SPLIT ROCK LIGHTHOUSE
From the very beginning Jack had planned a detour up Highway 61. He wanted to experience the highway Bob Dylan had famously written of, take it up to Hibbing and see the childhood home Dylan had grown up in there. He thought he might find some of Dylan’s muse up there on the Minnesota coast. But not even during his wildest office fantasies had he pictured it this breathtaking; if ever there was a place to go looking for Dylan’s muse, this was it.
He sat Indian style on a flat boulder on the cliff at his campsite, looking out at Split Rock Lighthouse looming in the distance over Lake Superior, its revolving beacon flashing over great crags of rock that made Superior’s coastline crooked here, over a small island of orangish gray rock which was coated in towering green pines, over the eternal horizon of Superior’s waters. He looked with a sense of wonder that he thought he had lost along with his childhood a long time ago. The scene reminded him of the Oregon coast in The Goonies – when One-Eyed Willie’s eighteenth century pirate ship emerges from the cliffs out onto the Pacific, majestically emancipated from its dark cave. From his spot up on the cliff, he could hear children from campsites below playing Ghosts in the Graveyard, chanting “Dead man! Dead man! Come a-LIVE!” Oh, the sweet memories of childhood.
He had arrived at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Minnesota just before eight o’clock central time, with little time to spare in pitching his tent before dark. It had been a long and beautiful travel day. The four mile hike from Lake Superior Cabin to his car seemed much easier than the hike in, as many portions of the trail had dried up in the sweltering heat of the last couple days. His bags were also considerably lighter on the hike out, on account that he no longer had the weight of his food sagging him down. Many more snake sightings kept him guarded during the hike out, but he had seen so many during his trip that he was mostly shrugging them off by then. When he finally arrived at the trail head, sweaty and physically exhausted, he never thought he had been so happy to see his car.
In an impromptu picnic he immediately scarfed down two pop tarts and a hot water bottle he found sitting in the back seat, which gave him just enough energy to resolve to see the Lake of the Clouds after all. He blasted the air conditioning and drove through the forested road out of the park to Ontanagon, where he picked up a cold bottle of Mountain Dew, a king sized Snickers bar, and a long-awaited fresh tin of Grizzly Wintergreen. Feeling a new man, he made the drive back into the Porcupine Mountains, determined to make one last hike to see the famed Lake of the Clouds, which did not disappoint.
There were long stretches of the drive through the Western Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin during which he saw no other cars for miles and miles, and on several of these occasions Jack caught himself wondering if he had ascended to another world. For the first time in several weeks he found himself feeling as if life were more than a chore.
Along the drive he spotted several deer along the roadside, but other than that he saw no wildlife – nothing but North Woods forest, rolling hills, rivers and creeks, and small rinky-dink towns that weren’t even on the map. He made a brief pit stop at a scenic rest stop on the Superior coast of Northern Wisconsin, where he admired the girls laying out on the beach and walked out on the dock to view the enormous lumber mills on the lakeside, imagining himself a die-hard Packers fan who had worked these mills half his life; he could live here, he thought – he could fight in a place like this. He made a second pit stop at an outpost in Minnesota just outside of Duluth, where he ate one of the best pulled pork sandwiches of his life for dinner. From there, he crossed the Duluth Bridge and veered North up Highway 61.
When he had envisioned the trip, Jack had pictured some pivotal epiphany or some other grand metaphorical event occurring on Bob Dylan’s famed Highway 61. Dylan had been his very first inspiration for writing, back in high school, and Highway 61 had always symbolized some metaphorical escape from everything he hated about his hometown back then. He had even went digging through his old high school cd collection, picked out “Highway 61 Revisited” for this portion of the journey, hoping it might set in motion some life-altering realization:
Well, Georgia Sam, he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department, they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard, “Where can I go?”
Howard said, “There’s only one place I know”
And Sam said, “Tell me quick, man, I got to run”
Oh, Howard just pointed with his gun
And said, “That way, down on Highway 61”
So it was disappointing to find the entire drive up Highway 61 to Two Harbors clogged by orange traffic barrels and men in neon green vests.
“Still,” he reminded himself, “hard to feel down considering all the sights and scenery we saw today”. From the hike back up to the Little Carp River Gorge, to the Lake of the Clouds, the Northern Wisconsin coast, the Aerial Lift Bridge over the water in Duluth, and the massive cliffs of the Minnesota coast, it was hard to complain about that kind of day, especially considering that a mere five weeks ago he had been pent up in a cubicle staring out the window, longing for this exact place. And still the best was yet to come; when he arrived at his campsite in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park at sundown, the view was unlike anything he had ever seen before.
He parked his car at the designated lot and made the short hike to his campsite on the cliff. The fire ring and tent site lay on level grass on a ledge of the cliff, and a narrow trail led upwards to the crest of the cliff. He climbed up to find the view of a lifetime laid out before him – a three hundred foot drop to the crags of Lake Superior below, cliffs that wound their way around a small cove that was protected by a small island, towering pines jutting out at odd angles from all over the cliffs and island. Above it all stood the majestic Split Rock Lighthouse, its beacon revolving across Lake Superior’s vast, deep blue enormity. He stood atop the cliff for a long time, breathing in the lake air, reflecting, pondering life and the awe-inspiring view before him. The lighthouse fit so naturally into the scene that it looked like it could not have possibly been man made. Jack thought it must have stood there on the cliff for all of time – before man ever stepped foot in this country.
When darkness fell he gathered his radio, journal, and notebooks and hunkered down in the tent. He adjusted the radio dial for several minutes, searching for a decent station, letting his mind get lost in each station he vetted before panning the dial to the next – classical music (some Mozart composition or another), Albanian talk show, “KQ Classic Rock Duluth” (the same station he got at the cabin in the Porcupine Mountains, which he was frankly sick of), Trump worship and Obama bashing on several stations, religious babble, sports radio! Finally. There seemed to be two sports stations mashed together by a miniscule turn of the radio dial, both stations talking NBA Draft Night.
“Oh, for Chrissakes,” he said out loud in the tent, as if asking the gods for mercy, "is the Chicago station really coming in clearer than the Minnesota station?"
“Fuck Chicago,” he thought bitterly, all of the memories of her apartment in Wrigleyville swirling up in him like vengeant demons, “Chicago is dead to me.”
After scanning through the entire spectrum of the AM and FM radio dials again, though, he accepted defeat and resolved to give the Chicago sports station a shot. It was sports radio, at least, he figured.
“It’s just a radio station,” he thought, attempting yet again to suppress memories of the past two years in Chicago with her.
“Fucking sick of these Chicago stations,” a darker voice whispered, “how is it possible that Chicago stations come in across all the Great Lakes?”
Jackson was testing his limits. He opened the tent flap and smoked a cigarette while looking at the stars. He decided he would try and read some Harry Potter, try and get lost in another world for a while -- any world but his -- a plan which went smoothly enough until the big news came that “with the fourteenth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls select Denzel Valentine, shooting guard from Michigan State University”.
“Denzel fucking Valentine,” he reflected, no longer angry but just plain sad, “her alma mater”. At that, he lost it.
All of the memories came rushing back to him. So many nights spent with her at his house in Garden City, in her apartment in Chicago, at some Buffalo Wild Wings location (“our favorite restaurant”), watching Denzel Valentine lead her Spartans to some epic comeback win or another the past two years. He hated Michigan State, but he was happy in those moments – happy because it made her happy. It was a new low. Nostalgic over Michigan State sports memories.
So many nights spent with her in that Chicago apartment that had become a second home to him, getting ready to go out, staying in to order take out and watch cheesy movies, cuddling in bed on Sunday mornings, both of them dreading the prospect of having to leave – an apartment that he would never see again, so many shirts and various items left there that he would never see again. So many date nights in the Windy City – to the Natural History Museum, walking through Millennium Park and around Soldier Field, to Michigan bars for his football games, to State bars for hers, the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier, the art institute for her law school formal, long walks to their favorite zoo. Sitting in his tent that night on the cliffs of Lake Superior, those memories made him feel very dead inside.
“Chicago is dead to me!” he shouted in the tent, as if reiterating that phrase once more might change the events of his life. He turned the radio off and flung it at the side of the tent. He was silent for a long time thereafter.
By the time he calmed himself down, it was near midnight. He had wrote out enough curses and mad thoughts in his journal for one night. He unzipped the flap of the tent and climbed out to retrieve some cookies he had accidentally left on the picnic table. The stars were bright in a clear midnight blue sky. He spotted the Big Dipper hanging above Lake Superior, glowing magically over the cliffs. He crawled back into his tent, his flashlight lantern lighting the interior, and readjusted the radio dial. KQ Classic Rock it was.
“When was the last time you were in a tent?” he asked, as if he were changing the conversation with someone.
The last time he was in a tent was with Al and Jamie back in the summer of 2011, the worst summer of his life to date, hitting the slopes and guzzling beers on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan in some feeble attempt to forget the fact that the girl he had just transferred schools for had left him mere weeks before they were scheduled to move in to their apartment together, when he was a shell of a human being. The last time before that was sophomore year in his college house, when he and Andy lived in individual tents in the unfinished basement for a semester after they had been kicked out of their fraternity house, when he was a loose cannon.
He listened to the sounds of night audible over the soft songs of the radio. He could hear the big semi trucks rolling down Highway 61. “Bob Dylan’s sacred Highway 61,” he reflected; he was here at last.
Jack wondered what those truck drivers were feeling and thinking as they rumbled through the lonely night – heartsick for a girl halfway across the country? Homesick for a house where children slept peacefully in their beds? Angry or content with the hand they had been dealt in life? – wondered if they could see Dylan’s ghosts out on Highway 61.