Grand Staircase I: Sinners and Saviors

This is Part One of a three-part series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 is here.

State Tournament Look Back: 2012

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

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

Class AA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class A

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

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

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

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

We Are Who We Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embarrassed

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Duluth Area Cross-Country Skiing Decision Tree

What follows is an incredibly scientific and very carefully curated guide to Duluth area cross-country ski trails.

1. Do you want something unavoidably intense?

If yes, proceed to #2

If no, proceed to #5

2. Do you have a lot of time?

If yes, proceed to #3

If no, proceed to #4

3. Do you prefer constant climbing followed by constant descent, or insidious but varying slopes?

Up then down: Korkki

Beat me up: Mangey-Snively

Korkki

The Korkki trail, located off Homestead Road between Duluth and Two Harbors, is a single loop out and back with cutoffs at various kilometer points. Like Lester Park, it features a steady rise on the outward ski and a steady coast downward on the inbound trail, only it is more intense in this trajectory, and reaches its climax at the far end of the loop, where there are a bunch of aggressive hills. While

Magney-Snively

Magney Snively, located at the far west end of Skyline Parkway, is Duluth’s hipster ski trail. The whole system is marked as intermediate, which weeds out a lot of the amateurs, and while other trails have more daunting individual hills, it is notable for having almost zero flat ground. Everything here is either a climb or a descent, sometimes gradual and sometimes a bit more aggressive. Overlooks from Bardon’s Peak and Ely’s Peak afford views of the St. Louis River, and a connector links into the Spirit Mountain system for the truly ambitious.

4. Do you prefer to fall on your face in front of college students or schoolchildren?

College students: Bagley

Kids: Chester

Bagley Nature Area

The Bagley trail is a brief circuit of a park just off the UMD campus. Half of the loop is weaves up and down a few moderately eventful hills, but they seem tame compared to the other half, which involves an intense climb up Rock Hill followed by a very long, curving descent that is about as demanding a hill as one can find on a Duluth cross-country trail. For an adrenaline rush on a tight timeline, Bagley reliably delivers.

Chester Bowl

Like Bagley, the Chester trails are not long, but they are also even more consistently not easy, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows the terrain along Chester Creek. There is a downhill ski area here for a reason. A merely intermediate loop links the two nasty loops, with the one atop the ski hill being the substantially longer one.

5. Do you enjoy making constant inane loops?

If yes, proceed to #6

If no, proceed to #7

6. What sorts of children’s activities do you like adjacent to your ski trails?

The full gamut of outdoorsy education: Hartley

We are skiing purists here: Snowflake

Hartley Park

Hartley is not an extensive system, but it packs a little of everything into its nook between the Woodland and Hunters Park neighborhoods in Duluth. There’s an easy loop, an intermediate loop, and loop marked difficult largely due to one single hill with a curve at the bottom. The loops can grow a bit numbing, but the red pine ridge atop the intermediate loop has some romance to it in the fading winter light, and for a quick escape that still allows for a little variety, it’s an easy choice.

Snowflake Nordic Center

Like many young Duluth skiers, I learned my trade on the winding trails at Snowflake, the playground of the late local legend George Hovland. I have not been back much since, as it is not on the state ski pass and its trails seem to wind all over before ending up in the same place every time. Still, it has a good variety of stuff to deal with, 40 amusing signs, and the maze-like loops and cutoffs can add a new element.

7. Are you trying to get away from other people?

If yes, proceed to #8

If no, proceed to #10

8. Do you want to become an insufferable convert who only gushes about one single trail?

If yes: Northwoods

If no, proceed to #9

Northwoods

I will not pretend to be unbiased. Northwoods in Silver Bay is about a half hour extra drive from Duluth than anything else on this list, but it is here for a reason: it is hands-down the best trail I know, the crown jewel of northeast Minnesota ski trails. This single-track, classic-only network begins through thick balsams and traces the banks of the Beaver River in its early stages. The options only open up from there. First, just past a marshy meadow on the Beaver, the Palisade Valley connector splits off into the heart of Tettogouche State Park; often ungroomed, it tumbles up and down along creeks and between cliffs in pure solitude. There is the daunting climb up Herringbone Hill, and a separate, challenging overlook with views in three directions. To top it all off, there is a trail out to the floor of Bean Lake, one of the most photographed lakes in Minnesota in its cliff-lined hole, only with none of the crowds that flock to its hiking trail in warmer months. Its highlights take some commitment, but a novice with some endurance can reach Bean with no problem, and it’s possible to have a sedate ski here, too. It is perfection.

9. What is your preferred form of intimacy?

Surrounded by looming trees: Biskey Ponds

An open path lit by lanterns: Erkki Harju

Biskey Ponds

Fredenberg Township’s Biskey system may not have the full array of physical features of Northwoods, but for single-track intimacy and some trails that are fun but never brutal, it’s hard to do better in the Duluth area. There’s a pleasant enough easy loop, but the winding intermediate trails, aptly named for the white pines and birches lining them, are lovely. The Eagle Hill trail is the real gem here, as it climbs to a view over the Beaver River before a long but fun plunge down the opposite side.

Erkki Harju Trail

Erkki Harju sits on the edge of Two Harbors up Highway 2 and winds in and out of its golf course and some woods beyond. It has a couple of offshoots for added hill fun, and though at no point is the main loop overly technical, it does have a few long, steady cruises downhill that can be deceptively adventurous in the right conditions. Where this trail really shines is at night, when a 3 km loop is lit up by little lanterns on 3-foot poles. Give me this sort of inviting trail over the overhead lampposts on most lit ski trails any day.

10. Do you require the occasional lit evening ski?

If yes, proceed to #11

If no, proceed to #12

11. Do you prefer to commune with cakeaters or tourists?

Cakeaters: Lester Park

Tourists: Spirit Mountain

Lester-Amity

This East Duluth network is the second-largest of the city trails, and I’d claim it as my home course, having grown up within walking distance. The first half of your ski is a very gradual but quietly tiring climb upward, and the second half is a steady coast all the way back. Because of the elevation, the main loop asks a bit more of skiers than other supposedly easy circuits, and one can continue to add more and more loops as one heads north, both mainline intermediates that tack on the distance and some more demanding side hills for those who enjoy them. It can also be very pretty as it rolls along between the Lester River and Amity Creek, with the Lester D loop being its finest stretch. Get there early after a snowfall, though: it gets busy and it doesn’t take long for people to obliterate the tracks, and its users seem unreasonably fond of going the wrong way on a one-way trail. The good news: the further back one goes, the more the crowds dissipate.

Spirit Mountain/Grand Avenue Nordic Center

The longest system in Duluth has something for everyone. A bunch of easy loops putter around the top of the ski hill by Skyline Parkway, and a longer intermediate loop swings further afield, even providing a connector trail to Magney-Snively for the truly committed. It also has the longest difficult-rated trail anywhere in the area, at least among those using the standard classification system. I will confess to being an infrequent user for no easily discernable reason, but I have no reason not to recommend it, either.

12. Might your ambitions extend beyond one 5K loop?

If yes, Boulder Lake

If no, Piedmont

Boulder Lake

This Minnesota Power-run system located just beyond Island Lake is a solid trail with wide-ranging offerings. The four connected loops on the south side of the lake are forgiving, the only slight exception being some tight turns on Nine Pine’s hills. A connector across an arm of Boulder Lake takes one to a different world, with a climb up to the Ridge Runner, which runs along an esker and offers two equally worrying downhill options at its far end. Taking the northern route will connect one to the lovely, pine-lined Otter Run. (Why don’t more systems give their trails fun names the way Boulder does?) Bonuses include a bunch of interpretive signs and some campsites along the Bear Paw trail.

Piedmont

Piedmont is comparable to Hartley in its scope: an easy loop, an intermediate loop with some pretty scenery, and one difficult side loop notable for one particularly nasty big hill. The Evel Knevel hill at the back end of the intermediate loop can be challenging in the right conditions, though there is a cutoff, and its easy loop has a decent introduction to a hill with a curve on it. Amusing signs dot the route to liven things up, and there is a good overlook down over the city. Be prepared for the parking lot to overflow.

Yes, yes, I know Superior has a decent course, too, and there are good options at Pine Valley in Cloquet and at some of the local state parks. There is some lovely stuff up the Shore and on the Range, too. This post may grow with time as I venture further out.

My Year of Imaginary Thinking

Travel is useful; it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.

Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (lifted from the credits of La Grande Bellezza)

I began 2021 with the particular belief of a convert to a new faith. It was hard not to, since I started it by diving into a pool at a mountaintop estate on a Caribbean island, my crash into its depths a burst through the din of jungle fauna and steel drum bands echoing in the distance. A couple months later, I received my second stab of Moderna and penned what I hoped would be a victory essay over the virus that had disrupted the previous year of life. I had grand travel plans, I would see family again, work would move away from the misery of Zoom, and I would find undying love.

I wasn’t so naïve as to think it would be that easy, which is good, because it wasn’t. New variants surged, a dream of optimism curdled into an air of mystery, the general malaise lingered, and while I generally went about my life, the world did not. I certainly have no judgment for those who continued to take strong precautions for various reasons and would always work to reach their levels if need be. But to sacrifice any more of my rapidly dwindling youth to a climate of fear that was unlikely to afflict me in any serious way seemed a high price to pay, and trying to negotiate a world in which everyone was on a different page on this issue added another layer of complexity. To be a conscientious friend in 2021 was to live in a state of hyper-aware caution, and the escape of obstinacy grew ever more attractive.

I proceed with family and friends more or less as I did before the pandemic, but my social circles have not grown much, and arranging anything with anyone feels like a considerably larger chore than it used to, the serendipity of stray days together now a rare occurrence. My friend group is a busy one, and a lot of them have been pairing off and reproducing while I have not, a divergence that both keeps them occupied and is wont to drive me to brood. I field questions about my house as if contemplating the excitement of a new garage door is a comparable life step to having a child. For that matter, I have been traveling too much and too caught up in my day job when I am home to get around to acquiring the garage door.

The year took its tolls. I lost a grandmother, an aunt, and a cousin, and endured a funerary marathon for all three of them over one week in July. Somehow, this was not the most draining stretch of family time in 2021; that dubious accolade instead goes to a visit, two weeks later, to the other side of my family, on which I will not elaborate much out of respect for my relatives except to say that no human should ever be allowed to own more than three cats. The less weighty but still disruptive milestones mounted: in the hockey world, a man who was an ordering principle for my drive in life lost his job, a complex but significant era drawn to a close; at work, my colleagues and I were too good at our jobs, in short order overwhelmed by requests for help and pushed to the brink by a taxing schedule, a herd of Sisyphean retrievers forever chasing the ball. It took me until some time after that to see that I was slipping into those same dragging tendencies that had annoyed me about the rest of the world, and another period of time after that to correct course.

I sought my freedom from days of exhaustion and low-grade dread through bursts out into different worlds. It started in the Virgin Islands, made its way to some wilderness retreats in my own backyard, wound its way through another grand western road trip, and popped off to New York and St. Louis and Tucson for punchy weekends. I kept the pace going right up until the end: a week of professional development in Minneapolis featured not only full days of classes, but a different form of scheduled programming each evening as I caught up with family and friends, then topped the whole thing off with a 48-hour jaunt to Chicago for the Christmas party that, every year, manages to put every other party I attend to shame.

All this travel is dangerous. At times it makes me ponder other realities, roads not taken and potentialities looming within a kid who is still capable of quite a bit when he puts his mind to it. I come home from these trips a jumbled mess, always in need of recovery, at once enlivened and invigorated and yet sapped by long hours on the road and disappointed by the return to routine and possessed of a poorly directed energy. The magic does not necessarily last. But how I lived on these trips: sweating up slopes and treading blissful waters, fine dining and good drinks, revelry till the end of the night in the presence of delightful people who, consciously or unconsciously, understand what I mean when I quote Joan Didion and say I want not a window on the world but the world itself.

Didion has been my muse for pandemic era reckoning, and 2021 delivered one final blow when it stole her away this past week. Her death saddened me as much as that of any person I never met in the flesh. No contemporary writer had a greater influence on how I think about the art of prose, or gave me a better sense of how to frame my view of the world. Didion learned to write by copying down Hemingway sentences, and I have learned to write by copying down Didion sentences. An essayist adoring Didion is about as original as a classical music buff lauding Beethoven or a hockey person saying there’s something worth emulating in that Gretzky dude, but sometimes greatness is so plainly obvious, so transcendent of subjective standards, that it can stand up even amid the rush of cliches that inevitably pursue it like fame-hungry paparazzi.

It was amid the rush of Didion homages, all consumed breathlessly this past week, that I realized that what sustained me through 2021 was not the travel itself but the opportunities the travel gave me to write. “Her work was her own answer to the question of what writing and living is for. It ought to be ours, too,” wrote Nathan Heller in a New Yorker obituary. There is no personal crisis I cannot resolve, no looming burden I cannot overcome, by taking a moment to jot it into one of several notebooks or clattering away at a keyboard. The act itself, whether it resolves into a single flowing tale or disjointed marginalia, is enough. Through it, I am made whole at the end of every day, and increasingly in the middle of days when I need reminders to escape the tunnel of the mundane.

From a mesmerized gaze at waves on a beach to the solemn donning of a funeral suit, from the hubbub of a brewing party to curling up with some essays as a wintry wind howls outside, here is to the power of the written word. Here is to their power not to exact immediate results but to create the pieces by which, over time, a new idea can assemble itself, word by word and line by agonized line of authorial reflection and search for just the right turn of phrase. The words may or may not capture my reality in full, but that was never the goal. The goal was to change it.

MN HS Boys’ AA Rankings: 12/26/21

Due to an outage on the USHSHO forum, these rankings are appearing on here this week. They’ll get posted on the forum when it’s functioning again, but I know you’re all waiting…

A short week makes for relatively short work in the rankings world. I suspect we will not be able to say the same thing next week, as there’s a lot of good hockey on the schedule here. By request, I’ve added teams’ rankings from last week to the first line here, too.

1. Lakeville South (7-0) LW: 2

-I don’t love this, given the Cougars’ relative lack of competition, but they are winning by comfortable margins in games they should win. We’ll see if we can get another #1 who only lasts a week, as they now load up for some real battles on their hands: first against Maple Grove and quietly solid Stillwater in St. Louis Park, then a New Year’s Day 1-vs.-2 bowl game.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. #8 Maple Grove, Wed vs. Stillwater, Thurs vs. Holy Family; Sat at #2 Edina

2. Edina (6-1) LW: 3

-The Hornets were idle this past week, and have a fascinating Hockey for Life draw, taking on three of the most underperforming teams in AA to date. Does that make for easy pickings for the Hornets, or do some of these teams, hungry to prove their critics wrong, rise to the occasion? And then, of course, they follow it all up with Lakeville South. A juicy week, to say the least.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. Moorhead, Wed vs. Prior Lake, Thurs vs. #13 St. Thomas Academy; Sat vs. #1 Lakeville South

3. Andover (7-1-1) LW: 4

-The Huskies machined through a pair of 7AA opponents, shutting out Duluth East and Blaine and cementing their top spot in the section. It’s hard to critique much about how they’re playing right now, and they’ll be put to the test in Bloomington with a couple of huge games.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. #5 Cretin-Derham Hall, Wed vs. #6 Hill-Murray, Thurs vs. Rosemount

4. Roseau (8-1) LW: 5

-The Rams just keep rolling. As usual, their own holiday tournament doesn’t bring quite the competition of the big metro battles, but having to solve Mahtomedi will be a different sort of test than what they’ve had to do lately.

This week: Roseau Holiday Classic—Tues vs. St. Louis Park, Wed vs. Mahtomedi, Thurs vs. Minot (ND)

5. Cretin-Derham Hall (6-2) LW: 1

-The good news: the Raiders took down the top team in either class (albeit down a Plante), proving they certainly have the stuff to win the whole thing. The bad: they have to win their section to do that, and two losses to St. Thomas do raise some doubts for a program that needs to find its way in the playoffs. The Andover clash this week will say a lot for their positioning in these rankings, and Rosemount isn’t a free pass, either.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. #3 Andover, Wed vs. Rosemount, Thurs vs. Champlin Park

6. Hill-Murray (6-2) LW: 6

-The Pioneers didn’t put to rest any question over the direction of 4AA with a narrow win over White Bear, but they won the game nonetheless, and are in command of the race for the top seed—a position that suddenly makes it look like they might get Gentry Academy in the semifinals, not the finals. Andover is the big headliner this coming week, and we’ll see if they can show some offensive ability, which has been hit-or-miss so far.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. Rosemount, Wed vs. #3 Andover, Thurs vs. Cloquet

7. Wayzata (4-3-1) LW: 7

-The Trojans marched past Eden Prairie, further solidifying their top ten standing. They have a relatively easy draw in St. Louis Park, with no ranked teams, though their opponents are respectable enough that they could sneak past them if there’s an offensive power outage.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. Holy Family, Wed vs. St. Michael-Albertville, Thurs vs. Rogers

8. Maple Grove (5-2-1) LW: 8

-No action for the Crimson this past week; I’m still waiting for a better read on this team. To that end, they have a pretty interesting draw in St. Louis Park, as they seek to turn the tables on last season’s loss to Lakeville South when they were ranked #1, get a potent Benilde team, and get a potential trap against STMA after all of that.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. #2 Lakeville South, Wed vs. #9 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Thurs vs. St. Michael-Albertville

9. Benilde-St. Margaret’s (4-4) LW: 9

-Handled Holy Family, which does nothing to change their status here. The Maple Grove game is the headliner this coming week, though none of their opponents are pushovers.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. Rogers, Wed vs. #8 Maple Grove, Thurs vs. Stillwater

10. Centennial (5-1) LW: 11

-The Cougars keep quietly sneaking up the table with consistently good, though not eye-popping, results, most recently a solid win over respectable Rosemount. Unfortunately, their Bloomington draw isn’t going to give us much of a better sense of where they stand.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. Champlin Park, Wed vs. Cloquet, Thurs vs. Blake

11. Grand Rapids (8-3) LW: 12

-The Thunderhawks rolled past Cloquet and saw their game against Denfeld get wiped out. Having played more games than most, they now enter a relative lull in the schedule, but the game this week is certainly one worthy of some attention.

This week: Wed at Minnetonka

12. Chaska (7-1) LW: 14

-The Hawks blitzed a decent Shakopee team, which isn’t a bad sign. They’ve got a couple of quality opponents in their Hockey for Life draw, which will be pretty important from a ranking perspective, as their games against top 25 teams are minimal after this. The Eden Prairie game could well make or break their 2AA seeding fate.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. Totino-Grace, Wed vs. #14 Eden Prairie, Thurs vs. Lakeville North

13. St. Thomas Academy (4-4) LW: NR

-Following a brief hiatus, the Cadets return to the top 15 with a second win over Cretin. They do need to beat someone else of consequence to stay here, and fortunately for them, a very tough Hockey for Life slate gives them just the chance to do that.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. #14 Eden Prairie, Wed vs. Moorhead, Thurs vs. #2 Edina

14. Eden Prairie (4-4) LW: 15

-The Eagles failed to build on their big win over Edina with a loss against Wayzata, and the question now becomes whether that was a sign of their potential or merely a rivalry high-water mark. Games with a couple of teams right above them here should help give us an answer.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. #13 St. Thomas Academy, Wed vs. #12 Chaska, Thurs vs. Totino-Grace

15. Eastview (6-2) LW: NR

-I don’t know if this lasts, but for the moment, I think this is warranted: the Lightning’s two losses are to Lakeville South and Centennial, and they have two legitimate quality wins over Prior Lake and St. Thomas, so they deserve some recognition. They’ve got a decent chance of sticking for at least one more week, if only because they don’t play again until January 4.

This week: Idle

The Next Ten

Moorhead (5-5)

-The Spuds pulled out a vital one-goal win over St. Michael-Albertville, which they needed for section seeding purposes. They remain a mystery team, and have a chance to really make an impression against a Hockey for Life lineup including Edina, St. Thomas, and Prior Lake.

Stillwater (5-1)

-A win over Mahtomedi, while not earth-shattering, is a nice pickup for the Ponies. STMA, Lakeville South, and Benilde make for a pretty tough trio of games in St. Louis Park.

Elk River (6-4)

-Beat Anoka in their only action this past week, and should do the same to Brainerd this week. In very good shape for a top-3 seed in 8AA following Moorhead’s win over STMA.

St. Michael-Albertville (5-2)

-Fell to Moorhead, but looked plenty competitive in the process. They’re in St. Louis Park this week for a tough run against Stillwater, Wayzata, and Maple Grove.

Prior Lake (4-3)

-The Lakers found some life with the return of Sam Rice and a win over Minnetonka. From a rankings perspective, it’s only a first step in undoing the damage of the first month of the season, but it’ll be easier to forget that with a good showing against a pretty decent Hockey for Life slate including Lakeville North, Edina, and Moorhead.

Minnetonka (6-3-1)

-The Skippers failed to build on the previous week’s momentum, losing to Prior Lake and tying Chanhassen. Is this team a real contender, or just one of a jumble in a deep 2AA? This week’s Grand Rapids game will offer some clues.

Lakeville North (3-2)

-Plodded along with a win over Apple Valley. Games with Prior Lake and Chaska this week will tell us a lot more about this group.

Gentry Academy (6-1)

-I doubt I’ve ever dropped a team that won both its games in its week as aggressively as this. The Stars left a lot of question marks in a narrow win over Greenway, and with a couple of those very sketchy results now coupled with zero quality wins against Minnesota competition, it’s just hard to justify a high ranking here. Their game with Alexandria this week could be an interesting one.

Blaine (3-3-2)

-Got shut out by Andover, leaving a tenuous hold on a spot here propped up by that Maple Grove tie. The week ahead is a big one for seeding in their new section as they face off against Forest Lake and Duluth East.

Chanhassen (4-2-1)

-The Storm, after a tie with Minnetonka, win the straw draw for the final spot and make their first ever appearance in this top 25. They have some sort of two-game thing in Shakopee this week in which they play Tartan and the host Sabers.

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.