The place we first discover how vast it all is, becomes the dream we revisit when life falls short. For Paul, that place is the Western North Shore of Lake Superior, where black rocks at the lake’s lapping edge rest smooth as rising dough beneath rhythmic waves.
Paul rose slowly from his bed and mindlessly committed yet again to the routine of coffee and shaving and showering and toast and pressing the button in the garage to raise the door on another day. He recalled a time and place in his youth with growing clarity, as if the synapse in his brain, the tiny gaps between this and that, had been bridged into a singular whole. His grandfather was found at the center of that whole, the epicenter of numerous vivid vignettes set against a backdrop of quintessential wilderness. Names of places came to him, names like Isle Royale and Thunder Bay, destinations in Canada somewhere. He was so young at the time he wasn’t sure. All that remained were the mental snapshots he’d retained all these years. Containers for something newly important.
Neal Young was from there somewhere – Manitoba or Northern Ontario. His were evocative songs nonetheless, especially when the singer, in that falsetto voice of his sang how memories left him helpless. In the car Paul tried to sing them, but all that came was a screeching smile. It was men like his grandfather who helped him recognize who he needed to emulate in life, and why.
Grandfather had been a lumberman, railroad engineer and wanderer. He was a man’s man in his time, slight in stature but unwavering in principles. He was the consummate storyteller. Something Paul remembered with haunting clarity was how frandfather said God lives in the forest and rarely comes out. Grandfather had said if you want to meet him, or your guardian angles, you have to go there and spend time, let them look you over and decide if you are worthy, and he should have known. Grandfather had heard God breathing, he’d said. Met his guardian angel, he’d said. Took in their company.
A friend to all creatures, Grandfather spent weeks at a time wandering in the north with only a daypack. He had nowhere in particular to be, and nothing more important to do than walk and sit and stay away, give quarter to moose, bear, the big cats and wolves, all of whom he’d met on many occasions and sometimes fought.
Paul was an accountant, and not proud of it. During lunch he wandered Google Earth. The path of his quest was the Trans-Canada Highway. Today at work, he explored Kama Hills. He’d been to the maps many times. But, the sound of the waves and loons, the smell of pine and campfire smoke, the warmth of the sun and chill of the water couldn’t be found in the pixelated shorelines and flattened topography of digital maps. He felt confused by his actions, a grown man hunting for something that he was sure could not be found. Or could it?
During lunch Paul sat in the buzz of a coffee shop using WIFI. He returned to the search engines to explore now familiar park names, roadways and trails. For all he knew, someone purchased the land where he and his grandfather had camped back then. Everything is for sale. Someone buys everything. He’d sold his entire life to men that wouldn’t give him the time of day outside of work. The buyer would have built on the land and made that big rock, the curve of the shore and the creek, their home. His grandfather had said the land would never be developed, but even he may have been wrong.
A year earlier, rummaging through his dead father’s things, Paul had come across a postcard. It was faded and musty, but it was written while the two of them were having breakfast on Thunder Bay. He remembered how grandfather laughed at the pencil point, which was loose and wiggled as he wrote so carefully not to break it. The writing, in his grandfather’s hand, talked about their drive up. Seeing it flooded him with memories of how they turned out of the parking lot that day and drove north to a distant campground. They were in the Studebaker Hawk, with its cool lines and wings on the hood. A smoldering pipe of tobacco rattled in the ashtray and they talked about fish, traps and uses for pine pitch and moss. It was that trip that he heard about catching sucker fish in the spring with bare hands, flipping them onto the banks by the dozens and smoking them. In the spring it can be done because their bodies are still hard and delicious after a winter of struggling, grandfather had said.
Reading that postcard brought memories of crackling campfires, the flash of Northern Pike in clear water, knot tying, his grandfather’s jackknife, the smell of bacon, the clatter of cookware in a gunny sack, cedar bows over cool wooded paths and the frigid inviting water of Lake Superior. There were loons then, maybe still, but the news said they were having trouble. You could drink from creeks and rivers then.
“Things are different now,” Paul told his wife. If he went on the quest he’d be confined to a postage stamp of campground. It wouldn’t be the same experience, but he had to go.
Paul’s grandfather spent time as an infantryman in the second war to end all wars. There were others to come. He’d been 17 at the time he entered the military and he told stories of shells exploding up and down the line, and of dead friends hung up in barbed wire. He told of driving horses, arm wrestling contests at the docks in Two Harbors, winters in the far north so cold your pee could freeze into wire before it hit the ground. The stories can’t be found again and their retelling falls on deaf ears, but when grandpa returned from the war, his parents were living in the Poor House in Duluth. It was a shame, he’d said, to hold people for being poor like that, but then he laughed about it, too.
It took years to realize how old his grandfather was at the time they went camping. At the time he was to Paul, timeless, but actually, he was in his late sixties. He was from a time when men knew the land, could navigate on instinct, and cold fix every tool or device in their domain. there was a calm in his presence, which made age irrelevant. Paul had never achieved nor witnessed that way of being again. If he’d just done it right, and followed Grandpa’s lead, he wouldn’t have spent an entire incarnation as a damned accountant. He’d have found work that kept him young and in touch with the earth and, as grandfather had urged him many times, he’d have walked ground where few others dared to go.
Wandering, wilderness, nature, who had time anymore to sit by the edge of a river or lake, for even a day? But grandpa had done that all his life.
Paul’s wife had wanted nothing to do with camping or even sitting on a park bench for that matter. Her’s was a life of television shows and endless shopping. In her estimation, Paul was weak, and that was probably true. He had let her and his daughters dictate his life away – career, interests, even the size and configuration of his workshop at home.
Gratitude? He had a corporate identity, status in the church, history as a good employee. He was a dedicated husband and father, which everyone except for him seemed to value. To him, each piece of this cobbled identity was a hollow reed, buffeted by the waves he recalled from Lake Superior.
Eight months before taking retirement, sitting alone in a coffee shop, he broke down crying over a photo of his grandfather. A strange woman had touched his shoulder and asked if he was all right. For the first time in decades, he said no, picked up his things and left.
That experience led to the plan. He became enthusiastic. There was something in front of him again, something worth experiencing. He would find that place shared with his grandfather, the truth would overtake him, bless him, and he would somehow find redemption. He was going camping, and from that moment forward, frustration became quietude. Corporate noise receded. He would find time to sit on the huge rocks at water’s edge, watch the water lap or crash, however the weather, and walk again along riverbanks and in creek beds, and sleep beneath maple leaves, pine boughs, and northern stars.
When the time came to travel finally drew near, he realized just how long a drive it is from Redford Township near Detroit, across the state of Michigan from bottom to top, across the great bridge and northward through the Soo into Canada. He would have to break the trip into parts, stay at motels and take his time. That was the plan and that is what he did.
When Paul arrived at the campground he hoped was right, he just loafed to recover from the drive. He’d set his tent on a protruding root and had to move it, twice. If his wife were alive she would be complaining, wanting to go, and for a moment he felt the need to oblige her memory; as if he were in the wrong place himself, inappropriately dressed in a polo shirt and khaki shorts, there to connect with boyish dreams and clearly out of his mind.
Millions of Americans take camping vacations. What Paul was not prepared for was how they were seemingly all there, all around him at the campground. There were Marlboro men with gadgets, lycra clad young executives riding thousand-dollar bicycles, and anglers gingerly parking $150,000 fishing boats. Everywhere there were loud children on the move, giggling and laughing, sometimes with iPads or smart phones in hand. RVs rested in long rows and he instantly had neighbors. Among them would-be naturalists groaned and shook their heads as dune buggies, three and four-wheeled machines, boom boxes and distraught city-dwellers fought over sites closer to the water, closer to the restrooms, closer to each other. Grandfather had often said that those who know what they are doing can carry all the essentials in a rucksack. For Paul, even a car trunk had not been large enough.
Watching the water helped. He sat on rocks, did that breathing meditation he read about, walked paths, and gradually felt a lifetime of worry subside. As his friend Bud had always said, he was a victim of the things that never happened in his life, a victim now filling with memories and recognition of places, of rock outcroppings and the sense of place.
Early in the morning on the third day, Paul crawled on hands and knees from the warmth of his sleeping bag and pulled on his shorts with a chill. He unzipped the tent and stepped into the dim light of their pre-dawn campground. The only other person stirring nearby, another elderly man, looked to Paul like someone who didn’t know what to do with himself. They nodded to each other and went about their menial chores – two stiff old men surrounded by tents, trailers and contraptions, looking for a place to piss in the morning fog.
Paul made coffee, reviewed his maps, and committed to walking any trail that touched the lake. As he walked, he recalled loading the trunk of his Ford Taurus. He’d left in the middle of the night with his packed cooler, maps, and a sleeping bag and pillow in the back seat. A photograph of his grandfather and he, the two of them together on the front porch of his parent’s home in East Lansing years ago, sat on the passenger seat.
Twenty minutes of walking is all it took, far less time than he remembered or imagined it would take. The sun had already burned through the fog and he felt warm and alive. What caught his attention was a somewhat familiar fork in the trail marked by a large rock. Behind that rock, surrounded by a thicket of brush, he found the stream he was looking for, narrow, maybe a foot deep, cold water flowing over packed sand and pebbles. He removed his shoes and carefully followed the water upstream for ten or fifteen minutes to a waterfall. It was smaller than he remembered it. The creamy brown cascaded between rounded boulders and fell just a few feet before continuing to the lake. At that place, where the water fall sang, the world stopped. His heart raced. He sat on a fallen log amid a thick bed of moss and pine needles. Silver maples and pine boughs hid most of the direct sunlight. Water flowed through this place for centuries, his grandfather had told him. It was a reverential, meaningful place, made sacred to him by years of mentally returning during meetings, during arguments with his wife, during every personal crisis. This slice of earth had not changed all that much. It wasn’t owned. It was, as his grandfather had predicted, remained the property of the state, of everyone. The trees seemed different, foliage certainly, but stone doesn’t change quickly and it all came back. Others had been there, it was clear. Wrappers and a rusted tin can, someone’s initials carved in cedar bark, but this was the place, their place.
Paul followed a stone outcropping away from the creek for what he calculated was twenty paces taken by an eleven-year-old boy years earlier to split rock in the shape of jagged and memorable arrowhead. He followed an imaginary line cast by that arrow for another ten paces knelt and brushed pine needles from the dark earth below. Beneath the bed of needles he found the three baseball-sized smooth rocks he and grandfather had placed there years ago. Breath caught in his throat and he nearly wept.
The unearthing didn’t take long. The small spade he carried soon discovered a rusted metal box. Inside the box, nearly deteriorated rags still cushioned a mason jar, and in the jar he found the message he and his grandfather had written to themselves. Their secret bond, as grandfather had called the contents, was hidden there. He recalled the act but not the contents. He carried the jar to the arrowhead rock, sat and solemnly turned the lid open. In it were pictures of the two of them, a baseball card and a hand full of old coins, most of them buffalo nickels, one a silver dollar issued the year of their trip.
There was also a note in two parts.
“What I like,” Paul had written at his grandfather’s suggestion. “I like baseball more than anything. I like fishing and camping with my grandfather. This is his picture. I am eleven and someday I will come back to this secret time capsule and read it and remember being here. I hope I have a good life and get to be a forest ranger.”
And his grandfather had written, “This is my grandson, Paul. I was so lucky to know him that words fail me.”
Paul returned the yellowed and mildewed contents to the jar and laid flat on his back in the pine needles for a long while. Before he left that place for good, he placed the contents of a new time capsule into the hole and covered it with ritual, with the movements of his grandfather’s hands. He honored the spot, as the two of them had done years before, sipping a bottle of root beer.
Near twilight, Paul sat on a bench outside his tent watching flames rise and fall from his campfire. He imagined who could possibly one day find his message, cast not into the ocean, but into the soil, beneath the ground, beneath rock and trees, perhaps beyond the reach of history.
“My grandfather and I were here,” the he’d written. “We had this place in common. I missed him in life and I will join him in death. Not knowing what else to do with emptiness, I fill this void with words and place them here for you to find.”