Archive | July, 2020

WRT III, Part 1: The Winning of the West

31 Jul

Can I tell I’m starved for an adventure? I drive so manically out of Duluth on the first day of my trip to Yellowstone that I don’t take so much as a bathroom stop until I reach a rest area in Oriska, North Dakota, some four and a half hours into my drive. The road is monotonous, my mission singular, and I have an audiobook of Joan Didion’s notes on a road trip across the American South to carry me along. Written observation as inspiration for my own notes: I can only dream they will live up to her prescient ability to diagnose American fault lines 50 years ago. Her observations on race and on Southern and Western attitudes are just as relevant today. We are still the children of the late 60s.

I perk up some after I cross the Hundredth Meridian and enter the West: not Didion’s California West, but the West of wide open spaces and enduring frontiers. The flat plains turn into hills that march upward in steady ranks, farm fields give way to grazing pastures, and a few stray buttes dot the landscape here and there. Salem Sue, the towering cow that welcomes visitors to New Salem, offers a formal welcome to this wilder country. I slow my roll when I approach Theodore Roosevelt National Park to drink in the changing landscape, the lands that commanded the loyalty of Native Americans, the fed the dreams of American settlers, and create an outlet for modern-day thrill-seekers. This trip is a deep plunge into the West, in all its complicated history.

I first set eyes on Theodore Roosevelt four years ago, when a friend and I pulled into its Painted Canyon Overlook on the tail end of a grand western road trip. That glimpse left me hungry for more, and this trip has given me the excuse I need to spend two nights deep in its harsh but detail-rich hills. These badlands along the Little Missouri River enraptured a young future president in the 1880s, and after several untimely deaths in his life, he came back here to find freedom. On this first leg of my western road trip, I follow in his footsteps.

There are a few different categories of national park. The first captures features that are true natural wonders of the world by any standard: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone. A second category is more of a glorified state park: sure, they can be lovely, but there isn’t always much to distinguish them from their surroundings, and they may be the products of political patronage. Voyageurs National Park, the closest to my northern Minnesota home, falls in this category; there’s not much to distinguish it from the neighboring, more remote Boundary Waters. I’ve heard similar sentiments for places like the Cuyahoga Valley or Virgin Islands National Parks. This isn’t to say they aren’t fun to visit, but no one will pretend they belong in a category alongside Glacier or the Great Smoky Mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt, however, occupies a third category, along with places like Joshua Tree and Isle Royale and a lot of Alaska: they preserve unique, lonely wildernesses. They have little in the way of famed attractions, and instead invite their visitors to simply wander in and explore. Camping in the time of Covid only heightens this raw, wild feel: the Cottonwood Campground, where I’d made reservations months ago, is closed, but the backcountry is open, so I adapt easily enough. I arrange for a permit, park in a small lot next to a deep, nearly dry wash named Jones Creek, and start to hike the requisite distance away from all features for a backcountry camp. Just a short ways in, I have to divert up a hill to avoid a bison that lounges a bit too close to the path for comfort, but after dodging it, I see a faint path running up a small valley across the creek that I decide will serve my purposes.

Crossing the steep-banked gully of Jones Creek poses a challenge, but eventually I find a crumbling path that guides me down along its fetid pools for a spell before it offers a pathway up into the valley I’ve claimed. I stake my tent in a meadow just beyond view from the wider Jones Creek valley and find a perfect hammock spot in a copse of trees. I bliss out there until my campsite comes into the shade of the neighboring hills, make my dinner, and later rock-hop up a craggy slope to enjoy the sunset down Jones Creek with my nightcap. My bison friend has ambled along the opposite bank of the creek and nibbles about here and there. A collection of coyotes howls at sunset, the birds chirp away into the dusk, and the lowing of the bison comes at the steady pace of a loud snorer. When darkness falls, though, the sounds die away, and when I wake in the wee hours of the night, I hear nothing but silence: pure, pristine silence for the longest stretch of time I have ever heard.

I have a long day hike planned for my full day here, but I wake to rain in the morning and issue a few profanities to an audience of zero. I sit confined in my tent for two hours longer than I’d hoped, and I’m restless, a slight agoraphobia rising up; once the clouds clear, I am resigned to hiking in the heat of the day. Theodore Roosevelt’s trails are notorious for turning to slop when wet, and my only choice is to mudsurf down the slope into the Jones Creek ravine to get back to the trail, though the climb back up on the other side is mercifully easy. The bison is gone now, and I head back up the trail and cross the road on to a flat along the Little Missouri River. The trail meanders through an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and after further mudsurfing, I reach a ford across the river by the horse paddocks of the Peaceful Valley Ranch. The Little Missouri is wide but shallow, and the water never clears my knees as I ford it. I don’t mind the water on my feet to cool them down. Soon I come to a meadow occupied by a man and his two daughters; at first I think the girls are the sources of the high-pitched chirps, but soon I realize they’re coming from the crew of prairie dogs. What silly creatures, I think as I watch them popping up here and there, chirping manically at any human who comes close.

The trail meanders up and down washes, past small springs tapped by early settlers, and twists up valleys that nest their way in amid the badlands. It’s a warm day with few clouds, but a strong wind blasts across the park and keeps the hiking pleasant. After some initial crowds, I find myself alone on the Lone Tree Trail, my only fellow traveler a black mustang on a distant hill. The trail follows Knutson Creek up into the highlands as it twists through occasional juniper thickets, knifes up a mud bank, and gradually ramps up to the plateau atop the badlands. Up on this high plain the grassland extends off into eternity, a stunningly open world where the trail is faint and a lone bison grazes in the distance. I work my way back along the edge of the plateau to views down valleys and across a prairie dog metropolis. The midday sun has dried out all of the morning mud, and I plunge back down and complete my 13-mile circuit. I repeat my evening ritual of the day before, amuse myself by naming the hills around the valley I’ve claimed as my own: the Ziggurat, the Slipper, the Parapet, the Monitor and the Merrimack. (I suppose we may need to rename that last one now.) For a second night, an early morning fitful waking gifts nothing but silence. This is exactly how to experience the wilderness.

I rise early the next morning, pack my things, and start on my way across Montana to Bozeman, where I will rendezvous with my fellow Yellowstone hikers. This is the same group I joined on the Lost Coast in California last summer, minus two participants and plus another cousin of mine who missed that jaunt. The drive passes quickly, and before long we’re on a hectic rush around outdoors stores, understocked in the Covid era, and go through our routine of divvying up the load for the hike among our packs.

Bozeman is so close and so far from my hometown of Duluth. It’s an outdoorsy wilderness gateway and a college town, big enough to be a regional center with plenty of amenities but small enough to remain intimate. The similarities end there, though: while Duluth drowns in history, Bozeman has basically none outside of a few blocks along its tasteful Main Street. Most of the city is a sprawling suburban grid, with endless rows of cheap, unremarkable new apartments stretching off into the distance, ready to accommodate its exploding population of young adventure-seekers. In a way, I’m fond of that ethos; it feels fresh, has none of the post-industrial fatalism that sometimes grips Duluth. If Duluth is the Rust Belt reinvention story that struggles to hide its scars, Bozeman is the archetype of the West: a city that can pretend it has no history, the eternal belief in outward escape and a new life on the frontier more than a century after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed.

I’d hardly be the first person to critique the myth of the West: brave cowboys, romanticized bandits, people free to be themselves away from old world wars or Eastern industry and hierarchy. But one can admire their rugged pursuits and still see everything that this picture leaves out: the broken dreams of so many would-be settlers, the decimation of the natives, the bloodletting and anarchy that would now inspire some people to call for the National Guard. The United States is still on the run from its past, still thinks it can start anew somewhere out here in these hills and wastes, and while on the most fundamental level it will always be wrong about that, it can still work its magic. Why else would I be here?

WRT III

16 Jul

I have made a habit, it seems, of long western road trips in even-numbered years. The 2020 edition will take me out to Yellowstone and back over the next two weeks, a trip nearly as long in time (if not in miles) as the 2016 edition, and similar in its scope of natural beauty to 2018. At first glance it may seem a rather cavalier time for a vacation given our national situation, to say nothing of the fact that I’m moving three days after I return. But never have I wanted a vacation more than I do right now, and this sudden push outward is an ideal bookend to one phase of life.

This road trip necessarily makes its concessions to the ongoing pandemic. Plans had to change, fellow travelers have dropped, and added doses of caution will likely prevent me from getting too adventurous in sampling local culture. There will be a lot of meals at rest stops and at camp stoves and in hotel rooms, not in intriguing establishments. Summer 2020 has been best spent in tents and admiring wide open spaces instead of visiting great cities or museums or restaurants and bars.

Fortunately, this trip offers no shortage of wide open spaces. Half its nights will be spent at backcountry campsites of some sort, which are about as socially distant as one can get. The bulk of this trip brings together a five of us from all over the country, which is a calculated risk, but since April, I’ve been pretty insistent that we must take reasonable precautions and find some way to live a mentally healthy life. This thrust westward, even as the national situation deteriorates, is exactly that.

I set out in a car that needs to add some ticks to its odometer to justify its high-mileage lease, well-stocked with coolers and bear cans, and armed with bear spray in the event that any new furry friends draw too close. The weather, for now, looks much more pleasant than my last venture outward, which can only be a good thing. As usual, I’m stocked with a wide-ranging array of audiobooks and a couple of maps. (The real, paper kind that won’t fail me when I lose cell service and have to navigate my way off-trail around a herd of bison, thank you very much.) What more could I ask for?

Like Theodore Roosevelt, whose old stomping grounds in North Dakota will be my host for the first two nights, I head west in a time of uncertainty. In the past I’ve said that I aspire to no great insights in my travel; that I should let them come as they come. But this time? Nah. I really am looking to find something. I don’t know what, and I’ll be fine if I don’t. But in many ways I feel like I’m on the brink of…something.

So, off I go. Updates will follow, as time allows.

Angleworm of Repose

8 Jul

For a northern Minnesota kid who grew up among wilderness-going people, certain destinations take on near-mythical status, these intimidating destinations. One of those places for me was Angleworm Lake, a Boundary Waters entry point I’d heard of through my dad and kept in my back pocket for a change of pace from my now-regular Superior Hiking Trail hikes. Angleworm is daunting for one reason: accessing it as a Boundary Waters paddler requires a two mile portage. It is the longest entry portage in the BWCA, and on a weekend when the wilderness’s more famed destinations fill up, most of its one-a-day canoe permits remain available.

Fortunately, there’s another way to see Angleworm: a hiking trail follows the portage most of its length before it loops around the lake and a few of its neighbors in a 13.6-mile circuit. On my longer hikes I often cover that distance in a day, so two nights on this loop should be a calming stroll. A friend who has been sheltering in place in Duluth but will soon head back west and I set our plans for a weekend of Boundary Waters bliss.

Mother Nature, however, has other plans, and we have not picked an ideal weekend to venture to this lake. The temperature in Ely, the nearest town some 20 miles down the Echo Trail, pushes 95 on the day we go in and 90 the next. In the first tenth of a mile we’re already pouring out sweat, thankful most of the trail lies in shade. It’s been dry, though, so the mud patches are forgiving and the bugs are tame outside of the annoying but harmless flies that circle our heads. And on a holiday weekend where many northern Minnesota campgrounds and hideaways are swamped with visitors, this one still offers solitude.

Angleworm, to my delight, lives up to its hype. Long and thin, it snakes its way from north to south and nestles between rocky outcroppings studded with as many mature white and red pines as I can recall seeing across a broad area. The southern half of the trail rises and falls along the ridges of its shoreline, with lovely views peeking through its pines. At times it cuts inland to dodge stream mouths and swamps, and at one point it makes its way over a beaver dam to work its way through. The views coupled with a gentle breeze are enough to make me forget the sweat flowing down my back.

My traveling companion has spent the past several months wrestling with the concept of ambition. It is a fickle impulse, one that can chew us up and spit us out, leave us exhausted after a long hike. It can do ugly things to people we thought we liked. But, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, ambition must be rooted: deep, tangled roots across the trail, the towering pines anchored in place. From here, we accept that, no matter how much we try to shift our perspective, we’ll always be grounded in a certain spot of woods. The forest around us is living and will change, but, barring calamity, will always look something like the world we know.

My own recent ambition has been a modest one, and one well-suited for pandemic life: the purchase of a house, a process that has been at turns both painstaking and exhilarating. I’ve never thought of homeownership as some status symbol I needed to achieve, but rather merely a somewhat more pleasant way to live if one can afford it, with greater control and the opportunity to build some equity and realize some tax breaks while also being on the hook for unexpected repair bills. (I don’t close on until the end of the month and I’m already forking over cash on that front!) And while this student of urban sociology has for some time propounded the value of homeownership for its ability to ground people into stable lives, a virtuous cycle of community and a ladder for upward mobility, I never quite applied that logic to my own life, where it never seemed like a revolutionary step. Now it is real, an illiquid source of wealth that locks in one story of where I’ve been and trades away a few others. Away drift a few more of my itinerant globetrotting ambitions; now comes attention to paint jobs and garage doors and rebuilt reserves. Some people wrap up their third decades by marrying a person; I, meanwhile, have married a city, in part in an effort to strangle the worst of my wandering tendencies. I’ve committed, and now have to figure out the rest.

Home on night one of this hike, though, is about 25 square feet of fabric staked out on the east side of Angleworm Lake, a site at the bottom of a steep slope with some superb rock outcroppings sinking into the lake and just enough shade to tuck away the hammock. Here, Angleworm shows how it gets its name, as it appears more river than lake, a tempting wriggle of bait slithering through the Canadian Shield. Two women trawl past in a canoe as we arrive and later stop by for a swim off our site, but after they depart, we see no one else for over 24 hours. The sun fades away into evening repose, and the heat fades away just enough to achieve something resembling comfort in the night. I wake with the sun and sit out on the rocks for a spell, at times reading, at times writing, but often just free to drift here in the wilderness.

Day two is a slog. While mildly cooler, we’ve lost the breeze of the day before, and the trails ventures up and down ridges away from Angleworm to gaze down at some other lakes and beaver meadows. The trail grows monotonous, sweltering, never more so than on the fifth mile of the day, when we snake painstakingly along the backside of a ridge before we finally tumble back down to Angleworm, just 100 yards across the lake from where we started that morning. At this stage in my hiking life five miles is a walk in a park, but I can’t remember feeling as drained as I do as I gather myself after that circuit.

We refill our empty water bottles, slump up against boulders, refill them again. Some thunder rolls in the distance, but it seems to skirt us to the south and east. In our perch on the shoreline, we can’t see what’s coming in from the west. Onward we go, ready for two final miles to our second camp, and the drops that begin to fall are deeply refreshing. I push the pace to get us down off the ridge lest the thunder grow closer. Sure enough, the downpour begins part way down the ridge. We take refuge under a thick spruce, but the rain is so torrential that nothing short of a cave could have saved us. Never in my life have I been so wet in clothes on dry land.

When the hail starts to fall, it really is the last straw. Soaked to the bone, skin fully pruned, boots sloshing with standing water, we wait until the thunder rumbles further off and make our break for the car. It’s just two extra miles from our planned campsite, and the prospect of warm food and cold drinks in Ely is too much to resist. The mosquitoes, tame for most of the trip, rise up with a vengeance, and I make no concessions in my pace in the rush back to the dry towel and change of clothes waiting in my trunk. Even amid the deluge, though, there are still glimpses of Angleworm’s beauty: more overlooks through the pines, spontaneous waterfalls plunging down rock faces, mists rising from the pond part way along the portage out. It’s a beautiful place, and I’ll return some weekend when the temperature is thirty degrees cooler and more assuredly dry.

The next day, as I make up for lost hammock time in the Tischer Creek ravine back in Duluth, I begin to steady myself for a month ahead, one which will include my longest vacation in years before I settle into my new abode. It is time to seek clear paths, a fresh start in a place I know well. If ambition requires roots, well, here they are now, locked into the ground and not going anywhere. Time to start plotting what the next phase will bring.