I lived for years on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where I worked as a miner as well as at other trades. One of the scenes that sticks most clearly in my mind is the pit of the Rocheleau Mine. It was a brooding presence, a yawning pit that had been shut down long before my arrival on The Range. I saw it often, though through a chain-link fence, as I walked to the end of the main downtown street of Virginia, a small town, and certainly small in relation to the mine.
The Rocheleau Mine was desolate in a breathtaking way, a hole in the earth three miles long and 450 feet deep. In winter the whiteness of the snow was dizzying, covering terraces and lakes of ice at the foot of sheer cliffs. Trees with sagging branches decked the far side, seemingly light-years away. On a typical winter day when the temperature might not climb above zero, time itself seemed to have frozen.
I remember how such winter scenes produced a contradictory impression. On the one hand, the steady snowfall, the relentless flake-by-flake accumulation, reminded me of the passage of time, the massing of it, second by second, year by year; but the end result was that of a pure and traceless timelessness, a total burial of the remembered landscape.
Over the years, thousands of miners had gathered in that now-abandoned pit, clowned and joked while waiting for the day to begin, stared bleary-eyed at towering equipment, and performed the hard and dirty work of their shifts. Desolate as it is now, this mine had once felt the warmth of human life and labor.