Signposts at a Crossroads

Jonathan Franzen comes along with a great social novel about once a decade, a tale of family conflict that strives to capture something essential to its moment and something timeless about relationships between people. The first, The Corrections, tracked a St. Louis family coming back together at the home of its matriarch and patriarch for one final Christmas together in the 90s. That novel was well ahead of its time in shedding light on the strains between generations in an increasingly digital world, and it got Franzen into a spat with Oprah to boot. The second, Freedom, followed a Minnesota family as it crumbled in 00s America, wrestling with the American ideal of limitless freedom through several very limited individuals. Once again, Franzen’s critiques appeared prescient, and his tale’s sprawling ambitions suggested that the novel, if perhaps not this one, could yet be the most perfect vehicle for a summation of the human condition.

Now comes Crossroads, which, we are told, is the first in a series of three, a saga that will be Franzen’s modern-day answer to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The novel takes place in suburban Chicago in the early 70s, the sort of placid, comfortable environment where Franzen likes to unleash his mayhem. (Some of the street names sound suspiciously like those in the towns where my mother grew up in this era. Like Freedom, Crossroads eerily manages to nail a place that has figured in my own life.) In this world we find associate pastor Russ Hildebrandt and his wife and four children, ready to take us on a journey of sex, drugs, and impulsive decisions.

The historical setting is one of the great strengths of Crossroads, and Franzen succumbs to less of his instinct to make it every event relevant on a world-historical level than he did in Freedom: he mostly lets the milieu do the work for him. This is a good thing, in part because I am skeptical that the world is ready for a literary novel on what has transpired over the past five years of American life, and in part because it is a rich inflection point for mining. It is the point when the edginess of the 60s went mainstream, the party coming to a close and the world left to reckon with the growing cracks in so many of its institutions. Any similarities between the present moment and that frequent point of comparison, another era of a widening gyre, are shown but not told: the certainty of the depravity in some lifestyles, the cloying religiosity in some bourgeois liberal circles, the chasm between white good intentions and the realities of Blacks in Chicago or Navajos in Arizona, a sense of great cultural change, and dents in the myth of moral progress.

Crossroads is the name of the Christian youth group that makes and breaks the fates of the Hildebrandts in varying ways, but each member of the family stands at his or her own crossroads. For Russ and Marion, it is fundamentally about the fate of their marriage, and whether they dare now explore various paths not taken as they seek to reinvigorate their lives, whose suburban staleness is again shown but never forced into that classic trope. Clem, their eldest son, consumed by an intense moralism he has inherited from his father, must decide how far his commitments will take him and wrestle with the shadow of said father. Becky, Russ and Marion’s daughter and queen bee of the New Prospect social scene, must reconcile her ambition, her newfound love for a boy, and her own more subtle but nonetheless intense search for certain standards to live by. Perry, the middle son, is a precocious schemer on a quest for alternative states. Nine-year-old Judson, meanwhile, is a point of projection for his family’s belief in innocence, and I am luridly eager to see how books two and three treat this poor kid surrounded by a family that is largely indifferent to him.

I’m not sure if Crossroads is Franzen’s best writing, but it is perhaps his best storytelling, and his character development has reached new heights. On the surface, the characters in this book are no better than those in The Corrections or Freedom, yet I found myself ever more compelled by his ability to suck us into these very flawed humans’ stories, a skill both subtle and magisterial. Russ may be a sorry cad, but the depth of his convictions almost has the reader rooting for him to pull off his affair. Becky, desperate to rise above the fray around her and put herself on some higher plane, comes across as the most levelheaded of the bunch until Franzen suddenly pulls us back to see what her decisions, both intentional and unintentional, have done for all her family members and to her own dreams. Perry may be the most sympathetic character ever to appear in a Franzen novel, an astonishing feat considering that he is an amoral addict who sells drugs to middle schoolers. Both Perry and Becky had my heart beating a little faster for how they pulled me back into certain states of mind, ones that may have reached their apogees in high school but never truly went away.

If there is an actual hero or heroine to be found in these pages, though, it is Marion: tortured, pushed to the brink, but able to find a flawed human grace in her moment of crisis, to see her fantasy for what it is. She is the anti-Russ, a chaotic mess of feeling with no firm belief to stand on, but her fevered quest to find it resolves into Crossroads’ most unambiguous triumph. After Russ grovels before her in an attempt to win her back, she gears up to return the favor. But instead, Marion rejects of the confessional culture that now dominates contemporary relationship discourse, and for that matter in the trend of literary fiction toward an intensely autobiographical sub-genre called autofiction. Maybe Marion does not need to tell Russ everything, can live with certain secrets, can accept some burdens as part of her inner life to build a story of perseverance so that she can give the best of herself to Russ and to Perry, the two people who most need her. More than any of the other Hildebrandts, she comes to a crossroads and finds a clear road ahead.

Faith lurks near at hand for each of the Hildebrandts, with the deeply confessional Crossroads—a setting in which scheming Perry excels—as its backdrop. For Russ, faith is a moral calling and a way to convince himself he is doing the world some good; Clem sees the gap between his father’s beliefs and actions and goes into full oedipal revolt. Marion, after a descent into purgatory, rediscovers a raw sort of grace, while Becky seizes upon God as her orientation to the world for thinner but not unrelated reasons. Perry chooses other gods, but, in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, agonizes over the meaning of goodness and his own inability to reach it. It is as honest a treatment of faith and the search for it as I can recall in fiction, made all the more powerful by how much the traditional trappings have faith have fallen out of the circles in which most readers of Crossroads reside. Once again Franzen is a countercultural iconoclast, but pulls it off subtly, raising doubts through the best vehicle for creating them: complicated yet lovable humans.

Crossroads is not a perfect novel. Franzen’s endings are usually moving and powerful, but the denouement in this one, which sets the stage for part two, doesn’t quite clear his very high bar. Clem’s storyline is a relatively weak one, the teenage speech is occasionally off the mark, and certain Franzen tropes recur: the sorry patriarch, the matriarch’s lurching therapy, the cool musician friend sweeping the girl away. Other critics have lingered on the relative flaccidity of Franzen’s prose compared to his earlier work, though if this is the price we pay to drop some of the preachiness of earlier Franzen, I find it a worthwhile tradeoff. The more mature Franzen has dropped some of his old pretense, and much like Marion at prayer, his writing has its greatest power when stripped of its adornment.

My birth as a writer owes a certain debt to Franzen, the grumpy Great American Novelist who opened my eyes to the power of contemporary fiction. I was so absorbed by the hype Freedom that my mom sent a copy in a care package while I spent a semester in Mexico City, and by the next summer I was in a brief, unfortunate phase of life where I thought I might be able to make a living as he did. Franzen showed that fiction really can reveal something about the world as it is, and even when he whiffs, his work is worth reading. I can’t recall the last time I inhaled a book so deeply, as addicted as Perry Hildebrandt to his drugs, and he may yet be a gateway to more fictional pretensions. For now, though, I’ll settle for eagerly awaiting part two, convinced again that a novel can indeed give us some insight into which paths to follow in the meantime.

Uncharted Territory

For the first fifteen years or so of my time following Duluth East hockey, I had the pleasure of generally watching this sport at its peak. For the next two, I watched a lot of ugly hockey, but at least much of that was by design. Now, I am rubbing my eyes in bafflement at an 0-6 start, willing to give away my kingdom for a clean breakout. How does a program that ruled northeast Minnesota for decades pick up the pieces?

Duluth East 2021-2022 hockey opened after a profoundly weird offsesason that saw the exit of Mike Randolph as head coach and an exodus of players from a program that for so long had been a destination. Into the void stepped Steve Pitoscia, who combined a long East pedigree as a bantam coach with a stint in junior hockey, a solid résumé worthy of the position. But recovery from what this program has undergone over the past two years or so will take longer than a few games and require more than some fresh vibes. Duluth East hockey is in a strange, difficult place, and the task ahead is not one for the faint of heart.

I intend to cast very little judgment on Pitoscia and his staff this season. They are new, and many of the greatest high school coaches never would have gotten anywhere if they were judged on their first season alone. Pitoscia has the unenviable position of following a larger-than-life icon whose final stanza at East left a very sour note, both for those who supported him and those who opposed him vehemently. No rational observer can pretend the talent level here is what it has been, thanks to both a slip in the product coming out of the youth system and an exodus, both pro- and anti-Randolph, over the summer. As far as I’m concerned, the new staff is free to do as much tinkering as it would like, and I ask only for signs of progress.

The talent is not all gone, either. A junior core of Cole Christian, Grant Winkler, and Aidan Spenningsby is a decent foundation, and sophomore Thomas Gunderson looked sharp before promptly suffering an injury. We await the return of Wyatt Peterson, who showed some offensive potential as a freshman last season and has yet to play a game. There are enough other respectable defensemen that the blue line corps could be a relative strength. In goal, Zander Ziemski has had a couple of yeoman’s performances, holding up under heavy barrages and at least giving his team some chances. No one will claim this is a top seed contender, but they have enough to be a very pesky section team that could pull an upset or two.

In the games to date, the tales of woe are mounting, one after another. A Thanksgiving road trip to the Twin Cities gave the Hounds two season-opening losses, a tight contest with White Bear Lake whose final score made it look lopsided and a lopsided affair with Chaska whose final score made it seem somewhat tight. The home opener against Grand Rapids provided its share of hope; while Rapids dominated for about a 25-minute stretch in the middle of the game, East held serve in the first period and mounted a plucky comeback late in the third that made it genuinely interesting. Giving the top team in 7AA a good run in the playoffs suddenly seemed very possible.

The good feelings did not linger. A home game against Bemidji should probably have been the first win, but the game slipped away late and wound up in an overtime loss. A weekend trip to Wayzata offered nothing in the way of bright spots. The snowball rolling down the hill then collected the Forest Lake game, which had some strong play early and a 2-1 lead after two before a four-goal burst in the third buried East yet again.

One suspects that half the battle will be mental going forward, as the team tries to find itself in this murky new territory. Perhaps a remnant of Mike Randolph’s black magic lingers in the Heritage Center, one final curse cast to haunt the program that drove him out. But one thing concerns me more than any game that got away against Forest Lake or any humbling against Wayzata: the current peewee and bantam teams have all started poorly, an almost baffling lack of success given the size of the youth program. At this rate, this team could be one of the better Hounds editions of the next few years. This leads me to ponder several possible futures for Duluth East hockey.

The first sticks with an old phrase I used when talking about predicting high school hockey: “the Edina of the north.” Among Minnesota high school programs in urban areas, only the Hornets compare in their ability to stay good decade after decade, defying the seeming laws of urban expansion and family moves. But it hasn’t been entirely consistent: take the start of the decade of the 00s, for example, when, under a relatively new coach named Curt Giles who’d gone to state in his first season there, the Hornets then went six years in which they only once made a section final and never went to State. East’s descent is already probably lower than that (the Hornets did not have a losing season in that stretch), but even the most dominant program in the state hits the occasional lull. Waves come and go, and by the late 00s, the Hornets were setting the bar again.

But maybe a better comparison is Bloomington Jefferson, starting around the same point in time. The Jags were, of course, the preeminent program in the state in the early 90s, and remained one of the top two or three through into the early 00s. Their bleed was long and slow: first the defection of Greg Trebil and some talent to Holy Angels, then the retirement of Tom Saterdalen; later, some teams that might have won other sections got stuck behind that return-to-glory Edina. They were still quite good, and consistently ranked. But as the 2010s went on that started to slip away. Now, they are often a punching bag, proud of their history but potentially looking at a merger with Bloomington Kennedy, which has struggled even more. Despite some committed alumni and some okay youth talent, a return to glory in the current environment looks like a real reach. West Bloomington is now one suburb among many, a pleasant enough place but no singular attraction for hockey.

That brings us to another possible future, one that reaches even further back: Minneapolis Southwest, long the class of Minneapolis hockey and a state champion in 1970. Southwest is still a pretty well-regarded public high school, situated among the affluent neighborhoods that surround Lake Harriet; as demographic changes have come to other parts of Minneapolis, it has, if anything, seen only a greater concentration of resources. But the pressures on other programs in Minneapolis had a direct effect on Southwest. Its hockey identity is dead; while it lasted longer than the rest of the Minneapolis schools and is the primary feeder for Minneapolis hockey, it has now merged with all of them to field a single team. The good hockey players in the area frequently wind up at private schools, if they stay in the city at all, and hockey just isn’t as big of a part of the community culture. Southwest hockey is a relic of history, and the sport rarely more than a feel-good story in the city, and while there are ways to imagine that changing—the resources are there, in a way they may not be in Bloomington—they are still a long way off.

There are reasons to think all of these are possible. The east side of Duluth still has a bunch of lakefront and ridgetop real estate, a bit of new construction and a some grand old history. It has the committed alumni base and the picturesque youth rinks, and the youth association is making some changes at the squirt level that accept a changing reality. It should continue to have decent numbers and the demographics that support hockey, perhaps even some growth if certain real estate trends persist. On the other hand, the east side of Duluth is no Edina clone: it includes swaths at more middle and even lower incomes, and shares a district with Denfeld. Does East just become a feeder for some of its neighbors? Can Denfeld stay viable, or will the East identity be the casualty of a merger? These are the longer-term questions that concern me much more than a bad goal conceded to Bemidji.

For the players on this year’s team, though, these questions are far off in the mists of the future. They need to get healthy, they need to find some combinations that work, and they need to accept that they now have the ability to write this next chapter of Duluth East hockey. There is far too much here, past and present, for the Hounds to roll over dead.

Interesting Reading, December 2021

Herein lies brief return of an old feature on this blog, just because I have for once actually collected some of the interesting articles I have read. Actual content will soon follow!

First, Noah Millman, one of the more interesting and unorthodox political and cultural thinkers out there, offers a Thanksgiving essay on gratefulness on his Substack.

Second, Kate Wagner, the architecture critic of McMansion Hell fame, offers a brief take in Bustle on the inanity of the “farmhouse” architectural style that prompted some conversation among my cousins and I as we spent Thanksgiving in a Chicago suburb brimming with these new things sprouting up to replace older ranches and split-levels. (My line at the time: “these are the things we’re going to look back on in 30 years and say, ‘ugh, that’s so 2020s.'”)

On the meatier side, Canadian philosopher Joseph Heath makes an appearance in American Affairs to offer a case for why racial problems in the United States seem so impossible to solve. He deftly shows how means and ends fail to align, and underscores the difficulty of a solution in light of the complexities of the Black American experience. His global context adds a valuable lens to a debate that so often gets caught up strictly in consideration of American events.

And, finally, in an article that can be termed Karl-bait, Graeme Wood tackles the concept of the “land acknowledgment” in the Atlantic. Land acknowledgments, for the uninitiated, are practice designed to honor Native Americans that too often, like so much of white liberal virtue-signaling, can allow people to feel good about themselves for knowing things without actually doing anything to fix them. It concludes with some concrete points to make them better.

Symposium

I started 2021 with a midnight splash into a pool, a dive both literal and metaphorical: after the caged life of 2020, 2021 would be a year where I jumped in. I am not ready to pass final judgment on that goal, as certain limitations have not exactly disappeared, but in one way this year has matched the hype. I traveled more than I ever have, a steady stream of escapes from daily toil, and this past weekend, a final excursion outside of holiday family time took me to Tucson, Arizona, a new place with a lot of very familiar people.

I liked Tucson. I found it somewhat less sprawl-happy than its larger northern neighbor, Phoenix. The Presidio neighborhood, where I made my home for two days, had a dash of Spanish colonial charm, its homes quaint and bright and the landscapes one with the desert around it. I visited the weekend of the University of Arizona homecoming, which brings its large campus to life. Tucson’s food scene is good enough to earn a UNESCO designation, and the intensity of the Mexican influence gives it a genuine sense of a borderland, a mash-up that brings together the poverty and migration and logistical challenges with the immigrant grit and rich cultural creation and re-creation that takes place when two worlds collide.

My summons to Tucson came for my college friend Mike’s wedding with Lizette, a union of Irish- and Mexican-Americans that underscored this syncretism at every step. Mariachis in the cathedral, Irish dancers at the reception, and a couple of Georgetown Jesuits to tie the ribbon; a bagpiper to herd us to dinner and a Mexican ballad crooner at the post-boda party the following day. Now that I have seen his city I sense that I know Mike a bit better, and know why he helped found Georgetown’s Kino Border Initiative alternative spring break program that continues to run today. No matter how far he ventures he is a child of his hometown, a sentiment I know all too well.

I will here embarrass Mike by calling him one of the most impressive humans I know. I dole out such praise not only for his considerable worldly achievements from his presidency of the Georgetown student association to his Cambridge fellowship to his burgeoning education career, but also for his capacity for introspection and his ability to change his life for the better. We have both come a long way since we were two eager kids stumbling around Mexico City together for a semester, each restlessly seeking out callings that reflect who we have become every step of the way. For him, this weekend was a moment of triumph, a rush that ties those disparate threads of life into one, and while my own such moment remains somewhere further out beyond those cactus-studded hills, seeing another achieve it only fuels me.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on my objects of love, most notably the city that my time at Georgetown led me to conclude was the place I should be. After Duluth, however, comes that institution. An inordinate number of my formative moments came between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Georgetown was the apotheosis of my childhood striving, though its central role has never been an unambiguously positive one. Not long out of undergrad I penned a somewhat cynical account of my time there, and I when I read critical takes here and there on institutions like Georgetown, I find my share of truth. I have struggled, sometimes mightily, to weigh my place amid and against everything that Georgetown represents.

But anytime I am back on its campus or among its people, it is an object of ever-growing love. This Tucson weekend, spent primarily among friends I liked in college but have not kept up with religiously since graduation, was a liberation of sorts. In short order any anxieties over class or money or my strange post-graduation path melted into nothing. My story remains a curiosity to this audience, but it earns respect, and as we roll into our thirties, we are collectively easing into our own skin and into healthier relationships with the meritocratic pressure-cooker we have all inhabited to greater or lesser degrees. We all still share a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for rich lives, this belief that we really can have it all. It was also refreshing to be back in circles where not every 31-year-old is married, perhaps with a kid or two, that status a source of growing annoyance but not unnatural. These are in so many ways my people, and as I kill time in the plaza of the Tucson Presidio the morning after the wedding, I appreciate once again that I am who am, formed by my own peculiar jumble of circumstances just as Mike has been formed by Tucson, a new pride stirring within me.

Each morning since my return, I’ve begun my days with a brief reading from Plato’s Symposium, a search inspired by a speech from a member of Lizette’s bridal party. Perhaps Socrates and friends can be guides to my own loves; perhaps Tucson is only another meander on this strange path I tread. But with each dive I grow a bit more comfortable in the water, a bit more content to ride the waves, whether they come in a Caribbean pool or a November gale on the greatest of lakes. And between each one, may I continue to have symposia with Hoyas, my fellow travelers for life.

Halfhearted Election Reflection 2021

Duluth had some municipal elections this week, and while I mostly lurked in the shadows this cycle, I feel compelled to offer up my usual closing thoughts. When compared to the national-level barometers in some sates and weighty ballot measures down south in Minneapolis, Duluth seemed decidedly sleepy this cycle. The two school board races for three open seats were predictable from the moment the filing deadline passed, with the only opposition to the labor/DFL bloc coming from two very familiar faces. Against that backdrop Loren Martell actually had a passable performance, pulling in over 4,000 votes, but the race was never really in doubt.

The District Two council race was a bloodbath. Mike Mayou, who fell short in the at-large race two years ago, had little trouble cleaning up against a fairly invisible campaign from Dave Zbaracki. Mayou won big everywhere, and now assumes the mantel of the retiring Joel Sipress, who has been the voice of the council’s leftward wing for the better part of a decade.

In District Four, on the other hand, things got a bit more interesting, as incumbent Renee Van Nett scraped out a win against Howie Hanson, whom she had herself unseated four years ago. Hanson’s campaign was consistent in its messaging, if nothing else, seeking to paint Van Nett as a tax-raising rubber-stamper of mayor Emily Larson’s agenda. This is an odd characterization of Van Nett, who is one of the more heterodox and interesting people in local politics, but Howie is, well, Howie, and his message had some resonance in the city’s most conservative district. (Remember when the guy first ran some years ago as a lockstep ally of Don Ness?) As was the case four years ago, Hanson carried the day in the Piedmont and Duluth Heights precincts, while Van Nett ran away with the three in Lincoln Park, which gave her enough of a margin.

The most interesting race (and the only one worthy of mapping) was the competition for the two open at-large seats, which became a three-way race when one of the people who advanced from the primary, Tim Meyer, withdrew from the race. (He still got over 1,000 votes. Not a bad showing, really.) Here, things broke as one might expect in a three-way race: the center-left figure nearest the center of Duluth politics, Terese Tomanek, coasted to victory. Like many winning coalitions in citywide politics, the east side was her base of support. Azrin Awal, meanwhile, was fueled by a strong personal story and DFL institutional power in a DFL city. She ran comfortably into the second seat despite winning only a handful of precincts around UMD and on the lower East Hillside, in neighborhoods often dominated by younger voters. Further to the right, Joe Macor seemed to try to run with the Derek Medved playbook, but he is not the singular figure Medved was two years ago when he ran up unprecedented margins in west side precincts. He still won much of the west side, but finished in a firm third place, and is now 0-for-2 in local elections. We’ll see if the Duluth right finds a new standard-bearer after this inability to break through.

2021 at-large race. Blue: Terese Tomanek; Red: Joe Macor; Green: Azrin Awal

This map is, somehow, nearly a carbon copy of the one from two years ago. Tomanek won pretty much every precinct that Arik Forsman won in 2019, plus the two that Noah Hobbs carried. All of the seats that Awal won were won by Mayou in his losing campaign two years ago. And Macor’s map pretty much maps on to Medved’s. The exceptions: Tomanek won two additional precincts, including 29 in the Denfeld area (won by Medved in 2019) and 15 on the upper hillside (won by Mayou), while Macor won one (23 in the upper Heights) that Forsman won in 2021. But yet, despite basically the same map, the actual results are very different, with the rightward-leaning figure dropping from first to a somewhat distant third, the center-left figure rising from second to first, and the leftward figure going from fourth to second. It goes to show what a unicorn Medved was, and also how a race with only two left-ish candidates (instead of the three in 2019) is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Functionally, I’m not sure this changes things dramatically. Replacing the retiring Zack Filopovich with Awal does move things leftward; her successful and money-flush campaign showed how the DFL has gravitated that way, which is a statewide and national trend, and will certainly be a factor in coming elections. On the flip side, the firmly progressive bloc of the council no longer has Sipress as its commanding presence, and it will be interesting to see how the newcomers, Mayou and Awal, position themselves vis-a-vis figures like Mayor Larson or even councilor Janet Kennedy, who are no one’s real idea of moderates but also not exactly in lockstep with progressive movement politics, either. The center of the council is blurrier than it has been in recent years, which opens up some interesting potential arrangements and makes being able to whip the votes a valuable skill. The mayor herself also has a looming decision on a run at a potential third term, and we also await the results of a redistricting process, which is unlikely to bring major change but could alter some things at the margins. There will be no shortage of intrigue in the coming years.

Eyes on a City

It starts on a night with my Duluth inner circle. I am free, finally, after a frantic work marathon on a major grant application. We gather in a place where we can look out at the steely lake, waves churning outward, this first blast of a late autumn gale whose forbidding force I relish. Drinks turn to dinner, our schemes slowly forming, the trusted friends necessary to make life in a place like this. They share their plots and I spill out my own convoluted thoughts as clearly as I yet have, setting the stage for what may come next. They tell me to trust certain urges, to take command in ways I have not before. Rich and rewarded and renewed, we head on home.

Fresh eyes: a cousin and his wife on a trial run of a camper van life roll through for a few evening hours. They are new to the city, and it puts on its finest show. We traverse Skyline as the sun sinks toward the horizon, that orange glow cast back across the lake, and Duluth feels like it melts into its landscape, my guests glowing over houses clinging to hillsides and eclectic old grandees and the profusion of parks. A quick dinner and they are on their way, Duluth the last true city as they set out to the outposts of civilization of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nature and culture, twinned and in harmony, or so we can make it if we believe.

Elegiac eyes: drinks on a patio with a friend headed south, one of several young talents this city has lost in the past few weeks. The draw it once had is still there, and there may yet be roads that lead back here. But pretty scenery is only worth so much: there are only so many seats, only so many options for a professional with any ambitions. Duluth can be a cruel home in one’s 20s for anyone who doesn’t have the clearest of paths, and particularly hard on those of us looking for creative outlets. It is a great city to come of age in and a great city to settle down in, but it struggles to fuel those of us who are still bridging that gap. I am only a degree removed from him, and there are more than a few days of doubt. After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions and some inspiring bursts outward this year, that urgency has never been stronger. My brain trust tells me to trust that urge. But where, exactly, does it lead?

Prodigal eyes: A high school friend and his wife wonder whether to turn a temporary sojourn into a permanent move. They’re as world-wise a couple as I know, but they find many reasons to be happy here. They try to weigh the value of career pursuit versus other things life, the virtues of Midwest humility against rarefied East Coast circles. We talk through some of the decisions I made, how much my hopes have come to match reality. I am not sure how much help I am, but these are not my choices to make. Not for them, anyway.

The eyes of a believer: On a free weekend day, I head up the North Shore, leaving before dawn. The sun looms behind a thick cloud on the lake as it crawls up over the horizon. Then, just north of Tettegouche, the moment of contact, the Creation of Adam: the sun explodes out above the cloud and its golden glint sears the lake and ignites the golden aspen and birch. I drive through a sea of brilliant luminescence, ridge and water and trees and the heavens above and me in a trance on the road I could drive into eternity. It is the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen.

Later, further north, I tread a familiar path. Deep into a quiet gorge, up to a great rocky peak, punishing rises and falls, a fraction of the people of most great North Shore hikes. I write along the river and beneath a lonely tree protruding from the dome, and on the way back out, I pause to bask in the sunlight in a red pine grove with a view down the river valley to the still-resplendent waters. Back in a bustling Grand Marais I impulse-buy some North Shore sunrise art, if art can indeed capture the total immersion I felt this morning.

Spice-tinged eyes: My Dad and I watch Dune, our first in-person film since before the pandemic. He read the book to me as a kid (yes, this was the sort of book we consumed at bedtime when I was growing up), and we are pleased to see a faithful rendition, weighty and beautiful and perhaps more prescient than ever before. I’d forgotten how much my youthful self fantasized of being a Paul Atreides: entranced by vivid and lifelike dreams, trained into total control, one with his land and his people, hungering for some great destiny. Puberty safely freed me of any messianic aspirations, and adult eyes, better-versed in the Greek tragedies (among many other things) that inspired Frank Herbert, now see the moral ambiguity of this tale. But over these two weeks I’m delighted to feel that pull again.

Familiar eyes: UMD hockey, lively as ever; the MEA Weekend rush, that Minneostan holiday celebrating one last weekend of outdoor activity before the freeze. I do dry cleaning for the first time in eons and slide into a suit for the Duluth Chamber Dinner. There are fewer pre- and after-parties, no more sermons from the preacher of Duluth’s good word, the now-retired David Ross, and after so long without them the rituals of networking and sitting through strings of speakers, the rust comes off slowly. But friends old and new trail through and the bagpipers are still around and there is of course a chance to follow up afterward at Hoops and we are all content.

Watery eyes: On my way up the North Shore I listen to “This Is Water,” the 2005 David Foster Wallace commencement speech at Kenyon College. “We all worship something,” he tells us, and for me at age twenty-two that anchor in a liquid world was not a god nor money nor fame nor a person but a place. It is an unusual lover, austere and uncaring and sometimes exasperating but always here, and at least it is a version of it in motion, not some static memory of the past. A decade later I’m not sure if it was the right object of worship, but I have internalized it now, and though all the other possibilities have bubbled up from time to time, not one of them has yet broken the surface.

I may be ready for one to do so. But in the meantime, this particular bond will still fill my plate. There are elections this week, I have more travels ahead of me, and, after a necessary hiatus, it’s about time to start churning out some hockey content again. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going but I do have some idea of how to get there, these past few weeks offering up a roadmap for what that life looks like. And this place I have chosen as my home, well, may it continue to give me chances to make it real.

Maloney Nights

Bring us all together again, one gentle blur of an evening, a dance played out a hundred times over and yet born anew as it if had never been done before. Wine and craft beer flow freely, our lubricant and our vice; clumps of conversation arise in every corner, and we drift from one spot to the next, life updates and stray jokes, some holding down tables for the party to come to them or others bringing the party with them wherever they go, a small court emerging here, yard games over there, a dance floor emerges whether there is one or not, some cigars in one corner, and of course euchre in full force in another. Before long it is late, very late, and there everyone is in your hotel room, nightcaps and literary talk and deeply honest riffs and a bag of Bugles, obligated to host because your body knows not to waste one second, not one chance to descend down the rabbit hole and tease out some old history, some powerfully held opinion, some source of debate we can all drive at but then step away from again because these ties here are much too thick for it to be any other way.

Somewhere amid it all is a moment of clarity, that fleeting instant when you can at once be fully immersed in the full pageant but also able to step out and see it for all it is. A panoramic photo tries but fails to capture it because it is just life, the action instead of the place that makes this all work, each of us moving on an unseen orbit that brings us in and out of one another’s spheres, enriched a little bit by each passing turn. Escape to your room, recharge for a few minutes, flop on the bed or revisit your canon of choice for the words that give you what you need, that reminder to dive right back into all of this at its fullest, back in spite of it because how could you not. The parties grow loud and raucous but we all take that time, escape into our words or our lyrics or our woods, out from suburban comfort or vivacious city-dwelling to see every corner of what this world has to offer and return armed with stories, regale the rest when we meet again on a brewery patio or in the hotel lobby or just in that quiet corner we are apt to share with a few confidantes, each with our own way of casting off the madness before we dive back in.

In the fall of 2021 we gather in the absence of our matriarch, a generation now lost to us, the effort needed to pull together this sprawling expanse somewhat greater than it used to be, your own generation nearly all now into adult phases of our own with its myriad new responsibilities, gardens to tend to and new lives to grow that spring beyond the confines of the past, but you can’t help but think that the utmost we can gift to the members of a next generation is a chance to live a few of these nights themselves. But in the more immediate realm, well, you may go home exhausted, drained from all of that expense of energy and anxious over looming commitments beyond but you may find that in spite of it all here you are writing freely, your torpor finally broken, and the possibilities that these nights make visible spill out in one quick rush, renewed and ready for new beginnings, the faith that makes it all worth it once again.

Empire State of Mind

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

–Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WRT IV: On the Road Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WRT IV: On and Off the Beaten Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Part 2.