FENSKE LAKE, MINN. - There are certain telltale indicators that let you know you have reached the destination Minnesotans call Up North, which is not a place so much as it is an emotion, a state of mind.
One: Spring flowers line the roadside, even though it is July. Two: All the "C's" have been changed to "K's" (Kountry Kabins). Three: You hit scan on your radio and it inevitably stops on one of those trading shows where people call in and offer odds and ends for sale. I love those shows and listen to them obsessively when I'm Up North; they provide small snapshots of people's lives.
So when one of those shows faded in somewhere along Hwy. 169, I felt my shoulders relax and the tension slide away. Today, someone was selling a Coleman generator and another was willing to give away a couch, "in OK condition." Two people on their way up, I think.
The station was WELY, whose tag line is "End of the Road Radio."
It was the meat of the summer, and the radio announcers were talking about how this is what we live for: the narcotic thrum of dead heat on desolate back roads, the smell of pine and lupine wafting down the highway, the gathering of sudden thunderstorms and the slap of a fish on a still lake.
I think about this time in the middle of winter, said one announcer. "Last winter, my house was so cold my e-mails froze on the screen," he said.
They traded corny jokes as we drove into Ely, past the faded sign for Kat's Drive-In Liquor (you're on vacation, no need to get out of the car for booze), Ely Steakhouse and Dee's Bar before turning up Echo Trail to our cabin.
In my Up North memories, the weather is always perfect and the cabin is lined with knotty pine. There are wildlife paintings on the wall, rough timbers holding up the roof and a dock with a bench on the end. So when I stepped into our cabin and found it exactly the way I'd pictured, this summer trip melded with every other summer trip since I was a kid.
I cracked a Coors and walked out on the dock and summer began, finally, and in earnest. The state was broken and the parks were closed, but to hell with them all because I was Up North.
Before long, I met the neighbors.
"You can tell I'm from Chicago because I talk fast," said the woman.
"And a lot," deadpanned her husband.
She said she was surprised because she expected everyone to talk like the characters in the movie "Fargo." Yeah, that's an exaggeration, I said. Then later I was at a gas station and listened to two men talk exactly like those characters.
"I need some ice," said one.
"Ya want an eight-pound bag or a fiver?"
"Gimme de eight-pounder, I'll be here all week."
One day I hiked to a waterfall and met a couple with their grandkids. They were doing something called "rendezvous camping" in which they put up a canvas tent like those used in the 1800s and cooked over a wood fire. The guy wore a plaid short-sleeved dress shirt and when he saw the waterfalls he said: "Geez."
Then he told me about some pictures of horses he had and was thinking of making "what do you call those things, decoupage? People are nuts for horses, so I bet they would sell like hotcakes at a craft fair."
Good luck, buddy, I said.
At a bar one evening, an older woman who appeared to be well into the whiskey Cokes told us about her effort to get custody of her grandson. At one point, she clamped her hands together to make a pistol like people do when imitating the "Charlie's Angels" poster.
"Let grandma do what grandma does best," she said. "I should have used my forty-five."
Good luck, grandma, I said.
Trips like this always make me nostalgic, so one night at Burntside Lodge I ordered a White Russian. The young waiter quickly seized the moment to quote The Dude from the Coen brothers movie "The Big Lebowski." "Gimme another Caucasian, Johnny," he said.
God, I love this state, even when it's closed.
The new dog, Trouble, loved Ely, loved the lake. But one afternoon his presence reminded me we were in the wilderness, reminded me that things can be absolutely perfect, then not.
As he sat tethered a few feet from me, I noticed a shadow, and looked up to see three hawks circling above our cabin. Trouble suddenly looked like a nice afternoon snack. We would keep him close from then on.
The days were languid and hot and the nights were cool and the bugs behaved themselves most of the time. One night we sat on the dock and watched a distant storm approach, banging its drums and flashing strobes until we heard the ploip! ploip! ploip! moving across Fenske Lake.
We stayed until we were wet, then went inside and shut off the lights and listened to the rain batter the wooden roof, feeling very alive and very Minnesotan and lying to ourselves that summer might just go on forever.
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