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The Arsenal of Democracy

19 Sep

The Joe Biden campaign decamped on Duluth, Minnesota yesterday. Through an amusing series of rumor mill connections with its origins in the State Patrol, a few friends and I found ourselves on the patio of a café named Amazing Grace for the former vice president’s “spontaneous” appearance in the center of the city’s bustling Canal Park tourist district. I had my share of chances to brush up against political figures of all stripes in my DC days, so to see this scene from my dreamy college years dropped into my beloved backwater hometown was at once both familiar and surreal. It matched the mood of Biden’s presidential campaign, both a predictable capstone decades in the making and warped by the twisted house of horrors that is 2020. Reality slows down for no one.

Any sympathetic skeptics looking to find some inspiration in Biden’s slow-but-steady campaign for the presidency can now find it from an unlikely source: George Packer, the elegist of the broken American Dream. In “Make America Again,” published in the October edition of the Atlantic, he finds an unexpected hero who could just become the most consequential president since Reagan. Biden’s campaign, Packer says, “is not the stirring language of a visionary leader, or the doctrinaire rhetoric of an ideologue. It’s the prosaic talk of a career politician shrewd enough to realize that he might have greatness thrust upon him.”

In 2016, my sense was that Biden, not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, was the most viable Democratic standard-bearer that year, the one person who could perhaps hold on to a fading part of the Democratic coalition that would prove pivotal in that year’s race. Clinton seemed too much a creature of the establishment, too devoid of charisma, to retain that demographic; I also didn’t quite buy the notion peddled at the time that an aging socialist would somehow speak to them, a position that the 2020 primary results seemed to vindicate. Biden chose not to run for both personal and political reasons, and we all saw what happened.

That confidence in Uncle Joe did not, in my mind, extend to the early primary season in the 2020 cycle. At 77, he seemed like a figure past his time, and he certainly looked it in the primary debates. The early Biden campaign seemed like a giant collective shrug, an effort that coasted on name recognition, vague Obama era good vibes, and the more acute weaknesses of some of his rivals. Just as his early pitch for the presidency was based on sketchy year-out polls that labeled him the most viable not-Trump, his ultimate triumph in the primary was by virtue of being the most viable not-Bernie. Unlike the Republicans in 2016, the Democrats showed off their institutional discipline and rallied behind their old vice president, a lowest common denominator that promised stability and maybe a few more of those white working-class votes in those crucial swing states. A van emblazoned with “Settle for Biden!” made its way up and down the streets of Canal Park on Friday afternoon.

The world has changed since Biden sewed up the nomination in early March, but in many ways, he is still an awkward fit for the moment. He is an old white man in an era when the Democratic Party spends most of its time celebrating racial and ethnic and gender diversity, a man who has spent the past 50 years in the swamp that both Trump and the rising left both claim to disdain. His age complicates campaigning during a pandemic. His handsiness and glad-handing are at best relics of a different era. There’s a legitimate concern that he will look at the Senate as the collegial institution it was in his early years, and not the bitterly partisan roadblock it has become since he left it, which could doom any legislative agenda. His well-cultivated image as a Scranton streetfighter squares awkwardly with the sprawling estate whose basement has been the base of operations for his campaign.

Biden, however, has two great strengths as a politician. First, he is adaptable, always responding to the tides; whether that makes him an opportunist or a careful listener who has his finger on the pulse of a nation is in the eye of the beholder, but because he isn’t beholden to any real platform, he can go wherever conditions lead him. Second, he knows what loss is, and is at his best when he speaks in raw, moving terms about it. In a time of death and plague, that knowledge of what it takes to overcome pain gives him an added gravitas. Watching his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, I remembered why I thought he could be the unifying force in 2016, and sure enough, pretty much everyone I know on the left is along for the ride, however begrudgingly. The internal warfare that plagued the 2016 campaign has been consigned to the sidelines, and the policy disputes that defined the primary race seem like quaint arguments of a different era. This is not a policy election. It is, as Biden has said from the start, the struggle for the soul of a nation.

As Packer notes, rarely have past great figures been perfect fits for their times. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were scions of old East Coast wealth who did more to break up concentrated wealth and build an inclusive economy than anyone in American history. Lyndon Johnson was a political creature with considerable, obvious flaws, but he also rode a moment of upheaval for long enough to ram through the most consequential legislative agenda of the postwar era. Just as Johnson followed the inspiring but ultimately rather tumultuous and technocratic Kennedy years, Biden could be the one who makes the promise of the Obama era real. Sometimes the people who know a system best are most able to change its trajectory.

I have frequently expressed exhaustion with Democrats’ efforts to resurrect the New Deal every time they try to roll out a semi-ambitious platform. Franklin Roosevelt’s effort, as Packer deftly notes, succeeded not because of the strength of its ideas, but because he found himself in a position of considerable power and had a mandate to test out an array of tools in a moment of crisis, some of which worked and stuck. Milton Friedman, of all people, understood this best: crises are the only times when real change happens, and “when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

After a momentary feint in the New Deal direction, the Biden campaign seems to have recognized this. Biden’s policies listed on his website aren’t what matter; what matter are the myriad ideas with popular support that have germinated in response to ongoing American crises over the past decade or two, and the possibility that we just might have a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a very narrowly Democratic Senate that is willing to kill the filibuster and go all in. This, at least, is Packer’s hope. It is a rare optimistic take from him, the “last best chance” of an effort to restore something resembling a participatory democracy.

My own sense is that reality lies somewhere between the declinist picture Packer has painted so strikingly in his writing over the past 15 years and the tired but sustainable decadence diagnosed by the likes of Ross Douthat. When I read Douthat’s book I agreed with his diagnosis of Trump era white nationalism as right-wing cosplay, and I’m intrigued by an argument advanced by Bruno Maçães in an upcoming book, History Has Begun (excerpted in New York magazine here) that the Trump era is just a drift of politics into virtual reality; not that it doesn’t have real-world consequences, but Trump is an entertainer using politics to peddle his product, delighting his fans by owning the libs instead of enacting any serious policy. (And, lest it sound like we’re blaming one side of the spectrum exclusively for this drift, a left that settles solely for social media activism and reading Robin DiAngelo probably isn’t much different.) “America is not poised to become a place like Russia or Iran, but rather is mirroring a television show about a place becoming like Russia or Iran,” Maçães concludes. We are all caught up in a performative charade.

This seems true up to a point, and we are right to ask questions about the implications of our increasingly virtual future. But the more people live out a fantasy world, the more the lines will blur, and the greater the risk that people will actually believe their roles in this fantasy are reality. People will accept their typecast roles in this left-versus-right squabble, and the slow burn in the streets of American cities of this summer will turn into a low-grade, steady war in which more and more people die. There is no fantasy in death.

Joe Biden, of course, knows death. He also recognizes that the country needs to mobilize, with World War Two as a better analogue for the effort necessary than the New Deal. Maçães rightly diagnoses the long-running weakness of Western liberalism: its lack of muscle, its contentedness with thinking that giving people health care and a base level of material wealth will fill the hole in the American soul. It’s a start, of course; far better than many alternatives. But it will never fulfill the more aspirational corners human psyche. The answer is not a march in the streets (though they can help) but a government led by the Scranton streetfighter that Biden purports to be, a potential lurch back to reality from a figure who has no desire to inhabit Trump’s world of performance as politics.

As he left Amazing Grace on Friday afternoon, Biden made his way over to the two hecklers in MAGA hats on the edge of the crowd. Told to stay put by the Secret Service, my friends and I couldn’t hear what he said. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, however, captured the moment: “Biden approached the man from the alternate reality, elbow bumped him, chuckled and assured him that if he does win, Biden would work for him, too.” It shouldn’t be refreshing to hear a presidential candidate aspire to be on the side of people who disagree with him, but this is where we are.

I don’t know if Joe Biden will be the transformational figure George Packer imagines he can be. Even if he wins in November, even if the United States pulls through this election without disputed results and violence in the streets, he’ll face a forbidding and sclerotic political environment. He could go down as a strange detour, a last gasp of a fading old order—just like Trump, from a different part of the political spectrum. But if—if—there is a way out of this troubling lurch in American democracy, it will most likely start in a basement in Delaware, and in the minds of enough Americans who see a pause in the performance as a worthy endeavor.

Democratic Coalition Politics

10 Sep

While this blog normally tries to avoid national politics, it is something I spent a fair amount of time thinking about, and as we draw closer to November, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. I confess I check 538 polling averages daily now. But, rather than wallow in poll numbers, I figured I might as well try to offer somewhat original commentary now and then. Here is my first take in that vein.

This past weekend, I stumbled upon an article in Jacobin on the successes and failures of Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency that took me back to my undergraduate days of writing theses about coalition politics. True to its name, Jacobin rather gleefully lobs bombs at people who do not share its ideology, as author Matt Karp calls wealthier newcomers to the Democratic Party “Halliburton Democrats,” among other such indecorous ordnance. His thesis, in brief, is that these so-called Halliburton Democrats joined the party in droves from 2016 to 2020 as they fled the Republican Party, and therefore played a decisive role in Sanders’ defeat in this spring’s primary. Joe Biden won, Karp claims, because he enjoyed the support of well-off people, many of them in areas that were right-leaning until very recently.

The Democratic Divide, Applied

I could raise any number of quibbles with the analysis, but I was curious to see how well it applied to my hometown of Duluth, especially since Karp twice mentions my city as an exemplar of Bernie Sanders’ wave of the future. Sanders did indeed win Duluth in the 2020 Minnesota primary election, though it was hardly an overwhelming margin; he edged out Biden by 289 votes, or 1.7 percent. So, here is a map that shows who won each precinct in the city (plus some surrounding areas). I included only the four major candidates who were still in the race at this point in the analysis, throwing out votes for drop-outs like Amy Klobuchar and hangers-on like Tulsi Gabbard.

The answer, it seems, is pretty obvious. Income is a straightforward, clear predictor of who won each precinct. Biden largely cruised up in the relatively well-off areas on the east side and over the hill, while Sanders dominated the Hillsides, Downtown, and Lincoln Park. Few of those areas were closely contested, and those precincts that were straddle neighborhood lines; see, for example, precincts 9 and 13, which encompass parts of both high-income Congdon and low-income Endion. The more working-class west side, which mostly falls between the central and eastern and hilltop parts of the city on the income scale, was, on the other hand, pretty closely contested. The tables below show the results by different areas of the city, and I did it twice to show how flipping two pro-Sanders precincts on the border between the east and the center of the city affected things.

The University of Minnesota-Duluth campus is also an obvious outlier. Sanders won there by over 400 votes; throw out that precinct, and it’s more than enough to swing the overall result in the city. Presumably the somewhat close vote totals in Kenwood and Hunters Park, which are otherwise relatively affluent Biden territories, are also attributable to college student voters. Duluth’s status as a college town, at the end of the day, is probably the main reason why it got a positive mention in a leftist magazine. Duluth’s relative lack of Black voters may also tip it more toward the Sanders column than might otherwise be obvious, though this could be offset by Sanders’ strong margins among Hispanics, who are also few and far between in the Zenith City.

Duluth Gets Bluer

While I’m amused by the notion of Lakeside bungalow-dwellers as “Halliburton Democrats,” it does seem Karp is on to something. (More so than Rolling Stone was, anyway.) Duluth has been a Democratic stronghold since the demise of the Hoover administration, but one doesn’t have to go too far back in history to find a much more heterodox local political scene. As several people have noted to me, it wasn’t that long ago that east side council districts would elect relative conservatives like Todd Fedora to the city council. Now, that prospect seems remote. Perhaps equally as significant a shift is the leftward drift in places like Duluth Heights and Piedmont. While these quasi-suburban areas are still the most conservative parts of Duluth, a city council district that was electing straight-up conservatives like Garry Krause a decade ago now has a labor-endorsed Native American woman, Renee Van Nett, as its council representative. The data is a bit scattershot—sadly, Minnesota used a caucus system until this most recent election cycle, making apples-to-apples primary comparisons impossible—but it seems consistent.

Relatively well-off urbanites are more and more firmly in the column in the Democratic Party, and while Bernie Sanders and his ilk may not be their first choice, they will generally follow the party lead. There’s little reason to suspect there will be much of any defection from a dyed-in-the-wool progressive like Jen McEwen when she goes up against Republican Donna Bergstrom in the Senate District 7 race this fall. Her primary election destruction of incumbent Erik Simonson, a man in the mold of many previous Duluth DFL elected officials, makes that abundantly clear.

That said, the national picture is obviously not all roses for the Democrats, and wins among higher-income people have been somewhat offset elsewhere. The sorts of people the Democratic Party has lost—rural white people—are almost by definition a small demographic in Duluth, which is why Duluth’s politics now seem more firmly left of center than they did twenty or thirty years ago, when Gary Doty (recently visible on a stage with Mike Pence) was winning mayoral elections. I included Duluth’s relatively well-off exurban surroundings in the map as well to show that this trend extends beyond the core city, too. Lands further afield, such as the Iron Range, are a rather different story.

A National Trend

In some ways this is hardly a radical change. It’s been true for decades now that central cities are the furthest left, while rural areas (with some, increasingly rare) exceptions were the furthest right. The suburbs used to be the middle ground, but the line of contestation has now pushed further out into the metropolitan periphery; these Democratic suburban gains have been offset somewhat by rural losses. This shift among well-off urbanites reflects their comfort with the party that now favors merit-driven expertise and wonky policy solutions, plus the surge of a college-educated class seeking to spread its more cosmopolitan cultural values.

Nor has their arrival dramatically changed the ideological composition of the party. Despite what Karp says, Biden is no less progressive than every other recent Democratic nominee, and in some ways is more so. This comes as little comfort to the leftward wing of the party, which of course wants more immediate change and someone who isn’t tied into the party’s establishment over the past 50 years, but it wouldn’t be right to suggest Biden primary voters have somehow stolen the party away from its roots. The loss of rural, somewhat more populist centrists has been offset by suburban, more technocratic centrists. Or, perhaps more than offset: given the Democratic Party’s performance nationally in the 70s and 80s and the simple reality of demographic trends, this seems like a trade-off with more pluses than minuses if one’s only goal is to win more elections.

I’m doing my best not to make any normative assumptions here and just describe things as they are. It’s not nearly as clean as this narrative would suggest, as 2016 showed; reactions can be swift and powerful, and it’s not hard to call out hubris or naivete in the so-called coalition of the ascendant. Thinking only in terms of voting blocs can be narrow-minded, and there are real consequences to leaving behind any sort of rhetoric appealing to a group that had previously been part of the coalition. (In Minnesota, just ask the Iron Range.) For now, we’ll settle for the conclusion that there are indeed at least two pretty distinct types of Democrat, one which does well in higher-income areas and one that does well in lower-income areas. The interplay between these camps will continue to define the Democratic Party even as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fade away.

The Realities of Coalition Politics

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has observed that, in a European country, she and Joe Biden would be in different parties. She’s probably right, and while they too have their drawbacks, I would generally endorse proportional and parliamentary systems as more effective than the lumbering hulk the U.S. uses. But that’s not the system we have. We have a two-party, winner-take-all system that features some additional, bizarre, anti-democratic bugs like the Electoral College that privilege the votes of people in a handful of vital demographics in swing states. This system creates odd zombie coalitions in our two zombie parties. For a long time, segregationist southerners aligned with working-class northerners and a few intellectual backers to create a Democratic majority; later, the religious right fused with chamber of commerce-minded fiscal conservatives to create an era of Republican dominance. So long as it maintains its current institutional form, American politics will create some very strange bedfellows. Hence we have the coalition of comfortable suburbanites with an expansive version of their American Dream and a generally diverse and younger bloc that considers American capitalism fundamentally alienating, and it doesn’t even seem that unnatural, as they are united in negative partisanship against Donald Trump.

And so, though faced with serious institutional roadblocks such as the Electoral College and over-concentration in urban congressional districts, the Democrats seem to have a passably stable majority. No matter what happens in the Electoral College, Biden will almost certainly be the seventh Democratic candidate in the past eight presidential elections to win the popular vote, and the generic congressional ballot seems similarly aligned. The new Democratic fusion won’t be a permanent or tension-free alignment, but these groups have enough in common right now that they vote together regularly. Their opposition has, at least temporarily, become a vehicle for a single person’s whims, the traditional fiscal conservatism thrown out the door and the morals of the religious right mortgaged in a bargain for a few judges.

The power of a single personality can certainly win an election or two and define a brief era in politics. But winning with any consistency in a democracy requires large, often unwieldy coalitions. Even if the U.S. had a parliamentary system and Ocasio-Cortez and Biden were in different parties, they would still probably end up in a coalition government together, unless Biden’s party were to instead form a coalition government with a center-right party, which I doubt AOC and friends would find an optimal outcome. Alternatively, we have seen a few European attempts at far right and far left coalition governments that leave out the supposedly discredited and decadent center, but that’s nearly impossible to imagine in the United States given the racial dynamics at play.

Karp is confident that, given Sanders’ strong support among younger voters, it’s only a matter of time before his camp takes over the Democratic Party. I don’t doubt that this group has reason to feel optimistic about its future in the party, and another four years of Donald Trump could well be the accelerant that prompts a revolution sooner rather than later. (An old JFK line, written of Third World nations, comes to mind in an increasingly stratified society: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”) But coalitions can be fickle things, and groups can realign in strange ways: just ask any current Republican who, eight years ago, thought his or her party was a bastion of fiscal conservatism or free trade or an interventionist foreign policy. The U.S. election system is also designed to revert to a mean, with no permanent majority lasting forever. But for the time being, Biden Democrats and Sanders Democrats are wedded to one another, and have to find ways to coexist if they would like to win anything.

Exit John Thompson, Jr.

2 Sep

In sports, we often use words like ‘iconic’ or ‘monumental’ to describe people whose job it is to direct the athletic feats of others. We claim they have influences over society beyond their courts or fields or rinks, which can be a reach. But there are rare figures who earn every one of those accolades, and who use their tenures to do a lot more than pile up a few victories. Former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson, Jr., who passed away this past week, was one of them.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Thompson was an exceptional coach who built a prestigious, small Jesuit school into one of the nation’s greatest basketball powers. He made three Final Fours and won one, in 1984, before winding up in the Hall of Fame. He made the Hoyas into Big Man U, coaching superstars like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, plus a little Allen Iverson for good measure. His teams won, and they won with style.

Thompson was a trailblazer, the first African-American coach to win a national championship, though don’t tell him that: he scoffed at the notion that he deserved any special recognition for achieving something that wouldn’t have been revolutionary in a just society. He was unapologetically Black and recruited so many Black players that the casual fan could be forgiven for mistaking stodgy old Georgetown for a Historically Black College or University. (Thompson likened his recruiting efforts to that of the hockey team at his alma mater, Providence University, which exclusively recruited Canadians: why not go back to the same well if you knew that was where the talent and hunger was?) He was decades ahead of polite society on questions of racial justice and bore his share of abuse for it, once pulling his team off the court at Villanova when they were subjected to vicious chants. But whether by inertia or design, he embraced it when his program become a symbol of an aspiration, an exemplar of Black greatness on its own terms. Georgetown Starter jackets became such icons of 1980s Black Culture that the museum of African American history features one in a display case.

Thompson’s toughness was legendary. Most famously, when DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond tried to get close to some of his players, he ordered the godfather of the DC crack epidemic into his office for a meeting. Edmond was responsible for dozens of murders and countless broken lives; witnesses at his 1989 trial were hurt, the jurors were kept secret and hidden behind bulletproof glass, and he was flown from prison to the courthouse in a helicopter rather than risk a jailbreak from a vehicle. The one man he couldn’t break, though, was John Thompson. No one knows exactly what he said in that conversation, but Edmond never came close to a Hoya player again.

That legendary tale is just one: Big John also brought sky-high demands for his players’ conduct, demanding excellence on and off the court. “Don’t let eight pounds of air be the sum total of your existence,” he told his players, and graduated 97% of them from one of the nation’s more rigorous institutions otherwise populated by a bunch of East Coast Catholic bluebloods. At the same time, he pushed to do away with test score standards that could limit his talent pool, which drew its share of critics; Thompson countered that he was giving talented young Black men opportunities they would otherwise never have. Iverson, who certainly was a beneficiary of the changed policy, has repeatedly, and tearfully, insisted that Big John saved his life.

By the time I set foot on the Georgetown campus, Big John was a larger-than-life figure looming over the program. His son John Thompson III, fresh off a Final Four appearance early in his tenure, was a beloved figure, and there was no doubt his dad still had considerable sway. Those warm, fuzzy feelings faded some as JTIII’s restoration soured in the early 2010s, and the installation of Thompson’s greatest protégé, Ewing, whose tenure (which I fully thought was worth the chance at the start) gets an incomplete grade at best to date. Outside of the honeymoon of the early JTIII years, the Hoyas have never come close to returning to the elder Thompson’s heights in the 20 years since his retirement. In some ways the game has moved on; no longer do teams win on the strength of unmovable big men and a plodding pace, and in an era of one-and-dones, the benefits of a Georgetown degree may be less apparent to a budding basketball star than living like a king in Lexington or Chapel Hill.

Still, I refuse to believe Georgetown’s basketball glory days are only a thing of the past. The style may change, but the swagger of the Thompson era still looms from time to time, and the formula is still there. The brashness that led a young coach, fresh off an upset of 2nd-ranked Syracuse in their final game at a venerable old arena where they’d won 57 straight games, to grab the microphone and declare “Manley Field House is officially closed” is just as powerful today. The Thompson era is officially closed now, too, but that long shadow will continue to loom over the basketball program he built, the cloistered university he taught to be cool, and the ongoing admiration of disciples who learned something about poise, about self-respect, and about what it meant to chase greatness against a backdrop that so often failed to live up to its alleged equality. John Thompson, Jr. used basketball to show us how the world can be if it unflinchingly stares down reality, and anyone who touched his legacy, no matter how tangentially, is richer for it.

So farewell, Big John, and let the quote at the top of this blog be a reminder that, even if we cannot build Heaven on earth, we can still have Georgetown. And that can mean much more than a few wins on a basketball court.

Active Former Hounds, 2020

25 Aug

This annual accounting of Duluth East graduates playing post-high school hockey necessarily comes with complications this season. Winter plans are up in the air for just about all of us, and plans could change in a hurry; any Covid disruptions will leave all sorts of questions over junior and college eligibility and just generally what young people are doing with their lives. There’s a lot more to say here, but for now, I’ll stick to my annual task. This post will, perhaps rather naively, assume things will go ahead as expected in 2020-2021, as that seems like the only sensible way to proceed. Here’s the list, with asterisks denoting players who did not play through their senior seasons at East:

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* One of the most elaborate, wandering careers of an ex-Hound came to a formal end this past season, as Fitzgerald retired from hockey to take a head coaching position with the Glasgow Clan of the English Ice Hockey League, the team he had played for the season before. Fitzgerald still makes the list, though, because he did appear in four games as an injury fill-in, accumulating no point or (more surprisingly) penalty minutes in the process. If this really is the end of the line, Fitzgerald’s 19-year career after his freshman year as a Greyhound included four seasons in the Canadian WHL, two seasons of shuttling between the ECHL and AHL, seven full seasons in the AHL, six in England, and a single NHL game.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* Forbort’s fourth season in the NHL took a bit of a twist, as he started the season on injured reserve and spent some time rehabbing with Ontario of the AHL. He was dealt to Calgary at the trade deadline, where he got into seven games before the playoffs started. He has a goal and an assist in those playoffs, where the Flames were eliminated this past week, ending what probably has to be the latest date in summer that any Greyhound has ever still been playing hockey from the previous winter’s season.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* After settling in with the Ducks a season ago, Welinski became an unrestricted free agent this past offseason and signed with the Flyers. He spent his entire 19-20 campaign back in the AHL, where he had a productive eight goals and 13 assists in a 42-game season. We’ll see if he can make his way back into the NHL regularly soon.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Toninato’s career took a step forward this past season, as he stuck in the NHL all season for the first time in his three years as a pro. The former Minnesota-Duluth captain put up four goals and seven assists in 46 games for the Florida Panthers, and also took part in his team’s abbreviated playoff run.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) After starting in Tulsa of the ECHL, Randolph played a few games in Sweden with Vasterviks before hanging up his skates. The Hounds’ coach’s son had a productive four-year career at Nebraska-Omaha and played two professional seasons in his career after high school. It’s fun to see that, eight years after their high school graduation, all three members of that great 2012 top line were still playing professional hockey.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) The former North Dakota forward completed a second productive season in the ECHL, racking up 42 points in 59 games. He now has 74 points across two seasons with the Orlando Solar Bears and should be able to continue his professional career if he so chooses.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Following his graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute a years ago, Moore started his professional career with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the SPHL, where he logged eight goals and 11 assists from the blue line in 35 games. That productive performance, reminiscent of his high-scoring Hounds career, earned him a cup of coffee in the ECHL, where he played six games for Newfoundland and Adirondack.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) Davidson wrapped up a four-year career at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts, where he finished tied for second on his team with 18 points. He’s got his senior season ahead of him. He scored a career-high 22 points as a senior and logged a solid 71-point career there.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) In his senior season at Northern Michigan, Beaulieu was once again among the most productive defensemen in Division-I hockey. He had 25 points to finish a 121-point collegiate effort, and certainly will have options to continue his career; in recent years, he and Toninato were certainly the Hounds’ most dominant players in the college ranks.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp, Beaulieu’s old sidekick from 2013 and 2014, finished out a four-year D-III career at St. Thomas (there’s a phrase we won’t be using for much longer) with six assists for 23 total collegiate points.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann logged a quality sophomore effort at D-III Williams in Massachusetts, where he put up 16 points in 25 games, good for fifth on his team.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) The younger Altmann’s freshman season at St. Olaf saw him score a goal and collect six assists; those seven points, believe it or not, were good enough to tie for fourth on the team, just two behind the team leader, who had nine. Given that parity in talent, Altmann will certainly have his chances to slide into a more prominent role over the course of his career in Northfield.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Unsurprisingly, Donovan started his D-I career at Wisconsin primarily as a depth player, dressing for just two games as a Badger. The fact that he made it this far is a testament to his perseverance, and he’ll likely have more chances during his time in Madison, which, after a brief hiatus, has once again become a hotbed for Hounds.

Garrett Worth (’18 F) Worth’s post-high school wanderings continued early in 2019-2020, as he put up just two points in a USHL stint and lost his place in Arizona State’s incoming class for this coming season. He started to find his old swagger again when he came home and played for the Minnesota Wilderness, where he put up 25 points in 28 games. Through his efforts, he earned himself a scholarship to Long Island University, the nation’s newest Division-I program. The upstart school could be the perfect opportunity for East’s greatest post-Spehar goal-scorer to make an immediate impact.

Luke LaMaster (’18 D) After losing an entire season to injury, LaMaster jumped right back in and had a solid 10-point effort from the blue line with Sioux City of the USHL. He’s off to join the Donovan brothers in Madison this fall and play for the Badgers.

Ian Mageau (’18 F) Mageau got into ten games in his freshman year at St. Thomas, where he put up four points. We’ll see if he can get more action as a sophomore and what the university’s plans might be as it prepares for its D-I move.

Austin Jouppi (’18 F) The Bemidji State recruit had a second solid season in the NAHL, where he put up 34 points in 50 games for the Bismarck Bobcats. His collegiate career starts this year.

Nick Lanigan (’18 F) In his second junior season, Lanigan logged four goals and eight assists with the NAHL’s Minnesota Magicians. He will be back in the NAHL this coming winter.

Will Fisher (’18 D) After bouncing around some in his first year of juniors, Fisher found a home with the Boston Junior Rangers of the Tier III Eastern Hockey League, where the defenseman put up 22 points in 45 games. He’ll join the D-III ranks back home this year when he starts in at St. Scholastica.

Porter Haney (’18 F) Haney’s story is one of resilience, and a demonstration of the depth of the Hounds of his era: while never really a top-nine forward at East, he had a strong enough campaign in the NA3HL (47 points in 37 games) to have a cup of coffee in the NAHL and make his way to Gustavus Adolphus, where he’ll play D-III this coming season.

Ryder Donovan (’19 F) The 2019 Mr. Hockey finalist and 4th-round draft pick jumped right in at Wisconsin and became a fixture in the lineup, where he logged five points in 32 games. We’ll see if he advances into a more prominent role now that he’s settled in.

Ricky Lyle (’19 F) The West Point-bound Lyle made the jump to the Madison Capitols of the USHL in his first year out of high school and put up 16 points in 41 games. He’ll make his way east for D-I hockey this fall.

Hunter Paine (’19 D) Paine, like Lyle, jumped in to the USHL and had no trouble amassing himself some penalty minutes. He’s committed to Air Force, and is currently listed as playing one more year of juniors before heading to Colorado Springs.

Jonathan Jones (’19 F) Jones got into a single game for the Minnesota Wilderness of the NAHL.

Logan Anderson (’20 F)* Anderson forewent his senior year in high school and had a respectable USHL debut with Des Moines, where he had 12 points in 44 games.

Jacob Jeannette (’21 F)* Jeannette, who left East after his sophomore year, played intermittently in Waterloo of the USHL, where he put up seven points in 23 games.

A number of names left the list this past year: while not listed as officially retired, Cade Fairchild did not play in 19-20 after a long career that featured three-seasons in North American minor leagues, five seasons in Europe, and five NHL games. Class of 2013 forwards Conner Valesano and Alex Toscano wrapped up three years of Division-III hockey at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, while Luke Dow chose not to play college hockey after three seasons in juniors. Defenseman Alex Spencer did not appear in any games for Wisconsin-Superior as a sophomore, and Reid Hill also dropped from the list after an abbreviated junior career.

We’ll see what havoc Covid causes for hockey plans this coming season, both in high school and beyond, but for now, this is where they all stand.

Good Writing, 8/20/20

20 Aug


While my free time lately has mostly involved buying chainsaws and watching paint dry, I have still been able to read a few interesting things.

In The American Scholar, André Aciman intentionally gets himself lost in St. Petersburg as he walks in the footsteps of characters in great Russian novels. Now this is how to tour a city, and how to write about it when you do.

Roger Berkowitz of the Hannah Arendt Center uncovers a 1975 letter by a young senator from Delaware, one Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who wrote to Arendt asking that she send him a paper she delivered as a lecture at Faneuil Hall in Boston that year. Aside from being a fascinating look back at a world before recorded lectures and new perspective of just how long the Democratic nominee for the presidency has been in politics, it is a reminder of how little things can change. We don’t know if they ever had a full correspondence (Arendt died abruptly shortly thereafter), but if Biden ever did get his hands on “Home to Roost,” he would do well to reread this all-too-familiar-sounding diagnosis of Nixon era America.

In the interest of stirring the pot a bit, here is reliable provocateur Matt Taibbi tearing apart White Fragility, which has reached bestseller status in the wake of the George Floyd protests. It’s over the top and I have my beefs, but it made me think, so it can join the party here.

In the New York Times, Andrew Keh tells the tale of three high school graduates who are crossing the country by bicycle. Fresh off my own (far more modest) coronavirus era trip across the country, the emotions here resonated, though my experience was far less raw than that of these kids to date.

The New Yorker makes two contributions to this week’s edition, both on themes from the other pieces linked to here. The first, from Dan Kaufman on the election theme, travels to an area I know well: the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, long a rural blue holdout that swung Trumpward in 2016, and may be one of the keys to the 2020 race.

The second is a personal history by Jon Lee Anderson, a longtime New Yorker correspondent best known for his chronicles of famed Latin Americans. I’d always been vaguely intrigued to know how he came to cozy up with controversial figures so easily, and in reading this piece learned he’d give The Most Interesting Man in the World a run for his money. One we get past his casual account of his childhood spent wandering off in Africa for a few months on his own, he tells the tale of a journey to an island off Alaska in his early 20s, in which he pursued guided only by the allure of wealth from musk ox wool and a New Yorker article by Peter Matthiessen. You never know what reading an alluring piece of journalism will lead you to do. For Anderson, it meant a radical pursuit in an inhospitable wilderness…and provided a launching point into a lifelong mastery of prose.

WRT III, Part 3: The Threshold of Freedom

5 Aug

My Yellowstone adventure concludes with a long goodbye. Amy and Bob bolt the next morning to catch their flights from Bozeman, while Rob, Alex, and I set out to deepen our explorations of the park’s highlights. We take more trails along the Grand Canyon, one down to a rainbow-enhanced view of the Lower Falls, one out to Point Sublime along its southern rim, and explore another set of thermal features at the putrid Sulphur Caldron and the explosive Mud Volcano and the travertine fountains at Mammoth Hot Springs. An attempt to plunge deeper into the Hayden Valley along the Mary Mountain Trail is foiled after two miles of hiking. We see a bison on the trail ahead of us, and while we try to wait it out, it prefers instead to plop down in place and wallow about in the dirt, seemingly taunting us. We’re forced to turn around.

Turning around was never an option for another group that made its way up this valley in the early years of Yellowstone National Park. The Mary Mountain Trail doubles as a portion of the Nez Perce Trail, the approximate route that Native American tribe followed on its five-month flight across the West now known as the Nez Perce War of 1877. Displaced from their native Oegon valleys after the U.S. government broke a treaty, the Nez Perce repeatedly outfoxed the army over the course of a 1,000-mile trek across the West. They first sought to join up with their old allies the Crows in eastern Montana, and the party of men, women, and children trekked across the young national park and disrupted a few pleasure-seekers. Later, rebuffed, they turned north to seek out Sitting Bull and his Lakota in Canada, and very nearly pulled off a great escape. Instead, they were surrounded and surrendered 40 miles short of the border, leading Chief Joseph to declare he would “fight no more forever.” The U.S. government promptly broke the terms of the surrender and sent the Nez Perce not to a reservation in Idaho, but to Oklahoma.

Today’s West bears little resemblance to the one that was a wilderness refuge for the Nez Perce. The road out of Yellowstone offers one of the park’s famed traffic jams in Mammoth Hot Springs. We revel anew at Bozeman’s development rush, enjoy a few final beers; Alex heads out on an early morning flight, and Rob and I have a more leisurely morning at a café before I start my way back east. Along the way, I take a short detour south off my route on I-94 to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeast Montana. On these lonely hills overlooking the meanders and cottonwoods of the Little Bighorn River, a combined Lakota and Cheyenne force annihilated George Custer and gave the Native Americans their greatest victory of the Plains Wars. Like the Nez Perce flight across the Northwest, though, it only delayed the inevitable for the Lakota and Cheyenne.

Today, the Little Bighorn site sits on a reservation for the Crow tribe. (In a reminder of how complicated tribal alliances could be, Crows served as scouts for Custer and denied aid to Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce.) My stomach churns as I gaze upon the abject depression of Crow Agency, the town two miles from Little Bighorn: crumbling trailers, a few burned-out relics, desperately patched roofs. It is the most downtrodden place I have ever seen in America; Detroit’s destitution may be on a greater scale, but at least there one can see a difficult but plausible path forward. Here, it’s hard to find that hope, and a glance at the data later shows me that the Crow Reservation’s poverty rate is only a fraction of several other tribal nations in the West. Native Americans have kept the harsh land around Little Bighorn, but won no freedom to prosper here, and the rest of America shoots through it at eighty miles per hour, stopping only for gas or a visit to this reminder of the past. Little Bighorn now remembers the dead from both sides and offers up a few wishes for peace. Peace to what end, I wonder as I meander along the Greasy Grass Ridge and ponder the scattered gravestones. I can aspire to understanding and struggle for empathy, but the reality of Native American consciousness will always be beyond my reach.

The second audiobook I consume on this road trip is The Last Campaign, which follows Robert F. Kennedy’s doomed 82-day campaign for the presidency in 1968. Kennedy, amid the primary campaign rush, took far more time than his aides wanted to visit the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, often cited as the most poverty-stricken in the nation. Thurston Clarke, the author of this 2008 book, notes that Pine Ridge’s poverty and suicide rates had not changed since 1968; it is one of dozens of moments when RFK’s campaign themes, just like Joan Didion’s road trip, feel like they could have taken place yesterday instead of two generations in the past. Between the tale of the slaughter of the American politician I may admire above all others, ruminations on the plight of Native Americans, and a short, gut-punching novel on abusive family dynamics named One of the Boys with which I follow The Last Campaign, I am in a thoroughly morose mood by the time I pull into the Painted Canyon Overlook off I-94 in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the American racial reckoning that began with George Floyd’s murder, I’ve been struck at times by the jarring juxtaposition of the natural beauty of my northern Minnesota haunts with the fraying world around me. I’ve been busy enough to forget those plaintive thoughts on this trip, but they return here as I gaze out on my escape in the Little Missouri badlands once again. How can a world capable of such sublime majesty be so depraved? How can we preserve such beauty so diligently, share it with our families and cultivate an appreciation for it in our children, even as we neglect so many other lessons of our history? Is my flight into the wilderness in times of trouble a meek retreat, a dereliction of duty to meet the call that inspired Roosevelts and Kennedys? In my writing, I revisit an old fictional friend who shares these neuroses and have him wrestle with them all on his own trip west.

Through him, I revisit one of my favorite columns of all time, Roger Cohen’s Ways to Be Free. A phrase he draws from William Finnegan on surfing gnaws at me throughout this trip, a description of a cathartic encounter with the natural world: “ferocious ambivalence, the threshold of freedom.” For adventure-seekers out in the wilderness, ferocious ambivalence describes the power of the elements that can overwhelm them, the way those elements can come to life and take on personality traits, at times loving, at times vengeful, indifferent to human comfort and even life, always imposing their presence. To feel that power of nature is to be liberated, if only for a moment. But that phrase can describe a very human way of moving through the world, too: the raw power that courses through the surfer taming the wave, the hiker powering to the summit, the writer hitting upon the perfect phrase. It captures both the intensity of the feat in the moment and the coolness one attains by making such conquests routine. This, too, is a form of freedom, a culmination of pursuit as fulfillment.

My earliest experiments in writing were obsessed with idea of freedom. What did it mean to be free, to live in a free society, to have political freedom? Freedom became a philosophical term, a question of will or escape from coercion or realization of potential. Lost was that raw feeling, the knowledge of the power its pursuit can bring. I realize that, in recent years, I’ve felt precious little freedom. Freedom, in its commonly understood sense, is not the end goal: lives need guard rails and direction, and while there are occasional twinges at loss, many decisions that close off options are mature moves toward a life of purpose. But freedom remains a delectable treat, and humans need to feel it; not in some Western myth of a clean slate free from the past, but through a push that knows we can learn from it and transcend it.

I spend the last night of my trip in Jamestown, North Dakota (home to the world’s largest buffalo!), in a hotel room that overlooks that agent of empire known as the interstate highway. I collect my notes and gaze out at my fellow travelers shooting across the country in the night. I head home from there, exhausted, box up my apartment and plow through work emails, lapse into the usual routines, any immediate lessons forgotten in an everyday slog. How quickly the freedom fades; how quickly the usual annoyances return.

Freedom is never a permanent state. It comes in quick jolts here and there: a first night in a new bed in the house where I’ll write the next chapter of my life, the freedom of a back road after a wrong turn through a construction detour, a jaunt to the Twin Cities that gives me a moment on a bench beside Lake Harriet and a wistful gaze out of an apartment window at a lit-up Minneapolis with raw, fresh scars on its skin. I set out on this road trip to find something, but that ferocious ambivalence never needed finding on some distant plain. It’s been here all along. I just need to live it, to cross that threshold with the imperative that such ferocity demands.

WRT III, Part 2: The Park of Parks

2 Aug

The object of my road trip this year is Yellowstone National Park, and along with Uncle Bob, cousin Rob, cousin Alex, and family friend Amy, we’re set to eat up as much of it as we can in a week. Yellowstone was the world’s first national park, formed in 1872 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. That age is obvious at Fort Yellowstone in Mammoth Springs, the first settlement beyond the iconic Roosevelt Arch gateway in Gardiner, Montana: it still looks like the army installation it was when the cavalry defended the park’s borders in the days before the National Park Service. Its stately buildings stand in tribute to General Philip Sheridan, one of those complicated figures of American history who was a central figure in smashing the Confederacy and in the preservation of Yellowstone who also oversaw the systematic destruction of Native American independence in the West.

Yellowstone’s age allows a visitor to see the changing beliefs in conservation since the first wagon parties of tourists made their way west and the army enforced its borders by the barrel of the gun. A generation later, Yellowstone’s guardians threw up massive lodges beside some of its largest attractions, with stately hotels looming over Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake to house the adventurers who came by train. By the 1950s, the Park Service realized that, no matter how tasteful, putting these behemoths on top of attractions wasn’t the brightest idea, and built out its road network to reflect the automobile era. The new Canyon Village is set tastefully back from the canyon but is a relic of that era’s architecture, at once fascinating and rather ugly. Sweeping wildfires in the late 80s prompted more rebuilds, along with new theories of forest management and recognition that humans can only manage so much.

At times, Yellowstone feels like a commercial for the entire National Park system. One short hike along the Yellowstone River evokes the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a waterfall higher than Niagara Falls, the hoodoos of Bryce, and the red and green cliffs of Zion, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The Upper Geyser Basin alone, which is one of many geyser basins in the park, is home to over half of the world’s active geysers; to the east, the Hayden Valley is the epicenter of the largest big game preserve in the lower 48 states. If that isn’t enough, the park sits atop one of the two largest supervolcanoes in the world, a pulsing magma chamber at the heart of North America that could just kill us all if it ever decides to blow its top. This park is a natural wonder on a scale few others can match, and while many parks can outdo it in some aspects, none can outdo it in all.

The park is often crowded, though a ranger at Old Faithful tells Bob and Amy numbers are way down, a trend likely spurred by a complete lack of international travelers due to Covid-19. Not only are foreigners often legion in national parks, they also tend to be more intrepid than Americans and venture beyond main attractions. Even as a massive parking lot next to Old Faithful fills and the crowds spread their way along the Grand Canyon and wildlife-induced traffic jams clog its roads, we never feel great unease, and a few steps into the woods usually does away with the crowds. On the middle two days of the backpacking trip we encounter all of three other hiking parties, and there are far more remote corners of the Yellowstone backcountry than the part we visit on this trip. Solitude is available if one knows where to look, and this crew has some experience on that front.

Our destination for the first three nights in the park is the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, a hike that will take us down the river’s lesser-known but still stunning canyon in the park. Our road into Yellowstone takes us up the Paradise Valley, which heads from I-94 in Livingston to the park’s northern gate in Gardiner, where the trail will dump us at the end. We leave my car at a campground on a steep peak above Gardiner and caravan with the other two to the Hellroaring trailhead along a ridge overlooking the Yellowstone. Both the road and the first stages of the hike take us through a dozen microclimates: river canyon, alpine meadow, boreal forest, barren plateau, seasonal ponds. We dodge the deer, holster up our bear spray, and immediately work our way down to a solid suspension bridge over the river.

Hiking with this crew has little in common with my solitary forays along the Superior Hiking Trail. When I go by myself, it’s a spare operation built for speed, an intense pace with few breaks, my movements machine-like to a fault. Here, we hike at a sustainable pace, and the steady chatter keeps us going. Rob, a Bay Area engineer, educates us on the intricacies of digital imaging; Alex, fresh off a weekend of sunburn in Door County, Wisconsin and afflicted by allergies, bears the brunt of most of the trip’s indignities. (The collections of tissues and flaking skin in the tent we share are a sight to behold.) Bob, who has the organization of these trips down to an art, offers his endorsements of some of our new gear, while Amy provides the necessary morale boosts. We follow deliberate packing and repacking processes and stop to gain intel from backpackers heading the other direction, who warn of a recent grizzly attack up Hellroaring Creek and a black bear running through their camp. We pass through pine forests and open sagebrush meadows, scan these expanses for big game but come up empty.

We come to the ford over Hellroaring Creek, which is wide, icy, and has a current that shows how it got its name. There’s a bridge a couple miles upstream, but a party we’d met at the suspension bridge say the trail to it grows hard to follow. After some scouting, we decide the way straight across is as good as any and pick our way through the rushing creek. The trail is harder to pick up on the opposite bank, and a lone bison down by the creek also forces a detour, but in time we find a halfhearted trail down the Hellroaring to its confluence with the Yellowstone, where we camp the first night. It is a stunning setting. The Hellroaring pours down its cataracts to the end, but the Yellowstone rushes even faster, and Amy uses her experience from her whitewater days to scout out lines through the rapids. We set up camp, with the tents up on a ridge away from our kitchen area just above the river, and we dip our feet in a pool off the creek. Over a bourbon happy hour and a freeze-dried dinner we solve most of the world’s problems before a mosquito attack leads us to beat an early retreat to our tents, stuck up awake for a few hours until it cools enough to put on the warm clothing we’ll need for the lower late night temperatures at this elevation.

We get a slow start on day two. I’m the first one up and take a moment for myself at the confluence of the river and the creek, and when we set out I set the pace across the open meadow. The trail is a mere suggestion here, a bison poop obstacle course where each step scatters a few dozen grasshoppers. We pick up the main trail and head up into a grassland where we are immediately assaulted by biting flies and mosquitoes. We go quiet and don’t linger, pushing up and up into a piney park as we dodge the impassable cliffs along the riverbank here. We catch glimpses of the Yellowstone below and start our way down, though the miserable bugs render any pauses along the picturesque creeks impossible.

By the standards of this party this hike was a perfectly reasonable one, but between the heat and the nonstop sun, we are all drained by the time we reach our campsite on the banks of the river. Bob reclines in the shade, while Alex passes out in the hammock; Amy and Rob take dips in the river, moving cautiously when water snakes appear. (Later, we learn they are harmless garter snakes.) My back is grumpy, but I catch up on my notes and this night too resolves itself in food and drink and a hasty retreat to the tents, where Alex and I play chess to wait out the bugs.

The third morning is leisurely, and Amy and I are up first and enjoy teas before the others wake. We take a side trip to see a second suspension bridge over the river at Blacktail Deer Creek and, after nothing but rip-roaring water over the past two days, marvel at the stillness of lonely Crevice Lake. From there, we admire the crashing falls of Crevice Creek and push up and around Knowles Falls, meeting a few fishermen along the switchbacks. For a second straight day we’ve underestimated the distance to our campsite, and fear we’ll have to climb another ridge before our site appears by surprise. It’s a small site, its tent pads tucked amid the grass along the riverbank, and it mercifully becomes cloudy not too long after we arrive, which keeps the site bearable in the midafternoon heat. After Alex reloads my water, I drift away in my own hammock session. Happy hour comes atop a small ridge with a view of rapids below, and we’ve saved three of the best freeze-dried delicacies for tonight. Finally, the bugs are minimal, and we can sit out and chat away through the evening before we fall asleep to the sound of the thundering rapids.

On day four we wake at a reasonable hour for once, but still leave camp later than planned after conversation over breakfast carries on. It’s a grey day, which makes for easier hiking; a few drops fall here and there, but the heavens never open up. After climbing the ridge we’d dreaded the day before, the trail meanders down a boulder field and into the deepest reaches of the Black Canyon, its rocks made more properly foreboding by the darkness. The Yellowstone pours through these granite halls, and the impressively engineered path presents a few rattlesnakes to liven things up. We straddle the park boundary and start seeing people again: first a stock party, then a dad with two religiously mask-wearing young daughters, and finally some random dude wandering the hill chattering on his phone. Lunch comes beneath a tree near the banks of Bear Creek, where the canyon opens up to views of the mountains surrounding Gardiner.

We conclude our hike with our last and greatest upward push. I set an aggressive pace up the early stages but am overruled on the route and settle back into the pack as we push up switchback after switchback in the suddenly re-emergent sun. Finally, we come to my car, which sits alone, baking in the parking lot. We pack it like a clown car and I let it roll back down into Gardiner, trying not to burn up too much of the brakes. Bob and Alex check into a hotel while Amy, Rob, and I retrieve the other vehicles, an affair slowed by a traffic jam induced by a black bear sighting.

We spend the night in Gardiner, a town dropped on a spare plain along the Yellowstone that exists slowly to lodge and equip national park visitors. Our abode for the night has an excess of dead animals in the lobby, and any enjoyment of indoor plumbing is fleeting: the toilet in the room that Alex and I share clogs, and with no 24-hour service at the desk, we settle for making the trek to a bathroom off the lobby. Still, it’s an upgrade over digging a hole with a trowel. We sneak in a dinner of bison and elk before a downpour, and Gardiner’s lone liquor store has a surprisingly good bourbon stash. We retreat to the hotel and catch some of an improbable opening day of baseball, a fleeting hint of normalcy that delights Rob and me.

On our fifth day, we play the dutiful part of Yellowstone tourists. Our vehicles caravan around the park’s Grand Loop, with a long stop at Old Faithful and its surrounding geyser basin, with vivid orange and blue pools and explosions of steam and a lingering aroma of sulfur. We have lunch along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, which stretches its fingers out toward the mountains beyond; later, we drive up the Hayden Valley, an American safari through open plains dotted with bison and elk. We tour the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near sunset, awed by its towering falls and wide palette of yellows and whites and blacks and reds. We spend the night in the car campground at Canyon Village, Alex and Rob religiously tending a fire beneath the lodgepole pines, Amy’s bourbon bottle on hand to fuel us through the night.

We ask ourselves why we do this, deny ourselves creature comforts to plow through the wilderness, and come up with a few answers: we know how few people will ever see this, know these memories will endure long after most of the rest of 2020 fades away in our minds, admit we may share a masochistic desire to push ourselves and live in a radically different way. In a year where travel itself has become a risky proposition, we managed to embed ourselves in an American wonder, and we plan to keep this tradition going in future years. We’ve written our own little history that will endure.

WRT III, Part 1: The Winning of the West

31 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WRT III

16 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angleworm of Repose

8 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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