I’m perched on a worn wooden deck, high above a northern Minnesota lake. A gaggle of grandchildren are splashing in crystal clear water that I think is way too cold, but the kids don’t seem to mind. I’ve spent most of my life seeing cold and wet as something to be avoided if possible and it’s probably too late to teach me otherwise. Earlier, I listened to a loon in the morning mist while someone other than I made breakfast. Already today there’s been fishing, tennis, and a certain amount of strolling through a national forest. After lunch, all the kids and the some of the adults are going horseback riding.
This is something my wife does. A few years ago, she stopped giving stuff for Christmas and instead gives experiences. We’ve gathered at Douglas Lodge on Lake Itasca, where the Mississippi River begins, we’ve ridden the train to Chicago, and we’ve spent time at Wisconsin Dells. We aim for something different every year.
I think she’s brilliant. It’s a good thing to do for the kids. I never really learned to play as a child, other than sports in high school, but as far as hobbies like jigsaw puzzles or golf - I don’t know anything about them. It’s a hole in my life. Even now, when we’re purposely vacationing on the lake, surrounded by rustling birch trees, I feel a vague sense of anxiety if I’m not doing something productive, and lounging in bed until 8:00 fills me with shame.
When I was a kid, we went to Lake Itasca and the State Fair – short get-aways, but not real vacations. I think it’s a Minnesota law that kids walk across the Mississippi Headwaters and eat a Pronto Pup.
As I remember, we took two actual vacations in twenty years. When I was about six, we went to Yellowstone Park. On that trip, I bought a yellow jackknife that had a picture of a grizzly bear on it. I lost it within two days. I also picked a cactus and pulled countless prickles out of my fingers for the next three months.
When I was thirteen we went to eastern Washington state for Christmas with relatives, then continued on to the Oregon coast, where, for the first time I saw big, angry water. The experience must have imprinted in my brain, because the placid Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico doesn’t hold much fascination. Harsh waves crashing on battered rocks is something I can watch indefinitely.
When we got married, we committed to doing something recreational on a regular basis. In 1976, we drove to the Black Hills when my wife was pregnant with our first child and slept in the back of, believe it or not, a hatchback Chevy Vega. The next year, we stayed at a northern Minnesota cabin for two days, where I caught my first non-bullhead fish while our son kicked up his heels from his car seat.
Over forty years later, it’s still the peak of my fish-catching career. I still haven’t learned how to golf or water ski, and in general, I’m hobby-deficient. And that’s a mistake. I’m glad I know how to work – which is not actually such a rare skill. Let’s face it, anyone who grew up when and where I did probably has that mastered. But there’s more to life than work. While I may not be able to hit a golf ball, thanks to our intermittent adventures, I know the taste of jerk pork cooked in an oil drum on the side of the road in Kingston, Jamaica, and I’ve been eye level with the presidents on Mount Rushmore from the back of a horse, across a long valley. I know how a wolf sounds through the thin nylon of a tent, and I’ve watched Fourth of July fireworks from a city square in Savannah, Georgia. It’s a big world out there, with all sorts of people living all sorts of lives, and when we don’t seize every possible moment to be enlightened and educated, we’re cheating ourselves and our families.
It doesn’t all have to be educational. A little golf is okay. Swimming in cold water though…that’s just nuts.
Copyright 2020 Brent Olson