Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Messing about in MN (and a bit in NC)

In this weeks photos, you'll find 3 Gregs, my friend Tom's new baby girl Lily, my new friends Danielle, Anna and Gretchen, as well as a sunlit haircut and a surreal stare in a kitchen in North Carolina.  Also included are the Graffiti graveyard of Duluth, and a frozen river on the Superior Hiking Trail.  And a boot full of beer.

In the next 2 weeks, you will find me in St. Louis, MO, Springfield, MO, Memphis, TN and heading into New Orleans, LA for the new year.


Cold. Living outdoors in the cold is quite a different experience that visiting the cold outdoors from the comfort of a warm home. I experienced cold last year in Berlin, but not like this.

My Minnesotan friends will tell me that I ain't seen nothin' yet, and I'm OK with that. I don't plan on sticking around for long enough to see the true cold set it. The average temperatures in Minneapolis for the month of December are 10 degrees at night and 34 during the day.

I think I experienced one day last week that was close to zero degrees. The previous night was around 10 degrees, which was plenty cold, but the day never warmed up. At around noon, it started snowing tiny, light, popcorn snowflakes as five teenagers, my co-instructor and I summited 1500 ft. Carlton Peak, the highest spot on the Superior Hiking Trail. The snow sputtered on and off, and we were working hard, so my body heat was enough to melt the flakes that landed and sat on my shoulders and hood. There was never a time when we couldn't see our breath. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the temperature dropped. The wet coating on my shoulders and hood turned to ice, and crunched and creaked as we continued on. The moisture from my breath had been condensing on my mustache, and this also turned to ice. A little later, the moisture inside my nostrils also condensed on the hairs there, and again, turned to ice. Spending the night in zero degrees was cold. I woke up several times because I was shivering, and my toes never actually became warm until I started hiking the next day. In the course of just 3 or 4 days, the lakes went from clear, reflective water to ice so thick I could jump on it and not make a crack. The snow that fell stayed exactly where it was for the next 3 days, still powdery and perfect anywhere that animals had not wandered through. Even the trees held the light dusting of snow for over 48 hours, sitting in stillness and frigid, dry air.

For some reason, this reminded me of Halloween night. I arrived in Chicago at 2 am via a craigslist ride from Sal, the Indian dental assistant. He dropped me off on a corner in Chinatown, a few blocks from a red-line station so that I could catch the el-train to my friend Cody's place. It was cold out, and the streetlights cast shadows on the dark sidewalk.

Waiting for me on that corner, a young latino guy with big, dark, glassy eyes and a thin, pale face asked me for some money to get home. He looked cold too, and the scent of booze was on his breath. He was wearing jeans and a worn-out black hoody. He was skinny and frail-looking. I guessed that he was around 19 years old. Instead of giving him money, I asked him where he was going and I offered him an apple. He refused the apple, and pointed in a direction, toward the train station. We were going the same way, so we walked together for a while, and he told me about his predicament. His brother had recently been in some kind of accident, and had died. He was very sad about this, so he drank so much that he ended up in the hospital. The hospital had kicked him out on the street at 2 am, or so he claimed, and he showed me his wristband with his name on it. It was not an unbelievable story.

When we arrived at the train station, he told me that he could get us tickets. I stood back and watched as he told his story to the attendant on duty, showed her his wristband, and then pulled out a cell phone lacking a battery, to show that he had no way of contacting anyone. She bought his story, or at least took pity on him, and let us both through the gates. I felt guilty about not paying the $2.25 fare which I certainly had in my pocket, but I also understood that for my new friend, this was a victory. He had exercised a skill, had achieved something for the both of us that night, and he was feeling a little better about himself because of it. I complimented him on his salesman skills. He got on the next train heading south without a goodbye, and I waited for the train heading north.

On the train, my attention was drawn by two very tall black women, one dressed as Bat-woman (with a large Batman symbol on her chest), and one dressed as a police officer. They both had fishnet stockings, short skirts and high heels on. My first thought is that they might be prostitutes, out at 2 am in fishnets and revealing outfits, but then I remembered that it was Halloween only 2 hours earlier. They were engaged in sporadic, slurred conversation with two young, well groomed black men on the other side of the aisle. I sat facing the four of them from about 12 feet away, a doorway between us. My eyelids were heavy, and I let them drop several times over the course of the ½ hour ride north through Chicago's downtown. At one point, I looked up and noticed the two young black men kissing each other. It made more sense now. I looked back at the two very tall black women with strong jaws, wearing wigs. One of them had the beginnings of a five o'clock shadow. I drifted off again with a smile, recognizing my own stereotypes and enjoying the fact that I was in a major metropolitan area, where these things happen with more regularity than in rural Minnesota. A few stops later, the four of them all departed the train together, smiling and laughing and stumbling and cuddling. Sometimes I forget the marvelous diversity that is to be found in the city. I wasn't cold anymore.

Another 3 weeks in the woods with troubled teens. A beautiful trip through untouched forests, across ice-encrusted rivers and over mini-mountains. Lake superior loomed in the distance, a vast magnet of deep, blue, beautiful reflections. That lake is what parched, on-the-verge-of-death desert crawlers dream of, even if they don't know it exists. Hiking for 8 days and seeing just ¼ of one of its shores is a magnificent way to get a sense of its glory.

As we wandered down the banks of the Poplar river, the snow that had fallen on its solid ice surface had somehow formed itself into little white spike-balls of snow crystals, each an inch in diameter, perfectly formed, glimmering in the sunlight like clusters of miniature white daggers alongside 10,000 others just like it. I failed to bring my camera on this trip. But I think sometimes the images in my mind are worth more than what I can capture with a digital sensor. We passed through some of the same camps that I had been to on the previous trek. 6 weeks later, it was a completely different season, and a completely different experience. I wish I could come back to every beautiful place at the height of each season, and experience them all in their seasonal glory.

Meanwhile, grumpy teens huffed and puffed their way up and down the trails in front of or behind me, groaning with each new hill, as I secretly said “yes!” to myself inside, relishing the chance to breath hard and feel my body work. We had a fire every night. I love a good campfire. It calms the nerves and soothes the soul, while warming the body and the stirring the coals that dwell within. We shared stories and gave advice and told jokes and ate dinner and embraced the night together around a fire.


There is something not entirely satisfying about writing for an audience. For years, I kept a “diary” on my computer, in which I said exactly as I had felt and done, regardless of how lewd, sexual or private those topics might be. I discussed my mistakes and regrets, what I was ashamed of and proud of. I had no problems expressing my disgust or contempt for certain people or events taking place on this planet. I have very little contempt for any person now, but still find myself moved to anger over certain acts of what appear to be wickedness toward people, animals or the earth at large.

Before I left on this bike trip, my previous computer was stolen. With it, my diary, which I had written in an average of once a month from age 16 up until I started writing in my blog regularly at age 28, has ceased to exist. 12 years of contemplation, reflection, journaling of activities and emotions. A good 75%+ of what I wrote about was love, or the complications thereof. I re-read the first 5-10 pages probably ten times over the years. Each time, it was fascinating to realize how my thought processes had grown and matured, but how my concerns remained very similar. Does she like me? Do I like her? Where is all of this going? When will we see each other next? Though I wrote plenty about my travels and jobs and school and friends in other platforms, my diary was reserved almost exclusively to my pursuit of love and lust. Most of the 200+ pages that were written have never been read, even by me. I wonder what I said?

1 comment:

  1. Greg,
    I enjoy being able to follow a bit of your adventure. I'm impressed with how you're able to work (wilderness therapy) in the cold. You just have all the gear you need on your bike? I haven't been reading super-carefully--maybe I missed the logistics of it all. I'm on my own trip which I don't write about as well or as often as you-- / . I may be along the florida trail soon. I'm curious to hear more about your 'tractors of destiny.' I'm definitely one of those trying to be comfortable. . . describes what I think my service to others could be. . .
    best wishes and blessings--grateful you're sharing--