When I leave Grand Marais at 10 o’clock in the morning, it’s already 80 degrees. The forecast — according to my weather app — was for a high of 62, a temperature that might be considered right for this time of year. I’ve picked this weekend for a whole host of reasons, not least because it ought to put me on the Pigeon River on a cool morning, before the blackflies are out in force, but also because I’m hoping I might catch the trees just budding, and that the river will still have some of its spring force.
By the time I get to Hovland, just 15 miles north, I have to roll the window up because the temperature has dropped 30 degrees. The sky over the lake is shading to cloud-white. The sky over the hills is sharp, and the forest, coming alive for the season, is 100 shades of green. I don’t see another car until another 25 miles are behind me and I’m parked in the Grand Portage trailhead lot. Another 100 yards and I’d be at the Canadian border crossing. The temperature has climbed again, and I almost leave my jacket in the car. I have a long hike ahead of me, and I don’t want to carry anything. But better sense prevails and I bring my jacket with me as I head up toward the high falls.
It’s a beautiful thing, to stand here among all the unnameable things and contemplate my moment with them.
I take the first spur off the main trail and drop down onto the river shore. There are two fishermen on the Canadian side, casting fly rods into soft, slow waters. The reeds alongshore still hold their dormancy, but the trees climbing the upriver gorge are exactly as I’d hoped they’d be — those shades of green which, taken together, can’t possibly be named. Everygreen
, maybe. Or, Springvert
. I imagine the voyageurs, when they took these steps back in their Mays, thought little about the trees, except as they obstructed them. My purpose on this day is a little less honest: I’m just chasing my imagination, and hoping to get lost in time.
Standing here, watching the river and the trees, I’m struck by how many things I cannot name. The changes in the weather and in the sky. The colors as they change, minute by minute, even, under the clouds. The sorts of rapids the river holds. Is there a word for that spot in the sault where the water widens and smooths over a submerged boulder? Is there a word for the color of the water this time of year? Or the sound of the distant High Falls, the way it’s carried on the water beneath it? Is there a word for the atmosphere between the gorge walls? I’ve tried them all: mist
, but they’re each as inadequate as the next. I hardly notice the rain falling from the blue sky as I cast about for the words. Downstream, the fishermen are having the same luck as I am.
This river, like the rest of the landscape here, is about 10,000 years old, a raindrop in the river of time, but also enough of it to have sculpted this gorge, and the 100 other creeks and streams between here and Duluth. It’s a beautiful thing, to stand here among all the unnameable things and contemplate my moment with them. It’s the most
beautiful thing, especially when you consider it all against the time before
the Holocene, when this landscape was covered by ice for 100 long millennia. On a day like today, with the weather changing every minute, you can practically feel the ice melt coming off the rocks. As if imagining the ice made it real again, I have to put my jacket on to stave off the chill. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the glacier layered 10 stories above you, where it would have melded with the returning clouds on an ancient day like this one.
All of this Time — as unknowable as any God — is one of the reasons I keep returning to this place. I take a tremendous amount of comfort in the fact that I am nothing to it. This knowledge forgives me my mistakes, a fact alone which would make it worthy of my devotion. But this Time does something else: it allows the equally unknowable thing we call Love to flourish in my life.
I realize of course that Time exists everywhere and always, regardless of where you live it. But up here there’s so much evidence of it. I think it’s this quality — this ubiquity — that keeps me coming back. And standing here now — rain falling from the still-changing, now blue-marbled sky, cold hissing up from the granite beneath my feet — I start to see (instead of just feel) how all of my writing is an effort to make sense of this strange and impossible marriage of Time and Love. And here, among so many other unknowable and unnameable things, I find the sort of comfort I only otherwise find in the pleasures and rewards of work. This is a place where the vagaries make sense. Where Love waits for me, and I for it.
I would never claim to have known this before now, and even thinking it makes me uncomfortable if not outright suspect, but I think I can see from here how the characters in my novels exist both as figments of my imagination — which I understand wholly they are — but also as extensions of my wondering self. I don’t have answers so much as I have questions, and I share this with them as I of course naturally would. But the fact that these folks I’ve invented are in the world makes my own questions easier to bear, if not answer.
And it’s this ambiguity I’ve come here to be reminded of, these qualities of character that surely exist everywhere, but that I see most clearly here. My characters are descendants of my imagination, but they’re also descended of this place, this borderland of what’s true and what could never be known. This place caught out of time, in its long history. All the qualities they possess: their goodness and badness, their endurance, their devotion and doubt, their vulnerability, their unabashed love, it’s reinforced everywhere I look. It’s all I see. It’s all I know.
I’ve put my most recent cast of characters into a novel called Wintering
. It’s a story about all these things: devotion and doubt, endurance, goodness, badness. But mostly it’s a novel about love, and being patient for it, and how the stories we tell each other are a way of showing that love. My love of this borderland, of its beguiling nature, of all its incomprehensibility, I hope it has found its way into the lives of these characters.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Wintering
. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, where he continues to live. His previous novels are Safe from the Sea
and The Lighthouse Road