get dinner started. During the 20 minutes those guys spent wrestling with their ground covers, tents and sleeping bags, I raised the camper top on the Westfalia, made my bed, got out my camp table, stove, kitchen equipment, hunks of ribeye sliced thin, onions, salsa, cheese, tortillas, and of course, mixed a trail-worthy, end-of-day cocktail. I may not have been able to follow them through the deepest mud with the Westy, but when it came to setting up and taking down camp, those Rovers were the weaklings.
The Trestle Inn, Pt. 2
“I knew a woman born in a logging camp in this part of the state, daughter of the camp chef. She was 87 when I met her, and knew how to FaceTime video chat on her great-grandson’s iPad.” I was a city guy, uncomfortably talking to a north woods bartender at The Trestle Inn.
“You think those boys cut some of the wood in these walls?” She may have been chewing tobacco, I couldn’t tell.
As she went on with the sweaty business of washing dirty glasses and delivering burgers in the dark, non-air-conditioned, heat-of-August restaurant, I answered: “Probably not. She was born in 1915, the bridge went out of service in the 1920s, right?”
Her left hand full of dirty dishes, she put a menu down in front of me and flipped it over. She pointed to the first paragraph of the Trestle Inn’s history as though she was flipping me ‘the bird,’ looked me in the eye for a quick second as her closed-lipped jaw moved again (gum?), and walked off to the kitchen. I gave up on the small-talk long enough to appreciate the building’s unique railroad history.
Our Caravan, Pt. 2
Waiting for those guys and looking across Ninemile Lake and the setting sun, I thought to myself, “Cast iron cookware pairs well with older vehicles. It’s as though they have stories to tell one-another from an era we only know through nostalgic half-truths told by rambling old men. A simple egg cooked in cast iron near an old rig takes on the traits of every egg that’s ever been cooked in that skillet. And we, just for a short time as the camp chefs, take on the traits of every chef that’s cooked an egg in that skillet, or driven a dusty, foreboding road in those vehicles. We become pioneers, woodsmen, explorers, through flavor and adventure, and set aside the busyness of e-mail, accounting, laundry, grocery shopping. We becom…..”
My high-minded daydream came to a sudden end as I took the first bite of the the ribeye taco, and poured grease out the bottom on to my new, clean t- shirt. And as luck would have it, one of the guys was there to snap a photo.
After dinner we took turns in the canoe, we fished, we built a fire, told stories and took long exposure photos of the flames with the reflection of the moon on the lake in the background. Before going to bed we finalized plans for the next day’s short but steep (by flat-lander standards) hike on the Superior Hiking Trail.
The Trestle Inn, Pt. 3
“I wonder how long these forest roads have been here? They’ve logged this forest more than once since then, but maybe she rode on a sleigh behind a pair of horses down these very trails to take warm winter lunches to the lumberjacks?”
“Doubtful,” one of my companions said as he bit in to his Train Wreck. “Why do you say that?”
“You said the other day that she was born in Blackduck. That’s almost 200 miles from here.”
Huh. He was right.
“That’s still on the Iron Range,” I protested.
“Not really.” He kept eating.
“Well, I’m sure her dad used cast iron for cooking. But they probably didn’t have prime-grade ribeye.” “Or tortillas.”
The Trestle Inn: A purpose-built restaurant made to provide a little sanctuary for hard working and hard playing explorers in the north country. Our vehicles – the Rangie, the Series, the Westfalia: All purpose-built to get very different jobs done, all little mobile sanctuaries for those same explorers. We convened for the last time, miles away from nowhere, before the 6 hour drive back to the city. As we raised our glasses for a final toast, the bartender poured a short beer for herself and joined us.
“Here’s to a great few days on the Iron Range!” I said.
“Thanks for coming to The Trestle,” the bartender added.
As everyone clicked glasses, the bartender turned to toast the cook through the window to the kitchen. We all turned with her. The cook smiled our way, scrambled for something to raise in solidarity, and lifted, as if on cue, a beautifully aged cast-iron skillet.