It’s weird, right? Sometimes just as things come to a long-sought resolution, you realize there are little pieces still to put in order, things left undone. Years spent trying to forge a clear sensible path fall away when the road lies before us.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
22 August 2014
I know you might not think it, not after the way the last year or so has gone, but it’s the not-talking that’s the hardest part. Everyone’s known what’s going to happen for weeks now, but I couldn’t just sit there. Not this weekend. Months ago I was unsure, then resigned. Weeks ago: elated. Now: strangely empty.
I stopped at a no-name convenience store a bit north of Rush City on 35E today, just to get some trail mix, a two-gallon jug of water. You wouldn’t recognize me if you saw me — clean-shaven, hair grown out a little since the end of the season. Not at first, although someone my size is bound to stand out. As I waited in line at the cash register, hood on my sweatshirt pulled up, I thumbed through the $1.99 tapes in the rack. Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Beach Boys … I took the Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits and piled it on top of the trail mix before dropping it onto the counter.
The clerk — an older guy, maybe fifty, gray hair sprouting like an owl’s ear tufts at the sides of his maroon baseball hat, same color as his shirt with his name “Bill” in scrawled pale stitching above his heart — didn’t look at me at first. Just rang everything up.
“Six seventy-five,” he said, and when he looked up, he kind of paused, then took the money. The cash register banged open and he fished out my change, then stopped to look again.
“Anyone ever tell you you look like that guy who plays for the Wolves? What’s his name?”
“Yeah, sometimes,” I said. I pulled a hand down my face. “I think it’s just ‘cause I’m so tall.”
“Well, you’re not quite so tall as him, I would guess.”
“You follow basketball, though? Man, he sure is dragging this whole thing out. Hope that trade for that young guy, hope that’s real.”
“Yeah, well … I don’t follow it like I used to, I guess. Used to play in high school, college.”
“Yeah? You any good?”
“I’m all right, I guess.”
“Well shit … maybe we could trade him for you,” he laughed.
I laughed while I forked the change back into my wallet, then palmed the snack into my sweatshirt pocket along with the tape.
I stepped out of the store into an unusually cool mid-August dusk. All day I’d been getting stuff ready, packing things up, trying to figure out what to do with myself. I don’t know just what possessed me, but I had to get out. You know how it is: there’s a moment where everything that’s been up in the air reaches this stillpoint, where it settles, and then these other things rise up, these things you’d never gotten to do.
I’d never seen Lake Superior, not the whole time I was here.
So I rented a car, threw the plainest clothes I had in a duffle and hit the road.
23 August 2014
The sun was brilliant off the water this morning. I got in late last night, with Lake Superior just a vast blackness hugging the shoreline. But this morning, in the staggering blue of day it was unreal. Today was the day, I knew, but I also knew there’s no way this happens over the weekend. So my cell phone was off. I sat on the porch of the bed and breakfast where I’d gotten a room and sipped coffee. It made me think about the ocean, but also not.
The ocean has this massive power, this overwhelming giantness, but then again, it’s supposed to, right? Lake Superior’s scope is startling at first because this whole time you’ve been thinking, “How big can a lake be?” I guess it had me thinking “big fish, small pond” stuff, which I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about plenty.
The owner of the B&B, a woman in her late 40s, came out onto the porch just as I finished my mug. She had a pot of coffee in her hand and, normally, I wouldn’t want the company, but it seemed just all right right then.
“Warm it up for you?” she asked.
“Sure.” Steam rose anew from the mug, and I noticed a chip had been taken out of the handle, who knows how long ago. She sat down on a wicker sofa that faced the side of the chair I was in.
“How’d you sleep?”
“Oh, fine. Nice cool night.”
“Yeah, I hope fall hasn’t settled in early.”
I nodded. It was good to talk.
“What brings you up here?” she said. “If you don’t mind my asking, I mean. Not a lot of people call me for a reservation on the way up, and not many of them are alone.”
I smiled. “Well, just had to get away. Didn’t want a hotel, didn’t want to be around too many people while I was doing it, I guess. I’ve got a … well a big move coming up. Took a new job, sort of.”
“Yeah, thanks, I mean, I’ve been wanting a change for a while. But it was really out of my hands … Still is in a lot of ways, I guess.” I cupped my chin and cracked my neck by turning it to the side.
“What can any of us actually control, though?”
When I turned to her, her expression was thoughtful. She must have seen something in my face though, some hint she might have nicked a deeper vein because she waved her hand in front of her face and smiled.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to get personal or anything. Force of habit. You know, B&B owner. So what do you do? For a living, I mean.”
“Oh. It’s … boring and complicated to explain. A lot of travel. I never feel grounded, you know? I hope that’s one thing that can change. How long have you been here?”
“In Duluth? I was born here, but didn’t stick around. Went to the U in the cities, met my husband, kicked around Minneapolis. Bought this place a little over ten years ago — my husband and me. He was sick of being a lawyer, and I was sick of it, too.” She smiled again. “Didn’t expect he’d die after only a couple years up here.”
She waved it away. “It feels like a long time ago and also not, you know? You’ll see it more when you get older, I guarantee. It’s like you’re moving at the speed of light but standing still at the same time..”
I chuckled. “I know I’m young but I feel like I might know a thing or two about that.”
She smiled, looked down at her feet. The air was cool, a holdover from the cold dusk, but the day was so bright and shiny, just calling to me. She stretched her arms over her head.
“I don’t imagine you’ll be staying another night, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said as she stood. “I can usually tell. Generally I have a policy about weekend guests staying for at least two nights, but I’m willing to overlook it this time.”
“I definitely appreciate it.” Not that I couldn’t have easily covered it. I resolved to leave a big tip — at least the cost of a full week of reservations — when I left.
She turned and walked back inside. Out on the lake, a barge moved slowly from right to left and I couldn’t quite tell how big it was, although it seemed massive.
24 August 2014
The whole way up 61 to Grand Marais I listened to that Beach Boys tape. My childhood right there, and oddly out of whack with the surroundings — pine trees not palm trees huddled close to the water once I cleared Two Harbors — but there’s that hollow ping down at the heart of the songs. Hadn’t heard most of them in years and years, nothing like what I listen to now.
I took my time on the road, stopping here and there to skip rocks: Temperance River, Gooseberry Falls. As you might imagine, I’m pretty good. Wrist strength, you know. By the time I made Grand Marais it was late afternoon and I found the holy grail of rock skipping: a protected little bay with thousands of flat perfect stones just waiting. Or not flat, actually. Rounded, but with a little divot, an echo of red blood cells from some high school science film.
The trick — which is not immediately obvious — is not arm speed but wrist speed. It’s like shooting. What you don’t need is more velocity to get it there. You need the right velocity and nearly as much spin as you can give it, but in the right proportion. I learned on the beach in California, in the spots where there wasn’t sand. You almost have to slow your arm down, then whip the wrist through, angled up. Part slow motion, part fast forward.
And you can tell. Maybe not the instant it leaves your hand, which is something you learn to distrust shooting a basketball as well. But about halfway there. Just as the rock is about to kiss the surface of the water, you know: this is going nine, ten skips. Maybe well into double digits.
After an hour or more of skipping across this perfectly still stretch of water, I wasn’t even counting the skips, just soaking in the feeling of it.
“You’re pretty good.”
It was a kid, maybe fourteen, fifteen. I hadn’t even heard him come up. The sun was far from setting, but clouds had moved in by the shore stretching west, breaking up the light into orange and gold patches. I got a little self-conscious and dogged the next one, sank it straight down.
“Yeah, maybe not always,” I said.
“No: I’ve been watching and you’re good.” He was emphatic, assured, although there was a hint of something else there. “You a professional?”
“Professional what?” I asked.
He walked to the edge of the lake and fired one off, ten skips easy. He shrugged.
“You grow up here, you get pretty good,” he said. “It’s not all that hard, not really.”
“No, I guess you’re right.” I zinged another one. It took a couple good skips and then flipped over. Gone. “That’s part of the appeal, though, right? It’s this thing that feels like a skill, something earned, and then every once in a while you realize it’s not so complicated, just something that grows up with you.”
“Jeez, that’s a little heavy.”
I laughed. “Alright, you got me.” He had come up next to me by then and I leaned across my body, reaching out with my left hand, my right hand still cradling a couple good rocks. “I’m … Keith.”
He took my hand. “Look, I know who you are. It’s cool.”
“Oh yeah? You mad, too?”
“Nope,” he said. He picked up a rock, but instead of skipping it, just threw it up lazily. It plunked in close to the shore. “I mean, I’m not some die hard. I have friends who are plenty pissed about this whole thing.” He shrugged. “I want to get out of here as bad as anybody, man. You didn’t pick this. And now you owe us? Whatever.”
“That’s rather big of you.” I nodded appreciatively. It didn’t make me feel like I was wrong, of course. I knew I hadn’t misjudged anything and this kid, this place didn’t really have anything to do with all that. These things break in a hundred little ways before they fall apart. It’s a wonder more of them don’t every day. Or maybe they do.
We threw rocks for another half-hour or so, each of us getting in some good ones and plenty of just all right ones. He had to head home for dinner, I had to head somewhere else.
25 August 2014
I slept in my car last night. I’d gone up to this lodge called Naniboujou that someone in Grand Marais told me about for dinner, but they didn’t have any rooms. Not so surprising with people trying to squeeze the last bit of summer in. So I drove a little farther north, closer to the Canadian border and sacked out in the backseat at a little wayside.
This morning I barely made it past 6 a.m. when the sun broke over Superior and flooded the back of the rental car. I cracked the door and its hinges were the only echoing sound for miles. A smattering of birds. A gust of wind moved the pines but the lake was glassy, just barely breaking at the shoreline in delicate whitecaps.
I turned on my phone, but I was already well beyond reach of any cell tower. This is the day, Monday, I know. You might think this would be it. Time to head back, finish up preparations, get ready to move on.
But on the way back I took a right onto the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais and headed north until I reached Poplar Lake. Within half an hour I’d gotten set up with a canoe, tent and sleeping bag. Whatever was going to happen today, I could take a few more days. The Boundary Waters spread out before me, leading away from Poplar Lake and into the unknown. After years of knowing what I wanted and not how to get it, and now faced with a new path forward, I found I wanted to stay lost just a little longer.
I locked my cell in the day locker at Rockwood Outfitters. There would be time for all that.