Tag Archives: mountain metaphors

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 lake. We pass a few groups 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 leave 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.

Advertisements

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

2015-10-18 13.43.05

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.

Over the Edge

1 Dec

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

-Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

There are certain moments make us realize how close we are to going over that cliff. When they do arrive, they come as a shock, even for those of us who think we know better. It’s now possible to go a very long time in life without knowing anyone who has died, or suffered some other serious calamity. Only on rare occasions do we—and by ‘we,’ I suppose I mean Westerners who live relatively comfortable daily lives—get these terrifying windows into the fragility of everything we’ve built.

It is a noble desire, that wish to be the catcher in the rye. Holden fancies himself the protector of the innocent from the horrors of the world. He’s aware of the danger, and wants to make sure no one goes over the edge. He takes on the burden for the good of all, and he can keep the children from ever knowing that fear.

It won’t work forever, though, as Salinger well knew, and his protagonist slowly came to learn. No one can possibly keep the horde of naïve kids from running toward the cliff, and no one person can hold them back. Humans are not born into perfect innocence, and will inevitably wander toward various edges. The precipice always looms, and learning more of it is both the way over the edge and the way to learn not to go near it.

Perhaps, then, it is best to let the kids wander toward the edge. Be there to offer a hand if they get too close, maybe, but let them see it for what it is. There’s a compelling case here, one that says it is on the edge where we push limits and find meaning, daring to do great things. The world is a plaything, meant to be explored with curiosity and delight—even its darkest parts. All those dull measures of life’s worth like money and years lived mean nothing when stacked up against those moments of enlightenment. Or so you’d wish to believe.

There is danger here; danger in the hubris in believing that you know where the edge lies for each and every person. It’s never in quite the same place, and the edge will bring out extremes in people, whether fragile or resilient. There’s also the question of choosing when to go for it; seeking the edge for itself alone is recklessly aggressive, before long lapsing into ennui. Toying with the edge will tempt fate before long. We must choose our battles wisely.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. It involves a careful, even brutal, self-examination, one that rises above the field of rye and lets one see beyond, at the same time aware of what we cannot see. To the well-ordered mind, this is a healthy process, not cause for inward obsession. Reflect, learn, move on, forever gauging where the edge is. Venture to the brink, and try to prepare those kids running about for what lies beyond—but always head home afterward. A brief glimpse is all we need, and our minds can do the rest.

Life cannot be found in the suppression of passions, but it is as much of a mistake to let passions rule it all. They must be channeled, carefully tended, and watched with vigilance, with immediate action when things do go awry, as they most likely will. We do not fear the edge, but we respect it, understand its power, and carry on with our quests, wherever they may lead. The true task of the catcher in the rye is not to save blindly, but to teach, to demand an honest reflection, and then to turn the children loose again, this time more prepared to cope with what lies beyond.

Standing on the Rim

7 Oct

No picture of the Grand Canyon can do it justice. It can be a fantastic shot, capturing all the color and the vastness and perhaps even the entire panorama. But the power of the Canyon lies in what we can’t see: it stretches for miles beyond sight even from the best of the vistas, and there are only occasional glimpses of the bottom. The more the mind ponders its reach, the greater the awe. It’s not an uncommon sense in Arizona, where so many things are big beyond belief. The canyons, mountains, and heat trigger such opposed emotions: a sense of power and triumph, as we stand at the rim of the Canyon or the peak of a mountain and proclaim this dominion as our own; a sense of smallness and frailty, as we teeter on the edge of the abyss and realize just how small we really are. A paradox? No; they are inseparable, twin sides of the peak of ambition.

042

My trip to Arizona this past weekend was, by some absurdity, the first trip of any great distance that this travel-lover has taken in a couple of years. It was officially a business trip, a mission as part of my life as a secret operative who manipulates Arizona politics from somewhere up in the woods of northern Minnesota. For the most part, though, it was a chance to explore freely, to reunite with the kid who taught me the meaning of charisma, and to finally meet my partners on a campaign that successfully launched an exciting young woman into a position on the Phoenix Union High School District Board.

It began with a road trip up to the Grand Canyon, a drive that surprised with the sheer variety of the Arizona landscape. Yes, the area around Phoenix is a desert, and there are the expected mountains. But a short drive up I-17 leaves one suddenly out on an open mesa, and the region around Flagstaff has pine forests and stretches of prairie that look like they belong in Wyoming or thereabouts. On the way north we swung through Sedona, a beauty of a town nestled in between red rock cliffs, though the booming tourist trade has likely taken some toll on the New Agey vibe. Beyond Sedona was one of the most delightful drives I’ve ever done, one that whips through a narrow river valley filled with pines and plunges down a winding road that eventually switches its way back up to a view over the stunning (though not quite Grand) canyon below.

After a long day on the Arizona Autobahn, we came to the Canyon, which lived up to its billing. The trail along the South Rim gives a tour of the Canyon’s history over the past two billion years, showing the geological history and pointing out the little peaks and buttes, all named for pagan gods. Even that panoply of deities couldn’t quite fill the chasm, and in only two places could we see the muddy waters of the Colorado down at the bottom. Someday I hope to return and seek out that path that leads down to it; the allure of those slopes is too hard to pass up.

My enjoyment was sullied by one little observation that left me feeling a bit of shame on behalf of my country.  Somehow, four out of every five tourists on the path were not Americans. They were almost all Europeans, with French and Germans being the most obvious, along with some Portuguese and Spaniards and some Poles who struggled to take our picture. The Americans were nowhere to be seen beyond the overlook at the parking lot. Are we really that incapable of walking down a flat, paved path? Has the genuine experience of drinking in the landscape and feeling something deeper really been replaced by the dull routine of snapping a picture and checking off a box that says ‘I’ve been here’? There is so much more to see, and it takes embarrassingly little effort to see it.

Phoenix itself is unlike any city I’ve ever seen, a sprawling grid of near-endless suburbia. There is so much space; to borrow my travel partner’s simile, it’s as if someone poured the development across the flat plane, and it has spread like water as far as it could. The downtown is similarly spread out, and it’s hard to find any sort of node or center of action. A Friday night street festival, however, did bring out a stunningly diverse crowd, and there were certainly pockets of wealth and poverty, from the mind-boggling array of tennis courts and private pools below Camelback Mountain to the parts on the west side that might as well have been lifted out of Mexico.

Whatever one thinks of its development patterns, Phoneix still seems like a city on the leading edge of American culture. When I call the U.S. an adolescent nation, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. (Well, not entirely.) It has its downsides, clearly, but there’s a life to it, too. There is a sense in which Arizona is still the frontier. There is so much space that it still has that feeling, even if most people go home to their perfect little subdivisions. There’s a love for guns and a boom in nondenominational Evangelical churches, tapping into a strain of religious belief that again looks to cut off the past and build something new. A majority of residents are transplants. History doesn’t mean a whole lot here, but there’s an awful lot of belief in the future. Phoenicians, one senses, are not a resigned folk, as us northern Minnesotans can be; their schools may be much worse off on the whole, but at least in some circles there is an energy dedicated to attacking problems that I haven’t always seen in the north. Phoenix’s dreams for the future will rest on its ability to take this energy and harness it and build things that last in place of the investment in the immediate that now predominates. That will take time, and a recognition of limits that are hard to see, but it will come, sooner or later.

Saturday brought a delicious authentic Mexican meal, a campaign victory party in the most eclectic club I’ve ever seen, and a hike up a mountain for good measure. What began as a leisurely hike escalated quickly, with sharp inclines difficult (but possible!) to scale without the railing, and constant reminders that mountains are always taller than one thinks. It was 95 degrees and cloudless, yet I couldn’t help myself from setting a brisk pace, barreling up and down the mountain to see it in all its glory. Flat Phoenix unfolded like a carpet below, and I was back on the edge as I’d been at the Canyon, once again in awe of the expanse of it all.

084

One might think that all of this vastness lends itself to broad thinking, but in reality, the deep thought needed no such catalyst. Instead, it came from a reunion of three Georgetown friends, back together to wrestle with questions great and small, keeping our little salon going until 4 AM, tearing into each other without a hint of malice as we probe at the foundations of our thought. Unsettling to those not a part of it, perhaps, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We need to know.

There’s a common experience to Georgetown grads—especially for those of us who have taken somewhat less traveled paths after graduation—that we struggle to share with anyone else. We’re floating between two worlds, too aware and proud of our roots to cut them off, but too consumed by that chase and the things we’ve learned along the way to ever go entirely home. Call it the burden of ambition: how do we harness that restlessness, that frenetic energy that feeds on itself and makes us who we are? Even the numerous Hoyas who have gone straight for the halls of power—consulting, banking, law school—are often self-aware enough that they are fighting similar wars, trying to stay grounded while immersing themselves in worlds that will let them reach those dreams.

As most know, my position at the end of the day is on the side of the roots: it is my way of making sense of the world’s madness, and of resolving those older issues that need resolution. I know that going home saved my sanity, and it has also done wonders for my Arizona friend, whose relentless drive in certain areas threatened to derail his promise. Still, it was hard not to feel that twinge of allure when back in with that Georgetown energy, and, being a Hoya, I’m not going to run and hide from that, or worry that it’ll mess up my little narrative: it’s an important part of me too, and the story is still writing itself. It makes me think, it pushes me, and I live for those moments when we sit there and argue about it all, lurching toward something approaching understanding, at once both earnest yet able to laugh about it all.

As for my friends who are ready to go back to the climb, I have nothing but encouragement: it would be folly to cut off that drive. It’s exhilarating, and the view from the top can’t be matched. But the mountain is always higher than it seems, and that it’s a mistake to run too far ahead of the people carrying the water bottles. A few breaks along the way do wonders (and Minnesota will always welcome those who look to take one). After every climb comes a descent, and it has to be measured, taken carefully; it is all too easy to go plunging to a dramatic death. But it’s worth the risk. Once again: the trouble is not in the climb, but in the refusal to look back along the way we’ve come.