We Drove East, by Driving North - CC Road Trip Day 2
Ryan and I set out in the morning with the intention to drive as long as we were able, or until we found the perfect spot to camp. We went with the latter. We drove out of Nebraska, the red sun low in the sky, across Iowa Iowa with its rolling forest-covered hills, hunting supply stores, and Sunday morning diners. Then we crossed up into Minnesota where I began the see the yellow Goldenrod flowers everywhere in a tangle with the misty purple Aster flowers all along the road. These two complimentary colors come together to excite the eyes of humans and pollinators as author, poet and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer so adeptly described in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. (Read a great article with her words about it here). The last state on our list for the day was Wisconsin was with its Great North Woods. We saw lake after lake in the thick forests, as Google maps kept offering us dirt roads as the most efficient way of getting to the obscure places we requested to get go; paved roads not being an option evidently if you’re trying to drive from Colorado to New York.
We stopped for produce at farm stands. We stopped to jump off rickety docks. We stopped to wade into bogs and dance on floating bog islands of marsh grass in places that felt like the middle of nowhere, but really there isn’t such a place. Everywhere is someone, or some-thing’s home. No matter how remote it may feel to you as a passerby.
Minor miracles were everywhere we saw and stopped. We made our slow approach northward towards the Great Lakes and took notice of each stream we crossed or rivers we drove parallel to.
The waters were our traveling companions, and with them we got to know many other things that also follow the waters. The creatures - flora, fauna and persona. We saw migrating Monarch butterflies, horseflies, dragonflies, geese, ravens, gas stations, truck stops, cabins, Kroger grocery stores, corn fields, corn cribs, corn harvesters. Trucking routes, shipping routes, logging routes. Game trails, cattails, and cottontails. We saw dark-energied abandoned campers full of trash next to lakes with ominous dogs on their shores. We saw the bend and sway of trees that arched over horse shoes bends, and rock outcrops moved by glaciers. We saw Pine and Spruce and Cedar and Hemlock and Oak and Maple and Birch. We saw Tamarack trees, one of the few conifers that changes colors and loses its needles in the fall. We saw the moss that subtly covers nearly everything on the forest floor, drinker of the morning dew with its root-less, vascular-less bodies.
We saw the once green, now golden grass that marks the parched end of summer. We saw the transition of forest canopies turn from emerald to subtle yellows and pale oranges, as we drove further and further north, its cool evenings and boreal air drawing ever nearer.
We witnessed a thousand things every mile, each compact and dense yet spacious, story rich enough to spend a whole life learning about. Every place has it’s thing of interest if you look close enough. Just like each stone in a river is a thing of fascination if you wet it and take a magnifying glass to it.
One of my favorite literary characters is a man named Burley Coulter, from the fictional world of Port William, set in rural Kentucky, written by Wendell Berry. It was said of Burley Coulter (in a book called Jayber Crow) that something of interest was always going on in his mind, and as we drove through those hollows, and along the rivers, passing raccoons and gilded flickers with their yellow feathers (a cousin to one of my favorite birds, the Northern Flicker), I thought Burley’s was a life worth living. I hoped to live in a mind like that. And I thought he would be enamored with any place he might happen to find himself, but especially these places.
We are driving towards the East coast, kind of. You do not typically reach the East Coast by driving North, but we’re taking the adventurous route. Seeing what there is to see, and going where the water goes. And no trip across the country claiming to investigate water could skip over the Great Lakes, and look you in the eye.
Eventually, having stopped to purchase an onion, a sweet potato, two poblano peppers, eggs, butter and cheese curds from a farmer and a dairy, we found a spot to camp called Howell’s landing where we invented a culinary masterpiece. We called it Chile Relleno a la Wisconsin. You place cheese curds inside the peppers and cooked everything together in a cast iron pan over a campfire until the outside of the peppers have a little bit of char on them, and the cheese curds brown up on the outside. Simple, but it has us drooling. Fun Fact - cheese curds don’t really melt! Who knew?! We didn’t.
Later we tried cooking up a mushroom we found in the woods called a birch polypore, which is easily identifiable with no poisonous lookalikes. Truth be told, I only possessed half the knowledge needed for a proper ID, so w found out the other half of the needed info by irreverently pulling out our phones to watch Youtube videos around the campfire about mushroom identification.
But isn’t that the modern road trip / life anyway? There is no such thing as the road trips / life you see on Instagram. With folks in the perfect outdoor outfit, holding a lantern, or a super hip enamel cup of whiskey sitting in the back of a cool vintage truck with perfect golden hour light all day long. (full disclosure: I brought two super hip enamel cups for this exact purpose)
We were driving my mother-in-laws hand-me-down light blue CRV with a bunch of mismatched blankets, wearing pretty much the same clothes every day (although I did intentionally bring multiple blue shirts to go with the water theme, but never wore them), the cheapest tent at REI and a few thousand dollars worth of photo equipment. In streak of additional irreverence and Onion Newspaper-esque humor, we considered titling the little film we were putting together for the trip,
Two White Males go on Basic Road Trip with Expensive Camera Gear. Call it Art.
What the photographer wants you to see is in frame and curated. Us included. Everything out of frame, the most “real” part of the trip, looks just like anyone else’s drive across the country because it is; full of gross bathroom breaks, and checking your mindlessly scrolling through your phone from the passenger seat as the world you set out to see goes by.
Anyway, the taste of the mushroom was too bitter for our liking, even with all the extra butter and besides, it’s typically used to make a tincture to get the benefits from the adaptogens, which help our bodies balance hormones, manage stress, and helps support our adrenal systems. But like I said, we didn’t eat much of it, so we gained none of the benefits. We did remember that we had a can of Miller High Life in the car though, so we split that. In two super hip enamel cups.
That night, under a bright half moon, I skinny dipped in the Namekagon River, whose name in Ojibwe meaning, “river abundant with sturgeon.” We learned sturgeons are the largest fish in the Great Lakes regions, reaching nearly 7 feet, but even more impressive is that it is called a living dinosaur because sturgeons has existed nearly unchanged as creatures for 150 millions years.
Wading up stream against its strong current, then floating weightless and silent along the bank I felt free and yet tethered to this place, and to be honest a little excited with nervous energy that one of those 7 foot sturgeons might come over an investigate me as I swam naked in the dark water just before midnight. I felt like a mystic as I washed off the dust of the day from my body and made my offerings to the current, trying to be as present and grateful as possible.
Howell’s landing has been used as a stop over place by people for generations, going back thousands of years. From people like us, to trappers, to loggers and ultimately to the Ojibwe people that first lived here. It has been continually inhabited since the last ice age around 14,000 years ago, and as remote as it may feel to us now, this has been someone’s home for longer than I can even comprehend. A place known intimately by some many creatures, with ecosystems and cultures evolved and refined here for millennia.
Ryan and I both felt really lucky to have felt so welcomed into a place, by the place, if such a thing is possible. We were making progress on our way across the country, connecting with places and making quiet observations of the world along the way.
Howell’s landing is one of its many names over the thousands of years of place naming here, and I wish I could know all the names, and how many. To list them all out would be like a landscape poem, or an incantation to me. There are thousands of lives here, with centuries of stories layered on top of it. We went to bed warm and full and spend the night under a Fir tree beside the river full of dinosaurs.
So, slowly, joyfully and curiously,
and by various methods inefficient for speed,
we drove East, by driving North.
Do you have an experience of “driving East by driving North”? AKA Have you gone about doing something in an unexpected way? Share your story in the comment section below or send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org