Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Books in the Mail

I have loved bookstores since the B. Dalton opened at Rosedale Mall back in 1966. (Just a guess.) It was ten miles from my house, which was closer than St. Paul Book and Stationary downtown. I can remember buying paperback copies of Hesse’s Siddhartha and Sartre’s Nausea there. (Both had black covers. I must have been in a bad mood.) Also a book of critical essays by Robert Penn Warren, one of which was titled “Pure and Impure Poetry.” As I recall, in this essay Warren contrasted the somewhat abstract verses of Wallace Stevens with the dark incomprehensible images of Hart Crane and Warren’s old friend Allen Tate, and concluded that something wrenching and enigmatic was worth more than something blandly musical and formally precise.

Such disputes seem quaint today, yet the fact remains that the New Critics (of which Warren was one) were the last bunch to take literature as something important in itself. Succeeding schools have been content to view literary works as mere symptoms of something else. That’s wrong-headed, and sad.

Most readers care very little about the views of critics in any case—especially academic critics. We’re all critics nowadays, writing eloquent testimony on Amazon to the matchless quality of the books we like—even those written and published by our friends. I am a huge fan of the New York Review of Books, but its reviews are so thorough and insightful that often, having read one, I no longer feel the need to read the book itself.

The word “Amazon” brings me back to notion I was hoping to expand upon before I lost my way. Bookstores are lovely and hallowed…but it’s also a lot of fun buying books on line.

In the first place, it’s so easy that you find yourself making impulse purchases. A few days later, you get the email announcing that a book has been shipped, but you can’t quite remember what it is. If you do read down the email to the fine print and come upon the title, it may mean nothing to you. (A subtitle would have helped.) But that merely heightens the sense of vague anticipation, as if you were about to receive a gift from a thoughtful friend. What could it be?

I have had this sensation several times recently, due to a $75 birthday check I received from my dear in-laws not long ago, which I felt honor-bound to dispose of as light-heartedly as possible. As opposed to paying off the water bill, for example. There are times when "things of the spirit" must come first.

The first book I ordered (and received) was The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders & American Expansion, by Jay Gitlin. Not a genuine page-turner, perhaps, but we all ought to learn a little more, don’t you think, about the men and women who maintained a flourishing Francophone civilization in the Mid-Mississippi Valley (upper Louisiana in those days) for decades after France’s territorial claims in North America were all but defunct. I am not anti-American by any means, but I find it interesting to read about those regions and eras of our history during which the landscape was largely inhabited by Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Brits—not to mention the Choctaw, Menominee, and Fox.

The second to arrive was a mass-market copy of A Fatal Grace, by Canadian mystery-writer Louise Penny. I read Still Life, the first book in the Three Pines series, a few weeks ago, and liked it well enough. Inspector Gamache is a sort of French-Canadian Simenon, more interested in people than crimes, really. The rest of the characters seemed a little sketchy to me, but I suppose I’ll get to know them better bye-and-bye. (I might save this one for our upcoming canoe trip.)

And then, just today, I received a package from Labyrinth Books, the scholarly remainder outlet, containing two fine hardcover books: The Library of America anthology of Audubon’s writings and drawings, and a slim volume by the Polish travel-writer Ryszard Kapuścinski called The Other. Kapuścinski’s star as the most daring of all journalists, witness to 88 revolutions, etc, etc, has gone slightly into eclipse now that it has been surmised he made a lot of it up. Still, I like his style and hope this may be a book short enough (92 pages) for me to finish.

On the first page of Audubon’s Mississippi Journal, which starts off that book, he shoots 30 partridge, 1 woodcock, 27 gray squirrels, a barn owl, a turkey buzzard, and an immature yellow-rumped warbler. He makes it a point (still on page 1) to criticize the mis-identification of this bird by his famous predecessor Alexander Wilson. On page 2 he shoots four young grebes with a single shot, and remarks: “This is the second time I have seen this kind, and they must be extremely rare in this part of America.”

With all of this cultural wealth streaming in from the post office, I still have $12.50 in my birthday account. What next?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

St. Louis, Mo.

Have you ever noticed how St. Louis is a lot like Manhattan? Well, it isn’t on an island, but both cities have water at the east end, and also a very big statue. There are tall buildings clustered near the water and a relatively narrow swath of long parallel streets heading off to the west. In both Manhattan and St. Louis, the building-height drops and then begins to rise again as you approach a very large park. On either side of this central corridor the neighborhoods decline somewhat in quality. (In St. Louis, quite a few of the buildings have vanished altogether.) To the east of the big “central” park in both cities, there are several blocks of elegant nineteenth-century residential buildings. (In St. Louis they're blocked off by wrought-iron fencing into "private" neighborhoods.) The chief art museums of both cities are situated within the park.

There’s a lot more of everything in Manhattan than St. Louis, of course, including buildings and people of every sort, bustle, and things to do. But there was a time when the differences would not have been so glaring. In 1850, St. Louis was the second-largest port in the United States (after New York). And for many years its Union Station was the busiest rail terminal in the world. (Today it’s a shopping mall.) In the last ten years alone, St. Louis proper lost almost 30,000 residents—roughly 8 percent of its population. Ouch!

But for this very reason, St. Louis can make for a pleasant getaway—urban, historic, but also low-key and relatively free of traffic congestion.

We arrived in the city from upstream, shrewdly spending our first night in the historic community of St. Charles, on the banks of the Missouri River a few miles west of town. St. Charles was settled in 1765 by French Canadians, served as Missouri’s capital for a few years, and was the last town Lewis and Clark saw before heading off up the Missouri on their two-and-a-half-year journey to the West Coast.

A number of the buildings from those early times still stand along a cobblestone stone street near the river. It’s a pleasant neighborhood to explore on a warm Friday evening, with plenty of restaurants and pubs. Young men and women in tuxedos or satiny pastel prom attire gave the streets a festive flair, though it seemed many of them were hanging out in large gangs with others of their own sex. An art “crawl” was also underway, with colorful six-foot banners, like little wind-surfing sails, fluttering in front of the participating galleries. The art itself was lame, for the most part. Photographs of African animals, hand-thrown pots of middling interest. The best things we saw were some small color pencil sketches of exotic birds done by a retired illustrator from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A hundred yards away, beyond the vast grassy sward that runs alongside this prettified historic village, the Missouri River rushes northwest toward it’s rendezvous with the Mississippi. The far side of the river is forested, and there was hardly a clue that we were only a few miles from a major metropolis.

The famous Katy bike trail—225 miles long—starts at the west end of the park, though it looks like the start of any other bike trail. We walked down toward the river past a huge bronze statue of Lewis and Clark and their dog, surrounded by a circle of bedding plants. Beyond stood an open-air museum housing a keel boat and a pirogue like the ones those explorers used to travel upstream two-hundred odd years ago. No one was passing on the river when we were there. Frogs were croaking in the soft evening light from the park’s grassy ditches, which were filled with water from the recent rains. At a parking lot down the way, runners wearing powder blue doublets were straggling in to a finish line, cheered on by their friends and relatives.

We walked along a sturdy industrial pier extending well out into the river, which was swollen with spring floodwater and moving very fast.

The next morning we crossed the river on the freeway bridge and made our way past the suburbs of Bridgeston and Jennings into the city. A tornado had ripped through St. Louis a few days earlier and we saw some of the devastation—mostly commercial rather than residential—across a swath of landscape near the airport. Soon the Arch came into view in the distance, appearing and disappearing again behind other buildings. As we got closer it came to dominate the landscape, standing twice as tall, or so it seemed to me, as the buildings nearby. We hadn’t planned to visit it just yet … but we hadn’t decided not to. It was a beautiful sunny morning, early. As we arrived downtown, looking this way and that at all the fine buildings, and exited the freeway (lest we zoom past Busch Stadium and out the other side of town) we saw a sign that said, “Arch Parking.” We followed it.

The Arch is one of those monuments that are useless, irrelevant…and cool. It’s simply cool that such a thing would get built, and it reminds me of the remark of the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, which I can misquote as well as the next guy: “The superfluous is in every way more essential than the necessary.”

Now, I realize that the Arch is ostensibly a monument to American’s westward expansion. The plan for such a monument was originally bruited in 1933, when the man who eventually designed it twenty-five years later, the naturalized Finn Eero Saarinen, was still in architecture school. But there is nothing about the Arch itself that makes us think about the West, or about expansion. Some metal wagon wheels welded into an arch? Maybe. A 630-foot-tall saguaro cactus made out of uranium tailings? Not a bad idea. But a simple, shimmering metal arch designed by a Finn? What has that got to do with the American West?

And yet, when you think about the things the arch and its creator evoke—immigration, elegance, simplicity, engineering brilliance, pointless bravado—it begins to reek of Americana of the very best sort. The architect himself described the symbolic element as “the gateway to the West, the national expansion, and whatnot.”

And that is pretty much what the director of the National Park Service at the time, Newton Drury, requested: “One central feature: a single shaft, a building, an arch, or something else that would symbolize American culture and civilization…transcending in spiritual and aesthetic values." The Arch also falls into that category of things that are media-resistant. Like the Grand Canyon or Rheims Cathedral, you haven’t seen it until you’ve actually gone there and seen it. It elicits a sort of awe. Not only because it’s tall, but because it’s sleek and beautiful. Take a few steps this way or that and the effect changes. Sunlight catches it higher or lower. Parts of it grow thicker or thinner.

The ach sits in the middle of a huge grassy field which was created after condemning many blocks of derelict warehouses. Historic preservationists remain shocked, a half-century after the fact, though there is no great demand for warehouse space in St. Louis today. Many such structures became superfluous when the Eads railroad bridge was built in 1874 and goods were no longer ferried across the Mississippi by boat.

As we waited in line to enter the underground visitor’s center beneath the arch, I saw a sign that said something about security scanners ahead. So while Hilary held our place in line, I went over to talk to the ranger standing nearby about my Swiss Army knife.

“That knife won’t be a problem,” he told me.”If you have a knife that opens with a spring-action button, that would be a problem.” (I was reminded of the line from Crocodile Dundee. “That’s not a knife…”)
“How long until we get in?” I asked.
“Twenty minutes,” he replied. “You got here early.”

As we waited in line, we chatted with the man standing behind us. He was from Sweden, he’d been attending a seven-day training seminar at Boeing. We mentioned how lovely the pine forests of Minnesota were, and he told us how much he loved to go camping in Norway along the fjords with his wife. “That was before the kids started coming,” he added with a quirky smile.

Once we got inside, I purchased the tickets to the tram that takes you to the top. During the forty-five minute wait, we had plenty of time to explore the Museum of Western Expansion that takes up most of the space under the Arch.

Once again, very cool. There are mechanical Indian chiefs, black cowboys, and French fur traders, telling their stories as their arms and heads ratchet stiffly back and forth. Huge portraits of Indian chiefs. There are teepees and covered wagons and stuffed horses and oxen. Along the back wall there are 20-foot photographs of the ever-changing landscapes people passed through as they followed the Oregon Trail to what they hoped would be a better future. Size is important here. Grandeur, real or imagined, is of the essence of Western Expansion. But there were also detailed panels full of little-known facts about events that took place during the presidencies of Van Buren and Polk. All in all, the place remined me of the five fine mueseums they have in Cody, Wyoming, all mixed into one.

Our time-slot finally arrived and we climbed into a little pod with a couple from Chicago who were returning from Branson. “My mom moved there when my dad died,” the woman said. “We’re thinking of buying some property ourselves. For retirement, you know.”

Once the doors closed on the tiny compartment, we were whisked to the top in a matter of seconds. Very little room up there. Small windows. A slight swaying in the breeze, 600 feet off the ground. Good views of both the river and the city, though the windows are only about 12 inches high, and they're bevelled at an angle toward the ground. A kid standing next to us eagerly pointed out the various sports venues visible far below us, and told us which team played in each.

It's true what they say, going to the top is something you do once, and never have to do again. We were soon ready to return to our pod and head back down.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Seven Lunches

I don’t eat out enough to get a proper perspective on the restaurant scene, but I did stop in at a few cafes in recent months, nearly all of them good. Even one sitting can give you the feel for a place. The food is only part of it, of course. The shape of the room, the demeanor of the waitress, the direction of the light coming in, the music...

1. Blackbird (38th and Nicollet) I like the very tall ceilings, the cheery décor, and the sunny east-facing window. Their sandwich special had bean sprouts on it—also good. A good place to stop for lunch following a visit to the Art Institute, which is almost right down the street.

2. La Chaya (45th and Nicollet) We parked right in front and as I stepped out of the car I felt like I was back in California. It’s a good feeling. It must have been the fanciful wrought-iron railings and waxy green boxwood shrubs ringing the delightful brick terrace. Whatever it was, the effect was enchanting. The food was also good—semi-hot Mexican fusion.

3. King’s Wine Bar (46th and Grand) I ordered a chicken salad sandwich and a bowl of asparagus soup. The chicken salad was dominated by chevre and a very tasty vinaigrette rather than the chicken, the bread was toasted to perfection—or more likely fried in butter. The café is furnished with black chipboard furniture—the IKEA look, I guess—but there’s nothing wrong with it. Yet it was high noon, and we were the only people in the place, while Patisserie 46, right across the street, was packed with people.

4. Victory 44 is located in an obscure corner of North Minneapolis, just south of Victory Memorial Drive and west of Henry High School. The place is noted for chef-waiters, small portions, and very flavorful food. I can still recall the macaroni and cheese I had there—though they called it something entirely different. It was so tasty I could hardly believe it. I also remember the three perfectly sautéed scallops I had on another visit. Come to think of it, I also remember the little potatoes in the shape of footballs they served on the side, and the swizzle of glaze in the shape of a raspberry red Z across the top.

On the other hand, the lamb paté was about the size (and color) of an old-fashioned rectangular pencil eraser, and the rabbit sausage, sliced into two pieces at a very sharp angle (to create an optical illusion, I guess) and served on a bed of greens, didn’t amount to much.

I went there for a bite to eat with a friend one evening and had the privilege of sitting on one end of a long padded bench. A heavily pierced young woman sat at the other end, about fifteen feet away. She and her boyfriend ordered the Tuesday night “date” menu, which at $30 for five courses (for two) seems like a very good deal. The top of the bench was only loosely fastened to the base, and we inadvertently played a game of teeter-totter all night long, without really thinking about it, as we shifted in our seats.

5. Travail, in downtown Robbinsdale, offers a similar menu, similarly exquisite charcuterie, similar small portions, and perhaps even cockier chef-waiters. It’s fun to sit against the wall looking across the room at the open kitchen. A friend and I arrived on morning just before noon and there were ten or twelve people waiting outside the door for the place to open.

6. The Republic, which replaced Sergeant Preston’s after all these years at Seven Corners, has a remarkable open-air Happy Hour. The chips are notably flavorful and ungreasy and the $5 grass-fed-beef hamburgers come in several modes, from garlic confit to red wine reduction and brie to aged cheddar and caramelized onions. Three dollar craft American taps.

7. The best sandwich I’ve had in years came from the Northern Waters Smokehouse in the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace out on Canal Street in Duluth. It’s called the Sitka Sushi, and it has Wild Alaskan Sockeye gravlox with cucumber, shredded veggies, pickled ginger, cilantro, chili sauce, and wasabi mayonnaise on a hero roll. Wow!

8. The best blue-plate special I had recently was at the Pease Café, located in (you guessed it) Pease, Minnesota. (It’s just south of Milaca.) Low prices, genuinely “home-cooked” food. And I can assure you, it isn’t difficult to eavesdrop on what the locals are talking about at a place like that.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Epistemology Provençal

In a recent travel piece in the New York Times, novelist Nicholas Delbanco described a trip he and his wife made to Provence, where they’d spent an extended honeymoon forty years ago. Hilary and I have been to Provence several times but not since 1990, and I was curious to see how the return visit struck him. (For what it’s worth, many years ago I read and was impressed by one of Delbanco’s early novels, Small Rain, which was set in the south of France somewhere.)

There were not many surprises. Things have changed, Delbanco says, but there’s still plenty of beauty and culture to be enjoyed, especially if you move further up into the hills with bigger wads of cash in your pocket. Even the Luberon Valley, he tells us, has not been utterly ruined by the outlandish popularity of Peter Mayle’s books—which inspired our visit in 1990.

What did surprise me was the digression Delbanco made, early on in the piece, to ponder the issues associated with seeing things anew that you already think you know pretty well:

It’s difficult to know, in the wake of Heisenberg and Einstein, what is absolute, what relative, and why. Do we change as witnesses, or does that which we witness change, or both; does it alter because of the viewing, and is our estimate altered by the consciousness of sight? Think of a train track and moving train; does the world pass by while we sit still, or is it the reverse? These problems of philosophy and mathematics are personal riddles also; was it always just like this, and did we fail to notice? For we have changed more than the landscape, no matter how the locals complain that the landscape has changed.

What I find odd about this passage is that Delbanco is presenting as “philosophical riddles” questions that most of us know the answer to intuitively. More understandable, but also more distressing, are the references to physicists whose opinions have little to do with the issue.

Most of us realize when we look out the window of a train that the train is moving with respect to an earth that’s pretty much staying put. When the engineer builds up a head of steam, we lurch ahead; when he puts on the brakes, we stop.

Delbanco’s real (and more interesting) concern is to focus our attention on the conundrum of a seemingly static personal point of view in the midst of an ever-changing world. No matter how old we get or how radically we change, we seem to remain, in some basic sense, “ourselves.” When we return to a place (or run into an old friend) this change/no change is thrown into relief as distant memories collide with the immediacy of new experiences. The event can be rich with pleasant nostalgia or tinged with a dreadful sense of lost or disparagement. It all depends.

What does all this have to do with Heisenberg and Einstein? Absolutely nothing. Einstein is the father of relativity, as everyone knows. Heisenberg formulated the slightly-less-famous “Uncertainty Principle,” which suggests that when observing sub-atomic particles, we can be sure of their speed or their location, but never both. Or something along those line.

Yet centuries before Heisenberg had outgrown his crib, philosophers were telling us that we can never really be certain of anything.

A better way of framing this issue would be to say that certainty is a feeling rather than an attribute of truth. When we say, “I’m certain the door was locked when I left the house,” what we mean to say is, “I’m confident I locked the door before leaving the house.” After all, we’ve all been certain of things that have turned out not to be true.

By the same token, the uncertainty and relativity of which physicists speak is less germane, with respect to return journeys, that the fact that with time, everything changes. We change, the landscape changes, the people change, the prices change. You never step in the same river twice, and if you remain standing on shore, reluctant to take the plunge, the “winds of time” flutter by just the same, and you continue to change in spite of yourself. In the end, nothing is absolute.

Why harken back to Heisenberg or Einstein when we’ve got Heraclitus to draw upon?!

But Delbanco’s description of a region that has retained much of its appeal also carries an unspoken message of maturation. The things we respond to remain the same—food, wine, lavender, rosemary, history, comfort. (He speaks with affection of “the insouciance of youth” but the rooms the couple stay in cost $600 per night.) The question is, As we age, do these “romantic” aspects of travel sink in further, resonate more deeply?

I would agree with Delbanco (though he doesn’t come right out and say so) that they do. But we also begin to learn, as we age, that you don’t have to travel as far as you thought to find them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Nisswa-Stammen 2011

The Nisswa-Stammen is a low-key festival held each summer in an outdoor “pioneer village” in the lake country a few miles north of Brainerd, Minnesota. Fans of Nordic culture drop in, often in costume, to listen to musicians play. There are amateurs and professionals, Scandinavians and home-grown talent. Dance and performance workshops are held throughout the day on Friday, there’s a concert that night, and the next day the musicians play a rotating schedule of 30-minute sets at three outdoor stages, with further brief dance instruction being offered (to live accompaniment) to beginners like me, in a log cabin “dance barn” so small it might better have been named the “dance shed.” On Saturday night a smorgasbord is offered in a nearby church, followed by a genuine dance that can run to the wee hours of the morning.

Or so I’m told. We’ve been to two such festivals now—the Saturday portion at any rate—and have taken a few dance lessons ourselves. But we’re not sufficiently adept to make it worthwhile lingering at the evening dance. Besides, after a long drive and a day of listening (and eating) in the open air, we’re pretty much worn out by the time that last meatball disappears from the smorgasbord plate.

Last year the Scandinavian headliners put on outstanding shows—Geitungen (from Norway), Faerd (from Denmark and Sweden), and the Polka Chicks (from Finland). This year the groups were smaller and slightly more traditional in their approach. This required more careful listening, but the rewards were equally great.

The Nasbom brothers, for example, learned to play from their musician father, and listened to eminent fiddlers perform in their home, including Eric Sahlström and Viksta Lasse, at an early age. Torbjörn took up the nyckelharpa as well, and though Pär later moved the Switzerland two decades ago, they brothers have continued to perform and tour together, playing the Uppland tunes they first learned as children.

Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Britt Pernille Frøholm teamed up with freebase accordionist Linda Gytri for a couple of lively and good-natured sets, though I was no less mesmerized by the fiddling of America’s foremost Hardanger fiddler, Loretta Kelley. She did a few haunting tunes at one point with vocalist Arna Rennen, who lives on the North Shore. Arna, in turn, did some story-telling numbers in the Summer Kitchen Stage with Georganne Hunter.

We know Georganne because I did a book with her husband, the eminent North Shore herring fisherman Stephen Dahl. But such connections didn’t help when we tried to get past the Viking gate-keeper into the Summer Kitchen, a log cabin just half the size of Dance Barn, if that. (We listened at the window for a while, and Georganne later filled us in on the gist of the stories they were telling in that cozy space. Something about a jilted sister whose bones were fashioned into a harp, which later revealed the nasty deception at the wedding, etc. )

Out on the Allspel Stage, veteran Finnish soloist Arto Järvelä also put on quite a show, drawing some delicate stuff from the fiddle and letting loose on one or two raucous vocals. He later took the stage with the American group Kaivama—one of the few groups with both a guitar and keyboard (though never used at the same time).

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t tell a polsk from a jenkka or a hambo from a nigvals, not if my life depended on it. (I could easily distinguish between a siguiriyas and a soleá, but that’s a different story.) Still, I love the music—both the cheerful “regular” tunes and the strange, irregular ones. Something precise and lively and as simple as a children’s game, yet steeped in piney forest mists and the brooding spirit of Swedenborg and Hamsun.

How can you really explain it? Yet music and dance and food and landscape and heritage must come together from time to time. At the Nisswa-Stammen they do.

At the smorgasbord we sat across from a Francophone couple from Thunder Bay who’d come down for the entire festival—a ten-hour drive. We got to talking about the Acadians in Louisiana and they told us about a Celtic festival held in Thunder Bay every year. Later we all headed up to the town hall at Pequot Lakes for the big dance. You can’t miss the place: it’s just off the highway, under the water tower painted to resemble a giant fishing bobber!

This blending of music and dance is the essence of the experience, of course. If you add the ambiance of a cool summer evening—with or without nighthawks—the memory sinks deep. And if you can’t do the dances, you can still enjoy watching. They do some “mixers” that everyone screws up, due to how crowded the dance floor is (and also due to the fact that some people just can’t count to eight). But it’s fun, regardless of the confusion, to find yourself dancing with an eminent fiddler or a twelve-year-old girl with braids and braces for a few minutes, before the routine carries you on to your next partner.

But that's not the end of it. After a lovely nightcap in your room at the Rodeway Inn in Brainerd, loooking out toward the dumpster behind Papa Murphy's and the big white Kohl's sign beyond, you drive back to the Cities the next morning and begin searching through the Itunes store for music by Pernille Britt Frøholm or Jensen and Bugge. You download. You listen. The sound is better than anything you heard under the pines at the Pioneer Village in Nisswa. Something remarkable going on here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tettegouche Backcountry

A hundred-year-old cabin on the shores of a pristine lake in the boreal forest of Northern Minnesota? It might sound like the height of luxury, and beyond the reach of most of us. Let me complete the picture by adding that the cabin has mice, but neither bathroom nor running water—there’s a creaky hand-pump fifty yards away. It’s heated by wood. The “rustic” furniture is only marginally comfortable. And did I mention that you have to walk almost two miles through the woods to get to the place?

My hat goes off to those backpackers who cram five days worth of equipment and supplies into a pack and set off up the Superior Hiking Trail. We had trouble getting a week-end worth of supplies—no tent, no foam pads, no cooking equipment required—into our packs. Just sleeping bags, clothes, and food. And then there were the books, of course. A thick terrycloth towel? Yes, we brought one. A cribbage board? Why not? The hooch was strictly measured and limited: six ounces of Calvados per night, divided more or less equally by two.

The cabin does have a modern two-burner stove and a little fridge (with ice). The building itself was originally part of a logging camp that was later sold to a group of Duluth businessmen, back when cars had cranks and fighter-pilots flew bi-planes. Some of the buildings fell down eventually and the state of Minnesota bought the rest of them. There are four cabins left, along with a variety of sheds and a single large lodge that anyone who trudges in can hold a picnic in.

Each of the private cabins comes with a canoe, and there are fishing rods lined up in one of the sheds. No lures or bait, however. That took me by surprise. Though I haven’t fished in thirty years, there are two Rapalas sitting right here—one gold, one silver—in the front drawer of my desk. They’re made of balsa wood: I think I could have borne the weight. I ended up fishing from shore with a bobber, using raw chicken or slices of andouille sausage for bait. Hard to explain, I had no luck.

Cabin B, which we reserved about a year ago after spending a night in cabin D, is by all accounts the best of the lot. It’s located beyond the others are the end of the trail, making it the most private by far, and it’s also the only one that sits right on the lake.

Micmac Lake is only five feet deep in many places, but it’s surrounded by lofty hills and sheer cliffs that in Minnesota might almost be mistaken for little mountains. There are swamps at either end—always fun to explore. On our second night we paddled a circuit around the lake’s shoreline in half an hour, spotting a deer in the distance at one point and later surprising a huge beaver who was sunning himself on the shore a few feet from our passing canoe. He waddled down the grassy embankment and eased himself onto the water, paddled a few feet from shore, then took a dive, slapping his tail—twice! On the east side of the lake fifteen turkey vultures were soaring and diving together in the evening light. They looked almost majestic.

The first night it dropped below fifty, and we had a fire blazing in the cast iron stove. The next morning broke bright and sunny, and we were on the hiking trails by 8:30. Ovenbirds and black-throated green warblers were singing away by the hundreds. Though we never spotted either of those species on the hike, we did get a very good look at a handsome magnolia warbler, a red-eyed vireo, and a least flycatcher.

The trail we took circles around Mic Mac Lake through the hilly terrain, joins the Superior Hiking Trail for a while, diverges north to swing around Nipisiquit Lake, crosses Mosquito Creek, and ends up back at the hunting camp. It took us three hours, and was unspeakably pleasant from beginning to end. The leaves are not entirely “out” yet, and we could see ample chunks of sky. The trailsides were an unending succession of starflowers, clintonia blossoms, sarsaparilla, emerging ferns, bedstraw, and forget-me-nots. The temperature? A delectable 65 degrees would be my guess.

We took a spur at one point out to Raven Rock, an exposed piece of rock that offers a spectacular view out across the hills to Lake Superior. The air was so clear that with binoculars we could see the channels separating the Apostle Islands, maybe 60 miles away.

During our hike back to the car Sunday morning, we stashed our packs in the woods at one point and took one final side-trip up to Mount Baldy. Another sunny morning, another great view across the hills to the sea.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 1 Rhapsody

We’ve been having more than our share of Weird Weather—so much so that those two words have become a genuine meteorological catch-phrase, worthy of capital letters. It seems especially important to note, therefore, that never before has the earth been graced with a finer June 1 than the one we’re in the midst of today here in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Bright sun, cloudless sky, slight breeze, 65 degrees.

I drove to Uptown early for a dental check-up. My route took me past the tornado-twisted trees in Wirth Park, it’s true, but that was a single ugly stretch in a long and lovely drive; the dappled light on the parkway was superb.

I chatted with the dental hygienist about our upcoming trips to the North Shore (ours in June, hers in July) and she also told me about her son’s vegetable garden. My dentist, as it happens, returned only recently from a trip to Chaco Canyon, where a friend of his is spending the summer as a volunteer.

My next stop was the Wedge, Minneapolis’s oldest and most venerable co-op. I always feel a notch or two more virtuous when I step into that place, though I can’t afford the produce, and was there mostly for the fresh figs. I also picked up some banana chips, granola, and dried black beans—to be reconstituted during our North Shore trip. It’s a two-mile hike in to the cabin we’ve rented in Tettegouche State Park. (I’m thinking bean dip with a fresh-chopped jalapeño and chips.)

Back home with work to do, I decided the day was just too fresh, and took the time to transplant a few hostas into a patch of our back yard that was laid bare by the demise of a juniper tree last fall. Yesterday we planted three six-foot arborvitaes along the fence. I’m not sure how well they’ll do—the roots seem to be caked in clay and each tree weighs a ton—but they sure were cheap!

The other day I came across a few lines in a poem called “Riffing Deciduous” by Brendan Galvin that came close to encapsulating the effect summer days eventual have on us:

Summer, old bore, though we love the ways
you reduce everything to five shades
of green, one of these days

in a fall of soft tonnage, your stranglehold
on the obvious must end…

But it’s far too early for such sentiments, on this fresh, cool, morning with the honeysuckles still in bloom.

And now, to work!