Arches, through Dad’s eyes

Dear Dad,

I felt you by my side these last few days as I was steeped in the geology of Utah, surrounded by stone edifices and in awe of rock formations. You spent your whole career immersed in the nature of minerals, focused on the engineering aspects of mining. I don’t think I ever absorbed much of that while growing up. Susie was always the rock hound, her pockets bulging with rocks every time we ventured outside. Every family picnic on The Rocks (now known as Brighton Beach) enticed her to return with abundant samples of the pebble beach.

But it all came to roost as I ventured into Arches National Park.

Like any tourist, I had come to see the natural stone arches that gave the park it’s name. Home to over 2,000 arches, it is one of the world’s greatest densities of natural arches. But the initial drive into the park soon revealed the larger scope of its majesty as I stared at massive red rock walls, towers that dwarfed the humans at their base, and rocks impossibly balanced atop delicate bases. With names like The Great Wall, Tower of Babel, and Courthouse Towers, I soon came to appreciate the fuller extent of nature’s creation.

Dad, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the layers of rock, easily evident in the faces of the formations, no doubt each telling a story of its era. I’m sure you could have explained it all to me, how the land evolved over time, and the unique composition of each layer. I had to be content with admiring nature’s sculpting skills.

My destination for the first day was The Windows. It is the most accessible site of the famous arches, and had the bonus of several examples clustered in a small area. With a mid-afternoon entry ticket (they now have timed entry, to solve the problem of the park’s immense popularity) I wanted to make the best use of our limited time to explore. Nabbing a prime parking spot, I cajoled Rich up to the North Window where we followed the parade of sightseers up into its opening.

I continued on to explore the South Window and opposite those, Turret Arch.

I imagine you were silently whispering in my ear, Dad, as I continued to discover that the arches were just one attraction in this whole outdoor museum. The La Sal Mountains made a great backdrop for some of the other other-worldly rocks. And I could easily make out the Elephant Parade.

I had my heart set on being in the park at sunrise, to witness the beauty of the arches against the backdrop of the pre-dawn redness, and the glow of the nascent sunlight painting the stone monuments. That might not have sounded very appealing to you, Dad, as I had to get up at 4:45am to be in position well before sunrise. Rich seconded your sensibility, so the next morning I ventured out in the darkness on my own.

Returning to The Windows, I was one of the first to perch under the arch of the North Window where I could see the sky gradually increasing in color. The wind whipped through the opening, intensifying the 48-degree temperature, and I was thankful for my Minnesota layers. I was gradually joined by swarms of other sunrise-seekers, and I soon realized that while they just wanted to watch the sunrise, I wanted a dramatic photo. That spot wasn’t it. But in my retreat, I did capture the scene.

As I walked away, the moon was just setting behind Turret Arch. To me, that was just as good as a sunrise.

I found the sunrise to be more dramatic amid the towers and slabs nearby.

Taking the primitive trail around the back of the windows yielded the golden hour glow I was after, and further distanced me from the throngs above. It was well worth the early wake-up call, Dad, for these special moments with the rocks.

Leveraging my early start, I ventured further into the park to find more of the arches. On a short side-trail, I headed over to see Pine Tree Arch which proved to be one of my favorites for the view through the center.

Beyond that, I reached Landscape Arch – the iconic view that graces the park’s brochure. You would have found the informational sign interesting, Dad, as it chronicled a section of the arch crumbling and falling in 1991, leaving it even thinner and more tenuous than before. A testament to the impermanence of all these rock structures – still changing with the forces of nature.

I couldn’t leave without seeing Delicate Arch. Since I was alone, I shied away from the hike right up to the arch which was described as “difficult with exposure to heights.” I think you would have seconded that, Dad. Instead I made my way to the upper viewpoint, and kept going out onto the rocky slabs to the rim of a canyon where Delicate Arch stood on the opposite side. By then the day had warmed nicely, and it seemed a fitting finale to my visit.

I don’t think you ever went to Arches, Dad. But I’m certain you would have loved it. I certainly did, especially seeing it through your eyes.

Love, Molly

It was Fate

The thought occurred to me in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those strange, inexplicable revelations that changed the course of our plans.

We had left Tucson that morning, heading for Moab. Deciding that the journey was too long for one day, Rich surveyed the thin options on our remote route and booked us a room at the Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle AZ. It is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation, and is situated on their land. It seemed more interesting than the standard motel fare in town.

Driving through the red rock formations of northern Arizona, it may have been the out-of-this-world environs that tickled my brain.

“Rich, do you remember someone told us about that ‘mini Grand Canyon?’ Do you think we will be near there?”

I got only a non-committal reply as he concentrated on the driving. But the idea had hijacked my brain.

I’m a list maker extraordinaire. I have an extensive packing list for traveling, carefully honed with each trip. En route, I document each day’s travels, where we stay, how far we drive, the restaurants we choose and our activities. Quickly mining the Notes app on my iPhone, I had my answer.

“Yes! It was the man who cleaned our room at Yavapai Lodge at the Grand Canyon.” That was back in 2017, five years ago.

“We chatted with him, and he told us about the Canyon de Chelly – how it rivaled the grandeur of the Grand Canyon but on a more intimate scale. It was in his home town of Chinle AZ.”

I was on fire now. “That’s it! That’s where we’re going!” In fact, the Thunderbird Lodge was at the entrance to the Canyon. The Rim Roads spun out from our very lodgings. We had time to spare the following day, and I just filled it.

Up at first light, we threw on our clothes and headed out the door. The North Rim was said to be best in the mornings so we headed to the first overlook – Antelope House, just 8 miles away. We arrived to find a deserted parking lot and a rough sign pointing toward a scruffy area stating “Overlook 1/4 mile.” Setting out, we crossed the solid rock expanse dotted with scrub bushes. It felt like senseless wandering, until I noticed the sequence of rocks defining a path, showing us the way. I was further encouraged by a few man-made stone steps, and an arrow painted on a rock.

Then suddenly, we were there, perched on the edge. The world dropped away in front of me, the depths of the canyon yawning in the open expanse. The sun’s rays were just working their way down the walls of the canyon, illuminating the colors, glowing as only early morning sun can do. Sharp shadows in stark contrast.

True to that man’s words, it was majestic and grand. A beauty to behold, extensive and captivating in every direction. But that was not its magic.

It was the solitude. We competed with no one for the view. Silence reigned as we gazed out over the canyon. We had complete freedom to wander the terrain, to take in the depths from our choice of vantage point, to make the experience uniquely our own. To spend as long as we liked looking, thinking, pausing, appreciating.

There was not a barrier in sight, save one promontory protected by short brick walls. No one to collect tickets, no lines waiting to enter.

I felt entirely unrushed as I cruised over the thick slabs of rock. Playful but careful. I watched as the canyon came to life, changing colors before my eyes. Peering down over the edge, finding caves and imagining the rocks forming gates down below. Rich took his fill of photos, relishing the lack of interference from other onlookers.

We eventually moved on to two more overlooks further down the rim. The views continued to impress, especially when we spied the remnants of early cliff dwellers across the way, looking like doll houses in the distance. And still we were solo visitors.

What will remain with me from that morning was the memory of that first overlook, feeling that we owned the canyon, had our own private showing. The freedom to wander unencumbered by fences or warning signs. The sense of awe we were allowed to absorb. I

t’s an experience that can’t be bought. Or planned. Clearly it was fate that brought it to us.

The Lure of the Loop

I am not a newcomer here. Despite a three year gap, I come laden with memories and expectations from two prior stays at the base of the Catalina Mountains on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Escaping a winter that just won’t quit, the constant sunshine and warmth were the natural draw. But to me, that is only the backdrop for my cycling plans. I already know, I will head straight to The Loop.

Tucson’s vast expanse of paved bike trails top the “washes” where flood waters are funneled during the rainy season. The Loop accounts for 131 miles of off-road trail, including a 55-mile long route that circles the city. I crossed that off my to-do list last time we were here, so instead I turn my focus to the three River Parks that radiate out from a central connecting point. Each has a distinct personality, which guides my selection each time I set out.

My biking routes over our 2-week stay

Our location in the Oro Valley is at the top of La Cañada del Oro River Park. Within a mile, I join the trail that I consider “my home trail.” I traverse this 12-mile trail down and back each time I seek out a route to cycle. Rich rolls his eyes, at my willingness to pedal 30-40 miles to explore each time I set out. But the terrain is flat, the pavement remarkably smooth, the cycling is easy and I’m just tickled to be out in the warm sunshine.

La Cañada del Oro heads southwest through suburban areas that exude prosperity. At the top, the rugged mountain peaks remain in close proximity, a tireless sight. Two golf courses flank the trail, spilling nice landscaping onto the sidelines and spawning narrow bridges to usher golf carts to the holes on the opposite side. An artsy park is a popular spot and a handy parking area for cyclists. And the path takes to the flats with a windy course flanked by desert shrubs, wildlife and birds. Before I know it, I’m alongside massive poles with netting to enclose Top Golf, with three decks of golf stations. That signals my approach to a decision point.

Turning to the right takes me to Santa Cruz River Park North. After enduring some industrial development, it leads to the flowing Santa Cruz River. Green lush trees and bushes line the banks of the river and the sound of flowing water is both a surprise and a treat. Cycling alongside this oasis I want it to continue forever, but the trail moves away and into local neighborhoods. I cycle behind houses for miles – most protected from view by stone walls – with desert scrub on the opposite side. More eye candy appears with the El Rio preserve and a seasonal lake. Another range of mountains looms close by. Like all my River Park routes, it’s an out-and-back proposition.

In the opposite direction, Santa Cruz River Park South is probably the most remote of the trails – at least for the portion I cycle. It starts with open pit digging of some kind, then takes off in a wilderness area where the trail quietly follows the wash down both sides. It passes Sweetwater Wetlands Park, popular for birding. But until it reaches the heart of the city, it remains quiet and unpopulated. I can cycle on autopilot through that section.

I’ve left my favorite for last, Rilitto River Park. This appears to be the most popular trail, with paths on both sides of the wash and there are plenty of walkers, runners and cyclists enjoying it at all times of the day. The south side is less populated, and has some fun artwork and landscaping along the way. The north side has numerous parks, playgrounds and ball fields that draw families. And the Ren Coffeehouse is a popular stopping spot for cyclists. Rilitto Park hosts a Farmers’ Market on Sundays, and I happened to be there on Bike to the Farmers Market Day. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to peruse the farm and ethnic foods on offer.

I took my last bike ride this morning, finishing with another pass on both sides of Rilitto. My new bicycle bell came in handy, dinging each time I passed a pedestrian or bike. It made me smile each time it rang, and garnered a wavy from those on the path. Tomorrow we leave to head back to the cold Northland. But I’m already looking forward to another visit, knowing I will be lured back to The Loop.

A Stroke of Luck

One more day.  Our time was up at the AirBnB in Ft. Myers but we had one too many days for our travel home.

“How about we splurge and stay right on the beach?”  I saw no point in leaving the beautiful weather any sooner than necessary. 

Rich feigned deafness.  He was bent over his tablet, intently searching, reading, expanding the map, searching again.  I knew it, my fate rested in his hands.

“Here, take a look at this,” he said, handing over his tablet.

The charming cottage appealed to me, but it was the location that clinched it.  The small peninsula on the Gulf Coast was dominated by Bald Point State Park.  It had miles of beach, wetlands for Rich’s birding, trails for hiking and options for cycling.  My eyes traced 5-mile long Alligator Point, already planning my bike ride.  The cottage was wedged into this outdoor haven, surrounded by park land.

“Let’s book it!”

Turning off the Interstate toward Florida’s Panhandle on smaller roads, we lost traffic with each passing mile, and my muscles gradually unclenched after the tight game of leapfrog with the endless stream of semis.  By the time we turned onto the peninsula we had the road to ourselves.  After passing elaborate beach houses floating above impossibly tall stilts, we pulled into the grassy lot to find a humble cottage nestled among the wild Florida greenery.

This was a true cabin, Florida style.  The floor was tiled in a colorful pattern, heat rose through metal grates in the floor, there was a hand-sewn quilt on the bed and the quaint, comfy furnishings invited lingering.  The well supplied kitchen and modern conveniences ensured a comfortable stay.  It didn’t take us long to unload and venture out to explore.

We both set out on our bikes, but in opposite directions.  Rich headed into the park to check out the beach and marsh trails for birding options.  I had Alligator Point in my sights, eager to explore.  The road meandered down the narrow peninsula, first giving me views of the Gulf, threading down the middle, then following the bay sideThis was an old-time beach community.  Small ground level houses mixed with newer stilted monstrosities.  A community center, waterworks and marina were among the few commercial properties.  It was impossible to hurry despite the lack of traffic.  My head swiveled to take in the ambiance and culture of this local culture.

It didn’t take me long to determine that this was a different Florida.  Having traveled significantly north, the temperature had dropped significantly, especially when combined with the chilly wind off the Gulf.  The highs were in the 50s not the 80s.  Being from Northern Minnesota it still felt balmy to us, but was not yet inviting to other tourists.  As a result, there were very few people around.  It was quiet.  For years we have tried to “think un” when we planned vacations.  This time we nailed it.

I woke early the next morning, intent on walking the beach at sunrise.  Noting the 38-degree temp I donned my winter jacket, hat and mittens and covered the short distance to the sand that stretched as far as I could see.  Already the horizon was ablaze, the cloudless sky waking fiercely with the sun’s impending rays. The tide was well on its way out, leaving behind ripple patterns, tidal pools and sand islands that reflected the orange glow and blue hues of the water.  It wasn’t the barefoot saunter I might have envisioned, occasionally splashing through the retreating waves.  Instead, I headed downwind, braced myself against the chill and found my warmth in movement.  Perhaps all the better in its uniqueness.

Over a mile down the beach, the sun finally peeped above the horizon, a yellow orb that rose quickly.  And with it the beach glowed in its initial pastels.  Transformed.

Lingering over my breakfast in the cottage as the sun streamed in, I perused the park maps and settled on a hike.  The closest trail was the loop around Tucker and Little Tucker Lakes, and I liked the idea of seeing water along the way.  I must have been in a Minnesota mindset, picturing narrow paths lined with trees and easy views of the lakes.  But this was Florida.

I set off down a swath wide enough for a highway, looking more like a dirt road than a path.  It became grassier at times but never lost its width.  The tall pines that populated these woods seemed to emulate palm trees, with impossibly tall barren trunks that branched out into a rounded canopy of needles and huge pinecones.  I admired those tall soldiers in a huge battalion.  At their base swarms of palm bushes blanketed the ground, high enough to obscure my view of the lakes.  But the sun beat down, I shed several layers and pushed onward – never seeing another soul on the trail.

A final short bike ride included a visit to the main entrance of the park.  I pushed my bike out one of the beach entrances, where I could see the beach wrapping around the end of the peninsula.  Boardwalks traversed the marsh, and a long wooden pier extended into the water.  So much more to explore. Someday.

Sometimes the best experiences can’t be planned.  What started as a solution to a problem turned into an unexpected pleasure.  A peaceful coda on the end of a melodic symphony.  A chance to unwind, to engage with nature and retreat from the more populated world.  A stroke of luck.

Sunrise, Sunset

Being a volunteer lighthouse keeper has its perks, particularly in the off-duty hours. Fortunately, no matter what month I am at Crisp Point Lighthouse, sunrise and sunset fall squarely within my free time. And I make sure I am at the ready to witness and photograph both. Highlights of each day.

Being keepers in September this year means a more sociable hour for sunrise. Scrambling out of the tent by 6:45am still nets me a front row seat to an inspiring light show. I start on the west side of the lighthouse, watching the oranges infiltrate the clouds and silhouette the tower.

Making my way past the lighthouse to the opposite side, I turn back to watch the sun crawl its way down the lighthouse, illuminating it with the glow of the low morning sun and reflect on the water.

Another morning delivers fiery red hues that mutate into pink cotton candy in the clouds overhead, just 13 minutes later. I never tire of this scene. It’s worth the brisk morning chill, the sleep still in my eyes and the fact that I haven’t had a chance to brush my teeth yet.

At the other end of the day, sunsets provide lingering entertainment that only starts with the sun dipping below the clouds.

The real show begins five minutes later when the sun drops below the horizon and shoots its brilliance into the clouds above, and intensifies with the accompaniment of crashing waves.

The variety is never ending. Some mornings and evenings are duds, scuttled by clouds blanketing the horizon. Others lack clouds completely, robbing the sun of targets to reflect its brilliant rays. But when the conditions are right, it’s downright magic and never the same twice. God’s majesty at work.

Photographing these scenes is half the fun, the game of seeing if I can replicate the image. In the past, I’d point my Canon Powershot SX40 camera at these displays, struggling to get the settings right, focus carefully, keep the camera still and hope for a good photo. Usually with mixed results. This time the camera stays in the car. Instead, I whip out my iPhone 12 Pro Max and hold it up for the shot. Click, I got it. Click, another for good measure. Click, catch the changing light. It certainly lowers my stress level, enhancing my appreciation for these solar events. And I have to say, that phone does a credible job and is always at the ready in my pocket. It’s my new standard to ensure I capture those sunrise, sunset moments.

Sharing the Light

The incessant wind drives tumbling waves onto the shore, cresting in white foaminess that contrasts the water’s deep blue. The morning chill on the beach is mitigated by the warm sun on my back. In my peripheral vision the tall tower stands guard over this sacred spot. Good morning, Lake Superior. Hello, Crisp Point Lighthouse. I’m back!

It’s been two years since I was last here. Our streak of 7 annual stints as lighthouse keepers was interrupted by Covid, like so many aspects of our lives. Even this year’s trip was a leap of faith as the virus continues to rage. But armed with vaccines, masking and distancing protocols in place, we felt willing to answer the call.

With the long slow drive down the infamous 18 miles of rough dirt road, the world began to recede. Shaded by towering pines and leaves rimmed with a touch of color, weaving through forest regrowth, I anxiously awaited that first sight of the lighthouse. The early morning calm and solitude of the site reminded me how much I love this place.

And yet it’s different this year. With extra duties imposed by Covid, we invited our friends Jon and Beth to join us. They were willing and eager participants, even knowing the rustic camping conditions – or perhaps even because of them. We erected our tents in unison before the onslaught of visitors – ours on the sand, theirs on the bed of their truck. A quick climb up the lighthouse clenched the sale as we gazed out over the miles of sand and rock beach stretching to the horizon in both directions, and took in the endless blue expanse of Lake Superior. Welcome, Jon and Beth, to our little slice of heaven.

The “Keeper’s Residence” below the lighthouse
View from the catwalk

The arrival of visitors plunged us into our duties, manning the Visitor Center, dispensing information about the lighthouse, selling souvenirs and cleaning jobs. Jon and Beth quickly became ambassadors, greeting folks, learning where they were from and how they found the lighthouse. It was a novel experience to be able to trade off and spell one another for bursts of freedom to walk the beach, climb the tower or read on a bench overlooking the beach. And the constant companionship was especially welcome in the evenings when we’d share dinner and linger by the bonfire. I knew the invitation had been a success when Jon and I manned the campstove cooking breakfast under an awning in the rain, and Jon leaned over to say, “Even this is fun!”

Jon restocking the bathrooms
Molly and Rich tending the shop
Ladies walking the beach
Dinner together
Campfire time

I admit it took a bit of adjusting. I had always equated our off-hours at the lighthouse with solitude. Morning walks and reflection, followed by time spent writing by the water. Evenings mesmerized by the flickering flames and glowing coals after Rich retreated to the tent. Reading while crunched down in the catwalk high above the lapping waves. Rare quite time I intentionally allowed myself in this retreat.

But after over a year of forced seclusion, having company was a treat. We ribbed Jon over his raging battle against the sand on the boardwalks and lighthouse steps. I relished Beth’s company on my morning beach walk, opening our hearts and sharing common woes. They taught me how to be an engaging host. We lent them our LED black light to find Yooperlites (which they did), and Rich gave them tips on seeing the Northern Lights (which failed to show). Laughter reigned. It felt so good.

I meant to consult Rich, but forged ahead without it. “Do you want to come again next year?” The answer came out in unison, “Yes!” It’s settled. We’ll be back next year, sharing the light with good company.

Adapting in the Ozarks

Life does not always go as planned.

May 2, we pulled out of the driveway, our car laden with bikes, a kayak, hiking shoes and visions of a secluded outdoor vacation in the Ozark Mountains. One year earlier to the day, we expected to board an airplane to Costa Rica to spend two glorious weeks in the rainforest and next to the beach. That didn’t happen, and the rest of the year didn’t pan out as expected either. But we were finally on our way.

We needed this vacation. Mentally, we were eager to escape the scene of anxiety and uncertainty brought on by Rich’s heart surgeries. Physically, we itched to shed our winter layers and don shorts in the warmth of sunshine. Socially, we expected to continue our Covid distancing, but with new scenery.

We targeted a remote cabin in the mountains, an AirBnB that allowed us to be self-sufficient and required only one motel stay en route. How our selection criteria have changed! But we soon discovered that we had fallen short on our research.

The drive into Jasper, Arkansas and ensuing trip to our cabin took us on twisty, windy, steep roads with no shoulders. As we plunged down and back up the mountainsides, it soon became clear that we would not be using our bicycles – if we wanted to live. Crossing the Buffalo River we could see it was gushing with the spring runoff. Fine for floating in groups, maybe, but not so safe for this novice kayaker. More redundant equipment. Oops.

The cabin proved to be perfect, as picturesque as the advertised photos, with views across the forested slopes. I quickly found my happy spot on the deck, where I could linger with my coffee in the morning, and eyed the fire ring for evening bonfires. Just as Covid has retrained us to live differently, the natural beauty that surrounded us would challenge us to rethink how we spent this vacation.

Cabin in the Ozarks
View from cabin deck over Ozark Mountains

Pouring over the extensive list of outdoor pursuits provided by our host, I targeted hikes that we could do together. Rich’s heart limited him to fairly flat routes – another oversight, having chosen to be in the mountains. But we found trails that wound through inspiring rock formations, took us to waterfalls and caves scoured out by rivers. Progress was unhurried, time to appreciate abundant, wildflowers bloomed and we could wear shorts. Occasionally I scampered up to higher elevations while Rich waited. We were even able to combine a birding and hiking outing.

Running out of trail options, we tried a new tack – a visit to Bull Shoals White River State Park. Every trip through the Ozarks takes far longer than highway speeds, but eventually we crossed the massive dam that holds back the White River to create Bull Shoals Lake. My thin hope of launching my kayak on the lake drained away with the words “boat launch closed” due to the high lake level. But we found plenty of short trails.

Rich spied a red headed woodpecker – a bird not often found Up North – and I sensed the perfect opportunity to divide and conquer. I hiked a longer, higher trail while he hunted his prey. I got my vistas and Rich found not only his bird, but its nest!

Weak wifi and abysmal cell reception in our cabin provided the incentive to pull away from the world. Away from responsibilities. Away from that To Do list that followed me there. I plowed through several books. I did some drawing for my community ed Beginning Drawing class. We grilled most nights and ate outside when the weather was favorable. And I got my flickering bonfire.

Did the week turn out as expected? Nope. But there was no denying we were on vacation. We had warm weather, slept in each morning, appreciated our leisure and spent quality time together. I returned refreshed, glad to be home, eager to hop on my bike. But grateful for the escape. Just as it should be.

Breaking Routine

We own a wonderful cabin nestled in the north woods facing a pristine lake.  A pontoon boat awaits, as do multiple kayaks, a fire ring and a sauna.  Inside a stone fireplace begs for a blazing fire.  So what are we doing renting a lake home?

Having put all our bike touring, lighthouse keeping and travel on hold for the foreseeable future, Rich and I decided we deserved a vacation.  A real getaway, on a different lake, in a dwelling with more space and amenities (including heat that doesn’t involve stoking a wood stove in the middle of the night), and new territory to explore.

New is the key word here.  A place with no expectations.  No chores.  No established routines.  Only possibilities.  Wonderful options.  The outdoors awaits, and I just know the indoors will delight.

Lakehome at Gunflint Pines

I pack all my notes for the pile of magazine stories I’ve promised to write.  But before the first night falls I set them aside, out of sight.  My head hits the pillow without setting an alarm.  I’ve already dismissed the idea of an early morning run or bike ride, kiboshing my daily ritual.  I’m off to a good start.

Our home for the week is on the edge of Gunflint Lake.  We came loaded with bikes, kayak, and hiking shoes.  I set about putting them all to good use.

Mornings on the large lake are my favorite.  Launching the kayak into the tranquil water I cling to the shore, exploring the deep rocky lake, peering into the woods to catch glimpses of cabins and lake homes.  Smoke from the forest fires out west reach us early in the week and creates eerie reflections, but can’t spoil my reverie.

Smokey sunrise by kayak

Strong winds keep me off the lake for a day, but in their wake the deep blue of the sky returns.  The air borders on freezing and the lake gives up her warmth.

Kayaking with lake mist Kayaking Gunflint Lake

The hills behind us are criss-crossed with hiking trails and I set out to conquer them all.  In the resort office I pick up a hand-drawn map, and get pointers on where the best overlooks are.  I can’t resist labels like Lost Cliff and High Cliff, which live up to their names.High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 1High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 2
High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 3

Rich and I set out to hike to Magnetic Rock.  It’s not a long walk, and I don’t know much more than that this rock has magnetic qualities.  I was not prepared for its sheer size.
Molly at Magnetic Rock

Fall colors grow more vivid by the day.  Yellows punctuated by brilliant gems of red illuminate the trail.

Rich hiking Magnetic Rock Trail Magnetic Rock Trail 1

I’m so busy watching where I step – over tree roots and around rocks – that my eye is easily drawn to nature’s minutia beside my feet.
Magnetic Rock Trail 2 Magnetic Rock Trail 3

Traffic on the Gunflint Trail tapers off beyond Gunflint Lake.  So I set out on my bike for the end of the trail – literally.Molly end of Gunflint Trail

Nightfall lures me back to the lake where I can hear the waves gently lapping while warming myself by a crackling fire.  Rich joins me and we sit, mesmerized by the dancing flames. 
Gunflint Lake Campsite

Five days of finding new things to do, seeing new sights, lingering over views, staring into fires.  None of it resembles my daily routine.

Vacation Dreams

For months, the word claimed ownership to weeks on our calendar. It feels like a lifetime ago that Rich and I sat down and plunked “Vacation” on three separate chunks of winter and spring. I knew the drill – if we didn’t dedicate the time early on, we’d fill up the calendar and never get away. But this time it wasn’t being busy that posed a threat.

As Rich’s eyesight issues progressed through the fall, we put our lives on hold. Ordinary outings like going for a walk, having dinner at a restaurant, attending a party all assumed an onerous significance. Could Rich manage it? The future meant later today, maybe tomorrow. Beyond that we could not see. The words languished on the calendar.

As winter’s cold, dry climate and brilliant snow reflections wreaked havoc with Rich’s eyes, we began to ponder the unthinkable. Might we have to become snowbirds? Would Rich have to give up his love of the Northwoods, his hunt for winter owls, and his passion for cross-country skiing to hibernate in a warm and humid climate that was kinder to his eyes? If that’s what it took to regain his eyesight, so be it.

Fortunately, the magic of Rich’s botox treatments turned our world around. With each stride forward, Rich regained aspects of his life he feared were lost forever, and we tenderly ventured to believe we could make plans again. So it was that I deleted late January’s “Vacation” week and replaced it with “Florida.”

Through the generosity of our friends, Arlene and Steve, we spent a glorious sunny week with them in Fort Myers. Rich and I were both there, but had distinctly different experiences.

For me, it was a week of indulging in long walks with Arlene, biking with Arlene and our friend Myra, lapping up the friendships. The constantly sunny days in the 70s salved my winter body. Ventures to Sanibel and Captiva delivered my requisite doses of beach and waves.  Dinners in the company of good friends capped each day.

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling Myra, Arlene and Molly bikers Molly and Rich on Captiva beach Cocktail hour at Arlene and Steves Molly Steve Rich dinner outside at the club

While I reveled in the pure Florida vacation, Rich still faced a series of trials. If Rich’s eye troubles have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. What the blepharospasm took away from him will take months to regain. Things that used to be second nature, now require conquering anew. His confidence is badly shaken. Even the air travel proved stressful.

On this trip, bicycling posed a major hurdle. Battling fear of failure, Rich took Steve’s bike out for a spin in the safe environs of the development. Hesitant at first, belief dawning gradually, he covered eight miles on the quiet roads. His text to declare success contained four exclamation points, five smiley faces! Over the remainder of the week he expanded his distances, braving the real world, even biking to a birding spot. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to resume our bike touring. For now we celebrate one success at a time.

Ever the birder, Rich researched wildlife preserves and stalked local birds with great success. Perusing his photos each day, I reveled in the beauty – envious of his finds, but fully aware of my lack of patience to find and watch these rarities. Photos would do. Virtually guaranteeing success, Rich lured the three of us out early one morning in search of burrowing owls. Sure enough, we found eight tiny owls perched on their burrows in the vicinity of a ball field in Cape Coral. They weren’t hard to spot – the hovels of this threatened species were cordoned off by plastic piping, their holes marked by wooden crosses. Birding for dummies, perhaps, but they were gosh darn cute.

Burrowing OwlPainted Bunting

Florida may not become our winter home after all, providing the botox keeps up its work. But our sojourn south had many healing benefits.

Merely going on vacation – something so basic, so normal – felt like our re-entry to the world. Rich started to believe again. The future began to stretch out ahead of us once more. And we renamed another Vacation segment on the calendar. Costa Rica, here we come! We might as well dream big.

Lighthouse Mornings

As a lighthouse keeper, it’s my favorite time of day.  Up with the sun, I relish the quiet mornings before visitors arrive.  Each day is different, entirely at the whim of the weather.  This year was a perfect example, as my journal proves.

Day 1
It wouldn’t be a Crisp Point morning without my perch on the beach, tower looming overhead, waves pulsing and wind stirring the damp air.  With coffee thermos mug at hand and charred camp-stove toast slathered in peanut butter, I’m ready to put pen to paper.

Just being out here is an unexpected treat.  With rain beating our tent all night and a dismal forecast this didn’t seem possible.  But the downpour ceased with our sleep and the south wind brought warm breezes. I’m wearing three layers of clothes on this September morning feeling grateful.

Crisp Point beach writing

Light wisps of clouds skitter by below the more stationery cloud cover.  Cracks in that shield reveal patches of blue sky, more than I thought I’d see all day.  Lake Superior makes her own weather.  I drink in the scene and write.  The old fashioned way.

Day 2
Waves crash against the shore just as they have done all night long.  The white pulses against the sand regenerate, again and again, changing the shoreline moment by moment.  The sandy beach I walked yesterday has been reclaimed by the water, reaching high on shore.  Lake Superior has claimed all but 3 of the 15 acres that surrounded the lighthouse 115 years ago.  And still it seeks to alter the landscape, to sculpt its border.  I turn my footsteps in the opposite direction for this morning’s outing.

On my return, I climb the tower, seeking shelter from the wind.  I know a tall stool stands inside the windows at the top, nestled against the modern LED lamp.  The air is damp, the view obscured by fog.  Unlatching the doors to the catwalk, I press them open.  Fresh breezes and the drumming of the waves sneak inside, gradually clearing the view and my thoughts.

Crisp Point tower view

Day 3
“Is there any sunlight?”

“I doubt it, the skies were cloudy at 5:15am.  Wait! There’s a break in the clouds and a ribbon of light.  We might get a sunrise after all!”

That’s all it takes to jettison us from our tent into the predawn hour.  Already orange hues stripe the horizon and the clouds’ underbellies blush in pink.  I rush for my camera – teeth unbrushed, haystack hair, my eyes thick with morning gunk.  There is not a moment to lose.  Rich, of course, is out well ahead of me, already poised behind his tripod.

Crisp Point is picturesque in all conditions, but sunrise and sunset are when it truly shines.  So far we have been denied these sublime moments by persistent clouds and fully anticipated being skunked this year.  But maybe not!

Single minded and on a mission, Rich doggedly pursues angles, hones his focus, searches – and finds – exquisite vantage points.  In contrast, I point and shoot.  Change a setting here, try an artsy shot there.  But really, I’m out there for the display.  To see it with my eyes, not a lens.

Crisp Point sunrise

The vivid colors are certainly a draw, and evade my amateur shots.  It’s the flip side of the show I find more captivating.  It’s not the sun that’s the star, it’s the light it paints.

The dim shadow of the tower comes to life as a warm glow travels up its majestic height.  Bathed in morning gold, it emits a warmth unmatched by its small beacon.  The ephemeral effect is all the more alluring for the shortness of its life.  I drink in the moment.

Crisp Point sunrise glow

Crisp Point through driftwood

It is a final gift.  A fond farewell on our last Crisp Point morning.  Until next year.