Monday, March 18, 2013

Bayfield Weekend

 The man shoveling snow in front of the visitor’s center is wearing a bright green stocking cap.
“I’ve got to take your picture in front of this handsome building,” I say. “That cap is perfect.” It was, indeed, a fine sandstone building, and the hat lit up the scene.
“I got this from the transportation department when I was plowing roads earlier in the winter,” the man replies cheerfully. “It’s nice to see some people in here. It gets kind of lonely.”
He didn’t seem lonely. Tall, gray hair, medium build. Early sixties?

“The guys at the entry building suggested we take the Sundance Trail out that way,” Hilary said.
"I don’t know if I’d go that way. It’s a little hillier, but the trail runs right through the worst of the blow-down. There’s a lumber crew out there now cleaning some of it up. It’s more scenic here on the bluff above the river. We spotted some swans down there last week.”
“We’re just out on a weekend ramble,” I said. “We were thinking to ski the After Hours Trails in Brule, but decided on a whim to cut across country and ended up here.”
“That’s what I’ve got to do. Work less, travel more. This is a snowmobile park, you know. Have you skied at Wild River? They have quite a few good trails there.”
“Not in a long time. But O’Brien is among our favorites.”
“I applied for a job there recently. Didn’t get it. Well, it was only seasonal. This is year-round. Maintenance … and security.” 
I got the impression he didn’t much like the security aspect.
“Here’s a question for you," I ask. "Do you pay these loggers to come in and clean up the blow-downs, or do they pay you?”
“The state is making a million and a half selling the wood,” he says, almost proudly.

We head off along the trail, following the edge of the bluff above the St. Croix. The river is mostly frozen over but there is a ribbon of intense, steely blue running through the whiteness along the far bank, and also some pools of open water here and there amid the river-bottom sloughs just below us. Some of the trees we pass are snapped off thirty feet up, others are down, but quite a few are upright and intact.
Red oak leaves in clusters dot the former woods here and there on the far side of the road, where the damage was worse and the debris has been removed. The devastation goes on as far as the eye can see in that direction, but under the cover of snow, it all looks quite natural and even lovely. And I suppose it is.
On the way out of the park, we spot some turkeys crossing the road up ahead, and later flush a little flock of birds a few of which alight not far ahead in a dead tree. Redpolls.


Emerging from the woods onto the roar of Highway 53 after a long and fairly monotonous drive from Danbury to Minong, we pirouette toward an A & W (not yet open for business) and end up at the Friday fish fry at Grandma Licks. It’s a log cabin affair with a bar and a gift shop. The fireplace you pass as you walk in is fake, but it’s cheery and warm. Two poker machines stand against one wall. The TV above the bar is showing an episode of Redneck Vacations, and the one in the corner is blaring a fast-paced episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. A black man with a two-day stubble and three bottles of beer in front of him sits in a dark corner of the restaurant proper. We prefer it out here in the bar with the fireplace and the windows.
Our theory is that the fish will come right away. It’s probably already cooked! But at 2:30 in the afternoon that happens not to be the case.
“We normally don’t start serving the fish fry until 5:30,” our waitress informs us. “But I could put in an order if you want. Do you want the two-piece dinner or the all-you-can-eat?”
So we sit and chat, and Hilary learns a little something over my shoulder about a vacation during which a group of women ride around on cows, and I get the inside story on a restaurant in the Castro District of San Francisco where they serve a good-looking shrimp po’ boy and 300 kinds of whisky. We step over to the window one after the other to examine the furs hanging there on a rack. You can get a skunk for $35, a coyote for $70.
Finally our fish arrives on two big platters. “Gee, now I wish I’d ordered all-you-can-eat,” I remark facetiously.
“Yeah, right,” our waitress smirks in reply.

The fish—two fillets of haddock sitting on a bed of hash browns—is flaky and flavorful. The breading is medium crisp, and everything is piping hot. I don’t know how they could have done it better for $7.95, or at any price. Long before we’re though we’ve agreed that dinner won’t be necessary. A can of cold beets or some crackers and cheese will surely suffice.

The Knee
Our room in Bayfield is high up on a hill. It has three picture windows looking out on Madeleine Island and Chequamegon Bay. Far to the left we can see tiny specks of light as cars putter back and forth from the island across the ice.
The bursitis in my knee is flaring up again. That made for a long night. I take a steroid I happen to have on hand and sit on the bed with an icepack on the knee. No skiing today. That’s too bad, but it’s also fun staring out across the whiteness, digging a little deeper into our books.
We’re on our second pot of coffee. We’re on retreat. Hilary’s enjoying it. “I haven’t written in my journal since we were in Maine,” she says.
The knee will loosen up. We’ll go into town later to see about buying some fresh fish, and maybe stop at a thrift store. I didn’t pack so well—didn’t even bring an extra shirt. If I find a classy or rugged flannel shirt, I’ll be saying for the rest of my days, “Hilary, do you remember where I got this shirt?” How deadly dull: the myth of the shirt. Even duller, perhaps, is the report I’ll give you later about the book I’m reading, Leibnitz in 90 Minutes.

No one can study philosophy for long, I suspect, without getting annoyed by the traditional accounts of the difference between analytic and synthetic propositions. Leibniz may or may not have been among the first to formalize these things. According to the author of the book I’m reading, he added a third type of concept to the discussion—sufficient reason.

An analytic proposition is one in which the subject contains the predicate. For example: “All bachelors are unmarried.” All we’re saying here is that the word bachelor means “someone who is unmarried.” Why does it mean that? Because that’s the meaning the word has taken on over time. It’s a definition of the term. It’s a convention.
Many mathematically statements are similarly tautological. Thus, when we say 2 + 2 = 4, all we’re saying is that 2 + 2 and 4 are two names for the same thing. Why? Because we’ve agreed to that taxonomic convention. There is nothing holy about such a statement, and it would be philosophically inaccurate to say that it’s “true.” Rather, it’s conventional. Following a different convention, we might with equal strength assert that 2 + 2 =  11. I’m referring, of course, to the fact that although we’re used to using base 10 conventions, there are plenty of other conventions available. Computers use base 2. In base 3, 2 + 2 =11.
But none of these statements is very interesting, and none of them is true. There is an entirely different type of statement much more interesting that any of these. It’s a statement that involved a relation other than simple identity or definition. For example: The whole is greater than the parts. This statement is true by definition, but it also carries a relation between the two terms that is logically necessary without being a mere tautology.
Is there any value to such ninnying phrases? I think so. For example, the Buddhists say “All is illusion.” But “illusion” is one of those words that have meaning only in the context of a phrasal group. (I’m sure there’s a linguistic term from such things.)

It’s been snowing all morning, off and on. We head downtown to Bodin’s fresh fish warehouse (pronounced Bow-DEENS rather than the more typical Boo-DAHNS), where we pick up some whitefish fillets. They fish all winter with nets through holes in the ice. I ask the lad how they get the nets in and out.

“We use a floating board made of wood. You shove it into one hole in such a way that it bobs up in the next one. Then you pull it out and you’ve got the means to drag the net through.”
“Do you go to St. Scholastica?” I ask him, pointing at his sweatshirt. “No,” he replies, as if that were the most ridiculous thing  he’d ever heard…though I think he was flattered I’d asked.
At the Apostle Islands Bookstore we chat with the proprietor, Demaris Brinton, about her dog, a miniature husky. Her friend has been running a wine store down the street, and she’s going to expand into a vacant barber shop next door. “She’s also been expanding her beer selection—in response to the tastes of the local clientele.”
All we need now is a thrift store on the same block and civilization will be complete.
“Do you have pets?” she asks us.
“No...We travel a lot.”

Her husband walks through the door like a vision of avuncular friendliness, and we soon learn that he’s been touring the Mississippi from the bluff region all the way to Itasca. I’d like to hear more but they have a shop to run and we’ve been bending Demaris’s ear for quite a while now.
We promise to stop in at the wine store, but don’t, seeing as how we have a bottle or two back at the room. Rather, we drive down to the ferry dock to see the ice highway, but decide against going across to Madeleine Island. There is no real reason to go, and we’d be tempting fate just for the thrill of crossing all that ice amid the snow flurries.
Later, back at the motel we mention our lack of nerve to Mike, the motel proprietor. He’s out in his shorts, shoveling the parking lot with a snow pusher.

“You were smart,” he said. “We’ve lost three people this winter—three locals—to the ice. Jim Hudson was a well-known, well-liked ice-fishing guide. He left his party at their tents and headed off with a colleague to scout out another location. Everything he did was wrong. Didn’t have a life vest on, didn’t have ice poles, didn’t have a cell phone. He shouldn’t even have been on the snowmobile. You’re supposed to test the ice on foot, drill a little hole, see how the ice is, and then bring up the sleds. I don’t know what he was thinking. It makes me angry every time I think about it.”
Mike then told us about the two bartenders from LaPointe who went through after a night of drinking in Bayfield. The one driving was reported to have said he was going to scare the living daylights out of his buddy.

Hilary goes for a ski down by the waterfront in front of the motel. Then we drive up to Cornucopia, a village twenty miles away on the north side of the peninsula, facing the big lake. The road is clean but the wind is whipping up snow devils from off the drifts and trees near the ditches. Then the clouds break, turn lumpy, and the sun comes out. At Meyers Beach we look out at all the broken ice and the bright blue water beyond. It looks like a scene from a Herzog movie.

Evening Light
The late end of the afternoon is very fine. We’ve been out; now we’re in. I finish the little book about Leibniz, read a dreadful short story by Nabokov, play some chess with the computer and resign a game in which I have a definite advantage but no motive for pressing it home. Then it’s the New York Review of Books: articles about Chinese foreign policy and Beethoven and religion without god. So much to learn about.
We drink tea from a variety pack Hilary picked up at the store in town on our way back to the motel. As I wait in the car, I see two women get out of their cars and embrace—not a long, serious embrace but a brief, friendly embrace. They may be neighbors; they could have been my friends. We might have gone to college together. Now we’ve drifted apart. They had kids, we didn’t. They had money, we didn’t. People go their ways. Who can explain it? 
So many lives going on all around us. Here is the point at which Leibniz got a little bit right. We all live within our own skin, we’re all monads—souls, if you will. And the rocks on the beach are the same way, and the waves, and the holes in the ice. What Leibniz failed utterly to recognize is that souls interact. They affect one another, drawing towards or repelling. They form clusters of affection.

Morning Ski
We arrive at the Pike Creek Trailhead by 8:45. It’s five below down in the valley, warmer up above. It snowed seven inches during the night. The air is crystal clear, as exhilarating as Colorado

We’ve skied here before. Across some fields and then one murderous hill will take us down to the creek. We walk down, respecting the still-dubious knee. From there on its 90 minutes through the woods, part of it shuffling through new-fallen snow, and the rest on wide trails groomed by the ski resort to our south. Tracks here and there. And at one point we hear a pack of howling coyotes. There’s a thick hemlock wood on the south bank of the creek. The creek itself is mostly frozen over, but you can hear it murmuring.

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