I have made a habit, it seems, of long western road trips in even-numbered years. The 2020 edition will take me out to Yellowstone and back over the next two weeks, a trip nearly as long in time (if not in miles) as the 2016 edition, and similar in its scope of natural beauty to 2018. At first glance it may seem a rather cavalier time for a vacation given our national situation, to say nothing of the fact that I’m moving three days after I return. But never have I wanted a vacation more than I do right now, and this sudden push outward is an ideal bookend to one phase of life.
This road trip necessarily makes its concessions to the ongoing pandemic. Plans had to change, fellow travelers have dropped, and added doses of caution will likely prevent me from getting too adventurous in sampling local culture. There will be a lot of meals at rest stops and at camp stoves and in hotel rooms, not in intriguing establishments. Summer 2020 has been best spent in tents and admiring wide open spaces instead of visiting great cities or museums or restaurants and bars.
Fortunately, this trip offers no shortage of wide open spaces. Half its nights will be spent at backcountry campsites of some sort, which are about as socially distant as one can get. The bulk of this trip brings together a five of us from all over the country, which is a calculated risk, but since April, I’ve been pretty insistent that we must take reasonable precautions and find some way to live a mentally healthy life. This thrust westward, even as the national situation deteriorates, is exactly that.
I set out in a car that needs to add some ticks to its odometer to justify its high-mileage lease, well-stocked with coolers and bear cans, and armed with bear spray in the event that any new furry friends draw too close. The weather, for now, looks much more pleasant than my last venture outward, which can only be a good thing. As usual, I’m stocked with a wide-ranging array of audiobooks and a couple of maps. (The real, paper kind that won’t fail me when I lose cell service and have to navigate my way off-trail around a herd of bison, thank you very much.) What more could I ask for?
Like Theodore Roosevelt, whose old stomping grounds in North Dakota will be my host for the first two nights, I head west in a time of uncertainty. In the past I’ve said that I aspire to no great insights in my travel; that I should let them come as they come. But this time? Nah. I really am looking to find something. I don’t know what, and I’ll be fine if I don’t. But in many ways I feel like I’m on the brink of…something.
So, off I go. Updates will follow, as time allows.
Despite some deceptively warm weather of late, it is still spring in Duluth. Oil refineries in Superior are on fire. Yeah, I’m about ready for an escape.
Two summers ago, I took a road trip across the West, and it planted something of a bug. It taught me that I enjoy long-distance driving, and that I have a lot of national parks I need to see. It tempted me to return to San Francisco before long, and also left me wanting a little more ocean and desert in my life. So, over the course of a week, I plan to check all of those boxes.
The first few days, will feature the usual fun of living well and consuming tasty beverages in the Bay Area. I’ll be blessedly car-free there after a debacle on the last road trip, and will collect a rental car after two nights in the gentrification capital of America. My next night is in a cottage down the coast in Pacific Grove, where I’ll fill my surf and Steinbeck quotas, meander down to Big Sur, and stock up on provisions.
Over the next phase of my journey, I will travel armed with an America the Beautiful pass, which will get me into four national parks over the course of the trip. The first is Pinnacles, which I didn’t know existed until I started researching routes from the California coast to the Sierras, but will offer some good, robust training hikes for what comes later. Next comes Sequoia, where I will spend a night in the foothills and make an all-too-brief visit to some big trees. After that, I’ll spend two nights at Joshua Tree, deep in the desert and beneath one of America’s clearest starry skies. It will all culminate with a conquest of vertigo (or so I hope) at Angel’s Landing, along with other adventures through Zion National Park in Utah.
The natural wonders may be the main highlights of this trip, but there should be some good sociological fun, too. The Bay Area, of course, is a fascinating mash-up of lefty radicalism and Silicon Valley technocracy. To the south, I’ll brush up against New Agers and coastal opulence, from Esalen to Pebble Beach. I’ll spend some time in California’s Central Valley, a relatively poor agricultural heartland where immigrant laborers cut their teeth. Later, I’ll see desert frontier towns and Mormon outposts. To wrap things up, I’ll swing through that monument to American kitsch, Las Vegas, on my way to catch a flight home. Nearly all of my driving will be on state and federal highways, which I much prefer to freeways: they provide a much more intimate window into the communities one passes through.
As always, planning the trip is half the journey, and deciding what I had to leave out was a chore. Yosemite and Kings Canyon will require return trips when I can immerse myself in them, and part of me wants to wander back to San Luis Obispo and its environs, the site of a high school adventure that deserves its own blog post at some point in the future. I could easily devote a full week to meandering up and down the California coast, or trudging through the Sierras, or basking in the desert, but settled for packing in all three.
My itinerary is full, and the range of geography along the route made it difficult to plan. There are no campground reservations high in the Sierras yet this time of year, as snow and cold remains a risk; Joshua Tree, meanwhile, is only a few weeks away from the summer heat that makes it unbearable. And while this trip will involve old friends and relatives on the two ends, the midweek portion will be a personal retreat of sorts, as I set up camp and run up mountains on my own. My partners in travel will include Jack Kerouac (Big Sur), Joan Didion (Blue Nights), Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety), and Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire). As usual, I’m seeking out a little of everything amid my cycles from one extreme to another.
This is an ambitious trip in one other respect, too: I’m leaving my laptop at home. This may seem a minor decision for most travelers, especially in a day in age when cell phones allow us to do most of the same things that computers do. But for me, a week without a word processor is like a week without water. The lack of a computer doesn’t mean I won’t be writing on my way, or blog extensively about it when I return. I just felt compelled to leave it behind and live without my daily dose of screen time. (That battery would have run down to nothing across five straight nights in a tent anyway.) And while the phone will be along so I can properly Instagram my adventures to death, I am also rather pleased that most of my campgrounds will likely be in lands where I can’t count on having any service. Sometimes one just needs to cut the cord and use some good, old-fashioned notebooks.
This is a very timely trip, and not just for the sake of some new weather. It comes as my work life heads into a transitional phase, and it will be healthy for me to attain some distance to understand my role. With any luck, it will jolt some closing thoughts for my current fictional project, and give me some idea of what I will tackle next. And, as always, this step out from my day-to-day life in Duluth will provide necessary perspective on matters large and small.
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.
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 palatial 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.