Empire State of Mind

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.

–Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

It started with a baseball team, but it came to mean much more than that. New York has always held a special allure for me, a certainty that the universe revolved loosely around a constellation of stars somewhere between the World Trade Center and Times Square and Central Park and a ballpark at 161st Street in the Bronx. For my entire adult life, I have read a New York newspaper daily and a New York magazine weekly; the tales of some of the figures most dear to me, from Gatsby all the way down to my own scribbled notes, try to find their way through it. New York is a cultural touchstone with an infinite ability to attract the best and bring out the fullest, often flawed but always possessed of an undying allure.

Labor Day weekend of 2021 is a curious time to visit New York. I arrive amid an ongoing pandemic that has ravaged this city harder than most. As I take the train in from the Newark airport, floodwaters from the freak remains of Hurricane Ida loiter on New Jersey roads, the planes and trains that fuel the beast cut off until the day before my arrival. A somber mood lingers at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers, and in the immediate aftermath of the end(?) of the 9/11 Era’s misbegotten wars. When I pop out of Penn Station, the streets seem almost sedate. Where’s that frenetic, addicting pace I remember from the past?

And yet this is the perfect time to head to the center of the American imperium. I’ve kept up an aggressive travel pace over this past year and a half, but these journeys have been solitary, or at least involved trips with other people into natural solitude. I am hungry for a trip in and among people, raring to once again sample the full range of humanity, to stride down famed streets and pay homage at some of its shrines. My host and I will fill every moment of my 70 hours in New York, put on double-digit miles in less-than-ideal shoes, drink it all in as I know we can.

That host is Andrew, my Georgetown friend and Minneapolis roommate currently wrapping up a one-year stint as a New Yorker. He has temporary lodging in Carroll Gardens, which sits a few neighborhoods south of the Brooklyn Bridge. This is my first time exploring Brooklyn, an urbanist’s feverish fantasy made real. It is a step below Manhattan overload, with dense, historic homes, many carved up into smaller units that nonetheless still feel like familiar neighborhoods. Shops and restaurants sprout up on corners, all within walking distance, and narrow streets dotted with new outdoor seating and bike lanes calm the traffic and make it easy to cycle or scoot around the borough. Here are some Caribbean neighborhoods, there historically black Bedford-Stuyvesant, Russians down on the south end, the liberal elite doing their things in Park Slope, Italians living out that New York stereotype from a different area; no matter the business, Latin music is probably pumping out of it, because the Hispanics are everywhere too. Free-range children make the streets their own, and give it an urban life that one cannot find in adult playground cities like San Francisco. After time in New York, several friends observe, the streets anywhere else feel dead.

Andrew and I take on New York in full: bagels for breakfast and pizza for one dinner, staying out later than our 30-year-old bodies would normally allow. The first night takes us to a Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant, where the molé and the accompanying mezcal flight brings about a bliss powerful enough to overcome the stench of the Gowanus Canal. On the second, after the pizza, we head out on the town in Williamsburg: a lucky seat at the Four Horsemen and a sample from its famed for its natural wine list, and a nightcap at a German beer hall. We are old by Billyburg standards, but we can still make our way among the cool kids. On our final night we traverse the borough by foot, from Carroll Gardens straight over to our final stops in Bed-Stuy, with Park Slope and Prospect Park to distract us on the way. This is the only way to travel, no moment wasted, no chance to observe left unused.

As my credit card bill from the weekend can attest, New York is a city of extremes, and nowhere in America is insane wealth more ubiquitous. On a first day stroll up to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and into Dumbo, I ask about the helicopters shooting up and down the East River. Upon learning that they are mostly rich people shuttling back and forth between the city and their places in the Hamptons, I suddenly understand why people here vote for Bernie Sanders. Prior to the Yankee game, we take a Labor Day walk up a quiet Wall Street. Twenty years after terrorists targeted it, downtown Manhattan remains the financial capital of the world. The only real damage to American supremacy has been self-inflicted.

This School of Foreign Service graduate has stopped and started three blog posts on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the twenty years of war that have now come to an ignominious close. Everything about it strikes me as a tale of hubris and decline, and the 2000s now look like a disastrous diversion that may shift the center of the world away from this great city and toward some rather less friendly place. But yet here is New York, still marching along, its power for good or ill only consolidated since terrorists tried to stab at its heart in 2001. The same can be said for its pandemic resilience: yes, there have been losses, some of them great, but the data already belie any tale of collapse. I also find New York’s Covid era policies, with regular vaccine card requirements for entry but mask mandates only in crowded indoor spaces, the best-adjusted to reality of any I’ve encountered in my travels. New Yorkers are in the game to crush the virus and get back to living as they prefer, not to lurch along in fear or accommodation of it.

For those of us for whom private helicopters are not an option, a series of ferries offer one of the more fun ways to drink in that New York life. They cruise up and down the East and Hudson Rivers at a surprising speed, with added routes around to the south side of Brooklyn and one even striking out boldly toward the promised land of Staten Island. Ferry passengers get new perspectives up at iconic bridges and across at skylines, an ongoing immersion that is hard to find when reliant on the subway. When my dad and I visited here on a college tour, he likened that experience to that of a gopher popping in and out of holes. A few rickety rides between these old tiled platforms quickly form strong opinions: the F is painfully slow, the 6 regularly ghosts, and the 4 is speedy but an eternal mystery over where it will actually stop. New York both exacerbates the wealth gap and then flattens it, subjects all but a select few to the same crowded platforms and scheduled maintenance delays.

The pandemic and the floods shed new light on a city fraying some at the edges, duct taped together in an effort to keep century-old infrastructure running, threatening to lurch toward a new status quo where nothing is fixable or ever on time. Except on rare occasions, the difference between third- and first-world cities is not so much in any immediately visible levels of chaos, but instead in the belief in the systems behind it all. If resignation reigns, if people expect that everything will run poorly and nothing will get better, well, they are probably right. New York teeters on the edge at times, but most people still nurse higher expectations against all odds. Things may yet get better, the eternal promise of the liberal, progress-oriented mind. And when they do go awry, New Yorkers have a talent for handling these situations in a way that we Minnesotans will not: just yell loudly.

This attitude is on display at Yankee Stadium on Labor Day. The Bronx Bombers, fighting to maintain a playoff spot, blunder their way through an anemic and error-filled performance, while the pitching serves up four home runs in an 8-0 loss to Toronto. Even in a game with nothing to cheer, spontaneous chants erupt all around our section at least once an inning. This is no Target Field picnic in Minneapolis: everyone is engaged, knows the players and their flaws. They offer up goofy random remarks and the continued graphic serenades of Houston Astro José Altúve that have been a staple of every game since his one and only visit this season back in May, that scumbag cheater. (Forgive me if my biases are showing.) After a scrub pitcher gives up a grand slam in the ninth and makes the game a laugher, the crowd fully turns, the boobirds out in full force. Ah well; at least it was a beautiful day for a ballgame.

The Yankees may look moribund, but they will be back thanks to New York’s saving grace: an eternal hope for reinvention. I find one such sign in Moynihan Train Hall, a sparkling new Beaux-Arts facility that combines a grand new atrium with an old post office to hearken back to the late, great original Penn Station, an inspiring reminder that iconic public infrastructure really is still possible. A second comes on Little Island, New York’s newest burst of civic fascination, an art installation as a public park that invites senseless serendipitous wandering, both casual and immersive, depending on one’s mood. Its nearby forerunner is the High Line, a repurposed promenade along an elevated train line that is now thick with plant life growing up out of the concrete. These living parks blend New York’s brutal monumentality with a resurgence of nature, a sense of what a rebirth from ruin can be. Progress, however, comes in fits and starts: at the end of the High Line is Hudson Yards, a new, gleaming, soulless and inconvenient behemoth for rich corporations and luxury shopping. I would call it a billionaires’ playground, but if this is how billionaires have fun, the status may not be worth the hype.

I recover from any lingering annoyance at ugly developments with a stroll up Central Park East to the Met. The art museum first captured my imagination as a kid when I read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but this is the first time I’ve set foot in America’s largest art museum. Alas, I fear hiding away in the Met is now much harder than it was when the book was published in the 60s, which is a shame, because I would gladly do so and spend a few nights here. Two and a half hours with no agenda lead me to wander from Greek and Roman art to Middle Eastern carpets, from French impressionists to halls of sculptures, through European period rooms past arms and armor to the Temple of Dendur (closed for construction) and some of the Egyptian rooms. I’ve only scratched the surface of this collection, that New York centralizing force at its absolute finest.

New York’s greatest works of art, however, may come in its human tapestry, and I am here to wrap myself in that urban fabric I have missed so dearly. Dozens of Instagrammers on the same street in Dumbo, rows of families grilling along the Brooklyn Heights waterfront, an urban motorcycle gang by Prospect Park, and the J’Ouvert festival of Caribbean pride livening up the streets of Crown Heights. A reality show casting event in Hudson Yards (a fitting locale); old Upper East Side dames with their marvelous accents and gaudy glasses and batty clothes. Kids attack the streets narrow of Brooklyn on bikes and skateboards with more confidence than I could muster on an empty six-lane highway. An earnestly cool young couple buried in some newspaper tarred in leftist slogans, a man straight out of hipster central casting reading a DIY book, the guy at the next table at the wine bar rattling on about his tasting journeys. A lone young artist on a bench in the Met, the outside world tuned out, deep in a sketch of a Roman statue. A towering Black man in drag getting handsy with his travel companion, a rowdy extended family of grumbling Yankee fans, the lady behind the bar whose small talk gives a single boy a little flutter. “She’s holding an ice cream cone!” a four-year-old proclaims upon his first viewing of the Statue of Liberty from the airplane window. Here, perhaps, is a true symbol of freedom.

After a rush of New York experiences on the first two nights, my final one is all about people: college-era friends who have settled into very different lives in the American capital to drink it up. First, Andrew and I do a vegan dinner with Eileen in Crown Heights, and later we get drinks with my old roommate Phil in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he and Jess, another fellow Hoya, have just bought a brownstone and begun to nest. We catch up and get takes on pandemic life in New York, on Brooklyn neighborhoods, on how to get around the city, on the life stages we’ve entered now that we’re nearly ten years out of college. All the pieces are back in place, and maybe nothing has changed since we went out in Georgetown and wandered the cobblestones and stumbled back to the house on R Street, fully in the thralls of our fortunate lives.

Time, however, does not let us stay in these nostalgia trips, and in all of us I detect a new level of self-assurance, a deeper knowledge of who we are. My friends all live out some version of that New York pursuit. Eileen navigates life changes with an aplomb I could not muster, while Phil and Jess start to put down roots; Andrew, for his part, is very ready to say Goodbye to All That. I am sympathetic to his exhaustion with the uglier side of New York, and eager to visit him as he moves back to our old haunts in DC. There are a thousand eminently rational reasons for why New York is not my path, and I do not regret that life has not led me to pursue a Manhattan apartment or a Brooklyn brownstone or weekend choices between Nantucket or the Hamptons.

And yet the pull is just as strong as it was since I came here as a 16-year-old, just as fresh and intoxicating as it looked to teenage eyes, spared Joan Didion’s cynical and discerning eye because that distant ideal is probably all it will ever be. It is still the imperial capital, the height of the civilization I live in, and emblematic of all its glories and its horrors, humanity’s promise and belief in new beginnings tied up in its troubles and threats and the unavoidable insularity that comes when like-minded people cluster together in one place. I do not live in it, but I need it to set the standard I use to measure everything else. Ever upward.

WRT IV: On the Road Again

This post is the second of two on my 2021 western road trip. Part 1 is here.

For the fifth time in six years, I am headed west in summer, and for the fourth time, this venture comes by car. In part, it’s a matter of convenience: travel from Duluth by air would still take a lot of time, and it allows me to ferry objects like bear spray and fuel canisters that my plane-bound fellow hikers cannot. But I have also fallen rather deeply for the roads across the high prairie, for the open skies and the baking sun, for the sudden anonymity found in rest areas and scattered parks across badlands and foothills of great peaks. It is my own little nod to the myth of the West, a pursuit of the frontier in a world that now disdains them. To drink its possibility, if only for a little while, intoxicates.

I orchestrate a work trip across central Minnesota the day before my scheduled departure, and upon my release from those obligations, my trip starts in a traversal of mind-numbing St. Cloud and up Interstate 94. A malign haze has hovered over Duluth during this summer of fire, and upon first viewing, the big skies of the West are no different, shrunk down to size by the same dark cloud. The view from the 12th floor of the Jasper Hotel in Fargo, which should reach off to eternity, sometimes dies as close as one block away.

Still, thanks to some recommendations from a native son, Fargo proves it’s much more than a stereotype from a movie in which it didn’t really figure. Its downtown is booming, bustling, and filled with both newly developed and tastefully rehabbed old storefronts. The Jasper is chic, and the beers at Drekker Brewery, a former train maintenance facility, are top-notch. Having crossed the Red River into a red state, concerns about Covid have seemingly ceased to exist. My whole stay there feels like a throwback to sometime in my mid-20s, free to enjoy certain novelties as if they were new again, if perhaps shrouded in an uncertain fog.

Beyond those few square blocks of downtown, though, Fargo’s sprawl is dismal, and the smoke has made eastern North Dakota, one of the most boring landscapes on earth, even more boring. I drive on without stopping. For my listening pleasure, it’s some Plato on the prairie, a world away from the soybean fields I pass. But as usual, the rising hills beyond Bismarck signal the start of something new, and I pause to pay my respects to Salem Sue, the giant cow gateway to the West.

Last year, when I visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park, it felt like I had acquired a private 70,000-acre retreat. Across a two-night backcountry stay I saw only scattered visitors and three bison. This time, on a three-hour visit in which I don’t go over a quarter mile from the road, the cars crowd in, and the bison number in the hundreds. The combination of animals and humans makes for slow going, and the drought-plagued Little Missouri River is a sorry shell of its usual self, but my ventures somewhat off the road, both down Wind Canyon and out to a promontory off the Boicourt Trail, remind me why I fell for this landscape so completely a year ago. Its tumbled badlands still offer up that perfect mix of forbidding austerity and teeming life, an apt summation of the West and all that it has meant. I’ll be back again.

On this night, however, I push on another hour to Makoshika State Park, just over the Montana border and through the shabby town of Glendive. My campsite up Cains Coulee is a bit drier than Theodore Roosevelt and lacking in bison, but the things that make that park great apply here, too. I feel a bit silly as the lone tent camper surrounded by four RVs on my little circle of the campground, but overcome a tent malfunction to enjoy my dinner and loop up the bank of the coulee past the vertebrae of a hadrosaur for a few sips of mezcal from an overlook above my camp. The sun fades away behind a ridge and into the haze as my legs dangle off a bench made ever higher by the steady erosion of the badland dirt. A thunderstorm strikes not long after I return to camp, and I make do with a writing session in the car, the stressors slipping away as I fall deeper into this trip.

Evenings in car campgrounds in the West are inevitably spent among a unique subset of humans known as RV people. RV people are couples with an average age in their 60s, probably own a dog, and usually come from rural or semi-rural areas of non-coastal states. They are unfailingly nice and always make small talk, usually expressing something on a spectrum between admiration and concern for the choices of us tent people. Their lifestyle does have a certain allure. They have the comforts of home while living itinerant lives, a convenience that allows my three neighbors at Makoshika to just pull back the blocks holding their tires in places and roll off in the morning while I putter about stuffing various fabric objects back into sacks. On the other hand, my time among them involves being lulled to sleep by the dulcet drone of generators, their beds look rather sucky for anyone over six feet tall, and something always seems to be breaking in those big rigs. RV drivers also run the risk of being that big vehicle that clogs the ascents of mountain passes or piddle along at 18 miles per hour on their way out of Theodore Roosevelt, both prospects that mortify me at this stage of life. We’ll revisit these biases in a few decades and see if they still hold.

I spend my morning hiking Makoshika. The first stop is the Cap Rock trail, where I go in search of a natural bridge but see it only from the top and from some distance, as a family and I are twice thwarted by sloppy slides down the infamous, sticky mud of the northern badlands. Enough of this: I drive to the end of the road in the park, a horse trail that rides along a high ridge and feeds out to an overlook named Artist’s Point. The vistas along the way match those in most any national park, the baroque twists of this furtive land weaving out in every direction. There is a campsite here, tucked in a pine grove atop the cliff, and even with no convenient water, I file this one away for some future venture.

The high plains keep me alert as I drive west toward Billings, up and down the washes and along the Yellowstone River through towns bearing names of figures from the Plains Wars, some of whom appear in my audiobook choice that carries me through the rest of the trip, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Its tone is a necessary corrective to the common lament about the Native American experience often served up in learned circles, and one I was drinking in fully on my trip through here last year. Yes, it is a sad tale of many deaths and betrayals and declines, but it is also one of perseverance, of continued existence even in the face of improbable odds. The message from its Ojibwe author, David Treuer, is, well, truer and more heartening than the easy cynicism of privilege-checking progressive thought.

My hiking companions on this trip are forced to come from Denver, the nearest place they could guarantee a car rental, and Uncle Bob calls to say they are three to four hours behind my pace. I take a detour to Pompeys Pillar National Monument, a promontory above the banks of the Yellowstone where one William Clark, split from Meriwether Lewis to explore this river on his return from Oregon, graffitied his name on the rock. A jog up the stairs to the top of the rock wakes me up, and a stroll through the cottonwoods along the riverbank has me feeling fresh. This pleasure fades some in Billings, whose dust- and smoke-choked strips I negotiate to collect some bear spray for our party. I worry the West is fully shrouded in wildfire, but an hour later, in Red Lodge, I see the bluest sky I’ve seen in weeks.

Red Lodge is a resort town, which means that, unlike the dismal highway strips I’ve traversed over the past two days, it has actual charm. Boutiques and restaurants line Broadway through its center, and its occupants range from wealthy tourists to hordes of motorcyclists to ski bums scraping along through the offseason. Bucolic scenes in the West, however, come at a price: $350,000, namely, for in-town, bland, out-of-date homes. Red Lodge also suffers from the same Covid Era crisis of rural escapes everywhere: lacking workers, many of its eateries close early, and the milling throngs wait in lines for the few places that are open. As with my fellow hikers’ journey from Denver, nothing is as easy as it used to be.

Our sojourn in Red Lodge provides us with another, less savory taste of Western life: an encounter with small-town police, who prove noxious busybodies as they harass one member of our crew the night before we begin our hike. Upon our return to Red Lodge later in the week, we make a joking show of checking every light on my car, and I put it in cruise control at 25 down Broadway. It may not have been excessive: as we leave dinner at a restaurant, we see the police fly off a side street and nail someone else. Gotta hit that quota, I suppose.

In search of some variety, I choose a longer road home: instead of plowing straight back east along I-94, I’ll swing follow a more southerly route to knock off a few new scenic sights. It doesn’t quite go to plan. Due to fires, I am denied a two-lane side trip across the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations on US 212 and forced to swing south on I-90 through Sheridan, Wyoming. Still, the Big Horn Mountains above Sheridan enliven the raw high plains, and the Wyoming wastes encourage a certain awe. I leave the freeway to stop at Devils Tower and circle the great butte on foot, stretching my legs amid 95-degree heat and hawks on updrafts and Native American prayer cloths and the crush of tourists from around the country. The Black Hills are swamped with motorcyclists in town for Sturgis, joy-riding here and there and everywhere. I have dinner on the Wall Drug strip in Wall, South Dakota, which is an experience if nothing else, and from there make my way south into Badlands National Park.

I arrive at Badlands near sunset. Ethereal beams from the sun filter through the clouds and bring a grey-pink light to the craggy slopes. Looming thunderheads light up in the sun’s presence, and as I wind my way along the park’s highway, the sun turns to blood red as it peeks between clouds. A prairie wind flits across the whole landscape, and here and there travelers have stopped atop the craggy landscape to sit and drink it in. I am loath to rush my way down the road, but nightfall is quickly shrouding the slopes in darkness, and for my trouble the rain begins just as I park at my very exposed site in the car campground. I deal with bathroom tasks and wait it out beneath the picnic shelter, watching the great thunderheads roll through before I set up camp by headlamp. I nod off as the day cools into a bearable temperature, content with a final night in a tent.

There is nothing to say about the rest of the drive; the road from the Badlands to Mankato, Minnesota, is deathly dull, before the banks of a low-water Minnesota River provide some intrigue for the final push into Minneapolis. This part is just the down-payment before cashing in on the rest, the West in all its stark beauty and forlorn silence and the crowds that come to seek it. The open road beckons, and I know I’ll answer its call again.

WRT IV: On and Off the Beaten Path

This is part one of two on a recent western road trip.

Another year, another hiking adventure somewhere in the West. The gang is all here: Jim, the founding father of these hikes whom I have yet to travel with; Ed, who is methodically knocking out sections of the nation’s great trails; my Uncle Bob, our fearless leader; Amy and Betsy, our moral support and frequently our source of entertainment; and my cousins Rob and Alex. We are set to disappear for four nights into the backcountry.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness contains just shy of one million acres of National Forest lands across its namesake mountain ranges in Wyoming and Montana. It is best known for the Beartooth Highway, a 1930s engineering marvel that maneuvers some of America’s most spectacular switchbacks on its nearly 6,000-foot climb before disgorging its travelers into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. After arriving in Red Lodge, I take part in the expedition to drop two vehicles at the Clarks Fork trailhead up along the pass. We will come here when we get off the Beaten Path, the name of the trail we will hike this year.

The exact length of the Beaten Path is a source of dispute on our hike. Most official sources put it somewhere in the neighborhood of 26 miles, while a map in my possession pins it at 27.5, and several segments tracked by step counters suggest the real number may be closer to 30. Regardless, it does not owe its beaten status to its ease: it is a rugged climb up above the tree line. The trail provides views of 16 lakes, countless waterfalls, and offers no shortage of inviting off-trail scrambles up toward higher peaks. Most through hikers begin at the Beartooth Highway and make their way down to East Rosebud Lake, a course that leads to a net loss of 2,000 feet of elevation; as suckers for a good view, however, we trust accounts that tell us the longer slog from East Rosebud is the more dramatic way.

The hike begins at an elevation of about 6,200 feet at East Rosebud, where a large trailhead sits at the end of a gravel road for which the word “washboard” cannot quite do justice. The Beaten Path follows two creeks for nearly its entire length, climbing up into the mountains along the valley carved by Rosebud Creek and then back down along Russell. Our first climbs take us past towering serrated spires of rock: the bears’ teeth that gave these mountains their names are not literal. Lunch comes in the shade along the placid waters of Elk Lake, where several families have day-hiked in for picnics and fishing. But after Elk, the trail takes on a new tenor. An ascent begins through a boulder field, baking in midday sun, and us three millennials in the party set off at our own pace so that we can establish camp and come back to relieve any stragglers of their burdens. The altitude has some affect on Alex, who also has the indignity of needing to rescue his hat from a pool in the creek when a strong wind blasts it off on the bridge across the outlet of Rimrock Lake. The scenery forgives such misfortune, however: the falls below Rimrock and its turquoise waters tucked between the rock faces ensure us we’re climbing toward a Shangri-La.

A few more climbs, a few more bends, and we’re above Rainbow Lake, an even more vivid azure pool. We wrap along a ledge of scree to a meadow on its far end, which is our home for the first night. We dine and toast to the late Mary Ellen, who joined this crew on its very first venture into this same wilderness a decade ago. I sleep poorly. The next morning, we have our customary slow start before we begin switching up from Rainbow Lake with repeated views back. The next landmark, Lake at the Falls, lives up to its name, the waters tumbling down from great heights into its substantial depths. We eat at the outlet of Doogan Lake, where the exposed granite rising from the creek evokes the glacier-worn Canadian Shield in my mind; at the lake’s far end, Impasse Falls provides the most dramatic cascade of the trail.

Today the advance party consists of just two: Rob and I fly on up to the far end of Dewey Lake, where we scout out a camp in a few depressions between its rocky knobs and again act as the cavalry. We recover easily enough, though: debate through dinner is vibrant as ever, and later, Rob, Amy, and I spend an impromptu evening on the rocks over the lake, watching as the stars come out, bright as in Joshua Tree or the Boundary Waters and tonight enhanced by the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. However beaten this path may be, it is stunning.

In the morning I finally concede and take my first dump of the trip. Digging a hole with a trowel is perhaps the most exasperating wilderness task, but the satisfaction that comes from a successful purge can make a day. As such, I’m in good form even when the trail out from camp, despite a seemingly tamer elevation profile, proves just as rugged. Above Dewey the trees, already reduced to nothing but high-altitude conifers, begin to thin into alpine meadows dotted with pools of meltwater and rainbows of wildflowers. Snow fields remain on nearby peaks at similar elevations, and after a rest that somehow remains tiring amid plateau-top wind and relentless sun, we come to Fossil Lake, an austere, sprawling basin above the tree line that is the source of Rosebud Creek.

Bob says our time above the tree line will be life-changing. My 2021 to date has been one of tedium, delight in things that are only fun because they were not much available over the previous year and brightened by an usually large number of escapes to other places. July in particular was freighted by weighty family events of very different flavors, and while I do not normally advocate for running away from things, a week and a half somewhere else was definitely in order. Pent-up energy erupts in bursts up and down these slopes, and no lack of sleep can slow me. Finally, up here near the top of the world, I find a comfortable pace.

We wrap around Fossil’s probing arms and make a brief climb to the height of land on this hike, a small mound of stones at 10,000 feet. This feels like something one might find in the Himalaya, and I half expect to see Buddhist prayer flags fluttering around the stones. We make our contributions to the pile and begin the descent of Russell Creek, the relentless sun sapping our energy. We come to a crossroads of sorts between Unnamed Lake with Island and Ouzel Lake, struggling to tell which campsite is the one other hikers told us to take, but Alex finds a sprawling one just up from Ouzel that offers views down the whole valley of Russell Creek. This will be our home for the next two nights. I place my tent on a ridge overlooking the others and set up the hammock, while Rob dives into Ouzel, his reactions to the frigid water audible from over our small ridge; I supplement our bourbon supply with my mezcal, and the mix of freeze-dried dinners seems best this night. Finally, I sleep through a night, though there are still interruptions in the forms of hooves and silhouettes of mountain goats, visible along with the stars and Perseids through my open tent fly.

The next day is a rest day of sorts, but only Jim and Ed really hang back, and the other six of us set out on an adventure off the Beaten Path. (Yes, we made these jokes incessantly.) In consultation with Bob’s creatively cut and laminated USGS survey maps of the area, Rob and I calculate a route and lead the party across a boulder field on the opposite site of Ouzel. We scramble up a knot-filled, ankle-turning grassy slope studded with rocks and ride a ramp up to a small plateau. Here we cross open parks and skirt ponds, eventually traversing a saddle to a view down to Lake of the Clouds, a deep, lonely deposit of snowmelt that slips down a cliff toward Russell Creek below. We summit two small peaks on either side of our perch, one an arm reaching up toward Mount Rosebud beyond, the other with a stunning, broad view down the full valley of the Russell, out across an endless march of ridgelines past the Beartooth Highway toward jagged Pilot Peak and its towering neighbors. It is as good as they come.

We scramble back down, waylaid occasionally by false trails and questionable cliffs, before we find the route we took up. The ensuing hammock session is among the best I’ve ever had, and later, I dip my legs in Ouzel and wash myself off. I could repeat days like this one unendingly. The mountain goats return in the night, and again, I find some measure of sleep, peace brought about by comfort in my cocoon and pleasure at a day’s work and the poetry of N. Scott Momaday and, yes, I confess, a healthy helping of melatonin.

Our final day on the Beaten Path starts with an aggressive descent down to Russell Lake, yet more of the intrepid trail builders’ endless switchbacks taking us down to this lake where we can see the trout milling about even from some distance. Below the lake, Russell Creek sinks beneath a boulder field, gurgling steadily as we follow it. The forest spreads into stands of mature pines flecked by blowdown, providing little shade; our plan for lunch along Kersey Lake is temporarily foiled when the trail unexpectedly turns up an exposed ridge, and we are gassed by the time we settle in on the other side. Thankfully, the end is near. We push on to the Clarks Fork, the motorcycles on the Beartooth Highway welcoming us back to civilization. I drive Betsy, Alex, and Rob back down the great road, and we gawk at the switchbacks and shake our fists at the terrible driver in front of us and finally clean up before dinner at an old downtown Red Lodge hotel.

As usual, hiking is a jumble of emotion. We delight in beauty and yell angry things at hills, depending on our moods. Hours of preparation and veteran wilderness competence occasionally collapses into farce, a fate from which none of us are immune: there is the failed flush of the water filter that forces frantic purification by tablet, and the realization that the missing container of booze has, in fact, been in a side pocket of one of our backpacks the whole time, never in a bear can and practically begging for a nighttime visitor. Chicken fettucine accidentally becomes tuna fettucine with a hint of chicken, and we endure the usual struggles of sunburn and frequent pack adjustments and, in my case, the loss of a basket on a hiking pole serendipitously overcome when Bob finds a matching one at a later campsite. By the fourth night, I decree that even the tastiest freeze-dried options begin to lose their luster.

But these mishaps only enhance our tales of the trip, and several in the party rank this among the best hikes the group has ever done. We have followed the Beaten Path and beaten out a few new paths along the way, the views and satisfying aches worth every small annoyance. These chances to escape do not change a life overnight, but they do give spurts of inspiration that can, in time, come to form the basis of something. It is up to those of us who tread these paths to make good on that promise.

Here is Part 2.

The Snows of Lesser Peaks

The new kid drops into the seat next to Evan. He suppresses a sigh. This is the last thing he needs, this chatty rich New Yorker in his pastel button-down and boat shoes. Granted, his parents’ well-timed divorce conveniently filled a hole on Evan’s hockey team with his goaltending skills, but as he watches the kid brush his blonde swoop of hair into place and check it in his phone’s camera, Evan is struggling to remember why he’s let this kid drift into his orbit.

“C’mon Evs. Gotta make some girls thirsty.” Mark snaps a photo of the two of them and blasts it out to his not-insignificant following.

“Not in the mood.” Evan pulls his sweatshirt hood up over his cap and retreats into his shell, even though it is a sticky, 90-degree day in the Twin Cities. After five summer tournament games in three days his muscles ache, his gimpy ankle flares up, and he would like to do nothing more than shut out the world and read a book on the bus ride back home. Bridget is gone for the week at her family’s cabin, so there is no cuddle in a hammock waiting for him back home. His mom won’t be home until late, and he’ll have to come up with his own meal. His aunt and cousin are coming up for the weekend; he needs to clear enough space on his floor to add an air mattress for Colin. He is a strange bundle of nerves, tense all over, a feeling he remembers only from that summer two years prior when his life turned upside down.

Mark tugs at Evan’s hood with a finger. “Moody Evvy is my favorite Evvy.”

“Oh, fuck off. And don’t call me that.”

Mark’s smile only grows wider. “God. Love having a bro who can see through all the bullshit.”

“At least someone else can see that it’s bullshit.”

“Aw yes. You in deep.” Mark fires off a few replies to the immediate comments on his picture. “Can give you an escape tonight if you want.”

“What you got?

“My dad’s gonna get me some booze when he picks me up. We can pregame before we go to Jack’s tonight if you want.”

“Bridget says I’ve been partying too much since you moved here.”

“Yeah, I think I’ve seen you have two whole drinks. Real rebel there.”

“It’s not that. I’m just not in the mood for a big group.”

“We could just hang at my mom’s. She’s having a girls’ weekend down at the casino, got herself a room.”

“Is every weekend girls’ weekend for your mom?”

“Pretty much.”

“That does sound like more my speed right now.” The words come out before Evan can even think.

Mark beams. “You just wanna chill and read on the way back?”

“Uh, yeah. That exactly.”

“I got your back, bro.”

“You’re my hero, Marks.” Evan exhales and fishes a book out of his bag and sets in. A teammate wanders forward to ask them about the team hangout at Jack’s, but Mark brushes him off with a casual swat, says he and Evan may need an evening as lovers together. Evan finds it in himself to laugh before he retreats behind his cover.

Mark tunes in and out of the conversations behind them on the bus: one kid’s struggles with a girl, the rehashing of another’s sloppy day on the ice, a group hammering away at some game on their phones. The same old high school baseline in every row, save in this kid next to him who now wears a contented smile. Mark’s eyes alight on the book and he wonders if he’d have the balls to sit here and read in front of his new teammates, even if he had some good material. He settles for scrolling around a map of Duluth on his phone, finding the town’s best hidden parks and escapes he’d gleaned in a team poll the night before. He glances at Evan every few minutes but feels a foreign sense of respect, almost a reverence, and. only when the bus crests the green ridgetop of his new home does he ask the question.

“What’s that about?” He nods at the book and keeps his gaze down at the late afternoon haze over the river estuary that fans out before them.

“It’s about a trek in Nepal. The guy goes to find a snow leopard. But it ends up being more of a spiritual trip.”

“Huh. Like it?”

“It’s older, so some of the parts about the Sherpas are a little awkward. But…damn, it makes me wanna go.”

Mark looks at Evan sideways. “You a lil Buddhist or something?”

“I dunno about that. But that sort of journey…I really respect that.”

“Huh,” Mark repeats. He goes back to scrolling around the map. He decides that Evan’s contributions to the list are by far the most alluring: tucked-away old ruins in the woods or hidden spots along creeks, solitude instead of the crowds. He gazes up at Duluth’s rocky spine, resplendent in midsummer green, houses clinging to the hillside just like his dad’s further up the shore.

“I’d go on that kind of trip,” he chances. “Not for all the God shit. But just to do it. To see it all.”

“Let’s go then,” Evan laughs. “Me and you, we’re gonna go on a trek. Get out there and live.”

“You mean buses to fucking Vadnais Heights in July ain’t living?” Mark laughs.

“Gotta find answers somewhere beyond…this.” Evan’s eyes flit back toward their guffawing teammates.

“Just don’t expect to find it in some god.”

“Why the hell is there a cross on your chain then?”

Mark fingers the chain around his neck. “To remind me that I have a cross to carry. And cuz it seems on brand for this world.” He waves an arm vaguely around him.

Evan laughs, then lowers his voice. “Sometimes I don’t even know if I want to play after high school.”

“Seriously, Evvy? You can be D-one material and you know it.”

“But there’ll be an end of the line after that. And you know this world, it’s not totally me.”

“Don’t let anyone on this bus hear you say that, they’d kill to be in your shoes. And it’s about more than hockey. They set you up real good. Good jobs, good money. To say nothing of the scholarship…”

“Right. I could use that. But I also want to do what I want to do.”

“What do you want to do?”

Evan shrugs. Marks laughs.

“I just…don’t want to do something just because it’s the path of least resistance, okay?”

“Got it. Hey. Maybe you can tell me which of these is path of least resistance.” Mark pulls up photos of two girls and flips back and forth between them.

Evan groans. “Is no resistance all that matters?”

“Not in the long run. Gotta get it right. I’ve seen that way too clear. But in the meantime…”

Evan averts his eyes and stands to collect his bags. They let themselves drift back into the chatter again, both offering vague noises over the plans for the party, and Mark follows Evan off the bus and down the sidewalk away from the group.

“You need a ride?” Mark asks.

“Nah, I was gonna take a bus.”

“Dude, we can take care of you. Why do you do that?”

“I just…” Evan trails off and shakes his head.

“My dad’s got you, don’t worry. And don’t be ashamed that your mom has to work.”

Evan grimaces and watches as a few of their teammates roll off in the cars their parents have bought for them. “Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era.”

“Nah. You were born to bring something to this era that it needs.” Mark’s smile pierces through Evan and sets loose a torrent of new thoughts.

“Why Duluth?” The words jump out of Evan’s mouth before he can stop them.

“What do you mean?”

“You could’ve gone back east. Could’ve gone to some private school that would set you up for Yale like your dad. Why here, with all us shits?”

“I don’t think I need Andover to get into Yale if I play my game.”

“Andover?”

“Sorry. The prep school. In Massachusetts. Not the white bread Cities suburb.”

“Ah, got it. But…”

“I did the boarding thing for a year. Didn’t love it.”

“Yeah, but why not?”

“You bros are a lot more chill. And—” Mark breaks off and nods at the Bugatti snaking into the lot. Evan gawks at the approaching vehicle before it dawns on him who owns it. The car pulls up and the window rolls down. The driver is a stone-faced man with flowing white hair, collared shirt poking high up around his cheek, shades pulled down by his left index finger to scrutinize his boy. Evan flips his cap around from backwards to forwards in what he knows is a ridiculous attempt to look more dignified. The man behind the sunglasses merely stares out over the top of his lenses.

“We’re giving Evan a ride to my mom’s, too,” Mark says.

“Where are his parents?”

“Well, his dad’s dead and his mom works her ass off to make sure this kid can keep his hockey dream alive. So there’s that.”

“Get in,” says Mark’s father, still expressionless. “You gonna play D-one, kid?”

Evan shrugs. “If I can.”

“Which is why you just spent a whole bus ride talking about how you’re not sure you want to do that with your life,” Mark says with an eye roll.

“I mean, yeah,” says Evan. “But…” He gets it now: Mark’s father will want his prince’s confidante to be more than a dumb jock. “I want to go to a good college. Maybe study abroad. See more of the world.”

“You’ve traveled much?”

“Not really. My aunt’s an anthropologist, so we visited her on site in Mexico once. Otherwise we always go to the same beach in California. Or used to. But that’s about it.”

“What’s your mom do?”

“She’s an ER nurse.”

“And your dad? If it was recent…”

“Just two years ago. Outside sales.”

“How’d he go?”

Evan swallows. “Suicide.” He’s shocked at how easily the word tumbles from his mouth.

“Shit. You know that?” the elder Brennan asks Mark.

“I…we never actually talked about it. But I could tell it was…something not great.”

“How do you fight through it?” Mark’s dad asks. He takes off his shades and bores his eyes into Evan’s in the rear-view mirror.

“Well, we moved back here. To be by my mom’s family. It’s like her safe space,” Evan starts. “And—”

“Not her. You.”

“I…I make sure I take time to stop and think about him. Use him as a reminder that I can’t take anything for granted. That I gotta work for everything I can.”

“Good.” Mark casts Evan significant look, one of care and surging respect: he’s passing muster.

“Evvy’s my best bud on this team for a reason. Kid knows his shit.”

“Not well enough to escape all your shit,” Mark’s dad says. Evan cannot tell if this is a joke or not.

“He knows the game,” Mark says, aweing Evan with his well-practiced cool.

“Well that’s good. Play the game. Learn to win. But it’s all just part of the ladder.”

Evan nods vigorously. “I like the sound of that.”

“As you should. The world helps people who know that. Gotta get it. You boys need anything before I dump you at your mother’s?”

“Evvy’s got a soft spot for tequila.”

“You’re too young for that.” Evan blushes and tries to parse the thin smile playing around his driver’s lips in the rear-view mirror. He’d expected anger over his miscreant son, but instead he senses a sort of pride, an acknowledgment that Mark has shown his worth.

“If you don’t, Mom will just buy me cheap shit. Better to learn on good stuff, no?”

“Nice try. You as much of a little fuck-up as my boy, shaggy?”

Evan brushes at the hair fanning out from beneath his cap as he fumbles for words. “I…ride the waves, wherever they go, you know?”

“What Evvy means is that he gets it more than any dude on the team cuz he went and got himself one of the hottest girls we got. And he’s smart enough to keep her.”

“Thanks for translating he Minnesota Nice bullshit,” Mark’s father muses before he snaps his gaze back to Evan. “How’d you manage that?”

“I, uh, snuck her into my hotel room during the State Tournament last year.” Evan’s conquest is legend in the hockey world, but he’s never dreamed of telling an adult this story until now.

“Well now. Kid’s got some game.”

“Ya shouldn’t doubt me,” says Mark.

The Bugatti pulls into a liquor store parking lot. Evan and Mark sit in silence as its owner makes his purchases and returns with two stuffed bags, one of which he drops on Mark’s lap. Suddenly, Mark’s dad seems to have lost all interest in Evan. He grills his son on Hemingway novels on the way back, and Evan’s eyes widen as Mark answers the questions in rapid fire bursts: his life in Duluth so far is just like The Sun Also Rises only with worse fishing, come on Evan show me the good spots, he could use some Nick Adams time out in the woods, and yeah Dad aren’t you kind of just the Old Man fighting the sea?

Mark’s father doesn’t answer the question. He dumps them at the base of his ex-wife’s building and shoots off with only a toneless goodbye, Evan’s stammered thanks thoroughly ignored.

“Holy shit,” he mumbles as he watches the car gun up the street.

Mark exhales. “Filled the quota for Dad time for the next two weeks. But bro, no lie, that was the best any friend of mine’s ever handled him. You were magic.”

Evan purses his lips. “I…is it like that all the time?”

“Pretty much. Gotta flip that switch and be ready to go.”

“How can anyone keep that going all the time?”

“I don’t know, ask my mom.”

“And you…”

“What about me?”

“You’d always kind of made it sound like you hated him.”

“With everything I got. Gonna beat that fucker at his own game.”

“That’s…wow.”

Mark shrugs and shoves the bag of booze into Evan’s arms.

“But, thing is…I think he’d be proud of you if you did.”

Mark’s self-assured smirk slides off his face. “You might not be wrong.” He walks up the sidewalk to show Evan the conversation is over.

Mark’s mother has settled in a condo at the top of a building overlooking Lake Superior. An elderly couple in the opposite unit greets the boys as they exit the elevator, and Evan detects the hint of glee Mark takes in Evan’s cringe as he greets them like old friends and makes small talk: yeah we had a good tournament this weekend, had a couple shutouts and this kid got a couple goals, and here this is Evan isn’t he the best? Evan shuffles his feet and fails to look inconspicuous with his bag of liquor. Mark’s grin widens as Evan stammers about his mom and how happy the team is to have Mark now, and yes they’d been plotting a Himalayan trek on the bus ride back, didn’t that seem like a good adventure? The couple nods in shared pride, and the woman tells him that these kids these days, they sure are alright when you get to know them.

“That was mean,” Evan says as soon as they’re in the condo. Mark doubles over in laughter as he wrests the bag from Evan and places it on the counter.

“Too easy, Evvy. Too easy.”

“Just the way you like em.”

“Guilty as charged. Drinky drink?”

Evan gulps. “I mean, hell, why not?”

“Let’s try the tequila.” Mark scrutinizes the price tag but pulls it off the bottle before Evan can see it. He dishes out the beverages and takes a shot without batting an eyelash. Evan tentatively brings his glass to his nose, sniffs, and takes a tentative sip. He struggles to choke back his cough, but he needn’t have worried. Mark pounds his and retreats behind his phone without looking at him.

“Aw yes. Got a fish on the line,” he says.

“Well that’s rare.”

“Fuck off. Yeah, she’s gonna get the worm.”

Evan suppresses his groan and scrutinizes the shapely blonde out of central casting whose picture Mark waves in his face. “Who is she? I don’t recognize her.”

“Hermantown girl. Senior. I like chasing fish from different schools. And different years. Fewer witnesses that way.”

“I give you credit. How much of that bus ride was the boys giving each other shit for all the girls they say they’re gonna get? But they never actually do anything. It’s all talk. You actually get it.”

Mark beams. “I do. But you do, too. You went and got Bridget.”

“You don’t wanna know how long I was planning that, scared to actually go through with it.”

“That’s the thing, though. No one has to see that part. All about the results, Evvy.” Mark leads Evan out to the floor-to-ceiling windows that command two walls of the main room. The sun eases its way down in the west and leaves the calm vast lake a glowing molten silver. The condo feels overly sanitized to Evan, every bit the temporary landing place for two people rarely at home that it is, but the view makes him forget all that. After passing Papa Brennan’s tests he feels like he’s earned this commanding perch, could get very used to living like this. Now all he needs is a wife with vast sums of wealth, he thinks, worrying with sudden realization that he and Bridget could never pull this off.

“I see your mom’s finally decorating,” says Evan, nodding at an excess of ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ and ‘Faith, Family, Friends’ pillows that have appeared on the couch since his one previous visit.

“Give ya fifty bucks if you spill your drink over those,” Mark scowls.

Evan laughs. “If only life were so easy that a pillow could tell you how to fix shit.”

“Welcome to Hope Brennan’s world. You should see what she did in the extra room. Put up a marker wall.”

“I didn’t know she was an artist.”

“If you saw her art, you still wouldn’t.” Mark leads Evan to a back room, a lonely space with an unused exercise bike and a spare couch, a potential home office if the condo’s owner were the sort of person who had a job. One long, blank wall opens up as blank canvas for the boys. Mark reaches into a large tub, grabs a purple marker, and draws two stick figures mid-coitus.

“I didn’t see that coming.”

“Alright then, let’s see your Sistine Chapel here.”

“That would be kinda fun. Draw out a whole scene.” Evan takes a few more sips from his drink and sets to work on a green mountain range. Mark nods in approval and starts in on a lion baring its teeth around his loving couple.

“Can we go back to how much you kicked ass with my dad?” he asks. “‘I snuck her into my hotel room at the State Tournament.’ God, that was awesome.”

Evan shrugs. “Well, it’s the truth.”

“How did you even pull that off?”

“We’d been talking for a while by then. I was too scared to pull the trigger. Wasn’t sure what she’d think about a hockey player, Bridget’s no jersey chaser and she wouldn’t even go to games if I weren’t playing. And I wasn’t sure how okay she’d be with quiet nights where we just read and shit. But that whole school year we were both getting out a little at the same pace, and then we were in the same hotel, so I thought that was a sign. And I started thinking about it on the first night, how it might work. And then we beat Edina and it was like, if I don’t text her now, when do I ever? I was rooming with Aaron and told him about it and he’s like, yeah dude, you deserve it, I’ll get outta here and make it happen for you. Of course, he went and told everyone after, too…”

Mark genuflects in mock worship. “Just building the Legend of Evvy. Spreading the good word.”

“Made it awkward as hell.”

“Don’t hate, bro. I’m not sure you know how much everyone loves you. I saw that right away when I got here. Everyone said you were the best we’ve got.”

“Do I get a trophy for that?”

Mark beams even wider at Evan’s bitterness, his refusal to be content with mere respect. “You get to hang with me when I ain’t letting anyone else up here. Hope that’s an okay prize.”

“What an honor.”

“You gotta let me into your world too now. If we go to State this year, I’m your roomie and we’re having a four-way.”

Evan scoffs and starts adding a forest above the couch. He should have a snappy comeback here, but it eludes him. Mark, meanwhile, is content to fantasize and lets a dreamy gaze lay claim to his face.

“I would say sorry that my dad asked about your dad,” he says, intent upon his growing pride of lions gnawing at the limbs of the couple. “But you know I’m nosy. And I’m glad you shared that. You’re one fuckin tough kid for saying what you did, Evvy. I mean that.”

Words again fail Evan, who colors the leaves on his pink trees more vigorously.

“I’m serious,” Mark adds. “I know you don’t wanna turn it into a sob story. I respect you even more because of that. But you gotta be able to tell someone.”

“Thanks,” Evan says. “It…it felt good to say that out loud, actually.”

“I could tell.” Mark dumps a refill into Evan’s glass.

“God, you’re totally that kid they warn you about in middle school health class.”

“Because you never, ever had a drink and were a total virgin till you met me.”

“Hah, right.”

“Just letting you live how you want to. Were you one till that night you snuck Bridget in?”

Evan nods and turns away, ostensibly to peruse the marker collection for a new color.

“Makes the story even better. Way better than losing it on some sad hippie girl in seventh grade.”

Evan fumbles through the plastic bin and settles on puce. “Where are we going with this?”

“The Serengeti,” Mark says without missing a beat. He adds a herd of googly-eyed zebras who discern his lions’ carnage.

Evan stops to watch Mark work. The world swims around him. Has he ever been this drunk? He always has to be on the watch, make sure he gets home sober, make sure Bridget doesn’t scold him for going overboard. Right on cue she texts him and he provides a dutiful reply, but there is no real conversation, just assurances that yes, he’ll be around in three days when she’s back from her cabin. Tonight, though, he is free, under some spell cast by the collision between Mark’s obvious intellect and his crudeness, an assurance that he really can have it all if he wants it. He is in awe.

Time passes. They add to their scene and Mark continues to dole out the tequila, though at some point Evan registers that he’s pouring Evan far more than he is for himself. When Evan’s lines grows sloppy they drop the markers and head back to the kitchen, where Mark pulls out a collection of munchies and poses Evan with stray questions about his hypothetical Himalayan trek. The idea had never really formed in Evan’s mind, but the answers come easily now, and before long he’s looking up plane tickets and recoiling in horror at the cost of the numbers that swim before him on his phone.

“Would you use a Sherpa?”

“I wouldn’t want to. Want to do it myself. Unless that’s insensitive? I’d need to learn more.”

“Would you learn the language?”

“Enough to function, I’d hope.”

“Kay. And are we going up any actual mountains?”

“Like Everest? I don’t think so. People die doing that. Seeing it would be enough.”

“You’re so damn responsible.”

“The biggest mountains aren’t always the hardest ones.” Evan smiles to himself at his quip, but Mark’s eyes are back in his phone.

“Hm.”

“What is it?”

“My fish wants to get in the boat.” Mark brandishes the latest message from his would-be lover in Evan’s face.

“Well, shit. Want me to get out of here?”

Mark pauses. “I mean, don’t feel like you have to. We could both…or you could invite Bridget…or—”

“Don’t worry, man. I’ll go.”

“Sorry. Don’t want it to feel like I’m throwing you out. Honestly, if you wanna stay, I’d rather—”

“Nah, forget it…damn, I don’t even have a way to get home. I don’t want my mom to know I—”

“Don’t worry about it. I got you covered.”

“Sorry. I need to get a job so that I can—”

“You’re not going to do that either. We’ll take care of you.”

“Mark, I can’t take that.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“I…hockey is expensive. It’s hard for my mom to cover it all, and save for my college. You can’t cover all that.”

“I sure can.” Mark bores his eyes into Evan to show he is serious.

The full scale of Mark’s wealth immobilizes Evan. “No, you can’t do that.”
 “I can if I wanna make sure we can keep having nights like this. And doing it while you wait tables at fucking Applebees would kinda be a downer.”

“You’re drunk, Mark.”

“Drunk people are the most honest people.” Mark throws an arm around Evan and guides him back out into the main room, where they stare down at the lights on a ship waiting to enter the harbor. Evan chances a mushy smile, but Mark keeps his gaze outward, and Evan follows his eyes into the void of the lake. This night is exactly the escape he was looking for, but is that only because it is a step into a world he cannot afford, and probably never will? His new friend is a strange creature, both the teammate most like him and least like him all at once.

Mark walks Evan down to the lobby and salutes as his car pulls away. He jabs all of the elevator buttons on the way back up, stops to peer out on to every floor before he finally heads back to his mom’s place, where he goes to stand before the windows again. He checks his phone; his date won’t be here for another twenty minutes. He misses Evan already, wonders if he’s made a mistake. Maybe the two of them should have just passed out here together, drunk and pussyless but content. For that matter, did he come on too hard to a friendship that is only a month old? Was he too clingy, too desperately in search of a real connection? He frowns, idly scrolls through Wall Street Journal articles his dad has sent him without processing much. He thinks back to that question Evan had asked on the bus: why is he, a kid who could be anywhere, in this lonely loft in a lonely city, struggling to form any sort of connection?

The girl calls him. He lets her in the building and directs her to the condo. The place is a mess, he notices: bags of snacks strewn across the counter, a deeply dented tequila bottle atop the stove, his and Evan’s hockey bags abandoned atop the inspirational pillows and stinking up the whole place. Mark leaves the unruly scene and checks himself in the bathroom mirror, brushes his sweep of hair into place and finds a smile that looks cool without betraying how wasted he is.

The girl pushes open the door without knocking. He appraises his catch: shapely, wider around the hips than he’d hoped, but the blonde is indeed natural, and he rather likes the tired look in her eyes, the sense that she’s seen it all, even at seventeen. He has little patience for the naïve.

“Welcome,” he says. “Sorry bout all this, my boy Evan just went home. You know him?”

“Evan DeBleeker? I’ve seen him at parties, but he’s usually off with that one girl. He seems shy.”

“He’s the best. But he can do some damage, too.” Mark hoists up the bottle and pours the girl a generous shot. She accepts it and gazes around the apartment.

“Holy crap. You live up here?”

“Honestly, I’d rather we’d got a house, but my mom wants to pretend she got her New York glamor back.”

“What does she do?”

“She’s an artist. Which mostly means she’s a retired hooker who lives off the child support she gets from my dad for me.” Mark pours her a second shot.

“Oh. What does your dad do?”

“Screws over poor people, mostly.”

She shuffles her feet uncomfortably. “You’re even taller than I thought.”

“You’re even hotter than I thought.”

Her face is caught between embarrassment and eagerness. “Honestly, you’re the most exciting thing to happen here all summer. Every party I go to, it’s like, have you met the new Mark kid? Seen those pics he does?”

“I do have that effect on people.”

“You’re playing with all of us, aren’t you?”

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.” He puts an inquiring arm around her back, and she draws him in and lets him kiss her. She spins him around, an invitation to push her up into the wall. Mark lunges in for a few deep kisses slides a hand down toward her waistline. She pulls back and laughs, and he eases up, content. Yes: they have a rapport, much more than with the last three.

“Damn, boy. You know what you’re doing.”

“Did you doubt that I would?”

She laughs. “You have marker on your arm.”

“Evvy and I were coloring.”

“Coloring?”

“Let me show you!” he guides her into the back room and throws on the light to reveal the sprawling marker mural.

“It’s…an entire safari scene?”

“Yup. Not many people know about my artistic side, you know. I figured I had to let it out.”

“Yeah. I mean, the stick people getting eaten by lions? You’re obviously the next Van Gogh, Mark.”

“I try to be modest about it.”

“The blue giraffes up there are a real nice touch.”

“Yeah, I made Mount Kilimanjaro a little thinner than it should have been. But I had to leave room for the landing strip for the bush plane there…”

“What’s that beneath all the trees?”

“That was Evan’s contribution. But I think it’s a rhinoceros.”

“Can I ask why a safari?”

“It’s called symbolism.”

“Is this some weird roleplay crap?”

“Eh, not quite. Just want you to know what you’re getting into.” He pauses, isn’t sure he likes her troubled stare, but decides to let it loose: he is who he is, isn’t he?

“The giraffes are my mom, since she has a long neck and always gets into everything. The man-eating lions are so totally my dad. The herd of zebras who just blend in are my bros on the team. Evvy and his girl Bridget are the chimps fucking over in the corner there, he didn’t like it when I drew that part. I’m the dormant volcano. I didn’t put you in there, so I guess you can be Evan’s rhinoceros.”

“What the heck does that mean?”

Mark ponders the question. “Means I’m gonna be your guide. Gonna take ya every damn good love-making place this city has. I’ve learned from the masters. The best hidden little parks. Some of those old ruins up on the hill. Wanna get into Glensheen at night? I know the way. Best safari you’ll ever go on.”

“Didn’t you just move here a month ago?”

“I’ve made it mine.”

She cackles. “That’s what I like to hear. But…why? Why this?”

“I’ve been reading some Hemingway. Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You’re such a dork! I love it.”

“Whatever the hell Hemingway was, he sure as fuck wasn’t dorky,” says Mark, hurt coursing through him. He takes a swig from the bottle and hands it back to the girl, who struggles for words and instead follows suit.

“Sorry,” she says after she chokes down the drink. “I just love it. Here you are, nonstop shirtless selfies and little rap videos, hockey star, and what do you really do for fun? You draw safaris from old books.”

“We can do the shirtless part if you want.” All of Mark’s expectations for this hookup are gone now: it is merely that, and he was rash to ever expect more. He will take what comes, but he won’t ask her to go all the way. His line in the sand, he muses, eyes flitting to the cross on his chain on the chest that she now begins to massage. Pity.

The door bangs open just as the girl is getting into a rhythm.

“Marky’s still up!” he hears his mom yell. “Oh, he must have friends over, look, and—oh.” She rounds the corner, tipsy in leather and high heels, followed by a fellow dolled-up middle-aged woman with a hairdo twenty years out of date.

“Oh, shit.” Mark hikes his pants back up and tightens his belt as the girl shoots up to her feet. Hope’s eyes travel to Mark’s yawning fly and the bulge he has managed to tuck slightly off-center.

“Sorry to—oh, hi there.”

“Uh, hi.” Mark applies a mushy smile and, after an instinctive jerk of the hand toward the damning evidence, decides the more prudent move is to turn their collective attention elsewhere.

“You’re back from the nino already?”

“I just wasn’t in the mood.”

“Could’ve used a heads-up,” Mark mumbles.

“How old is he? Fifteen?” demands his mom’s companion, who is not one Mark recognizes. Her discerning stare conveys both sobriety and intense judgment, a formidable pairing. “I thought you said he read fat books for fun.”

“Not mutually exclusive,” says Mark, even quieter than before. The girl starts to laugh before she cuts it off in a strangled yelp. Mark, now that his drunk eyes look more closely, sees his mom is not in a chipper mood. His adrenaline surges.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she says, with a rub of her eyeliner that assures Mark she is not.

“Think I might go home now,” the girl says as she pulls her shirt back on. Mark finds some confused sense of chivalry and collects her purse for her.

“Come on now, we can’t just throw her out like this,” says his mom’s friend. “She’s just had this happen to her and now…come on, do you need a ride home?”

“I have a car—”

“You’ve been drinking—”

“Not that much—”

“Cheryl, she’s had enough of a night already, we can put her in the guest room. Can you imagine her coming home to her parents now? Honey, here, we can pull out the couch bed.”

“You think she wants to share your apartment with this little pimp wannabe?”

“Hey, she had a fucking choice,” Mark yells, a bit more loudly than he’d intended. “She didn’t have to do any of this.”

“Fifteen, Hope. Fifteen and already just like his dad. Sweet-talking them. Manipulating them. Get past your mom genes and take some control.”

Mark’s anger ignites into an incandescent rage. “Who the hell are you? You’ve never even met me! If you ever think I’d do what that cheating sleazebag did to my mom…”

Hope throws her arms around her son, half in embrace and half in restraint, tears welling in her eyes. “Now Mark. Cheryl works with battered women, she’s seen some things. Let it go. We’ll all be alright. We’ll all be alright.”

Mark stares bullets of fury into Cheryl’s eyes. She seems cowed now, almost stunned. This, Mark gathers, is not the nerve she expected to trip. Suddenly he sees a different emotion in her eyes, one a million times worse than her condescending judgment: a hint of pity, a dawning understanding of what this spoiled brat has been through, torn between a father he hates and a mother who can only blubber. His eyes soften and flit to the girl, whose mortification is on a level unknown to Mark.

“I think I’ll call my mom. She’d want me to come home safe,” she finally says to break the frozen scene.

“I’m serious, sweetie, you can just stay here—”

“I’ll be fine,” she sniffs. She snaps her purse out of Mark’s hands and marches out of the apartment as purposefully as her tequila-addled legs can carry her. Cheryl chases after her, though the girl loudly tells this mystery woman to stay away. Cheryl pauses back in the doorway but Hope brushes her off with a wave. The door closes behind her.

Mother and son turn to each other and share a synchronized sigh. Hope sinks to the couch while Mark closes up the chip bags.

“Drink?” He lifts up the tequila bottle and gets the laugh that assures him he’s disarmed her.

“Your dad gets you top-shelf stuff, I see.”

“Sorry. I mostly had a quiet night. Just me and Evan and your marker wall. But then I got that text.” He looks down, frowns, zips his pants back up, and draws out a second laugh.

“Marky, I love you, sweetie, and you know I want you to be happy. But you’re scaring me these days.”

“You telling me you weren’t doing this when you were my age?”

She gazes around the apartment in a haze. “Not like this. Not about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.”

Mark had expected this response. He crushes the chip bag in his hands down as small as it will go, pulverizing its contents before he pitches it back in the cabinet. He is left to ask questions in his mind. How did his mom get her start? Some crude and thoughtless mining town kid north of here, not someone who’s been trained by an expert—an expert like herself who has dropped more than a few hints to her boy on how to make a woman happy. Did she, too, chase anything she could get at a young age, or was promiscuity merely a vocation? Is she the source of his hunger, or is Cheryl on to something, and is he the inheritor of his father’s predation? He solemnly swears to himself yet again to never, ever commit to a relationship until he knows it is one he can sustain forever.

Does Cheryl’s work with battered women include his own mother? Is that why they never talked to him about what was going wrong? Should he drive up the Shore right now and pound the shit out of his lecherous, scheming, wife-beating father? The man who is responsible for two broken families and thousands of outsourced jobs, but also for this condo for an unemployable ex-trophy wife, for all of Mark’s hockey training, for his hunger for canonical literature, the man who has him set up for Yale, or wherever else he may want to go? Suddenly Evan’s escape to the Himalaya sounds that much more alluring.

“You should see what Evan and me drew in the back room,” Mark says. “Come take a look.” He takes his mother by the hand and guides her before his scene. He doesn’t tell her what any of it means, just sits back and revels in her wonder at the scale of this creation, this reminder that this bursting vessel of ego and testosterone is still her little boy. She traces her way from one wall to the next, eyes glazed over, off in some other place.

“Did Dad ever hurt you?” Mark asks quietly.

“Not physically,” she says. “Mentally…”

“That I don’t doubt.”

“How was he today?”

“He absolutely grilled Evan. But, you know, it went okay. I think Evan’s a keeper.”

“Good. You need friends like that. Your dad never had many.”

She’s right, Mark thinks. Who in his father’s life is there for anything other than instrumental reasons?

Hope musters up a trace of a smile and provides the answer for him. “You do mean the world to him, you know. Even if he never says it.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I just wish…”

“I wish a lot of things about him, too.”

“Yeah…but not that, so much. I wish you’d given me a chance.”

“A chance to do what?”

“To fix everything. Instead of trying to hide it from me. Pretending I couldn’t hear you yelling. Or making excuses for him when he was off with one of his hookers.”

Hope laughs and sniffs. “Oh Mark. There are some things you can’t fix.”

“But I would’ve wanted to have tried.”

Evan’s ride back home is a painful affair. His driver, a stern-faced Native American man, expressionlessly processes his drunk 16-year-old passenger and waves him into the back seat without a word. Evan crumples into the back seat in shame. This man carts around dozens of drunks every weekend, he tells himself; if he’s driving a cab now, he probably has little regard for the façade that college-bound kids like him put up in front of their neurotic chase, will forget him within five minutes of dropping him off. He knows Mark would think nothing of the man’s judgment, would sit in cool repose. He tries throwing an arm across the back of the seat, but realizes it only makes him look like more of a stuck-up little asshole. It’s too late to take it down, though, and Evan sits there awkwardly as the car shoots through the highway tunnels and up along the lakeshore toward Evan’s quiet neighborhood. If he had any money on him, he would tip everything he could; he texts Mark to do so and says he’ll pay him back, but gets no reply. He mumbles an inaudible apology as he bolts from the car, which pulls away as quickly as he does. Evan trips on the front steps and falls forward in a heap. He swears and rubs at the scrapes on his arms.

The house is dark. He fumbles with his keys for half a minute and the door sticks as he pushes it open. He throws the keys down on the floor and stops, shocked at his own anger. He retrieves the keys and stalks past their cat, which stares in fear at this sudden intruder, this unfamiliar version of her guardian. She bolts toward the basement, claws clattering on the hard wood floors. Evan is alone.

He’s just had a night that was exactly what he wanted, perhaps the best male bonding he’s ever had. Why is he so bitter now? For starters, Mark never answered his question on Duluth. He still can’t figure out exactly why that kid is here, why he has taken on Evan of all people as his lone confidante when there are others who could better play wingman or feel less awkward around his wealth. He is ashamed that Mark wanted to offer him all that charity, he supposes; annoyed that Mark wanted his night to end with that girl. For all Mark’s kind words, he sometimes feels like a hollow vessel, a fishing boat trawling only for easy bites, its stray sweeps through the depths merely an amusing pastime. But just as he’d said, he wanted an Evan in his life, someone he could speak to freely. And sure enough, he’d gone and collected him, just as his father collected untold millions, the lesson he’d passed on to his son.

Evan stalks to his mother’s liquor supply: two dusty wine bottles and a three-quarters-full handle of rum from a vacation in Jamaica five years ago. He’s never raided it before, but tonight he takes a deep pull straight from the rum bottle and immediately chokes. He puts it back, grimaces, and stalks up the staircase, filled with instant regret. The floorboards creak beneath him, join his coughs in wrenching through the silence. His sock snags on a loose nail and he mutters “fuck” a few times for good measure. All of the charm of this groaning old traditional feels diminished after a day in Mark’s gleaming world.

He flips the light on in the bathroom, runs the water, tosses his cap aside and brushes his hair in a doomed quest for order. He pauses, opens the medicine cabinet, surveys its contents. It is sparse, his mother’s deliberate purge of anything that might call back her late husband’s final cocktail. Evan takes out the bottle of aspirin and shakes it. More than enough to do some damage.

He’d found his dad when he got home from school. It was a different house, a mortgage only two incomes could afford and before they knew the extent of the debts. The bathroom was larger; there wouldn’t be room to drape the body over the side of the tub in the same way here. He’d stammered his dad’s name a few times, backed away, collapsed into the wall in the hall. Feebly dialed 911, strung together words that cannot have been coherent but were enough to get the point across. Sat, watched, waited as the ambulance came and then his mother and then been trucked off to Aunt Cathy’s. He’d never cried, a source of retroactive guilt. He just took it all in, eyes wide open, silently consuming it all just as whatever had killed his father silently consumed him.

Evan puts the pill bottle back on the shelf and shuffles into his bedroom. He leaves the lights off as he strips down and stands there, naked. He shares those genes, he thinks. He recoils in horror, pushes down the framed photo of himself with his dad at a squirt hockey practice, even though he can’t see it in the dark. But yet he can’t feel that same way. Is this a failing on his part, an inability to connect with a dead man whose lack of connection killed him? Is it his triumph, proof he will never fall down the same hole?

A pair of headlights swings into the driveway. For a moment he panics, thinks either his driver or the neighbors have called the police over the drunk teenage delinquent making a racket, but he realizes it’s his mother, home from her shift. He considers feigning sleep, but instead pulls on his boxers, flips the light on, and settles into a seat on his bed that he hopes will look natural, pretends to scrawl a few notes in his journal.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she says from the doorway to his room a few minutes later. “Up late?”

“I, uh, actually just got home,” he says, blushing. “Was at Mark’s. Just the two of us. Quiet night. Guess it was a little late.”

“You’re almost spending more time with him than with Bridget these days.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Just an observation.”

“He just…jumps at things more than anyone else I know.”

Charlotte DeBleeker smiles at her son. “I remember when you used to be the kid who hid behind my legs because you were scared of Lily Yu next door.”

“Well, she did have a mean left hook.”

“You’ve come a long way. And even if that’s hard for me…I’m proud of that.” Evan now knows she knows he isn’t fully sober, exhales in relief as his defenses come down. He makes eye contact for the first time. She brushes a stray lock of hair back behind her ear, a move Evan subconsciously copies with his own locks.

“I’ve had to. Or maybe not quite that. But I’ve seen that I can.”

“Please don’t give your Aunt Cathy reason to think you’re a budding alcoholic this weekend, will you?”

“I was kinda looking forward to corrupting Colin a bit,” he says with a toothy grin.

“On second thought, Colin could use a little of that. Just don’t let his mother find out,” Charlotte says. The two share a laugh. She comes forward to muss with his hair, and he reaches up to wrap a hug around her chest. He holds her there for a minute, and her eyes alight on the picture turned downward.

“Two years to the day,” she says. “I wish I had some words that could help, but this might have to do.” She feels Evan nod in her chest, holds him through his silent, dry sobs. His relationship with his mom since that day has not been one of deep words, but it has been one of simple honesty, and one of frequent raw, perhaps even carnal, contact. Fresh off an afternoon with Mark and his dad, he has some inkling of just how lucky he is.

The tension in Evan’s shoulders eases away. The game slows in front of him. Somehow this great hurtling contradiction that is himself is okay now, is a reality he accepts he must inhabit. The cat leaps up on to the bed and rubs up against him; slowly, he reaches to pet it and relaxes his hold on his mother. She kisses him on the forehead and makes her exit.

Evan settles into bed. He has his phone out to call Bridget before he reminds himself he is drunk and she is asleep; that would hardly be becoming boyfriend conduct. She has been the essential brake pedal on his most reckless urges over the past five months, and frankly from before then too, as the promise of someone like her made sure all his nights didn’t descend into this sort of fear.

But oh, will he take more nights like this. He closes his eyes, laughs back at his art project with Mark, drifts away, drifts up toward the clouds, up toward Kilimanjaro and then perhaps on to even greater heights, his mind back on that Himalayan trek. That urge to go isn’t one that Bridget would quite understand. His mother might, but she would only want to live vicariously, would never do it herself. No one in his life would follow him there. Except Mark. Mark would.

‘Fish off the line?’ he messages Mark.

‘Had it on the worm for a bit, but it got away. Long story. But I’m cool with it.’

‘Aw. Good to hear. Thanks for tonight.’

‘Showed me what’s really important. And that’s why I’m here.’

Evan replies with a heart and settles in for sleep.

An Ode to Duluth Summers

Like many people in this pandemic liberation summer (at least for us fortunate, healthy, vaccinated souls not prone to alarmism), I have managed to fill up nearly every stray weekend between June and mid-September. My few Duluth weekends, coming immediately before or after trips elsewhere, are often consumed by the mundane tasks necessary to keep my life in order. (The simple division of labor is one of the most compelling arguments for cohabitation.) They may also come after exhausting weeks that prompt a desire for introvert time, which keeps me from taking full advantage of everything the place has to offer. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a slight lament: in a rush off on various trips, I am missing out on my favorite city in its most fleeting season?

This city’s park-filled placidity makes it an ideal summer haunt. Every weekend brings an opportunity for some new exploration. Free-range kids roam the streets and swim in creeks or sprout up in hammock colonies along their banks. Miles upon miles of trail beckon, to say nothing of the informal networks wrapping around; here and there are the foundations of a past Duluth, lost amid the trees and taken back by the Northwoods, permanent in its impermanence. Short jaunts out of town open up dozens more adventures of any length or scale, and ridgetops let the resplendence unfold below. On the tamer days, the beach beckons, whether that means a rocky shoreline along the Lakewalk or joining the throngs down on Park Point.

A fondness for these summer crowds is among the tenets of my particular brand of Duluth snobbery. Among them: air conditioning is for the unenlightened, a dull and sanitized life; better to throw open the windows and spend a little time maneuvering them to best catch the sweet lake air. Summer is not a great time for vacations; why waste these fleeting days of this city at its best? Moreover, people-watching in Canal Park is a delightful pursuit. I have come full circle and moved past the longtime Duluthian’s disdain for the crowds and tourist traps and now embrace them as essential pieces of the city’s fabric. I am a city kid, and Duluth lets me be one while still avoiding most of the things that make large cities tiresome.

One event I did not miss in 2021, despite not registering for it myself, was Grandma’s Marathon. The marathon is Duluth’s annual coming-out party, and it unites the full range of humanity. Elite athletes, physical specimens with not a hint of body fat, come from around the world to fly down the streets in feats of prowess. Later, we see different forms of human triumph, or perhaps rash-decision making: people who have hurt themselves or people who really have no business running marathons but have done it anyway. But the marathon is more than a few hours of sweat and strained muscles and littered paper cups: it is a several-day party, with Bayfront suddenly stuffed again with twenty-somethings on display: Duluth is back, perhaps better than ever.

Still, every Duluth summer weekend has some fresh pleasure to offer. Strains of a concert waft up Observation Hill, interrupted by the reliable chime of the lift bridge on the half hour. Canal Park has become infested with scooters now, though I endure their presence far more than those awful path-hogging four-seater bicycles. This summer has been hot and hazy, signs of worrying trends and wildfires elsewhere, but I will confess some enjoyment of the lake’s newly tolerable temperatures. The sporadic fog day will still cloud everything in and cleanse the palette. Rinse in a rainstorm, repeat the cycle, and head out to yet another backyard campfire or barbecue, our time in outdoor repose so precious because it is so fleeting.

It will all be gone before long. I do not regret family time, or adventures further afield; sometimes, one has to accept what the calendar allows. But once again, time away from Duluth makes it seem that much better, that much more of a place worth hanging on to over each passing year. So I’ll savor a few more of these sticky evenings, and spare my readers my rambling so that they can enjoy it themselves, too—or, if they are not here, come and enjoy a taste of it themselves. The lake breeze beckons.

A Portage to Simplicity

It’s a Fourth of July with no crowds, no grills, and no fireworks, save the ones from the lightning up in the sky. My dad and I, having gone too long between wilderness retreats, strap his canoe to the roof of his car and head for the Boundary Waters, that great escape in the wilds of northern Minnesota. It is time to get lost in the woods, paddle in deep away from the crowds, and forget the worries of the world for a spell.

Our entry point on Kawishiwi Lake is near the headwaters of a river of the same name that works its way north and west across the Boundary Waters and worms its way through some of its better-known lakes. I have not canoed since our last venture four years ago, but I have become a much more accomplished outdoor adventurer in the intervening four years. I am willing to develop a few arm bruises to go in further and faster than many of the other adventurers on a busy holiday weekend.

Our trip north is a well-traveled one, and all nine permits on our entry day are taken. From Kawishiwi Lake the water trail approximates the course of the river, thought it often meanders off or is lost in rapids or beaver dams, forcing a series of portages. The journey goes north through Square and Kawashong Lakes before arriving at Lake Polly, a common destination for paddlers on this route. We stop here for lunch, and my dad, after some brief reconnoitering to see how things have changed, confirms that this was indeed the site where he and a friend stayed on his first ever Boundary Waters venture nearly 40 years ago. The two of them hitched their way up to Lake Polly in flip-flops with an aluminum canoe, only to have a bear eat all of their food other than the bullion cubes.

Despite this inauspicious introduction, my dad has been back to this chain of lakes several times since. The destination lake on most of those trips has been Malberg Lake, which is two beyond Polly, and it is the same for us. We check out some of its inviting campsites—the open yet shaded site at the mouth of the Louse River, the clifftop site above the narrow channel into the lake’s western arm, a sandy site tucked behind that point—and eventually settle for a different sandy beach in the lake’s far northwest corner. Such dreamy landings and inviting swimming holes are a rarity in the rock-strewn Boundary Waters. Its kitchen area could be a bit more open, but the tent pads are shaded and the waterfront real estate is some of the best I’ve seen, and it will do for our midsummer retreat.

We spend all three of our nights out at that site on Malberg, but we undertake a long day trip on our second day. The portage out of Malberg into a wider meander of the Kawishiwi poses an immediate challenge: beaver action has created a large water hazard in its middle, effectively making it not one but two portages. Low water levels further along complicate the passage up a tributary toward Beaver Lake, but Beaver rewards us with a beautiful campsite at the confluence of its arms and some impressive cliffs. My dad ranks the overgrown boulder field of a portage into Smite Lake one of the worst he’s ever done; the portage smites us, though we are also smitten by the large rock outcroppings along the lake. This is deep wilderness, and we meet just two other people on the entire day, at the mouth of the portage from Smite to Adams Lake, where they have paused for a rest.

We chat with the couple for a while. The man is an ornithologist at a branch of the University of Wisconsin, and Adams Lake is his personal retreat. He comes here several times a year, and knows it well enough to paddle in at night by headlamp. As we paddle around Adams, we understand he has become its resident naturalist: it is serene, varied in its landscape, and buried in deep. Even the portage from Adams back into Beaver to close our loop is lovely, with a stone staircase and a cool rock wall, a welcome respite after a long day of travel. Back at our site late that afternoon, we swim off our beach and I float about, looking to recover that same bliss I found in a bay off St. John in January. It proves elusive, but I do not linger on its absence.

On our third day in the Boundary Waters, we do nothing. I cannot remember the last time I did nothing in a day, and I would not want to make a habit of it, but after some initial fitfulness likely spurred on by biting flies, I settle in. It is a brutally hot weekend in the North. The temperature clears 90, a rarity in these parts, and the day is mostly spent following the shade. In the morning, that means parking in a canoe chair along the beach, while by afternoon, shade has come for the hammocks, and while the breeze is a warm one, at least it is there to stir things up. We read, take our meals, and have our nightcap at a point far down the beach.

The paddle back out to civilization goes smoothly enough. The heat, combined with the effects of some distant wildfire, creates such a haze that we can barely see across some of the smaller lakes. The area between Polly and Square Lakes, cleared out by a forest fire some years back, looks almost desert-like when viewed from beneath a portaging canoe. The day starts stock-still, humid and oppressive, the hoped-for cold front never appearing; later, a strong breeze whips up to add an element of adventure to the final few lake crossings. Even back by Lake Superior, usually a reliable air conditioner, the temperature stays above 90. For a few days, northern Minnesota has become a languid, torpor-suffused sweatbox, but we have gone out for a burst of activity in spite of it.

Canoeing, like many of my recent wilderness adventures, satisfies because it simplifies needs to the most immediate, pressing questions. The only things that matter are the basic tasks of completing one’s itinerary and meeting straightforward human needs. It allows both urgency and activity to live in harmony with bliss, while those sometimes-competing claims can struggle to find resolution in the civilized world, where hunger for activity and achievement and desire to live as if on borrowed time all collide with an inherent patience, caution, and preference for temperature-lowering over outright conflict. A not insignificant part of me enjoys that challenge, but a step out of the trenches is necessary to see it for what it is. After a year and a half of frequent travel in very small groups or in solitude, that is all about to change, and I am ready for that shift. But escapes like this one will always have a special allure.

An Eternal Incandescence

On the weekend of my senior prom in high school, I took an impromptu trip to Chicago with my mother. For reasons not worth recounting here, my situation with girls was complicated, and I preferred to run away from it all. I had a few other things on my mind, too. The month before, I’d received my acceptance letter to Georgetown, a dream fulfilled; within a month, I’d be out of high school, and my parents’ divorce, long in the works, would be final. I was not exactly in my most stable mental state. I needed an escape, and my grandmother’s 80th birthday party provided a retreat into a safe harbor.

At the party, I had a moment to myself with my grandmother. She proceeded to give me the longest, most heartfelt hug I have ever received. She expressed some pride that I was headed to Georgetown—maybe I’d turn out a good Catholic boy after all!—but it quickly dawned on me that she was saying far more with that hug than a comment on college choice. There are a few people in life with whom I feel deeply in tune, fellow observers of the world passing before us whom I can read and who can read me in an instant. A quick look, even when cryptic, could convey paragraphs. Grandma was one of those people, and it was in that moment that I came to understand the meaning of unconditional love.

Her smile was a window unto an eternal incandescence. Her spirit gushed and overflowed and swept us up, making us forget pity, caution, concern, everything but the pleasure of her presence. -Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Grandma was something of an expert on the topic. As the mother of twelve children, she shepherded them all through their highs, lows, and all of the tumult that our sprawling clan mustered. If natality, as Hannah Arendt claimed, is indeed the miracle that saves the world, she brought about that destiny time and time again. It all seemed to come with a certain ease. There were, of course, times when it all drained her; times when wayward members of her lineage led her to shake her head and purse her lips. But she knew that the richness of her creation far exceeded its exhaustions, and by the time I came along, she’d seen it all, and knew what we needed in certain moments.

That innate connection appeared once again when I saw her for the final time this past April. Due to the coronavirus it was our first in-person visit in over a year, and she was moving more slowly, thinking more slowly, steadily slipping away into the mists beyond. We both seemed to have the sense this might be the last time we saw each other. We had a long goodbye, and we shared one final significant look that said it all: we would confront what came next, not without a little fear, but also with knowledge, with a certain faith. That was enough to see us through.

Grandma’s death this past week, at the age of 93, came with a characteristic grace. While there were struggles, she always seemed to slide easily and deliberately through life, and there was never a radical turn. When she lost her husband of 67 years, she mourned but moved on, kept up her joyous spirits, tiring more easily but still ready to be part of the endless family party. Unlike Grandpa, she did not crash with age; instead, it was a slow, gentle fade, tinged by the occasional frustration and uncertainty, but never far from her characteristic good humor. My Aunt Mary Beth took her in for the final four years of her life, an act of quiet heroism that made sure my grandfather’s rough decline in sterile hospitals would not befall her. She eased away with a steady stream of family visits and put up with the chaos of weekly Zooms during her final year. When it was time to go, she went quickly, waiting just long enough for Mary Beth to return from a much-needed trip with her son and grandchildren to Cape Cod, muttering a few final phrases in Polish to come full circle, family by her side as the breaths slid away.

Like her husband and so many of her progeny, Grandma possessed a robust mind. This young Polish girl from the city attended the University of Chicago in the 1940s, a feat whose impressiveness did not dawn on me until late in her life. While she didn’t get lost in intellectual tomes and debates the way Grandpa did, she kept herself busy, always ready to exercise a politely judgmental curiosity, whether over some book or movie or adventure of her offspring or in the complete tour of a giant book on art history that she and I once undertook. In coronavirus quarantine I picked up her crossword puzzle habit; toward the end, when that was beyond her, she settled for marathons of Rummikub, which now threatens euchre’s position as the official family game. If Grandpa was the driving force of nature who made their small empire possible, Grandma was its deep guiding core, her mere presence creating a sense that this all should come naturally.

The family Zooms over the final year and a half of her life gave us occasion to bust out old pictures and gifted me a window into the formation of a suburban Chicago matriarch. There were her childhood ventures to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, an ever-burgeoning clan filling first the house on Ardmore in Villa Park and then the house on Edgewood in Lombard, and later at the homes of aunts and uncles and out in Huntley. The steady string of lifelong friends, couples on a shared journey: Gingers, Gioias, Fanellas, and so on. Catholic masses, chaotic Christmas parties, Cubs games, a few European cruises, a papal mass. Joy filled it all from start to finish.

Grandma fell in love with the Northwoods of Wisconsin, long a family retreat, and I can still see her contented smile on the deck overlooking East Twin Lake. My Aunt Lucy’s transcription of her Northwoods journals early in the coronavirus pandemic were a revelation, a deeper dive into a mind whose contours felt both new and exactly right. Her work inspired me to start a simple journal with posterity in mind, a daily exercise that got beyond the alternating poles of incredible detachment and deeply personal musing that consume so much of my own output, and settled for easy reflection on the passing days. “I try not to feel apprehension — keep telling myself to just ENJOY what we’ve been given,” she writes on day one of the journal. An ethos we can all take to heart.

What I will remember forever, however, is her laugh. It had a full spectrum, from a quick chuckling eddy to a deep, full-throated roller, a cycle of the tides to fit any occasion. It was always ready, sometimes delighted and sometimes resigned, but always able to light up a room. The punches have come hard for us Maloneys in 2020: first an aunt and then a cousin and now the woman who birthed it all. At least now we can all be together again in the flesh to send her off. So I will dust off my suit, pour myself a Manhattan, and prepare one final do widzenia to the woman whose easy delight at the world around her made possible a life in accord with the rhythms of her world. We multitudes who follow all carry that light.

Twenty-Three

Then Almitra spoke, saying, We would ask now of Death.

And he said:

You would know the secret of Death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

*

In the depths of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?

Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

*

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

*

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Happy 23rd, bro.

A Quest for Moose

Up until this past weekend, I had seen two moose up close in the wild. One was a tame sighting from a canoe; the other, which wandered in front of the family car during a nighttime drive down the Gunflint Trail when I was young, may have been the closest I have ever come to death. This docile creature, seemingly part deer and part cow, has otherwise been an elusive presence for a resident of northern Minnesota. While a quest for moose is hardly a search for snow leopards in the Himalaya, they are part of the local allure, and a trip to Isle Royale seemed the perfect way to rectify this lack of large, furry, antlered beasts.

Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior. It sits some 20 miles off the coast of Minnesota and Canada, though it is a part of Michigan, leading those who come from the Minnesota entry to eternal time zone confusion. It is the least visited national park in the United States outside of Alaska. Over the past century it has gained some fame for its moose and wolf populations, which often move in relation to one another, though lately the wolves have preferred to wander off across the ice pack in winters and thrown the balance out of whack. The island’s folded rock is the geological twin of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, its length scarred by the glaciers that formed Lake Superior and created the lake-studded Northwoods that I call home.

After a year in which I kept up my travel pace largely by sacrificing companionship, I am eager to tread trails with other people. My fellow hikers, Connor and Alex, are new to backpacking but well-prepared for this venture. (We are all planners, after all.) Rarely have I been the experienced hand on my group hiking excursions, but as I relate tales of past excursions as part of the steady chatter that takes our minds off our feet, I realize just how much exploration I’ve done in my life. And though I’ve never been to Isle Royale before, it feels like home turf. When my companions, both St. Paul residents, ask me on the drive up if Lake Superior ever gets old, the answer is an easy ‘no.’ This realm is my playground, and these outdoor pursuits are among my fondest pastimes.

The ferry dock for boats to Isle Royale is in Grand Portage, the final settlement on Minnesota’s North Shore. With the Canadian border four miles to the northeast still closed, Highway 61 is quiet, and the settlement nestles sedately around a large bay. Grand Portage is home to an American national monument dedicated to French voyageurs, but it is primarily home for members of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, whose tribal headquarters are here, along with a campground, a general store, and a casino, which provides our lodging the night before the ferry departs. Randomly pressing buttons nets me $6.91 off the free $15 casino voucher I get for being a hotel guest. I consider it a win, though Connor’s haul dwarfs those of Alex and me.

The Voyageur II, our ferry, nears its capacity of about 50 for this jaunt across the strait that separates the island from the Minnesotan and Canadian shoreline. The boat heads first for Windigo, its western port of entry, which is the destination for my travel party and the vast majority of our fellow sailors. From there, it will ply its way around the island, with stops at a few smaller trailheads and an overnight at Rock Harbor on the eastern end before it completes its circuit back to Grand Portage. I pop my Dramamine and settle on to a rigid bench for the two-hour ride.

Isle Royale is not a complete and utter wilderness. A hotel still operates at Rock Harbor, and both Rock Harbor and Windigo are home to additional buildings, including ranger stations, Park Service stores, and bathrooms with actual plumbing. Small motorized vehicles putter about these entry points, seaplanes drone past with some regularity, and after a bad storm rolls through on our final morning, a chorus of chainsaws rings out through camp as the rangers re-open the trails. It would be possible to have a vacation here that is rustic but requires minimal physical exertion, and the day trip ferries, which resume service the day after our departure, no doubt add to the touristy nature of these outposts at each end of the island.

Most visitors to Isle Royale, however, embark on backcountry expeditions, the most famed being the 45-mile hike from Rock Harbor to Windigo across the spine of the island and the opportunity to canoe and portage across a chain of small lakes on the northeastern end. Our hiking loop is a standard 30-plus mile route for those who come from the west end. It begins in Windigo and circles its way counterclockwise through the southwest portion of the island, with tastes of everything it has to offer: inland lakes, Lake Superior waterfront, ridges along the central spine, an old mine, and, of course, moose.

The first day is an eight-mile walk from Windigo to Feldtmann Lake, which looks like prime moose habitat on the map. The trail follows Lake Superior for a spell and then clambers up a ridge with views of a swampy interior, which it then drops to and skirts on its way around to Feldtmann Lake. The trail here is tame and relatively flat, though the underbrush, thinner than on the mainland, is clear evidence of moose activity. Many balsam firs along the path seem stunted, with all the vegetation shorn from their lower branches and only some tufts of needles at the top, away from prying mouths. Later, a ranger tells us that some of these trees can be decades old, and not the saplings they seem to be, due to the constant nibbling. We come to Feldtmann Lake to find the best two campsites occupied, but settle for a respectable one just a short distance away from the lake.

Isle Royale campgrounds are unlike others I’ve encountered before. Often eight to ten miles apart, they are sparser than those on the Superior Hiking Trail or in other backcountry realms I’ve hiked. They make up for their scarcity with clumps of sites in marked campgrounds. My initial reaction to this setup is not one of great love: it’s hardly deep wilderness when there are five other parties within two hundred yards of one’s site, and yet since we are all strewn across our own distinct areas, the conviviality that comes with sharing a site with ten other hikers does not come as easily. Still, over the course of three days, we get to know two 40-something women from the Chicago area who are on the same route; a quieter couple is also on the same circuit, and a few others linger to chat here and there.

There is also some surprising variation in the amenities. Siskiwit Bay, which has its own very new-looking dock, features picnic tables at the sites, while several Feldtmann Lake sites lack even the rudimentary seating log common at deep wilderness camps. Of the four campgrounds we tour, only Island Mine has fire pits, and Washington Creek, a stone’s throw from the ferry dock at Windigo, is more of a collection of wooden shelters with single screened sides, with a few sad tent sites tucked behind them for overflow. Some of these variations are logical enough, but it makes every stop a new adventure.

Despite the lack of seating options, a strong breeze off Feldtmann Lake knocks down all the bugs on the first night and gives us a pleasant evening. We take our dinner a short distance away at the placid pebble beach of Rainbow Cove along Lake Superior. Later, back at the site, we deploy a wood-burning stove of questionable legality and stay up late enough to watch the stars come out. A thunderstorm hits while we’re still in tents the next morning, and after it blows over, I peek out of my tent for the first time and am immediately greeted by a female moose plodding past our site down the path. Success! I’m too slow with the camera to get a respectable picture, but I need not worry: a short while later she makes her way back up the shoreline, stopping to chew on plants, and a male friend follows her shortly thereafter. We take our time to admire them from as close a distance as we dare.

The second day’s hike begins with a placid wrap around Feldtmann Lake’s southern shore, the trail high and dry from the surrounding swampland on a short ridge, moose prints dotting the mud. We then charge up a steep climb to Feldtmann Ridge, which offers looks back over the lake and to Superior beyond, a series of false summits offering better and better views before we settle into a ridgetop plod, often in direct sun. Next comes a beaver pond and a gentle trickle of a stream before we come to a defunct fire tower that now serves as a lunch spot, where we meet an older couple heading the opposite direction and the Chicago area women, one of whom gracefully tips over her camp chair while holding a freshly reconstituted bag of freeze-dried chili. We clamber up the tower as far as we can for equal doses of pretty views and vertigo before continuing on our merry way. The trail descends into the largest birch grove I’ve ever seen, though it later degenerates into a buggy, scrubby, scorching hot swampland as we slog across the final miles to Siskiwit Bay.

Siskiwit Bay is a prominent bite into Isle Royale’s southern shoreline. A large vessel, perhaps from the Coast Guard, sits at anchor toward its mouth, and after sunset, a distant lighthouse blinks away. The two shelters are already taken, but we claim the best of the tent sites, open to the wind and with an access down to a small private beach. We while away the afternoon here and eat dinner in a shadier spot down on the main beach by the large new dock, where the pebbles conveniently rest in a seat-height berm. A picnic table at the end of the dock catches a strong breeze, and we stay out here as the sun plunges into the horizon. Our muscles ache and a rodent may have gotten into the cookies, but none of that matters. We are deep into hiking trip bliss.

The next morning dawns in brilliant sun, and we make much better time in breaking down camp. Beaver activity has made the trail impassable around the back of Siskiwit Bay, so we are diverted to the beach, and this next mile and a half, save for a mucky bushwhack to an inland bridge over the Big Siskiwit River, wraps along the shoreline. It is the most beautiful part of the hike. The lake glows golden in the morning sun, and the thick forest to our left keeps us on the straight and narrow path. A few crystal-clear rivulets make their way down across the beach and into the pristine inland sea. The Chicago ladies, headed just a few short miles to Island Mine on this day, are sprawled in chairs and soaking in the sun. I am loath to leave it, but leave it we must, and the next stage of the hike climbs some 800 feet upward, first through mud obstacle courses and then over a series of aggressive ridges that take their toll.

On this stretch of trail we get a window into Isle Royale’s human history. Called Minong by the Ojibwe, a word translating to “the good place” or “the place of abundance,” it was an early source of copper mining, and white settlers later returned for the same purpose. We pass an empty well shaft and a large pile of mining overburden, the remnants of a short-lived 1870s operation here on the hillside. Lunch comes at the Island Mine campground, a series of sites strewn across a low ridge of maples in a valley between two higher rises. We’ve been waffling on whether to spend the night here or press on to Washington Creek, but with our energy restored by lunch and a looming threat of bugs here and the need to be on time for a ferry the next day, Alex convinces us to pound out the last 6.5 miles.

We make the right choice. The trail from Island Mine back toward Windigo is a wide, gentle descent through a shady maple forest, its halls carpeted by a dense layer of blanched-out leaves from down the years. We pass a series of parties going the other direction, all fresh off the ferry and chipper; Island Mine will be crowded on this night. The Washington Creek campground, however, has several open shelters for us to choose from, and once again we choose right. As we laze about the site reading that afternoon, I glance up toward some stray movement in the thicket between our shelter and the next and see a male moose just a few feet from our site making his way down the steep bank toward the creek, which at this point is more of an estuary. We hustle down our own path to the water and tuck in to watch him as he plods about, munching at pond scum and shaking water back and forth off his antlers.

The moose show is only beginning, though. A short while later we pick out a mother and her calf, who cannot be more than two or three weeks old. They pick their way upstream, and, with some urging from its mother, the calf emits some near-human wails as it strikes out across the water to join her. Next, an interlude of amusing ducks and ducklings, which Connor calls the Greek chorus of our trip. Two more moose, including a large bull, wake us early the next morning, and a distant female downstream provides the final act. Mission accomplished.

Our travel plan again seems prudent when the when the storm rages across the island on our final morning. The Chicago women, who set out around 5:30 from Island Mine, report a terrifying hike down, with a tree falling next to them and the trail so darkened by the storm that they pull out headlamps. By the time they arrive in Windigo, however, they are free to share a very good story, and a few other familiar faces join us for a ranger lecture before the ferry collects us again. The boat ride back to Grand Portage is as smooth as possible, and Connor and I head to the bow to watch the green North Shore bluffs and Mount Josephine rise up to welcome us back to the mainland, a narrow band of undulating green between two rich, blue expanses of unfathomable depth. I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.