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.

An Endion Appreciation

28 Jun

“So what part of town do you live in?”

“The Endion neighborhood.”

“The what?”

“Endion.”

“Where’s that?”

“Uh…kind of between the Hillside and Congdon. Below Chester Park.”

“Oh! That place. I didn’t know it had a name.”

I’ve had some version of this conversation on a few dozen occasions over the past four years. In time, I learned just to give my street corner, an easy source of context on Duluth’s gridded streets, and perhaps even engage in a guilt-inducing act of appropriation and say “just off 21st, near Congdon.” My neighborhood has been a source of mystery even for many longtime Duluthians.

In a month or so I will decamp for some neighborhood a little ways to the east, but before I bid Endion farewell, I figured I’d direct a little appreciation at this sometimes forgotten wedge of Duluth. In many ways Endion is a relic of a time long past, but it isn’t one of those Duluth neighborhoods that has been swallowed up by another or seen its name change in the collective consciousness. Nor does it have any easy analogues. It’s still distinctly its own thing, a funny transition zone between some of Duluth’s wealthiest and most impoverished enclaves, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Endion came of age with grand designs. At the turn of the 20th century, Duluth’s elite left Ashtabula Heights (around 4th Street and 6th Avenue East, a jarring fact to consider today) for the broader expanses between Chester Creek and the ridge that rises in the mid-20s Avenues East, the mansion district once known as East End that most people now just consider an extension of Congdon. For a flash of history, this was one of the wealthiest places in the land. As early as the HOLC maps of the 1930s and 1940s, though, it was deemed in decline by the real estate powers that be. Its grand old homes with servants’ quarters were no longer practical for most families, and Duluth’s wealthy worked their way over to Congdon, where they settled and have mostly stayed put. Endion has been in a permanent limbo between privilege and poverty and the fascinating in-between state that is college life ever since.

I can understand why few people think of Endion as much of a neighborhood. It lacks a commercial node; most of its businesses are along a London Road strip with poor connections to the rest of it, and the Plaza Shopping Center lies just beyond its boundaries. Its eponymous elementary school closed several generations ago, with few to remember what a neighborhood center it might have been. (I had a fascinating exchange on a street corner a couple years back with an elderly man who’d driven in to visit Duluth for the first time in decades and was trying to piece together some dimly remembered locations from his childhood, including his days at the Endion school.) In a city of exceptional parks, it has an acceptable but unremarkable one at its center on the block of the Temple Israel; anyone who wants to recreate locally will venture either over to the Chester Creek corridor or down to the Lakewalk. Endion’s iconic train station, while spared the wrecking ball when I-35 punched its way through, moved down to Canal Park, where it is now a micro-hotel. Many of its residents are transient young renters–it has one of the youngest median ages of any Duluth neighborhood–and few put down roots here. It is mostly a smattering of homes that serve as a waystation for a few years of life before moving on to other things, and that is exactly what it has been for me, too.

That temporary status grants Endion its value. People need places to land for a few years of life, and it’s probably best that these places not be placid residential neighborhoods where residents have some right not to expect loud parties on random Tuesdays. In an ideal world this sort of district would be more centrally located and offer easier walks to a strip of nightlife or an iconic park, but we make do with what we have. Endion’s reuse of its old homes is exemplary, exactly what my urban planner friends have in mind when they dream of incremental increases in density, creating those fourplexes without needing to build anew. The trouble comes when the Endions of the world become a permanent state, lives trapped in limbo for eternity, the failure of late modernity to move people out and up on trajectories that give them meaning.

Endion is a grab bag of character types, rarely exciting but also never quite dull. Directly across the street is a family with young kids in one of the old beauties that remains a single-family home; in the two smaller adjacent houses, a few doddering old ladies sit out on their stoops for their fresh air. The rental kitty-corner from mine has turned over every year, and mostly remained tame, though the dirtbag boys who took it over in 2019 had me grumbling through a few sleepless nights. I still haven’t quite figured out what is going on in the home across the avenue, which clearly has a few permanent residents beneath its towering Queen Anne gables, but also enjoys a constantly rotating cast through its backyard bonfires. A block up, a halfway house adds some grit, but never any real drama. My own abode, a grand estate from another time now carved up into seven tasteful, separate units, caters to a crowd of grad students and young parents and a few young drifters who make enough money to enjoy general comforts but not enough to take any leaps beyond. It’s not a particularly communal place, as we meandering millennials connect only in stray hallway encounters or in shared struggles to scrape off our cars and shovel each other out every winter. It could be a great little neighborhood, but as I’ve observed before, Duluth has strangely weak formal neighborhood structures for a city that is strongly defined by them.

It is most definitely time to move on from those noisy college parties, that lack of a garage, the neighbors who don’t offer much of a greeting when one passes by. But there are parts of it I will miss. I will miss making popcorn on snowy winter nights and watching naive college students flail about as they try to drive up the avenue despite having access to much better-plowed streets just a block away. I will miss my grand columned front porch and massive picture windows and gaudy (though inoperable) fireplace. I regret that I am moving right before the city converts First Street to the two-way street it ought to be and tames the traffic into something that might be conducive to a neighborhood where one can settle into place. I will miss its easy acceptance of a phase of life where one could park out on the front porch and make a casual acquaintance over cheap beers.

Endion is Duluth is a nutshell: faded grandeur, scrapping youth, a few anchors holding fast amid the steady change. A bit anonymous in the face of things, but stable and memorable and often even beautiful. It has served its purpose, and I wish it the best as I find my escape from this stage. But some nostalgia will linger for those front porch nights, those times I packed my apartment with visitors from afar, those seasonal views down to the greatest of lakes. May Endion continue to afford future generations such delights, and may it continue to offer pathways onward and upward.

22

20 Jun

The annual Octavio Paz poem on this date:

Pause

They’ve come:

a few birds

and a black thought.

Murmur of trees,

murmur of trains and engines,

is this moment coming or going?

The silence of the sun

is beyond lamentation and laughter,

it sinks its beak

deep in the rocks’ rock scream.

Heart-sun, beating rock,

blood rock that becomes a fruit:

wounds open without pain,

my life flows on, resembling life.

* * *

Happy 22nd, bro. It’s another stellar Grandma’s Marathon day, even if there’s no marathon to run this year. (Okay, a friend and I ran a spontaneous half anyway.) I’ve just committed myself to our city yet again. Confined here in recent months, I’ve come to appreciate it more than ever before: what beauty surrounds us. We don’t need closure. This dream, it never needs to end.

Gophers Out of Holes

18 Jun

Summer has opened up in Minnesota, and as the coronavirus curve in Duluth flattens out enough for now to allow for some social life, I decide the time has come to head out myself and take a spring Superior Hiking Trial overnight hike. My push takes me from the Temperance River to Caribou Lake, 24 miles according to the signpost, though I tack on a bit more with side treks to vistas that drive up the mileage.

The side trails are more than worth it on this adventure. We might call this the Great Peaks of the North Shore trek: on a list of ten of the most prominent hills lining the shores of Lake Superior, maybe half of them dot the route. Carlton Peak, the first I encounter, features the SHT’s longest vertical ascent and a prominent dome. Similarly iconic are the twin peaks of Oberg and Leaveaux a few miles up the shore; Oberg, with its mountaintop loop trail and picturesque inland lake, might be the most photographed peak on these shores, while hulking Leveaux reaches the same height from its hulking mass next door. Further along, Moose Mountain, well-known to Alpine skiers but less renowned among hikers, is the highest point on the Superior Hiking Trail of immediate shoreline peaks. (There are higher points on the SHT, but they lie inland, and do not offer the same striking juxtaposition.) Mystery Mountain, Moose Mountain’s immediate neighbor to the north, nudges its way just higher and still sneaks a peek of the lake. To top it all off, the hike wraps up at White Sky Rock, which towers over Caribou Lake and looks out toward Lake Superior some five miles off.

The hike starts at the Temperance River State Park wayside on Highway 61 and traces its way up the narrow gorge the river has drilled through the bedrock. The Temperance is deep, narrow, and almost impossible to photograph well given the absence of light in the gorge. (One attempt of mine looking down on a thundering fall that throws up rainbows in the sunlight looks more like I attempted to capture a shallow puddle in a rock.) Further upstream, before it plunges into the depths, the Temperance spreads wide across its valley, though it still carries along at a rapid pace, even at low water in dry conditions.

The crowds thin as my dad (as usual, my chauffeur to one end of these adventures) and I turn away from the river and up Carlton Peak. Named for a local guide who took a surveyor up the supposed first of the Sawtooths, Carlton Peak reaches over 900 feet above Lake Superior. For the first mile and a half or so, the trail is a leisurely one, but it rockets upward from there, first to a wooded ridge and then on a final scramble through some towering rocks up to the anorthosite dome. My dad, one calendar year removed from a hip replacement, marches on up right behind me. My last time here (via the much easier route from the north) led to a mountaintop swallowed in fog, but this time, we can see clear down to Taconite Harbor as we chow down our lunches.

My dad turns back after we come down from the spur to the peak. I stop at the Ted Tofte overlook just past the main peak, which offers nearly as good a view toward the south and east from a slightly lower elevation. From there I head down to the Sawbill Trail and take another spur up a short but steep climb to Britton Peak, which provides a vista out toward the mass of Carlton Peak. From there, the trail settles into a rhythm up of gentle ups and downs through a maple forest as it crisscrosses ski and single-track bike trials. I overtake two parties and pass one in the other direction, but the people don’t pick back up again until I pass the two campsites at placid Leveaux Pond. The main SHT skirts the flanks of Leveaux and Oberg, and I don’t feel compelled to summit them: been there, done that. I’m intent on a campsite and have a date with a hammock.

There are two sites at Rollins Creek just east of Oberg Mountain, and with loud voices carrying up from the one closer to the stream, I settle for the western site set back from the river I set up the hammock and enter a dreamy late afternoon trance, and I eat a leisurely freeze-dried dinner. I jot stray notes in a notebook and read ‘Pursuit as Happiness,’ the newly released Ernest Hemingway story whose title seems an apt description for my weekend hike. A reasonable number of my more useful insights have come while lying in a hammock over the years, and while I can’t claim any such revelation this time, I am just struck by a radical freedom, one with a flow through stages of life, if only for a few hours.

By sunset I’m polishing off my beverage for the evening and assume I have the place to myself when two hikers roll in from the north. My sitemates are two Duluthians making the most of their coronavirus downtime; one is through-hiking the entire SHT, and the other is joining him for as much as he can before he returns to work. They’re about five years older than me, so we have some mutual childhood acquaintances and can chat easily about their adventures to date, which include a brutal barrage of mosquitoes on day one, a Covid-prevention monitor at the Grand Marais grocery store, a delectable hamburger at Lutsen that day, and an encounter with a rogue grouse. It’s hard to ask for better random company. I fire off a few final lines in a notebook in the hammock using my headlamp after they turn in, the bugs mercifully absent from this site.

I wake at dawn the next morning and am nearly done packing by the time my sitemates emerge. Day two begins with a 500-foot upward push up Moose Mountain, its spruce-covered slopes still bathed in darkness. An overlook at the top rewards me, and while the hike from there largely just snakes along the spine of the hill, a few more views peek out both inland and out toward the lake, spruce thickets on the back side of the ridge and green maples on the lake side. I take another spur to the Lutsen ski resort gondola’s apex, its gears quieted by Covid, though its views still excellent. Back on the main trail, I dip down and then start up a meandering series of maple-forested switchbacks on Mystery Mountain. A brief window of a view is the only hint that this peak stands higher than Carlton or Oberg or Leveaux.

I descend Mystery Mountain and come to the wide paths of Lutsen lining the Poplar River. I pause on its wide bridge crossing, which overlooks a roaring staircase waterfall that splits the four peaks of the ski resort. Not for the first time, I picture a North Shore stream as a fountain that collects its waters in the inland wetlands and then cascades down through stone chutes to the lake at the bottom. My next climb takes me up a hill (Ullr Mountain, I later learn from a map of Lutsen) that proves deceptively tiring after the more expected runs up and down the better-known peaks. Eventually the trail dumps me out along the banks of the Poplar again, where a steady flow of people coming from the popular Lake Agnes sites slops past me in these muddy lowlands. When I come to a boardwalk submerged in mud, a mom and her five-year-old stand at the other end, contemplating their plight; ultimately, mom strikes across alone, deposits her pack, and heads back to collect her charge, whose impeccably white stuffed unicorn escapes unscathed. I watch them go with a smile (ready to run in and do any rescuing, if need be), then slog on through the mud and up a gradual, scrubby incline. I’m flagging a bit now, but a series of vistas back across the Poplar River Valley toward Lutsen lift my mood.

Lake Agnes arrives as a sudden surprise at the base of a descent. I pick my way about the lake, sublime in repose, somehow devoid of other parties at this early afternoon hour. Lunch comes on an outcropping above the lake beneath a solitary white pine, and I’m in enough of a reverie afterward that I get to the bottom of the hill before I realize that I’m going the wrong direction. If my geography instincts are failing me, it’s probably time to be done. I reload my water bottle for the ride back at Agnes’ lakefront campsite—my dad and I stayed here once, maybe two decades ago—and then begin up the spur to the parking lot on the Caribou Trail, where I find all the people again picking their way over its rocks and cedar-hewn staircase.

I take the turn for one last upward to push to White Sky Rock. I ended last spring’s hike here as well, albeit in a very different world. An older couple vacates it in time for me to settle in for a few final notes, one final view out over the resplendent lake and out toward Superior beyond. I would say that hiking makes my troubles feel trivial, though current events have done a perfectly adequate job of that lately. Instead, I just appreciate my freedom to take joy in an escape like this, and know that I have reliable maps for my ventures outward. The civilized world I drive back to that afternoon hasn’t changed since I left, but after three months in a coronavirus tunnel, the path that spins this cycle forward is easier to see.

Interesting Reading, 6/8/20

8 Jun

Lots of people are writing lots of things about recent events, and it’s hard to navigate them now: ideas and articles fly back and forth and into my inbox. Sometimes, rather than leaning into the hot takes, it’s better to revisit classics that now seems more relevant than ever. So, for this instance in this series, I’ll start with James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”

Elsewhere, my old professor, Patrick Deneen, reviews Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society. While I generally find Deneen’s application of entropy to human systems one of his weaker critiques of modernity, I found his point on Douthat’s belief in technological progress as the engine of history to be trenchant, and gets at the deeper reason of why I found the book’s conclusion so unsatisfying when I read it myself.

Want someone who’d agree with Deneen, contra Douthat, that we are certifiably in decline instead of decadence? Here’s George Packer at The Atlantic lamenting American institutional rot. The soothing messages from the top, an official quest for understanding, incremental legislation to address the underlying problems: none of this will happen in 2020, he argues, and we’re in for an interesting several months. The American crisis of authority may be complete.

Leaving our protest-filled streets for our still-shuttered academy, the Hannah Arendt Center’s Samantha Hill speaks to the importance of physical campuses for the college experience. The loss of that experience would be a dire consequence of coronavirus: students need spaces that provide a level playing field and allow them to escape the comforts or challenges of where they come from as much as possible. While colleges cannot truly equalize the experiences of their students, they can push in that direction, and in doing so they create opportunities for movement across boundaries and give everyone there some freedom to think. May students continue to have that experience—and as many of them as possible.

Let’s stay in the world of letters before we close out; it’s good for the soul. In the New York Times, A. O. Scott mounts a defense of Wallace Stegner, a great American author whose work, much lauded on this blog (here, here, and here, for starters), doesn’t receive a ton of widespread recognition today. Stegner’s sensibilities are both those of a child of the frontier and a committed communitarian, a founder of a great literary dynasty as a Stanford academic and a man committed to the wilds of the West that formed him. Few writers have as much to say about the American experience as Wallace Stegner.

Minnesota Burning

29 May

2020 is nothing if not relentless, a barrage that takes different forms, sometimes invisible and sometimes in raging flames. Here in Minnesota in late May, the coronavirus’ lingering malaise turns to death and fire in the streets. History creeps closer like a dread storm, the gyre now wide enough to swallow us whole. If this isn’t my generation’s 1968, I shudder to think of what may come next.

Ash rains down on friends’ yards in South Minneapolis. Businesses I have patronized lay in ruin. In a bitter piece of awfulness, an affordable housing development appears to be the most prominent property loss. None of that, however, stacks up against the loss of human life. Some friends struggle to explain this world to their young children; others wonder if their cars are safe in their normal parking spots. Walls go up, defenses come down, raw emotion pours forth. As it should.

I have no great new insight into police violence or riot dynamics, nor can I claim to tell the tale of centuries of systemic oppression. How can I? I’m a white kid from a very white corner of a very white state, and while it is basically my life’s work to understand as much as I can understand about my world, nothing in this life will ever give me the perspective to tell that story as it should be told. I can only fire off an email or two and be a vicarious witness. I lurch down a grotesque social media hole, the revolution Snapchatted live, and pull myself out only after wallowing for most of an evening. These lenses put us in the moment but shut out everything beyond, a skewed perspective that hones in on what some random individual has chosen to capture but offers no narrative, no story, no compelling arc that might guide us incrementally down that path toward comprehension or dialogue or reconciliation. They offer only raw, violent shocks to the system. Violence begets a violence, an eye for an eye, the whole world blind.

What is it we have lost, here in the spring of 2020? Lives, first and foremost, the product of a society that at times seems worryingly callous about human life, a fear that is always there but these days comes in cues from the top. Livelihoods, for those who had the misfortune of living in the crossfire. Many senses of security, at least for those of us who were fortunate enough to enjoy them in the first place. Some never did, though we all have been compromised further in some way. The rational mind can find some distance, sort through which reforms might actually work, move us toward a reduction in violence. But the rational mind has little to offer in an immediate crisis, when people are dead and generations’ worth of rage teams up with a quarantined society on edge to burst forth.

Minnesota may seem an unexpected flashpoint for American racial history: largely white, largely prosperous, rarely on the front pages. But the things that make Minnesota such a pleasant place to live for so many of us remain inaccessible to others all so often, that inequity that much more glaring. Without a reckoning, we will repeat this cycle again in a few months or years or decades, left again with clueless questions of how this could happen and why people behave this way when their own lives have given them no reason to believe things can change. In the coming days and weeks, Minnesota will have the power to rectify some of what has happened, to keep an individual tragedy from becoming a tragedy of history.

This Minneapolis May might seem distant for those of us not there on the ground, but the world that fomented it surrounds us. A few hours north, in my city of Duluth, the first few summer-like days stay calm, though I appreciate the horns a few blocks from my place last night at the site of our very Duluth protest, where there is some confrontation but mostly honks of support and police posing for photographs in solidarity. But this corner isn’t safe either: we are just two weeks away from the 100th anniversary of Duluth’s greatest sin, a horrific act that today feels like just another episode in a painfully predictable, endlessly repeated American tragedy. This time it truly is impossible to remain silent, and even as things smolder, I find a sense of hope, if that can really be the right word, that we’re showing some signs of learning from past mistakes.

It is hardly an original insight to condemn violence and plead for recovery and healing at this stage, a feeble bleat that feels ill-suited for our times. But this conflagration makes me believe anew that the responsibility to respond in whatever way we can is a collective one, a societal need to reaffirm certain values in the wake of brutality and subsequent anarchy. As the fires die down and the rational mind can assert some control again, it is time to make good on Minnesota’s promise, which touches every one of us in this state. 1968 did not bring the necessary American reckoning, but perhaps 2020 can.

On Libraries

26 May

Civilization is doomed without libraries. Okay, I may be a bit biased in this hot take: I am the son of a librarian and spent large parts of my childhood in libraries. At their best, libraries are civic monuments that show a civilization values knowledge; I am who I am because of them. But they are also of incredible value for people who share little in common with me, a rare public space with something for all of us if we know where to look. Anyone who is bored in a library isn’t trying hard enough.

I can track my progress through life in libraries. I have vague memories of the Andrew Carnegie-funded Edgerton, Wisconsin Public Library in my earliest days, its card catalogues lining the wall in the basement. After moving to Duluth, my family lived two blocks from the Lester Park branch library, a little Carnegie-style institution that shuttered a couple of years after our arrival. As a kid, the library was a frequent haunt after school, with coveted slots on the children’s department computers and occasional forced labor to prepare materials for the annual summer reading program. In Mexico City, the Universidad Iberoamericana had an ingenious floor devoted to napping on surprisingly comfortable Ikea furniture, which I used liberally on the days I had a 7 AM class.

Libraries have been cultural centers for the better part of two and a half millennia. The ancients built massive collections like the Great Library at Alexandria, a fountain of early wisdom. Thomas Jefferson’s old library, preserved in the Library of Congress (an icon in its own right), gives a more complete picture of the state of knowledge in early America than any historical reenactment. Cities like New York and Chicago have libraries that can stand alongside any museum or government building in their grandeur. Carnegie’s libraries were one of the greatest philanthropic bequests in history: an extension of opportunity to cities and towns across America (and Carnegie’s native Scotland) with few strings attached that did wonders for literacy. Those old Carnegies, now often phased out as technological needs pass them by, had a welcoming, airy feel tinged with a healthy hint of must. Georgetown’s Riggs Library, a wrought-iron wonder inside Healy Hall, is the stuff of fantasy, and many universities have similar hallowed halls. These libraries invite people in to explore, open up worlds even when other worlds are closed off to us.

Alas, libraries are not always built with the enjoyment of their users in mind, and some are instead products of the artistic vagaries of men and women (mostly men) floating up on idealistic design clouds they find far more important than the people who actually use the building. Duluth’s downtown library is Exhibit A in this trend, an unfortunate attempt to be “architecturally significant” with myriad issues for its users and employees. And, sadly, a healthy chunk of my Georgetown days were spent not in stunning Riggs but in the friendly confines of Lauinger Library, an unfortunate brutalist take on its neighbor, the Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall. The neighboring apartments, which looked like little Lau spawn, were redeemed by their superb rooftop views of the Potomac, but Lau, despite possessing that same view, offered it only from one undersized lounge on the back of the fourth floor and a few stray sought-after windows (usually lacking nearby outlets) and carrels reserved for grad students. Modern libraries can work—in Mexico City I once paid a visit to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a window into what Lauinger could have looked like if they’d brought the modernist theme into the interior—but they cannot forget their fundamental mission.

Lauinger was an oppressive monolith, but I built a fondness for it anyway, perhaps spurred along by Club Lau, an annual soiree that turned a third floor reading room into a sweat-caked dance party. Early on I tended to inhabit Lau Four, with its respectable views on all sides and convenient access to the global history stacks that formed the bulk of my library checkouts; some friends preferred Lau Two, with its group study spaces and coffee shop. Later, a row of bland carrels on Lau One became my haunt for reasons that no longer seem at all clear to me. If one wanted deep isolation, the Lower Level—a full three floors below the main entrance on Lau Three—offered solitude in the catacombs, except when the automatic bookcases came to life and moved of their own accord.

After I graduated from college, I worked at the Duluth Public Library for two years, a job in which I schlepped books between the branches in a van and shelved them for a while each day. For a quarter-life crisis job, it was about as cozy as it gets: likeable coworkers, little interaction with unpleasant patrons, immersion in interesting materials that occasionally distracted me, a chance to sample library employees’ contributions to the break room treat collection in each of the branches. (Librarians are marvelous bakers.) The Duluth Public Library gave me a place to get back on my feet and out of the existential muck I briefly inhabited, and inspired some side projects along the way. I’ve since become a volunteer at its annual book sale, though nowadays I am mostly just a consumer, adding volumes to my own library, whose growing size is on the list of reasons my current apartment has grown inadequate.

People who don’t spend much time in libraries can now be heard doubting the point of them in an age of instant Google and Amazon and Wikipedia. If one can just check out a book on to one’s kindle, what’s the point of these giant, government-run centers to hold the physical thing? Libraries are also often deemed non-essential: coronavirus has turned research librarians into curbside checkout clerks or even forced them into more extreme job functions; here in Duluth, half the staff has been laid off. Whether the cuts come from doubters or believers who think they have no other choice, they amount to much the same.

Allow me, then, to sing the praises of libraries. Librarians remain an underused resource for research, well-versed in digging through to find the things that are not so easily Googled. They are vital for historians, both serious and amateur, especially at the local level: there would be no histories of Duluth East hockey without the services of the Duluth Public Library, and some other libraries that chipped things in through an inter-library loan network. Their volumes will continue to provide marvelous value to those of us who don’t enjoy staring at screens all night. They have become resource centers in innumerable ways for people who have no other internet, no other connection to resources, and few public spaces that are safe, warm, and reliable. (The accommodation of these people is where those design decisions matter, and in subtle ways likely not obvious to casual patrons.) Across the country, libraries have developed creative programming, from rentable technology to seed libraries. I challenge anyone to attend a children’s storytime at Duluth’s Mount Royal branch and walk away thinking libraries are dying. The stereotype of librarians as shushing schoolmarms and utter silence applies only to small corners of them: they bring together and host community groups of all types and open up new possibilities.

And, of course, libraries remain free, a societal acknowledgment that truth and inquiry and learning matter. They are the rare public space that fosters knowledge for knowledge’s sake, create a home for both the most well-read salons and the neediest of residents. They are repositories of deep literacy, a skill that, per a lucid Adam Garfinkle essay, will be vital for any sense of a human future that values abstract thought or empathy. Preservation of such spaces is essential, and those who denigrate them are accomplices in undermining that capacity for the literacy a civilized society requires to function.