The Outside Loop

Yesterday morning I woke after a short night and with a bothered head. I didn’t give in to my pillow and blankets but got up to coffee, water and a friend passed out on the couch.

We sat for a while recalling the night, a funny night celebrating a wedding at a studio space in the warehouse district of Minneapolis, one with a jazz quartet and keg stands, a chocolate fountain and noise complaints from upstairs, well-dressed friends and the bright skyscraper horizon, and congratulating a lovely couple on a smart decision. As much as I write about being in the woods on this blog, and as much as I read about wilderness and wildlife and fishing and all those kinds of things, I can’t help loving the city.

Rosie was in Madison, Wisconsin for the weekend so I was flying solo at the party. It’s strange how now that we’ve been married for a over year, I feel off when I go to something like that alone. Luckily, many of our friends were there and they looked after me, but I realized that the more dependent you become on another person, the more you don’t feel like yourself when you’re separated.

After dropping Mac off at his car where we’d left it outside the party, I stopped at home and then drove out of the city and to a park that I know better than any other park, and that I love because of it. I understand this little piece of woods.

***

It’s a city park, but at least a couple hundred acres. When I was on the cross-country ski team in high school we practiced there four nights a week in the winter. We skied every one of the many hills. My friends and I also spent many nights and Sunday noons at this park playing capture the flag, sometimes getting 15-20 people out there to run and hide in the snow or in the moonlight. It is also where we frequently rode our mountain bikes during the summer.

I had a backpack with water and snacks in it. I wore boots and jeans and the shell of my jacket. I didn’t linger long in the parking lot because I was already getting lost in my thoughts and a dog came up the trail from the other direction warning of its masters’ imminent arrival.

I walked up a trail and around a corner and found where someone had dumped their garbage from what appeared to have been an interior painting job. There were sheets of plastic, five gallon buckets, ground cloths, old newspapers. Disgusting. I poked through it a bit hoping, just hoping, that they left some piece of mail or something that would have their name or address on it. No such luck. Sooner or later the city would come and remove the garbage, in the meantime it would scar the land a little more.

Quiet wooded bowls
Windy ridges
Glacial land

The next section of trail ran along a high ridge looking down on the small interior lake. The hill next to where I walked dropped sharply down for maybe 100 or more feet. A few hundred yards down the path I came to where they had installed a nice bench with a good view of the lake. Unfortunately, they had also seen fit to take out a swath of the hardwood forest that blankets the park on the hillside below the bench to improve the view. It didn’t upset me that bad: this is just a city-owned park. It’s not wilderness or even a state park or forest. And it was a nice view of the lake after all.

The middle of the trail was icy and I mostly walked on the shoulders where the snow hadn’t been so compacted by feet and skis earlier in the season. There wasn’t a lot of room to the sides so I frequently crossed the icy middle to take advantage of better walking on either side of the trail.

I walked as fast as I could on the slippery trail, planting my feet hard to dig the tread into the crusty snow. I wanted to work up a sweat and I wanted to get to the farthest reaches of the park. When our ski coaches wanted us just to rack up some kilometers we would ski what was simply called the “Outside Loop.” It was actually more of a figure-eight, but it took us around the perimeter of the park. I hadn’t been to the back half for several years and I wanted to go there today.

All of this
God
or in his image

The sun was out. There’s been little of it for the past month, and when it has shown up it seems like I’ve always been at work, buried behind tinted windows and flourescent lights. Now I was in the woods and the leafless trees cast sharp shadows across the snowy ground. The sun also finally seemed to really be coming north again and with a clear sky it didn’t feel so far away like it often does this time of year.

My quick pace shortly brought me to the powerline cut that slices through the middle of the park, creating the front and back halves. The cut is wide and raw, though I’ve never minded it all that much. It’s kind of like the bench with the trees cut below. A quiet reminder of where I really was to punctuate the occasional sounds of far off cars on the highway. I would rather not be allowed to ever pretend I am in a wilder place than I am. The powerlines bring us light and heat and running water, the highway had brought me here. Someday when I’m far away from asphalt and steel I’ll appreciate it as much as I should.

I took my hat off and stood for a while soaking up the sun. I was breathing a little heavy and happy to feel the cool air rushing into my lungs.

Memories of lost days
flicker on these
shadowy trails
Sun coming back
Images take shape

The powerline cut is like a gate to the back part of the park and as I re-entered the woods I was happy. The trail shortly brought me to a junction where five trails came together. The intersection formed a small clearing which was silent and still. The woods around me were the typical hardwoods and I could see through them in all directions to where hills rose and fell in every direction.

I had three trails facing me that all led further back into the park but I already knew which one I would take. I took the leftmost trail and soon came to a corner where a chain link fence ran along one edge. I walked up to the fence and looked at the strange barren landscape on the other side. Some years ago the land had been contaminated in some way, I’ve never known why. Either a landfill or a dump or something. Now it’s bare of trees and there are strange posts sticking up out of the ground and in one spot something that looks like a giant water sprinkler creates wild ice sculptures in the winter. The land is being cleaned by people who are smarter than me and I just stood on my side of the fence and looked at it and wondered for a moment before turning back toward the woods.

The most dangerous hill in the park for skiiers now lay below me. It started with a steep top section where I remembered how it was nearly impossible to keep your speed down, then took a slight short jog to the right before making a ninety degree left turn around some big trees. The whole trail was closely bordered by the woods and was truly dangerous, especially after getting skiied by 100+ members of the ski team, half of whom snowplowed the heck out of it, turning the trail to ice. On foot it was not difficult and as I picked my way down the hill I remembered the feeling of making it around the corners and racing down the steep and straight bottom section.

Dancing birch
Asleep
Like a dog
running in his dreams

As soon as the descent was over the trail went right back up. I leaned into the hill and welcomed the burn in my legs. At the top I stopped for a drink of water and then saw a rock a few feet of the trail with a nice view over the depression which I had just skirted on the trail. There was just a little snow on the rock so I scrubbed it off and sat down to enjoy having made it this far corner and having such a nice view.

Creaking trees
Unknown banging
over that hill
train whistle
clattering cars

Cold green limestone
Breeze and gusts
The hill below me
Calls

Even though I had zippd up my jacket as soon as I stopped moving, my sweat soon began to chill me and I knew I should get moving again. I also knew that on the far side of the bowl another trail ran back to the five-trail intersection so I decided to cut straight through the woods which I had just been admiring from above and afar. I slipped my backpack back on my shoulders, put my gloves on and went down the hill.

***

It was a much needed sojourn outside. I’m leaving for the east coast for the week in about two hours. I’m going to Connecticut for work for two days and then down to New York City to visit my brother. As is my tendency, I am nervous about leaving home. But I am also excited. I love New York. It is gigantic and loud and there are people everywhere always. But in ways it can feel more like a small town than anywhere else I know. Like I said before, I like the city in many ways. New York is the greatest city I’ve ever been to. It is a wilderness all its own. It is so big and so loud that you can be whoever you want, do whatever you want, and chances are no one will think twice about it. The open-mindedness is refreshing.

So, look for some photos and some stories of that different place this week.

6 thoughts on “The Outside Loop

  1. Deb

    You skiied for Stillwater? Back in my day they were the best. I was on the XC ski team for Robbinsdale Cooper in 83-85, and somehow I managed to earn a letter. That’s not saying much, our team sucked. Anyway, I managed to get a lifetime love of cross country skiing out of the experience, and a pair of Fischer RCS’s. By the way, that was slightly before the day of skate-skiing. ;) I’m REALLY dating myself there.

    Your post brought back some incredible memories for me. Too bad this winter hasn’t been the best for skiing, although I can say that for about the last ten winters. If conditions improve, however, Banning State Park has some nice trails and it’s an easy drive up the freeway, and close to Sand Creek.

  2. the dharma bum Post author

    I did ski for Stillwater, but trust me, I was not the star of the team. It was fun to practice with some great skiiers, and our coach — for having a few faults, you might say — was probably about as good as they get. Even though I had no talent and no real passion for competition, I even managed to letter three years in a row too! It was mostly about showing up to practice.

    I don’t have any good skis right now and haven’t actually skied in years, but Katie and I would both really like to get into it again. Hard to justify buying skis though with the kinds of winters we’ve had recently.

    We skate skiied a lot back then, but if I were to ski again I probably wouldn’t. I’d like to just be able to get out in the woods and there’s something… “classic” about classical style.

  3. lene

    I enjoyed the way you included little poems — causing us to slow down and absorb what you were offering. I especially liked the dancing birch/sleeping dog one. Every time you mentioned some alteration of nature–the clearing of trees at the park, for example, I found myself surprised, again and again. The tone and your acceptance of the way it is, at least in some circumstances, was clearly communicated. You did cause me to think about my expectations of what a city park verses “wilderness” should be–and what alterations I’m willing to accept for both. When and how do we draw the lines? That’s a tough one for me.

    By the way, if you and your brother get a wild hair to head to Vermont, please drop me a line or look me up.

  4. the dharma bum Post author

    lene – I didn’t know how those thoughts would go over, thanks for bringing it up. it’s not like I enjoy seeing trees cut down, pollution, etc. I don’t like hearing cars on the highway or anything like that. But last Sunday, I think it was okay because this park was 20 minutes from where I live, which happens to be a major metropolitan area… The park is beautiful and, once I got away from the parking lot, I didn’t see another person. The woods are gorgeous, the hills are the type that keep you moving because you can’t wait to see what’s over the next rise. I felt pretty lucky to be there, and I guess just didn’t want to ruin the experience for myself by dwelling on the negative. Make sense? If I had it my way, they’d outlaw chainsaws and handguns in one fell swoop! :)

    Thanks for using the phrase “wild hair,” you know I love it! I’m already back and as much as I would have loved to come visit, it just wasn’t gonna work. One of these days…

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