What I did on my “summer” vacation

I awoke easily last Sunday morning to the tramping sound of Lake Superior shoving repeatedly against the shore just 80 feet from the screened door of the cottage. It had been the same sound I had fallen asleep to the night before, and I looked at the clock and was half-stunned to realize that for the first time in months I had just spent eight glorious, uninterrupted hours dead to the world.

I also noted with some relief that the mental checklist of the day’s chores, challenges and deadlines was not, for the first time in months, floating just behind my eyes, trying to push them open. Instead the invisible slate was hanging back, humble and nearly bare like the marquis of a Dairy Queen closed for the season, the only lettering in my head a casual scrawl: Grand Marais, On Vacation.

Without much urgency I chalked the most pressing agenda item for the day: Breakfast.

On Saturday my family and I had driven up to the North Shore from the Cities. I hadn’t been able to get away much this past summer and had had to miss some of the picnics and canoe trips my wife and daughters had already taken, so I was really ready for this trip. By coming this late in the season, and before the fall leaves were at their peak, we had enjoyed a less crowded road, though the cars were still packed as thick as flies around a sweet roll at Tobies in Hinckley. Instead we had a picnic lunch outside the Hinckley Fire Museum and then kept bearing north to Duluth and the southwestern tip of the great lake, whereupon we hugged its sprawling shore as we passed the familiar totems of our trip: Two Harbors, Castle Danger, Gooseberry Falls, the Split Rock Lighthouse. We turned off at Palisade Head in order to walk along the the towering cliffs that for so long have told the mighty lake, “This far and no further” (a testament that even a natural balance isn’t necessarily an easy one). Driving up the steep, narrow road up to the parking lot at the rocky edge of Palisade, the “I ride ATVs and I Vote” bumper sticker on our borrowed mini-van contrasted nicely with the many “Wellstone!” stickers already there. After some clambering around and the usual jelly-kneed sensations we were back on Hwy. 61, with the hills, woods and great root beer rivers of the Superior National Forest on our left, the lake always on our right, past the Tettegouche State Park, and the Temperance and Cascade Rivers, crashing down the gorges and over the rocks in a great foamy rush to keep their standing appointments with Gitchee-Gumee. Then we were at last into Grand Marais, and still a bit further, past 5-Mile Rock and to the Croftville Road Cottages.

After that my wife prepared some lamb stew in our kitchen for dinner. Then, in the gathering twilight, a campfire and toasted marshmallows as we watched the bats chase down the remaining insects of the season and finally into bed, the tramping sound in my ears of Superior shoving against the shore, just 80 feet from the screened door of my cottage.

Our cottage. It was beautifully remodeled and very comfortable with two gas fireplaces, and at a great price.

Sunday, when breakfast had been duly scratched off of the to-do list, we went back into Grand Marais, parking in a lot beside the harbor where I could see a yellow sailboat moored 50 yards from shore, crisp in the morning sun and nodding to us on the gentle waves. We walked through the small town, browsing at the many gift shops and quaint attractions. I’m sure that the Indians, and later the first explorers, trappers and lumbermen through this area, would be stupefied at the many opportunities available today to partake of the comforts of pie and caffeine.

While the girls admired jewelry and scarves, beneath rustically-lettered signs informing them that they were under video surveillance, I scouted around and discovered the apparently sole location where that afternoon’s Vikings-Lions football game could be seen. That was still several hours away, however, so we got back in the van and headed north to the Devil’s Kettle Falls and State Park. We “tail-gated” with chicken- and egg-salad sandwiches from our cooler before setting off on the somewhat stiff 1.4 mile hike to the falls. The path is relatively wide and well-maintained, but persistently uphill and even in the mild temperatures we got pretty warm. There are some very nice look-outs along the way, however, and we admired the cascading river and the vistas of trees still mostly green but already seasoned with explosive swathes of red and orange.

After steady climbing we were then at a series of wooden steps and railings leading us down to the titular “Devil’s Kettle.” The relief in the descent was greatly mitigated by the knowledge that every one of the 179 steps would have to be negotiated in reverse order and direction on our way back. On the way back up, however, we did get to see an eagle circling directly above us (though at first I thought it might be a buzzard). The girls dropped me back at the bar in time for the game and then they headed for the bay with their sketch books.

I thought the bar would have more than a few tourists inside to catch the game, but it was all locals who knew each other and didn’t seem to mind my presence. It was a congenial, cozy group. One of the patrons sitting at the bar, who was wearing open-toed flip-flop sandals, apparently felt so at home that he started picking at his toenails, dropping his scrapings on the carpet. Well, I wasn’t planning on eating anyway, as I only wanted to watch the game, but I ordered a draft Bock for medicinal purposes. The pedicurist and one of the female customers were soon intent on a discussion about why the TV kept showing a “DET 6, MIN 3” score from time to time in the upper corner of the screen, especially when the current score was Lions 7, Vikings 0. I cautiously submitted for their consideration that the strange score might, in fact, be the score of the Tigers-Twins game that was also going on that afternoon. Their reaction gave credence to the adage that the definition of “expert” means someone who lives more than 50 miles away. A little later I felt comfortable enough to take sides between two groups disputing the interpretation of a certain play. One of the members of the “other” group, an older gentleman, loudly insisted his version was correct because he “used to play this game.” To which I replied, “And did they wear helmets back then?” Fortunately, this was well received by the group as a whole and the gentleman in particular, and while I was on a “one-beer-per-half” pace, a third Bock appeared in front of me in the fourth quarter.

I’d nursed my way through about a third of it with about a minute and a half to go in the game, when my wife pulled up in the parking lot and sent the kids in to get me. “Paw,” they said, “Ma says it’s time to come home!” Well, actually, they didn’t say anything like that, but they did let me know that they and my supper were waiting for me down the street a little ways at a place called the Crooked Spoon. Therefore, even though the game looked to be heading for overtime, I settled my tab and left after Longwell’s kick clanked off the upright. Besides, with two 16-oz. glasses of beer, plus a little bit more, in me I was starting to feel a little tingly in my extremities. A brisk walk in the cool evening air was the perfect remedy, however, and I arrived at the restaurant hungry and invigorated. The Crooked Spoon had been recommended to us by friends who admired its sophisticated menu. I believe I acquitted myself with grace and aplomb while dining — an opinion that the Mall Diva threatens to dispute in a post of her very own if I’m not careful (or she gets the slightest encouragement from anyone).

Whatever. The food was absolutely delicious, from the melted cheese and spinach appetizer, through the pulled pork with beans and greens soup and the barbequed ribs, and including two delectable pieces of carrot cake — each the size of some of the boulders we’d seen along the shore earlier — that my family fell upon with flashing cutlery like ninjas. We left the restaurant well satisfied with the meal and the day, but even more “dessert” was in store: an enormous crescent moon, looking so perfect that if you saw it in a movie you’d think it was a painted backdrop for sure, had risen over the bay and was reflecting a golden beam across the still waters directly at us, and the beam followed us nearly all the way to the car.

Yep, it had been a great day.