At the Square Lake Solstice Festival, June 17
I stood on the very end of the dock and looked up at the night sky above. It was thick with the northern stars, the sky so black that I could make out the distinct glow of light around each of the countless specks. The lake before me was utterly calm. The little island a couple hundred yards out and the shoreline of the big island behind it were black sillouhettes between the shimmering blackness of the lake and the deep black of the sky.
My neck was sore from looking up and it was late and I was all alone while everyone else in the fish camp slept or prepared to do so but I couldn’t yet turn my back on the sky and the lake and go up the hill to my bunk. The sky reached down into my heart and found a peace I had forgotten was there. It is such a sky that forces you to measure yourself not against any other man or any other standards except your own. To judge yourself by your own ideals. Self-reckoning as pure as the lake and sky.
Three days before, I had come north with my father- and brother-in-law for a long fishing weekend with some of my father-in-law’s friends as they have done every year for the past 15 or so. I was a young pup compared to most of the other guys and different in many other ways, but we had still united to some degree based on shared appreciation of a few days fishing on a beautiful lake.
Earlier that day the lake had been a bright, windblown expanse. After two perfect days of blue skies and calm waters, we had been forced to huddle in our jackets and seek refuge in small bays. Our anchor wouldn’t hold us in any open water. We were compelled to repeat over and over, “At least it’s not raining.” My hands had been made raw from the wind and the cold water, it became difficult to open my tackleboxes, painful to even think about dipping my hand into the minnow bucket.
Now, it was the last night before we would head home. There had been the fish fry earlier; walleye and some northern accompanied by tater tots, salad and corn. We all crowded into one cabin and ate. A few off-color jokes and stories were told and a fair amount of beer was drunk.
After dinner, my brother-in-law and I went out to have a last Backwoods on the deck and everyone left to their beds except Jonesy, a funny carpenter with a red nose who talked to us longer than I think either of us cared about fishing down on Mille Lacs and whatever else popped into his inebriated mind. I finally excused myself by saying it was time to hit the hay and we parted ways. It had been a lie, but I just wanted a minute down on the dock before I turned in.
So, there I was. I had my last can of Leinie’s in my jacket pocket but I didn’t drink it. I was fairly well bundled against the cool night, which was probably in the 30s. The stars gave the sky a texture I’ve only seen at those latitudes far from city lights. I told myself I had seen better on trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (the western edge of which was only 10 or 15 miles away). Hell, I could faintly see the sweeping searchlight from the casino resort on a bay of the lake eight or 10 miles off. But, even if I’d seen them brighter and clearer, it hadn’t been often and it would be a while before I saw it again.
Tomorrow morning, we would go home. I couldn’t forget that. It was good, I missed my wife and needed a break from trying to fit in with these guys, but the night sky drew me in. It was so peaceful and perfectly quiet. The dying wind of earlier that day still rustled through the tree tops, the water was glassy and reflected the starlight. I wanted to take it with me. I moved to leave but then turned back and stood a little longer on the dock, staring up at the stars.
The trees budded out yesterday, about a day earlier than last year. I drive across the mighty Mississippi River with it’s 36,0002-mile watershed worth of water on my way to and from work every day and I always look at the river and the trees as I cross the bridge high above the water.
The tree tops of the valley are at the same level as the bridge deck and for the past week I’ve been watching them. Yesterday it was there, the day before, not. It is one of my favorite sights of the year and, in a way, I wish it could last forever, though the ephemeral nature of it is what strikes me most. It’s like the tree tops are filled with a pale green smoke.
When the first cyclist left the starting line and raced along the balcony of Galtier Plaza and around the elevator column, I couldn’t help wondering if mayor Chris Coleman and the tyke (his son, Aidan) trailing after him had managed to clear the course yet. The jeans-and-sweatshirt clad mayor had tentatively ridden out of the starting area 10 minutes before at a pace that revealed the alienation a bicyclist might feel while legally riding through the sedate halls of downtown St. Paul’s office buildings on a Wednesday evening.
The mayor and his son were performing the honors of a first lap on the course of the Red Bull Skyride, a first-of-its-kind bike race held February 8 in St. Paul’s skyway system.
Fused in the 1970s from a combination of beer, the availability of cheap used bikes, thrill-seeking, and a little time to kill, arriving as an Olympic sport at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, reinventing itself in the freeriding movement that was born in the coastal forests of British Columbia in the last decade, the sport has now arrived at the far end of the spectrum, perhaps the final frontier, the most artificial of environments, the skyway.
Watching a second racer sprint out of the starting area, my mind drifted again out toward Coleman and Aidan and I thought of all the blind corners on the course as it wound its way via skyway from Lowertown to the Excel Energy Center. I couldn’t help wondering how the country would react if St. Paul’s new mayor ended up in the hospital as the result of a bike collision in a skyway. Skyways are as alien a concept as ice fishing to most of the country anyway; our mayor riding through them as part of a sanctioned bike race might convince our distant countrymen that Minnesota’s thread truly does not weave into the fabric of this nation.
Another racer disappeared down the hallway and the cheering of the crowd faded. Next to me where I stood on the second floor, in front of the offices of a book publishing company, a guy with a full glass of beer made eye contact with a cop walking by and asked him politely, “Is it okay if I have this up here?”
“Probably not,” the officer responded, “But I’m not saying anything.” The cop kept walking, the drinker kept drinking. The guy with the beer was seen at the end of the night wandering through the temporary Red Bull village downstairs, a glass of ice water clutched in his hand where the beer had been earlier, bouncing off Red Bull coolers and tables, blinking at the bright lights and sharp angles of Galtier Plaza.
Lined up against the windows of the book publisher’s conference room were 40 or so cyclists. Most were guys in their 20s but there were a few women and a few people in their thirties and forties. They quietly waited for their moment on the starting line, their chance to maneuver their bicycles through the sterile, vacuous skyways.
Many of the racers lined up were swigging from cans of Red Bull, the ubiquitous sponsor of the evening’s festivities. Later, at the end of the course (described by many as the hardest they had ever raced on) piles of vomit on the Excel’s loading docks reeked of the beverage.
Another rider was announced over the P.A. and shortly dashed out from the inflatable start line. He rounded the first corners and sped down the carpeted hall. When he hit the first straightaway, the rider popped a wheelie to the applause of the spectators and disappeared through a doorway, one wheel pointed to the ceiling, barreling toward the skyway and the U.S. Bank building across the street.