This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.
I was worried there wouldn’t be any good trails when we moved to Duluth. Now, that seems absurd. I’ve never lived anywhere that had so many trails. I’m a cross-country skier, runner and mediocre mountain biker. I can go from sound asleep to skiing in ten minutes. I trail run surrounded by the red cliffs of the watersheds that feed the lake. I ride my bike on the growing single-track trail system. We ski on trails that are groomed by the city better than some private ski areas.
The crown jewel is the Duluth Lakewalk. It’s a stretch of paved trail with a friendly blue stripe in the middle. I can almost throw a baseball to it from my house. I didn’t pick our house because of the trail. But now, I’m glad we live where we do. I stroll down the alley, cut through a little wildcat trail, and I’m standing on the spinal cord of the town. For over ten years, on my easy days, I trace the shoreline with the Lakewalk. I pass the gas station, travel under Highway 61 via the railroad tunnel and emerge into the poplars. I can see the sun twinkling, reflected on Gitche Gumee. I get to live where other people go on vacation.
I pass the new condos and townhomes and wonder what colors the water will display when I burst into the full view. Turquoise? Deep green like the ocean? Brilliant blue under a bluebird sky? Gunmetal gray under the overcast? It’s different every time. There’s the aerial lift bridge. There’s the dude that’s always flying a kite by the pedestrian bridge over I-35. There’s the place where my son and I threw rocks in the water when I was thinking about leaving town to follow a job. I’m glad we didn’t.
On my rest days, I turn around at Leif Erikson Park. There’s a replica Viking ship there that sailed from Norway to Duluth in the 20s. It’s been removed for repairs now, but I always run precisely two miles to the bow of that ship. Then I stop and walk down to the grass amphitheater where they show free movies on Friday nights in the summer. There’s a plaque there that memorializes Scott Anderson. I never met him, but we were both F-16 pilots in the Minnesota Air National Guard. He passed away in an aircraft accident. He was also a writer, so I stop there to read his plaque. There’s a quote from one of his books inscribed there:
Life is the pursuit, not the capture. Distant fires are around us everywhere. They do not burn just in the north. But in the lands, in the woods and among the lakes and streams they are easier to see, easier to follow. Everywhere that dream is held and followed to its end, there the distant fires burn. Some only we can see. Others we share with many…but distant fires are never reached. At best, it is possible to stand near their ashes, still warm. Looking up you can see that the fires have moved on, burning brightly somewhere farther in the distance. — from “Distant Fires” by Scott D. Anderson (1965-1999)
I stand there, read the plaque, look up at Lake Superior and this town perched on a hill, and turn for home. I love this familiar four-miler. My training log just says, “Ship.” Hundreds of times.
On longer days, I press on to Canal Park. Past Fitgers. Tourists feeding seagulls. Tourists being carted around by horse-drawn carriages. I run out the pier to the lighthouse and run up the stairs like Rocky Balboa. It’s just over seven miles. I deserve to jump around with my arms in the air. I get some looks, but that’s OK.
Marathon training in the spring, I go even farther across the bridge to Park Point and run down the ice-covered beach. No tourists then. And the Lakewalk is what delivers me there.
The eastern end of the trail used to be by our house. Visionaries have pushed the pavement past us, over the Lester River, under Highway 61 and out to Brighton Beach. My plan to live in one place until someone built a multi-purpose trail next door finally worked. Now, I can pursue my really obscure activity: roller skiing. With wheels under my feet, I pretend the asphalt is snow to prepare for winter. I can put on roller skis in my driveway and ski all the way up the North Shore. Soon, they plan to connect the western end to the Munger Trail. This will create an uninterrupted swath a hundred miles long. Just steps from my garage.
I tell my wife I’m taking the dog out for a run. Where am I going? The Lakewalk. I’m taking an easy day by myself. The Lakewalk. Roller skiing? The Lakewalk. An over-distance jaunt to the sands of Park Point? The Lakewalk. Let’s all ride our bikes to the Portland Malt Shoppe for some ice cream. Lakewalk. I know every inch of every crack of every piece of pavement. Without looking, I know where to watch my steps for frost heaves. My favorite spot is right before you enter the tunnel from Brighton Beach. It also happens to be the newest stretch. The shining water. The bridge. The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas. This view means I’m headed home on my trail.
I should be sick and tired of the Lakewalk. I’ll try to avoid getting bored during the next thousand visits.