I get a call from Alim one Sunday afternoon: do I want to go to Whitewater State Park?
Of course I do.
A couple of hours later, Namig shows up driving his newly acquired retired squad car, we pick up Alim, and head southeast away from the Cities.
After an hour of driving and conversation, we begin to enter what's known as the "driftless zone", which has a nice topography because, common wisdom holds, it was never glaciated. In reality, all of Minnesota—driftless zone included—has been ironed flat by glaciers at one point or another, paving out the rockiness of the old Laurentian range. For most of Minnesota this took place just 12,000 years ago, so there's not been much time for complex topography to redevelop. In the driftless zone, all this simply happened much, much longer ago.
As we pull into Lake City, I have an impulse to visit Oak Center, so relying on my gut feeling for direction, I direct Namig to take a right. We pluge between a couple of bluffs and a thick forest, and then burst out onto flatter, rolling hills covered with corn. A few miles later, we're at Oak Center.
And it's like I never left, except for the chickens running around on the road. Who's done that?
As we're poking about behind the house, gravel crunches and we look over to see a very-bearded, wild looking man coming towards us, and it's not Steve. Chris introduces himself as the sole intern to have survived the whole summer and tells us that Steve's on vacation.
As we catch up about the farm and Steve's idiosyncrasies (and continued OCD-farmerness), Chris lets us into the store, where, in short order I find myself in the backroom candling an egg. After some more talking, I ask if I can take a look around upstairs where the dance hall/concert space is that I slept in, so we all troop up there. Chris and I pop into the porch where Beth slept and, as we're talking, I invite him to come along with us, but he says he doesn't think so. There's a pounding sound behind us, and we step out into the main room to find that Namig and Alim are pounding away on some drums. A few minutes later, Chris and I have joined in on the pianos.
It's good to have travel companions.
On our way out, Chris gives us all chocolate-cranberry-oatmeal cookies.
We invite him to come along with us. And this time, he says yes.
Another hour of winding down little roads searching for a Brigadoon equivalent brings us to Whitewater. The visitor center has a little museum which shows artistic representations of the heavy logging and steep-slope farming that took place here in the early 20th century and speaks of dismal water quality. But a glance out the window makes one think that that's all in the past now.
From the top of the first hill we climb, we can see upstream to a rocky outcropping several ridges distant. Without further discussion, we head in that direction.
But we are waylaid by the sudden discovery of a big crop of Chicken of the Woods hanging out on a tree.
Chris and Namig get pretty excited by this and begin trying to climb the tree. Evolving quickly, they discover tools and knock a chunk of the cropping off. In the past I may have thought they were crazy—mushrooms have never appealed to me—but I've since seen the light.
One night, when I was living out on the Olympic Peninsula, one of the rangers came in with a giant cardboard box full of morel mushrooms. Previously, I'd enjoyed mushrooms mixed in with things, but the taste on its own was somewhat disgusting to me. But morels can sell for $40 per pound! And that's not all he had: there were also puffballs and Chicken of the Woods. The latter is a bright orange colour that confuses the ecologists among us because it seems maladaptive. The Chicken can be consumed raw, but it's best to prepare it by frying it in butter for a while. The ranger chopped up some mushrooms and—oh my!—were they good!
So I understand the flush of victory written on Chris and Namig's faces as they hide their find behind a tree in Chris's shirt, and we continue towards the outcropping.
"Maybe it's that way..."
|The hills rise up steeply from the river, but, in the valley, the trail is flat and well-used. Without thinking about it, Alim and I find ourselves running down the trail, trees flashing past us, and then waiting, panting, for Namig and Chris to catch up, walking.|
|Eventually we come to giant clearing walled on oneside by a tall, and apparently unclimbable, cliff.|
|After that, the trail petters out quickly and we find ourselves bushwhacking.|
At least until I feel a knife slice my calf open. Freezing, I look down, I expect to see blood, but no… there's nothing wrong. Glancing around, trying to figure it out, I discover that I am surrounded, for as far as I can see on the forest floor, by stinging nettles.
It takese a while to work our way out of that one, but soon, we're back on the track of the outcropping. Alim and I have gone running ahead again and come upon a long winding staircase. She takes off up it; I follow for a ways and then wend onto a deer path which hugs the outcropping as the hill drops steeply away to the side. Finding some solid rock, I free climb a fifteen foot patch and arrive at the top just as Alim does.
Inspiration Point, they call it.
I climb out to the final isolated end of the point and watch as the sun slides behind the ridges which are rising all around us. The valleys below me are a lush, unbroken green as far as I can see (though this may not be saying much, tucked in the ridges as I am).
As the show finishes, Namig calls down to me asking if I'm ready to go. I climb back up and affirm. Then Alim and I take off running again through the quickly-fading light, sensing rather than seeing our way along the trail.
Every so often, we're able to poke out through the trees, and immediately our reality jumps backwards an hour in time. The trees and ridges really add to the night and I am reminded of hiking by moonlight through the Sangre de Christos with Jogre.
Back the car, fireflies are dancing in a mist-shrouded field. We turn our backs on them and use the police-light on the squad car to find Chris's mushroom-filled shirt.
Back at Oak Center, there are many stars and I recall Beth telling me, while we were farming, that this was the first time she'd ever seen the moon cast a shadow. Chris thanks us profusely for taking him off of the farm and says, "This is going to be a good week! First some strangers show up and take me hiking, then I find mushrooms, who knows what's next?"