A Hole in the World: Lonesome Crowded Lake Country

Of course this banishment from a steady economy comes with dark consequences. Drugs and alcohol fuel the Northwoods daily atmosphere.

There are places in Northern Minnesota that are lost in a dimension and time of their own.

You can only find them off the freeways, miles down some serpentine county road. They have names reminiscent of a spirit of the land that some believe is extinct. Some say it has been snuffed out. If it is true, then the names are merely reminders of a soul and not supplementary to its remains. They fan no embers but creates memorials to a flame.

These places are resort towns now. The logging industry has been thwarted by public disinterest and nosy governmental regulation and the small farms are mostly gone. But if they thrive anywhere in North Country they thrive in the rich soils east of the Red River, from the very edge of the Minnesota’s westward swing of the Laurentian deep into the heartland of the state, where there you can still notice the machine life breath of an economy in the air, riding on the wind.

The geographical center of Minnesota is located on Big Island in Fishtrap Lake, in the Lincoln Lakes area. This island is owned by a millionaire, who you can find sitting on a modest dock that juts from massive white pine and exotic cedars not typically found in that region. He’s laconic. He’ll wave to you as you kayak by. His cabin is as modest as his dock and were you to pass the island on a speedboat you may very well miss it. Just the way he likes it, I’m sure.

But when you move North you enter the regions propped tremendously through the years by heavy industry. The industries are gone now, and after nightfall, you can feel it. A ghostly feeling. As if a great experiment were tried, and what stands there now is the failed attempts.

Recreation drives these economies now. Resort towns where old boom towns used to reside. The impact of recreation on the local economies boggles the mind. The town of Park Rapids fluctuates in population alone so much through the seasons that it seems to be two different communities altogether from the summer to the winter months. From around 3,000 in the winter to somewhere close to 50,000 during the summer, according to locals there.

Of course this banishment from a steady economy comes with dark consequences. Drugs and alcohol fuel the Northwood’s daily atmosphere. Minnesota’s Forest Area is held hostage by alcohol, as are most towns in their position. Locals become perpetual tourists, trapped in the party atmosphere their town has to create in order to make money. In the summer there is no time.

The nights become muggy eternities, dreamy twilights that last forever. A retirement of the soul. The peace and tranquility that the Northwoods brings are only half of it; don’t let them fool you. But a chosen few really understand the land that gives them their lives of decadence. Others swim in a psychological funnel of nostalgia and drunkenness. Opiates run rampant in these communities, and until very recently they have not really been discussed. Fueled by intoxication, an already intoxicating landscape can become perilous to the soul.

You’ll find the lakeland-lifers at the resort bars every night. A different one but in the same town each day of the week. They stumble out the bar when they leave, after listening to the folks singers passing through, stuck in their own perpetual intoxication. A twilight zone, if you’re not careful.

The land is what snaps me out of it. If I remain in that bubble of decadence and blissful loneliness too long without a reminder of what it was supposed to be about, I become that stranger in a strange land that so many of us crave to be. To know the weird freedom and entrapment of waking up in a resort hotel and watching the wealthy come to and fro with their fishing rigs and grinning children and watching the local fisherman drink in silence, all over a cup of cheap coffee and a four-star breakfast. To know what it is to step out the door for a cigarette and smell the tourism and the lake breeze  and the inexplicable lostness.

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

-Hotel California, written and performed by the Eagles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere booms come and go like tumbleweed.

The Sleepless Crow Wing

In the heart of a broad track of hardwood forest, on a bend of the great Crow Wing just north of Motley, I made a campfire. The night was bluish, foggy. The sliver of moon barely eking through the inert gush of moisture. A sigh recoiling across the pale.

The fire I made of scrub oak and jack pine. You get the fire going with dry oak leaves and jack pine kindling. Then you lay on your jack pine logs, and that will usually go up like a roman candle. Jack pine burns fast and hot. After that you get her good and coaled up you can throw on a slab of scrub oak or two. If the coals are hot enough, the oak will take quickly too. If I wasn’t concentrating on writing, and thinking more about the quality of this fire, I would have gone down for some driftwood elm at the river’s edge. But I won’t. Tonight, mostly jack pine will have to do.

A gaggle of turkeys are skirting the edge of the forest around me. They come from the north, from a young spruce grove, and then follow the river bottom west. There are fingers of islands on the north side of the river, the bank that I am camped on, and it’s this side they seem to enjoy. Perhaps it’s the acorns. The fertile, insect-filled soil. I don’t know much about turkeys except that they are silly birds. Of course wise in their own strange way- their sheer numbers and adaptability to new environments can prove that. But if you hang with the turkeys long, you get the sense they are perpetually shitfaced.

Ten years ago it was a rare sight to see a turkey on this river bottom. In fact, for the first half of my life, I don’t remember hearing a word of the bird in the jack pine forests of Central Minnesota. Now it is a common sight to see meandering packs crossing highways almost anywhere in the state. The gaggle that has been waddling through this river bottom is at least forty birds strong. I counted on afternoon with a friend. You see, turkeys are not sneaky birds, and nor are they hard to sneak upon. There are hunters who will deny this fact. They will tell you that it’s simply not true, that the turkey is a cunning and illusive animal.  The truth is that the turkey is a bumbling bird, a clumsy bird, and a daydreamer. I have observed these traits in the turkey for years now.

My neighbor pack is ruled by one enormous Tom. The bastard wanders with his huge plumage unraveled, his glorious red gobbler wobbling, his neck erect and his eyes furious. In this way he walks about his tribe of luscious turkey vixens, his forty-some feathered geishas that he apparently gets free pick of whenever he chooses. And what does he give in returns? It must be protection.

The human male cannot imagine the life of a male turkey.

The fire burns low quickly. Stirring only patches the gaps. Fixing requires work. More oak to make the night. Superheat the coals before I fall asleep.

I don’t usually use a tent when I camp. Unless it’s going to rain, I don’t see the point. The chances of being eaten by an animal are about as good as being struck by lightning, or less. The weather in Central Minnesota in the spring is fairly predictable (there are always vicious exceptions to every rule in Minnesota). But just to be certain of my safety, I will often bring my trusty old shotgun for protection. It’s an ancient bolt action, but she’s as reliable as any gun ever made and she bucks like a damn mule and sounds like a formidable cannon. Any sane living thing would stand down at the sound of a simple charge of seven-and-a-half shot into the leaves. But bears can be sick.

More to the point, some people can be sick.

Coyotes purl through the willows and the elm at the other bank. They yowl and yammer through the night, from the first hints of sundown to the first hints of sunrise. There are nights when the band on the south bank will begin the eerie chorus, and suddenly there are yammers to the north of me. Like happy ghosts. Pranksters in truth. It does not take long to hear the bizarre humor in their songs. The way they do not fear the darkness and somehow rejoice in their own chaos, in the chaos of the river and the Crow Wing’s long and winding course.

Before I fall asleep, I often hear the echoes of a train whistle, and a barn owl in the oak above my head will answer it. As if the whistle is somehow a question posed by machine, a question asked to a machine in its lonesome transit and the owl whispers the reply onto the drifting wind but that whistle is too loud, and no machine will ever hear the answer over its own racket. It will disappear into the night and go drifting on the southern rim of the Crow Wing. Asking forever, wailing, splitting the soft abyss of the night. The river, on the other hand, is loud and boisterous on most nights. Woodpeckers get restless against the trunks of rotten oaks, gangs of coyotes taunt each other most nights from across the river, turkeys wander like drunkards through the dry leaves, otters splash and play in the shallow pools, and somewhere a wild cat screams bloody murder and stalks the darkness. I never feel quite isolated here. It’s a busy neighborhood, to be honest, and like New York, it never seems to sleep.

Wave Goodbye, Waves

under the royal star

she raked her fingers through earth

bone on bone,

calm as the lake was calm

so that no one could speak it,

questions,

who built this basalt cliff?

this Precambrian universe at the verge

of the north,

where you can smell the world

like a city stench

or place polluted

and to go back seems

ludicrous

unnecessary?

 

she picked up two pieces of

igneous art, and tossed them

into the water of two hundred rivers

two thousand streams

she was old;

gray hair

and decades here

someone put their hand on her

shoulder,

told her, “don’t be sad anymore,”

but the sadness would stay,

and the falcon flew

splitting a sunrise into

mirror equators

of fire,

marooning her soul,

a little.

 

could she be different this time

how it would affect her in ways

that grounded her, held her

head towards the sky, where

dark spires only scraped

a brittle ionosphere,

pavement whispered threats

and billboards said the opposite

of what they meant

and everyone knew enough people

that one could be replaced

like a tire, or upholstery

 

no human could replace that,

she fathomed, and in that sense alone

staring at the void of sea

gichigami

timelessness became tangible

apparent, bald as the cliff face

braided like cedar bark

she was among it now

nothing could replace

the sorrow

Ghosts of Gull Lake

Protect your spirit, for you are in the place where spirits get eaten.

-John Trudell

 

Went driving north

north of Pillager,

old lands of Hole-in-the-Day

around the bluffs

of Old Gull Lake.

truth is,

 

I am a white man.

 

out a dandruff windshield

skeins of sun

there is the land of red clay

orange clay

iron in the blood

 

ghosts eke through FM stereo.

they pull the steering wheel.

 

under white pines I stop the car

they were saplings when

East Dakota people

on the move,

buried their dead.

 

or when the East Dakota and

The Chippewa and

The Winnebago

transfigured into wolves

followed the sun to survive

westward, where begins

the bloody Mississippi.

 

from the red clay

to the white earth

 

then we almost killed all the wolves, too.

 

total silence, for just a moment,

as the forest eclipses the beach

to tease out the memories

draw out the ghosts

for precious little moments

feeble as sheets of mica.

 

abruptly the lakeshore is revealed

and of course

 

I am a white man:

 

great whites washed ashore

giants squids of industry

blubbery and viscid where they

belch oil on the beach

leave rainbows on the wakes

comes out their pores

satellite security systems

golf courses tailor-fit to fat asses

tailor-fit to democracy, the Imposition,

genocide of a thousand colors

ancestor portals and caribou;

passing mansions on sacred hills

where manitou woke yawning to

machine amoeba, gaping mouths

paralyzed myths where they lay

shivering.

resorts crop up, shoot roots through

tombs to kings;

history is as dead as the bison

as gone as the white-skinned First People

to the north-

 

even though they too had blue eyes

 

And so it is known

that what these resort homes

ranches and cabins

four story symphonies of death

spread over seventeen acres of rape

with water slides and daycares

pontoons and Potlatch

what they want to kill is not a pigment

they would like to kill something living

kill the Manitou

they would like to kill the Chippewa

they would like to kill the Dakota

 

I am white man on a drive

my name is not known to the lake

but ghosts tell me stories

of the white man’s undoing