Grand Staircase III: Layers of Time

This is the third in a three-part series. Part 1 | Part 2

Sated by my time in Grand Staircase-Escalante, I drive the three hours back to Zion, where I nestle in at the Novel House Inn in Springdale, a mile’s stroll from the park’s gates. This writer is a sucker for this bed and breakfast, complete with sprawling library and author-themed rooms. I am in the Mark Twain Room, wedged between Walt Whitman and Louis L’Amour on the first floor, and the great red cliffs peek out above some trees through my window. There is a voucher for breakfast at a Mexican place up the block, a tray of cookies and lemonade in the afternoon, an attentive Irish proprietor, and a library where I can sit and organize my notes in the evening. What more could I ask for to round out this trip?

I spend the night at the Zion Brewery, which is, brilliantly, the first establishment one encounters when exiting the park via its pedestrian bridge over the Virgin into Springdale. I settle in at the bar and make a few temporary friends as we throw back beers. “Have these trips ever changed your life?” asks Russell from Philadelphia when I tell him the tale of my journey. Check back in with me later, I reply. A couple from Long Island then joins us, the husband glued to the North Carolina-Duke Final Four game on the TV, and I become a temporary Tar Heel fan at his behest. These are the best nights of solo travel, the momentary community a necessary counterpoint to the solitude of nights in tents.

On my final full day, I hike the full eight miles up Zion Canyon to the end of the road. At times I am on formal trails such as the Pa’rus across the meadows north of the Visitor Center, or the Kayenta between the Emerald Pools and the West Rim trailhead; at times I am on a semi-formal sandy track lining the river; and for long stretches I am just on the road, which is empty aside from shuttles every few minutes, the occasional car headed to the Lodge, and a steady string of cyclists. While the shuttle system has the effect of choking up certain spots when it disgorges busloads at certain popular locations, it means that vast amounts of the canyon, despite the number of visitors it hosts, are basically empty. Even in the four days since my backpacking excursion, the canyon seems lusher with spring, the cottonwoods’ leaves unfurling and purple and red and yellow flowers springing up here and there. I see a condor and a crane and a wild turkey, and at times the only sound is the rushing water of the Virgin River, which echoes off the canyon side walls. Never has a stroll up a road felt like such complete immersion.

After a quick recharge at the Novel House, I go for my final Zion hike: a quick burst up and down the Watchman Trail, which rises from the Visitor’s Center some 360 feet to views over Springdale, the campgrounds, and up the canyon. As on the West Rim, I half expect to find a shrine at the top, but instead it features verdant greenery crawling out of the rich red rock, a perfectly acceptable endpoint for a pilgrim to Zion. I sit for a while at the summit, process a few thoughts, make peace with the paths I’ve trodden over the past week. I read a passage I copied down from Leave only Footprints, a memoir by Conor Knighton, who visited all of the national parks in a meandering, yearlong post-breakup journey. Here, he contemplates a fireplace at the Grand Canyon that serves as a model for all its layers of rock:

Looking at a canyon’s different lines and layers, we can read its diary, seeing the various strata that made it what it is today. The layers are stripes, not smears; they all seem so clearly delineated. I wondered if, inside of each of us, those same markers exist. When we think of personality, we tend to think of it like a soup, a blend of traits and experiences that have been mixed together to make us the people we are today. Over the years, more and more gets added; the broth gets thicker, and the individual ingredients become harder to discern. It seemed to me that we might be more like that fireplace; like the canyon, full of layers with clear dividing lines; moments that say, from this point on, everything will be different. Maybe those lines mark deaths, births, loves, and losses, the moments we’d expect to define the different periods of our lives. Or, maybe they correspond to days and events we would have never initially seen as important.

Did I actually change as a person when I graduated from college? Probably not. Maybe a more significant shift happened midway through seventh grade, when my teacher told us to pick a college to do a report on, and instead of picking one that was good at sports, I chose Yale, a place I knew nothing about. Maybe your life changes on your wedding day, but I’d imagine the actual change happens on your fourth date, when the woman who will one day be your wife tells you a joke that somehow tells you she’s the one. It’s never clear a layer is over until the line appears and a new one starts. Looking past the fireplace, out to the canyon it represented, I began to think that I might be smack dab in the middle of an important layer, an era that was changing who I was as a person. There was the me before the parks, and there will be the me after them.

I ponder some of the layers in my own life, some obvious to any who know me and others more subtle. I was eight when I learned that the world could steal away life in an arbitrary instant, and eighteen when I learned it would be impossible to ever truly go home. At twenty-two I grounded a life that was somewhat adrift in a place, but by twenty-eight I found myself more in tune with the kid who had once run away from that place than the one who’d made a commitment to a thing that cannot love him back.

The world is forever changing, and that there is a sweet spot of knowing it will change you while knowing that you can also change parts of it. At twenty and twenty-one I began to sow the seeds of a worldview that understood this fact. Around twenty-six I internalized the power of forgiveness and began to appreciate that I did not need to define myself by the things I had lost. At twenty-seven and twenty-eight I undertook a writing project to interrogate these possibilities, and to play out the tension between competing strains of thought in my head. At twenty-nine and thirty I learned that more than a place I was in need of a pace, and have, perhaps, at thirty-one and thirty-two, found it.

In the four years since I last came to Zion I have hiked relentlessly forward in the fog, through a snow patch of work life upheaval and a climb up into a new Duluth network and on through the sticking mud of a two-year pandemic. It has been a relentless, and generally successful, but often very solitary phase. My navigation skills in any moment haven’t really been in doubt, but the view has not always been clear. Now, at long last, I think I can see again, and am even more eager to see where I am the next time I make my way to this canyon that has become my Eden.

In a few conversations before I left for the Grand Staircase, I described this venture as a last great solo trip, at least for the foreseeable future. This usually brought about a lament in response. Why stop now? I seem to love it, and I am good at it. But too much of my life has been caught up in a confusion between being good at things and therefore believing these are the things I must do. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever travel this way again, and I had some motivations for making this a solitary burst. But I have done what I set out to do, and I have came home content.

In these canyons there are always more layers, greater and greater depths and heights to explore. Some of it will be forever buried, and that is alright. But there are many more layers to discover, and next time I head forth, I don’t plan to do so alone.

Grand Staircase II: Stairway into the Unknown

This is Part 2 of a three-part travel series. Part 1 is here.

My night outside Zion is fitful, nervous, eager with anticipation, the sense that my plan for the next two days is no casual stroll. I have a one-night date with the West Rim Trail. When I go to collect my permit, the ranger appraises me carefully: this hike is a 3,000-foot climb, the upper reaches of the ascent are covered in snow, up top the trails are thick with mud, the only water source there is probably snow-covered, and oh, have you noticed all the rain in the forecast? I assure her I am a northern Minnesotan, and when she learns I’ve day hiked to three-quarters of the route before, she gains a bit more confidence in my abilities. The day dawns a dreary grey, which only makes for perfect hiking weather. A couple with overnight packs is also on my shuttle up the canyon, and we leapfrog our way all the way up to Cabin Spring, where they settle in at the first campsite on Zion’s roof.

This trek is one of phases. The first 2.5 miles follow the well-worn route to Angels Landing, the iconic clamber up chains between thousand-foot drop-offs that I conquered four years ago and feel zero compulsion to climb again. After Angels Landing is my favorite part of the whole trek, as the crowds thin out and the trail climbs a series of shelves with views to rival those of the famed promontory, culminating in a huge, white dome. From there, it tucks in along the backside of one of the mounts lining the canyon, past cool streams of snowmelt trickling down the rock. Higher up, the snow begins, first as little clumps alongside the trail, and later covering substantial portions of the trail itself, though it is firm enough and well-enough worn that at no point is it awful. At the top of the snow I encounter a family I’d seen high up on the East Rim the previous day, and their intrepid 10-year-old daughter advises me on how best to have fun with the snow. My kingdom for children who someday show the same pluck and guile as her. From here, there are more exposed switchbacks up another steep wall to the West Rim Lookout at Cabin Spring, where most day hikers (including myself four years ago) turn around.

I see no one in my 24 hours beyond Cabin Spring. There are more climbs, but they are gradual, and the muck is indeed treacherous in places, first as an insidious yellow mud that isn’t thick but clings to boots like leeches on legs, and later in a thicker, gloppy ascent with a full-blown stream running down the middle. The views are stellar, or so I am forced to guess: I am in the clouds, the chances to see outward sporadic, and while the mesa here is exposed enough that most snow is off the trail, it still clings to shaded hillsides. The late winter landscape takes on a haunted, empty air, and phantom voices carry through the howling wind. I am as alone as I’ve ever been.

Finally, I arrive at campsite 5, which sits atop a ridge between Phantom Valley to the west and Telephone and Imlay Canyons to the east. The clouds whip directly over me and plunge my ridge into obscurity, and I pass the afternoon cycling from one side to the other, admiring the vista in whichever direction has the higher clouds at that moment. I don’t tire of it. In time, though, the thicker clouds get too close, and rain, interspersed with ice pellets, begins to fall. I have a tent malfunction, but some string and some rocks solve my dilemma and keep me dry through a 12-hour span under the covers. I sleep poorly, never warm but never exactly cold, yet somehow content that I have made it where I want to be. I rise at sunrise and finally look out to see the view from my throne atop Zion. The world glitters beneath me, ignited by a fiery glow. I am transfixed, my pilgrimage at its apex.

I wait until nearly ten to break camp so the sun can eat away at the ice on my equipment and dry out as much as it can. The trek down reveals all the views I’d missed the day before, made somehow more stunning by their temporary withholding, and I plow down in an hour less time than it took me to make the climb. Beyond the snowy bits I join a day-hiking couple from Beaver Bay, just an hour north of Duluth; we trade shared acquaintances as we go. Angels Landing is an absolute zoo, and I may have seen it at its absolute worst: in just two days, the National Park Service is finally imposing a permit system on the famed hike, and only the select, pre-scheduled few will be able to head up the chains. I fight the crowds down the switchbacks and settle for a half-mile stroll along the canyon bottom back to the Zion Lodge for a much-needed meal and a drink.

The Lodge is not quite what the doctor ordered for a weary hiker. The food has all the flavor of a McDonalds with none of the speed. There is only one beer on tap until the distributor’s truck arrives again, though at least it is a decent local microbrew. There are no open tables and alcohol is not allowed off the patio on to the inviting lawn, so I decamp on a wall by the beer stand until a departing couple takes pity on me. I pay it forward and let a couple from St. Louis join me, and we bond over our fondness for road trips and incredulity over the crowds. (Shouldn’t all these children be in school?!) I share my shuttle back down the canyon with a clump of high schoolers on some sort of Christian retreat, all of whom ignore the mask mandate and talk earnestly about what they are looking for in relationships. Is it bad that my instinct is to buy them a case of beer?

I return to my car and climb back up out of Zion, back through the Mount Carmel tunnel and then north on US-89. My abode for the next two nights is a no-frills roadside cabin some 20 miles west of Bryce Canyon, and my dinner that night comes at a family diner in the town of Panguich, a bustling joint staffed almost entirely by teenagers. From my spot at the bar, I get a front row seat to the chaos, as the POS system is deemed a POS and three orders come out for tables with no one sitting at them. At least the wings are tasty.

A poll of acquaintances who have visited both Zion and Bryce has been inconclusive on which is better. While Bryce cannot match the sheer scale of Zion, it has an intimacy to it, and its famed hoodoos never cease to amaze with their wild shapes. Trails chart labyrinthine courses around the pinnacles of rock, never flat as they wind down to the floor of the canyon and then back up and around to get over to the next feature. South of the bustling amphitheater, a 17-mile road snakes its way up past 9,000 feet in elevation, with repeated overlooks up and down the Grand Staircase and across the Paria River valley. It’s snowing when I arrive, and while it is a bit too warm for anything to accumulate, three more squalls break out over the course of the day. The most eventful one comes as I traverse the Bristlecone Trail at the far end of the scenic drive; the woman I am following loses the trail entirely for a spell. She is one of five lost people I help over the course of the day, and I can’t pass up the opportunity to lament the decline of navigational skills. “Trust me, I don’t get lost!” I want to yell at the dude making his second circuit of the Peek-a-Boo Trail even though he is sure he isn’t; later in the day, we meet at an overlook and he concedes defeat. Don’t mess with my geography skills.

The burst of wind and snow that nearly stole my hat away atop Bryce Point tells me it’s time to wrap things up here. I wrap up my Bryce hiking with a quick trot to an ice-filled cave off Highway 12, where dripping water produces a trickling symphony that silences the cluster of viewers. I am glad I saw Bryce, but in a day, I feel like I have seen what it has to offer, while after nearly a week in Zion across two trips, I still haven’t touched its northern unit or The Narrows or Observation Point or its little-known southern desert. I conclude my tour of Bryce with a geology lesson in the visitor center, content with a rock-filled day sandwiched between two experiences of wilderness sublime.

This entire trip is, in effect, a traverse of the Grand Staircase, a series of rock layers that rise up from the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River into central Utah. These different bands of geological time give the rocks different hues, often ending in dramatic dropping shelves. Closest to the Colorado are the Chocolate Cliffs, while the Vermilion Cliffs rise near Kanab, just south of the Utah-Arizona state line, and include the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, the areas around Colorado City, and the lower layers of Zion. Next come the White Cliffs, which look like a jagged scrape on an aerial image; they form Zion’s upper reaches. The drive from Zion to Bryce follows the cut of the Sevier River up through the Grey Cliffs, and finally, at the top, are the Pink Cliffs that reach the heights of Bryce at 9,000 feet. Above these sit the great upland plateaus of south-central Utah, themselves rising in steps: the Markagunt, the Paunsaugunt, and the Aquarius. The Staircase’s eastern railing is the Kaiparowits Plateau, which stretches down from the Aquarius to the Colorado and falls off on its own eastern side from the Straight Cliffs into the canyonlands of the Escalante River. It is in this remote land, the last portion of the lower 48 states to be mapped by the US government, that I will spend the bulk of the next two days.

The drive east from Bryce has the distinct feeling of heading deeper into the wilderness. I tumble down from the Paunsaugunt through a series of Mormon frontier towns in the Paria River valley, oasis outposts with verdant fruit trees clustering around dust-choked homes. The road winds up into the Kaipirowits and down through funky Escalante, traffic thinned to a trickle. My eagerness at this fresh landscape grows, but nothing quite prepares for the Head of the Rocks Overlook, where the scrubby plateau disappears and the rocky canyonlands of the Escalante River undulate out in all directions below, the ribbon of the CCC-built Highway 12 the only thing interrupting the march of these rocky waves out to a few snow-capped ranges on the fringes of the wilderness.

At the direction of a ranger, I head straight for the Calf Creek Campground and claim one of the 13 sites nestled just above that small stream’s confluence with the Escalante. I wish I could have arrived just two weeks later to see this small Eden at its best, but as it is, these oases in the desert are budding and coming to life. I plug up the creek some three miles to Lower Calf Creek Falls, a 120-foot plunge of water into a deep, cold pool. The route is gradual, with views to ancient pictographs and granaries up on cliffs, and while a healthy crowd hikes this trail, it has nothing on Zion or Bryce. I dip my feet in the icy waters and take my time to soak in the warmth on the stroll back.

After a recovery spell in a hammock, I drive north into Boulder. On the way, Highway 12 skirts high above Calf Creek and the canyonlands to the east, an Angels Landing for cars atop the ridge, and then plunges into Boulder, the last town in the US to have mule-delivered mail, accessible only by unpaved road until the 1980s. The Burr Trail, an old cattle route, swings east from here, and a cheery sign announces a mere 72-mile trip to the Lake Powell Ferry. The trek would take hours; I settle for a trip in to the aptly named Long Canyon, a deep red gash in the stone, and home to a lonely slot canyon worthy of a quick exploration. That night, back at Calf Creek, I hop up on a natural red rock seat, sip away at some wine, and drift into a reverie as the stars emerge, deep in this lonely desert, the crackling fires and stray laughs across the campground filling me with a warmth independent of the cool evening air.

Some ice forms in the water bottle I leave out on the picnic table, but I have my soundest night of sleep in a tent on this trip. After packing up, I do a 6-mile stroll up and down the Escalante, wading its frigid waters 14 times as I process up the canyon to a natural bridge and an arch. The trail snakes along those pure flowing waters, up and down ledges and across dry washes, nestling beneath cliffs and cottonwoods and through fields of sage. All is at peace.

I take my time in making my exit from Grand Staircase-Escalante. First, another hiker mentions some unadvertised petroglyphs just above the parking lot by the river where I’ve been hiking, so I head up the trail opposite the river and, after a few false turns, arrive at these signs from the past. On the other side of the river, I pause for a scrumptious lunch at the Kiva Koffeeshop, a new agey wonder built right into the hill, with views up and down the canyon. Grand Staircase-Escalante is a beauty, Zion’s essence distilled to its basics and stripped of its crowds. I shall return.

Part 3 is here.

A Quest for Moose

Up until this past weekend, I had seen two moose up close in the wild. One was a tame sighting from a canoe; the other, which wandered in front of the family car during a nighttime drive down the Gunflint Trail when I was young, may have been the closest I have ever come to death. This docile creature, seemingly part deer and part cow, has otherwise been an elusive presence for a resident of northern Minnesota. While a quest for moose is hardly a search for snow leopards in the Himalaya, they are part of the local allure, and a trip to Isle Royale seemed the perfect way to rectify this lack of large, furry, antlered beasts.

Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior. It sits some 20 miles off the coast of Minnesota and Canada, though it is a part of Michigan, leading those who come from the Minnesota entry to eternal time zone confusion. It is the least visited national park in the United States outside of Alaska. Over the past century it has gained some fame for its moose and wolf populations, which often move in relation to one another, though lately the wolves have preferred to wander off across the ice pack in winters and thrown the balance out of whack. The island’s folded rock is the geological twin of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, its length scarred by the glaciers that formed Lake Superior and created the lake-studded Northwoods that I call home.

After a year in which I kept up my travel pace largely by sacrificing companionship, I am eager to tread trails with other people. My fellow hikers, Connor and Alex, are new to backpacking but well-prepared for this venture. (We are all planners, after all.) Rarely have I been the experienced hand on my group hiking excursions, but as I relate tales of past excursions as part of the steady chatter that takes our minds off our feet, I realize just how much exploration I’ve done in my life. And though I’ve never been to Isle Royale before, it feels like home turf. When my companions, both St. Paul residents, ask me on the drive up if Lake Superior ever gets old, the answer is an easy ‘no.’ This realm is my playground, and these outdoor pursuits are among my fondest pastimes.

The ferry dock for boats to Isle Royale is in Grand Portage, the final settlement on Minnesota’s North Shore. With the Canadian border four miles to the northeast still closed, Highway 61 is quiet, and the settlement nestles sedately around a large bay. Grand Portage is home to an American national monument dedicated to French voyageurs, but it is primarily home for members of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, whose tribal headquarters are here, along with a campground, a general store, and a casino, which provides our lodging the night before the ferry departs. Randomly pressing buttons nets me $6.91 off the free $15 casino voucher I get for being a hotel guest. I consider it a win, though Connor’s haul dwarfs those of Alex and me.

The Voyageur II, our ferry, nears its capacity of about 50 for this jaunt across the strait that separates the island from the Minnesotan and Canadian shoreline. The boat heads first for Windigo, its western port of entry, which is the destination for my travel party and the vast majority of our fellow sailors. From there, it will ply its way around the island, with stops at a few smaller trailheads and an overnight at Rock Harbor on the eastern end before it completes its circuit back to Grand Portage. I pop my Dramamine and settle on to a rigid bench for the two-hour ride.

Isle Royale is not a complete and utter wilderness. A hotel still operates at Rock Harbor, and both Rock Harbor and Windigo are home to additional buildings, including ranger stations, Park Service stores, and bathrooms with actual plumbing. Small motorized vehicles putter about these entry points, seaplanes drone past with some regularity, and after a bad storm rolls through on our final morning, a chorus of chainsaws rings out through camp as the rangers re-open the trails. It would be possible to have a vacation here that is rustic but requires minimal physical exertion, and the day trip ferries, which resume service the day after our departure, no doubt add to the touristy nature of these outposts at each end of the island.

Most visitors to Isle Royale, however, embark on backcountry expeditions, the most famed being the 45-mile hike from Rock Harbor to Windigo across the spine of the island and the opportunity to canoe and portage across a chain of small lakes on the northeastern end. Our hiking loop is a standard 30-plus mile route for those who come from the west end. It begins in Windigo and circles its way counterclockwise through the southwest portion of the island, with tastes of everything it has to offer: inland lakes, Lake Superior waterfront, ridges along the central spine, an old mine, and, of course, moose.

The first day is an eight-mile walk from Windigo to Feldtmann Lake, which looks like prime moose habitat on the map. The trail follows Lake Superior for a spell and then clambers up a ridge with views of a swampy interior, which it then drops to and skirts on its way around to Feldtmann Lake. The trail here is tame and relatively flat, though the underbrush, thinner than on the mainland, is clear evidence of moose activity. Many balsam firs along the path seem stunted, with all the vegetation shorn from their lower branches and only some tufts of needles at the top, away from prying mouths. Later, a ranger tells us that some of these trees can be decades old, and not the saplings they seem to be, due to the constant nibbling. We come to Feldtmann Lake to find the best two campsites occupied, but settle for a respectable one just a short distance away from the lake.

Isle Royale campgrounds are unlike others I’ve encountered before. Often eight to ten miles apart, they are sparser than those on the Superior Hiking Trail or in other backcountry realms I’ve hiked. They make up for their scarcity with clumps of sites in marked campgrounds. My initial reaction to this setup is not one of great love: it’s hardly deep wilderness when there are five other parties within two hundred yards of one’s site, and yet since we are all strewn across our own distinct areas, the conviviality that comes with sharing a site with ten other hikers does not come as easily. Still, over the course of three days, we get to know two 40-something women from the Chicago area who are on the same route; a quieter couple is also on the same circuit, and a few others linger to chat here and there.

There is also some surprising variation in the amenities. Siskiwit Bay, which has its own very new-looking dock, features picnic tables at the sites, while several Feldtmann Lake sites lack even the rudimentary seating log common at deep wilderness camps. Of the four campgrounds we tour, only Island Mine has fire pits, and Washington Creek, a stone’s throw from the ferry dock at Windigo, is more of a collection of wooden shelters with single screened sides, with a few sad tent sites tucked behind them for overflow. Some of these variations are logical enough, but it makes every stop a new adventure.

Despite the lack of seating options, a strong breeze off Feldtmann Lake knocks down all the bugs on the first night and gives us a pleasant evening. We take our dinner a short distance away at the placid pebble beach of Rainbow Cove along Lake Superior. Later, back at the site, we deploy a wood-burning stove of questionable legality and stay up late enough to watch the stars come out. A thunderstorm hits while we’re still in tents the next morning, and after it blows over, I peek out of my tent for the first time and am immediately greeted by a female moose plodding past our site down the path. Success! I’m too slow with the camera to get a respectable picture, but I need not worry: a short while later she makes her way back up the shoreline, stopping to chew on plants, and a male friend follows her shortly thereafter. We take our time to admire them from as close a distance as we dare.

The second day’s hike begins with a placid wrap around Feldtmann Lake’s southern shore, the trail high and dry from the surrounding swampland on a short ridge, moose prints dotting the mud. We then charge up a steep climb to Feldtmann Ridge, which offers looks back over the lake and to Superior beyond, a series of false summits offering better and better views before we settle into a ridgetop plod, often in direct sun. Next comes a beaver pond and a gentle trickle of a stream before we come to a defunct fire tower that now serves as a lunch spot, where we meet an older couple heading the opposite direction and the Chicago area women, one of whom gracefully tips over her camp chair while holding a freshly reconstituted bag of freeze-dried chili. We clamber up the tower as far as we can for equal doses of pretty views and vertigo before continuing on our merry way. The trail descends into the largest birch grove I’ve ever seen, though it later degenerates into a buggy, scrubby, scorching hot swampland as we slog across the final miles to Siskiwit Bay.

Siskiwit Bay is a prominent bite into Isle Royale’s southern shoreline. A large vessel, perhaps from the Coast Guard, sits at anchor toward its mouth, and after sunset, a distant lighthouse blinks away. The two shelters are already taken, but we claim the best of the tent sites, open to the wind and with an access down to a small private beach. We while away the afternoon here and eat dinner in a shadier spot down on the main beach by the large new dock, where the pebbles conveniently rest in a seat-height berm. A picnic table at the end of the dock catches a strong breeze, and we stay out here as the sun plunges into the horizon. Our muscles ache and a rodent may have gotten into the cookies, but none of that matters. We are deep into hiking trip bliss.

The next morning dawns in brilliant sun, and we make much better time in breaking down camp. Beaver activity has made the trail impassable around the back of Siskiwit Bay, so we are diverted to the beach, and this next mile and a half, save for a mucky bushwhack to an inland bridge over the Big Siskiwit River, wraps along the shoreline. It is the most beautiful part of the hike. The lake glows golden in the morning sun, and the thick forest to our left keeps us on the straight and narrow path. A few crystal-clear rivulets make their way down across the beach and into the pristine inland sea. The Chicago ladies, headed just a few short miles to Island Mine on this day, are sprawled in chairs and soaking in the sun. I am loath to leave it, but leave it we must, and the next stage of the hike climbs some 800 feet upward, first through mud obstacle courses and then over a series of aggressive ridges that take their toll.

On this stretch of trail we get a window into Isle Royale’s human history. Called Minong by the Ojibwe, a word translating to “the good place” or “the place of abundance,” it was an early source of copper mining, and white settlers later returned for the same purpose. We pass an empty well shaft and a large pile of mining overburden, the remnants of a short-lived 1870s operation here on the hillside. Lunch comes at the Island Mine campground, a series of sites strewn across a low ridge of maples in a valley between two higher rises. We’ve been waffling on whether to spend the night here or press on to Washington Creek, but with our energy restored by lunch and a looming threat of bugs here and the need to be on time for a ferry the next day, Alex convinces us to pound out the last 6.5 miles.

We make the right choice. The trail from Island Mine back toward Windigo is a wide, gentle descent through a shady maple forest, its halls carpeted by a dense layer of blanched-out leaves from down the years. We pass a series of parties going the other direction, all fresh off the ferry and chipper; Island Mine will be crowded on this night. The Washington Creek campground, however, has several open shelters for us to choose from, and once again we choose right. As we laze about the site reading that afternoon, I glance up toward some stray movement in the thicket between our shelter and the next and see a male moose just a few feet from our site making his way down the steep bank toward the creek, which at this point is more of an estuary. We hustle down our own path to the water and tuck in to watch him as he plods about, munching at pond scum and shaking water back and forth off his antlers.

The moose show is only beginning, though. A short while later we pick out a mother and her calf, who cannot be more than two or three weeks old. They pick their way upstream, and, with some urging from its mother, the calf emits some near-human wails as it strikes out across the water to join her. Next, an interlude of amusing ducks and ducklings, which Connor calls the Greek chorus of our trip. Two more moose, including a large bull, wake us early the next morning, and a distant female downstream provides the final act. Mission accomplished.

Our travel plan again seems prudent when the when the storm rages across the island on our final morning. The Chicago women, who set out around 5:30 from Island Mine, report a terrifying hike down, with a tree falling next to them and the trail so darkened by the storm that they pull out headlamps. By the time they arrive in Windigo, however, they are free to share a very good story, and a few other familiar faces join us for a ranger lecture before the ferry collects us again. The boat ride back to Grand Portage is as smooth as possible, and Connor and I head to the bow to watch the green North Shore bluffs and Mount Josephine rise up to welcome us back to the mainland, a narrow band of undulating green between two rich, blue expanses of unfathomable depth. I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

USVI II: Beached

Part One is here.

The pandemic may drain people away from the crowded shopping streets of Caribbean islands, but life prostrate on a towel has the same allure it always does. Here we are free to get sand all over ourselves and glug mouthfuls of saltwater, to sweat unnecessarily and court the inevitable sunburn. This is, of course, the point. During my two weeks on St. Thomas, I sample beaches both old and new to me in my ventures outward, plus add two days of hiking on neighboring St. John. Each venture ends with a seat in the sand or a swim in the sea, a beached state of bliss that kills worries nearly as well as the rum.

On one of my first free days on the island I head to the far west end of St. Thomas. Here, the arching island tumbles down to a gated community kind enough to allow the unwashed masses to sign in at the guard hut. From there, it’s a little over a mile by foot down the road past some obscenely large houses to the westernmost point on the island. Its name is the Mermaid’s Chair, and while I never quite figure out if I should be looking for seated mermaids on the spit of land that gets covered at high tide or beneath the lone palm tree on the little isle connected by the spit or on the rocks where waves crash beyond it, the place provides a serene respite. The sunset here is sublime, and the waves crash harder than anywhere else on St. Thomas. It’s not really a beach in the traditional sense, but I find some shade behind a rock and wade into a small inlet and along through the surf, alone here at the seeming end of the earth.

My second St. Thomas beach may not be a pristine beauty, but it has the best vibe of the ones I’ve sampled. Hull Bay on the island’s north shore sits somewhere between the solitude of a St. John beach and the built-up resort offerings. If the beachside bar hadn’t been sadly shut down, it would have taken me back to Puerto Escondido. When I arrive late morning, the only occupants seem to be locals. I chat with a commercial fisherman who is measuring out his kite and learn the basics of fishing these waters. Two men with metal detectors make their way up and down the beach, while a child associated with them digs a hole to Tibet in the sand. I join two middle-aged surf bums in incredulous gawking as a pristine-looking yacht tender plows straight into the beach so it can disgorge a few picnickers. Nonplussed, its pilot and an assistant work their way off the sand with some haphazard pushing and rocking, and in time head out on their merry way. “The year is only ten hours old and we have a contender for dumbass of the year,” says one of the surf bums.

Hull Bay has a reputation as a surfing beach, though only two people venture out while I’m there. The first is a teenage boy who looks every bit the surf star with a shock of sun-bleached curls, but after a few tentative steps into the breakers he settles for swimming out into the calmest part of the bay and riding his board back in on his chest before calling it quits. The second is a greying stand-up paddleboarder who stays out on the larger swells for at least two hours, bobbing away on the horizon. Score one for those of us advancing in age. The fisherman says I look like a surfer; in a different life, perhaps, I muse.

There isn’t much in the way of surfing on Magens Bay, the giant bite out of the north side of St. Thomas and its most famous beach. It’s a busy one, but large enough that people can strew themselves out along its length and splash around in the gentle turquoise waters. I traipse from one end to the other and admire the bodies on display, skimpy bikinis and pretty boy swag, plus some things that people would be better off putting away. It’s been too long since I last sampled humanity in this way. That night in bed, I feel the rocking sensation of the bay’s waves carrying me off to sleep.

Secret Harbor, which protects its secrets with about 40 speed bumps and a parking lot unnecessarily atop a hill nowhere near the beach, is an intimate stretch of sand, the sort that would be great with a group but leaves me feeling exposed when there alone. Snorkelers work their way out to its convenient reef, and the blasé servers at the seaside restaurant eventually get around to feeding me. I vaguely regret heading here on my final full day instead of ponying up for the ferry to neighboring St. John for a third time, but a little unfulfilled desire can’t hurt. I’ll be back for Maho Bay some other day.

A second stop that day, Smith Bay, restores me to my beach equilibrium. Sure, my newly developed beach snobbery leads me to conclude it’s nothing special. But there is plenty of shade, and both local and tourist families splash about in its waters and snorkel out to its buoys. Sailboats work their way back and forth into the bay, and I wrap up a book in peace and solitude. It’s a fitting final destination, though not this trip’s apex. On the drive back, I cast one last look of longing toward the island where dreams and reality blurred on this trip.

That place would be St. John, a sparsely populated isle half an hour to the east of St. Thomas by ferry. The city of Cruz Bay, its main gateway for ferry traffic from St. Thomas, is a couple of clusters of shops near the docks, and then a series of villas clinging to the hills up above it. Beyond that, the majority of the land is devoted to the Virgin Islands National Park, and after I escape the ferry traffic, I head straight for the hills.

St. John’s roads are even more painfully tortured than those of St. Thomas; I’m not sure whether to admire the engineers for their accomplishments or recommend them to the asylum. Being a driver on St. John deprives one of some marvelous scenery, since one’s eyes are always fixed on the next hairpin turn and leerily checking that tailgating garbage truck in the rear view mirror. Additional obstacles include a leisurely herd of goats, a monstrous feral pig, and some burros who look miffed when a car traveling the opposite direction gets too close. The pace of life on St. John is a world apart.

The Reef Bay Trail is one of the island’s best-known hikes, and it plunges some 900 feet from Centerline Road along the spine of the island to its namesake bay on the south shore. Ruins line the route: pull back the jungle on St. John and you find a less serene part of the Virgin Islands’ history than its pastel buildings and its cobblestone streets. Like most of the Caribbean, they were once a hub of the slave trade, and the ruins of its sprawling estates litter the landscape: a crumbling wall here, an old storehouse there, a cluster of old homes back in the thicket. Right before the Reef Bay beach is an old sugar factory, whose owners kept it going on steam power after abolition. And for truly deep roots, a side trail leads to a trickling waterfall and a pair of pools beneath some petroglyphs from the pre-Columbian Taino, who drew themselves a cartoon squid his crustacean friends. On the way back up I see how fast I can move in tropical heat, my sweatiness unnerving some not-particularly-fit hikers I meet near the top of the ridge.

On the far southeast end of St. John, a crowded trailhead leads down to the Salt Pond Beach, an idyllic, calm cove that hosts a small armada of snorkelers. I join a family who has sailed here from Georgia for a few false starts further down the beach as we seek out the Ram’s Head Trail, which climbs over to a rocky beach before ascending a bluff that juts out into the sea and gives 360-degree views. There’s little shade, and when I get back to Salt Pond Beach, I am content to lounge in the shade away from the water’s edge, a second sweaty journey of the day complete. Yes, I think, St. John is worth the hype.

St. John’s greatest gems may be on its north shore, the white sand beaches of Hawksnest, Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Maho Bay. The road here is stupidly pretty; the second-best North Shore on earth, I crack to friends back on another one now covered in snow. My birthday destination, however, is the end of the road at Annaberg, where the ruins of St. John’s largest plantation sit in repose over Leinster Bay. I follow a trail along the beach for a bit over a mile and briefly thrash around the ruins at the base of the hill where the trail turns away from the famed snorkeling spot of Waterlemon Bay. I first found this trail when volunteering with the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, on an outing for which we chopped out some of the brush along the trail and the ruins here; now, the jungle is encroaching again. Sufficiently scratched up by the undergrowth, I switch up to the ruined foundations of the Windy Hill House, the estate that once lorded over this whole expanse.

From there, I set out on a loop that takes me over the ridge from the north shore to the large southeastern bite out of St. John named Coral Bay. I follow the Brown Bay Trail further along the shore to another small beach a bit over a mile beyond. I have this one to myself, and tuck in beneath its encroaching undergrowth for a few minutes of shade. I only see one person on this entire trail, a relentless trail runner with whom I share a sweaty grin as we crest the hill with views both north and south. A few more ruins lie off the side near the end of the trail, which dumps me out on a road that runs along the East End peninsula. From there, it’s another mile along pavement through the hamlet of Zootenvaal, the easternmost reach of the United States.

I come to crossroads of Coral Bay, a collection of houses up on the hill and rundown shacks along the road, placid in the midday heat. I’d hoped to stop for a snack and to down some water next to its historic Moravian church, but the burros have occupied the spot beneath the one shady tree. Resigned, I turn and march 500 feet directly up a relentless grade; this is allegedly a road, but I’m not sure any vehicle could survive this thing. Naturally, the sun comes back out for its most intense burst of heat of the day while I’m slogging up. I crest the hill and saunter down the Johnny Horn Trail, which carries me back to the Windy Hill Great House.

I stop for lunch on a shaded set of steps on the ruins of the estate. The old house’s perch may be unbeatable: Leinster Bay and its sailboats to the left, Tortola of the British Virgin Islands across the Sir Francis Drake Passage to the right, shapely Great Thatch and quaint Little Thatch in front, and beyond it, Jost Van Dyke. The ruins are shrouded in pink flowers (which are, alas, an invasive Mexican creeper), its past lives as an overlord of slaves and a boarding house and a reform school now taken back by the wilds of St. John. A light rain pushes through, and I welcome the cleansing shower. I snack away, sip at a flask of rum, jot down a few notes, and attain something resembling nirvana.

At the bottom of the hill, I strip off my sweat-caked shirt and wade into the bay. I edge out gingerly, leery of urchins, and then strike out to a depth where I can float and tread water in peace. A few fish flit past my ankles, and I peer into the depths in this snorkeling haven as well as I can without goggles. A few motorboats come and go. The sun drifts in and out from behind the clouds. Hikers process up and down the beach in no real rush. I wonder just how long I can tread water, even though I know I must move on.

When a large family occupies the beach directly next to my bag, I decide it’s time to leave Leinster Bay behind. I do so with great reluctance. I stick with flip-flops for the beachfront stroll back to the car, where I change out of my sweaty hiking gear and take a brief spin through the Annaberg plantation. On a previous visit, it was packed, with docents and a little booth where a woman served juice from the plantation’s old kitchen; today, it is just me and a picnicking couple. Last time, I remember standing here, transfixed by a vista through the branches of a tree toward the sea; today, I find that spot again and internalize it as deeply as I can.

I make my way back into Cruz Bay. After a parking odyssey, I find the St. John Brewing Company’s tap room, which is tucked away on an upper level of the labyrinthine Mongoose Junction shopping area. The beer does the job, and I befriend Jim and Kate from Connecticut at the next table, the three of us reveling at the joys of dining in a restaurant and working remotely. How we’ve all missed this spontaneity, this liberation afforded by the most pristine of Virgins.

I take the ferry back at sunset. I’m at once hungry for more and fully satisfied: I could spend weeks on St. John, most likely, but I drank enough from its well on this trip to keep me going for years. How can I miss a place that provides a window unto eternity?

Part 3: Solitude in Paradise

Past Peak

2020 has been a year made for tents. Deprived of so many of our normal summer pursuits, Americans have taken to mesh walls en masse over the past summer, and I have been no exception. In mid-October, I head out on one final expedition of the year, barring some tempting Indian summer or a drastic change of heart in my appetite winter camping. It’s time to knock out one more stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail before I trade in my hiking boots for my cross-country skis in the next month or two.

I begin at the Caribou River wayside, which sits just west of the Cook County line and the shoreline village of Schroeder. I’d hiked the first couple miles of this trail a few falls ago and thought it would look better once the leaves were mostly gone. I’m not disappointed: the ridgeline here offers near-constant views down to the lake through the trunks of the nearly barren aspens and birches. On this sunny day, Lake Superior is as rich a royal blue as I’ve ever seen, a thick bar between a blurred out-sky and the grey of barren trees, broken only by the shimmering silver of the sun. From clearer vistas, the slopes below look spackled in gold dust, the last of the leaves still clinging to their bows. The wealth of the Shore comes in silvers and golds, the rippling glass of the lake shimmering from one to another based on the cloud cover.

The leaves along the Superior Hiking Trail are mostly past their peak, and this decline in chlorophyll leaves me ruminating about other things that are past their peak. For example, America. Or human life outside the digital sphere. Or the novel as an art form. Or myself. (I am now at the age where, when my favorite sports teams sign people my age, I question whether they’ll still have value by the end of their contracts.) Everything is in decline, along with the leaves. Isn’t that a happy thought to ponder?

The next segment of trail is new to me, and begins even more barren than before. Its highlight is serene Alfred’s Pond, where a few tamaracks are alight and glowing along its banks. The stretch rolls through tame ups and downs aside from one steep hill by Dyer’s Creek, and with little in the way of major attractions it is one of the quieter stretches of Superior Hiking Trail I’ve seen. I play leapfrog with a jovial older man on my way up and past my stop for lunch, and an orange-clad multigenerational crew out hunting grouse also rolls past. A stretch lining the Two Island River provides a leisurely river walk, and I pause to ponder the long-past-peak railroad line from the former LTV Steel taconite mine in Hoyt Lakes (dead since 2001) to the ghost town of Taconite Harbor (dead since its last remaining feature, a power plant, shuttered in 2016).

I come to the parking lot off Cook County 1, and decide that this looks familiar, albeit much smaller than it did the last time I was here. Somewhere there is a picture of my eight-year-old self next to this sign: in the summer of 1998, my dad took me on my first overnight backpacking trip from here to the Temperance River. My other memories of this trip mostly involve hornets, one of which stung me. My whitewashed childhood memories make me think I took the sting in stride, though I will have to run this theory by my dad. I climb a ridge and the forest turns to maple, affording me the chance to crunch through a several-inch layer of leaves. Along the Cross River I catch and pass two parties, feeling good about my progress: I’ve seen no other hikers going this direction who seem to be plausibly targeting the two sites near the bridge. Maybe I’ll have some relative solitude.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? When my dad and I stayed here 22 years ago, we were the only party at the two sites. Now, a tent city has sprung up, and the two sites have bled together into one sprawling metropolis. By the time the two parties I’d passed roll into camp, there are no fewer than nine tents and one hammock nestled in along the banks of the Cross River. My own tent pad is practically on top of the trail, though mercifully flat and right next to some roaring rapids to drown out any noisy neighbors. I grumble that it may be time to look further afield for my weekend hikes. Add solitude on the Superior Hiking Trail to the list of things that are well past their peak. 

Still, the site works. I spend a while reading and writing on rocks along the riverbank, safely reaching Zen. Everyone is quiet and respectful, and the dog with the largest party is mercifully quiet. I never need to poop, which is a relief, because the latrine perches on a ridge directly above the largest cluster of tents, the undergrowth that provides privacy long since fallen to the forest floor. The neighbors I do meet, a Duluth couple around my parents’ age named Paul and Eileen, are lovely company as we cook our dinners at one of the fire rings. I head back to the riverbank for some headlamp writing as the stars come out, and am surprised to see I’m the last light on in camp.

It is a chill night along the Cross River, but my new sleeping bag liner is up to the task, and I sleep well enough given the circumstances. My campmates are early risers, and many get on the trail before I do; I shoot past three parties in the first two miles, for a second time scaring one of the women I’d passed the day before by politely announcing my presence from about 20 feet off. The ridge between the Cross and Temperance Rivers features more of those autumn windows down to the lake. That seems to be the mood of this hike: exposed, but with little that needs to hide anyway.

I don’t linger much along the banks of the Temperance River; I’d already hiked the east bank, which seems to afford the better views, earlier this year. Carlton Peak looms up more prominently with few leaves on the trees; I can see its dome looming through the barren boughs, my final climb on this hike. I wonder vaguely if there’s a steeper vertical than this nearly 900-foot climb from the Temperance anywhere in the Midwest. When I get to the base of the bulk of the climb, a 300-foot shot up to the peak’s long western arm, I resolve not to stop on the way up: who knows if this climb has a speed record, but whatever it is, I want to push it. The exhilaration of summiting is one of the best raw emotions I’ve felt in a while.

An overlook on the western end proves underwhelming, so I pick my way toward the looming anorthosite dome and scramble up toward the final 200 feet to the top of Carlton Peak. I eat lunch at its highest point, which is surprisingly free of people, and make my last additions to my notebook over at the Ted Tofte overlook next to a plaque in memory of a rock climber who perished on Carlton Peak some 30 years ago. I was plenty warm in a long-sleeved running shirt while I hiked, but as I sit atop an exposed dome, the chill sets in quickly. I move past yet another peak and trudge on down the final mile of my hike to the parking lot on the Sawbill Trail.

Peaks never last, and it’s dangerous to linger on them for too long. Renewal can yet come. Winter has its merits, and spring will come again. The United States will have a chance to write plenty of different futures, and our past definition of greatness may not have been the best one. My crowded campsite shows there are plenty of people who still yearn to get off the grid. The New Yorker short story I read before bed in my tent is the most engrossing one I’ve read in years; the written word isn’t dead yet. The Yankees may be out of the playoffs, but their immediate future still looks pretty bright. We will have a hockey season this winter, limited as it may be. My legs are in as good of shape as they’ve ever been.

To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay on the mountaintop remains an impossibility. But the view from on high is commanding, and the glimmers we catch can carry us all the way through to the end. The question remains: what do we do when we find ourselves past a peak, and how do we respond when old strengths may not be what they once were? With resolve, perhaps, or with an eye to lessons that might still hold true. Perhaps even with a hint of panache. These fallen leaves may just be the nutrients the soil needs for a rebirth at the other end of a cycle.

WRT III, Part 2: The Park of Parks

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

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

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

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.

Gophers Out of Holes

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.