For a lifetime Paul had wanted to return to a particular park somewhere on the northern shore of Lake Superior, but he wasn’t sure, exactly, where that was. Northern Central Canada is still quintessentially wilderness, as far as he knew. Northern Manitoba, Northern Ontario, these are lands Neal Young used to sing about. But Paul’s memories dated back to the late 1950s, when even bordering areas were wilderness, at least to him. His grandfather was at the time already well into retirement, a former lumberman, railroad engineer and wanderer, with time left and the patience to share it.
Memories of their camping weekend were etched deeply into consciousness, and haunted him in a pleasant way. Those childhood memories had persisted all these years. At times he likened it to the instinct of homing pigeons, that where we first truly discover the vastness of life becomes the place where we must, in the end, return. For him home was the north shore of Lake Superior, where black rocks worn smooth as rising dough sit unmoving for centuries. The images and impressions left on him by his grandfather had never left. Could it be Isle Royale or someplace near Thunder Bay? Not knowing had kept him from acting all these years.
Paul researched campgrounds using Google and Google Earth. None of the names sounded familiar. Retrieving memories from that time was sketchy work at best – park signs, road signs, trail names. How could he be sure? For all he knew, someone may have purchased the land where they camped and then built on it. There was that big rock, the curve of the shore, a campground of course, and the cool worn paths near the water’s edge. These memories were all he had to go on until his father died.
In his Father’s things was a postcard he and grandfather had written while having breakfast in Thunder Bay. It talked about the ride up. Seeing the card brought back memories of how they turned out of the parking lot that day to drive to their campground. And it brought back visions of his grandfather’s Studebaker Hawk, with its cool lines and the wings on the hood.
The location had to be along the Trans-Canada Highway for sure, and probably somewhere in the vicinity of Kama Hills, but he was a kid. Memories shift over time. He wasn’t sure.
As he became more serious about returning, the memories became stronger. He could sometimes recall crackling campfires, the flash of a large Northern Pike in clear water, knot tying, his grandfather’s jackknife, the smell of bacon, the clatter of cookware in a gunny sack, cedar bows over cool wooded paths and the frigid inviting water. There were loons then.
He recalled stories he was told; of earlier times, of his grandfather’s memories, and of days where men could wander and camp pretty much wherever they wished and stay for as long as they needed, and drink from many creeks and rivers. All these stories came back. Things were different now, certainly. He would be confined to postage stamp of a public campground. It wouldn’t be the same experience, but he had to go.
Paul’s grandfather spent time as an infantryman in the first war to end all wars. He’d been just 17 at the time but had stories of shells exploding and men stuck in barbed wire. He told of driving horses, arm wrestling contests at the docks in Two Harbors, winters in the far north so cold your pee could freeze before it hit the ground.
When he returned from the war his parents were living in the poor house in Duluth. Every story Paul heard was woven of magic; true, necessary, and a gift. It took years to realize how old his grandfather was at the time, and yet how rugged. When they went camping grandfather was already in his late sixties. Moreover, he was from a time when men knew the land, could navigate on instinct, and fix just about anything in their domain. And there was calm in his presence, which made age irrelevant. He was timeless and had qualities, which Paul had never achieved or even witnessed again. If he’d just done it right, and followed Grandpa’s lead, he wouldn’t have spent his life as an accountant. He’d have found a line of work that kept him in touch with the earth and, as grandfather had said many times, the ground where few others walk.
Wandering, wilderness, nature, who had time anymore to sit by the edge of a river or lake? It certainly wasn’t in the life Paul built. Not even close.
His wife, recently departed, wanted nothing to do camping or even sitting on a park bench for that matter. It was all television and shopping. In her estimation, Paul was weak, and that was probably true. He had let her and his daughters dictate his life away – career, interests, even the size and configuration of his workshop at home. He’d been marginalized, for thirty years, into the dank solitude of his basement corner. What a tormented life. He wanted to wipe the awkward and forgiving smile from his own face.
Of course he had a corporate identity, status in the church, history as a good employee. He was a dedicated husband and father which everyone but he seemed to highly value. To him, each piece of this cobbled identity was a hollow reed, buffeted by waves he recalled from Lake Superior.
Eight months before taking retirement, sitting alone in a coffee shop, he broke down crying over a photo of his grandfather. A strange woman had touched his shoulder and asked if he was all right. For the first time in decades he said no, picked up his things and left.
That led to the plan. As the weeks progressed he became enthusiastic. There was something in front of him again, something worth experiencing. He would find that place shared with his grandfather, the truth would overtake him, bless him, and he would somehow find redemption. He was going camping.
From that moment forward, frustration became quietude. Corporate noise receded. He would find time to sit on the huge rocks at water’s edge, watch the water lap or crash, however the weather, and walk again along riverbanks and in creek beds, and sleep beneath maple leaves, pine boughs, and northern stars.
When the time came he realized just how long a drive it is from Redford Township near Detroit, across the state of Michigan from bottom to top, across the great bridge and northward through the Soo into Canada. He should have taken the trip in parts, stayed at a motel, but he pushed west, anxious to do it all in one day. Exhausted, he slept in his car, in the parking lot of the campground, that first night.
For a day he just loafed and meandered, recovering from the drive mostly. He tore his tent down and put it up again a few feet away from a protruding root. If his wife were alive she would be complaining, wanting to go, and for a moment he felt the need to oblige her; as if he were in the wrong place himself, inappropriately dressed in a polo shirt and khaki shorts, there to connect with boyish dreams and clearly out of his mind.
Millions take vacations as campers. What Paul was not prepared for was that they were all there, all around him on the north shore of Lake Superior. He was forced to share the campground tent pole to tent pole. He identified others as Marlboro men and their gadgets, lycra clad young executives riding thousand dollar bicycles, and anglers gingerly parking $100,000 fishing boats. He seemed perpetually surrounded by complaining loud children. Across the way, RVs sat in rows. Among his temporary neighbors, would-be naturalists groaned and shook their heads as dune buggies, three-wheeled machines, boom boxes and gargantuan RVs fought over sites closer to the water, closer to the restrooms, closer to each other. Grandfather had once instructed that for those who know what they are doing, everything needed for a week in the woods fit snuggly into a rucksack. For Paul, even a car trunk was not large enough.
Watching the water helped. He sat on rocks, did that breathing meditation he read about, walked paths, and gradually felt a lifetime of pressures, some real and many imagined, subside. As his friend Bud had always said, he was a victim of the things that never happened in his life, a victim now filling with memories and recognition of places, of rock outcroppings and the sense of place.
Early in the morning on the third day, Paul pulled on his shorts in the chill of the tent and crawled on hands and knees from the warmth of his sleeping bag, into the dim light of their pre-dawn campground. The only other person stirring nearby, another elderly man, looked to Paul like someone who didn’t know what to do with himself. They nodded toward each other and went about their menial chores – two stiff old men surrounded by tents, trailers and contraptions, looking for a place to piss in the morning fog.
Paul made coffee, reviewed his maps, and walked into the woods. Today he would walk all the trails that touched the lake. Mental clutter gave way to memories of stories and smells from years ago. He recalled his drive of a few nights earlier, and saw himself loading the trunk of his Ford Taurus. In the middle of the night he left with the cooler, maps, and sleeping bag in the back seat. A photograph of his grandfather and he, the two of them together on the front porch of his parent’s home in East Lansing years ago, sat on the passenger seat.
Twenty minutes of walking is all it took, far less time than he remembered or imagined. The sun had burned off the fog. What caught his attention was a somewhat familiar fork in the trail. At the fork was a large rock, and just past it a small stream still surrounded by thick brush. He removed his shoes and followed the stream to a waterfall of a foot or two in height. At that place, where the water splashed over a wall of rock, he paused. His heart was racing. He sat. A thick bed of moss and pine needles covered the ground. He studied an outcropping of stone. Silver maples and pine boughs blocked the heat of the sun. Water had sounded in this place for centuries. It was a reverential, meaningful place, made sacred to him by years of mentally returning during meetings, during arguments with his wife, during every personal crisis. This place had not changed all that much. The trees seemed different, foliage certainly, but stone doesn’t change quickly and it all came back. Others had been there, it was clear. Wrappers and a rusted tin can, someone’s initials carved in cedar bark, but this was the place.
Paul followed the stone outcropping away from the creek for what he calculated was twenty paces, taken by an eleven-year-old boy. The rocks at that place formed a jagged and memorable arrow, as his grandfather had called it. He followed an imaginary line cast by that arrow. After ten paces he knelt and brushed away pine needles and probed the earth. Discovering three touching baseball-sized smooth rocks caught his breath.
Digging didn’t take long. He unearthed a rusted metal box. Inside of the box, nearly deteriorated rags still cushioned a mason jar, and in the jar, the contents of a message from he and his grandfather, to themselves. Their bond and secret, as grandfather had called the contents, was hidden there in the form of a message whose exact contents he had forgotten, and some pictures, a baseball card which he did remember, and a hand full of coins, most of them buffalo nickels and a silver dollar, all buried in 1954.
The note was in two parts.
“What I like,” Paul had written at his grandfather’s suggestion. “I like baseball more than anything. I like fishing and camping with my grandfather. This is his picture. I am eleven and someday I will come back to this time capsule and read it and remember being here. I hope I have a good life and get to be a forest ranger.”
And his grandfather had written, “This is my grandson, Paul. I was so lucky to know him that words fail me.”
Paul returned the yellowed and mildewed contents to the jar and laid flat on his back in the pine needles for a long while. Before he left that place for good, he placed the contents of a new time capsule into the hole and covered it with ritual, with the movements of his grandfather’s hands. He honored the spot, as the two of them had done years before, sipping a bottle of root beer.
Near twilight, Paul sat on a bench outside his tent watching a campfire. He imagined who could possibly one day find his message, not cast in a bottle in the ocean, but into the soil, beneath the ground, beneath rock and trees, perhaps beyond the reach of history.
“My grandfather and I were here,” the message read. “We had this place in common. I missed him in life and I will join him in death. Not knowing what else to do with emptiness, I fill the void with words and place them here for you to find.”