We didn’t know where we were going and we still didn’t know what we were looking for out of the weekend. We had decided that we wanted to get to the North Shore, see the silver waters of Lake Superior, feel the wind, be somewhere that blankets and a fireplace would be requisite.
The drive north was like speeding toward two weeks from now at 70 miles per hour. The leaf colors around the Twin Cities were past their peak of brilliance, but there were still a lot of leaves on the trees, some of them maples glowing only like maples can: the burning red at the edges around a core of glowing orange. As soon as we got a little ways north, the trees still had lots of leaves, but they were all dark tones, rich auburn and orange, ephemera just as fleeting but giving the illusion of permanence by their subdued hues. Colors like the beautiful ashes of the burning flames of earlier in the season.
Another fifty miles north, closer to Duluth now than St. Paul, and most of the leaves were gone. Going about two degrees of latitude north had brought us to a time of year that I am as fond of as I am of the peak of the fall colors. Looking deep into the woods, something somewhere usually hidden by the foliage whispered to me, “November.” The bony tree tops against the flat gray sky said it too. The quiet, steady wind seemed here to stay and murmured something about winter.
Something in this naked world said something to something in me that made me feel naked too. It loosed in me anxiety and robbed me of the stamina I needed to contain it. It made me feel light-headed for a while. I was comforted by the fact that there was no better place for me to be than in this car with my best friend, traveling through, heading toward, some of the best of places. Katie took the wheel and I dozed in the front seat, resting and reinforcing.
There is no way to describe coming into Duluth, the cresting of the hill and the sudden void before you, the lake spread out to the distant horizon, far below and far away. We passed through pretty quickly, wanting to get up the Shore a little ways and get a room where we could relax. It took us longer and more miles than we had thought it would to find something, but we ended up with a room in Beaver Bay with a fireplace and the lake crashing against the rocks just out the window, close enough to always hear it.
Later in the evening we had a mediocre dinner at the little hotel restaurant up the hill, trying to watch the World Series over the din and distraction of a whole lot of little kids. When we went outside a cold drizzle was falling and it was very dark.
The next morning we woke up and it was our anniversary. A whole year of being married felt like an incredible feat to me. We had agreed to celebrate the day with a hike in the woods. Neither of us had really hiked on the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs the length of the North Shore, so we consulted a guidebook borrowed from the hotel and picked a section that sounded good. I still didn’t know what we were looking for. The idea for a hike seemed to have formed largely unspoken. I don’t think either of us could say what we were hoping to find, but that freed us from feeling obligated to look for it.
Anyway, if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past year, it’s that a walk in the woods is never a bad thing, and so that’s what we did.
The trailhead was a few miles up the shore, on Highway 6 just up the hill from Highway 61. The parking lot was a quarry a hundred yards up the road from where the trail crossed. The sky was still gray and it seemed to threaten rain. We loaded up a backpack with water, sandwich fixings, snacks, extra clothes, first-aid kit and the binoculars my lovely wife gave me for an anniversary gift, laced up our boots, and started walking.