Golden Land

19 Jul

This is the second in a two-part series on my recent trip to California. Here is part I.

The main attractions of my recent trips to California were its mountains and shorelines and deserts, but I devoted half of my adventure last week to the more populated portions of the Golden State. The jarring riches and contradictions of its natural environment match those of its people, who luxuriate in opulence or live in massive tent cities on its streets, extremes that a Midwesterner accustomed to a semblance of order needs some time to process. But all halfway decent chroniclers of travel revel in the dualities and contradictions they see, witnesses to the rich vastness of human experience. We can dive into urban chaos and venture off the grid and chew on it over time, slow thought exemplified after the mad rush in the moment.

I’m not very good at travel at leisurely paces, and in San Francisco, I have the perfect guide to facilitate a rush to drink in everything this city has to offer. My cousin Rob, an artist at his craft, gives my fellow Lost Coast hikers and I the grand tour. This is my third time in San Francisco in four years, and despite the inauspicious theft of all my camping gear on the first visit, it continues to deliver thanks to Rob’s curation. My first visit featured an unexpected visit to Pride Weekend and an escape to wine country, while the second was a moped-powered kickoff to another great adventure. San Francisco is a temperate city populated by extremes, stunning beauty and endless fog banks, mind-boggling wealth and its trappings twinned with the extreme poverty of tent cities where my old Eureka may yet live on. It starts with a Women’s World Cup watch party, meanders through botanical gardens and the cable car museum, and crosses that famous Art Deco bridge a couple of times, all before dumping me back at the airport all too quickly for everything but my wallet.

San Francisco’s true greatness comes through the things one consumes while in the city, and this is where Rob’s expertise is most useful. The crowning meal is the seafood feast at Bar Crudo on our full day in San Francisco after the Lost Coast hike, octopus and wine and crudo and oysters. But we also enjoy a decadent brunch at Brenda’s French Soul Food, with beignets and shrimp and grits, and a Greek fast casual rush to salads after four days of freeze-dried delicacies. For drinks, it’s an even wider-ranging tour: a mezcal bar, a cocktail bar on Russian Hill, a couple of neighborhood establishments, and a failed visit to the Hilton’s 43rd story, shrouded in fog. At its most ridiculous, there’s the Tonga Room: a former pool in the basement of a luxurious Fairmont hotel that now has a band on a moving boat in the pool, which enjoys periodic rain showers with thunder and lightning. A full pirate ship sprawls across the bar as a dance floor (complete with real reclaimed masts), there are tiki huts and real dugout canoes scattered about, and we have the privilege of tasting $17 mediocre mai tais. After bidding our older companions farewell on the final night, Rob and I wrap up with a nightcap at a beer bar from a group headquartered in Copenhagen. I’ve drunk it all in, all too literally.

Our trip to the Lost Coast involves a three-and-a-half hour meander up the 101, a highway that runs down the coastal spine of California. It’s a somewhat confused highway, ranging from six lanes to two on its trek northward based on what the topography will allow. It starts in ritzy Marin County, wanders up through Sonoma, and eventually arrives on the north coast. The road trip brings two familiar stops, the Russian River brewery on the way north and the Locals wine cooperative on the way south; I fly home with a few bottles stuffed inside my sleeping bag. Rob and I drive separately of the rest, freeing us to talk of baseball and music and for him to share the sad tale of Pete Buttigieg’s iMac. (Fresh off his Rhodes Scholarship, the future mayor gifted it to a teacher at his high school, who in turn passed it on to the sort of kid who might make use of it, a future Bay Area engineer; alas, it fell victim to a recent purge of the attic storage area by his parents.) The south end of redwood country is both as a dramatic and as kitschy as we’d hoped for, and we’re easily distracted by an endless array of entertaining sights. We spontaneously divert to drive through the Drive Thru Tree, a 2,400-year-old Redwood that some enterprising entrepreneur cut a car-sized hole through in some less environmentally sensitive era.

Big tree tourism aside, the economy of northern California is sustained principally by mind-altering substances. Somewhere in Mendocino County, the vineyards of wine country give way to businesses making puns about the herbal substances grown in greenhouses up in the hills. Over dinner in Garberville on the night before our hike, we share a cantina—the last place open in town, and still open only because they can make some money off of us—with a herd of Mexicans in stoner garb who populate the neighboring table. Connor, our Lost Coast Adventure Tours shuttle driver, regales us with tales of the marijuana industry and points out greenhouses not-so-secretly tucked away in the woods off the miserable washed out roads of this backcountry. He had teachers in high school growing plants on the side, he explains, and those smashed-in cars that litter the roadside here and there are the product of a land that doesn’t want many intruders. Connor speaks of Brazilian and Bulgarian incursions, all in pursuit of this ideal pot-growing climate, and laments the one-sided portrait of Humboldt County that came out of HBO’s Murder Mountain, a series that points out the region’s nation-leading disappearance rate and the places where the authorities will not go. Tales of rural Mexico come back to me, and not for the first time, I think the borders between our countries are sometimes far more arbitrary than many Americans would like to believe. Whatever one’s take on actual use of the drug, my two-hour meander through the hills only fuels my weirded-out feeling by the marijuana industry, both for its insufferable lazy stoner culture and the dark side of its industrial-scale cultivation that will likely go on whether pot itself is illegal or legal but regulated.

At its core, California is a state of escapes. It was the end of the line for Manifest Destiny, the Promised Land beyond the frontier. Its cities have always been some of America’s most alluring, even as they descend into crisis; one friend calls San Francisco utopia gone wrong, and Los Angeles dystopia gone right. And while we’ve tamed nearly every corner of it now save for a few Lost Coasts, that push to the brink is a constant, whether in Sacramento’s gold rush yesterday or the Bay Area’s tech industry today, or in the form of kids who try to pursue illusory dreams of stardom in LA. For all of California’s cool pretense, it is as neurotic a state as one can find, and if worldly glory isn’t there for the taking, it offers direct escapes to wine or IPAs or weed. California lives in the future, and that is not altogether a reassuring thought. The myth was long ago obvious to Joan Didion, and like anything built on a mythical future it neglects realities of history that formed it. Its myth was the American myth taken to its logical extreme, and its myth, like America’s, is coming due. At times I’m repulsed by the whole spectacle, but I can’t stop coming back for more hits.

Sacramento, my first destination on this trip and the last I’ll write about in my account, stands at some remove from this edge while still imbibing some of it, which may be why I liked the place. Sacramento is one of the thirty largest metropolitan areas in the country by any measure, larger than more culturally prominent peers like Pittsburgh or Vegas. Culturally, however, it’s dwarfed by the Bay Area and Los Angeles in its own state, and even San Diego in many ways. It is a seat of government with little in the way of major private industry, the rare California metro whose brushes with national attention, like John Sutter and the Folsom prison, are relics of the past. Its culture, my hosts explained, is a mash-up of Central Valley agriculture, Bay Area spillover, and a more rugged foothill culture stemming from the nearby Sierras. It’s also an ethnic melting pot, by some measures among the most integrated cities in the U.S., with large white and black and Asian and Hispanic populations. Syncretic places that don’t try too hard to be different have something going for them.

Compared to the chaos of San Francisco, Sacramento is a breath of fresh, if very hot, air. Its streets sit on a clear, leafy, clean grid. This is California, so it’s not cheap by any stretch, but it is still far more livable than the larger metros. It’s a flat city, with large swaths lower than the nearby Sacramento River, kept out of the city by levees. My host for the weekend recommends I drive up via a road along the levees of the Sacramento, and my journey feels like a warp into Southern bayou country with some citrus groves thrown in along the side, my rental car yelling at me every time I drift too far to the side in the narrow lanes atop the embankment. Rural agricultural poverty collides with riverfront vacation homes here, though the defining feature for most of Sacramento’s population is not one of these extremes but instead the identical suburban tracts in which I temporarily lose myself in Elk Grove on my drive in, and a heap of other cities I pass through the next day on I-80 on the way up to some breweries in the foothills. The extremes tell only part of the story.

My two hosts in Sacramento live different California dreams. My Georgetown friend Ben and his wife Etienne, plus 2-year-old Ella and baby Bo, host me both nights. Ben is the rare Hoya who settled down right away with a girl from back home, and while they have solid professional jobs and live in a pleasant East Sacramento neighborhood, their lives have a steady rhythm, child-rearing and delicious cooking and walks or bike rides around the pleasant grid. With them, I can lose myself playing with Ella, any uptight worries gone, back to the cradle, an instinct my inner cynic will always doubt but which my cyclical life will always turn back to contentment when I do my final accounting of pleasures and frustrations. Their deliberate domestic life, the California Dream of generations before, feels more and more like a bold or even radical choice, an attempt to restore the lingering wisdom of an old order that may or may not still be welcome here.

Meanwhile, Parker, a fellow University of Minnesota-trained urban planner, took the same prodigal son’s path and I did and found his way back to his hometown for a job in affordable housing development. If there is any dream of rescuing semi-affordable housing in California, it’s probably here, and in him I could see the same zeal that other non-locals ascribe to me when I gush about Duluth. He lives the urban single life in trendy Midtown, cultivates his status as a music connoisseur, and is my guide to quality Midtown bars and some breweries up in Auburn and Rocklin that meet with Rob’s approval as some of California’s best. They take different paths, but Ben and Parker are both exceptionally well-read, reflective people who are finding their purpose as they go. My people.

On a trip that featured a stunning hike and a dive straight in to one of the world’s great cities, some of my favorite moments came when we settled into Ben and Etienne’s porch, the kids in bed and the four of us free to debate this city and this state and what it means to find our ways in the world, the breeze pouring up the delta keeping us cool as we work through a few beers. I may not know who I am but I know where I am from, and that place, whether Duluth or Sacramento or Georgetown or Madison or Phoenix or a beach in Puerto Escondido, has nights like this at its soul.

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Paradise Lost

16 Jul

This post is the first in a series of two on my recent trip to California.

As far as hiking trails go, the Lost Coast Trail doesn’t appear overly challenging. Totaling just 24.5 miles over four days, this is a placid pace by my standards, and there’s little in the way of elevation to contend with. It’s a hike along a beach wedged between the Pacific and the King Range in Humboldt County, the longest undeveloped stretch of Pacific coastline in the lower 48. Its greatest challenges are three zones totaling just over eight miles in length that are impassable at high tide, so hikers must bring tide tables and pick and choose their start and stop times. Informal campsites sit at the mouths of creeks that feed into the ocean at regular intervals along the trail. The Lost Coast isn’t totally lost, as my party encounters plenty of fellow trekkers, but all but a handful follow favorable breezes from north to south, and long stretches are just my five companions and I working our way through the fog on a narrow band of land separating jagged peaks and unfathomable depths.

Hiking the Lost Coast is unlike a jaunt on a more traditional trail. One can’t just stare at one’s feet, or gaze off at the mountains or the sea for too long. Lost Coast hikers have to pick their lines, much like Alpine skiers, finding the best route over this avenue of choppy rocks and boulders and sand and incoming waves. Back sides of ridges, when wide enough, tend to be most stable, as do depressions behind them where the sand stays wet and thus more firm. Without obstacles, wet sand close to the surf is the best highway forward, though it bears the not insignificant risk of wet feet or frantic rushes inward at every rogue wave. Rarely is it a technically demanding trail, but it is often a slog over terrain that shifts beneath every footstep.

For this trip, I’m a new addition to a group that has, plus or minus a couple of members, taken a backpacking trip once a year for the past decade. The organizer is my uncle Bob, and our number includes my cousin Rob, Bob’s sister Betsy, her friend Amy, and family friend Ed, a divergent group of personalities with homes ranging from Louisville to San Francisco, united by a fondness for meandering down paths in the wilderness. Uncle Bob promises me an adventure, and after an hour of wrangling over food choices at a San Francisco, their two additional stops within twenty miles of a lunch stop in Santa Rosa, and a laborious gear distribution affair at a hotel in Garberville the night before our hike, I’m starting to doubt my wisdom in joining this trip. But they are entertaining company, and by the time we hit the trail, I’m reassured that I’m in the company of five committed adventurers.

We leave our cars at the south end and pick up a shuttle in Shelter Cove, a resort town that offers a fascinating mash-up of sprawling vacation homes and rural California country folk, a people forgotten in most conceptions of the state who wouldn’t be too far out of place in the rural Midwest. (Our shuttle driver, a Humboldt County lifer about my age named Connor, laments the annual Fourth of July homemade firework displays as “Armageddon” and a miserable undertaking for himself and his fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade.) After a two-hour drive through the mountains to take us 25 miles as the cormorant flies to the trailhead, we’re ready to set out.

At first, the beach hiking is novel, and we make good time. A couple miles in we round Punta Gorda, one of the westernmost points in the continental United States, and come to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, a lonely outpost here along the coast that lit the way for lost fishing boats for a few decades. The structure is open, and a climb up a rusting spiral staircase takes one to a deck with excellent views and even stronger winds. Down below, a gaggle of sea lions flops about in the sand and in the tidal shallows, singing with characteristic inelegance. At Sea Lion Gulch the trail meanders inward before it slips down to the creek, where we cross it twice in quick succession, little hops along rocks to find a passable course past this gouge in the coastline, the sea lion grunts echoing in the background. These turns inward to solid ground are blessed relief, though I don’t like them to last for too long: we are here for the beach hike, after all.

Our first camp comes at Cooskie Creek, a 6.5-mile excursion from the starting point at the mouth of the Mattole River and midway through a four-mile stretch of trail impassable at high tide. We are all sunburned, the cool, perfect walking temperatures and early morning fog lulling us into a false sense of safety, but otherwise no worse for the wear. We take a site on the south bank of the creek, while a large party occupies the opposite bank. They are quiet and we rarely interact, though we do marvel at their ingenious game of bocce using rocks on the beach. The wind barrels in from the ocean, and tent setup requires up to four people and a lot of rocks just to keep things upright. At sundown, we climb a small promontory and gaze out on the Pacific, west to Japan and south to Antarctica, with no bodies of land in between. The sun doesn’t set cleanly but instead fades away into the marine layer out over the ocean, lost in the eternal fog.

The wind dies in the night. No wind, no sun, West Coast resident Rob tells us, and sure enough, we are ensconced in clouds and fog as we head out. A dead seal on the beach attracts a crowd of birds, and Amy compares the beachscape to the final scene from Planet of the Apes. The waves rise as we go, and a crossing at Randall Creek requires an ambitious leap. Past the creek I pick out a trail up on to a flat, and now we’re rewarded with an easy stroll along a ridge, past a stream crossing with an unexpected bamboo grove and another where the discovery of a snake in the trail holds up the party for a spell. The crossing at Oat Creek features a stable log amid a small grove of trees, and a group of younger women has stopped here for lunch.

We cross Kinsey Creek and a rock field to the mouth of Big Creek, which we edge over on a log. Rob and I like the look of the site, an open stretch aside a large wash where other campers have set up driftwood lean-tos and tables, but the rest of the party is ready to push on another two miles to Big Flat Creek. These two miles are among the most tiring slogs of the trip, endless rock fields that turn ankles and require constant leaps, but in time I veer off and pick a way up a sandy slope to a much smoother trail atop Big Flat. The rest of the party joins me, and before long it’s as if we’ve left the ocean behind and are strolling through a large meadow. A number of private landowning holdouts dot the entire trail, most no more than a windblown wooden shack, but the one on Big Flat is flat-out surreal, a retreat of sorts that hosts a large group doing tai chi down by the beach. This part of the Lost Coast feels far too found.

Just past the retreat center is Big Flat Creek, our destination for the night, but it proves the most complicated stream crossing of the trip. The creek is wide and rushing, and Ed and I venture upstream with no luck in search of an easy ford. Most of the party settles for a shaky-looking log crossing, while Amy and I jump it at the mouth, where these streams are usually at their narrowest. The campsite, situated beneath a grove of low trees, already has a crowd, but there are enough sandy tent pads for us to carve out our own space. Night comes quickly on this day, with little time to linger on the beach, though we do admire the deer in the clearing next to us, and after dark a number of bats flit overhead. In the night, a chorus of coyotes wakes us all, the pack leaders howling away while the yips of their smaller brethren surround them.

I don’t sleep particularly well on Big Flat, but our long hike yesterday cues us up for a tame day of just 3.3 miles to our next site on Buck Creek. I sip some tea over breakfast and take a dump in a sandy hole in the ground, and we join a large procession of hikers out from Big Flat and down the coast. The fog is thickest on this morning, and it cakes the beach and leaves what we can see of the fire-scarred hills above us looming. After a placid stroll along the flat, it narrows down to nothing, and a rock slide diverts us down a jagged slope to a narrow beach. Each step brings new conditions, most dramatically at the bottom of a large landslide, where giant trees come to rest on the beach. The crossing at Shipman Creek offers a nice running start for the long jump across, and we press on and pass a few of the groups we’ve been leapfrogging with over the course of the day.

Buck Creek comes as a surprise, and we quickly decide the campsite, which perches on a bank with direct views of both the sea and the cascading creek, will more than do. The fog lifts with surprising speed as we set up our tents, and we then discover the site’s great drawback: a healthy crop of poison oak on all sides that leaves Amy and Betsy frantically detoxing after they tossed some gear and staked out a line for their tent in the shrubbery. Lunch follows the cleansing session on rocks along the creek, though my phone’s camera renders me an uninspired photographer for the rest of the trip after it falls out of my pocket and its lens cracks on a rock. The shots feature some fascinating new filters, if nothing else.

With some gas left in the tank, Bob, Rob, and I set out to climb the Buck Creek Trail, which rises from the camp and heads straight up into the hills. Straight up is no exaggeration: there is no such thing as a flat or downward step for a mile-and-a-half long, 2,000-foot climb. Thankfully, the sun gives way to pine forest just above the site, and while we’re still stepping gingerly around the poison oak, we can drag upward at a manageable pace. Finally, near the top, we come to a couple of clean vistas down the coast toward our parked cars at Shelter Cove five and a half miles away, and after a relatively flat half-mile past a junction with a little-used ridgetop trail in the King Range backcountry, we turn around and abuse our joints for a few miles back down. We burst back out of the forest and have a clean view of the rushing creek, the sun-splashed waves on the ocean; Amy and Ed are down on the beach watching the tide come in, while Betsy naps on her air mattress in the open atop the highest-lofted tent pad, the tents collecting heat for the night in the sun below. It’s a paradisal scene, one that fully loses me in this wilderness and makes me wish we could set up camp here for a week.

Our legs burning from the hike, Rob and I watch the tide roll in, larger and larger waves slowly creeping over the rock pile that cuts off Buck Creek from the ocean at low tide. Soon there will be no way in or out of this site along the coast trail, and we’ll have our site to ourselves tonight. After some poison oak preventative cleansing in the creek, I settle into the hammock along its banks to catch up on notes and zone out in bliss. I’m rousted for happy hour by an offer of Ed’s tequila, and as we sit along a log on the beach and gaze out at the sparkling waves, my mind goes back to an out-of-body sensation I had in a hammock in Puerto Escondido nine years ago, a simultaneous blend of exhaustion and tequila and revelation at the beauty around me. I idly wrote a story of two lovers at the end of an affair, at once alive to the possibility of utopia and aware it can never last.

We break out of our trance to eat before we lose all daylight. Our dinners, always collections of freeze-dried packets we pass around, is best on this night, and we polish off the bourbon and turn our attention toward the darkening sea. Three boats dot the horizon, one of which suddenly seems to be flickering, as if alight; we later learn that it’s likely a fishing boat looking to lure in its prey. The half-moon lights up night well enough to cast shadows, and the marine layer stays just low enough to allow for superb star-watching. First Jupiter and the dippers, then Scorpius and Cygnus and Hercules, and Saturn for a hot second before the fog consumes it. I’m reluctant to turn in, yet I enjoy my best ever night of sleep in a tent.

The morning is wet, the marine layer dousing my tent fly, but the sun comes out quickly and keeps up warm for the last 5.5 miles up the beach. The choppy rocks continue for the first half of the hike, but after that it settles into a plodding but predictable march up the aptly named Black Sands Beach. I set my course along the shoreline, running in when the higher waves come and making sure to drink in the slopes to my left and the endless crashing waves to my right. The steepest climb on the hike comes up a road to the parking lot, where we collect ourselves ahead of food truck burritos and a beer at a Shelter Cove bar populated by grizzled local women. We are found again, headed back for a stop in wine country and the glitz of San Francisco to round out our adventures.

The trail has a particular allure for someone drawn to the notion of isolated inspiration, the egotist who never needed anyone to tell him that he could do great things if he put his mind to it. Thankfully, wilderness also has a habit of humbling these chasers as well. A year after an epic but largely solitary trek across this state, the jumble of people on this one enlivened it. It provided new short story inspiration, and a meander through a book on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, two very different champions of the West who, unlike some of the San Francisco cosmopolitans I brush up against upon my return to the city, understood a sense of place. “I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,” wrote Stegner, words that forever reassure a wanderer in search of grounding. On the Lost Coast Trail, I’ve found it yet again.

Part 2 is here.

The Life of a Not-So-Angry Millennial

30 Jun

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Rural Economic Development (RED) Group in Minneapolis that focused on my much-maligned generation. (Or, rather, one of my millennial colleagues and I saw that we were on the agenda and invited ourselves, entitled millennials that we are.) Media narratives about millennials are dominated by discussions of highly educated urbanites who made social media over-sharing, excessive student debt, and avocado toast go mainstream. That life isn’t reality for most of the millennials we talk about in a forum on rural economic development, and any discussion of this age groups usually involves the objects of study griping about how they’ve been painted with an absurdly broad brush. Even so, it’s certainly true that generations, formed by certain common experiences and changing demographics, and many millennials have developed a righteous sense of anger over our inheritance from past generations.

Unlike some panel discussions in which people talk about issues faced by certain groups of people without inviting said people into the room, this room featured real life rural millennials as the main focus. We listened as nine of our colleagues, including several whom I work with regularly, shared their life experiences to date. Almost all operate somewhere in the community development world or are otherwise very active in public service, so they aren’t a representative cross-section of a generation either, but there was enough variety to give the enterprise some weight. Some of these rural millennials are rooted in communities they’ve never left, others left for a spell but found their way home, and others came as immigrants and have looked to build a new life. Their stories were compelling, and the subsequent report-out session was cathartic, as participants reveled in a forum where they could speak freely.

In broad terms, the panel revealed a generation in search of places to put down roots but struggling to do so. Financial anxiety underlined many of their considerations, and they were often willing to make sudden job leaps or commute long distances in search of something that worked. Housing and job markets pulled them in different directions. People of color struggled to resist both loneliness and tokenism. And most fundamentally, the millennials were frustrated when they found themselves shut out of certain situations, their youthful ambition to join community groups at best a curious novelty and at worst a play to steal their elders’ positions. With the 30-year career path at a single employer largely dead, there need to be new ways up and forward, and millennials therefore require conscious engagement in a way their predecessors perhaps did not.

The torrent of millennial passion at the forum had the effect making me feel ridiculously well-off, unable to say much as others spoke eloquently about their travails. I am the rare millennial for whom the system more or less worked. I’m a white, straight, able-bodied dude. By and large, my rewards in life have followed my effort. I’ve taken a few odd turns, perhaps, but my wandering journey of self-discovery was very much an inward, self-inflicted thing for which I hold no grudge against broader society. The pay sacrifices I’ve made in my career path are the consequences of conscious choices, and I’m fortunate to have a light enough debt load to be able to do that.

While my path more or less worked for me and can for other people, I also recognize that I can’t project it too far. I had a lot going for me, and was lucky enough to have the freedom to dabble along a few different paths before diving in to my current course. Some of our most powerful motivators are the bad things that happen in life, and I also have some more unique experiences to draw from there as well. The worst characteristic of any generational analysis is the belief that one person’s success is somehow a model for everyone else, when instead it was often the product of particular circumstances that made it possible.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my laments about millennial life. We’re right to have serious economic and ecological concerns, and our troubles run the risk of lapsing into despair. I’m something of a tech skeptic. I have a bit of student debt, and if I were in a particularly self-pitying mood, I’m sure I could muster up some woe-is-me tale about modern love. (Note to fellow millennials: acknowledgement of challenges is valuable, but wallowing in such places is not attractive.) I think critics who have characterized my generation as drowning in freedom are on to something, and many millennials live out a tension between wanting to be given direction by some outside force and also not wanting anyone to tell us how they think the world works. An old David Brooks column captures this paradox as it attacks the stupidity of the “follow your dreams” advice that proliferated when we millennials were graduating from college (the 35-40 percent of us who did graduate from college, anyway): our lives were often very structured until they suddenly weren’t, and we came out ill-prepared for a world that is far more competitive and unpredictable than the one our parents inhabited.

The need to resolve this millennial paradox is the reason I’m a fierce defender of the liberal arts and a holistic education, and shuffle my feet uncomfortably when economic development panels start bashing the utility of four-year degrees in favor the trades, as they often do. The value that comes from learning how to think instead of just learning to perform tasks has myriad benefits both in career and in life, and while there are high-demand trades that pay well and bachelor’s programs that are questionable paths to gainful employment, the statistics on the lifetime earnings gap between the two are still stark. Viewing education as an accumulation of skills is a bankrupt idea of what it means to be a human moving through life. The fact that many people may not have the means to pursue knowledge and virtue through education does not invalidate that path as a worthy goal.

We’re probably nearing the end of the millennial thinkpiece era, as Generation Z is starting to render us as old news. If you believe the broad-brush pictures, Gen Z has learned from some millennial flailing and takes a more practical, stability-focused approach to career and life decisions, and has lower rates of drug abuse and teen pregnancy. (Some of this is probably generational: we millennials are the children of Boomers formed by 60s tumult and radicalism, while Gen Z members are the kids of allegedly apathetic Gen Xers.) We millennials have some memory of a rosy world before tech seemed ubiquitous and before the late 00s recession, while both loom large in Gen Z members’ lives. Their world is also even more hyper-competitive, more fraught by winner-take-all competition, more economically uncertain. Rising teenage anxiety and suicide rates are symptoms of these extremes, and point to a malaise that public policy alone cannot solve.

The consistent response to the troubles of contemporary life, both from my millennial peers and our Gen Z successors, has been one of anger. Anger has value as a motivator, clearly, and we certainly have a right to lash out at commentators who trade in cheap, context-free generalizations. But anger alone can lead people to blame vague past others, and too often today, even many practitioners of the humanities are more interested in judging the past by contemporary standards than learning from the mess of past successes and failures. If those of us who have come out of the millennial coming-of-age travails with few scars have something to offer, it might be some stability here: in place of anger, we can offer a steadfast commitment to gauging the emotion around us and putting it to productive use. We can isolate root causes amid all of the noise and go to work. And we can live in ways that make sure we model lives that aspire toward knowledge, toward decency, and toward constructive ends for more and more people.

21 Years

20 Jun

As I so often do on this day, I share an Octavio Paz Poem.

Coda

Perhaps to love is to learn
to walk through this world.
To learn to be silent
like the oak and the linden of the fable.
To learn to see.
Your glance scattered seeds.
It planted a tree.
        I talk
because you shake its leaves.

Happy 21st, bro. Your first one is on me, though I’m probably already complicit in your corruption.

The Not-So-Quiet American

9 Jun

Holbrooke wanted more. He wasn’t a grand strategist, but his frenetic public presence made him the embodiment of certain ideas in action. He believed that power brought responsibilities, and if we failed to face them the world’s suffering would worsen, and eventually other people’s problems would be ours, and if we didn’t act no one else would. Not necessarily with force, but with the full weight of American influence. This was the Holbrooke doctrine, vindicated at Dayton. But it didn’t come out of government experience, much less analytical rigor. His views, like everyone’s, emerged from his nervous system, his amygdala, the core of his character, where America stood for something more than just its own power. He was that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.

At no time in recent memory has a book consumed me as much as the one I read over the past week. On its surface, George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century doesn’t seem like the sort of book that will pack an overwhelming punch. It’s a biography of a diplomat who garnered respect in certain circles, but never became a household name or rose to the highest positions he craved. I expect Holbrooke will be lost to history in a generation or two, and his flaws were glaring enough that he doesn’t deserve any posthumous sainthood. But as an analogy for the apogee and decline of American power, his story is too perfect, and Packer, a master craftsman, the grand elegist of the broken American Dream, is our man to tell the tale.

Holbrooke served every Democratic president from Kennedy to Obama. He joined the Foreign Service in 1962 as an acolyte of the builders of the post-World War II order, and went straight to Vietnam, where he vainly struggled to expand the vision of what it would take to win. Holbrooke and his fellow rising stars in the Foreign Service all read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and, instead of seeing themselves in Greene’s blindly optimistic American agent Alden Pyle, earnestly believed they could do better. But that was only the start of a long and industrious career that barreled along at breakneck pace right up until his aorta burst in a meeting with Hillary Clinton in 2010. He was, Packer argues, the ultimate symbol of American global ambitions in the twilight of the nation’s hegemony.

Foreign policy is a particularly Hobbesian realm of endless war between large egos measured against blurry standards. It’s rarely an issue that drives the polls, and one observer’s great act of diplomacy is another’s unconscionable sellout. The realists and idealists collide, and in his early years, Holbrooke’s ideals often left him on the losing side of arguments. The military shunted aside the nation-builders in Vietnam, and in the Carter years, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War realism had little time for humanitarian concerns in southeast Asia. Defenders of diplomacy were at their peak after World War II but found increasingly less room to operate, especially when the military, whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan, gave presidents—particularly Democrats scared of coming across as weak on national security—instant credibility and concrete body counts that can generate good headlines.

Diplomacy is the trickiest form of politics, more art than science and yet insistent upon clear results. Statements almost always come with subtext and hidden agendas, and even the greatest can fail to find the real meaning, the real goals, the real sources of power. A sympathetic Pakistani ambassador likened the drama in central Asia to “a theater in which everyone understood their part, except for the Americans,” and Holbrooke saw it as his job to understand that part. At his best, he was a master of complexity, never more so than in Bosnia. He traveled there on his own before Bill Clinton’s inauguration and spent a chaotic New Year in besieged Sarajevo, took that passion into an administration with no foreign policy direction to speak of, and somehow got a bunch of squabbling warlords to accept the Dayton Accords. Another high point was his tenure as ambassador to the United Nations, as he was able to show even isolationist conservatives the value in propping up an international system favorable to U.S. interests and ideals. He could disarm large egos that others thought lost causes.

Perhaps his comfort with this complexity is why Holbrooke clashed horribly with the Obama administration in the final phase of his career. The law professor of a president wanted crisp arguments and decisive rhetoric, not murky maneuvers and dealings with questionable characters. For a president whose story was to be a revival of the American Dream, there was no room for Holbrooke’s lessons from Vietnam, an analogy Obama rejected out of hand. “By the end he was living each chapter of his life simultaneously—Kennedy and Obama, Vietnam and Bosnia and Afghanistan…All that accumulated experience—we Americans don’t want it,” writes Packer. “We’re almost embarrassed by it, except when we’re burying it. So we forget our mistakes or recoil from them, we swing wildly between superhuman exertion and sullen withdrawal, always looking for answers in our own goodness and wisdom instead of where they lie, out in the world, and in history.”

Holbrooke knew he faced long odds in Afghanistan, but it didn’t stop him. Despite his ego and bluster, he built an idiosyncratic team of the best people he could find, from prolific academics to a woman who tried to lecture him on an airport shuttle. Their role, he told his team, was to break through the turf battles, process over substance. He loved them like his own children (whom he neglected until later in their lives, though there is a superb sequence in which his prep school reject teenage son moves into his New York bachelor pad and leaves him notes like “I suppose leaving half the Grape-fruit Juice out to Spoil is your way of Leading by Example”), and tracked his way all over south and central Asia in search of some way to stop the region’s entropy. But none of it mattered, because Hillary Clinton was the only person in the administration who didn’t think he was a pompous windbag from another era, and even she could only expend so much political capital on one lonely diplomat working a long-shot battle to open dialogue with the Taliban and end a war the military could not win. It still hasn’t.

Our Man is a lament for the decline of American international influence, and Packer’s turning point is the late 90s. He demolishes the American hubris of that era in a few pages that I could quote in full. At the unquestioned peak of American power, there was no serious strategy, just Holbrooke and a few colleagues using the lessons of a lifetime of experience to bring peace. The U.S., terrible imperialists, looked for quick solutions instead of managing chaos. Al-Qaeda’s bombings of two American embassies in Africa elicited only a perfunctory volley of cruise missiles in response, and Washington spent a full year, in Packer’s elegant phrasing, on “Oval Office cocksucking.” (That year, 1998, was also the year the Yankees won 114 games and the World Series and Duluth East last won a state hockey title. It really has been all downhill since.) “Our leaders believed they had the luxury to start tearing one another apart, and they’ve never stopped,” Packer pontificates. “Did any country ever combine so much power with so little responsibility? And slowly, imperceptibly at first, we lost that essential faith in ourselves.”

Holbrooke, somehow, never lost that faith. His ambition pushed him along in dogged pursuit of glory. It also killed two marriages and left a third on life support, cost him many of his friends, and shameless lobbying ruined his chances at being Secretary of State or winning a Nobel prize. He was a vainglorious to the end, though it was a complex egotism. In the words of Tony Lake, his Vietnam era best friend and later-stage mortal enemy, “‘What Holbrooke wants attention for is what he’s doing, not what he is…That’s a very serious quality and his saving grace.’” As I’ve long believed, ambition is both the source of human greatness and the root of human demise. “And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training,” Packer writes. “Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp?”

* * *

Why did Our Man hit me so personally? Probably because, for a healthy chunk of my life, I wanted to become Richard Holbrooke. I wanted to be the globetrotting diplomat who could dive in and end age-old wars through sheer power of will. I wanted to believe in an open and democratic world order, and I wanted to believe my country could learn from its past sins and use its power as a force for decency. I went to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where I brushed shoulders with Holbrooke’s two great rivals (Lake and Madeleine Albright, both on the faculty at the time) with the express purpose of following this path.

And yet I didn’t, and found myself tunneling into old journals to remind myself why. Did I lack the killer instinct that drove Holbrooke both to glory and the grave? Was I doomed from the start by a lack of WASPy cred, a wishful believer in a dream I never could achieve? Was my reaction to life in DC too visceral, too uncompromising and unwilling to make sacrifices? Was I too consumed with other events in my life that turned me inward and homeward? All of the above, I think, to varying degrees.

And so, around the exact time Holbrooke died, my belief in his project also died. I’d prepared myself for a world that was already halfway gone by the time I graduated from college. I’m at peace, or so I tell myself: most people learn to leave behind childhood dreams, and I have a new vision of a good life that I’m pursuing. Our Man is not a flattering window into American government, and a career in that world seems to break down so many who do undertake it: petty infighting, endless politicking, 20-hour days that ruin families. Even Lake, ever Holbrooke’s foil, ever the more noble and cautious and thoughtful counterpart, succumbed to the same miseries.

As a child of a different era, I’m more skeptical of the liberal internationalist order than Packer is and Holbrooke was. But after a decade of Obama-led “managed decline” (Packer’s words) and the incoherent bluster of its America First successor, the virtues of that belief in American goodness, for all its flaws, also undergirds so many of the steps the world has taken in a saner direction since the end of World War II. And while it makes for brilliant writing, Packer’s requiem for a superpower may be premature as well. If future diplomats can harness both that spirit and apply some hard-earned lessons from the past, the U.S. could yet arrive at a foreign policy befitting of this moment in history. The ambition lurks within, repressed but still very much alive.

Wired for Goodness

29 May

The notion that genes play a strong role in our fates is not a popular one. Such a worldview risks seeming fatalistic, and has been an inspiration for any number of racist or otherwise unsavory views. Perhaps, however, it is none of those things, and Nicholas Christakis’s Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society makes just this case. Over the course of 400 pages, Christakis takes his readers on a thoroughly entertaining tour through a wide range of data sets, from the natural experiments that emerge from utopian communes and survivors of shipwrecks on deserted islands to the interactions of elephants and monkeys and any number of other species that exhibit social behavior. His book is an accessible yet scholarly tour de force, clearly a labor of love built over many years. It is also a deliberate effort to rescue an understanding of who humans are from a view that everything about us is a socially construct.

Christakis works hard to show that not only are we a complicated mix of nature and nurture, but that this is no cause for concern. Humans have a defined social suite, a blueprint, that establishes our parameters of social interaction, and the handful of cultures around the world that escape it are shaped by extreme conditions, the exceptions that prove the rule. Moreover, the most defining trait of this human social suite is its flexibility. While there is some human adaptation to different environments, humans instead are genetically equipped to work collectively and innovate to find the resources they need to thrive everywhere from dense rainforests to the Arctic, from a nomadic lifestyle to apartment living in a metropolis. We have evolved to be social, evolved to be flexible, and evolved in ways that allow us to build cultures that reward cooperation in spite of the self-interested impulses that could tear it all apart. Something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory that humans first need to find basic necessities like food and shelter before they worry about something like self-actualization, gets it all backwards. The need for self-actualization is wired into human DNA, more a reason for our ability to meet those basic needs than it is an outgrowth of them.

Christakis’s work leads to an endorsement of the dual-inheritance theory: culture can affect genes, and only species with the genes for culture (those whose generations overlap and who live in groups) can develop this feedback loop. Cultures evolve, drift, and go through processes not unlike natural selection as they rise and fall. This is why human societies have drifted toward monogamy (which draws down male testosterone and makes us dudes more content to settle instead of endlessly rutting about) as they become more sedentary and grow. It explains why people develop friendships and cultivate them over time. It may even be why the gods of large urban societies tend to hand down rules for a social order while the gods of hunter-gatherers are much more capricious and participate directly in the natural world. Blueprint doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it offers tools to move toward them.

Christakis knows his optimism about evolutionary sociology is a controversial take. He leaves no doubt that people can and have abused certain notions of scientific understanding of human nature for racist or eugenicist ends. He argues, however, that their crimes are no less heinous, and on the balance perhaps less damaging, than the ravages of the Stalins and Maos and any number of other less catastrophic but still toxic individuals who believed humans were strictly the product of cultural circumstances and thought they could wipe away the cultures they didn’t like. Perhaps more ambitiously, he has some faith that the social suite is so tightly interconnected with our understanding of what life should be that we’ll be able to check the worst excesses and impulses to use AI or genetic modification in what most humans would consider natural ways. He makes a case for clear-eyed understanding of what genes can and cannot do as a saner path forward than blanket fears of acknowledging advances in understanding may bring about. On this, we can probably agree; the open question is whether the natural human instinct to resist more extreme forms of genetic engineering can act quickly enough to stop a few people with the power to do great damage.

We have evolved to be good, and slowly, surely, continue to do so. Christakis’s work has parallels to the question of theodicy, of how an all-powerful God can let bad things happen in the world; he introduces the parallel concept of sociodicy, which turns this conundrum on its head asks how we manage to more or less live together well despite having such supposedly self-interested, base desires. A whirlwind tour of political philosophy in the final chapter jives well with my own Answer to Everything, as it points to the shortcomings of beliefs that humans are irredeemably broken and also rejects easy cultural fixes to all our problems. It gives new ammunition to those of us who’d like to believe we can build a society we like; our sense that, for all the claim of ruin, we still have right around us the foundational tools for something resembling goodness.

This worldview fits well with an Aristotelian notion that we can slowly, haltingly, observe the world around us and understand it better, and come to a sense of who we are and what we can become if we align lives toward a broader goal, some sense of what it means to live a life of human flourishing. It fits the John Wesley Powell mindset of a science that discovers hope in its ability to offer ways forward through its slow experimentation and refinement of past theories. It also makes me think of Hannah Arendt, who rejected the title of “philosopher” in favor of “social theorist” because she recognized that an understanding of what humans are is useless without considering how they interact with one another. Science, Arendt argues in The Human Condition, has alienated humans from the world, but perhaps, in the end, it can help to show the way back.

A Climb Up from Mud

27 May

On a weekend in late May, my pent-up wanderlust finally gets an outlet. My plan: a twenty-plus mile jaunt over two days on the Superior Hiking Trail on Lake Superior’s North Shore, a bit tame by my standards, but a trek that will give the muscles some healthy soreness nonetheless. I’ll begin at Bally Creek Road and work my way southwest to the Caribou Trail, with four miles along the Cascade River as the central attraction. This stretch will take me 1,000 feet down from a ridge to near the mouth of the river into Lake Superior and then 1,000 feet back up again to White Sky Rock’s perch over Caribou Lake. After a long and tedious spring, northern Minnesota is my playground once again.

The opening miles of the hike follow a ridgetop that gazes down on a valley containing Sundling Creek. Large stands of red pines dot the route, and in the distance, I enjoy occasional vistas of Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point, and its shorter but more imposing neighbor, the creatively named Unnamed Hill. Spring is still in its infancy here in Cook County, the tentative green sprouts probing upward several weeks behind their appearance in Duluth. Trees are budding here and there, but only in warm hollows and on southern exposures can we say they have anything resembling leaves. I can hear the Cascade River long before I can see it, and a convenient cut in the trees lets me see across its full valley. The trail descends but remains on a ridgetop high above the river for the first mile of its shared journey down toward Lake Superior.

The trail crosses the river on a bridge shared with Cook County 45, a reminder that some seek out the wilderness for darker reasons. Keep going west a short distance and I’ll find the plot of land now owned by Seth Jeffs, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway polygamist sect long excommunicated by the official LDS church. Sparsely populated Cook County, normally known for strict building standards (at least in Grand Marais), recently granted Mr. Jeffs a permit to build a 6,000 square foot “pole building/apartment” on his property. Still, he probably could have chosen a quieter patch of northern Minnesota for his new compound: as a resort haven and home to many well-off retirees, Cook County is about as educated and unfriendly to a religious sect as a rural American county can be, and its denizens are already rabble-rousing in response. Whether a polygamist on the run from the law or just a kid looking to push his body and find some peace, these wilds accommodate our lonely pursuits.

I stop for lunch a few paces down on to the trail on a needle-covered cliff with a view of a powerful waterfall down on the river below. On the east side of the river, a few hikers down at the bottom of the falls seem to be gazing up at me, and it takes a moment to register that their focus is not on a hiker snarfing dried apple slices but instead the large chunk of ice wedged in a gully to my right. It looms like some natural rock arch out west, a gateway for a small stream that plunges a few hundred feet down to the Cascade. The next stretch of trail keeps the river gorge at some distance, its muddy stretches made more pleasant by the starflower meadows carpeting the hillsides. I scurry around a number of small tributaries on their way down to the Cascade, some mere trickles, some powerful streams that leave deep, steep gashes to burn up hikers’ glutes as they traverse them. In time the trail turns down into a tunnel of pines and dives down to the side of the river, which rips along at its spring peak. The Cascade may carry the most water of any river on Minnesota’s North Shore, and the rapids that furnish the river with its name keep the scenery lively. This is vintage SHT.

Foot traffic picks up as I approach the 96 Steps, a wooden staircase that takes me back up away from the river and releases me on to a few state park trails. After a stop for water at Cascade Creek, I begin my push up Lookout Mountain, which provides Cascade River State Park’s finest vista. Recent blowdowns render the hillside relatively sparse, but this cloudy day makes for easy climbing, unless I’m stuck behind a plodding family of four that shows no interest in letting a fast-moving hiker past. There’s a crowd at the top, so I snap my obligatory picture and carry on, and don’t see another soul until another party arrives in my campsite at Indian Camp Creek.

This first company won’t be the last. No fewer than 12 of my new best friends will populate the Indian Camp Creek site tonight, a crowd made mercifully more bearable by the site’s many tent pads and two separate fire rings. The SHT is nothing like the little-known ribbon of trail that my dad and I explored in my childhood, when we’d always have sites to ourselves. Tonight, I couldn’t have solitude even if I wanted it. I label the creekside fire ring Bachelor Flats, as I share it with two other solo male travelers: Matt from Plymouth, and a younger guy in camo who disappears into his tent after setting it up around 4:00 without so much as a bite to eat. He’s still in there when I leave the next morning.

Matt, thankfully, proves amiable company, and the two of us chat through our freeze-dried dinners. He’s roughly my age and a frequent adventurer, albeit a bit spacey, as he tells of how he hiked a mile in the wrong direction from his starting point at Lutsen this morning before realizing his error. We share our stories, and out here, mine suddenly seems fresh again, reassuring words for someone prone to doubt. Later, once the sun sinks beneath the ridge opposite the creek, we wander up and meet our other neighbors, whose number includes a father-son combo of volunteers here to clear downed trees from the trail, three mid-twenties couples from Rochester, and two baby-faced college-aged guys who sleep in hammocks. The father volunteer, a trail veteran who is probably double the age of anyone else in camp, says he’s never seen a site this full before.

Life on a hiking trail is a reminder of the community-minded introvert’s dilemma, as my instinct for solitude jostles with pleasure at serendipitous company. The latter now comes a little less naturally than it used to, perhaps because late 20s seems beyond the phase where people expect to find solitary male wanderers on trails. (I was probably the third- or fourth-oldest person out of the 13 at Indian Camp Creek that Saturday night.) We should be out of that self-discovery phase now and settling into lives, it seems. In many ways I am on a less muddy path now—though I’m a good enough navigator that I could still bushwhack a creative new route if I wanted—but some mud remains.

Leeriness of committing to a path is fairly common in my circles, which are hardly a representative cross-section of society. Having a path complicates things, a turn-off for those who came to believe, rightly or wrongly, they can do anything they put their mind to. With commitment comes the realization that not everyone is drawn to a high-speed push down the same wilderness trails. I have fairly firm ideas on what a good life entails, and these commitments can seem rigid, so overwrought that they can undermine themselves. Us somewhat neurotic chasers have conditioned ourselves to keep on hustling, don’t always know when to stop to admire the view, to acquiesce or submit, to say this is who I am and what I shall be, and this is what I need to concede to make that reality. This is the trail’s gift to me.

I’ve been reading about evolutionary biology lately. It gives me a new dose of respect for these woods around me as it grows and dies and flows through all stages of life around me. But even more than that, it’s given me a new appreciation of human history, our ability to adapt and live in these little communities of other people, work out where we set up all our separate tents and sit around the same fire, not in a re-creation of some early hunter-gatherer simplicity that we’ve lost but instead an instinct that our species has preserved and still draws on to cultivate some sense within us, even as the world around us changes at breakneck pace. It manifests itself differently now, and comes along with the wonders of bear vaults and freeze-dried food. But no matter how much we rebel against biology, it pushes back in powerful ways, and sometimes, when we let it do that, we’re so much the happier.

The night is chilly and sleep comes slowly, and at dawn I look up and am greeted by the sight of a tick on the outside of my tent. Yes, spring is here. The volunteers are the only other ones up as I set about making tea and eating a bagel, though everyone save the mystery man in the tent next to mine has roused to life by the time I’m ready to move again. I go to bid Matt a farewell, and he laments that his phone is dead, that he won’t be able to listen to music as he hikes today. No loss, I think: we do this to hear a different soundtrack, to let the thoughts come freely, as they do when I put pen to paper several times on this trip. After a little warm-up commentary on the quotidian, my thoughts pour out, pen barely able to keep up as everything else fades away save the immediacy of the world around me.

I cross Indian Camp Creek and start my second day with a vigorous push up a ridge. I catch the volunteers at an overlook and revel in a view back across the Cascade Valley and as far as Artists’ Point in Grand Marais, the visibility excellent on this sun-splashed, beautiful spring morning. I push on, and see the trail-clearers will have their work cut out for them. Last fall’s blowdown has left a trail littered with fallen trees, leading to a number of brief detours, backpack-hampered limbos, and climbs over logs, often assisted by natural stiles formed by branches or other fallen trees. This next stretch follows another ridge, though to my mild surprise most of the views are inland instead of down toward Lake Superior. The SHT joins a snowmobile trail for a few steep hills, and eventually takes another plunge down to Spruce Creek, a delightful stream surging through a ravine. There are no signs that anyone camped at this site last night. The creek’s bridge has been dislodged by spring storms and carried a few feet downstream on one side, though it remains useable, and I find a small patch of snow tucked beneath the pilings on the far end.

I push back up the ridge again, slope gently downward through another starflower meadow, and encounter the first party of the day going in the other direction around the halfway point of the day’s hike. Soon, puddles of mud replace downed trees as my primary obstacle, a hazard at its worst in the lowlands around Jonvick Creek, which forces the trail on to a long series of raised planks as it circumnavigates a beaver pond. One of the dam’s intrepid architects swims about, and a turtle plunks off a log into the water as I approach; the pond’s resident frogs kick off a concerto as I pass. Despite the wildlife I’d have no desire to use the swampy campsite beyond the pond, though it is occupied, and beyond it I encounter a steady stream of day-trippers both as I summit a steep ridge overlooking Caribou Lake and as I labor on toward Lake Agnes. One of my first ever backpacking excursions included a night on Agnes, which, predictably, looks smaller now, though still serene in its repose, a scene more out of the Boundary Waters than the SHT.

I enter the home stretch with a turn up a choppy spur trail, and at one point, in a cool forest of cedars, spend half a minute deciding which adventurous route I’ll take down a rocky slope before I realize the log next to me has a staircase carved into it. I power up one last steep slope to White Sky Rock, an overlook with an excellent view of Caribou Lake, arriving for lunch just as one party leaves and wrapping up some notes just as another arrives. I descend to the parking lot, drive south to my customary reward beer at Castle Danger, and head home, tired and refreshed at once. Mission accomplished, the clear road becoming somewhat clearer by the day.