Post Road Magazine #19

35.4 Sentences about the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Rob Keast


1. For the first five miles, there is a Lakeshore Trail, but not a lakeshore.

2. My wife and daughter walked us to the trailhead, optimistic, and they may have watched our first steps, but I didn't turn around, because it had been raining, and it looked to rain some more, and because I did not want to be with them and not with them at the same time.

3. We trudged through wet ferns and high wet grass that drenched every inch of our pants from belt to ankle, and at first we felt cheated, veering away from Lake Superior, but the trailblazers knew what they were doing—tacking on the woods side of the dunes— because sand hiking, especially with full packs and heavy boots, makes one mile feel like three.

4. I am the first of six children, and Aaron is the sixth, nearly thirteen years younger and only a month out of college, so you can figure out which one of us wanted to say goodbye to Michigan before leaving for better cities and different landscapes, and which brother planned this trip because he knew the summer was coming soon when his body would be too old for this shit.

5. We didn't want to talk about the bugs or the damp, so we had swaths of silence, and all things Vietnam popped into my head: walking point, trip wires, snipers, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Going After Cacciato, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Fog of War, Casualties of War, A Rumor of War.

6. Remarkable, I thought as we slapped and brushed and stayed in motion, that no one has yet named a book or movie The Mosquitoes of War.

7. Wildflowers have good names—Dutchman's breeches, ladyslipper, fireweed—and in the heavy shade, passing swarms of blue and then swarms of white, I wished I had been raised by naturalists, by walkers who point and name.

8. At the Log Slide, just as the sky cleared, from the top of a dune we finally saw Lake Superior, blue and gorgeous and endless as the ocean, and we had to choose between bounding down to the shore with ten-foot strides and nodding to the lake from the summit, remembering that we'd have to come back up.

9. Maybe we used good trail sense, reserving energy for the day's nine miles still to go, or maybe such moderation, such self-denial, defeated the journey's whole purpose.

10. Do lighthouses interest you, I asked Aaron at the Au Sable Light Station, which you can tour for three dollars, and he said, Not really, but it didn't matter whether we were curious about lighthouses, because neither of us packed a wallet.

11. Sometimes, I didn't care at all about the names of wildflowers or trees or ferns or birds, thinking only of mosquitoes, mosquitoes, mosquitoes.

12. We passed vacant campsites and rested on deserted beaches, reaching Sevenmile Creek two hours before sunset, and as we cooked noodles and watched an offshore storm race by and listened to its thunder, I doubted we were within five miles of another human being.

13. The first sunset came pink and early because of the clouds hunkered on the horizon, and a campfire seemed like pointless work, so as bugs abraded our eyes, we focused on the bear pole's hook fifteen feet up, missing and squinting and finally slinging the bags on, and into the tent and zipped it fast and gently I rubbed my hot feet and fell asleep.

14. We were still alone at Sevenmile Creek on Saturday morning when we woke and packed and pissed and ate in the ashen light, as if the campground had years ago been erased from all maps.

15. If anything can make a Lake Superior beach ugly, it's a tarp weighed down by packs, with a canister of propane and bags of dried food scattered on it.

16. The weeks before this three-day hike involved shopping at sports stores and grocery stores for food and gear, studying maps and faxing the National Parks, packing and unpacking strategically, lighting the stove, checking the flashlight, testing the water filter.

17. When the mist was so thick and low we could see nothing on the glaucoma'd beach beyond the blue tarp where we cooked oatmeal, when everything we wore and everything we carried was clammy and stank of slick bug spray, when our shoulders ached and our foot skin ripped, when we hated mosquitoes so much more than we loved creation, I forgot about wisdom and peace and transcendence and the sublime—and remembered the distance between our last point and our next one.

18. The fog stayed thick on Day Two long after it should have burned off or blown away, the dimness dragged on past noon, and when we passed a rotting automobile, fifty or sixty years old and gray as siltstone among the dark tree trunks, it had the inconsonance and the bluish shimmer of a castle at the bottom of an aquarium.

19. A dumb hiker walks a flat mile on a wide trail in twenty-five minutes, and then he thinks the next mile, which involves the tops and bottoms of cliffs, and using old roots like the rungs of a ladder, turning boots sideways and skidding down mounds of mud, grasping branches and boulders, will also take twenty-five minutes.

20. Detroit has trained me to think that names mean nothing, as there are no woods in Grosse Pointe Woods, no farms in Grosse Pointe Farms, and no forests or glens along Forest Glen Lane, so when we crossed Beaver Creek the imposing beaver lodge surprised me more than maybe it should have.

21. During the school year, when I grade paragraphs about Walden but do not hike, on my dark drive to work I dwell on the full cost of my two-story house and every possession in it, making constant use of Thoreau's formula in which cost equals time depleted from one's life, and I try to figure the cost of teaching well and parenting well, and of going to the dentist every six months and taking my thyroid medication without fail but neglecting what, in the car, I call my soul.

22. The beginning was far away and so was the end, and all I knew was nature, forgetting even Aaron, and in my isolation I vowed to divorce the wilderness and all romantic ideals, to stay home and to admit that I truly was a kids' soccer coach and a drowsy ballet watcher and a snow shoveler and a man who put a regular oil change above the risky pursuit of bliss, and that I had no business coming face to face with this beautiful, desolate edge of America.

23. If you find a green Backyardigans shovel somewhere in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, let me know, because I took it from my daughter's sandbox without asking and dug only one hole before losing it.

24. I packed a book by Edward Abbey, hiker and Thoreau of the desert southwest, in a Ziploc bag with a pen, and in three days I read fifteen pages.

25. Tour boats droned offshore, full of people sitting behind railings or crowding in windows; I felt like a Native from a colonial novel and thought of my pack and sleeping pad as loin cloth and spear.

26. Near Spray Falls we heard a cheer and laughter, and at the lookout forty yards later we found them, a foursome, with a college girl who said, "They just got engaged, in case you're wondering," and then said, "Ugh—we've still got to go all the way to Potato Patch today."

27. Lake Superior warms just enough to swim for a few weeks in August, but when you hate your own stink as much as we did, you find a way to go under in mid-June.

28. The darkness is pure at a backcountry site where no fires are allowed and a heavy canopy of beech and pine and birch obscures the moon, so when an animal rustled the leaves at two or three in the morning, it could have been a bear, or a chipmunk.

29. Weeks before we began, I fantasized that I would sit on a dry log in the morning and boil water, swish around some instant coffee granules, pour it into a tin cup, and sip and contemplate Lake Superior and wake up, and this came true at Chapel Beach.

30. Aaron and I had hiked for two days without profound commentary, but on Sunday morning our dad hiked in to join us just for the day, and at his first cliff he said, "It really makes you feel insignificant."

31. I'm a sucker for the frontier mentality, giddy to stand where few have ventured, at vistas as dramatic as they are distant from parking lots, so it was a fine moment when we dropped our packs at a ledge that loomed a hundred feet above the water, sat on the sandstone, and opened our trail mix, and a less fine moment when I noticed near my boot, scraped with a knife, the words "RYAN + KATIE."

32. "How deep do you think the lake is right below us?" we asked at every lookout, stepping close to the edge, peering, thinking about falling and surviving, remembering a movie about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

33. We could see where the whole red ledge had plummeted 150 feet and had crashed into the cold water—only half submerged, mostly intact—though it's a mystery whether it fell last month or 3,000 years ago.

34. The tawny rock sloped into Lake Superior, dry and then damp and then underwater, like a zero-entry swimming pool, until the natural down-ramp stopped and in one step the lake went from five feet deep to as bottomless and unnerving as space.

35. With a few miles to go, the trail crossed a plain of angled sandstone, our right feet were lower than our left, I felt the strain in my shins and ankles, and the rock broke like chalky peanut brittle into warped triangles and diamonds.

35.4. Stripped down to my shorts, pressing into a low waterfall, with every inch of my body backed against rock—

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