september 17, 2020…everything ashes

I have three boxes of ashes on my bookshelves—some of my dad (split between my two sisters and me) and two dogs. It was a good idea at the time—having a physical part of my dad and my dogs after their death would bring comfort and peace, I thought. Now, years later, I have to confess, those ashes sitting on my shelves have really not done much for me.

I never think about my dad or my dogs when I look at the boxes that hold their remains, because I rarely look at those boxes. I think a lot about my dad at other times—when Roy Orbison’s voice croons from a jukebox, when I utter one of his infamous one-liners (“You’re talking like a shit salesman with a sample in your mouth!”), when I pull out my toolbox to fix a leaking faucet. Sweet memories of my dogs come when I hike in the shimmery shadows of quiet woods, when I see a Siberian husky soar after a frisbee, when I stop for a Dairy Queen (Buster bar for me, pup cup of vanilla for the pups, always).

Those boxes of ashes have taken up space on my shelves for a good decade or more, tucked between photographs and books. The only time I contemplate them is when I’m inspired to dust, which is another way of saying seasonally, at best. Then, my thoughts are vaguely practical: These boxes sure make good bookends. Or vaguely morbid: Wonder if I’ll wind up in a box on someone’s shelf, or maybe in a dumpster? Sometimes, I think of the news story I’d read years ago, about a couple of punks who broke into a home and snorted the remains of, coincidentally, a man and his two dogs, believing they were drugs.

Yesterday, on a whim, I decided it was time to do something with the ashes on my shelf and, incidentally, the pandemic fatigue that seems to have settled a little too incessantly, insistently under my skin of late, as though it’s kicked back, feet up on my coffee table, barking orders like some kind of rude-ass guest who has no intention of leaving. Everything feels besotted in grief—when I look around, my eyes settle on familiar things that don’t match up to the feelings in my cells. Like everything is a ghostly version of what it used to be…

After clearing my schedule, after googling to make sure it’s okay to spread remains on public land, after shushing the rational voices in my head telling me to stay home and be a responsible, not whimsical, adult, I tucked my dead dogs in an old backpack, my alive dog in the back seat of my ol’ jeep that seems to be making curious/alarming new noises every day, destination: Oberg Mountain, on the Superior Hiking trail of MN’s north shore.

As I ran back into the house for Rocco, my cousin/neighbor/landlord called to say the plumber, who was supposed to be stopping by later in the afternoon to fix my clogged tub and a mysterious leak that was slowly infiltrating the neighbor’s laundry room below, was on his way over this morning instead. I groaned inward at the possible thwart to my impulsive plan. “I’m on my way home, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes—if you could just hang around untilI I get there, I’d so appreciate it.” I can do that, I said, and no sooner had we hung up when Rocco erupted into a barking frenzy at pounding on the door. I grabbed a mask from a basket in the hallway (what the even normalizing fuck?), affixed it to my face, and opened the door to a hulking frame in the entryway, TRUMP 2020 emblazoned in fabric stretched across the lower half of a broad, mulleted head. 

Good GOD. It’s not Halloween yet—I nearly slammed the door in the Hulk’s face, but resisted the impulse. Instead, I took a deep breath and tried my damndest to focus not on the aggressive white words stretched over the mouth, and instead on the eyes peering over the rim of the mask. It took every cell of my being to not blurt out ,”Since when did Trump supporters start taking science seriously?” as I walked him to the bathroom, contemplating the motivation behind the mask. Just shut up, Jen, this is not your home this is not your home this is not your home, my brain repeated over and over, let Erin and Kurt deal with this... Erin met me in the driveway a few minutes later; I warned her of the obnoxious sight awaits her inside. The brief, unsettling encounter confirmed my desperate need for a deep cleansing nature bath.

Funny, in my distracted mind, when I started the road trip, Oberg was just north of Duluth a bit. As the hum of the highway anesthetized the incessant chatter of my brain, as I caught the shimmer of Gitchigumi through the trees, I suddenly remembered that Oberg is actually damned near to Grand Marais, not one of the highly populated attractions scattered along hwy 61, but off a winding, unpaved backroad. It was already 1 pm, I still had two hours of driving—will this old Jeep even make it that far? Would my dog, who’s already stress-drooled about three gallons of saliva all over my back seat, in spite of the Thundershirt/CBD oil combo.

Also in my head: I remembered the Oberg trail as an arduous path, steep inclines littered with rocks and roots, endless time-eating switchbacks—good gravy, it’ll be dark before I get to the top…will Rocco, who’s been panting like a maddog in the backseat, be up for this hike…maybe I should have told someone where I was going…maybe I should settle for Jay Cooke, or Gooseberry, or the lakeshore itself, somewhere that’s not four hours away, the rational (dare I say smallest) part of my brain was quietly pleading. Too late now, the loudmouth part retorted, I’m obsessed with Oberg.

The last time I hiked Oberg (or tried to) was nearly to the date, 11 years ago with Bob, our annual mid-September spiritual ecstatic ritual, to saturate our senses in the north shore’s fall glory before winter settled in. It was just before his cancer diagnosis. He was already sick, I know this in hindsight, but doctors had yet to confirm that the weight loss and hip pain were not sciatica or a herniated disk or work stress or all in his or his hysterical wife’s head, but something more ominous—a terminal bone tumor on his sacrum, that had twisted his sciatic and a few other nerves in cement-like matter, already beginning its slow, agonizing life-squeezing mission.

Gaia was old—12 or 13, Rocco was just a bitty pup, maybe five months old, who from the day I brought him home from Safe Hands Rescue, hated riding in cars. He laid over my lap, panting incessantly, occasionally vomiting down my leg or into the console cupholder. Gaia snoozed in the backseat, I intermittently read and sopped up vomit, Bob drove, mostly quiet the whole trip. The weekend was abysmal—it didn’t just rain, a torrential downpour parked its ass right on top of our weekend, all day and into the night, drowning out any plans for hiking, sight-seeing, or photography. Bob’s camera equipment sat untouched in the corner of the not-in-a-hip-way kitschy motel room all weekend. Our nerves were fried (his, unbeknownst to us at the time, far more than mine), cooped up in the smelly little room for three days; by the end of the weekend, we were barely speaking to each other. Little did we know it would be our last vacation. When we returned from that trip, cancer kicked into high gear what it had started that fall and we spent the rest of our life together engulfed in the horrors of the oncology world. Bob died about nineteen months after that trip.

I’ve only been to the north shore twice since, only as far as Gooseberry and never alone. But, I’ve had great designs to some day take our dog’s ashes up to Oberg and scatter them along the path to the brilliant leaf show that we used to hike frequently. It’s taken over a decade and a pandemic and the impending doom of November’s election an a whole bunch of other inexplicable stuff connected to constellations and wind, rise and fall of the sun and molting of caterpillars and energy of trees and ghosts of so many beckoning, to finally get around to it, or muster the intestinal fortitude, or whatever, to make the pilgrimage.

I breeze through Duluth, regrettably choosing the “expressway” over the scenic drive, to Oberg. On a Thursday mid-afternoon, traffic is blissfully thin. I finally ease the old jeep down the accurately recalled wash-board-rumbly, gravel road and into a remote parking lot at 3 pm; I gather Rocco and the backpack of earthly remains and begin the trek up the mountain. I stop at the trail sign and read that, contrary to memory, the Oberg loop is just over 2 miles. Funny, how memory can distort things so effectively, how easily we can be convinced that our version is the the right and only one.

The fall foliage, a spilling of brilliant vegetable soup colors across the land, confirmed my decade-old memories. The spectacle days are numbered, if you’re hoping to experience this yet, this year. Don’t let the drab trees along the shoreline fool you—you need to go inland a few miles to find the magic. We begin the hike by switchbacking on rocky-root-tangled trails (a slightly challenging natural obstacle course, not nearly as long or treacherous as my memories), through thick enchanted woods. I traversed an emotional trail in tandem with the physical, noting how even after ten years, even with faulty memory, some of the setting is eerily, sharply familiar, down to singular rocks, roots, trees.

Along the way, I sprinkle a handful of ashes here and there, sometimes invoking a memory of my dogs, thanking them for being in my life, sometimes simply attending the moment, without words. The powdery remains settle on rocks, greenery, drift onto my boots and the legs of my pants, like fairy dust. I feel grit in my mouth and wonder if it’s part of my dogs. Rocco stands patiently, indulging my meandering and stopping, as though he’s aware of the reverence of things.

The trees eventually ease back to offer the first view of the colorful quit laid across the land. I remember when I saw this sight for the first time (I couldn’t even guess how long ago), grateful I wasn’t standing too close to the precipice, or I might have been startled right over the edge. This time, I am equally startled. My heart flips, my throat tightens and my eyes spill over with tears, as visceral as it was so long ago, but for different reasons. I sprinkle more ashes, snap a few pics that pale in the washed-out afternoon light that won’t do justice to the scene…the mountain is blissfully serene, nearly void of other hikers; I imagine the weekend will look more like an amusement park…

I walk a little farther down from the first overlook and see a woman pacing near the edge of a rocky drop-off. As I get got closer, I see she’s talking to a man in a flannel jacket with a camera and a tripod, crouched precariously on a lower precipice. They’re older than me, maybe 60s or even 70s; immediately, I’m pulled back to another lifetime ago, Bob doing the same thing as the man is doing—daredevil antics to get a good shot—she doing as I would have done, pacing nervously, begging him to be careful, I remember suggesting we tie one end of a rope around his waist and the other to a sturdy tree, should he slip…

I’m normally not one to chit-chat on a hike—a simple hello, beautiful day, isn’t it? usually suffices—but as I get closer, the woman turns around and smiles at us, and I can’t help but tell her how they reminded me of my husband and I, and try to condense in a few words the past ten or so years of my life and feel like some kind of whacko, especially standing with two plastic bags of powdery white stuff in each hand and a dog whose managed to wrap himself tight around my legs.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says quietly, and then stretches her arm out toward the man on the ledge. “He lost his wife two years ago, I just lost my husband this past November…then my dad….then my job, with the pandemic…we were all best friends…it’s been so hard…he thought it might be a good idea to come up here and visit the shore, for change of scenery, you know,” The tears reappear in my eyes, as well as hers.

Memory, being so unreliable as it is, won’t allow me to recreate word for word the conversation; I’d commit a grave transgression of irreverence if I tried. How does one capture the sacredness of this scene: the man with the camera, who comes up from the ledge to join the woman and me. Rocco, who usually gets a little freaky around strangers, walks over to each and presses himself against their legs, stretching his gaze upward. How we stand, on the smooth rocky outcropping, a small grief gathering enveloped in the healing glow of fiery oranges, fierce reds, shimmery yellows.

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