It felt like a pilgrimage, this one-mile walk down Summit Avenue, as my eyelashes hardened into icicles and the subzero air reddened my face.
Wearing half a dozen layers, a balaclava and my warmest hooded jacket, I crossed the new bridge over Ayd Mill Road and there it was, rising up from the median like a vision: a glittering portal of ice.
It felt otherworldly. From a metal frame braced with sandbags that stood more than 8 feet tall and perhaps 12 feet wide hung various lengths of metal cables. Each was strung with rounded ice cubes about the size of apples. The effect was of a frozen, shimmering doorway.
Viewed from the west, it opened up to sky and the decades-old lilac bushes that bloom there each spring and, a few blocks past that, the governor's residence. From the other side, stately Summit inclined gently toward the river.
Whichever way you viewed it, the structure transported you. It felt like a much-needed and wholly unexpected panacea during this time of darkness. To think that an unknown artist had gifted this to us not for fame or recognition, but simply to add some beauty to the world.
Indeed, the ice portal's mystery was part of its allure. It just showed up one day, apropos of nothing. I'd first heard about it on Facebook from a friend who had seen another friend post about it on Nextdoor. She was the one who had first called it a portal, and the word stuck. After all, it offered a glimpse to the other side.
These are unusually bleak times. Between the year-old pandemic and the recent stretch of bone-chilling days — not to mention the constant bleat of our toxic political environment — we are all just trying to hold on.
We have mourned what's been lost and wonder how, or whether, things will ever return to normal again. The tunnel sometimes seems endless. But here was something that offered hope, the promise that someday we'd make it through.
The pop-up sculpture invited contemplation in a way that only art can do. But it also brought people together safely — no small feat during this time of intense isolation.
Each of the three times I visited it last week, a handful of others were already there, masked and properly distanced, to take it in. Parents snapped pictures of their bundled-up kids. A pair of college students leapt in the air together for a time-delayed selfie.
I even learned of a friend whose 9-year-old daughter had been so moved by the sculpture that she'd fashioned her own replica of it with crumpled up paper and string.
The last time I ventured to the ice sculpture was on Valentine's Day; by then it had morphed into a giant ice heart. It was pure, frozen genius. Somebody had left a trio of frozen pink hearts beside it. I didn't linger long because it was seven below, and because I wanted others to have their time with it.
By Tuesday, the portal was gone, removed by the city because — of all things — it had been erected without issuance of a permit. It was also thought to pose a safety risk. The mind reels. Isn't this an example of the benefits outweighing the risks? Shouldn't beauty and hope — a glimpse of something better — count for something, especially now?
Now, as if by magic, the structure has risen again in a private front yard along Summit, only a stone's throw from where it originally stood. Thankfully, city bureaucrats won't have the final say about its fate — Mother Nature will. The ice portal can enchant us for a little while longer, until the inevitable thaw claims it. And we will all be the better for it.
Pamela Schmid is a writer and editor in St. Paul.