Impressions of Ely

Impressions of Ely
originally posted as Albuquerque Positive Thinking on Duke City Fix
republished in a slightly edited version in The Ely Winter Times, 2008-2009

Over my left shoulder, a wolf howls. The sled dogs respond from over my right. It’s probably getting close to 6AM, and I’ve been wrestling with that eternal debate of cold camping: do I get up to pee right now, or can I make it another hour?

The bladder wins, and I squeak across the hard snow in my boot liners. I’m squatting, exposing my delicate bits to the cold, when the wolf/dog call & return starts again. Dawn is flirting with the eastern horizon, and the stars are retreating by the dozens. I warm my fingers on my belly to make the sleeping bag zipper easier to work, and snuggle back down to watch the sun slowly illuminate the tiny forest of ice crystals that have accumulated around the opening of my bag, springing up overnight with my every exhale. The theme from Doctor Zhivago plays in my head, and I see the wisdom of fur hats.

We would find out later that this was our coldest night out, at 27 below.

After breakfast, my mom & one of our guides took turns flinging ladles full of boiling water into the air, to watch all that wet disappear into icy smoke and crystals. This is the Minnesota backcountry thermometer: below zero? Self-made snow. Above? Cold rain flies from the ladle. We didn’t see rain all week.

I could say so much about this trip. The land, the dogs, the cold, the ice, the stars, the quiet… but for the Fix I want to talk about Ely.

Specifically, I want to introduce you to Ely Positive Thinking.

Ely is easy to love, the way Crested Butte [a Colorado ski town] is easy to love. With all that space & beauty right outside your back door, how could you not fall a little head-over-heels? The difference is subtle, but important. It has to do with the people. Ely folk love their town, in a way I’ve not encountered anywhere else. They don’t just love it for the obvious reasons–the lakes and the loons and all those empty, empty acres of wilderness–they love it for what it is. And they love you for visiting it.

I’ve been told it’s a Midwest thing. I wouldn’t know–I’ve always thought of the Midwest as that flat bit in the middle that I have to get across to go somewhere interesting (I know, I know)–but even this Southern gal (raised amidst that fabled Hospitality) was surprised to be greeted like a cousin everywhere we went. The innkeeper, the coffeeshop patrons, the barkeep… everyone had time for small talk and everyone wanted to know how you liked their town. Maybe it’s different in summertime, when hordes of canoe-laden RV’s swarm, but somehow I doubt it.

Ely Positive Thinking sits as my exhibit A. This is a grassroots expression of one community’s love for itself. Black & white photos of Ely residents are posted in windows of downtown businesses. In these photos, smiling people (and occasionally smiling dogs) pose with signs bearing simple messages. Most are explicitly about why they love living where they do. Some are just about why they love living, period. All are positive. All are neighbors, driving the same roads, shopping in the same stores, enduring the same winters, seeing each other every day.

I’m not trying to romanticize a town here. I’m sure Ely has its share of disagreeable curmudgeons and young folk who can’t wait to get out of this $#@% town! The point is not to tell you about this utopia I found up in the north woods. The point is this: I grew up in a small town. Smaller, even, than little Ely. And I can’t imagine this campaign taking root there, at least not without enormous effort. Too much can’t-wait-to-leave and not enough appreciating what’s there. So it’s not just a romantic small-town thing. I don’t know when or how Ely hit on this special, common happiness, but once that seed sprouted, look how it grows.

Can you imagine the power of happy neighbors? Why not smile at the streets you walk on every day? Can a little Positive Thinking of my own start a love-wave rippling through Albuquerque? How does that great north woods affirmation, “Oh, yah, you betcha!” translate to New Mexico?