Tag Archives: north shore

Ridgetop Requiem

3 Apr

This post is the eighth in a fictional series that began here. The previous installment is here.

At least his father had the good sense to bite it in summer, Mark thinks as he drives up the rutted gravel road toward the clifftop villa overlooking Lake Superior. He can only imagine what would have happened if the diagnosis had come in winter. The hospice nurse probably would have gone over the edge in that puny little Volvo parked at the gate, or maybe no one would have found the body until the snows melted. Perhaps not an inappropriate end for the Ice King of the North Shore, Mark muses before scolding himself for his impropriety.

Mark had always known he’d likely lose his father at an early age. Pierpont Brennan conceived his youngest son at age 56, an unhappy side product of a tryst with a woman twenty-three years his junior. But when Mark pushes the lodge door open and announces his arrival, the feeble welcome that bleats out in response jars him. He greets the nurse and makes the perfunctory small talk before asking for some privacy. She wobbles between her practiced pity for children of the dying and a dose of fear at Mark’s coolness: bespoke suit sans tie, perfectly windswept hair, no outward betrayal of emotion. Mark suspects she diagnoses some stage of grief, and he is content to let her believe he is in shock or denial, not blithely indifferent to death.

He wonders how hard it would be to seduce her. She looks to be early thirties, cute in a weather-beaten sort of way, very much the motherly type. The sort who tells herself she has standards, but most likely will let them crumble when faced with a louche, exotic East Coast boy. Right in his wheelhouse, he thinks. She offers him some reassuring clichés on her way out the door, and he berates himself for this lapse into his basest desire to just fuck everything. This is why he shouldn’t go home. It brings out the worst in him.

After a resigned sigh, Mark goes to stand before Pierpont Brennan. His father rests in the recliner in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the lodge’s great room, free to gaze out at a complete panorama of the shoreline 500 feet below, if he ever manages to lift his eyes. Just six months ago, when Mark had last visited, his father had casually boasted about his hikes down to the lakefront and back again. Now, he’s a fading wraith, his skin drawn thin and his once sleek silver mane rendered a patchy mess.

“Kind of you to come back from Shangri-La to see your father die.”

Even in a terminal state, he still can’t help but take digs.

“Evan and I go off the grid when we’re hiking. Didn’t get the message until two days ago, and, well, here I am.”

“Better than nothing.”

“None of the others…”

A derisive snort interrupts Mark’s words.

“Apparently not?”

“You know full well what they think of me.”

“Considering that only one of them even talks to me, I’d say so.”

“My family, loving to the end.”

“Hey, some of us try.”

“You want a medal?”

“Don’t your people have some story about the prodigal son or something? About how the father welcomed him back with open arms?”

“‘My people.’ Hmph.”

“Aw, are we really going to do this now?”

“Why change at the end?”

Mark grumbles, but manages a retort after a pause that is only slightly too long. “You changed. You broke totally free after you had me, lived a totally different life.”

“The last few chapters of my life haven’t been all that happy.”

“Glad you enjoyed your time with me.”

“Shut up with your goddamn smart mouth.”

“What, I’m supposed to take this lying down?”

Mark’s father pauses before retorting. His precision is fading, as sure a sign of decline as any, but he fires up the engines once again.

“It’s not about you. It’s about what I did…loyal and God-fearing for all those years. Finally breaking out to stop living in misery. I got nothing in return. Maybe this is all I deserved.”

“You know, when my last girlfriend dumped me, she said I somehow managed to be arrogant and always self-pitying, all at once. Guess I know where I got it from.”

“Quit sniping and take a seat next to me.”

Mark nods and nestles into the Spartan wooden chair next to the recliner. Silence reigns in the chalet, save for the rumble of a braking truck that echoes up from the highway at the base of the cliff. Clouds wander in and out of their line of sight, darkening the lake below them in scattered patches. Every silent second feels like an eternity.

“I will miss this view,” Mark chances. His father doesn’t reply, so Mark keeps his gaze outward on the lake. He shies from looking at this frail remnant to his left, his formidable father reduced to a shell of his former self. Even the hint of vulnerability in his most recent utterance feels wrong: this isn’t how Pierpont Brennan should go. The two of them should be fighting to the last breath, playing out their vicious charade, the two narcissists’ simple acknowledgement of their intertwined fates. It’s the closest thing they can muster to a declaration of love.

Only once before has this façade cracked, that back when Pierpont lamented his affair with Mark’s mother, only for Mark to remind him that without it, he wouldn’t exist. For the first time, Pierpont had acknowledged that his last son was very much his own, unsure of whether this was a point of pride or not, torn between his desire to justify his late-life dalliances and his regret that they never brought him the satisfaction he sought. Pierpont, ever an agent of his own happiness, his love life’s value cast in the utilitarian terms that made him so ruthlessly successful on Wall Street.

Mark barely knew his father in his prime. His three half-siblings hold him in thinly veiled contempt for what he brought into the open. His father, diminished by the collapse of his ever-so-perfect family, had resigned his presidency of a multinational holding company and settled for an obscure consulting position at a mining plant on the shores of Lake Superior, where his new wife had come from before her ambition led her to the world of New York’s escorts. Pierpont Brennan’s early exploits are legend to Mark, vague rumors of past glory that he can believe but never has fully seen. His gravitas never faded, however, and Mark suspects his father courses through him when he coolly swats aside his own emotions to project the power he knows is his destiny. It comes as no surprise when his next ask brings out that dismissive leer.

“Tell me what you’re thinking about all this now.”

“I’m not sure it’s a story worth telling. I made a lot of money. It didn’t buy me happiness. At least it’s bought you a good education, even if it’s made you ask too many questions. What more is there to say?”

Mark mulls any number of things he wishes his father would say, but nothing can quite bring itself to issue from his lips. He settles for standing before the window and gazing out at nothing in particular.

“You always used to say you felt closer to God up here,” he says.

“I did say that.”

“You believe it?”

“Depends on the day, honestly.”

“And you wonder why I’m not a believer.”

“No, I know exactly why you aren’t. And I don’t blame you.”

“Appreciate that.”

Mark’s lower lip wobbles. His father first cheated on his mother when he was ten, was caught when he was thirteen, divorced at fifteen. Not once in the eight years since has there been any mention of what transpired. Now, on his deathbed, his father concedes some of the damage done by that festering wound. Twenty-three years, hidden in darkness.

Mark cannot stay at his father’s side. He turns his back without a word and wanders the house one final time. The last time in which it is intact, at least; he’s sure he’ll be back here overseeing some estate sale and ushering it on to the market, with no one else to do the job. It may sit there for years. How much demand can there be for a multi-million dollar home at the end of an eroding gravel road in northern Minnesota?

He starts his tour downstairs in his old walkout bedroom, still cluttered with the detritus of stray weekends spent back here during high school. Some trophies, a pile of hockey programs, the empty vodka bottles stashed in the dresser, the summer clothes that are now out of fashion and were always too preppy for rural Minnesota anyway. He’d weeded out anything of sentimental value years ago, in an attempt to purge this house of any semblance of his old life. Now he almost wishes he could find something that could spark an old twinge of happier days. But who is he kidding? There were no such days. He was miserable from the day they moved here in a futile attempt to save his parents’ failing marriage.

He wanders back upstairs, skirting the great living room to slip up the staircase to the lofted bedroom. This was supposed to be the guest room to showcase the North Shore to his parents’ friends from back East, though few of them ever came. Instead, it became the site of his father’s liaisons, and also where Mark enjoyed his first blowjob from Emma, his obsessive middle school girlfriend. He has his phone out of his pocket to learn what became of her before he remembers he never has any service here. This is symbolic of something, he figures.

The room is coated in dust, cluttered with his father’s usual poorly ironed clothes and empty nightcap glasses. Once he had the place to himself, Pierpont had taken to sleeping up here until he could no longer manage the stairs, and Mark doubts anyone has been up here since. The view is as magnificent as it ever was, and he can still hear Emma’s gasps in awe when she saw the twenty-mile shoreline panorama. His teenage conquests now leave him both proud and repulsed, unapologetic but afraid that he is nothing more than a sleazy sex addict who’s never learned a thing, despite all his pretentions of truth-seeking and intellectual growth.

Mark looks down from the loft at his unmoving father and wonders vaguely if he is the sole heir, or if Pierpont has thrown some bones to his estranged older children. If his father were a generous man, he would have just left it all to charity to spurn his ungrateful offspring, but he has no such causes left to earn his loyalty. Pierpont was eternally short on compassion for the downtrodden, grumpy about the internal politics of his alma maters, and stopped going to church after his second divorce. Even the Republican Party ceased to be worthy of his largesse after it started to turn against the free trade policies that let Pierpont make millions off of various offshoring maneuvers.

Mark has played his cards ever so carefully. He started the game even in high school, right after he moved out with his mother, and endured long weekends back here to ensure a future payoff. He suffered through tales of old board room meetings and leveraged buyouts, and made sure his patron knew he was using his old network as he made his way in New Haven and New York. He brought in the lawyer to make sure Pierpont had his affairs in order, always pulling strings from a distance. The more cynical part of his brain is pleased with how well he’s pulled it off, but on those scattered occasions where his father’s humanity does pierce through, he feels a pang of guilt over how shamelessly he’s plotted for this day.

Mark heads back down the stairs and goes to his father’s side. No acknowledgement. He settles into a crouch; his father always preferred talking to people when he could look down on them. He whets his lips and tries the first words that come to his mind.

“Can I get you something? A snack? Water? That bottle of absinthe I know you have in the pantry?”

Pierpont laughs. “I’m scared for you, Mark. I always have been.”

“Scared? Why?”

“You have too much of me in you.”

“I won’t deny it…but, shit.”

“Same ego, same vanity, same sense that you always deserved more. After doing everything in my power to make a clean break from my old life…my youngest son was more like the old me than any of my other three children. Seeing that? It was the beginning of the end with your mother. I saw that running away with her was all a sham.”

“You seriously gonna try to pin that on ten-year-old me?”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t…you see how confused it all is? Why I’m not dying in peace?”

“Is this really the way you want to go out? Like this?”

“Do I have any choice?”

“Yes. You’ve got to. Where did it go wrong?” Pierpont averts his eyes, cowed, and Mark feels another twinge of guilt. He shouldn’t abuse a dying man like this. But if not now, when? Mark knows this is his own greatest sin: he must know. His appetite knows no bounds. He cannot linger in doubt, even for a second. And that awful doubt that has hung over the entire story of his life, that both he and his father see perpetuated in him, may never see an answer on this earth.

“Answer me.”

“You’re cruel.”

“I have too much of you in me.”

The two share a wry laugh.

“The mistake, I think, was in thinking I could break free. I believed it, and it was convenient when your mother came along, to think I could flush down that past. I couldn’t. And yet I can’t say it was a mistake, either…as you always remind me.” For the first time since Mark’s arrival, a smile crawls on to Pierpont’s face. “It was always me, all of it, the good and the bad, and every shade of grey in between. We’re complicated creatures.”

Mark nods. “I feel that. We want it all to make sense. Be the hero. And some days I am. Look what I’ve done with my life. But then…”

“You fall right back into the gutter that you know all too well.” Pierpont closes his eyes and settles back into the chair. For a moment, Mark fears this is the end, but his eyes suddenly bulge open with new life.

“I wish I could have told my kids that the world isn’t the way it is. That we’d all find ways to live happily ever after. Both of my wives thought so, in their own way. But I couldn’t lie to you. I may not have said it right, but I do think I taught you how to fend for yourselves. And you all do.”

“Is that what it’s all about? Being able to fend for yourself?”

“I don’t know. Some book I read once probably said that, but I don’t know that it’s worth all the philosophical babble anymore. I wanted you to be confident in who you are. I don’t think you can find any fault in that.”

“Maybe not. And I am, usually. But…I’ve always felt torn. Between the East Coast and Minnesota, between you and Mom, between all this wandering curiosity and all those questions, and then that side of me that wants to cut through all the bullshit and get things done and make bank.”

“It all adds up to you as you are.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“It’s a burden to bear. Not one that I’ve always done a very good job of. Though…maybe I’m salvaging something at the end here.”

Tears begin to well in Mark’s eyes.

“Don’t cry for me, kid.”

“I’m not. Not really. I’m crying for what could have been.”

“Don’t dwell.”

“That’s rich.”

“I am rich, and I’ve earned the right to say what I please.”

Mark laughs. “That you have.”

“Help me up.”

Mark’s first urge is to dissuade his father from exertion, but he suppresses this sorry impulse and lends Pierpont Brennan an arm. The two make a slow, lurching walk along the full length of the wall of glass, then step out on to the side deck. Mark puts on his sunglasses to hide his swimming eyes and tosses his hair in the soft lake breeze. His father takes deep, rasping breaths as he sucks down the cool air, collects himself, and gazes up at his son.

“You may miss this view. And I’m glad you feel some nostalgia for this place. But don’t miss it too much, you hear me?”

“No?”

“This place…it’s beautiful in its solitude. But it’s never had enough life in it. You know this.”

Mark nods.

“When are you headed back east?”

“There’s no timeline.”

“I don’t know how long this will take, you know. I did take pretty good care of myself, booze aside. And I’m stubborn.”

“Got your genes on all those fronts, too.”

“I am afraid for you. But I will admit that I’m proud, too.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I know you’ve been looking for answers. Trying not to make the same mistakes. You don’t need to tell me if you’ve found something, but…promise me you won’t ever stop.”

Mark blossoms into the most genuine smile he’s ever known. “That I can do.”

That evening, Mark will make a simple meal for his father, and they will trade some tales of their early days on the trading floor. After they share some of the absinthe, Mark will tuck Pierpont beneath a blanket in his recliner, and his father will expire in his sleep. The next morning, Mark will tell some of his father’s story to the nurse, though he will neither cry in front of her nor make any effort to woo her. He notifies the lawyer and the undertaker, and he calls Evan to invite him up the Shore so the two of them can have a wake, the only memorial service that will be held in his father’s name. Content, Mark heads back down to his old bedroom’s closet and finds one salvageable item: a battered old pair of running shoes. He laces them up and heads out on to the trails on the property to run them one last time.

Evan tells him he will never truly find closure, and he has no reason to doubt his friend’s hard-earned wisdom. But he can take time to process, and to sear certain lessons into his mind so that he never forgets them. Yes, Mark thinks as he picks himself up from a fall in the mud and keeps on running. For now, that will have to be enough.

This series continues here.

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Highway 61 Revisited

7 May

When I was a small child who wouldn’t shut up, my parents would just strap me into the car seat and take me for a drive. It worked every time, and put Baby Karl to sleep. As I learned on my whirlwind West Coast road trip last summer, a good, long drive still has the power to lull me into a satisfied place. Perhaps no road can do this better than the one lining Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, a pathway woven through childhood memories that also looms up in vague visions of the future.

Minnesota Highway 61 runs some 150 miles from the end of Interstate 35 in Duluth to the Canadian border. It was decommissioned from federal highway status a few decades ago and is no longer the continuous highway that ran from Bob Dylan’s birthplace down through the heart of Blues Country to New Orleans, but it remains the only connection between the U.S. and Canada through Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. The highway is an engineering achievement, often blasting its way through the thick Duluth Complex and the volcanic extrusions that jumble together in the headlands on the Shore. I drive this road with some regularity; no year is complete few trips up the Shore for hikes, runs, and skis. Work takes me up this way at times as well, including a trip to Silver Bay and the old Finland airbase site just this past Wednesday. But while this voyage has a few ulterior motives, it’s primarily dedicated to the ribbon of road.

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The view from Mount Josephine toward Canada

The North Shore is a tourist playground of rocky beaches and cascading streams, rustic beauty frozen in time. Resorts and vacation homes that range from humble cabins to palatal lodges with floor-to-ceiling windows out on the lake dot the way along 61. The greatest of these is the house atop Silver Creek Cliff that was once rumored to belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, that illustrious alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. I’ll have to dust off an unfinished short story that took place in a house modeled after this one. But that castle is just one of the retreat homes on the Shore. There are also the homes of the Encampment River People, the residents of a cloistered community north of Two Harbors whose sole purpose in life appears to be yelling at people who disturb their peace; north of Ilgen “City,” I pass a house on the market for $5.5 million that looks worth every penny on its Sotheby’s listing. Real estate now excites me. I’m getting old.

These vacation homes are a far cry from some of the Shore’s most distinctive markers: the ore docks of Two Harbors, the taconite plant in Silver Bay, and the ghost town of Taconite Harbor, home to a now-idled power plant. These and the occasional logging truck are the only vestiges of the industry that led people to first settle on the Shore. While doing my homework before my visit to the Finland airbase, I stumbled across a forum devoted to these shuttered military installations, where a few aging former servicemen and their children who lived their early years on the base at the height of the Cold War reminisced on their time atop a hill in rural Lake County. Despite the desolation and cold—many of them were not native Minnesotans—they almost universally called it the best years of their lives. Now, the base sits vacant aside from a few apparent squatters, a superfund site at the end of a crumbling, precarious road. In place of the solidarity of years on the base, the Shore has now often become a playground for people who live somewhere else.

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Intermingling rocks at a wayside south of Grand Marais

I’m guilty as charged today. This road trip emerged from a plan to test out a new pair of trail running shoes, and their maiden voyage commences at Oberg and LeVeaux Mountains, two peaks that flank the Onion River and its eponymous road just south of the Lutsen ski resort. I start with LeVeaux, the longer hike up an oblong bluff rising 900 feet above the lake. I don’t see anyone else on this 3.5-mile loop, which features some muddy slop to mar my new shoes, a bridge over the rushing Onion, and a climb up the north face, some lingering drifts of snow tucked in at its base. The stark solitude here exudes both a complete rightness and a wistful loneliness, two peaks twinned in my first eight months back home. The trail that circles the summit doesn’t offer nearly as many views as other hilltops in the Sawtooths, but there is a superb look back to the south and west at its far end, as clear as one will ever see it with no leaves on the trees quite yet.

Oberg, meanwhile, is bustling with hikers, including a father who, when asked by his young daughter why that guy was running, immediately replies that “he’s being chased by bears.” The run here is easier than on LeVeaux, so it’s easy to bounce along and repeat those old clichés about climbs and endless pursuit. Yes, I need more of this. The views fan out in each direction as I make the circuit, with long looks down at both Superior and inland Oberg Lake. I do, however, opt to skip the overlook at which a man with his significant other appears to be pulling down his pants. I careen back into the parking lot, both tired and wishing I’d found myself a longer route.

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Oberg Lake

I stop for a spell at a wayside to put some thoughts on paper at a bend in the highway where I can enjoy views all the way north to the breakwater in Grand Marais. I press on to that town whose name is better left untranslated, which stirs to life at the start of another tourist season. Downtown bustles with the precise pace of a place that knows what it is and makes it work. I’m tempted to stop in a gallery to find some local art to check off one of the boxes on my ever-expanding apartment decoration checklist, but restrain myself and settle for a sandwich from the Java Moose. (Alas, the tamale cart is nowhere to be seen.) It’s been a good five years since I was last in Grand Marais, and that last visit mostly involved the hospital after a friend separated his shoulder on a Boundary Waters trip, but it’s just as vibrant and quirky as I remember.

My plan had been to turn around at the Devil’s Kettle at Magney State Park a short ways north of Grand Marais, but then I decide, what the hell, I’ll go to the border. I’ve only crossed here once before, on a childhood vacation to Thunder Bay most memorable for the words my mother uttered when faced with the hike up Sleeping Giant. I have a vague memory of Mount Josephine, which towers over the last settlement in Minnesota, Grand Portage; I’d forgotten how much the highway climbs to cross this final rampart before the Pigeon River. If we ever decide to build a wall with Canada, this portion of the border is already covered. I’m rewarded with a stellar view from the wayside, with Pigeon Point and a few islands at the mouth of the river dotting the azure lake.

The last stop on Highway 61 is a few hundred feet from the customs booth at Grand Portage State Park. A paved path traces its way along the Pigeon, which bursts its banks with spring rains. I am spattered with spray long before I see High Falls, a torrent down into the ravine that separates two nations. When the sun emerges, rainbows proliferate, and the torrents thunder with such power that water rockets back upward in fountains off the rocks below. It’s the most impressive waterfall in the Midwest (even if half of it is in Canada), and it’s not hard to imagine the misery of the Voyageurs as they struggled to find a way around it. This is the end of the road.

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The gateway to Canada

After one last glance at the land of maple leaves, Tim Hortons, and Justin Trudeau, I turn around and head south, past the signs telling me how to translate kilometers into miles. I swing off 61 in Grand Portage and search for a hiking trail up Mount Josephine, but its parking lot has spawned a sixth Great Lake, and with some clouds rolling in, I’m not too disappointed to head on my way. I meander through the heart of the Grand Portage Reservation, which boasts a shiny new school whose playground teems with children, alive on this otherwise desolate stretch of shore. Much more alive, at least, than the old Voyageur fort at the Grand Portage National Monument. It sits in sad in repose, still closed for the season; in one part, orange construction fencing stands in place of the wooden palisade.

I get another dose of the Shore’s limited brushes with history beyond this little corner of the planet when I stop in the hamlet of Colvill to wander along the beach. This was the old summer home of Col. William Colvill, the commander of the First Minnesota regiment whose suicidal charge at Gettysburg ranks among the most crucial military maneuvers in American history. The First Minnesota suffered an 80 percent casualty rate, but stuffed the Rebel advance and may just have saved the nation as we know it. Shot twice and left with a wrecked ankle, Colvill found solitude here as he gimped down this rocky beach, recovering from the horror of war. I follow in his footsteps, any of my more plaintive musings paling in comparison to what weighed on the old Union hero.

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Nowadays, elsewhere in northern Minnesota, I’ve seen a surge in the number of Confederate flags flying from pickup trucks. History is rarely as decisive as we’d like to imagine. What endures a century and a half later is the sense of duty of a man like Colvill, who was the first Minnesotan to enlist when the War Between the States broke out. That sense of compunction, unfathomable until we realize there are things that we, too, would fancy to think we’d drive to the end of the earth to achieve. It’s all somewhere in the pursuit, I muse as I brush a little mud off my leg.

The return trip drags more than the venture northward, as I’m repeatedly stuck in columns of slow-moving traffic. Tourist season is indeed upon us. By the time I’m passing Gooseberry Falls I decide I deserve a beer, and swing down to the Castle Danger brewery in Two Harbors. I sit at the bar and unwind, even as I remind myself how much I have to do to align dreams and reality. Along one road, however, they already blend, and I head home with little doubt that I could just drive this highway into eternity.