Tag Archives: travel

Thirteen Hours at O’Hare

2 Oct

I traveled to Chicago this past weekend to see family at a couple of functions, including a Cubs game that swiftly turned into a second Cubs game when the end of the regular season forced a one-game divisional playoff conveniently timed before my flight back to Duluth on Monday. After the Cubs lost that game to the Brewers, a cousin and I had a text exchange in which he wondered if I might somehow befall some weather that would leave me in Chicago through the next night yet another Cubs game, their one-game Wild Card showdown with the Colorado Rockies. Alas, the forecast looked pretty good. “Shame,” he replied. In retrospect, I should have just bought a ticket.

Monday evening begins innocently enough. The sun comes out by the end of the ballgame, and while a few raindrops fall on me on my walk from dinner to the Blue Line, nothing seems ominous. I get to O’Hare with an hour to go until my flight, fly through security, and board the plane sure I’ll be home by 11:00, a perfectly reasonable hour. Even when parked out on the tarmac due to some incoming weather, no one seems to suspect a long delay. How wrong we are.

This isn’t a total horror story. If I’m going to spend three hours next to someone on a stationary plane, it might as well be Eje Johansson, a longtime Swedish hockey player, NHL scout, and coach who forged a friendship with Duluth’s Tom Wheeler, and sent his kid to play for a year at Duluth East in the 80s. He tells me stories of his hockey travels across Europe and the United States for most of the delay. But after a few hours even that gets old, and we resort to gazing out at the lightning that continues to flicker over us. A bit after 11:00, the pilot announces we must conform to FAA regulations that prevent planes from sitting on tarmacs for more than three hours. We head back to the gate, and shortly after most of the plane’s passengers disembark around midnight, the gate agent announces that the flight won’t go until 8:00 the next morning.

The United customer service line provides an effective method to kill the first of my eight hours of unexpected layover. My fellow sufferers and I wait beneath Concourse B’s watchful Brachiosaurus skeleton, and wonder whether we will become skeletons before we get to the counter. At one point a United employee comes out and yells some just-inaudible details, after which some people walk away with pink vouchers never to return, but other people swiftly latch on to her, and she cannot escape to make her announcement again. The Asian college-aged kid on my flight gloms on to me and asks me a lot of questions that I cannot answer. A guy who probably works for Epic comes up and asks if anyone else in line can chip in $50 on a $200 Lyft to Madison, and another guy who probably works for Epic immediately volunteers. Never has Madison sounded so alluring.

When I do finally get to the service counter, an upbeat yet thoroughly blasé man gives me my options: call a mystery number to get a discount for a hotel room for a few hours, or accept United’s care package of a blanket and a water bottle filled with toiletry fun. I shake off the temptation to stick around for the Wild Card game, take the latter option, and resign myself to a night in O’Hare. Someone comes down the line and gives me a $10 meal voucher in the name of Ruthanna Seidel. Between now and 4:00, though, the only options in all of O’Hare are a Starbucks and a McDonalds. My kingdom for a bar, however overpriced and mediocre it might be. Rumors flit up and down the line of cots available somewhere, but no one says anything of such luxuries to me. I am resigned to my fate.

I wander Concourse B in search of a passable place to sit beneath my blanket and achieve something approximating comfort. This is hard to do. Every waiting area by a gate has an obnoxious TV that still blathers away, and most chairs have arms, as if the designers of O’Hare were afraid that vagrants would wander in and start napping in the concourse. Eventually I find a bank of four chairs with outlets opposite a couple of bathrooms and a United Club, which is dark at this hour. I settle in to the steady drip of water down from the ceiling and into the scattered buckets along the concourse. American infrastructure at its finest. Every ten minutes, a warning orders us not to use unauthorized ground transportation options; only on much rarer occasions do we hear the lines about unattended bags and liquid regulations. Priorities, I suppose.

Around 2:30 a British man ambles up the concourse filming the emptiness. He stops before one of the buckets collecting dripping water and narrates as if it were a nature documentary. “There’s nobody here!” he says as he pans past me. “I’m not nobody!” I want to yell, but the circumstances would suggest otherwise. Narration aside, the concourse is devoid of any talk, with just a few lost souls meandering past from time to time. Repeat passersby include a lost-looking kid in a suit who goes for five cups of coffee, a Santa Claus lookalike in a sweater vest, and a man in cowboy boots and a blouse.

Even in the wee hours of the morning, though, there is steady activity on Concourse B at O’Hare. Most of the people in action are just invisible to many of the ticketholders. The maintenance work is unending, with steady processions of people cleaning floors or bathrooms or just driving small vehicles dangerously close to my feet. Over by gate B4, two men are painting the wall; around 2:00, a couple of women head into the United Club to restore it for the morning business crowd. A man wheels an overflowing bin of garbage bags up to the bathrooms across the way as they’re getting cleaned and demands the basura. Bring out your dead!

Shortly after 3:00 a man from the Madison flight joins me on my bank of chairs. We make brief small talk, but I am increasingly incapable of conversation. He nods off. I huddle beneath my blanket and pull out the laptop to start this account. Just before 4:00, there are some signs of life: new employees check into a locker room next to me, some restaurant prep work begins, and the United Club reveals that its cool-looking dark blue mood lighting is just the glass on the doors, and the interior is bland and tan. I feel somewhat less like a plebe. I’m halfway through my sojourn.

The worst moment of my ordeal comes when I finally start nodding off around 4:30. “Wake up!” some soulless, demon-possessed woman says as she walks by. I start to life and give her a look. Judging by her reaction and rush of apologies, my look has conveyed the desired combination of hurt, betrayal, and murderous rage. No acting is necessary, yet I embellish it with a little more anguish and a near-tears shake of my head. This earns me another cascade of apologies, which goes a very slight distance toward atonement for her mortal sin. I hope her flight got canceled and she was forced to take a Megabus to Omaha.

Now wide-awake, I spend the next half hour contemplating the human capacity for evil. The crowd slowly thickens with early-morning business travelers, and I’m left feeling like a disheveled wreck. I go sit on a toilet for a while, and have the revelation that this is the most comfortable I’ve been all night: it’s actually warm in here, I can recline against a wall instead of an advertising board, and I have privacy and quiet outside of the white noise of stall doors and toilet flushes. I’m not quite at the point where I want to spend three more hours in a bathroom stall, but it is tempting.

I wander the length of Concourse B in a lethargic daze. I reach one of the Starbucks outposts at the far end and make use of Ruthanna’s meal ticket, though its $10 value can’t even cover a yogurt parfait and a grande chai. I consume them with little fanfare in the seating area for a gate across the hall. Here, there are paired seats without bars between them that have allowed the vertically impaired to lay down to sleep, though the seats are coming apart at the seams. I conclude I wouldn’t have survived here anyway, as the incessant babble of inane cable news pours forth nonstop from the speakers. On my next circuit of the concourse, I carefully search to see if there are any seats off the main hallway that are not within earshot of such misery. There are none.

Communication with friends, family, and work colleagues who are now awake distracts me for the next hour. A lack of flight attendants leads the flight to depart the gate some 50 minutes later than scheduled, and we spend another half hour-plus taxiing about the airport and sitting in lines of planes waiting to take off. The flight itself is on the bumpy side, but mercifully short, and I manage to doze off for a chunk of it. Eje Johansson is excited to see that winter is on its way.

As I await my bag at the baggage claim in Duluth, I drop my new United water bottle. It shatters, and water spills all over the floor. This seems somehow fitting, though to United’s credit, the weather was beyond its control and all of the people I interacted with who tried to sort things out did their jobs as they should have, usually with a smile. Sure, there are annoyances with vouchers and lack of communication here and there, but no person can really take the blame for my thirteen hours of O’Hare hell. Except for that satanic woman who had the nerve to wake me up for no reason, of course. I hope her Megabus to Omaha broke down in Iowa, and she is stuck in some sorry motel tonight.

Few places remove identity quite like an airport: first we’re all cattle in the TSA lines, then we get herded on and off of planes. Airports are in some ways rigidly stratified, with pre-check lines and United Clubs and special boarding groups, yet a delay for one is a delay for all. Airports lack the grandeur and street life of a major train station, and just try (often falteringly) to move people around efficiently, with no care for comfort. They are places only in their role in moving people to other places. Up in the Air, the 2009 film that featured George Clooney as a placeless drifter who racks up obscene frequent flier miles as he travels the country firing people, had the diagnosis right.

Somehow, I still found some faltering Zen in that deadened early morning concourse. I write some reassuring words and reclaim air travel in my mind. The view from a window seat can still make my day after many years of flying, and the Duluth airport is the anti-O’Hare in its comfort and ease of use. Some of my more enjoyable travel experiences have come commiserating at an airport bar or in the interminable wait at the gate with fellow travelers. It might never have the romance of a train trip or the freedom of a road trip, but planes do make things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be, like my attendance at that division championship on Monday. Sometimes the journey is very much not the destination, but brings rewards nonetheless.

And I hope that motel in Iowa has fleas.

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Western Road Trip 2.0

27 Apr

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.

So, off I go. I look forward to aggressive hikes, camp stove meals, campground acquaintances, and nights under the stars. To beaches, to mountains, to canyons, to deserts. I will try not to hang out in a high-rise in San Francisco, get lost in Joshua Tree, or fall off of Angel’s Landing. I will put some miles on a rental vehicle and on my hiking boots, and go conquer the West once again. I’ll be back here to tell the tale when I return.

Two Hearted Travel

4 Oct

Few cities summon someone who studies cities quite like Detroit. It is emblematic of both the triumph of American industry and the horror story of its demise. Its northern border, Eight Mile Road, is the starkest divide one can find between modern suburban reality and a collapsed America that came before. This is where unions and Henry Ford’s wages created paths to the middle class and people of all races could find jobs; this is where the collapse of manufacturing left large swaths of a city in literal ruins, and where a series of events created one of the most segregated metros in America. Detroit gave us Motown and the most memorable Super Bowl commercial of all time, and it gave us tales of race riots and emergence from the ashes. Most anyone can use it to justify a particular version of American history, the good and the ill.

I’m in Detroit for a cousin’s wedding, and stay at a hotel downtown and near the venue, just next to the respective homes of the Tigers and Lions, Comerica Park and Ford Field. Downtown Detroit is alive, with GM’s Renaissance Center and some stunning gothic architecture looming over the city. As I watch from the window after checking in, a light rail and a pedal pub both roll by; immediately, any rumors of Detroit’s demise seem exaggerated. The partying outside our hotel late into the night does little to dispel this notion, as do my own ventures out to bars and a brewery and a distillery with my extended family. Even in this supposed wreck of a city, one can have a festive weekend and have no idea of the forces that have buffeted it over the past half century.

Those forces began with redlining and riots in the middle of the century, but culminated around the financial crisis a decade ago: two-thirds of the population gone, two humiliating automaker bailouts, a remarkably felonious mayor, and a municipal bankruptcy that had the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) seriously considering selling off some of its works to survive. Saner heads prevailed in that crisis and the priceless collection is intact, so a visit is in order. Its crown jewel is the Diego Rivera industry murals, which line four sides of a court in the center of the museum. I’ve seen my share of Rivera murals in my Mexican travels, but this one rivals them all in its cohesion across all four walls. As usual, Rivera captures a slice of everything here, with the complete cast of characters in 1930s Detroit united in fresco form. We see the drudgery and misery of factory work, the wealth it generates, the awesome power of human creation and industry, and hints of a dream that all this scientific progress could lead to a just and prosperous society. History has not proven kind to these dreams, at least not without significant collateral damage. The evidence is just outside the DIA’s doors.

Detroiters, understandably, aren’t too fond of tourists going in search of “ruin porn,” but as someone who’s become numbed to the pleasures of mere decline porn, my appetite for such smut is too large to resist. I’ve picked out a few of Detroit’s more iconic ruins to visit, including Michigan Central Station and an old Packard manufacturing plant. These are a few scattered relics, though; even thriving cities have a few such eyesores or white elephants. What makes Detroit shocking are its vast tracts beyond downtown that are now in ruin, an American Rome in its monuments to greatness lost, or perhaps a Palenque bursting out of the jungle. In some places the urban forest has swallowed up the decay; in others, just vacant grassy fields remain. Here and there some homes straggle on, their roofs in tatters and their windows in boards but still home to someone. Block by block, one never knows what one will find: total wreckage, declining but inhabitable structures, the occasional incongruous and immaculate home or business. Broad avenues, built to accommodate Detroit’s great export, sit in desolation, only the occasional car crawling up and down. Even around an active GM facility in Hamtramck, things seem more dead than alive.

Love springs eternal amid all this porn, however: as we visit Michigan Central, a couple is in the midst of its wedding photos out front, finding beauty plus a venue where they can get away with downing a couple of Pacificos around noon. Carefully tended roses sit behind the barbed wire, an American flag makes an attempt at a resolute stand, and the current owner has rehabbed all the windows. Someday, someone will find a use for this thing. The parking lot outside the Packard plant is full, and we can see a group of people in white construction helmets congregating in one part of the wreck; signage informs us that artists have grand plans for its rehabilitation. Occasional gardens and greenhouses dot the vacant lots, turning emptiness to good use. New roots in literal and figurative forms.

My traveling party and I decided to make a road trip out of our trek to Detroit, and took the slightly longer but infinitely prettier route from Duluth across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then across the Mackinac Bridge and straight south to the Motor City. The Great Lakes in autumn make for a lovely drive, but the UP, too, has seen its share of ups and downs. Some of its towns, such as Marquette and Munising and St. Ignace, have quaint lakeside downtowns bustling with tourists. Some, like Ishpeming and Negaunee, hang on to their old extractive industries. Others, old mining or logging towns whose anchors have long since moved on, look like they could be blocks somewhere in Detroit. When this happens in a metropolitan area, it’s a powerful story of civilizational decline; out here, it’s a much quieter decay, a tale of towns forgotten by time.

On the return leg, we make camp at the mouth of the Two Hearted River, a fast-moving trout stream that pours into Lake Superior just west of Whitefish Bay. It’s the namesake for the Bell’s India Pale Ale, so of course I have some of that along, and it also gave its name to a short story in Ernest Hemingway’s first published collection. I consume that tale in short order as well, following Nick Adams as he seeks solitude with his fishing line after the First World War. Hemingway’s prose has always been hit-or-miss for me, but when it comes to fishing, he is a master at his craft, and the simple elegance captures Nick’s singular mind out in the wilderness, cleared of any concern beyond his little camp along the Big Two Hearted.

Away from the lakes, the leaves approach fall peak and usher in perhaps my favorite season. Autumn is a fitting time for a journey through contradictory places. It carries an inherent dualism; something two-hearted, perhaps, as it clings to summer beauty and reminds us that none of it will last. Fitting, I suppose, for someone who at once craves the center of an endless party in a cultured city and escapes to solitude amid natural beauty. The end result was something akin to sensory overload, as I ruminated on old wounds that don’t always heal and a churning world that forces a new sense of urgency. But if I withdrew to make sense of all of that, it is now time to head back out, a cycle renewed yet again.

Plying Lonely Waters

6 Jul

Northern Minnesota does the Fourth of July right, with Duluth’s best-in-the-state fireworks display and the magic of Iron Range street dances. This year, though, the only fireworks I saw came in a vivid late-night lightning display, and the only dance was a jig to dodge the swarms of mosquitoes and dislodge an army of ticks. I spent it in the Boundary Waters.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a million-acre wilderness along Minnesota’s border with Canada set aside for seekers of relative solitude on a network of lakes and rivers. Only a handful of lakes allow motorboats; on the rest, it is just canoes, with portage trails set between lakes with primitive campsites featuring a fire pit and a latrine. The efforts of countless conservationists, most notably Sigurd F. Olson, set this region aside in the 1970s as one of those bastions of the earth that display as little human impact as possible, an ethos captured in the BWCA’s three-word catchphrase: Leave No Trace. Those old battles over the status of these lakes long predate my birth but linger in downtown Ely, the BWCA gateway where pro-mining and pro-wilderness signs duel along the main streets. That debate is now part of my daily life, but for five days, I shut all of that out.

I went to the BWCA with some regularity as a child and even during summers in my undergraduate days, though this was my first time in five years. It was, in fact, a Christmas gift for my father, who frequents the BWCA and comparable wilderness areas year round. Those earlier trips are sources of fond memories, or at least memorable ones, as when we paddled across Seagull Lake on a deathly still 95-degree day to get a member of our party with a separated shoulder to the hospital in Grand Marais. But while I enjoy opportunities to camp and exert myself out in the wild, genuine wilderness experiences have been rare lately. I’ve never overcome my struggles to sleep in a tent, an issue compounded this time around by a leak in my air mattress; I’d guess I didn’t get more than 15 hours of sleep across four nights on this trip. But I can still dip my feet in for a while, and the wilderness will forever hold a certain romance for someone who understands their role in human cycles of activity and reflection.

We enter at Moose River South, an entry point that allows just one party per day. It’s a meandering little stream that feeds south from the Echo Trail into a section of the Boundary Waters that sits separate from the rest of its waters, maybe one sixth of its total territory with six access points of varying difficulty, but none exactly designed for rookies. Moose River South is an easy enough paddle around some beaver dams into Big Moose Lake, but a 1.75-mile portage looms between it and Cummings Lake to the south, which seems to stop most traffic at the large, shallow lake named for a creature conspicuous in its absence. Cummings is near the center of this region, reachable from several directions, including a fairly easy jaunt over from Crab Lake, one of the most used entry points in the region. Beyond Crab lies a chain of lakes that we explore on our second and third days, all small and less traveled, maybe featuring a campsite or two and promising a lake to oneself. But even these are still relative wilderness highways: a few other dead-end lakes off this area have campsites so little used that they can melt into the woods, and somewhere south of the Moose River sits one of the BWCA’s Primitive Management Areas (PMAs), a group of lakes with no established portages or campsites that nonetheless allows access for those who seek to get as far off the beaten path as possible. And for a certain class of canoeing purist, the BWCA has nothing on its more remote Canadian counterparts.

This is wilderness enough for me, though, and time moves differently in the BWCA. A trip here means no clocks: nature and instinct decide when we wake and eat meals and go to bed. It means long stretches of moderately strenuous activity, with hard paddling and painstaking portaging, and also long stretches of blissful nothing. My dad isn’t a fisherman, so we just bag up a bunch of dinners for easy preparation and devote our free hours to lounging in hammocks or in canoe chairs on logs or rocks. On most days we make good time—none of that double-portaging nonsense to lighten the load here, or at least not until we’re tired and the portage is really short—we also pause every now and then to just sit and drink in scenes.

Some parties in the BWCA prefer to set up a base camp and make trips from there, but on this trip we move every night, on a constant quest for the perfect campsite. The island site where we spend our first night on Cummings is open and has excellent rocks but shows signs of heavy use. Phantom Lake on night two has a superb view across the small lake and a lovely red pine stand, though no good rocks to sit on. A different site on Cummings on night three is the best of the bunch, with pines and rock and a well-designed kitchen, though the wind dies and forces us into the tent early, only to be rousted when we hear some creature banging around amid our pots and pans. (The culprit: some sort of rabbit or hare, which I guess counts as exotic since I’ve never seen one of those in the BWCA before.) The final night’s site on Big Moose has superb trees and breeze and rocks, but an awful landing and no real good spot to pitch a tent and guarantee comfort for all comers. While some websites provide campsite reviews to help plan routes, no one’s criteria are quite the same, and a search to separate out these seemingly trivial differences can make or break a trip.

As part of the adventure I promised to carry the canoe, which is something I’ve only done sporadically before. There is, of course, a learning curve. BWCA portages are measured in 16.5-foot rods (roughly equal to a canoe length), and most hover somewhere under 200 rods. The 580-rod beast between Big Moose and Cummings has no vicious elevations, and only immediately following heavy rains (as on our first crossing of the portage) do its wetlands pose a real obstacle. It is a slog, though coming down to giant, blue Big Moose on the return journey was one of the most welcome sights of the trip. The portage to Meat Lake, whose name we suspect comes from the amount of flesh consumed by its resident mosquitoes, has become a flowing stream. A portage landing on Hassel Lake requires me to crab walk up and down a steep rock several times just so we can get things into the canoe. Nor is length any guarantee of ease: the 20-rod portage around some rapids on the Korb River is a buggy stretch of slop, whereas the 70-rod cutoff from Cummings Lake is an easy superhighway. My shoulders don’t miss it, nor do my bite-covered legs and arms, but how can a young guy not eat up the opportunity to carry a heavy object a long distance and feel some sense of conquest upon completing it?

By the final day I’m growing a bit stir-crazy, a restlessness not helped by the overnight storm that makes sleep impossible. I’m too social to detach for long periods, and while I certainly welcome my moments of solitude and wilderness, I sometimes seem to suffer from an instrumental relationship with these old friends, not unlike a cell phone with its charger: my time in the woods fills up a drained battery, and then I’m ready to put it away and go do my thing. I unapologetically make relentless pushes to the next destination, so it can be difficult to zone out and enjoy the beauty of a particular moment or sensation. I’ve always been wired for a pace of life faster than most northern Minnesotans, even if I can hide it well, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.

I’m still from here, though, and I know what to do when these moments do come. When I can stare up at the red pine boughs above my hammock set against a few wisps of cloud in the sky, lost in bliss. When we drift down the Korb River and just listen to endless birdsong, its current tugging us gently along. When thoughts flow easily from pen to paper in the hammock on Cummings, thoughts that may or may not ever see the light of day on this blog or elsewhere but mean the world to me. When I’m finally able to find the right train of thought to shut out the endless flashes of lighting to manage a few hours of sleep on the final night. Those are the waters I’ll never cease to seek out, if only for a little while.

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.

West Coast Road Trip 2016

21 Jun

Tomorrow morning, a friend and I are setting out on a road trip west. Now that I’m out of school and will be settling into a life of 9-to-5 in short order, this is the time to go. As much as I love travel, timing and student budgets have tended to leave me with nothing but short meanders through convenient woods unless I’m traveling on business or on someone else’s dime. In reality, this is the first trip I’ve ever taken out of Minnesota that is spontaneous travel for travel’s sake, and not at least vaguely tied to family or school or some volunteer activity. I’ve had some great journeys of those varieties, but at times we need things that are more profoundly our own.

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This isn’t to say it’s unstructured travel; that’s not really how I operate. I have each day’s driving itinerary carefully scheduled out, and have spent the past week and a half obsessing over plans. But there’s room for some bounded spontaneity within it, and while I’m a rigid scheduler, I’m also ready to take any shake-ups in good humor. My favorite part about the trip we’ve designed is the sheer variety: there will be nights with relatives and old friends, and nights alone in cities I do not know; there will be nights in some of America’s great cities, and nights in some of the less tamed expanses of this massive country. Some nights I’ll stay in comfortable beds; some nights I’ll be in a tent. I’ll cross plains and climb mountains, traverse deserts and come to oceans. There will be some fine dining with old friends and a day in wine country, and there will be a fair number of bland meals of car food.

The West is an ongoing source of allure for so many Americans, and I’m no exception. The open plains and towering peaks just stir something in that frontier mentality, and remind us of how incomplete this great American project to tame this giant nation is. The West offers up incredible vastness and variety, both in people and in land. The promise of San Francisco the Pacific Northwest is especially alluring after three long days of driving. I’ve traveled west just once before, on a hilariously tumultuous Amtrak journey back when I was fourteen that remains vivid to this day. Even as I strike out on new roads, the cycle continues: the son of the friends who hosted my mother and me in Utah on that trip will host me in Portland this coming week.

The travel clichés will come easily. This won’t quite be anything on the scale of On the Road or Y tu mama también, but it’s certainly a much-needed stab outward. I’m prone to cynicism about journeys of intentional self-discovery—I think the things that tend to define us usually are in reaction to things that happen to us, not in things we self-consciously seek out—so I won’t force that angle, but would hardly be disappointed to find something. As the scattered list of expectations shows, there’s no unifying theme, and while I may be able to catch snapshots of America (or its West, at the very least), I hardly aspire to anything so grandiose. It’s just an adventure, a chance to live fully, and perhaps a chance to put the rat race of my past two years, and whatever is to come, in perspective.

I’ll try to write about this trip every step of the way, though activities, exhaustion, and internet access will dictate whether this means live-blogging or merely the occasional check-in and a lot of notes that appear here when it’s all over. Even with two drivers, there won’t be a whole lot of time to linger anywhere. That, I suppose, is what the writing is for. Feel free to travel along with me.

(Part I)

Reverie by Rail

31 May

I took my first Amtrak adventure when I was fourteen, a largely miserable affair that should have led me to swear off trains for all eternity. My mother and I went west to visit some family friends who had decided to give themselves a little culture shock by moving from Madison, Wisconsin to Ogden, Utah. We made a national tour out of it, from Minneapolis to Chicago to Salt Lake, and then on out to Sacramento and up the West Coast before heading back to Minnesota. It included obnoxious people, five near-sleepless nights, and a newfound hatred for freight trains. And yet, in spite of it all, it won a convert.

The first leg was a fairly quick jaunt from Minneapolis down to Chicago, though even that start was inauspicious, with the train rolling in a few hours late to the dismal station in St. Paul, one that has thankfully been put to rest since. The route follows the Mississippi and visits Wisconsin Dells, and there are docents on board to enlighten riders in the glass-encased observation car. It went smoothly enough, and after a night with relatives in Chicago, we were ready for the westward leg of our adventure.

The next day we set out on the California Zephyr, plowing across the prairie and readying for our first night on the rails. Unenthused by my seat, I tried to relax and sleep in the observation car, a window-filled car where one can stretch out across several chairs in a feeble imitation of a bed. That night is etched in my mind thanks to a loud teenage girl holding a deep, meaningful cell phone conversation with some distant friend. “Hello? What? Hello? What?” she bellowed for several hours on end, desperately seeking service as we wove across Iowa and Nebraska.

I woke the next morning in the gloom of eastern Colorado, a desolate stretch of factory farms and cattle ranches. There was a chance to get out and wander a bit in Denver, where the sun poured down through a high-ceilinged station. The train then began its steady meander into the Rockies, and before long, it snaked in and out of tunnels and clung to the side of the Colorado River gorge, us and I-70 and the moon-happy river rafters all flowing along. I ate the best peach I’ve ever had in Grand Junction, Colorado, and in time we were closing in on the State of Deseret. We spent a week in the Beehive State, climbing mountains east of Ogden and venturing down to do some August desert hikes in Capitol Reef National Park.

The adventure really got going on the way west from Salt Lake. We’d planned to meet some friends from the Bay Area in Sacramento when the train arrived in the early afternoon, but the freight train-induced delays began somewhere in the dusty wastes of Nevada. We sat on the tracks in the town of Sparks for eons, but that did little to prepare us for an endless wait atop the Donner Pass just across the California border. To be fair, it was a beautiful spot to get stuck, but as the delays mounted and the obnoxious guy further down the car got progressively more drunk, I began to find a little sympathy for the Donner Party and their decision to sink their teeth into the more useless members of their party.

We finally came to Sacramento just before midnight, over nine hours past the scheduled arrival time, and with just forty-five minutes to make our connection north to Portland. But no, it couldn’t be that easy: there had been a tunnel fire somewhere up the route, and the train wouldn’t be going through. My mother said some words I’d never heard her say before, and we were bundled on to a bus headed for Eugene, Oregon. It was a miserable ride made even more miserable by the need to stop in all the small towns along the Amtrak route north into Oregon, many of which are not along a convenient major highway. Still, it was a sight to awake from my fitful night’s sleep to Mount Shasta looming over us in the morning sunlight, and the coach rolled on through Klamath Falls and past Crater Lake through the endless forests, and once we finally got back on the train to Portland, I managed to catch a Yankees-Mariners game on a travel radio. (Remember those things?)

The last leg of the trip, on the Empire Builder back to St. Paul, was a blur; I have only vague memories of the Columbia River gorge, Glacier, and Havre, Montana. We mercifully slept through North Dakota before bringing our odyssey to an end. One would think I would have learned my lesson after that one. Yet as time passed the absurdity of the story became an object of laughs rather than misery, and when I was going to school in DC, an idea wormed its way into my head:  Amtrak is the perfect way to cart a lot of cargo across the country without a car or excessive airplane baggage fees, isn’t it?

That bright idea would take a little fine-tuning, as my freshman year roommate can attest. At the end of the year, I was somehow compelled to try to pack my entire life into two monstrously heavy boxes for the ride back to Minneapolis. The terrified taxi driver helped me get them out of the trunk, but the Union Station porters refused to even touch them, so I somehow managed to heft the two of them—well over two hundred pounds in total—on to a decidedly inadequate cart and get them to the counter, where a sympathetic ticket agent waited patiently through one of the less dignified moments of my life, full of sweat and panic and miserable pleas. My two large boxes, battered by their adventure from one end of Union Station to the other and hopelessly over the weight limit, were summarily broken down into ten Amtrak baggage boxes. I spent another unexpected night in DC and went out on the train the next day.

Years later, I’m still using those same Amtrak boxes to cart my junk around when I move. And once I got it down, the train ride between DC and Minneapolis became a delight. Amtrak’s schedulers wisely time sleep for the Indiana and Ohio bits of the trip. Head east, and one wakes to the mists of the Ohio River and the steel mills of Pittsburgh; head west, and the lights of the Steel City are the last thing one sees before nodding off. The Maryland-West Virginia leg is especially pretty as one heads west, snaking along the Potomac and through historic Harpers Ferry before coming to picturesque Cumberland, Maryland for sunset. The western route always dumped me in Chicago early in the morning, and sometimes I’d meet up with family or old friends during my layover; other times, I’d just wander the canyons between the skyscrapers, maybe foray down to Buckingham Fountain, and, in one memorable instance, pass out on a stone bench in a garden next to the Art Institute. One other memorable journey had me on an alternate route out east that wound through the hills of West Virginia, a frighteningly slow race between the train and Hurricane Irene to DC. My boxes and I all made it ahead of the storm, and my roommate had some hurricanes and dark-and-stormys waiting for me as we bunkered down at the start of my senior year.

Amtrak’s greatest romance comes in its people, who all come together in a place where time matters little. We’re all stuck together, we have nowhere to be, and talk flows freely. Yes, there’s the occasional clod, but they’re cause for commiseration for the rest of us, free to roll our eyes and laugh at the shrieking self-righteous homeschooler or the Mexicans who fail to understand that the coach is meant for sleeping after midnight. I paid the price for the dining car dinner once every trip, and it never disappointed. My best seatmates were a British couple on holiday in the U.S., and we talked for hours on matters great and small as we climbed into the Appalachians. There was also the personal trainer for former New York Giant and Philadelphia Eagle Steve Smith, who rearranged his medicine balls to let me into a seat and joined me in watching some old Duluth East hockey DVDs, marveling at the spectacle.

The observation car brings out even more conversation. I once sat with a Canadian guy on a month-long train journey with his son, and a couple traveling back along routes they’d visited as kids, with vague memories of the parks along the way. One lady shared her love for Jane Jacobs, and an eccentric grandmother gushed about some flower festival that I—the horror!—had never heard of. There are often Amish, using the lone long-distance form of travel available to them, always showing a delicate mix of reserve and curiosity when confronted by us moderns. I had a number of drinks bought for me—a debt I’ll have to pay forward someday—and whiled away many nights with people I’d never seen before and will never see again before settling in my seat, scrawling a few meditative lines in a notebook (interspersed with stream-of-consciousness curses directed at anyone in the car who wouldn’t shut up) before the train’s steady rumble lulled me to sleep. For days after each ride, I feel that gentle rocking when I settle in to bed at night.

It was only fitting that Georgetown’s senior ball took place at Union Station, giving us a chance to waltz about its grandiose halls, dressed in the opulent costumes its riders might have worn in a bygone era. Or maybe it was all just a dream after all? A few days later I was on the train home one last time, slamming beers with a jolly man from South Bend and penning one last reverie by rail. Amtrak has its share of ills, as recent crashes and funding crises show all too well. But its allure lingers, that escape from time into a shared journey past so many of this country’s marvels, and the timelessness should keep the dream going for years to come. Anyone else ready to climb aboard?