One of the unexpected delights of my writing life has been the occasional opportunity to make real-world connections with readers who share some of the same scattered interests that motivate this blog. This past weekend, one of those connections became real through Jim Richards, whose life story takes him from a childhood in Edina to his hockey-playing days at Dartmouth to a professional life before he and his wife, Mary, decided to go back to the land and move to 350 acres north of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. They started out with a maple syrup operation and eventually ramped it up to a resort, which now hosts weddings and Concordia language villages in the summer and has become a cross-country skiing destination in winter. The resort, Maplelag, has now been in operation for 45 years. Jim and Mary’s son Jay and his wife Jonell are also involved in its operation, and their four sons have divided their athletic talents evenly between skiing and hockey. They found me through the latter and learned of my interest in the former through my blog, and were kind enough to invite me to spend a weekend in their company.
Maplelag is a little slice of cross-country heaven, with untold kilometers of maze-like trails meandering their way up and down rolling hills and around small ponds and lakes. The hills are more modest than my usual haunts in the Duluth area, but one never knows what lies around the next corner as one glides along the immaculately groomed narrow tracks through the woods. Despite the frigid temperatures I put in three lengthy skis over two days, at one point even heading back out and putting my skis back on for another loop shortly after I thought I’d finished for a day. It was an ideal escape. Even at a resort full of guests, one can slip out and find solitude on a lonely stretch of trail, and I can’t remember enjoying so many spells of silence and peace in years.
This is not to say that Maplelag is an altogether tame place. The meals are all communal, as guests are thrown together in the dining hall; on this weekend most of my acquaintances were extended families or siblings or parent-adult child combinations escaping for a brief reunion. The age range of the guests went from grandparents to 12-day-old who could practically fit in her mother’s hand, and 3-year-old Ben was among the stars of the weekend as he rode about behind his parental sherpas in a carrier. Maplelag also hosts groups such as high school cross-country ski teams, a sure source of energy, though on this weekend the only large party was there for a yoga retreat. When I wandered into the hot tub on Saturday afternoon, I found myself the lone man among ten wine-drinking women, all of whom were just slightly too old for me. C’est la vie.
The Richardses are a family that seems to have found precisely the right place in life, and in turn share their little slice of happiness with a new crew of visitors every weekend. There are no TVs at Maplelag, and only a handful of the rooms have attached bathrooms. They are simple lodges that take care of the basic comforts and turn the focus back on to the people who occupy them. On the first night we’re all feeling each other out, but by the second we’re sharing beers and the tables are rolling in laughter and we’ve made ourselves a bunch of short-term friends. Who knows, we may run into each other again next season: Maplelag does not seem like the sort of place a person visits only once. Cross-country skiing welcomes all comers at all times, and repeated retreats become tradition.
Tradition is a part of Maplelag’s lifeblood. The rhythms of resort life become routine here. The walls of the main lodge bear bear the fruits of Jim’s explorations to learn the histories of ethnic settlement across the Midwest, with signs from small towns all over the region littering every open space. This being a Nordic skiing resort, the Scandinavian influence is obvious, with a Sunday morning smorgasbord rolling out a delectable array of cheeses to go with the lefse and those delicious little cookies. There is a piping hot sauna, of course, and a hole in the ice down on Little Sugarbush Lake where people with a higher tolerance for cold water than myself can purify themselves. Maplelag pays homage to the best of Minnesotan culture, that inheritance that us children of this state are charged with passing on: simple beauty, restorative escapes, a culture of diligent craftsmanship, and, once the work is done, the freedom to both delight in the sports afforded by a harsh climate and to huddle around a hearth and find warmth in one another once the sun has gone down. There are many other sides to Minnesota, but this life on a lake still captures the best of it, and is something we ought to continue carrying forward for as long as we can.
* * *
I chose not to enter the Saturday evening talent show; I would have been upstaged by the young musicians who took the stage, anyway. But if I had, I might have been compelled to do a brief reading from an older piece of fiction I spat out a few years ago. In this scene, the protagonist, a high school senior named Alex, has just moved (much to his dismay) with his father from a fairly cushy childhood at a private school in the Twin Cities to the fictional town of Arcadia, which sits on a lake somewhere in northwest Minnesota, likely not too far from Maplelag. This being my fiction, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, but I don’t think that the looming complications of my characters’ lives do anything to diminish the truth in this passage:
Of Alex’s three new friends, Anders stays in the trouble-free indifference of the present better than any other. Anders Andersen lives two miles north of Arcadia, on a property where his parents own a small cluster of lakeside log cabins designed to welcome in those visitors seeking a sleepy sojourn in the Northwoods. The youngest of three children, Anders took on a healthy share of the property upkeep after his sisters moved out, and as his parents grew older and more sedentary. More than any of his hockey teammates, Anders has to work to balance his various interests, and his schoolwork nearly always takes a back seat to chopping firewood and shooting pucks. But he’s bright enough to scrape by, and he does not feel the parental pressure his teammates do; he simply plods along, and does his weight training with an axe instead of a barbell.
In truth, Alex struggles to relate to Anders; hockey aside, they don’t have much in common. Anders is an avid outdoorsman, while Alex was raised in a germ-fearing bubble; Anders has few reservations, while Alex is careful never to rock any boats; and on a more fundamental level, Alex relentlessly pursues opportunities that come his way, while Anders lets everything come to him. But, as he explains to the half-interested Blake, he needs an Anders in his life to snap him out of his uptight, nervous self. His future may not be any clearer, and he certainly hasn’t made peace with his past; with a father he ignores and friends who barely know him, his present isn’t a dream come true, either. But even so, the tumult of these past few months is a bit less oppressive under the starry Arcadia sky, and Alex goes to bed every night with a feeble smile on his face.
Alex and Blake spend the last week of summer doing odd jobs around the Andersens’ cabins. The quaint log lodges along the lakeshore have all been given names like Loose Moose or Fat Goose or Crooning Loon, and though they exude a timeless rustic charm, they require constant upkeep, especially with the winter looming. The boys patch up the holes between the logs and clean out the wood-burning stoves, and with the tourist season winding down, they also paint some of the boats moored along the dock just below the Clever Beaver.
“They know that doesn’t rhyme, right?” Alex asks Blake.
“Meh. Ya see…hey, what number are you, anyway?”
“What number am I?”
“Perfect, we don’t have a ten. From now on, you’re Ten.”
“Right. Ya see, Ten, that’s the sort of thing you gotta stop caring about, if you want to let Arcadia do its thing.”
“Alright, but what if I’m not sure if I do?”
“It’s gonna do it whether you like it or not.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” Alex grumbles.
“It can be, as long as you let it. Seriously, Ten. No shame in taking a shift or two off to get your head back in the game.”
The Andersens pay Alex and Blake in cash, and by ignoring anything that disappears from the extra refrigerator in the lodge. At the end of the day they often slip down to the dock with cans of beer and dangle their legs in the lake, washing away any soreness after their labor. And sore they are: there is nothing simple, nothing relaxing, in the endless caulking and log-rolling under the August sun. At the end of the week Alex’s skin is bronzed, his cap caked in sweat, and he barely has the energy he needs to shoot pucks in the basement after dark. He and Blake gripe about the work as they go, but with generous compensation and school starting next week, they can also laugh at it, knowing their work is not their life.
From their perch they can look across a large bay back at the town, where cars crawl along Lakefront Drive and the Johnson House’s green-gabled roof peeks up above the treetops, lording over the boats edging out of the marina. Sometimes the resort guests will join them, fishing rods in hand, and the ease of anonymity lets them make light of most anything in life. As the distance in time comes to match the distance in miles, Alex is freer to think of St. Ignatius not as some identity stolen away from him, but merely a well of old stories from a different life. In some ways a better life, certainly, but also one he’s lost somewhere out in the murky waters of Lake Arcadia, and for the time being it seems best not to dive in after it, but to simply sit on the dock and remember the one that got away.