Painting Moments with Words

I’m driving north on Interstate 35 after a day spent in Columbia Heights, Minnesota. The sun is gone. Winter clouds have parted, exposing a well-missed speckled dome. White lights from vehicles traveling south dart passed on my left. Amber tail lights and yellow blinkers dot the lanes in front of me. The rear-view mirror reflects what is behind. From above the treeline north of the Finlayson/Askov exit, radio antenna towers flash red warning lights while others remain constant. My direction is a meandering north-by-northeast heading, but my aim is home, my aim is to return the woods.

I look to the sky, and poised stoically in the Northern hemisphere is the Big Dipper. The constellation is tipped so perfectly I can’t help but send a smile back. A small smile with a slight nod that says, “Yes, I agree.” I lean forward in the seat, wrap my arms around the top of the steering wheel, and lay one hand over the other, the common driving pose one assumes for meditative and ponderous thought. My eyes trace the stars that make up the handle of the constellation, and maybe I’m projecting, or want a physical message from the grand galaxy, but the handle, low and clear arched toward the earth, points directly at home.

I understand the scene animated before me. It is caused by the angles of light, the axial rotation of the earth in conjunction with celestial bodies, the location of space I currently occupy, and the direction of my visual field. But in the melodramatic way humans tend to attach personal meaning to random acts, or interpret basic physics as a direct message from an omniscient being, I am comfortable, and comforted, with the idea that the stars are guiding me home.

I drive in silence, welcoming a world transitioning from farm fields to trees. I welcome the skyline that holds mystery in its darkness and witness the emergence of poplar and pine that seem to dance in the strobe lights cast by cars, billboards, and exit-ramp lamps. And then, too quickly almost, I pass Midway Road where a natural spring flows freely. Then, I pass landmarks that symbolize the elevated entrance to Duluth on Thompson Hill — McDonald’s and Holiday, Spirit Mountain and Ely’s Peak. Cresting the ridge line, the red lights of Duluth’s radio towers on top of Observation Hill pulse in a rhythm I happily consider to be a distant wave. Entering any other city I would consider these monstrosities as light pollution. But these ones have always transfixed me, and I realize I don’t see them as a nuisance, but rather a beacon, silent winks that define where I am — at the beginning of Minnesota’s North Shore, and almost, home.

Duluth, and its sister city Superior, Wisconsin, do not reveal themselves as coy lovers or ships sailing in the distance. Instead, the lights of both cities erupt into a panoramic view that seems timeless. A landscape of layers present themselves with industrial security outlined by miles and miles of natural possibilities waiting to be personally discovered. Lights and bridges, train tracks and smoke stacks, elevation changes and waterways enunciated by flatness outlined with crooked edges, evoke a welcome-home feeling like that of a permanent Christmas tree blinking quietly in the night.

I do everything I can to hold this feeling crisp and pure. I wish, no, actually I crave, the ability to capture it all within a photograph, or in a painting. I wish I could create a visual representation that would reveal this evening’s shadowy, alluring, silent, peaceful, harmonious, elongated moment. But I am not a photographer, nor a painter. All I have is the ability to express the personal experiences of my physical and emotional world through words. So I retain the memory of moments as deeply as possible by scribbling notes and trying to score fragments of emotional wonder into my grey matter for later recall.

I drive slow passed Moose Mountain and pay attention to the rising landscape that corresponds with my elevated sense of awareness. I pass Lakewood Elementary School where the undulating roadside ditch is imprinted with curvaceous snowmobile tracks. Then I pass Dave Rogotzke’s Simple Gifts sugar maple farm, a hidden gem tucked neatly away with blue and black tubes connecting maple to maple. I slow the vehicle to a crawl and peer at my house in the woods, a cabin nested in snow. The squareness of human-made buildings stand out as distinct, logical shapes amongst the multitude of macro curves and sporadic sharp edges nature designs. Fallen trees covered in snow give random rise and dips to a white desert top open for wind to carve and smooth at its will; and the jutting spike of needles from a variety of evergreens, or branches that criss-cross in a manic disarray, humble my attempt to paint the depths of this picture with words. And all I can do is stare as I approach a small hollow in the roadside snow mound and enter a drive carved repetitively, row by row, by a snow blower, and park at the gate, and take a minute, and write.

I know the dogs are waiting. I’m sure they’ve heard the echo of tires crunch on packed snow and ice. And I know they will release a spastic, “Hello. You’ve been gone forever. We thought you weren’t coming home. We defended the house the entire time. We love you. We need you. Now please let us out. We need to run, and sniff, and make our presence known to the deer, the sleeping bear, the potential wolf pack, and the mice burrowing in the snow.” But greedily, I want one more minute, one more connective poetic sentence that captures what I need to unveil before I have to gather items from the vehicle, warm the house with a fire, and mix canned dog food gravy into crunchy Bear and Shilo food.

So I stand at the gate and take one more glance toward the sky where constellations now sleep behind a blanket of grey winter fluff. I take one more consciously long inhale before I open the gate and step into another layer of Duluth. But this time, and this layer, the one I peel back when I open the gate, happens to be mine. And tonight, I walk into it with a thankful heart reassured by the fact that the Big Dipper highlighted the truth — I was heading in the right direction all along.

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