As my husband and I opened our Minnesota Atlas and Gazetteer to the map of Lake County, we discovered two brown blotches right about the area of Finland that looked like open pit mines. We chuckled when we discovered they were actually coffee stains from one of our previous trips up the Shore. We couldn't be sure just when and where the coffee spill occurred, but visions of pouring from the thermos while sitting in the truck on some remote back road, trying to figure out which adventure to take next, made us smile.
That's the way we've chosen to live much of our married life. In fact, it was 17 years ago -- the year before we got married -- that we first drove up the Shore to climb Eagle Mountain. For those of you not well-versed in the geography of that area, Eagle Mountain is the highest point in Minnesota. Ken had scaled it once before and he said he wanted to take me up there to see the view, though he warned me it was a bit more rugged than your average hike.
At that time, I was so crazy about him I would have climbed straight up the side of the mountain if he'd asked me to!
The day we made the climb was in the midst of summer, with the sun high in the sky and the temperatures climbing by the hour. It proved to be a long, hot and arduous climb, around winding tree roots and over jagged boulders, but there was nothing in the world like the feeling of making it to the top. And while it was nowhere close to scaling Mt. Everest, we felt as though we had accomplished our own personal victory.
It was on the trip down that I began to feel the little aches and pains of unused climbing muscles settle in. With nearly every downhill step, my ankles ached, my knees throbbed and my calves stung. It was even difficult to walk on flat land when we got to the bottom! I recall spending several days recuperating from the hike, realizing my physical fitness left a lot to be desired.
Last week we made the same climb once again as we headed up the Shore to celebrate our 16th anniversary. This time the weather was considerably cooler and we packed a lunch before we departed so we could pace ourselves and take our time. And though it had been years since we'd done it the last time, little by little the landmarks along the trail began to look familiar and we could feel the strain on our muscles begin to settle in.
When we made it to the top, however, we once again experienced that feeling of exhilaration at having accomplished something significant. We took our time cooling off in the stiff winds at the top, gazing out over the vast panorama of trees, rivers and land-locked lakes. We realized we were above bird level and their flyways were, in most cases, below us. We watched as a rather large raven comically fought a losing battle against the air currents and finally settled in the top of a large pine tree to regroup.
The autumn landscape was rich with color, and with no one else up there at the time, it was as though we were a million miles from anywhere and lords of our own kingdom. We found it hard to tear ourselves away and start back down the trail. When we did, those familiar little nagging aches and pains threatened to come back once again, but this time instead of letting it disable us we seemed to hit our stride and walked right out of it.
I realized with surprise that though I am considerably older now, I am actually in much better hiking condition than I was back when we first hiked it, since the two of us have spent a lot of time on trails and mountains during our married years.
In the days that followed, we hiked Oberg Mountain, Trout Creek Trail in Cascade River State Park, various back roads along the Gunflint Trail and a number of anonymous forest roads among the gloriously colored autumn leaves.
On our fourth day out, Ken suggested that we hike to Devil's Kettle Falls in Judge C.R. Magney State Park. I never once batted an eyelid. The mile and a half trail along the banks of the Brule River was a piece of cake, but the 198 steps down to the falls (and back up again!) were a killer! We took our time once again, and stopped frequently to catch our breath and stretch out our tightening muscles. And before we knew it we'd made it, feeling like a million bucks for having succeeded without any major stress or strain.
At the conclusion of our vacation I felt stronger than I did going into it, and I decided that the two of us must be doing something right. And it's true -- because after 16 years of marriage, I'm still so crazy about Ken I'd hike straight up the side of a mountain if he asked me to!