If I tell you that I traveled clear to the other side of the Midwest for the opportunity to trudge six miles across a snow-covered, frozen bay in the dark of night, you might be inclined to ask why. Well, I can’t tell you that. There are certain things in life that we just have to do. Maybe it’s something to do with thrillseeking or spending time with friends, or maybe it’s just a more primal urge that we all have: There’s something missing in my life, and it’s a six-mile trudge through the night across a snow-covered, frozen bay. Don’t just look at me. Over four thousand other people did it too. Many of them paid good money for the privilege.
It’s the Chequamegon Bay’s annual event Book Across the Bay. It’s billed as “the Upper Midwest’s most unique winter event”, and while I’ll leave the pedants to argue over whether that’s true or even a meaningful statement, there certainly isn’t another 10k skiing-snowshoeing-walking race around here that uses Lake Superior as the racetrack. I caught a ride in with Soren, who I’d met at a traditional skills gathering in August near Ashland, and we stayed with Katie of the Superior bike trip, into whose 12′ × 14′ tinyhouse we eventually crammed a maximum of eight weirdos (awake) or six (asleep).
On Saturday, the morning of the Book,1 I woke up with an ominous scratchiness in my throat, which went on, over the course of the day, to invite its friends the body aches.
It’s possible that I was being taught a lesson. I spent most of this winter basically sedentary: my theory being, mostly, that I’d get outdoors and really do some fun stuff toward the end of winter, once I was finished with this genealogy project, but for now I needed to buckle down and work on this. That, of course, was justification. What was really happening was that I was in Ohio for most of the winter. Now of course, everywhere in the world is actually wild and natural. The difference between places is in how much effort it takes to see it that way. For a while, living just outside downtown Minneapolis, I took frequent summer walks and practiced shifting my attention from the houses, pavement, cars, yelling humans, to other living things. And suddenly I noticed that the trees surrounding a house frequently dwarfed it, making the house look like an afterthought, and the streets that I’d imagined as wastelands were actually overshadowed by the shade of those trees and lined with bushes and flowers and tall grasses, and the squirrels up in the branches seemed totally unconcerned that this place wasn’t “wild”.
Civilization is a state of mind. Want to see concrete, you’ll see concrete. Want to see the flowers poking up through every crack, you’ll see those. Want to hold in your mind even the concrete of the sidewalk as a natural expression of a species that’s just as much an animal making a living as any other citizen of the kingdom of Animalia, and you can do that too.
But it requires effort, sometimes. Because our minds are adaptation machines, and although civilization may be a state of mind that you can switch out of, in most places we live, it’s the default state, and switching is discouraged. I was in Ohio, back and forth between my mom’s place (a very typical suburb) and my dad’s place (a massive house next to the Great Miami River, but, like all its neighbors, surrounded by lawn right down to the banks and practically devoid of any growth not planted by humans). In both places I struggled to break out of the usual Ohio mindset: you live in civilization, which is rectilinear and ruly, and you can go recreate in the wilderness, for the duration of a hike or a vacation, to spectate at the places where things aren’t all rectilinear. This mindset isn’t unique to Ohio, but it does seem especially rampant there, and that’s why I have a hard time living in Ohio. Perhaps why most Ohioans also seem to have a hard time living there.
And it’s why I put off any outdoor time while I was living there. I was just waiting for when I got to the real wilderness, up north, even though wilderness was all around me: wilderness that had been extensively insulted by human blades and pavement, so somewhat depressing, but wilderness nonetheless. But when I got sick on the morning of Book Across the Bay, I wondered if the wilderness was telling me something. Like: “You can’t love nature and spend time with it only where it’s really pure. You have to give us our due everywhere you go if you are who you say you are. So here’s how we’re going to do this: you can enjoy this icy bay, but you’re going to be sick the whole time and not enjoy it in the pure way you’ve been looking forward to for months. Remember that nothing is ever pure.”
But I still went. There were seven of us by the time we piled into a couple cars and headed to the beach where the starting line was. (For those keeping track, it was me, Katie, Soren, Ava (of the bike trip), Leo, Alex, and Asher.) Now, I had no idea before coming to town how big of a deal this thing was. It turns out: big. The bonfire at the start looked like it was probably visible from space, sending a pillar of flame up into the night sky to the height of a fair-sized tree, fed liberally with 12-foot two-by-fours. There were dozens of thickly bundled people gathered around it, and hundreds more milling around elsewhere on the snow-buried sands, even now at 6:30, after all three waves of people actually racing had long since departed across the lake, leaving just the casual walkers like us. People were chatting with friends, absorbing a little extra warmth before setting out, pregaming with a few shots perhaps. Our little band hung out briefly, but then we headed for the ice.
Funny thing: I didn’t even know I was on the ice until I’d been walking on it for at least a hundred yards. The Ashland area has had its snowiest February on record, and the surface of the lake was probably a good two feet beneath my feet. The path was marked, in an inspired touch, by a line of thousands of luminaries made out of ice, each one a hollow thick-walled cylinder the size of a five-gallon bucket, with a candle nestled inside to make the whole thing glow. They stretched out in a line that led out into the darkness like a road of stars through the night sky.
So there we were. Just walking. That’s what there was to do, now. Just keep taking steps. The snow was pretty well packed by some machine or other that had come through to groom the trail, but each footstep still sank down an inch or so; think of walking on a marshmallow. It could’ve been worse: when we first got on, we were on the car lane, not the foot trail, and when we crossed over an expanse of untouched snow to get back on track, we postholed in up to our knees with each step. Getting to the better packed snow of the trail felt like reaching a desert oasis. We’d walked maybe twenty yards.
It was no lonely trek, though, in fact perhaps a bit too much the opposite. We passed knots of people, and other knots passed us, people I might not have believed capable of walking two blocks, here to make the long haul. Many of the groups had a phone playing music, and traveled along ensconced in the protective bubbles of sound, safely insulated from any contact with the actual world around them. But there were solitary skiers and quieter people out too. We said vague hi’s but mostly kept to ourselves.
I’d underestimated how long six miles might feel in this kind of snow. After a good long walk, a sign came into view, which, as we waited to be close enough to read it, I figured might be the halfway marker, or maybe more likely the quarter-way. We came closer and I could finally make it out:
to the line
I adjusted my expectations.
Each new sign—each new kilometer—came with its own little surprise. Generally it was a bonfire. Did you know you can start a bonfire on top of ice? Apparently there’s not even that much to it. The layer of water that forms under the fire seems to protect the ice from getting directly melted. Give it long enough and I suppose it’d burn through, but that evidently takes an eternity, because we saw some big fires that’d been burning for hours, and they were all still above water. The bonfire wasn’t the surprise at the sign; the bonfire was just the organizers supplying a basic human need. The surprise was whoever was sitting next to it, who might have water, or cookies, or other stuff to keep you going. At one bonfire, a guy gave me an empty collapsible water jug and seemed to positively yearn to give me another one.
Not long after the first kilometer, the smashers started catching up with us. The smashers take this already surreal race and make it feel like something out of a young adult fantasy novel. There’s a guy driving a caterpillar-track truck who follows along behind the walkers, after most of them have gotten going. He lets out a couple kids who have a big ax and a sledgehammer, and they smash up the luminaries as they go. It feels like you’re being chased by a demonic force that will snuff out your life force or something if it overtakes you. Of course it’s perfectly possible to walk the course guided only by the piles of smashed ice, but once the smashers come, all the magic has been destroyed, sucked back into the bottle to be held for next year. Mercifully the smashers move slow, and after a while they fell a good long distance behind us. But Soren felt called to protect the light: he picked up a luminary and started carrying it with him. I figured he’d carry it for either thirty seconds or the rest of the race. After thirty seconds were done I knew he was in it for the duration: a martyr for a cause he never bothered to define even to himself.
As we got close to the halfway mark, we could hear music floating over the ice, funky Cajun stuff that Alex thought she recognized. When we got closer we found a big warm tent full of—well, not a dance party: just a bunch of people getting warm. We’d been in for about five seconds when a burly man in some position of authority started swearing at Soren for having the gall to bring a luminary inside. “Get the fuck out of here with that!” None of us could figure out what he thought was going to happen because there was a candle inside. We left. Lame party anyway.
But at the sixth kilometer, there was a better prize—this bonfire was sponsored by Spirit Creek Farm, where several of our group (not me) had worked. So they had a merry little reunion on the ice, although the farmers had already given away all 800 of the meatballs they brought. Those would’ve been a nice change from frozen cookies. Apparently Soren broke his new prosthetic tooth on one of those somewhere along the line.
Not long after Spirit Creek, Soren proposed we all lie down in the snow. Very soon, a loud bro we’d recently passed caught up and had a lot of fun serenading us and being generally goofy, even with nothing to go on except us lying there silently in the snow. “It’s literally a bunch of people lying in the snow!” he told his other loud friends as they left without him, and kept singing. He kind of spoiled the quiet, reflective moment, but it was funny enough that we didn’t mind. We finally got up when the smashers came up behind us, and kept walking until we got some distance on them. For a while we were walking right alongside them as they axed the luminaries, but they didn’t say anything about the one Soren was carrying, if they even noticed. They seemed to have a singleminded focus, like goons from an eight-bit side-scroller.
At the eighth kilometer was a dragon sculpted out of ice and fitted with a flamethrowing pipe in its mouth. Unless I just didn’t get the right perspective, I think we were so late in the pack that the flames had melted the dragon’s whole head off, or else they sculpted it to look like a shapeless stump.
A little shy of the ninth kilometer Soren’s luminary went out. There was a collective groan, and we all stopped long enough for him to hurl its lightless body off the path. But the end was in sight. It approached with lights and music and the biggest bonfire yet. I could see a tent, which, as we got closer, proved to be the size of a small hangar.
Finally walking on land again felt strange; the ground was all hard. There was a finish line, but no fanfare; it felt less like completing an illustrious challenge and more like making it to your friend’s house after a long walk. But inside the tent it was warm, and there was a country-western band up front playing covers, and someone gave me a drink ticket, and we all lost each other, and there was no more walking left to walk. I mostly sat. Now that I wasn’t egging myself forward, my aches were starting to catch up with me. Sitting was bliss.
As it turned out, we had another kilometer or so to walk to get back to the car. I fell asleep more or less instantly when we got back and figured out the bed situation, and slept long and hard.
The next day I had to sleep practically all day; whatever I had caught had really come into its own, and I felt like an eighty-year-old fibromyalgic. But even on that day Katie took me and Asher to a terrific house show in town. In the days since, I’ve mostly read and caught up on things like letter-writing. Soon will come the final stages of work on the genealogy book. For now I’ll just hang out here in the Black Cat, my surrogate living room, as snowstorm after snowstorm buries the Chequamegon Bay area, and hopefully even find the time and motivation to figure out what’s next in my life.
My Chequamegon friends and I came up with various theories about why it’s called “Book Across the Bay”, but basically we agreed that they probably just wanted a motion word that would alliterate, and it has nothing to do with physical books. (Research tells me that people only started using book to mean “skedaddle” in 1977, but the event was started in the ’90s.) It does get confusing when people ask, “How was your Book?” ↩