Tag Archives: hiking

Paradise Lost

16 Jul

This post is the first in a series of two on my recent trip to California.

As far as hiking trails go, the Lost Coast Trail doesn’t appear overly challenging. Totaling just 24.5 miles over four days, this is a placid pace by my standards, and there’s little in the way of elevation to contend with. It’s a hike along a beach wedged between the Pacific and the King Range in Humboldt County, the longest undeveloped stretch of Pacific coastline in the lower 48. Its greatest challenges are three zones totaling just over eight miles in length that are impassable at high tide, so hikers must bring tide tables and pick and choose their start and stop times. Informal campsites sit at the mouths of creeks that feed into the ocean at regular intervals along the trail. The Lost Coast isn’t totally lost, as my party encounters plenty of fellow trekkers, but all but a handful follow favorable breezes from north to south, and long stretches are just my five companions and I working our way through the fog on a narrow band of land separating jagged peaks and unfathomable depths.

Hiking the Lost Coast is unlike a jaunt on a more traditional trail. One can’t just stare at one’s feet, or gaze off at the mountains or the sea for too long. Lost Coast hikers have to pick their lines, much like Alpine skiers, finding the best route over this avenue of choppy rocks and boulders and sand and incoming waves. Back sides of ridges, when wide enough, tend to be most stable, as do depressions behind them where the sand stays wet and thus more firm. Without obstacles, wet sand close to the surf is the best highway forward, though it bears the not insignificant risk of wet feet or frantic rushes inward at every rogue wave. Rarely is it a technically demanding trail, but it is often a slog over terrain that shifts beneath every footstep.

For this trip, I’m a new addition to a group that has, plus or minus a couple of members, taken a backpacking trip once a year for the past decade. The organizer is my uncle Bob, and our number includes my cousin Rob, Bob’s sister Betsy, her friend Amy, and family friend Ed, a divergent group of personalities with homes ranging from Louisville to San Francisco, united by a fondness for meandering down paths in the wilderness. Uncle Bob promises me an adventure, and after an hour of wrangling over food choices at a San Francisco, their two additional stops within twenty miles of a lunch stop in Santa Rosa, and a laborious gear distribution affair at a hotel in Garberville the night before our hike, I’m starting to doubt my wisdom in joining this trip. But they are entertaining company, and by the time we hit the trail, I’m reassured that I’m in the company of five committed adventurers.

We leave our cars at the south end and pick up a shuttle in Shelter Cove, a resort town that offers a fascinating mash-up of sprawling vacation homes and rural California country folk, a people forgotten in most conceptions of the state who wouldn’t be too far out of place in the rural Midwest. (Our shuttle driver, a Humboldt County lifer about my age named Connor, laments the annual Fourth of July homemade firework displays as “Armageddon” and a miserable undertaking for himself and his fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade.) After a two-hour drive through the mountains to take us 25 miles as the cormorant flies to the trailhead, we’re ready to set out.

At first, the beach hiking is novel, and we make good time. A couple miles in we round Punta Gorda, one of the westernmost points in the continental United States, and come to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, a lonely outpost here along the coast that lit the way for lost fishing boats for a few decades. The structure is open, and a climb up a rusting spiral staircase takes one to a deck with excellent views and even stronger winds. Down below, a gaggle of sea lions flops about in the sand and in the tidal shallows, singing with characteristic inelegance. At Sea Lion Gulch the trail meanders inward before it slips down to the creek, where we cross it twice in quick succession, little hops along rocks to find a passable course past this gouge in the coastline, the sea lion grunts echoing in the background. These turns inward to solid ground are blessed relief, though I don’t like them to last for too long: we are here for the beach hike, after all.

Our first camp comes at Cooskie Creek, a 6.5-mile excursion from the starting point at the mouth of the Mattole River and midway through a four-mile stretch of trail impassable at high tide. We are all sunburned, the cool, perfect walking temperatures and early morning fog lulling us into a false sense of safety, but otherwise no worse for the wear. We take a site on the south bank of the creek, while a large party occupies the opposite bank. They are quiet and we rarely interact, though we do marvel at their ingenious game of bocce using rocks on the beach. The wind barrels in from the ocean, and tent setup requires up to four people and a lot of rocks just to keep things upright. At sundown, we climb a small promontory and gaze out on the Pacific, west to Japan and south to Antarctica, with no bodies of land in between. The sun doesn’t set cleanly but instead fades away into the marine layer out over the ocean, lost in the eternal fog.

The wind dies in the night. No wind, no sun, West Coast resident Rob tells us, and sure enough, we are ensconced in clouds and fog as we head out. A dead seal on the beach attracts a crowd of birds, and Amy compares the beachscape to the final scene from Planet of the Apes. The waves rise as we go, and a crossing at Randall Creek requires an ambitious leap. Past the creek I pick out a trail up on to a flat, and now we’re rewarded with an easy stroll along a ridge, past a stream crossing with an unexpected bamboo grove and another where the discovery of a snake in the trail holds up the party for a spell. The crossing at Oat Creek features a stable log amid a small grove of trees, and a group of younger women has stopped here for lunch.

We cross Kinsey Creek and a rock field to the mouth of Big Creek, which we edge over on a log. Rob and I like the look of the site, an open stretch aside a large wash where other campers have set up driftwood lean-tos and tables, but the rest of the party is ready to push on another two miles to Big Flat Creek. These two miles are among the most tiring slogs of the trip, endless rock fields that turn ankles and require constant leaps, but in time I veer off and pick a way up a sandy slope to a much smoother trail atop Big Flat. The rest of the party joins me, and before long it’s as if we’ve left the ocean behind and are strolling through a large meadow. A number of private landowning holdouts dot the entire trail, most no more than a windblown wooden shack, but the one on Big Flat is flat-out surreal, a retreat of sorts that hosts a large group doing tai chi down by the beach. This part of the Lost Coast feels far too found.

Just past the retreat center is Big Flat Creek, our destination for the night, but it proves the most complicated stream crossing of the trip. The creek is wide and rushing, and Ed and I venture upstream with no luck in search of an easy ford. Most of the party settles for a shaky-looking log crossing, while Amy and I jump it at the mouth, where these streams are usually at their narrowest. The campsite, situated beneath a grove of low trees, already has a crowd, but there are enough sandy tent pads for us to carve out our own space. Night comes quickly on this day, with little time to linger on the beach, though we do admire the deer in the clearing next to us, and after dark a number of bats flit overhead. In the night, a chorus of coyotes wakes us all, the pack leaders howling away while the yips of their smaller brethren surround them.

I don’t sleep particularly well on Big Flat, but our long hike yesterday cues us up for a tame day of just 3.3 miles to our next site on Buck Creek. I sip some tea over breakfast and take a dump in a sandy hole in the ground, and we join a large procession of hikers out from Big Flat and down the coast. The fog is thickest on this morning, and it cakes the beach and leaves what we can see of the fire-scarred hills above us looming. After a placid stroll along the flat, it narrows down to nothing, and a rock slide diverts us down a jagged slope to a narrow beach. Each step brings new conditions, most dramatically at the bottom of a large landslide, where giant trees come to rest on the beach. The crossing at Shipman Creek offers a nice running start for the long jump across, and we press on and pass a few of the groups we’ve been leapfrogging with over the course of the day.

Buck Creek comes as a surprise, and we quickly decide the campsite, which perches on a bank with direct views of both the sea and the cascading creek, will more than do. The fog lifts with surprising speed as we set up our tents, and we then discover the site’s great drawback: a healthy crop of poison oak on all sides that leaves Amy and Betsy frantically detoxing after they tossed some gear and staked out a line for their tent in the shrubbery. Lunch follows the cleansing session on rocks along the creek, though my phone’s camera renders me an uninspired photographer for the rest of the trip after it falls out of my pocket and its lens cracks on a rock. The shots feature some fascinating new filters, if nothing else.

With some gas left in the tank, Bob, Rob, and I set out to climb the Buck Creek Trail, which rises from the camp and heads straight up into the hills. Straight up is no exaggeration: there is no such thing as a flat or downward step for a mile-and-a-half long, 2,000-foot climb. Thankfully, the sun gives way to pine forest just above the site, and while we’re still stepping gingerly around the poison oak, we can drag upward at a manageable pace. Finally, near the top, we come to a couple of clean vistas down the coast toward our parked cars at Shelter Cove five and a half miles away, and after a relatively flat half-mile past a junction with a little-used ridgetop trail in the King Range backcountry, we turn around and abuse our joints for a few miles back down. We burst back out of the forest and have a clean view of the rushing creek, the sun-splashed waves on the ocean; Amy and Ed are down on the beach watching the tide come in, while Betsy naps on her air mattress in the open atop the highest-lofted tent pad, the tents collecting heat for the night in the sun below. It’s a paradisal scene, one that fully loses me in this wilderness and makes me wish we could set up camp here for a week.

Our legs burning from the hike, Rob and I watch the tide roll in, larger and larger waves slowly creeping over the rock pile that cuts off Buck Creek from the ocean at low tide. Soon there will be no way in or out of this site along the coast trail, and we’ll have our site to ourselves tonight. After some poison oak preventative cleansing in the creek, I settle into the hammock along its banks to catch up on notes and zone out in bliss. I’m rousted for happy hour by an offer of Ed’s tequila, and as we sit along a log on the beach and gaze out at the sparkling waves, my mind goes back to an out-of-body sensation I had in a hammock in Puerto Escondido nine years ago, a simultaneous blend of exhaustion and tequila and revelation at the beauty around me. I idly wrote a story of two lovers at the end of an affair, at once alive to the possibility of utopia and aware it can never last.

We break out of our trance to eat before we lose all daylight. Our dinners, always collections of freeze-dried packets we pass around, is best on this night, and we polish off the bourbon and turn our attention toward the darkening sea. Three boats dot the horizon, one of which suddenly seems to be flickering, as if alight; we later learn that it’s likely a fishing boat looking to lure in its prey. The half-moon lights up night well enough to cast shadows, and the marine layer stays just low enough to allow for superb star-watching. First Jupiter and the dippers, then Scorpius and Cygnus and Hercules, and Saturn for a hot second before the fog consumes it. I’m reluctant to turn in, yet I enjoy my best ever night of sleep in a tent.

The morning is wet, the marine layer dousing my tent fly, but the sun comes out quickly and keeps up warm for the last 5.5 miles up the beach. The choppy rocks continue for the first half of the hike, but after that it settles into a plodding but predictable march up the aptly named Black Sands Beach. I set my course along the shoreline, running in when the higher waves come and making sure to drink in the slopes to my left and the endless crashing waves to my right. The steepest climb on the hike comes up a road to the parking lot, where we collect ourselves ahead of food truck burritos and a beer at a Shelter Cove bar populated by grizzled local women. We are found again, headed back for a stop in wine country and the glitz of San Francisco to round out our adventures.

The trail has a particular allure for someone drawn to the notion of isolated inspiration, the egotist who never needed anyone to tell him that he could do great things if he put his mind to it. Thankfully, wilderness also has a habit of humbling these chasers as well. A year after an epic but largely solitary trek across this state, the jumble of people on this one enlivened it. It provided new short story inspiration, and a meander through a book on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, two very different champions of the West who, unlike some of the San Francisco cosmopolitans I brush up against upon my return to the city, understood a sense of place. “I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,” wrote Stegner, words that forever reassure a wanderer in search of grounding. On the Lost Coast Trail, I’ve found it yet again.

Part 2 is here.

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A Climb into Fog

25 Sep

I have a free weekend in late September, and autumn is upon northern Minnesota. It’s a bit early for fall colors, as the lakeshore remains a verdant green, but inland some pockets of red and orange have begun to emerge, and a good itinerary can pick out a few of them. Why not hike 29 miles? A jaunt on the Superior Hiking Trail is in order.

I’ve hiked somewhere close to half the SHT in countless day hikes and several-night backpacking excursions over the past twenty years. This, however, will be my first solo overnight hike on the SHT. It comes at a time when I need it. My hike offers a bookend to a summer that began with some solo travel in a tent, and another one of those necessary chances to cycle out of the day-to-day routine and take stock of my direction on a much longer hike.

My starting point is Sugarloaf Road, the first access point to the trail in Cook County. My dad, who chauffeured me from my car’s resting place to the start, joins for the first few miles, which roll along a ridgetop that offers occasional looks down to the lake. Come back in two weeks, and this stretch will be spectacular; now, we get occasional hints of glassy Superior. We pass a few parties working their way north, including a group of 60-something ladies on a jolly backpacking journey. The trail works its way down to the Caribou River, which dances through a gorge on its way down to the lake. My dad turns around at the bridge, and I turn inland from there.

I quicken my pace. It’s a perfect day for a hike: mid-50s and overcast but with no threat of rain. Nice and cool, nice and easy. Unless, of course, there is a massive, impossible-to-avoid mud patch that threatens to tear one’s foot out of one’s boot, which there is at the base of the climb up to Horseshoe Ridge. After my narrow escape, I kick some mud off my boot and shoot up the 700 feet to the ridgetop. To my left lies the Manitou River Valley, spackled here and there with clumps of red leaves amid the green; behind me lies Lake Superior, with rivers of light glowing on the surface along the channels where the sun pierces through the clouds.

I lunch atop one of the telltale moss-covered knobs of George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park, a park with no modern facilities: just a slice of rugged inland wilderness set aside by an old mining magnate who lived a block away from my current Duluth home. I work my way around the full horseshoe of Horseshoe Ridge, with occasional dips down to unexpected ponds. The trees have more color back here, and at one point the trail seems to be the dividing line between lingering green and the red onrush of fall. At about the most remote point of the trail I’m hiking, I encounter another troupe of 60-plus ladies moving slowly but surely along the trail. Traffic picks up again as I start my short but steep descent to the Manitou, where I pass crew of college kids laboring more than the older ladies were. The rushing Manitou is a welcome sight, and I stop to snack a bit after crossing the bridge. Next it’s back up again, climbing up well-trafficked state park trails. A .6-mile road walk out of the park feels like bliss after endless rocks, roots, and hills.

After a brief clamber over Aspen Knob, the trail starts to drag, but in time I hit the east branch of the Baptism River, which brightens my day as it rushes down an array of rapids. I refill my water bottle from its crisp waters and enjoy a mile of delightful riverside walk. I’d initially dabbled with camping at the site at the confluence of the Baptism and Blesener Creek, which looks lovely. Foot traffic picks up again past the two campsites, as I pass an access trail from Sonju Lake Road. A herd of day hikers makes its way back from Sonju Lake, including a group leading a dozen dogs and a woman who has chosen to relieve herself right next to the trail. The trail keeps its distance from Sonju Lake, but a short spur leads out to Lilly’s Island, a small rocky spot with a trail log, which I sign.

I’ve gone sixteen miles now, and reached my planned campsite for the night. I’ve made good time, though, and with a more ominous forecast for tomorrow, I decide to push on another three miles to Egge Lake. Up, down to a beaver pond, up again, and a look down to Egge Lake below followed by a painfully long meander down from the ridge. The first campsite has a crowd, so I head on to check out the second one, which features much less flat space and a young couple that appears intent on solitude. Easy choice: I make my way back to the first campsite and settle in with my five companions. A Duluth man and his sixth-grade daughter are on their second of two nights here on Egge Lake, a quick weekend trip to give her a taste of backpacking with hammocks. Their new friends are party of three retirees from Des Moines who are working their way from Tettegouche to Temperance River over the course of six nights. We share our backstories and settle in with one another for the night.

I reload my water, set up my tent with an audience, and boil some water for my dinner of rehydrated pasta and potato soup. (We’ve all brought meals from the same brand.) The Iowans, all experienced marathoners, share tales of their adventures before they turn in around 7:00. The Duluth dad and daughter combo last longer, and they keep a fire going and sample some freeze-dried apple crisp; he’s a recent arrival in the Northland, and marvels with delight at the ease of escapes like this. He’s already plotting more, and with his wife and younger son as well. His trooper of a daughter starts to fade, so I head to my tent, where I write some delirious lines before I tug on my long underwear and settle in for a night in the 30s. Never before has a Thermarest felt so comfortable. Night brings a few distant wolf calls, and a single, apocalyptic clap of thunder that wakes us all; after that, it’s hard to tell if it’s raining steadily or if it’s just a brief shower followed by drips off of trees.

Sunday morning brings a nonstop gentle stream of spit from the sky, compounded by high winds that send periodic showers down from the boughs above. I crawl in under the Iowans’ tarp to heat up my tea, and we share a damp breakfast. I don’t waste much time taking down camp, and pause only to bid the Duluthians a farewell before following the Iowans out of the site. I turn south and adjust my poncho into something that will keep me more or less dry. The first few miles are a gentle downhill, which feeds a false sense of pleasantness quickly dispelled once I step out on to the gravel-turned-mud County Road 7 for a brief road walk in the wind-driven rain. It’s a relief to turn back into the woods, which here are lush, as I follow a dancing creek and cross the Baptism. I climb some hills amid the Finland Ski Area, and the hike starts to feel like a slog again.

I run into a person for the first time all day near the Leskinen Creek campsite, and inconveniently encounter the next group midway across a narrow boardwalk labeled Lady Slipper Area. (Sure enough, there is a lone, sad black lady slipper left amid the swamp.) I come upon a giant glacial erratic and settle in for a wet lunch; at least one of the neighboring rocks offers up a good seat. Shortly thereafter a man catches and passes me, and I follow often just in sight behind him for the next mile or two, including a boardwalk across the misty Sawmill Bog. Beyond the bog, the cliffs of Section 13 loom up before me. The end is near.

Climbing hills is often my favorite part of hiking, for reasons both metaphorical and owing to long legs that let me push up them faster than most. My choice to end my hike at Section 13 (so named for the section of Crystal Bay Township from which it rises) is no coincidence. I fly past my fellow hiker on the lower stages of the climb, and even have time to admire the beauty of this ravine I share with a creek on my way up. A sense of conquest builds as I come to the rocky domes of one of the SHT’s greatest overlooks. I push on through a little depression and past the clifftop campsite to the next large outcropping, where I pause to gaze out through the mists, with fall colors and a small lake wandering in and out of my sight. I can only see fragments, but that seems appropriate. Unwittingly, life starts to resemble a hint of fiction.

My left knee and right ankle gripe on the way down, but the allure of warmth is too great for any pain to slow me down. I come to my car, towel off, change into sweatpants, and blast the heat. The drive home is an hour of Lake Superior at its finest: monster waves and unbridled power, dramatic enough to entice some surfers out into promising swells at the mouth of the Split Rock River. I pause to reward myself with a stout at Castle Danger before I finish my trip down the scenic highway to Duluth.

Too often, I’ve struggled with re-entry after time on some distant trail. I lapse into useless boredom upon my return, or linger too long when new tasks call. My goal this time: avoid that lull. Keep climbing, even up into the fog. My life has its share of fog, but maybe I’m at my best in the fog, where I have to work to pick out the sights and summit peaks when others would stay home.

Out of the Woods

25 May

A hike in the woods is always a dangerous thing. What begins as a pleasant stroll down a leafy path can quickly become a death march across interminable ridges. It promises sore shoulders, sunburns, and blisters; go for long enough, and at least one other body part, be it an ankle or a leg or a hip, will become a bother. There are bugs, and maybe bears. Any self-conscious search for freedom or wilderness is probably doomed to disappointment when it doesn’t quite deliver the expected rush, when the annoyances of the real world fail to go away.

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So, naturally, I love a good hike. Hikes were a regular part of my northern Minnesota childhood, one of those things I took for granted so readily that they seem mundane. Quality trails are so convenient that they’re practically begging to be hiked, and trails lend themselves to both deep companionship and moments of solitude, both of which I value immensely. This is just what I do, and will continue to do, even if I’ve never exactly looked the part of a woodsman.

I spent the last weekend on the Superior Hiking Trail, a spur-of-the-moment getaway after completing my last year of school, and the first of what I hope to be several travel adventures in the near future. It was a two-night hike, nothing too extreme, though we were all experienced enough to set a strong pace and march aggressively over the ridges of Tettegouche State Park. The hike triggered a torrent of memories, some from my own first backpacking trip in the summer of 1998 using the very same tent, which I’ve since inherited from my dad. This particular hike took two friends and I past Wolf Ridge, the site of an elementary school retreat, and past Bean Lake, which lies at the tail end of one of Minnesota’s most pristine cross-country ski trails. I was hardly alone, as my partners also spilled out past memories, all of us united by past calls into the woods.

Backcountry camping lends itself to dualities, a study in how quickly the mundane becomes joyous. Well, either that, or it just brings out our inner bipolarity. With nothing but the trail before us, we can pour all of our delights and frustrations into our next few steps. When a trail seems to be skirting a large hill before suddenly turning directly for the summit, the vulgarity issues forth. Arrival at a large river after nine miles of incessant ridges prompts elation, bare feet, and a feast of strawberries. Sitting down, even if on a barren rock, is a pleasant release; just don’t ask me to stand back up anytime soon. And after five climbs, the sixth becomes a dull routine. Life revolves around meals, the simplest of which satiate us with ease after a long day’s march, and a water bottle reloaded from the nearest stream brings out a rediscovered love for the simplest of drinks. I understand why the appeal is hard to fathom for many, and exactly why so many who try it are sucked in for life.

Activities along the trail range from silly trivialities to opportunities for rumination, from attempts to Tinder in the woods to readings from Thoreau. (The Tinder thing was a new one.) Chatter flows steadily to distract us from the latest turned ankle, but at times it lapses into a natural silence, too. Whether or not we snap pictures at every view, the postcard moments appear around every turn. A dinner at an overlook graced with a gentle lake breeze probably belongs in a backpacking ad somewhere, and our party looks properly intrepid or just memorably silly every time the cameras come out. More enduring, however, are the things we can’t pack into a single frame: a night along a lakeshore that settles in to liquor-fueled gazes at the stars and pillow talk, histories both grand and minor recounted with equal ease. We’re at home here, if only for a short while.

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On the last morning, I wake up beside a still lake, stretch my aching muscles, and stumble along the shore in solitude. I’m miles from where I was a week ago, when my only hike was across a stage to claim a master’s degree, eating well and living well and wrapping up a grand statement on what I’d achieved. Out here in the wilderness, that all seems so trivial now: those now-clichés from Walden about simplicity all ring true, and it becomes hard to articulate my worldly goals without sounding grandiose or melodramatic. But that, I suppose, is the price one pays for a belief in human ambition and pursuit of greatness, all while tempered by a recognition of how small it all is in the face of all those stars above.

The moment doesn’t last long. The flies are out in force this morning, and the allure of a giant, fattening meal and a cold drink back in civilization provide an added jolt. The best I can do, then, is to slide between both worlds, at ease in formal regalia with all its attendant pomp and circumstance, and again out here in the woods, coated in grime and blissfully free from any obligations beyond the immediate chores of camp care. Both are one. In and out we go, the cycle renewed yet again.

Driftless III

25 Oct

Happiness is not, nor can it be, terrestrial. Nor can it be a permanent state. Humans can be happy but for an instant…But its brevity does not matter: an instant can be a window unto eternity.

–Octavio Paz

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Fall is one of the best times to go hiking in the Upper Midwest. Green hills erupt into flames of red and yellow and orange. The air is crisp enough to invigorate after a summer of languor, but not yet frigid enough to force a retreat beneath the covers. Whether along the ridges of the North Shore or the meandering valleys of the Driftless Area, the countryside beckons. In need of escapes after a long week, we run off into the woods and go barreling up and down bluffs and hills with reckless abandon.

The metaphor here is none too subtle. We’re running up these hills in search of something. It’s a constant hunger, an ambition to push to the top, wherever we may be. It’s an old trope, though its sincerity takes some edge off the cliché. We can only linger at the top for a moment, but the real power comes in the push to the summit, the pursuit of goals at a breathless pace. And the view, even if it lasts only an instant, remains etched in the mind’s eye, that lone memory of this season that will endure.

This fall brings on new levels of relentlessness. And yet those moments still come: those moments when we get closer and realize that the narratives we write aren’t about progress from one thing to the next but instead a ceaseless cycle that brings things in and out, forward and back, the past and the future blurred in some formless thing we call ourselves. This land we walk upon was here long before us, and will be long after. We only have a fleeting window to leave a mark.

And so we push up the peak even faster. Now is the time to remember that it’s all in the service of something, all part of some greater mission, and that the exertion is worth every ounce. Beneath an Indian summer sun and a ceiling of golden boughs, it’s not hard to imagine an order behind it all; some higher power at work. But the true believers run the risk of assuming they have it all figured out; that one view from the summit reveals all. Perhaps the simple beauty of the moment is enough, and we can instead work to preserve it, to make sure that all can enjoy these little glimmers. But a rootless commitment to the good cannot endure; it must be able to perpetuate itself, and to feed the fire anew.

To what end? The answer is buried amid fallen leaves, none too easy to decipher. A glimpse here or there will have to do. The sun sinks toward the horizon, but we still have time to climb one more hill, do we not? Who knows what the next one will reveal. It may not be anything too different. But the push conditions us, and we know that, no matter where the path may twist, we’ll have the energy to finish the journey. Even in autumn, youth: the will to never cease this desire to form a little world where we can reach the apogee of human achievement, in whatever form that may take. Ever upward.

Farewell Duluth IV: The Walk

17 Aug

Eighteen years ago Saturday, a moving van bearing my father and I rolled into Duluth to join my mother, who’d already made the trek. I now have less than a week left here—this time around, anyway. My departures are never very permanent. Even so, a proper good-bye was in order. So I headed out the front door and started walking.

I begin in Lakeside, an idyllic middle-class neighborhood on the far east end, and my home for most of my life. It isn’t uniform; there are some gaudy houses along the lakeshore and scattered about, and many of the homes are older, bringing with them some character and occasionally some shabbiness as well. It just seems healthy, my own childhood repeated before my eyes from block to block. At times perhaps too sheltering, as evidenced ongoing temperance 80 years after the 21st Amendment, but it’s also easy to escape out into the woods or up the shore and find some freedom. The business district has hollowed out some over the years; the second grocery store and the pharmacy is gone now, though many of them plug along, and a new coffee shop is set to come in. For the most part, it seems timeless.

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At the end of Lakeside is the new Duluth East, in the building where I went to middle school; the setting is second to none, with the expansive views of the lake. The building itself, though, can’t quite match the old one, which I come to in a short while: that old gothic brick academy with giant windows perched right in the heart of Congdon Park. To the west, Duluth’s mansions and old money core, tucked beneath the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Longview tennis courts. Say what you will about Duluth’s elite, but their commitment to this community down the years has been unquestioned, and that Congdon sensibility rubbed off on me during my time at East. Class, unapologetic appreciation for high culture, and sympathy for that noble approach to the world: political wars and resentment are so below us, and instead it is all our plaything, here to be enjoyed in all its finery. A defense of time-honored traditions and inheritances worth passing down, stewarding, and bringing to fruition. It has its shortcomings, of course, and I’ve got enough Wisconsin farm boy in me that it’ll never quite be me. It is a fine place to call home, though, and I have its largesse to thank for so much.

I leave the mansions behind, and a protest is afoot on 4th Street: the towering maples lining the route are on the chopping block due to planned street repairs, so the neighbors have wrapped them in clothes arranged to look like tree-hugging people and added some speech bubbles from the trees themselves. I grab their flier, turn north off 4th, and slide into the Hillside. This is often Duluth’s cutting edge, with many possible futures on display: incoming college students, the growing gardens of those who want to raise their families in the heart of a walkable city, lower-income rentals, and the sudden appearance of minorities, all in relatively close proximity. Variety begets vivacity, though it comes at the expense of some stability. The strength of neighborhoods such as this will be the bellwether for the future, not only in Duluth but across the nation: how do we adapt to the thinning of the middle class? How do we make do with our roles in life, knowing most of us aren’t destined for those Congdon mansions, and how do we adjust to neighbors who may not share our culture? The Hillside likely holds the answers to these questions.

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I swing down around a reservoir, past a slope where I once went to count butterflies, now overgrown, and reach the Lower Chester hockey rinks. The place where the Williams brothers and Mike Randolph learned to skate has been given a new lease on life, thanks to the closure of the rinks in Congdon; it looks sharp, though today its only occupants are a couple of skateboarders. I pause to admire the towering building across the street; ex-mansion or some great hall I do not know, but it’s hard to tell if it’s occupied today. I plunge down the hill, through the tangle of the Hillside, and there is the lake: this walk wouldn’t be complete without a brief venture into the realm of the tourists. There’s the Armory and the walls of the old Duluth Arena beneath the Super One, and there is the brick next to the Rose Garden fountain where I must kneel and brush off the dirt. Onward, past two statues: one of a man who had nothing to do with Duluth but is honored here anyway (Leif Erickson), and the other of a robber baron who had everything to do with Duluth (Jay Cooke). How curious our historical memories can be.

I head down Superior Street, past bustling Fitgers and into the east end of Downtown. It’s come a long way since I last made this walk: Duluth has outlasted the Last Place on Earth, and the Kozy Bar offers no respite. Now, a Sheraton, classy restaurants, and a shiny independent theater. (As if I needed another trigger for childhood nostalgia and rumination on the passage of time, “Boyhood” has just opened here.) This is looking more and more like a cultured downtown, the commercial hub of northern Minnesota, many of the buildings lining its brick streets still graced with turn-of-the-century detail. It’s not a steady march into the future, though: the Fond Du Luth Casino’s lurid lights still flash all over the place, and a walk one block up to First Street is a step back into a different Duluth. The memorial to the 1920 lynchings sits vacant opposite the burned-out shell of the Kozy, and a woman stumbling up the street in an apparent drugged daze offers a halfhearted hello.

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A light mist has kept the crowds at bay, and now as I get into the very heart of the city, it begins to rain properly. I seek brief shelter amid the ever-intriguing crowds in the Holiday Center, people who have caught my attention since my youth, left me to puzzle out lives that are not mine. I do a few stretches, then take to the skywalk for a brief spell. I can’t get far on a Saturday, but by the time I step out next to the Missabe Building, it’s all stopped, and I can admire the façade there and on the Board of Trade before plodding on to City Hall. I’ve spent my share of time in the halls of power over the past two years, but Duluth is too small for anyone to live in a bubble here. A block away, the ore ship of a library sits in port with its cargo of knowledge and collection of unsavory characters who needed a new home after the Last Place on Earth closed its doors, and beyond it, the real harbor, ever the root source of this city’s identity.

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It’s time to head up. Fifth Avenue West is Duluth’s steepest street, but I conquer it with the help of the sidewalk railing, and stop to admire the view down toward the harbor and the DECC, another place where I’ve seemed to practically live at times, from hockey to concerts to other formal functions from high school on up. I hike the crest of Observation Hill, observing that house where my mother stayed when she first moved here ahead of the family seventeen years ago, and come to the Twin Ponds and Enger Tower. The park is busy, but I don’t linger for the view. Instead, I retreat to the woods, and head down the Superior Hiking Trail. Here, too, there is great variety: a stand of pines, an alpine meadow with views of the harbor, a babbling stream to hop across, and a forgotten old basketball court and baseball diamond, slowly being swallowed up by the woods. I cross Piedmont Avenue, then descend through Lincoln Park. As a ribbon of greenery it’s similar to the more familiar Lester Park, but it seems a bit less tamed, a bit more wild, and I have the upper reaches to myself.

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Down below, in the heart of the park, there are a handful of picnickers and two fishermen; a pair of young lovers guide each other across the bridge. Then, back out to civilization, and a host of worn-out rental properties, some legitimately blighted. A little festival at a mid-block church apparently requires the presence of three police cars, and “Beware of the Dog” signs proliferate. More than anything now, I want lunch, and the Duluth Grill, that quintessential local restaurant, calls out. Even in the midst of Lincoln Park, a beloved restaurant of locally sourced food thrives, one of a few signs of change here. It’s packed as always, but it’s not hard to find a spot for one at the counter, and I recharge with a salmon burger.

My next steps take me along West Michigan Street, up to the Heritage Arena, my usual winter haunt and another of those signs of life out here. For once, the parking lot is empty, and I only briefly peek into the lobby. I’ll be back here in December and January, no doubt. Then it’s back along the backside of Lincoln Park, all industrial storage space and the like; lifeless on a Saturday. Up above, the gaudy new west side middle school lords over it all. I go underneath the railroad bridges and come to Wade Stadium, the ballpark in desperate need of the forthcoming state aid. The Huskies’ season has just come to an end, though I never did make it out there this year; what this park really inspires are fond memories of the Dukes, that old independent professional team that had a couple of entertaining title runs in my childhood. It’s one good remodeling away from being a real gem.

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I step out on to Grand Avenue, the main artery of the west side and a simple summation of the plight of working-class America. It’s not blighted, but there’s nothing to make anything stand out here, either. It’s just uniform, everything of the same age and showing that age. The neighborhood around Denfeld offers a bit more, with the high school serving as the anchor. The houses here could all be in Lakeside, though the streets are in worse shape, and there’s action in the businesses. The girls’ soccer team is practicing on the field, the high school season just around the corner, and there’s a party in Memorial Park, too. Plenty of people come and go in the West Duluth downtown, but no one really lingers anywhere, so I don’t, either. On past the businesses, through the library parking lot, and down into Irving. Here again the housing stock takes a dip downward, though the street is pleasantly leafy, and there’s a herd of screaming children running along. The street suddenly fades into a dirt track through a copse, and I have to skirt a little stream that makes its slow way down to the St. Louis River.

Here is the west side charter elementary school, undergoing some summertime renovation, and I weave a bit more, dodging a kid on a bike and drawing closer to the river, where the houses are newer. The last time I was here, the far end of the Western Waterfront Trail was closed for pollution clean-up; now it’s open again, though I skip the first loop of the trail before joining it on Indian Point. I wind around the campground, breaking into a jog just to show myself I can do it as I close in on 17 miles. A family spends a sleepy afternoon on a pier jutting into the river, while I am accosted by a sudden swarm of mystery insects.

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I’m nearing the end. It would be nice to plow on out to Gary, ruminate on the old steel mill and Morgan Park, and end it all by running up Ely’s Peak one last time, but it’s growing late, and I have a goodbye party to throw for myself. The destination for now is the former home of a high school teacher and Denfeld grad who, despite marrying a wealthy lawyer, remained true to the West Side, and had a point to prove about this city’s east-west divide. She doesn’t live here anymore, but it still seems like a fitting endpoint: a grand, modern house on the river, a sign of what might be to come in the redevelopment for the river corridor imagined by Mayor Don Ness. As I look around, I see the vision is already a fait accompli on the lower side of Norton Park: there’s a whole subdivision of nice, newer houses across the bay. Perhaps it won’t be as hard as it had seemed, though this budding urban planner has no illusions about the road ahead. There is much work to be done.

That is a debate for another time, though. My rescue wagon awaits me. I need to head home and freshen up, and after that, it’ll be time for one last Canal Park dinner and one last bit of mild debauchery on the Park Point beach. I’ll miss it, of course. But I’ve seen so much of it that I can’t help but leave satisfied. It’s all there, right before our eyes, and even after eighteen years, there’s always something new to find.

Farewell Duluth III: Solitude

10 Aug

You’re a believer in community, you buy all that sentimental stuff you peddle every day, that life is found in intertwining your history with those of the people closest to you. And yet. And yet there are days where it wears you down, where you get too caught up in whatever bubble you inhabit, grow annoyed by the little tics of those around you. Community is one of the greatest sources of life you know, but it is not the only one. You have to get out. Just you, and you alone.

This is another of your town’s triumphs: nowhere is it easier. There are parks at every turn; some packed, some more wild; some well-worn, some neglected. A short drive can take you to places where you won’t meet a soul, if you so desire. You head out to recharge, to find distance; perhaps to cast judgment from afar, perhaps to head for a realm where judgment has no meaning.

You are swift to retreat into these moments; at times you were perhaps too swift, but even now as things come together, you cannot neglect this. This is your cycle inward, necessary before you pull back out. You must go. Back out to some little corner you’ve claimed as your own simply because it cannot be owned. Time is short, so you hurry upward, the jagged rocks in the path turning your feet as you climb. You could stop here or there to admire the view, but not here, this isn’t the place. Across a road, past the spot where you once saw a bear, ever winding upward. A few signs of youthful dalliance, carelessly hidden in the woods; was that you not so very long ago? How the time goes, how much more precious youth now seems.

Out you go, hurrying to time this journey just right. Before long you’re hopping from rock to rock, down a staircase carved in stone. Through the birches, across a boardwalk, the deer far back in the woods flushed, bounding back through the underbrush for only a moment before they’re silent, and then all is silent for you, too. Up a hill, though the view disappoints, back through another stand of wood, a mysterious half-hidden trail, whether from deer or teenagers or something much older you do not know, up to that oak tree near the top of the ridge where you once stood there trying to make sense of what exactly it was you’d done, brandishing a manifesto from an earlier self and proclaiming its wrongness, though now you’ve come full circle and have forgiven yourself. Your younger self deserves more credit than you ever gave him. Who could you have been if you’d gotten over those crippling anxieties, acted on that self you always wanted to be? God only knows now, though that impulse is still inside of you, can still be channeled into something good. Onward, you press, on to the outcropping, site of many a picnic and also your first goodbye to this place, a sunrise at dawn beneath a different oak, this one now as dead as the finality of that goodbye. Take the right fork, you haven’t been that way before. You make your way down the path, looping in and out behind spruces, careening downward so easily you can’t help but run. You bend to pick at a malformed raspberry, sample the latest thimbleberry, scarf the smattered juneberries, a regular forest feast.

Down a field of talus, across the bit that gets muddy when it rains, and you’re nearly there: or maybe you’ve come from the other direction, up from the wider path, past the ruin of an old mill and the side creek that you once waded up for a mile or two, picking crayfish out of the shallows with a couple of people you chose to share this garden with, down the path where one great story reached its peak and another arose; where it led was never entirely clear, but still it has its roots here, high on the bank above the little stream. The destination is always the same. This little patch of woods birthed so many of the convoluted thoughts of the past seven summers, your blessing and your curse, a burden you could not live without. Here is where the last story came to an end, and here too you hope to end the last and worst of the stories you’d rather pretend were not yours.

You reach the gates, push aside those tumbled branches and finally, there it is before you: the cathedral, the dying pines towering up above an open glade, the sun dancing between the trunks, the blinding light of the sinking sun pouring through, setting it all ablaze, and you set out gingerly through the waist-high grass, your hand trailing through it as you go. Perhaps you should drop to your knees, make a show of it all? No, you cannot linger, the mosquitoes nip and the sun sinks. Now, it seems, that time is over, gone without any obvious moment of revelation. It all makes sense now. You complete your duty without any fanfare, and life goes on as if it had never been more than a fleeting thought. Victory.

You head off the path and into the heart of the little stand. Not quite a sacred ground: you’re still in a city, after all, and the reminders of life beyond never quite die. Wilderness is a myth, or perhaps a state of mind. Yes, death comes only to the pines, nearly half of them now just towering empty trunks, lonely pillars supporting a ceiling of fading blue. Et in Arcadia ego. Spruces rise up in their place, and even here before you, a solitary oak tree, fighting above the tangles of thimbleberries and announcing its arrival on the scene. Bring your children here someday, and it might all be gone: just another clump of wood in a forest that buries its past. You could move on to the next hill, where the pines stand a bit more resolutely, but no: yours are these ones, right here, the ones that remind you that you don’t have long. Everything seems more immediate, both the triumphs and the tragedies of life given a vivid edge, and you relish them that much more because you know how much it means to feel all of these things, to live with that joie de vivre that overwhelms all weakness and fear. The more you lay claim to these trees, the more you sense that they are not yours alone, that another set of eyes watches. You’re not quite sure yet where one story begins and another ends; perhaps they all just blend together here; here, in this garden of all your dreams.

You’re free here, though you don’t quite feel it. Gone are the days when every little victory was cause for rejoicing; now you just take it all in stride, natural, the next step along this little chasm through the grass. All is right, all goes on, and as long as you may linger, this is not you: you must share this, come down from your messianic ideal not into a nihilistic doom but into reality where you belong, where you can still be the author of a story that aspires to everything you might desire, even as you know you might not ever quite get there. The pursuit is enough, and with moments like these, you’ll have the wits to make sure the chase never eats you alive.

It’s time to move on. The sun sinks away, and you have far to go before you can rest your feet again. You’ll miss this spot, but you are forever changed by what it’s gifted you, and that is enough: it belongs to you, you belong to it, and whatever shall come will be in the shadows of those towering pines. The light will filter through, blinding but bearing that gift of life all at once, all of those apparent contradictions borne together into something that is, quite simply, you.

Part 4 is here.