Twenty-Four

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

– Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Happy 24th, bro.

Ten Years

1. Pageantry

The sun sinks down over the Neogothic towers of Healy Hall and bathes the front lawn in a pink sheen to match my dress shirt. A gentle hubbub rises from the tents. A soundtrack from yesteryear cranks up, and I am surrounded by faces from a past that grows hazy, all familiar but at what point do we introduce ourselves, break down those inhibitions? Groups begin to form and orbit about each other, old networks coming into contact, and over time they coalesce into a pulsing mass, lonely anxieties forgotten in an identity that gives me as much pride as any. We are back in DC for a reunion, here to revel in our greatest shared loyalty, Georgetown Hoyas for life.

2. Brotherhood

The four onetime occupants of 3731 R Street reunite, along with our honorary fifth roommate. The house still stands in Burleith, despite the horrors we inflicted on it, and somehow the powers that be have allowed four of us to become homeowners ourselves in the past two years. The Tombs has a new menu, which we appraise with narrowed eyes, but it’s still wine night on Mondays and trivia on Tuesdays and the pitchers still roll out to satisfy us adherents to this boat-themed catacomb on 36th. Late nights ensue, our minds still twenty-two but our bodies not quite that anymore, though we get ourselves back into shape as the weekend goes along. No beats missed, easy reminiscences and all the old giving of shit, and a certainty that we need to do this more often.

3. The March of Time

The clock hands tell us Georgetown is timeless, but evidence to the contrary does slip through the cracks here and there. I share a hug with my dean, who went on maternity leave while I was an undergraduate; her son is now 13, which seems impossible even though the math does indeed check out. All five-year reunion increments attend for the same weekend, so we get to see our future progression in a steady march through the different tents across campus. One day we too will be the aged souls whose parties wrap up at nine, the middle-aged parents boring our young charges with campus tours and impositions of Hoya swag. But for now we are still among the fresher faces, here for a party and dip back into a time that still seems like just yesterday.

4. Minutiae

DC is a city of trivia. Around every corner sits some monument, literal or figurative, that teaches us who we are. Identify the flag, name the embassy, learn which obscure historical figure has earned a statue or plaque in this little niche. This is a town for lovers of arcane facts, or just those who look for stimulus on every block. The wealth of knowledge expands one’s sense of what it means to be an American, a citizen of the world. I often eschew Ubers and do a lot of walking in inadequate boat shoes, a full sensory experience: red brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, pastel rowhomes and federalist manors, thick leafy trees and hidden back gardens. I’m not sure another neighborhood can ever top the beauty fixed in my mind’s eye here.

5. The Eternal City

Minneapolis feels radically changed by the past two years. New York, too, has been hollowed by the pandemic. In Chicago, savvy relatives now counsel me to avoid the El. But in DC? It all feels the same. The gentrifiers north of the Capitol keep drifting east, Rosslyn has added a building or two, and the homelessness that has long been ubiquitous has certainly not gone away. M Street seems down from where it was a decade ago, with fewer bars and restaurants and more direct to consumer retail. The gas station at the base of the Exorcist Stairs is no longer, and as we head for the piano bar, we find a wild new urban phenomenon, the murder of rats by trained dogs under the direction of a vigilante pest control. Is a rat carcass in the middle of the sidewalk really an upgrade over a live one inside the trash can?

But otherwise, the city is its lively old self, the streets of Dupont and Adams Morgan teeming with life. New York may be America’s financial capital and the Bay Area may be the cutting edge, but the power of this dear old swamp only seems to grow with every new denunciation of it. DC is perhaps the most stable of great American cities, fed by that ever-growing beast. Porque aquí está el poder, I overhear a man tell his wife on a stroll down Prospect Street. Because this is where the power lies.

6. Rubbing Shoulders

Georgetown knows how to throw a party, but it also hooks us in for some education along the way. The first panel I attend features successful young entrepreneur alumni in realms from college mental health support to lobster restaurants. (This former dining hall regular might suggest a correlation between the two.) In DC there must be political commentary, so a second brings a lively debate ahead of the 2022 midterms. Opinions flow from the lips a straight-talking former Elizabeth Warren campaign hand and a biting Republican adviser who claims she owns Mitch McConnell’s brain. Nancy Pelosi drifts through; will Bradley Cooper show up? Has anyone in our class earned their way on to one of these lists yet? How about some infamous alumni to go with the list of our famous compatriots in the program?

7. The One Percent

Georgetown remains a beautiful people’s club. I thought I’d see a bit more thinning hair, a few more widening paunches, but no, this is a world apart from the toll of time I see in other friend circles. Skin remains unblemished, hair perfectly teased or coiffed, and ambient in the air is a sense of ownership that can only emerge from long years of life in a ruling class. Seated on a bench, I am glad I wear sunglasses to hide my eyes as they follow a bronzed beauty in an orange sun dress, her hand alas held by a lacrosse player and a specimen in his own right. Preppy attire remains the de facto state, but there is also a whiff of elite disdain for care, as with the bro whose definition of cocktail attire features a bathrobe. With beauty comes the power to set one’s own standard.

8. Busy

One of the chief markers of being a Georgetown student, I observed as an undergraduate, was being busy. When asked how one was, the appropriate response was “busy,” and levels of busyness became badges of pride among the hard-charging Hoya climbers. At the time, I swore to never describe myself as busy. I have failed to keep this commitment over the past few years, and am not proud of my lapses. This, I think, is our generation’s great failing: a manic obsession with productivity for productivity’s sake, and falling into patterns that normalize 80-hour work weeks, or worse. There is nothing healthy about this life, and high incomes hit diminishing returns when they crowd out the time for the other pursuits that make a life worth living. But we are Hoyas, so we continue our manic pursuits, certain we can arrive at a place where we have it all.

9. Rebel Against the Sort

At the School of Foreign Service reception, I chat with an acquaintance in the Class of 1972, a former federal relations official at the university. He introduces his freshman year roommate, a Hoya who moved home to Indiana and built a life there, including a failed primary bid for congress in a race ultimately won by a young Mike Pence. A kindred spirit. We part with me admitting how much I waver, and him pushing me to stay the course. My path remains a noble exception among fellow Hoyas.

Later, over gelato in Kalorama, two of my greatest sparring partners take up the question of the Big Sort, the notion that the well-educated strivers are self-isolating in a few specific places. So many of my classmates have drifted to New York, DC, or the Bay Area for jobs in tech or finance or consulting or law, and those intense jobs or advanced degrees they were pursuing at the five-year are now bearing fruit in stepping stones and large salaries. I am far from the lone exception, and there may be some self-selection in who returns for a reunion. But I may be the most obstinate in my pride at what I’ve done, even as I try to find new wells of strength in my Hoya inheritance. What was once a source of social anxiety is now a simple certainty that I belong.

10. Ease

I head straight from the airport to a tour of the Fond du Lac Reservation, and attend a funeral for a great Native woman the following day. This is what I do, though. Further out in either direction my schedule will find a muddy hiking trip, a speaking gig at a conference at a resort on a lake; a garden party at an old money club and political dinner, to say nothing of a work calendar that likewise pulls in ten different directions daily. Busyness? No: richness. In no place did I learn more about how to live richly than I did at Georgetown, how to drift between worlds with ease, adjusting to each to fit in while still retaining some core self. I am still in love with this school, and while there are certain decisions over those four years that I wish I could change, it is also the source of everything that has come since, and everything that could yet be. It was at Georgetown that I found the tools that direct the flow of an ever-churning life, and the self-assurance to ease into the next great push.

In Memoriam: Renee Van Nett

As I got to know Renee Van Nett, I learned the important thing was to listen. She didn’t need my advice, nor to hear my convoluted backstory, at least not unless she wanted to. I was there to learn from her. She had seen things that I never would, had opinions formed in ways that my life would never allow me to do, and through that journey she had become a force.

Renee was a fiercely independent woman. She hid her past pain and suffering from the world, even as she was open and welcoming to others who had endured struggles. Few knew how much she had already been through, how she’d learned to live a life on borrowed time. She never wanted her story to be about her, and always built it around what she stood for, and the often unseen people she sought to lift up.

She accepted political advice but did things her way regardless, her campaign operations lean efforts that relied on a few key allies and her own force of will. A narrow defeat in her first run for office did nothing to dissuade her, and she twice won a Duluth City Council seat over opposition that wasn’t afraid to take serious swings at her. She governed from the heart, building fierce loyalties that led her on one quixotic final campaign to primary a sitting state senator. Her moves unnerved some when she dared to stray from the progressive orthodoxy that some white Duluth liberals apparently expected out of a Native woman, and at times exasperated even those of us who considered her an ally, too. But we knew that this was what made Renee such a genuine politician, such a person who could take a complex collection of facts before her and form an unflinching belief that only made sense from where she was. She was no one’s pawn, nor was anyone Renee’s pawn. She moved through the world with an authenticity of self whose rarity belies the term’s use.

As I came to know Renee, I took that authenticity as a model for how to move through the world, a lesson all the more compelling when it came from a woman who ventured into realms that were far from what she’d known. It was exemplary. I am a better person for having known her, and I trust that her daughters will know they always have supports who are there for them; may they learn to channel their mother’s strength in their own endeavors.

Renee’s death came far too suddenly, a far too abruptly for a life still bursting with potential. But the vagaries of time and life have no heed for such untapped wells, and it is up to the rest of us to find something in what has been lost and turn it into a beginning once again. Her passing is another reminder to never waste one more precious moment.

An Hour Forty Well Spent

This weekend, whilst recovering from some excessive fun, I was pleased to find a distraction that rekindled my thinking after a stint of limited writing output. The New York Times’ Ezra Klein did a lengthy interview with Patrick Deneen, the erstwhile Georgetown professor who’s been mentioned in my writings more than a few times. It had been a while since I had a new dose of Deneen in my life, and the discussion was as fascinating as ever, worthy of pondering even when his arguments don’t quite land.

The interview is about as wide-ranging conversation as can be, a gentle sparring match between two people who on paper seem drastically opposed: a staunchly Catholic political philosopher whose isn’t fond of many developments since the Enlightenment and a technocratic liberal policy wonk and internet-era media personality at the Times. Klein prods and probes at Deneen’s idiosyncratic views, sometimes landing some real punches. The two circle each other, working toward common ground, or at the very least an understanding. It’s a model of civil debate between two people who generally agree on what is wrong with American society but see both the causes of and solutions to this malaise in radically different, though not always irreconcilable, ways. It is two worldviews, in the richest sense of that word, colliding.

Klein’s interviews are never dull, but this one is particularly wide-ranging. They debate whether Deneen has grown harsher over time, and what Deneen views as a liberal attack on the family as an institution. They spar about divorce law and the drift of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, about what Joe Biden represents and what Deneen’s philosophizing might look like in a political platform. Later, Deneen gets to the core of his critique of the managerial elite and the prestigious universities he has inhabited for most of his professional career, and he offers some words very similar to the ones he shared with this kid ten years ago in office hours at the end of a senior year. (I find it a timely reflection, as I’ll be back in DC in a few weeks to revisit the institution where that chat happened.) They end with some musing on the interplay between culture and politics, a divide that perhaps most fundamentally splits the two of them.

Give it a listen here.

Grand Staircase III: Layers of Time

This is the third in a three-part series. Part 1 | Part 2

Sated by my time in Grand Staircase-Escalante, I drive the three hours back to Zion, where I nestle in at the Novel House Inn in Springdale, a mile’s stroll from the park’s gates. This writer is a sucker for this bed and breakfast, complete with sprawling library and author-themed rooms. I am in the Mark Twain Room, wedged between Walt Whitman and Louis L’Amour on the first floor, and the great red cliffs peek out above some trees through my window. There is a voucher for breakfast at a Mexican place up the block, a tray of cookies and lemonade in the afternoon, an attentive Irish proprietor, and a library where I can sit and organize my notes in the evening. What more could I ask for to round out this trip?

I spend the night at the Zion Brewery, which is, brilliantly, the first establishment one encounters when exiting the park via its pedestrian bridge over the Virgin into Springdale. I settle in at the bar and make a few temporary friends as we throw back beers. “Have these trips ever changed your life?” asks Russell from Philadelphia when I tell him the tale of my journey. Check back in with me later, I reply. A couple from Long Island then joins us, the husband glued to the North Carolina-Duke Final Four game on the TV, and I become a temporary Tar Heel fan at his behest. These are the best nights of solo travel, the momentary community a necessary counterpoint to the solitude of nights in tents.

On my final full day, I hike the full eight miles up Zion Canyon to the end of the road. At times I am on formal trails such as the Pa’rus across the meadows north of the Visitor Center, or the Kayenta between the Emerald Pools and the West Rim trailhead; at times I am on a semi-formal sandy track lining the river; and for long stretches I am just on the road, which is empty aside from shuttles every few minutes, the occasional car headed to the Lodge, and a steady string of cyclists. While the shuttle system has the effect of choking up certain spots when it disgorges busloads at certain popular locations, it means that vast amounts of the canyon, despite the number of visitors it hosts, are basically empty. Even in the four days since my backpacking excursion, the canyon seems lusher with spring, the cottonwoods’ leaves unfurling and purple and red and yellow flowers springing up here and there. I see a condor and a crane and a wild turkey, and at times the only sound is the rushing water of the Virgin River, which echoes off the canyon side walls. Never has a stroll up a road felt like such complete immersion.

After a quick recharge at the Novel House, I go for my final Zion hike: a quick burst up and down the Watchman Trail, which rises from the Visitor’s Center some 360 feet to views over Springdale, the campgrounds, and up the canyon. As on the West Rim, I half expect to find a shrine at the top, but instead it features verdant greenery crawling out of the rich red rock, a perfectly acceptable endpoint for a pilgrim to Zion. I sit for a while at the summit, process a few thoughts, make peace with the paths I’ve trodden over the past week. I read a passage I copied down from Leave only Footprints, a memoir by Conor Knighton, who visited all of the national parks in a meandering, yearlong post-breakup journey. Here, he contemplates a fireplace at the Grand Canyon that serves as a model for all its layers of rock:

Looking at a canyon’s different lines and layers, we can read its diary, seeing the various strata that made it what it is today. The layers are stripes, not smears; they all seem so clearly delineated. I wondered if, inside of each of us, those same markers exist. When we think of personality, we tend to think of it like a soup, a blend of traits and experiences that have been mixed together to make us the people we are today. Over the years, more and more gets added; the broth gets thicker, and the individual ingredients become harder to discern. It seemed to me that we might be more like that fireplace; like the canyon, full of layers with clear dividing lines; moments that say, from this point on, everything will be different. Maybe those lines mark deaths, births, loves, and losses, the moments we’d expect to define the different periods of our lives. Or, maybe they correspond to days and events we would have never initially seen as important.

Did I actually change as a person when I graduated from college? Probably not. Maybe a more significant shift happened midway through seventh grade, when my teacher told us to pick a college to do a report on, and instead of picking one that was good at sports, I chose Yale, a place I knew nothing about. Maybe your life changes on your wedding day, but I’d imagine the actual change happens on your fourth date, when the woman who will one day be your wife tells you a joke that somehow tells you she’s the one. It’s never clear a layer is over until the line appears and a new one starts. Looking past the fireplace, out to the canyon it represented, I began to think that I might be smack dab in the middle of an important layer, an era that was changing who I was as a person. There was the me before the parks, and there will be the me after them.

I ponder some of the layers in my own life, some obvious to any who know me and others more subtle. I was eight when I learned that the world could steal away life in an arbitrary instant, and eighteen when I learned it would be impossible to ever truly go home. At twenty-two I grounded a life that was somewhat adrift in a place, but by twenty-eight I found myself more in tune with the kid who had once run away from that place than the one who’d made a commitment to a thing that cannot love him back.

The world is forever changing, and that there is a sweet spot of knowing it will change you while knowing that you can also change parts of it. At twenty and twenty-one I began to sow the seeds of a worldview that understood this fact. Around twenty-six I internalized the power of forgiveness and began to appreciate that I did not need to define myself by the things I had lost. At twenty-seven and twenty-eight I undertook a writing project to interrogate these possibilities, and to play out the tension between competing strains of thought in my head. At twenty-nine and thirty I learned that more than a place I was in need of a pace, and have, perhaps, at thirty-one and thirty-two, found it.

In the four years since I last came to Zion I have hiked relentlessly forward in the fog, through a snow patch of work life upheaval and a climb up into a new Duluth network and on through the sticking mud of a two-year pandemic. It has been a relentless, and generally successful, but often very solitary phase. My navigation skills in any moment haven’t really been in doubt, but the view has not always been clear. Now, at long last, I think I can see again, and am even more eager to see where I am the next time I make my way to this canyon that has become my Eden.

In a few conversations before I left for the Grand Staircase, I described this venture as a last great solo trip, at least for the foreseeable future. This usually brought about a lament in response. Why stop now? I seem to love it, and I am good at it. But too much of my life has been caught up in a confusion between being good at things and therefore believing these are the things I must do. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever travel this way again, and I had some motivations for making this a solitary burst. But I have done what I set out to do, and I have came home content.

In these canyons there are always more layers, greater and greater depths and heights to explore. Some of it will be forever buried, and that is alright. But there are many more layers to discover, and next time I head forth, I don’t plan to do so alone.

Grand Staircase II: Stairway into the Unknown

This is Part 2 of a three-part travel series. Part 1 is here.

My night outside Zion is fitful, nervous, eager with anticipation, the sense that my plan for the next two days is no casual stroll. I have a one-night date with the West Rim Trail. When I go to collect my permit, the ranger appraises me carefully: this hike is a 3,000-foot climb, the upper reaches of the ascent are covered in snow, up top the trails are thick with mud, the only water source there is probably snow-covered, and oh, have you noticed all the rain in the forecast? I assure her I am a northern Minnesotan, and when she learns I’ve day hiked to three-quarters of the route before, she gains a bit more confidence in my abilities. The day dawns a dreary grey, which only makes for perfect hiking weather. A couple with overnight packs is also on my shuttle up the canyon, and we leapfrog our way all the way up to Cabin Spring, where they settle in at the first campsite on Zion’s roof.

This trek is one of phases. The first 2.5 miles follow the well-worn route to Angels Landing, the iconic clamber up chains between thousand-foot drop-offs that I conquered four years ago and feel zero compulsion to climb again. After Angels Landing is my favorite part of the whole trek, as the crowds thin out and the trail climbs a series of shelves with views to rival those of the famed promontory, culminating in a huge, white dome. From there, it tucks in along the backside of one of the mounts lining the canyon, past cool streams of snowmelt trickling down the rock. Higher up, the snow begins, first as little clumps alongside the trail, and later covering substantial portions of the trail itself, though it is firm enough and well-enough worn that at no point is it awful. At the top of the snow I encounter a family I’d seen high up on the East Rim the previous day, and their intrepid 10-year-old daughter advises me on how best to have fun with the snow. My kingdom for children who someday show the same pluck and guile as her. From here, there are more exposed switchbacks up another steep wall to the West Rim Lookout at Cabin Spring, where most day hikers (including myself four years ago) turn around.

I see no one in my 24 hours beyond Cabin Spring. There are more climbs, but they are gradual, and the muck is indeed treacherous in places, first as an insidious yellow mud that isn’t thick but clings to boots like leeches on legs, and later in a thicker, gloppy ascent with a full-blown stream running down the middle. The views are stellar, or so I am forced to guess: I am in the clouds, the chances to see outward sporadic, and while the mesa here is exposed enough that most snow is off the trail, it still clings to shaded hillsides. The late winter landscape takes on a haunted, empty air, and phantom voices carry through the howling wind. I am as alone as I’ve ever been.

Finally, I arrive at campsite 5, which sits atop a ridge between Phantom Valley to the west and Telephone and Imlay Canyons to the east. The clouds whip directly over me and plunge my ridge into obscurity, and I pass the afternoon cycling from one side to the other, admiring the vista in whichever direction has the higher clouds at that moment. I don’t tire of it. In time, though, the thicker clouds get too close, and rain, interspersed with ice pellets, begins to fall. I have a tent malfunction, but some string and some rocks solve my dilemma and keep me dry through a 12-hour span under the covers. I sleep poorly, never warm but never exactly cold, yet somehow content that I have made it where I want to be. I rise at sunrise and finally look out to see the view from my throne atop Zion. The world glitters beneath me, ignited by a fiery glow. I am transfixed, my pilgrimage at its apex.

I wait until nearly ten to break camp so the sun can eat away at the ice on my equipment and dry out as much as it can. The trek down reveals all the views I’d missed the day before, made somehow more stunning by their temporary withholding, and I plow down in an hour less time than it took me to make the climb. Beyond the snowy bits I join a day-hiking couple from Beaver Bay, just an hour north of Duluth; we trade shared acquaintances as we go. Angels Landing is an absolute zoo, and I may have seen it at its absolute worst: in just two days, the National Park Service is finally imposing a permit system on the famed hike, and only the select, pre-scheduled few will be able to head up the chains. I fight the crowds down the switchbacks and settle for a half-mile stroll along the canyon bottom back to the Zion Lodge for a much-needed meal and a drink.

The Lodge is not quite what the doctor ordered for a weary hiker. The food has all the flavor of a McDonalds with none of the speed. There is only one beer on tap until the distributor’s truck arrives again, though at least it is a decent local microbrew. There are no open tables and alcohol is not allowed off the patio on to the inviting lawn, so I decamp on a wall by the beer stand until a departing couple takes pity on me. I pay it forward and let a couple from St. Louis join me, and we bond over our fondness for road trips and incredulity over the crowds. (Shouldn’t all these children be in school?!) I share my shuttle back down the canyon with a clump of high schoolers on some sort of Christian retreat, all of whom ignore the mask mandate and talk earnestly about what they are looking for in relationships. Is it bad that my instinct is to buy them a case of beer?

I return to my car and climb back up out of Zion, back through the Mount Carmel tunnel and then north on US-89. My abode for the next two nights is a no-frills roadside cabin some 20 miles west of Bryce Canyon, and my dinner that night comes at a family diner in the town of Panguich, a bustling joint staffed almost entirely by teenagers. From my spot at the bar, I get a front row seat to the chaos, as the POS system is deemed a POS and three orders come out for tables with no one sitting at them. At least the wings are tasty.

A poll of acquaintances who have visited both Zion and Bryce has been inconclusive on which is better. While Bryce cannot match the sheer scale of Zion, it has an intimacy to it, and its famed hoodoos never cease to amaze with their wild shapes. Trails chart labyrinthine courses around the pinnacles of rock, never flat as they wind down to the floor of the canyon and then back up and around to get over to the next feature. South of the bustling amphitheater, a 17-mile road snakes its way up past 9,000 feet in elevation, with repeated overlooks up and down the Grand Staircase and across the Paria River valley. It’s snowing when I arrive, and while it is a bit too warm for anything to accumulate, three more squalls break out over the course of the day. The most eventful one comes as I traverse the Bristlecone Trail at the far end of the scenic drive; the woman I am following loses the trail entirely for a spell. She is one of five lost people I help over the course of the day, and I can’t pass up the opportunity to lament the decline of navigational skills. “Trust me, I don’t get lost!” I want to yell at the dude making his second circuit of the Peek-a-Boo Trail even though he is sure he isn’t; later in the day, we meet at an overlook and he concedes defeat. Don’t mess with my geography skills.

The burst of wind and snow that nearly stole my hat away atop Bryce Point tells me it’s time to wrap things up here. I wrap up my Bryce hiking with a quick trot to an ice-filled cave off Highway 12, where dripping water produces a trickling symphony that silences the cluster of viewers. I am glad I saw Bryce, but in a day, I feel like I have seen what it has to offer, while after nearly a week in Zion across two trips, I still haven’t touched its northern unit or The Narrows or Observation Point or its little-known southern desert. I conclude my tour of Bryce with a geology lesson in the visitor center, content with a rock-filled day sandwiched between two experiences of wilderness sublime.

This entire trip is, in effect, a traverse of the Grand Staircase, a series of rock layers that rise up from the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River into central Utah. These different bands of geological time give the rocks different hues, often ending in dramatic dropping shelves. Closest to the Colorado are the Chocolate Cliffs, while the Vermilion Cliffs rise near Kanab, just south of the Utah-Arizona state line, and include the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, the areas around Colorado City, and the lower layers of Zion. Next come the White Cliffs, which look like a jagged scrape on an aerial image; they form Zion’s upper reaches. The drive from Zion to Bryce follows the cut of the Sevier River up through the Grey Cliffs, and finally, at the top, are the Pink Cliffs that reach the heights of Bryce at 9,000 feet. Above these sit the great upland plateaus of south-central Utah, themselves rising in steps: the Markagunt, the Paunsaugunt, and the Aquarius. The Staircase’s eastern railing is the Kaiparowits Plateau, which stretches down from the Aquarius to the Colorado and falls off on its own eastern side from the Straight Cliffs into the canyonlands of the Escalante River. It is in this remote land, the last portion of the lower 48 states to be mapped by the US government, that I will spend the bulk of the next two days.

The drive east from Bryce has the distinct feeling of heading deeper into the wilderness. I tumble down from the Paunsaugunt through a series of Mormon frontier towns in the Paria River valley, oasis outposts with verdant fruit trees clustering around dust-choked homes. The road winds up into the Kaipirowits and down through funky Escalante, traffic thinned to a trickle. My eagerness at this fresh landscape grows, but nothing quite prepares for the Head of the Rocks Overlook, where the scrubby plateau disappears and the rocky canyonlands of the Escalante River undulate out in all directions below, the ribbon of the CCC-built Highway 12 the only thing interrupting the march of these rocky waves out to a few snow-capped ranges on the fringes of the wilderness.

At the direction of a ranger, I head straight for the Calf Creek Campground and claim one of the 13 sites nestled just above that small stream’s confluence with the Escalante. I wish I could have arrived just two weeks later to see this small Eden at its best, but as it is, these oases in the desert are budding and coming to life. I plug up the creek some three miles to Lower Calf Creek Falls, a 120-foot plunge of water into a deep, cold pool. The route is gradual, with views to ancient pictographs and granaries up on cliffs, and while a healthy crowd hikes this trail, it has nothing on Zion or Bryce. I dip my feet in the icy waters and take my time to soak in the warmth on the stroll back.

After a recovery spell in a hammock, I drive north into Boulder. On the way, Highway 12 skirts high above Calf Creek and the canyonlands to the east, an Angels Landing for cars atop the ridge, and then plunges into Boulder, the last town in the US to have mule-delivered mail, accessible only by unpaved road until the 1980s. The Burr Trail, an old cattle route, swings east from here, and a cheery sign announces a mere 72-mile trip to the Lake Powell Ferry. The trek would take hours; I settle for a trip in to the aptly named Long Canyon, a deep red gash in the stone, and home to a lonely slot canyon worthy of a quick exploration. That night, back at Calf Creek, I hop up on a natural red rock seat, sip away at some wine, and drift into a reverie as the stars emerge, deep in this lonely desert, the crackling fires and stray laughs across the campground filling me with a warmth independent of the cool evening air.

Some ice forms in the water bottle I leave out on the picnic table, but I have my soundest night of sleep in a tent on this trip. After packing up, I do a 6-mile stroll up and down the Escalante, wading its frigid waters 14 times as I process up the canyon to a natural bridge and an arch. The trail snakes along those pure flowing waters, up and down ledges and across dry washes, nestling beneath cliffs and cottonwoods and through fields of sage. All is at peace.

I take my time in making my exit from Grand Staircase-Escalante. First, another hiker mentions some unadvertised petroglyphs just above the parking lot by the river where I’ve been hiking, so I head up the trail opposite the river and, after a few false turns, arrive at these signs from the past. On the other side of the river, I pause for a scrumptious lunch at the Kiva Koffeeshop, a new agey wonder built right into the hill, with views up and down the canyon. Grand Staircase-Escalante is a beauty, Zion’s essence distilled to its basics and stripped of its crowds. I shall return.

Part 3 is here.

Grand Staircase I: Sinners and Saviors

This is Part One of a three-part series.

Four years ago I wrapped up a meandering western road trip at Zion National Park. Its great red walls have called me back ever since, a magnetic pull that only two or three other places on earth have managed. And so, my hockey duties at an end, I set out to escape the bleak late Minnesota winter and head for the southwest. This time I aim for a taste of Zion’s surroundings, and rig up one of my normal sprawling itineraries: Vegas, some sand dunes, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, a trek across southern Utah fueled by Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner on John Wesley Powell. It is time for me to hit the road again, and to appreciate that stark beauty of the untamed West, to peel back a few layers obscured by life at a breakneck pace.

But first, I land for a night in Sin City. Las Vegas, more than ever, seems the logical end point of American popular culture. It is gaudy, escapist, and pulls everyone in to the same churning spectacle, a simulacrum of reality rather than reality itself. I arrive on a Saturday night and stay at an off-brand spinoff of the MGM Grand, a once-glamorous but now dated tower where my 26th-floor balcony gazes out at the glaring lights and less glaring parking garages of the Strip to the west and north. Circuits of the MGM Grand and New York New York across the street are spelunking expeditions through sprawling cave complexes, complete with stalagmites of gaming machines and stalactites of flashy signs inviting me into various restaurants, with rap pumping out of some and Mexican ballads out of others and a few crooners belting out reliable standbys. The clientele is more or less what I expected, with a certain emphasis on over-coiffed white boys and their busty counterparts, but on the whole Vegas strikes me as quite democratic: there is a bit of everyone here, the racial and age ratios probably not all that off from the county overall. I stroll about, enjoy the open container laws and muse to myself about who exactly takes their nine-year olds out on a stroll through this warren at midnight, and why religious mask-wearers would choose this of all places as a vacation destination. The world is a realm of mystery.

I am not the first person to see Vegas in this light. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown saw its radical Strip as a rebellion against the stark formalism of modern architecture. In Vegas the postmodern arose, a return to decoration and ornament, flamboyance and kitsch in search of meaning, however crass or overstated. As I flounder about the city the next morning through a series of misadventures, from a rental car swap-out to a quest to replace a phone charger that was not actually lost in addition to my planned grocery and camping fuel runs, I find myself more at peace with it than I did four years ago. Yes, it is an endless sprawling grid, but there are actual tall buildings and some nods to the landscape’s intricacies. Its homages to famous sites around the world, however tacky, do provide a sort of cosmopolitanism that is more accessible than the real kind without always being that much less authentic, whatever that word may mean. I enjoy the people-watching and revel in the whole spectacle, and can be one with that world, at least for a little while. Were it not for the slowly declining levels of the Colorado River and the impending western water wars fueled in no small part by its rapid growth, I might even have liked the place.

My phone flashes ominous warnings of bad traffic on I-15 north of Vegas. I watch with worry as my estimated travel time to my destination over the first 40 minutes of the drive stays exactly the same, and the landscape, a truly bleak sprawling desert dotted by mining operations along a highway choked with big rigs and RVs, does not give me warm feelings. To my relief, my Google guide diverts me off the freeway and send me on a 25-mile detour that merrily meanders up and down dry washes along the Virgin River just past Mesquite. I wave gleefully at the unmoving traffic on the interstate as I shoot past and rejoin the freeway in the Virgin River Gorge, clambering up toward the freedom of the Grand Staircase.

For most people who have heard of Colorado City, Arizona, it stands for the opposite of freedom, or at least a very tortured version of it. It is in this town and its Utah neighbor of Hildale that a breakaway cult named the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints, a sect that rejected the mainstream LDS’s abolition of polygamy, has been practicing plural marriage for decades. The cult has been subject to occasional government raids, the most famous coming first in 1953 and then in 2008, when church leader Warren Jeffs was imprisoned for rape and arranging child marriage. (Less famously, one of Jeffs’ spawn tried to relocate his harem to some land in my own backyard in Cook County, Minnesota, in 2019.) I have a visceral reaction as I drive through, my skin crawling at the sight of all these sprawling, fenced compounds, often with a dozen cars parked out front. While a few suggest some local money, many are in states of incompletion, either shabby disrepair or another stalled-out additions, the only sign of life a healthy number of boys shooting about on bikes. The girls are conspicuous in their absence.

But even in ground zero for a fundamentalist cult, there is hope, or at the very least some decent beer: the Edge of the World Brewery has been open here for a year and a half. The man next to me at the bar calls it a great environment, a heartfelt expression of relief at something his town needed. The man puts the salt in the phrase ‘salt of the earth,’ younger than I am but weathered beyond time, at times barely comprehensible through at thick accent. But yet he isn’t wrong about this being home: the man, improbably, has a brother down the bar who lives in Elk River, and up on the TV, the Minnesota Gophers punch their ticket to the Frozen Four. The man tells me the story of the time his teenage self, smoking weed out of a Red Bull can, gave Karl Malone a light when the Utah Jazz came through on some tour. I attempt to explain my profession, which is hard enough with people who have heard of what I do. We settle for a shared understanding of the value of infrastructure projects and call it a day.

I spend the night at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park some 15 miles east of Colorado City. The dunes here take on soft pink hues, the residue of the red cliffs marching down from Zion. The park is primarily a haven for ATVs and side-by-sides, which does not beget peace and quiet, but a stroll out across the sandy expanse toward the highest dune in sight brings a sort of reverie nonetheless. The wind whispers across them, a few loose grains pulled from the top and hissing some message, some deep secret lost amid the sands of time, ebbing and flowing in rhythmic currents.

I take off my shoes for the walk. The sand is cool to the touch, occasionally granting firm steps but otherwise just sifting away down either side of the dune, swiftly covered once again by the wind. I return at night as the stars emerge, and now it is all still; even the OHVs in the distance pause for a moment to drink it in. A car campground tucked in a juniper thicket is a peaceful home for the evening, and unlike the exasperated mother of Emerson and Clarity, two eager young cyclists in the neighboring campsite, I am able to settle in, free of any worries, chilled by the night desert air and happy to be traveling among people in all their complicated glory once again.

On my second full day, it is off to Zion, the canyon that has become my happy place. My initial goal was to hike Observation Point, the hipster Angels Landing, even higher and less crowded than the famed promontory that I summited the last time I was here. The main trail up from the canyon has been blocked by a rockfall for a few years now, but another access sweeps in from a resort to the east. Alas: a sign at the ranch tells me the road is impassable. “You will get stuck!” it announces, and I audible for a hike from the East Rim trailhead just inside the park boundary. While the eight-mile out-and-back I plod has none of the glamour of the rim views, it is quintessentially Zion in every other way: red and white rocks swirling in all directions, gnarled junipers, a deep gulch, the looming cliffs in the distance, and the now familiar coral sand beneath my feet. I am at home here.

This, however, is merely the warm-up. Immediately beyond the trailhead the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway becomes one of the most stunning roads I’ve ever driven, winding through rich red rock spackled with greenery, Zion’s hanging gardens becoming more and more ubiquitous along the way. Crowds cluster at each turn-out, and a pair of bighorn sheep prompt a freak-out just before the plunge through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. I was curious if Zion would hold up upon a second visit, but when its great red walls appear beyond the mouth of the tunnel, I almost choke up. Hardly my typical reaction to a landform.

My digs on night three are in the Zion Wildflower glampground some twelve miles beyond Springdale, Zion’s main gateway on the south end of the canyon. Covered wagons and yurts dot the hillside, though I settle for a well-appointed bungalow with two rockers out on its front porch. The place is new, having just opened in 2020, and an addition is already under construction further along the hill. It has a commanding view down the valley of the Virgin, and a drive into La Verkin for dinner takes me past a stunning interplay of sunlight and cloud and dust. I bond with the bro in the neighboring cabin, drink in some of the cool night air, and prepare my backpack for what I expect will be the highlight of this trip.

I enjoy the juxtapositions on my first third of my adventure: Vegas gaudiness and Colorado City reclusiveness, the simplicity of the sand dunes and the grandeur of Zion. Now, however, it is time to dive in, to leave behind any temporary friends and head deep into the lonely spaces of southern Utah.

Part 2 is here.

State Tournament Look Back: 2012

As usual, I’ll wrap up my annual hockey coverage with a look back to the Tourney from a decade ago, complete with a snapshot on the careers of participants after high school, with breakdowns on both Division-I players and those who played after high school in any venue.

The 2012 Tourney might just be the most memorable one I’ve ever seen. Upset Thursday was one of the most dramatic days of quarterfinals ever, St. Thomas Academy cemented its status as the foremost power in Class A, and Grant Besse’s heroics put an exclamation point on a storybook run for Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the aftermath of Jack Jablonski’s paralyzing midseason injury. It was a Tourney that padded the event’s mystique, and the amount of front-end talent on display that weekend was particularly memorable.

Class AA

The 2012 Tourney is most memorable for the defeat of all four seeded teams in the quarterfinals. In some respects, it wasn’t a total shock: this was a loaded Tourney field. All eight entrants were ranked in the top 11 in the state heading into sections, and seven of the eight were the top seed in their respective sections, the lone exception being a powerful Benilde-St. Margaret’s team that came out of a loaded section 6AA and decisively knocked off second-ranked Minnetonka to make the Tourney.

Against that backdrop, the first of the upsets is one that, in retrospect, seems less shocking than it was at the time. Maple Grove had been a force all season and obliterated Blaine 15-1 in the 5AA final, but their talent level was not otherworldly. Wily Hill-Murray, in reload mode after a senior-heavy team fell short the previous season, had more than enough skill to match them. And sure enough, after conceding an early goal, the Pioneers went to work and scored five times in a row, with Zach LaValle having a hand in four of the tallies. The Pios finished off Maple Grove 5-2 and advanced to the semis.

If the first upset was an impressive showing by an underrated team, the second one was a good, old-fashioned theft of a game by a star goaltender. Moorhead senior Michael Bitzer would win the Frank Brimsek Award in 2012, and his quarterfinal performance helped cement his reputation as one of the greatest high school goal tenders of his era. Powerful, grinding Eagan was title favorite, but they lacked the finishing touch to get by Bitzer, and in short order they too were on their way to Mariucci. The loss set back what was, on paper, Eagan’s best team ever.

Matching a new State entrant with a skilled blueblood often ends in an upset; great goalie performances happen. But the upset in the third quarterfinal looks just as jarring ten years later. Duluth East had been ranked number one most of the season, its core almost entirely intact from the AA runner-up edition from the season before. The Hounds’ sole regular season blemish was an ugly Hockey Day loss to Minnetonka, and while there were some warning signs down the stretch that they were perhaps doubling down too much on an elite top line instead of relying on the whole team approach that won them the Schwan Cup Gold, they were the clear top seed in the field. Their opponent, Lakeville South, boasted eventual Mr. Hockey winner Justin Kloos but otherwise attracted little attention despite a top-10 caliber season. The Cougars’ speed gave the Hounds fits, and the top-ranked team had no answers as the pressure mounted. Down went arguably the best East team of the new millennium, and South, improbably, advanced to the semifinals.

The final game of the day would be hard-pressed to top the three before, but this matchup, which looked good on paper, lived up to its billing as well. For long stretches it looked as if a very young, reloading Edina team would pull it out and suddenly become the favorite for an unexpected title. But Benilde had the air of a team of destiny, and despite the Hornets’ 19-6 shot edge in the final frame, Christian Horn’s goal in the final minute of regulation sealed a Red Knight win.

Moorhead failed to generate much offense in the semifinal with Hill-Murray, but an early Cody Rahman goal seemed, for a spell, like it might be all Bitzer needed. He held up under the Pioneer attack into the third, but Conrad Sampair had other ideas, scoring first to tie the game, and then to win it just 1:51 into overtime. Meanwhile, in the second semifinal, Lakeville South’s luck ran out: Benilde, now the prohibitive favorites, put up five goals in the first period and proceeded with a 10-1 obliteration. South would slip out with third place honors the next night, while Duluth East marched through the consolation bracket.

Saturday night, meanwhile, belonged to one Grant Besse. He scored his first goal just over eight minutes in, and a second less than two later. Guentzel, Hill’s star, at first looked like he might be able to carry his Pioneers through a blow-for-blow fight, but the Hill power play, with Guentzel alone atop an umbrella, may well have been his team’s undoing. Defensively, the Pios had no answer for Besse’s speed the other direction: the first shorty gave him his natural hat trick late in the second, and after Hill clawed a goal back, he promptly got a second. The exclamation point came with just under three minutes left, when Besse lasered home his third shorthanded goal and fifth total goal of the game. The finish was a coronation for Besse, whose performance in the modern State Tournament has few modern era rivals not named Dave Spehar. The crown was Benilde’s, the storybook season marred only by a strange kerfuffle over Jablonsky’s allowance on the ice for the celebration.

Class A

In Class A, 2012 brought the second of three championship showdowns between Hermantown and St. Thomas Academy. This time around, the undefeated Hawks earned the top seed, while St. Thomas slotted in second, Breck third, and Thief River Falls fourth. None of the lower seeds really had a chance. Little Falls and Duluth Marshall, both back in the Tourney after brief absences, did not have the talent of their entertaining counterparts from a few seasons earlier, and lost by twin 7-0 scores to St. Thomas and Breck, respectively. In the evening quarterfinal session, Hermantown dispatched of Rochester Lourdes, while Thief River Falls marched past new Ulm.

Things got better in the semis. St. Thomas and Breck, winners of the past four Class A tournaments, went back and forth in a nervy affair. David Zevnik made Peter Krieger’s second period goal stand up, and the Cadets advanced to the final by a 1-0 score. In the second game, Hermantown staked itself to an early lead and similarly seemed to be holding on in a tight one before the game erupted four minutes into the third. Two quick goals put Thief River on top, but Hermantown answered right back just a minute after the Prowlers’ second score, and Jared Thomas hit paydirt with 5:15 left to lift the Hawks to a third consecutive state title game.

This one did not go well for Hermantown. After giving the Cadets all they could handle the previous season, the undefeated Hawks got pummeled this time around. St. Thomas scored twice in the first and three times in the first ten minutes of the second, and the rest was academic. It wound up as a 5-1 final, and the Cadets claimed their second championship in a row and their fourth in Class A. The chorus of cries for their graduation to Class AA grew louder, most notably in some biting remarks from Hermantown coach Bruce Plante, but the Cadets’ status was clear: far and away the best team in Class A in 2012. In retrospect, the talent gap appears glaring, and the Cadets may have been the best team in either class.

That dominance would continue as the state looked ahead to the following season: in Class A, the two finalists were on a collision course for a third straight year. The AA powers’ positions weren’t getting any weaker, either, as Edina, Hill-Murray, and Duluth East would all return in search of redemption in 2013. But not everything was preordained: the Benilde dynasty this Tourney seemed to herald did not come to pass, as the senior-loaded Red Knights would lose in sections the following season, and (as of this writing) have not been back to State since. Lakeville South’s quarterfinal win also heralded the rise of the Lakeville schools, long State Tourney doormats, as serious contenders over the next decade, while the full arrival of Maple Grove would take a bit longer. But in 2012, the show belonged to Besse, to Jablonski, to the Red Knights, and to the St. Thomas machine.

We Are Who We Are

As a sports fan, I have always made it my priority to accept reality for my favorite teams. Talent levels are what they are, no matter what wishful beliefs we may hold. Acknowledgment of this reality is far from defeatist; it is, instead, an invitation to adjust to the relative strengths and weaknesses of an inevitably flawed team. From that point, I tend to keep some faith because I have seen enough to know the improbable can happen; there is almost always a pathway to an upset or a surprise run, no matter how thin. Hope springs from self-knowledge, and a commitment to rise up in spite of any limitations.

That hope was hard to find at times during this past Duluth East hockey season. It opened with an 0-8 start, and while that was the most difficult portion of the schedule, losses in winnable games against Forest Lake and Bemidji set the team irreparably far back in the section race. The team endured a myriad of injuries, a long Covid pause, and had players lose time for some other reasons, too. In the stands, we joked about Mike Randolph’s parting hex. 7AA’s imbecilic section seeding system left them with a tough playoff date; with a slightly better seed they could have at least made Amsoil, though I don’t think a team that wins seven regular season games has too much ground to complain. The Denfeld debacle and its aftermath cast a pall over the season’s final weeks and led some observers, myself included, to question the point of it all. The team seemed to spiral out of any progress it had made.

And there had been progress: in between those two ugly stretches they rattled off a month of .500 hockey. The Hounds lost four one-goal games to top 15 teams and lodged a respectable tie with Blaine, even as that one signature win would not come. In the section quarterfinal with Grand Rapids, they looked like a reasonably threatening team for a period, popping the first goal and coming close to a second that would have totally changed the tenor of the game. But in the second, a familiar plot line emerged. The Hounds took two more major penalties on which they gave up three goals, and the season was over.

It was a yearlong trend. According to Minnesota Hockey Hub, the Hounds took 310 penalty minutes in 2021-2022. As of the day after their quarterfinal defeat, that was second-most in Class AA, with Gentry Academy claiming the dubious crown. There is a clump of three other teams in the low 290s, and no other team above 270. The average number of penalty minutes for the other teams in 7AA was 221, and that appears high when compared to other sections. (The lowest total, by far? Hill-Murray, at 138.) We can nitpick about bad calls here and reputations among referees there, but this is far too much smoke for there not to be a fire. Combine it with an abysmal 65% penalty kill and it was a formula for disaster that once again came home to roost in the playoffs. The discipline must improve, period.

As always, though, I turn the page and thank the team’s seniors: Tyler Smith, who became a reliable defensive rock on the blue line amid turmoil; Lars Berg, ever the instigator; Wyatt Zwak and Dylan Erickson, who earned their way to regular playing time; and a supporting cast that included Ben LaMaster, Fletcher Dirkers, Eli Fresvik, Kayden Miller, and Dain Fladmark. They have been through the ringer over the past few years, their times at East nothing like senior classes before them, and we appreciate their contributions.

The underclassmen provided some entertainment, too. Cole Christian’s artistry, when he is on his game, is a great pleasure that I try not to take for granted after watching it for three seasons. Noah Teng took major strides toward being a very productive high school forward, and Wyatt Peterson adds to the gaggle of young talent. Aidan Spenningsby continued to show his versatility, and Makoto Sudoh is growing into a genuine power forward. Grant Winkler offers next-level potential on defense, and in a season when every other defenseman spent some time on the shelf, Henry Murray was the one constant presence. I do not know what Grady Downs’ future holds, and I believe it was correct for him not to play the remainder of this past season. But his reckless abandon also made for some pretty entertaining hockey at times, and I do not think anyone should be eternally defined by one incident at age 17. If there can be a redemption story here, I am all for it.

Next season seems a critical one to the post-Randolph era at Duluth East. Barring defections (an all-important disclaimer after recent seasons), they return a lot of players from a team that wasn’t that far off from being respectable when it stayed out of the box. The top line looked legitimately potent against Grand Rapids, and a healthy Thomas Gunderson could be the X-factor for a dynamic offense. They have respectable depth and a veteran in goal; if they can round out the defensive corps, it too can be a strength. There are at least a couple of bantams who will slot in nicely to the openings that remain. Moreover, with Grand Rapids and Blaine set to lose a lot to graduation and no great bantam teams in the section, a high seed in 7AA looks ripe for the picking; only increasingly machine-like Andover, if their stars stick around, has more talent on paper. Duluth East’s wander through the wilderness could be due for an interruption.

There is a lot of time between now and November, however, and this team will have to convince me that it is more than it was at the end of this season. For all the talent, for all the close calls, Duluth East hockey is not in the place where it needs to be. It can get there again, but doing so will take more than the normal dose of effort. Let the work begin.

Embarrassed

In my correspondence and conversations following Duluth East’s 6-2 loss to crosstown rival Duluth Denfeld on Wednesday, the word “embarrassed,” sometimes augmented by colorful adjectives, repeated itself often. Those with a stake in the future worried about the optics. Loyalists of former coach Mike Randolph, on a spectrum from grim observation to vindictive pleasure, lamented his absence. Some said they felt sick, and wondered whether all of this was actually worth it. None of these comments had anything to do with the score.

The proceedings at a packed Heritage Center were not an isolated incident. A ragged affair in Champlin Park the next night marked East’s eighth consecutive game with over ten penalty minutes. The Greyhounds took thirty minutes of penalties in a win over Superior, including a pair of five-and-game penalties for fighting. They took twenty minutes against Cloquet, the bulk coming on a two-and-ten after the buzzer at the end of a period. The gamesheet for the Denfeld game shows fifty-three minutes of penalties, and it may be missing a misconduct or two. It became hard to keep track as the referees dismissed a succession of Greyhounds to the locker room. Those statistics do not capture the full-game suspensions associated with game misconducts. The extent of the deterioration against Denfeld, which carried on past the bludgeoning behind the net through a series of gratuitous excesses as time wound down, exceeded that of any I have ever seen in high school hockey. One of the state’s great programs had become the Bayfront Bullies.

I am far from a scold about decorum. I have always had a soft spot for the Garrett Worths of the world, the kids who earn some right to be cocky with their performance; I relish the long tradition of Greyhound sparkplugs and enforcers, from Andrew Kerr to Alex Spencer to Ricky Lyle. I ate up just about every bit of the Cloquet game, from the intensely hostile crowd to the Hounds’ dogpile atop the Lumberjack logo at center ice after the overtime game-winner, all of which felt edgy but within that tradition. In isolation, I can stomach the Superior fight, which seemed to spark the team from its slumber that night; every team will go overboard from time to time. Referees will inevitably get some things wrong, and sometimes the other team is the obvious aggressor. But when a trend emerges, so do the more fundamental questions.

The questions have complicated answers. After a few years of mediocrity, the hunger to win can slip; stakes lower and focus fades, and hockey becomes one big romp with the boys instead of the pursuit of a section title or a next level opportunity. There remain some parents who will make any excuse for their spawn, and some will even egg on that general mediocrity. The players who do care deeply can get frustrated or sucked into crimes of passion as they boil over. These kids have also gone through two years of Covid hell, and I am convinced a more virtual and isolated life has only fueled certain antisocial tendencies, only led more people to retreat inward and then explode in anger when reality intrudes on that inner world. Perhaps no group has suffered more than kids currently in adolescence, who have a hard enough time navigating those waters in normal times. And, yes, in the absence of the unflinching taskmaster and disciplinarian who ran this program for decades, a man who had no qualms about ordering even his greatest players to the bench when they crossed the line, a new culture was bound to emerge. At times that new culture has actually felt freer, but now that looseness is showing its ugly dark side.

In a December post I said I would not judge new coach Steve Pitoscia much this season. I did not want to nitpick about penalty kills or line-rolling as he learned the ropes. He is getting some flak he does not deserve; he played no role in his predecessor’s ouster, and, whatever history may exist between the two men, he has only said the right things in public about him. Even the greatest coaches cannot control everything, as incidents from Hill-Murray to Eden Prairie have shown this season. But if this is the baseline, we will need to see improvement. I was not around for the years preceding Mike Randolph’s tenure, but the tales I’ve heard of those days—two coaches lasting two years each, a program mired in undisciplined chaos—could sound eerily like the present unless things change.

After the Cloquet game, I was halfway done with a piece on this team’s halting progress, on how I was still enjoying myself, even as the product bore little resemblance to the East hockey of five years ago. My loyalty to the institution and the many great people who are a part of it remained strong. Those fundamentals are still there, and somehow, if healthy and composed, this team could still pull a surprise or two in sections. (If they do, the cheeseburgers are on me.) But this week, the results on the ice seem secondary to the escapades in a program that has, for so long, stood for so much more.