We are talking now of the rock-walking time in Tofte of the Northern Reaches. Every year we made the pilgrimage, until custom veered leftward on a fast-receding track to bring us every Fourth of July not to Tofte, but to my uncle’s cabin in Wisconsin. But in the Golden Age, the Age of Lake Superior Summers, it was Tofte every July.The house was an old grey, a weather-worn, wooden grey. The Lake matched.
The house was open inside. A tiny kitchen pressed itself against the back wall and a few rooms snuck off to one side of it, leaving the rest to a vast room (with books and a rocking chair and a big table) that reached to the two-story ceiling and bared itself to the Lake through tall, wide windows. A loft hid above the kitchen, just a few rooms.
Mrs. Smith’s house on the North Shore is a myth; its every whiff of scent a fast-fading relic of a far-off time; sacrosanct; as legendary and familiar as Coho Cafe tucked in the woods and Temperance River’s rootbeer-frothy rapids and Grand Marais’s little red donut shop with its white-painted sign and the Ben Franklin across the street. As revered as U2 and Sebastian Joe’s Ice Cream.
My backpack of books from the long car-ride stowed in one of the loft rooms or cast off by the black pot-belly stove whose chimney reaches to the distant ceiling, I slip outside through a sliding glass door, lakeside, careful to grab a sweatshirt if it is cloudy. Out onto the deck; hi to and from Guinny the big, black, curly dog; down through the long grass and wildflowers in the half-shadow of the dark-needled pines; onto the first rocks, driftwood strewn, soft and colorful with lichen and moss; past the long, unbarked tree-arms sanded by waves and bleached by sun; to the Boulders.
My brother and the curly-haired second son and I hop out onto the wide, knobby rockface like bubbles on the back of a scarred and ancient whale. Ankles dodge the cracks and bare toes brave the sun-warmed and sometimes slimy pools. Fly to the edge and catch yourself six feet above splashing liquid ice, clear and green and grey. The other kids catch up: more boys, one girl plus me. Drop down with a few precarious handholds to retrieve the stick we tossed; further, further this time. Grab a hand and leap back up on top; we’ll slap your back and grab the stick and throw it further, and watch it sail off into a sunset that’ll meet it later on the horizon.
If it’s sunny, we’re in swimming suits and daring each other to go deeper in; grab a rock from the bottom. While I’m waiting for the sun to warm me enough to brave the cold I slosh through the inland pools like a Ranger on the hunt for Hobbits.
Hours. Hours of days of years. Hours on the rocks, in the sun and shade and solitude and company. Feet grip the ever-varied surface of the primordial rock, shod at first but quickly bare and free and chafing with salty, slimy, sharp, or the unnerving soft of lichen. Ever so many pools in that miniature mountainous expanse of stone, each its own world of dark green and too golden sun, or black and slick, reflecting back to me my face drowned in blue sky. Lobbing rocks and tossing sticks and slipping feet and smashing the smoothness of pools, we slip easily between alone and together, unbothered; independent comrades.
The rocks are from another time, a time of large and ungainly and asymmetrical and rough and intricate. They’ve slipped out from under the Lake, emancipated themselves into sentries and city walls. The slosh of the Lake-edge against their ancient backs and ankles is incessant. The water roils deep and clear, setting the rocks beneath it a-shimmer, gleaning their color and glowing sweet golden-green light.
If it’s evening I’m alone, on the furthest seat I can find, toes taunting the waves that slip shallow onto the barely sloping rockface, eyes straining through miles of infinitely & minutely not-flat water, trying to peel back the sky, before I slip back to the bonfire to set off sparklers or roast marshmallows or mess about with the other kids with sticks or sit and watch the coals and listen to the Doctor tell stories.
The days are filled with headlong peace. Summer then is a wild rush of unalloyed sweet, a sweet that sweeps through sunburn and bandaids and hordes of big black flies like dawn through fog. Laughter pervades the thick, cool silence. A few days in the north woods; a visit to my homeland. My family as together as we’ve ever been, Regents on the run in Our Country, leaping from cliff into river, picking up rocks from a beachful to skip them in imperturbable sunshot grey, sitting round a table full of Texans playing Fast Scrabble, covering ourselves with red, white, and blue to stand by the wooded roadside and catch candy and wave to firemen on shiny trucks, and finally packed close in a dark van at a gas station as night falls, a long night ahead of us, quiet and safe, barrelling southwards down the freeway toward Minneapolis and autumn.