It was my last day in northern Minnesota’s boundary waters region, and I and my three brothers — Danny, Randy and Nils — decided to cram in one last hike. We probably shouldn’t have. Our dad wanted to take us out to dinner, and it was already pushing five. But the pamphlet described an easy 3-mile round-trip hike called Magnetic Rock Trail that promised — you’ll be shocked by this revelation — a giant magnetic rock. And who wouldn’t want to see a giant magnetic rock? Doesn’t it sound too cool pass up? Could you have passed it up? Didn’t think so. Off we went.
The hike took longer than expected, not because it was any more arduous than advertised, but because the landscape hurled us into a state of awed and rampant photobuggery. We couldn’t walk 100 feet without snapping photos of trees, blackened by fire and all but branchless; of wide, pinkish rock sheets striated and crossed like broken checkerboards; of all the life springing up amid the fire-damaged vista, the deep green of the bushes, the light green of the tall and scratchy grasses, the purple bells of delicate wildflowers easing between the cracks of rock and charred wood.
It had the dreamscape feel of post-apocalyptic fiction and film: Were it not for the sunny day and sprouting leaves, we might have been trekking along Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Pausing along the trail, Nils looked out at the stubborn upward thrust of nature through all that devastation. “It’s so scarred,” he said, right then and again later on, “but look at all the life just pushing up around it.” We talked about this for a bit. The landscape seemed like a metaphor to both of us, an expression of the willful and verdant optimism that propels our movement through this world and gives us hope and light in the wake of blackening conflagration. One way or the other, worming through cracks of daylight we can’t see, life prevails.
My brothers are proof of this: I only met them at age 13 because my mother had to go to work when my father quit his job a month before earning a pension and then, over time, became depressed and incapacitated and finally suicidal. She needed to earn a paycheck. She earned it at the small girls school where I befriended a noisy, loving family who liked to laugh and seemed happy to do it with me. Years later, when my mother and father and sister died, Danny gave me his parents — just like that, in a beautiful little email that I can picture as it flickered on an early-90s monitor — and the shoots of new life started popping through the ashes.
When the bunch of us finally reached the end of the trail last week, we found the giant magnetic rock as advertised: 30 feet tall, shaped like an obelisk or some forbidding alien temple, with a pull that did a number on Danny’s compass. We snapped pictures. We snapped more pictures. We joked about pagan rituals and dancing around the base slathered in Deet. And as the sun slid behind this massive hunk of glacial debris, telling us in no uncertain terms that it was time to go back and snarf dinner with with our hungry, waiting dad, I felt grateful for all that had brought me there: the trail, the brothers, the trauma that led me to them and made of us a family. Life will out.