One of Ava Battocchio’s go-to spots in the Twin Ports is Lamborn Avenue in Superior, which was once part of the Interstate Bridge.
This section of concrete and grass tufts butts up against the Superior Bay, and the Blatnik Bridge runs across the sky in the distance. It used to be the connection between Duluth and Superior.
From here, Battocchio can also see grain elevators and boats at Fraser Shipyards.
She likes that aesthetic, too.
“This is my favorite weather,” she said on a recent afternoon dressed in a black North Face hoodie, jeans and the Asolo boots she wore while hiking the Appalachian Trail when she was a teenager. She wears two cameras - a Polaroid Land Camera and a Canon Rebel - the straps slung across her body.
It was 42 degrees with a steady mist of rain.
“This is Duluth doom and gloom,” she said.
Weather is a nonfactor. Battocchio, 29, spends much of her free time - rain or shine, sickness or health - exploring the concrete piles, abandoned buildings and secret staircases that quietly exist in pockets of the Twin Ports and beyond (some of her favorite spots are in Canada.) She gets out a few times a week - always on the weekends - and favors areas with hidden vestiges of another era: old graffiti, abandoned farmsteads, the remains of an old bridge. She photographs her finds, though that aspect of her exploration is relatively new.
“I call it ‘nostalgia chasing,’ ” she said. “I guess the technical term is ‘urban exploring.’ I kind of just like wandering around.”
Battocchio stopped to point out a land survey marker in the concrete next to deer tracks. It’s the kind of thing she notices.
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When Battocchio was 9, her father was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma and her parents traveled around the country trying to find a way to push him into remission. For seven years, Battocchio sometimes stayed with family and friends from her hometown of Redding, Conn., to spots in New York, Florida, New Jersey and back home again.
Her homelife was inconsistent, but her need to poke around was a constant. There were ruins behind one house and an abandoned concrete plant near another.
Battocchio remembered returning to a place where rows and rows of trees created hallways in the woods. Visually, it is still an aesthetic she lists among her favorite things - even though that particular space was long ago bulldozed to make room for housing.
“I explore to connect, to comfort homesickness,” she said. “But I’m not sure where home is.”
Battocchio got back into exploring a few years ago when, after getting a flat tire, she decided to spend the year without a car. She would take the bus and tour by foot. She would, for instance, walk from her then-apartment in the Central Hillside to Enger Tower.
Battocchio uses these jaunts as fodder for the short stories she writes, which she describes as lyric essays that are reflections on travel and emotional connection to previous places. She added a camera when she realized she was unable to recall things with the detail that she wanted.
From there, her return to exploring grew and grew.
“It’s turned into this beast where no one cares about my writing,” she joked. “They just care about my pictures.”
Now, she geeks out over her Canon’s pancake lens as much as she does about her favorite grain elevator. (Yes, she has a favorite grain elevator.)
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Much of her touring is done with Dan Turner, a historian who was doing a similar style of exploring even before they met a few years ago through a mutual friend while giving a road kill crow a Viking funeral in the Lester River.
During a recent adventure, Turner brought Battocchio to a spot he had been telling her about for a while. There was overgrown grass, railroad tracks and evidence of old docks.
They trade points of interest, Battocchio said. She might return from a trip to Canada with a story of an abandoned water park that he has to see. He might take her to Superior and set her loose in one of his favorite spots.
Battacchio paused to photograph rows of trees then wandered into the woods while deer played nearby. Turner hung back. He didn’t want to ruin any surprises she might find.
They have a code of ethics they share with the Sierra Club and other urban explorers.
“Take only pictures; leave only footprints,” Turner said.
They tend to split up when they go exploring, Turner said. Their interests are a little different - though they overlap - and they don’t want to finish the day with the same set of photographs. He likes finding initials carved in stone; she’s into colors and textures, he said.
“She’s from a different time,” Turner said of Battocchio. “She’s a little out of place. She finds herself when she finds the past. Something about her lights up.”
Battachio leaned over a slab of concrete.
“There’s water in here,” she called back to Turner.
She had found an old weigh station from this spot’s former identity as coal docks.
She kept on, down a road about a quarter mile away, there was a fence with a Battocchio-approved view.
“This is my favorite grain elevator,” Battocchio said, pointing off in the distance. “This is the elevator that got me hooked on elevators.”
Note: Though there was no signage indicating otherwise, this is not public property. Battocchio and company were later asked to leave the site, which they did easily and with an air of friendliness. Battocchio and the official had a conversation about the hidden points of interest while walking back to the car.
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Battocchio has a hard time describing the ideal day of exploring. Everything, it seems, holds something different. They were cruising Wisconsin backroads once and stumbled on a tiny yellow house with two massive trees on the sides of it.
That was a good find.
And then there was a recent trip to Canada where she found an old farmstead with the doors wide open and no one around for miles. She found old kitchenware that charmed at least one nostalgic follower of her photography.
Another good day: She was on back roads in Ontario, driving a beater car with five maps in the passenger seat. She crossed off the roads she had traveled and turned on her phone long enough for a friend to call and say:
“Are you coming home soon, we’re having bear sausage.”
Once you start looking at things, you start seeing more, Battocchio said. After noting points of interest on the exterior of the Twohy building in Superior, including at least one signature from the early 1900s etched into the brick, she promised guest explorers that they would never not notice that building ever again.
“You get used to seeing the world through tunnel vision,” she said. “Your phone, your friend’s house, where to get beer or buy brats.”
Exploring, getting to the details, changes all of that.
See Battocchio’s work at www.afbat.org
Dan Turner’s website is www.substreet.org