Minnesota Public Radio News

By Siobhan Heanue

Ely, Minn. — I've been in Minnesota two weeks and this place just keeps getting wilder.

Often, introverts make the best adventurers. They're the ones who watch and learn, who have the patience to look for patterns in nature, to perceive threats. They seek out alternative ways from point A to point B, when there doesn't seem to be a way forward at all.

The small town of Ely, Minn., attracts adventurers and introverts. Those who come to get away in the summer, and those who choose to stay away and put down roots.

Right near the Canadian border, it's the gateway to pristine wilderness. It was built on lumber and mining in the late 1800s. You can see the bears, wolves and moose that once roamed vast stretches of the continent but have now been cornered into the northernmost regions.

Many people build isolated homes in the woods, or by lakes that freeze over in winter. But while the homes are isolated, the people here are anything but. I can hear wolves howling at night from the lakeside home where I'm spending the night, and yet I'm connected with the outside world by high-speed wifi Internet.

Remote border towns like Ely used to have strong traditions of listening to shortwave radio, picking up news channels from around the globe. The imperative to tune in to the world is made stronger by the immediate isolation. Today, reams of fiber optic cable lie by the roadside, ready to be laid. Because the farther out you are, the more important it is to stay connected.

Many of the townsfolk are well-traveled and actively engaged in community life. While the federal and state governments are cutting back on all sorts of aid and community projects in a debt-minimizing frenzy, the townspeople of Ely are stepping into the breach, filling the gap with their own generosity.

The local Habitat for Humanity chapter builds about five homes a year for people facing financial hardship. The money comes from local volunteers. The occupants pay off the home, interest-free, at a rate of about $300 a month. There's never been a foreclosure.

If the county roads are snowed under and can't be cleared quickly, people just stay put. They can deal with it. Most people grow vegetable gardens. They know how to hunt and how to fish. If they have to be self-sufficient, they know how.

There's a steely resilience that's hard to miss in these parts. There's patience, and a sense of shared responsibility.

They're the kind of characteristics America needs right now.

When adversity comes knocking, you'd want to make sure that Ely brand of resilience answers the door.

Siobhan Heanue, a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is visiting Minnesota as a fellow with the World Press Institute. She is a WPI fellow through the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.