Reflections

The World Is Alive Then It Is Not

Written by Ditch

As I near the end of this expedition, I’ve started to look back and reflect on past events – both the joyous and that which has proven most difficult. Typically what are thought of as the most trying moments during an expedition are when the external physical factors prove to be too challenging or overwhelming. We have our boundaries and they, willingly or not, get crossed by a rainstorm, a spilled pot of food, an incessant injury. Dehydration, exhaustion, and hunger round our rough edges, give us fortitude, put hot sauce in our spaghetti. The aim is to pass through the eye of these experiences and come out on the other side, more aware of limits, more humbled and awed by the power of the natural world. These experiences are thought of as building blocks to accomplishing harder challenges. These experiences, as Calvin’s dad from the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes so often declares “build character.”

But what I’ve found on this journey is the moments that leave me guileless and desperate, are the moments when it seems the world – as well as every biotic and abiotic constituent contained within – has been blindly robbed of its sense of animacy.

Maybe you know the feeling? Clouds only seem to be the ragged and lost pieces of a puzzle you don’t remember starting. Dandelions loll at the top of their stalks. Either the sun blares too loudly and bleaches all the color from the landscape or a veil of gray hangs over a listless wind.

Seemingly in an instant the sense of aliveness that was once so abundant in the roadside plants, the amethyst strewn cliff, that was so apparent in me and Crane and Specs is, quite simply, gone. I’m only left with the faint recollection of why I wanted to run around the lake in the first place. I’m left with a vague notion of what it means to be a human, friend, brother. I tap my fingers on the glass of mystery and nothing resounds. The present I despairingly asks the past I Why?

Most disturbingly, perhaps, is when these moments strike when I have gone to the lake for solace of any kind. I amble down to the shore, expectant, hands folded, ready to hear or see something. But alas, I arrive and it is only a crash of noise and hue, a meaningless swath of water and sky. Dumbfounded, shell-shocked, I turn back. All I can do in these moments is reinstitute my faith that these seconds will pass. All I can do is reassert the hope that the chittering of a black-capped chickadee will be paired back up with it’s devoted singer, that the scent of Mayberry floats from an actual living plant.

Moreover, during these moments when the world has been turned around and I have been shunted to the role of unwanted guest, I have to ask myself, does the calculus of all living things require a human eye in its equation? Is it that something is broadcasting a signal that I’m temporarily unable to receive? Or is the whole project of trying to make sense of the movement and sound around me doomed to fail from the start?

Regardless, as unsettled as I become by these trying moments, like a cloud passing, they scoot out of my sight and out of my life. I will be running and unexpectedly it feels like I have crossed through the threshold of some unknown door. The room I have come into is full of light and meaning. Nothing stands isolated. All is exalted. I’m back. Seemingly the world is not alive but then, by the careless twist of some unseen jester’s hand, it is unabashedly, frighteningly, irrevocably, heartbreakingly back in shocking force, full of color and sound.

Perplexedly Yours,

Ditch

 

Modern Pilgrims or The Visions of Young Anxious People

Written by Crane

Paying attention to change in your self can sometimes feel like walking through a spider web that has been stitched across a forest trail. You feel it without seeing it, sticking to your face, temporarily muddling your pleasant hike through the woods as you attempt to pull the tacky nuisance from your face. But if you’re going to walk through the woods you’re going to walk through some webs. The trick is in the way you tilt your head, to unfocus your eyes and let the rays of sun highlight the webs for you. Take your time and you will begin to focus on the system of flossy nets illuminated about you, tenuous and intricate, like threads of diamonds cutting through the forest as far as you can see. You will still get caught up in one from time to time, but not without seeing the beauty that unfolds beyond it.

For a while there was a sense of change in my life that made me feel more anxious than empowered. It felt like a lot was happening. I had moved to a new city, taken a new job and left the company of some dear friends, hoping that I would make more. All of this change hadn’t left me with much of a vision as to which way the trajectory of my life would head. More so, there was just the expectation of a vision. An expectation that I was to know better how I am supposed to be moving through the life I have been given. But vision does not always come in the form of one great moment. There are some whose radical openness may leave them more susceptible to the powers that be, gifting them ability to see more than just the physical space around them. Here is the point that I’m trying to make, however: there are visions and there is envisioning. The first, a true gift from the world, something we will not all receive and should not passively anticipate. The latter, an active pursuit demanding both creativity and will. An instrument of light we must use to both illuminate and forge a more precious way forward. 

In changing times, distractions and doubt are a dime-a-dozen for the modern pilgrim who is out to envision a more meaningful existence. The way in which we pass our time is so often curated by a select number of inherited actions, individually pulled from a greater pool of veiled possibilities. The three of us had been planning this expedition for a year and a half, but when it came down to making the decision of whether or not to commit I tensed up.  I must have asked myself a hundred times whether or not I thought running around the world’s largest lake made any sense at all. Like, what? Why take on more change? I wasn’t sure I should be leaving the new ways I had started. Here is another thing I have slowly learned in this time of my life though: there is untold beauty in simplicity. And this run became a sensuous symbol to simplify my life, a meditation to break me from the anxiety of the built-up expectations. The Catholic writer Evelyn Underhill wrote that so much of life is spent “constantly recapturing the vagrant attention.” Sometimes we succeed, other times we don’t. When we don’t, the arc of our lives tends to dip into the pool of distractions that waits for us when our guard is down. When we succeed, even if it’s fleeting, we start to see the grandeur of ocean that rolls beyond those pools. We may even stop sitting on the beach and begin to wade past its shores.  

We manifest our lives through the power of envisioning and in doing so transform imagination into action. And when paired with the act of simplification, our vision becomes clearer and clearer. We can begin to  empower ourselves to move through space with a new fluidity, no longer letting the splendor of this life evade us but rather, engulf us. Before we began this running pilgrimage of ours we were asked whether or not we hoped our trip would inspire other 1,400 mile ultraruns. The answer was no. We only hope that it may inspire others to envision a clearer path towards their own life of love.

 

Eyes to the sky, feet on the ground,

Crane

White and in the Woods

There is usually a strange sort of recalibration that comes after a period of disconnection from cell reception and the daily news. It can be jarring to be instantly reminded of all of the other lives and struggles that go on without your knowing. We were met with heavy news the other day when we briefly reconnected for the first time in a while. At the top of our feed was the grave news of the deaths of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men gunned down by police officers. This set us on the task of reflecting on our journey and our responsibility to remain connected to the struggle against systems of oppression.

Reconcile

Since hearing the news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile we have had to reconcile the fact that we are far away, both physically and in our ability to be up to date on what is happening in our communities and around the country. We set out to run around Lake Superior in order to more intimately connect with a place that we love. We’ve had the privilege to invest nearly all of our time and energy into this journey and the work that we’re trying to accomplish with it. Part of reconciling our feelings is that we know we’re missing opportunities to fight against police brutality and engage in anti-racist work back home.

Re-evaluate

What is the importance of our journey? What are we trying to accomplish? How can we as white people in the woods engage in anti-racist work? These are the questions that we have asked ourselves after being reminded of the constant violence against people of color in a broken system. No matter how far away we may feel in the woods, no matter how easy it is to tune out the woes of the world in this space, we must realize how entrenched we all are in these violent systems of oppression. It would be easy to turn our heads away from the news of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. It would be easy to not talk about these things with the people we meet on the road or over a campfire. But these typically recreational spaces, as they are, have the means to transform us and thus transform our understanding of systems of racism and state violence. Hiking trails, beaches and campgrounds are often seen as idyllic separations from the rest of life. While we don’t want to negate that wilderness can be a necessary place of healing, and has been for us, we also want to acknowledge that we have the power to reconstruct these spaces to hold critical conversation.

Responsibility

After reconciling our circumstance in the heart of our journey and re-evaluating our place in the system, what do we do from here? At first, as white people in the woods without internet access, it feels disheartening to feel so far away and so incapable of showing up. But we’re not incapable. Our current circumstance may have limits but there’s a lot that we can do and we have an undeniable responsibility to do it. We can talk about systems of violence, death and oppression with the people we meet even when it feels uncomfortable. We still can’t show up physically but we can send solidarity and support from where we are through social media, donations and writing. Racism is a white person problem and we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and those close to us. We have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with Black life.

 

With love,

Our Shores

Long-Distance Running, Climate Change, and my Mom

Written by Ditch

My absolute worst fear is sounding like a Nike commercial. The world of sports so often is connected to pithy statements that are, apparently, intended to motivate. Your “Just do it” and “Impossible is nothing”. I’ve shied away from these sentiments because they not only do absolutely nothing to motivate me, they also exude this strange sense of hyper-masculinity that requires buckets of sweat, slow-motion, and designer socks to accomplish anything. In lieu of catchy slogans though, I have held on to one word: persistence.

Several years back I first saw a poster that struck me. On it is a printed image of a person riding a bike through a field of mature dandelions with the single word “persist” underneath. I didn’t start thinking about this poster and the idea of persistence again until a while later when I had started pondering what it was that I found so powerful in my mom. With what I could sense but not articulate in her actions was quiet and subtle. It was beneath the surface but foundational. Eventually I connected this string of thought to the image of the poster that had been kicking around in my head for years and realized that is what my mother had been doing: persisting. And what powers lies in that? The ability to find happiness through a long winter. The power to be the glue of a family.

A defining moment in my college career was the experience of doing work against a proposed taconite mine. At the time, it didn’t feel like a brief moment in time but the lion share of my life’s work and energy. Over the course of a couple years we planned, organized, drew, painted, yelled and slept little. Eventually the mining company pulled away and we celebrated what we saw as a victory. During that time there was one final meeting where folks of many ages were meeting to talk, digest, and be grateful. We were all seated in a circle and across from me sat a woman who had been doing environmental work in the area for years. She was addressing the group and remarked that though this surely was a victory, it was just one fight in a long string of fights. Just because one company that wanted to extract wealth from our hills and pollute our water has gone, it doesn’t mean another one won’t come sniffing around. Be ready, she said, for this story will play itself out again. After they spoke, a certain weight settled over me which hasn’t left. Protecting the places and planet we love doesn’t require just a few years. It requires a lifetime. It requires a soft and supple strength that doesn’t burn out. Addressing the issue of global climate change is the same: we have to shoulder on and keep moving, despite all the failures and setbacks. 

I’ve started to apply this same mindset when running. Running long distances doesn’t necessitate great feats of strength. It only means the very simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Again and again. There is no secret. There is no magic formula. This is the epitome of persistence. To keep doing a very small act, humbly and carefully in deference to a larger, nearly unobtainable goal. In persistence there is a certain sweetness, a devotion to self and ideal that when played out over a long period of time creates something larger than itself. I love the idea of persistence precisely because it is something that can’t be packaged and sold back to us. I love persistence because it is inglorious and, ultimately, most powerful. 

Persistently Yours,

Ditch

On the Road

Written by Ditch

A question we field often during our expedition is, “Where will you actually be when you run? The beach? Trails?” The truth of the matter that we will be on the shoulder of the road for much of our run due to the fact that we will be a self-supported expedition. If we had a support vehicle, we could tuck all our stuff in a car and have it meet us down the road as we run along the shore. But we don’t have a support vehicle. We have Rig. That puts us on the road. This fact often draws concern from folks we speak to. Fair enough. Cars are loud and smelly and dangerous.

On the surface that might seem like a diminishment of our mission. Here we are planning on running around Superior, extolling its natural beauty and importance the whole while. But while we do so we’ll be using the combined roads of three U.S. states and one Canadian province, something that is decidedly less pretty. Often the trajectory of our gaze will be from the road to the lake. While we will be deeply enmeshed in the concerns of the lake we will also, willingly or not, spend a considerable amount of time dealing with the “other stuff”: cars and their fumes, ditches, roadkill, concrete, asphalt.

I think this is actually a perfect metaphor for what it means to live and love on the lake. We can’t separate out the pure “nature” from the irreversible change that we as humans have affected on it. We’ve been falling love with this area for years and that love doesn’t preclude the human built environment. Now, there is no parsing apart the two. Sure, we know that a long time ago the landscape wasn’t always crisscrossed by roads and power lines. We know there was a time when the biological health of this region, and the planet, wasn’t being degraded by human activity. We can’t pine for a wilderness we will never have. We have to love where we live now. What does that leave us? Giant yet fragile tanker ships plowing the waves of an untamed lake. Strip malls of fast food restaurants on the shores of Superior. Forests grown for pulp, heartbreaking in both their arching growth and the desolation left by their absence.

For those that think the side of the road is a weird place to look for natural beauty, I agree. But I think to love something, or someone, you have to look with eyes wide open, anywhere and everywhere. To get the whole picture, you have to include the ugly in your gaze.

What we’ve found is that the shoulder is an edge. It is a place where the forests and fields, the rivers and brooks, meet the road. I believe this edge, that simultaneously brokers the domestic and the wild, has an immensely generative power. Anywhere that the earth is witnessed in a painfully slow and observant manner, there are whole worlds to be discovered. There are important happenings on the periphery.

What do we see from our perch?

We see the mother and fawn that bounded past a power line in the last golden hour of the day. We can see the beavers building a home in a wide pond next to a concrete bridge. We see two baby black bears huffing up a Jack Pine. We see blinding light and impenetrable darkness taken in the same gulp of eyesight.

Peripherally Yours,

Ditch

What We Talk About When We Talk About Running Around Lake Superior

Something we feel is important to talk about is how we’re carrying ourselves around the lake. We are very intentionally choosing a method of travel that will require us to take every single step around the lake. We are running. For three months...with a baby stroller containing all of our food and equipment. We could drive. That would surely be easier on our bodies and require less planning. We could bike, which is tough in its own right, but we felt the wheels would be doing too much of the work. Those modes of travel will accomplish the same task of starting at point A and getting to point B. But we are running (and let’s be honest, sometimes walking). There was something that felt so right about making this decision precisely because it afforded us an experience we would not get otherwise. To accomplish our task we have to trust our bodies. Our bodies with their ligaments and bones and joints that are all too fallible and breakable. With our muscles that could get overtired and fat stores that could become undernourished. It sounds like something could go wrong. To be truthful it sounds painful. So why? Why? Good question.

We don’t know if we can ever answer that fully but we do know that we are aware of what this expedition might mean for our bodies. And I think the fact of the matter is we want what will come. We want the difficulty and the struggle. We want to test our limits in a way we haven’t tested them before. We value exploring these limits and what they may teach us, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. With something as important at stake as the health and well-being of the lake, we only think our work is a fair price for knowing it more fully and completely in all its moods and impressions. Once we realized that, we began to realize there was an unsaid word hanging between all three of us: pilgrimage. We don’t use the word pilgrimage to self-aggrandize but we are also taking it seriously and mean to hold it close to us as we run. Paul Coelho, author of books such as The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage, said it best: “we have this possibility of doing a pilgrimage every single day. Because a pilgrimage implies in meeting different people, in talking to strangers, in paying attention to the omens, and basically being open to life. And, we leave our home to go to work, to go to school, and we have every single day this possibility, this chance of discovering something new.” Deep down, that is our earnest hope: to discover. We are circumnavigating the world’s largest freshwater lake with our thoughts and intentions bent toward it the whole time. Almost every day we’ll wake up right next to it. All day we’ll struggle alongside it and at night we’ll fall asleep to the sound of it crawling along the shore.

Running around the lake is our goal and to accomplish that we have set forth on an immense amount of planning. Since we first decided to run around the lake a year and a half ago, we’ve had to deliberately shape our lives around making this project come to life. As many post-college graduates navigating the world may also experience, our lives during this time have also been filled with growth as well as many hurdles.  Planning and preparing for this journey has added another layer of deep intention to our everyday lives. We have a very real (and impending) start date and a myriad of tasks to do beforehand. We have a clear budget and a fundraising goal. We know how many miles we have to run and how many days it should take. Our lives are filled with quantifiable numbers. Besides all these knowns, however, there has also been a sense of the nebulous unknown. From the onset of our planning, the year and a half in front of us had felt so fragile. How could all this all actually come to fruition? What if we snapped an ankle on a casual training run? What if modern civilization curled up, coughed its last gasp and left the Midwest amidst a battle of warring feudal states? What if one of us decided we just, like...didn’t want to do it?

In fact, some of our fears have come to pass. We were originally a group of five. Now we are three. Evan fractured his foot. Andy split open his leg with an errant ax. Allissa has been researching and writing a Master’s thesis. Wounds heal, deadlines pass, and we still lace up our shoes to get in the day’s miles. What has become readily apparent throughout the course of our planning is that your body and mind are rarely at one-hundred percent.

No matter how prepared we are, May 20th will come and we will run. And run, and then run some more. We are setting ourselves into orbit around the lake to come back to where we started, compare notes about who we were, and see what’s different. We’re taking our time and energy and laying it on the sacrificial altar of the lake in hopes we hear something back. There are things we want to do outwardly for the lake as we run - collect stories of its people and history, and raise awareness of issues concerning its well-being. But there is something immensely powerful pulling us inward. Something that we hope the arduous and ascetic life of long distance running around the object of our shared love will satisfy. Will it? Who knows! But we’re ready to find out. One thing that has become clear as we prepare for our journey is that we’re not looking for answers, we’re looking for questions.

 

Unpacking our Privilege of Running Around the Lake

As we noted at the end of our last blog post, it is important for Our Shores to recognize the privilege that we three, white, college-educated people have in dreaming up and carrying out this project. There is only so much that can be accomplished by verbalizing this knowledge, therefore we hope our actions speak more loudly as we go about our way.

From the beginning of this planning process, when this run wasn’t more than a daydream, our motivations for embarking on this journey have remained rooted in something much deeper than personal satisfaction or gain. Throughout each of our experiences with Lake Superior and that region, the three of us have connected deeply and fallen in love with both the lake and the communities that live around it. This love is what drives our efforts to give something back. This love and intention is also why we feel the need to better identify and understand who we are, where we come from, and what we carry with us.

It would be a shortcoming of us to not acknowledge how our education at Northland College has shaped many of our worldviews and perspectives, and it would also be remiss to not acknowledge the privilege of that education. We gained knowledge, experiences, connections and relationships through our time spent at this institute, many of which we carry with in this journey. And though we want to acknowledge the privilege of our education, one of the main objectives of this upcoming journey is to listen and to learn. We recognize that the individuals and groups we will be learning from are the experts of their own experiences living with this body of water, and hope to not only gain their perspectives on issues affecting this lake but also help to bring those voices to a larger audience.

As we run around this immense body of water, it is also essential to place ourselves in the complex history of this lake and region. We are living in colonized territory; similar to the the rest of the country, white Europeans were not the first people to call this place home. Native American communities have made their homes on this lake for several hundred years, and remain here to this day. And although we refer this place as Lake Superior, it is a place of many names. For example, the Anishinabe people refer to this lake as Gitchi Gami, and it is an integral part of their migration story, history, and culture.  Recognizing the web of histories, stories, people, and communities around the lake is critical in understanding the present landscape we will be running through.

Finally, although we are contributing personal funds to this run, we are also asking for help. Despite any personal contributions that we are making in order to see this project come to fruition, we recognize that the very fact that crowdsource fundraising is an option for us is an advantage. We are incredibly grateful to the network of friends, family and other supporters that we have for this journey.

We don’t acknowledge these things to feel better about ourselves or feel that we are making enough of a difference by declaring our privilege. We know that it’s not enough to understand these facts, they must also be followed by actions which work to make changes in the systems of oppression we live in. This is the lens through which we view this run and the work we are setting out to do. It’s not the easiest to talk about these things, and we try to do the best we can, and are always open to conversations and questions to help us all continue to educate ourselves.

This run is not only for us, it is for the lake and everyone who calls it home. We move forward with love.