On the road: Documentary on towns along Highway 2 is in the works

Highway 2 from Michigan to Montana will be featured in a documentary film that will include Bemidji.

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Filmmaker Dirk Wierenga snaps a photo of the pipe organ at First Lutheran Church during his visit to Bemidji on Wednesday, Sept. 22. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Talk about a lengthy road trip.

Bemidji is in the middle of a 1,500-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2 that will be featured in an upcoming documentary film.

“Route 2 Elsewhere” is scheduled to be released sometime in 2021, according to filmmaker Dirk Wierenga, who made his latest trip to Bemidji last week. It is tentatively scheduled for release in April, but that could be delayed if the coronavirus pandemic does not subside.

“One of the things that really got me interested in Bemidji is that it’s a forward thinking community,” Wierenga said in an interview during his visit. “Bemidji really hits it out of the park.”


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Dirk Wierenga's documentary "Road 2 Elsewhere" will tell the stories of towns from Upper Michigan to Montana, including Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Wierenga has his post-production studio in his hometown of Grand Haven, Mich. His company, Principia Media, produced the 2018 documentary “D.B. Cooper: The Real Story” which he says solved the famous 1971 skyjacking mystery. While his work is completed at home in Grand Haven, Wierenga spends much of his time on the road filming and interviewing.

“I’m out here for a month, or month and a half at a time,” he said. “Then I go back there for a couple weeks and I do a heavy amount of post-production work so that I’m able to realize what I’ve got and what I need. Because the vision is already there.”

In the case of “Route 2 Elsewhere,” that vision is about telling the story of rural America on a stretch of road from the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan to the town of Shelby in the middle of Montana.

“I looked at (Highway) 2 because I knew it was rural,” he said. “It’s where the booms and busts have happened. It’s one of the longest stretches of rural in the contiguous United States. It’s in an area of the country that has been totally forgotten. I’m really looking at stories that are indicative of the area, but also indicative of the history. Because the history is so deep on (Highway) 2.”

Wierenga said that history is one of economic development in the United States. From east to west along the route, he plans to feature fur trapping, logging, copper and iron ore mining, farming, oil and ranching.

Some of those industries produced monumental wealth for families like the Carnegies and Rockefellers.

“That money didn’t stay here,” Wierenga said. “The minute that they didn’t have a need for it they just shut it down. So you have towns that have never come back from what happened 60 years ago.”


An example is Ironwood, Mich., which at one time had a population of 24,000, but now is under 5,000.

“It’s built on a footprint of a large town, so everything is supersized,” he said. “But they can’t get anybody to be there. They kind of live in that history, so they have trouble breaking out of that history. History needs to be honored and moved forward.”

By contrast, Wiergena has been impressed by Bemidji’s vibrancy. He interviewed Gary Johnson, CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications, about the cooperative’s trailblazing work in technology. He interviewed Michael Stittsworth about his innovative approach to local meat processing. And Bemidji State University President Emeritus Jim Bensen shared his insights into the community’s common goals.

“One of the things I think happened here was an understanding of the greater community,” Wierenga said. “You know they’re going to have disagreements but there’s an understanding of the general trend of where it’s going on.”

More information about "Route 2 Elsewhere" is available on Facebook and the IMDb website .

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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