It took me about 10 years to get to what is arguably Minnesota’s premier attraction – excluding the Mall of America. Most residents consider it the holy land – a place of refuge to escape to when the rest of the world is getting them down. It’s most commonly referred to as the “North Shore,” which is accurate according to its location along Lake Superior. However, this area, Minnesota’s “Arrowhead,” includes so much more than the world’s largest body of fresh water. It has 300′ rock walls that are a climber’s dream. It runs adjacent to the Superior National Forest. And, it’s home to the densest concentration of log cabin-style restaurants in the state (I made that up, but it feels like an accurate statement). So how did a self-proclaimed nature enthusiast manage to avoid this area for so long? Allow me to tell you a story of evolution born in the malls of Milwaukee.
I grew up a city kid who swam only in pools, biked only in alleys and considered urban parkways to be places of ill repute (because they were). I was better aquainted with The Nature of Things store in the mall than I was with actual nature. However, the potential was always there. My siblings and I used to play a game we made up called, “It’s a beautiful day in the country,” in the backyard of our city lot. We’d do things like pick berries from the bushes and paint our swing set with the juice. In middle school, my parents moved us to a large suburb in the heart of the Kettle Moraine. We hiked sections of the Ice Age Trail on field trips and learned how to identify geologic features like kames, eskers, drumlins and kettles. I can still point them out to this day.
But the nail in my mall rat-coffin was attending college in rural western Wisconsin. Our picturesque campus was tucked neatly into the Chippewa River Valley. This is where I met Luke. He took me hiking and Rollerblading on dates instead of to Applebee’s like the rest of ’em. We discovered a mutual love for the outdoors and started taking trips together to places like the Badlands and Yellowstone.
Those early “nature” trips had a comedy of errors vibe reminiscent of the Griswolds’ vacations. There was a midnight mountain pass over the Bighorns where we had to dodge herds of confused mule deer. And I may or may not have mistaken the sound of elk bulging for a flute-wielding serial killer.
Rookie mistakes pass with time, but the thing that’s stuck with me is the realization that, in the grand scheme of things, you and I are soft-sided specks in a vast and powerful universe. I like to remind myself of this every now and then. Cities have a controlling and confining effect on people. It’s strangely liberating to know the world is bigger than the societies we create, along with their self-imposed rules and expectations.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were right when they said, “The more I see, the less I know, the more I like to let it go. Heeey-o.” I learn this lesson every time I venture out to a new place – most recently, to the North Shore. While there, I learned there are mountains in Minnesota called the Sawtooths. I’ve actually skied on these mountains without realizing what they truly were. We hiked a short section of the Superior Hiking Trail through the Sawtooths, checking out double decker waterfalls, suspension bridges, miles of rocky coastline and black sand beaches along the way.
We also drank canned beer in a log cabin-style bar with the locals, ate breakfast in a log cabin-style restaurant with the tourists, wedged our truck through partially grown-in logging roads and watched the sun set over a semi-private lake complete with pine tree-topped islands. After all of that, we slept under the Milky Way in the national forest.
All of this was accomplished over the span of just two days. Imagine what you can see in week, a summer, a lifetime. Suddenly, I’m extremely jealous of the people who started coming here as kids.