“I don’t know why you go to that place,” my friend said. “There’s nothing there.”
“You’re wrong,” I told him. “Everything is.”
It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose, that enables one to see what is and isn’t there. The stars shine in the daytime too; the sun’s radiance just upstages them. Even city lights dull them at night, but it doesn’t mean they’re not all up there, like lanterns beaming in the cosmos.
My friend and his family had just returned from Disney World, Epcot Center and Busch Gardens, with a swing back to the Midwest through the nation’s capital. He talked about Space Mountain, the Smithsonian and the dancing dolphins at Marineland. So I understood his reservations about my low-budget vacation retreat into the woods with my two sons. What’s there, he asked, to entertain or educate adolescent boys ready to spring into the world? After all, we weren’t going to the Tetons, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Just a patch of woods along Lake Superior.
So in a sense he was right when he said there’s nothing there — except for rocks and trees, the crystal beauty of clean, cold water, mud and grass and sand and the solitary nest of a lordly bald eagle. There are no museums, no amusement parks, no golden arches or showers or television sets to turn on at night. That’s precisely why we go: to see the stars far, far away from the glare of the city lights. They are so much brighter.
I remember a night and a towering summer sky and a cool, damp wind blanketing us. We had driven that day far out a dirt road to the forested shore of Lake Superior, where we pitched a tent and made ourselves at home. At dusk we began walking along the beach, the cold, dark water slapping against sand and stone. We walked until night fell, until the stars came out, until we stopped and stared. Then we listened to water and wind and beheld the cosmic wizardry.
No one talked — not even when shooting stars flamed across the sky. Not even as time passed and the constellations slid down the galactic dome. Then a toad appeared, a dark, leggy blob hopping along the moonlit beach. Another. And a third.
The trio was soon corralled by two barefoot cowboys, caressed and belly-stroked, played with and confined in a hole dug especially for the occasion but from which they easily escaped, only to be recaptured. Set loose. Observed. Seized and, for purely experimental purposes, flung into the frigid depths of the largest of the five Great Lakes.
In time each toad re-emerged from the tidal foam to be tried again and again — until a whip of a snake slithered into view and distracted the merry scientists from their toad study. The boys set upon the snake, which also showed an impressive ability to boomerang ashore — until one final hurl from which it never returned. After a sullen vigil knee-deep in the toe-numbing waters, we agreed the snake must have outflanked us in order to take a less Sisyphean passage to land.
I don’t know what time it was when we finally tumbled into our tent and zipped our bags against the chill, but I remember thinking about things—about what makes the water cold, and how long it takes for rocks to be ground into sand, and how many stars are out there, spiriting their light across the mysterious cauldron of life we call the sky. And I weighed something my son had asked: “If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?” And I thought about God. And the rightness of toads. And the solace of empty places.
And I realized how, when all the stuff that’s been close around you gets pushed far away, what has been distant draws very near — until you can look upon nothing and see everything.
There are four rocks in the glove compartment of my car. I brought them home with us and sometimes they rattle around in there, like talismans reminding me of places where we played. One is as big and red as a human heart. It feels good in my hand. I remember when I saw it—bold red amid the earth-tone stones lodged under four feet of water at the edge of Lake Superior. It gleamed. When I bent to snag it, my face splashed into the cold, clear lake as my hand plunged deeper than I had anticipated. Rarely does water run so clear so deep.
We were on an island. No one else around, and we had wandered the woods all day. It was hot and close and buggy, and as fatigue enveloped us we saw a bear.
It was a big, black bear high atop a bare, dead tree. We were tired and hot from walking all day when Ross said, “There’s a bear.” We could see its pink tongue licking, needling at the tree, then it stopped and we looked at each other for a minute or two. The bear seemed surprised to see us, as if it had been caught with its nose in the honey jar. It shimmied down a few feet — its cleat-like claws scrattling over the brittle bark — then stopped and looked at us again. We were all fixed like that for a moment: alien creatures watching apprehensively across some great divide, with no language to span the chasm. Then the bear dropped to the ground, looked once over its shoulder, and disappeared into the dense green foliage. We ran the opposite way.
There was no place else we needed to go, no one waiting for us. We could stay out all night if we wished.
We were still a little high when we made it to the water’s edge. The sun was low and we could see a couple of smaller islands across the water to the west. We stood on the cusp of a gentle inlet flanked by tawny cliffs and riddled with boulders and nice climbing rocks scattered along the shore. Despite the water’s frigid grasp, I could not resist the urge to swim. So we stripped down to our underwear and plunged into the lake.
We played there a long time, climbing on the rocky shelves, exploring beach and cliff and secluded grotto until the yellow sun eased into the lake. There was no place else we needed to go, no one waiting for us. We could stay out all night if we wished. Our camp was set up in an orchard of birch trees on a tongue of land some ways down the shore. It would be there whenever we arrived. Our excursions had an air of boundlessness about them, an immunity from any limits of time or space.
I watched my barebacked sons in their idle wanderings, watched them devise games out of driftwood and imagination, watched them dodge deer flies and chase sea gulls and lose themselves in this lavish playground of earthwork and whimsy. I like to watch these boys turned loose upon the land. They seem at home, joyously engaged in a sporting life that possesses the heart. “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in,” Aldo Leopold wrote. “Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
It was a meaningless and futile activity, and I’m not sure why we started it — except that I wanted to dig my fingers into the earth.
I had been sitting and watching long enough. It is good to observe, waiting for the quiet pieces of landscape to come to you, but sometimes a restlessness sets in when you’ve been looking too long. And sometimes you can’t know a place by what you see.
The boys had been out all morning, climbing mountains of sand, bowling rocks downhill, skipping stones over the lake. Sunlight glinted off their bare shoulders as they, stickmen in the distance, tiptoed in the lake.
I sat by a clear, spring-fed stream that crashed out of the woods and crossed a strip of sand and stone before flowing into the lake. I was enchanted by the raucous whitewater, the liquid brilliance, the way the weaving waters surged and spun and rolled around the rocks and whitewashed slabs of wood. Sunlight glistened off its surface, pockmarked with ripples and eddies. Sunlight splashed off the multicolored cobblestones embedded in the bottom. Sunlight made rainbows in the bubbles.
I was entranced by the currents, the wave patterns of rapids and falls, the spiraling showcase of whirlpools that drowned sticks and leaves, only to spit them out later and shove them out to sea. And I thought about the persistence of water. The fluidity of living. The interminability of flow. The liquid confluence of sunlight and stone. The Zen of H2O.
The stream, emerging from the woods, splayed into three rivulets as it cascaded toward the lake. When the boys came back, I flopped a log across one of the tributaries to serve as a bridge. But with a big splash it landed halfway down in the water and became more of a dam. I decided to finish the job. The boys and I set to work.
We recruited the largest rocks first, packing them snugly between the stream bed and log dam. The water was largely undeterred; in fact, its pace seemed to quicken as it broke into a thousand silver fingers, finding the holes, opening new routes, perforating our dam. We worked quickly to plug the leaks, jamming rocks into any cavities we could see. The water level rose.
Encouraged, we redoubled our efforts. We stationed one stone-layer at the damsite while two gatherers waded upstream, seizing softball-sized rocks and tossing them back to the builder. Occasionally, having learned that surface area counts, we would enlist hunks of driftwood and wedge them into the stone wall. But the water found our gaps, and when Casey tried sealing the crevices with sand he learned he couldn’t count on that shiftless material.
Eventually, dripping sweat, I stood to survey our progress and admire the irrepressible ingenuity of water. It was going over the top. It was eroding the banks at each side. It was burrowing underneath. There was no holding it back. What it couldn’t dislodge or penetrate, it simply outmaneuvered.
So we moved upstream and tried again at a site more conducive to dam-building. And we applied what we had learned about materials and placement and structure. Two dams would be better than one. When that failed to work, well, we turned to the other tributaries and adjusted their configurations — removing impediments, rerouting the current — so they’d handle more of the river’s volume. “We are changing the course of the universe,” I said triumphantly as I dug out new channels by hand.
By now the boys were just watching. Hungry, they no longer shared my obsession. But I was having a blast, as happy as a toddler in a sandbox, oblivious to anything beyond the fringes of my imaginary little world — at least until the boys jumped me and we tumbled into the water and rolled around wrestling and rough-housing in a tickling-ticklish heap of arms and legs and laughter. They have grown too large for me to handle two-on-one, so I was the one who cried uncle. I do not like to be tickled; I didn’t mind the sand in my face. And I didn’t mind that the river was still carrying on as if I were a minor disruption in the natural order of things.
We dismantled the dam and rescattered the rocks. I stashed one in my pocket to keep — as a reminder of the day I spent all day doing nothing — then we walked away to let nature run its course.
This was the day of rain. We woke to the sound of it drumming on the tent, to the drip of it into the tent, and to a heavy gray sheath subduing the earth. I poked my head out and guessed that it would rain all day. The day proved me right.
The rain — steady, incessant, depressing — presented two choices. The leaky tent left us with one. So we pulled on slickers and ponchos, fired up the stove and had breakfast under water. Then we went for a walk. A wade.
The plan was to scout out a bald eagle’s nest, following some loosely diagrammed directions provided by a fisherman. We eventually found the nest after several hours of meandering, but by then the quest was secondary — it was enough to be traipsing through the wet, wet woods, as soggy as river otters on a spree. We were happy. We were drenched. Our shoes had the texture of sponges.
We would have been miserable if we’d stopped, so we kept moving, following a trail and an old twin-rut logged road, skirting a pair of inland lakes, heading toward Lake Superior. We had been walking north for a while and were just beginning to drag when we heard it — the sound of breakers on rock. We raced ahead. Here is what we found.
The big lake was no longer a turquoise and aquamarine lullaby but a raging beast of charcoal swells and frothing whitecaps. We stood on a cliff, our toes clinging to sandstone and shale, and gazed down perhaps 1,000 feet into the surging, abysmal vat of angry water. Our bodies were buffeted by a cold wind that drove the dark clouds low across the sky. Huge fists of water hammered the rocky shore, sending crystal sprays high in the air. I moved the boys away from the cliff’s edge and we stood in awe of the power resounding in nature’s temper.
We were hypnotized by the constant smack and suck of the waves, by the speed of the low-flying clouds, and by the fragility of the human form in the midst of such violent, indifferent forces. I shuddered to imagine one of the boys adrift in these turbulent waters, their kindling bones pitched into the ancient, inscrutable walls, then dragged into the depths.
We spied a slender crescent of beach, found a passage down to it and flung rocks into the bellies of the crashing waves. Then we saw—offshore, bobbing along the surface, spinning like a candy-colored top — a beach ball. It rode the undulating crests as it made its fitful way to the beach, where we snagged it out of the water: a toy spewed from the mouth of the cosmic fury.
So we played. We ran and chased each other in games of hotbox and dodgeball — always mindful of the lake’s grim threat and the danger of getting too cold. Then, from some combination of sunset and storm cloud, the world grew dark and the heavens opened up. The rains came harder, drilling the air and drenching us. Thunder cracked and rumbled across the water. Lightning bolts lit up the sky, crackled, flared all around us, snapping at the earth in a torrent of blinding flashpoints. We took cover in a hollow of rock, bundling together to watch the show.
We waited out the storm. The sun eventually returned to the western horizon and illuminated the glassy landscape, just before sinking into the lake. The air was cleaned out, cool and still. We tromped back to the tent in the deepening twilight, put on warm, dry clothes and ate. Then we watched the straggler clouds pass like ghosts across the stars, and we nestled into our tent for a good night’s sleep. And I put away another rock, this one stolen from a day when we said yes to a world that was moody and mean, for this night when it was so good to have one another.
The fourth and final rock came from paradise.
There was a beach where we played home-run derby with a tennis ball and driftwood bat. There was a river where we raced sticks, and some steep foothills where we tracked wildlife. At one end of the beach were rocky cliffs beautifully sculpted by wind and water and the touch of some invisible artist. Lively breakers exploded at the foot of these walls, the water shattering into sun-catching jewels.
With courage you could jump into the water from the cliffs. The freefall was scary and exhilarating. The water was deep green, almost pure emerald-green, and when you landed, the water hugged you in a frigid embrace, absorbing you into the liquid greenness. Swimming underwater with my eyes open, I felt I could glide into that greenness forever.
It was late afternoon when the stick races were over and the batting title had been settled. I told the boys it was time to head back to the tent for our last night in the woods. We started out, walking ankle deep in the lapping water. We were the only ones there and it felt like paradise. The sun was an orange ball hanging out over the water near the cliffs, which by now were silhouettes. Orange slivers danced upon the water in a trail leading to the sun.
“Can we go back?” the boys suddenly asked. “Can we jump off the rocks one more time?” I looked out over the water and thought of my shivery body and the chilled air and the hunger in my stomach and what it felt like to be 12 and what it felt like to be back in my office in two days. I said yes.
The boys hustled back down the beach but I, somehow drawn to the sun and its luminous path, walked into the lake. The water was cold enough to contract my muscles and steal my breath, and I swam toward the cliffs in an urgent breaststroke, occasionally dipping my face into the water. And when I finally arrived at the jumping rocks, the tides nudged me into the cliffs like a bear nuzzling its young.
The boys arrived and we all jumped — over and over again, until we were trembling white prunes of goosebumps and chattering teeth. Until dark descended and the world became a restful place. I took a stone from there. It is green, with a green vein all the way around it, as if it were two parts somehow fused together.
I have told the boys that the world is a poem whose meanings are there to be deciphered by those who will see. I have told them that there are different ways of seeing. I have tried to leave it at that.
It is hard sometimes to resist the urge to impose my meanings on things, to explain, for example, the importance of water, the significance of sand, the lessons of rock. I do not always refrain from such instruction, but I try. Look closely, I will tell them: Everything you need to know to get along in the world is right there. Read the poem. The meaning of life is all around you. The lessons are there in the woods. But in the long run it is probably better, rather than telling them what they should see, to help them learn how.
So I keep the rocks as keepsakes, reminders of a time and a place and a family on the loose, playing tag among the wild things, looking for the Artist’s signature on an unfathomable universe, humbled in the knowledge that these stones may be as close to the eternal as we’ll ever come. And I listen to the stories they have to tell, to the songs that may be sung but once in a lifetime.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.