I swerved into the parking area at Gooseberry State Park as if the apocalypse had been set into motion. With bike dangling from the back of the car like some strange appendage, I raced into the visitor center like the fate of the world depended on it. In a way, it did.
Following some moments of ecstatic relief in the bolted privacy of the family option, I opted to bike to the beginning of my hike for the first time, because the car was already parked at the finish in the Mayor’s spot. The highway wasn’t nearly as scary as imagined. At just three miles of pavement along the normally busy Hwy 61, I waved at a state trooper (who, not catching anything, appeared to be getting skunked) across four empty lanes and 6-or-so feet of shoulder behind a generous rumble strip, and reached the unincorporated community of Castle Danger. Another 2.5 miles up the only gravel road heading north brought me to the trailhead.
After locking up the bike, I marveled at the difference in feeling versus fumbling around, in, and about, an automobile before shoving off. As if on cue, a vehicle pulled into the empty lot shortly after I embarked with the days provisions already on my back: three homemade energy bars, grapes and apple, and a slim book. Blaze orange cap was already atop my melon.
It’s a quick, steep jaunt up to Wolf Rock from the parking area, magical even, with a dozen or so rocks set into the ground as steps in climb, causing me to recall the enjoyment of our young kids tackling the challenge and then frazzling the nerves of their mother when approaching the nearby drop-off. Down below I could hear the couple from the city in the ubiquitous crossover vehicle still fussing around. Finally, after climbing a couple hundred feet and hiking a quarter mile or so and peering at them far below, I heard the telltale bleating sound announcing my pursuers were en route.
After so much time spent hiking the green tunnel between Duluth and Two Harbors, the endless views were a bit like introducing a kid to Fruity Pebbles after a lifetime of Grape Nuts.
There are ample areas for quiet contemplation. Greedy for solitude, however, I pushed on.
Looking back, I needn’t have rushed. I didn’t see anyone prior to reaching the state park.
This just may have been my first time hiking in short sleeves in the month of November. At 60 degrees, it was quite balmy. Equally odd, there was absolutely no breeze whatsoever. Not even a wisp. Hours elapsed before the slightest puff of wind showed itself, barely visible at the tips of trees reaching down into the sky from my vantage. I was attempting a nap in the wide-open, but often found myself checking the sky for eyeball-hungry birds circling.
The weather, or almost the complete lack thereof, called to mind Stephen King’s excellent book, Under the Dome. Taking place at a similar time of year, but just prior to Halloween in a small town in Maine, the conditions were eerily similar. Outside the mysterious, impenetrable dome, folks wore jackets beneath clouds. Wind stirred. Inside, it was sunny and unseasonably warm.
I’m new to Stephen King’s work. Lucky for me, it seems all of them are available for free to listen to via the Libby app (accessed through your library card). Perhaps I once thought his writing wasn’t literary enough for me.
I was wrong.
Avoiding popular authors like Mr. King is to miss out on reading your own culture. And this book, Under the Dome, might be one of the most important books of the last 15 years. Yes, that’s a crazy statement, but the premise is far more relevant now than it was 15 years ago when he began setting the story down on paper. The epic tale, which runs over 34 hours in the audio version, demonstrates in vivid detail the sort of disaster that can take place when power-hungry people are entrenched in positions of authority during a crisis.
I had a handful of modest goals for the trek, most of which weren’t achieved. Like several of the big boy authors I’m aware of, I was hoping to solve some of the problems of my next book (nearing completion) while plodding along the nine mile stretch of trail. The journey was silent and meditative, but I couldn’t hold a thought. Perhaps it was more important to allow the mind to just grow quiet. That’s what happened, so it’s what I’ll tell myself.
I was also looking forward to setting up shop at one of the most glorious campsites I’ve ever seen. I spied it out about 12 years ago and always hoped to return. The kids were quite young at the time, and I had taken a day off work for some solitude. Though I was only to stay for daylight hours, I packed the same massive backpack that served me on the month-long train trip described in my first book. A late fall, overcast day, rain was in the forecast. I brought a tent, sleeping bag, and about seven books. Tired of carrying my burden, I selected a mediocre campsite near the Gooseberry River surrounded by a tangle of alders. I pitched the tent, laid out the sleeping bag, took a nap, read a while, and even enjoyed a fire. Feeling light and unburdened, I ambled further up the trail and discovered a much better campsite less than a half-mile away. The last of the maple leaves were falling from mature trees, and the sound of water sifting through the nearby beaver dam was incredibly alluring. More than anything, I wanted to sit beside this beaver dam and read my book for an hour. Or two.
Arriving at the river, it was immediately apparent that several floods had changed the lay of the land since 2010. The river is rather wee up there, however. It’s the sort of flow that a beaver won’t hesitate to dam up. Evidences of their industry abounded. Several muddy areas along the water are clear chute zones, where cut trees are slid down the embankment into the river. Daily.
As the trail temporarily veered up a hill and away from the river, I chalked it up to a small re-route. In retrospect, I’m almost certain the mythical campsite was along the river in this spot. If only I had slowed down and investigated more carefully! I bet it’s still down there above one of the dams, just waiting to be discovered, albeit a bit overgrown.
Alas, I claimed the first available bench, just inside the state park’s boundary. Under the blasting sun, I could feel a burn developing while enjoying the first chapter of an easy read. The noise above the series of waterfalls, Fifth Falls, was a bit deafening for an extended stay, so I shuffled down the trail to a bench downstream that was just about right.
Here’s the view from where I read chapter two for a good half hour or thereabouts.
An easy read outdoors after a long walk is divine.
Even better, the only people I saw on this hike until reaching Hwy 61, passed me a second time here. Some young couple from the Twin Cities, newlyweds perhaps, they saw me on about page 3 at that first bench. Here they caught me on page 26, still engrossed in my book.
“Who would come all the way up here to read a book?”
“Does he just occupy every bench he finds?”
“I don’t know. What a weirdo!”
Then, through the miracle of technology, my wife beamed me a short list of groceries, so I walked the remaining bit back to the car. I neglected viewing the big falls, but regretted it later…
The walk wasn’t terribly eventful, and I didn’t solve a single problem. A day later, my body is left with the satisfaction of having perambulated for an extended period. So, it was good. Our bodies are just as essential to our being as our brains.
Do you like to read outdoors? I find it helps to settle the mind and body down by moving around a while first. Then, just enjoy a fun, easy story. It’ll do your body good.