Saturday, July 19, 2008

Day 6–Grand Marais (Minnesota) to Sturgeon Bay (Wisconsin)

We wake up to sunshine here at 643 feet above sea level, almost exactly 9000 feet below our highest point on this trip. Room 10 and Naniboujou are even nicer in the daytime – the shower pressure is everything you could ask for, and the scrumptious breakfast is way beyond. Toast made of orange-raisin breakfast bread, an amazing concoction that looks like regular bread, but manages to burst its successive flavors subtly but unmistakably on the tongue. Wild-rice-and-blueberry sausage. Fresh eggs. Great coffee. A champagne flute of freshly squeezed orange juice. And all in a dining room (pictured below) that somehow manages in its garishness not to be garish at all.

As we leave, piles of bright fog steam up from Lake Superior. The clouds are billowing overhead, too. This looks like it will develop into the first overcast day of the trip, which is OK with us. We haven’t seen a dreary day in a long, long time. Except for the hailstorm that heralded our departure from Zion NP on Monday and a few random two-minute sprinkles as we drove northwest across Montana on Wednesday, we’ve had nothing but blue skies and fluffy cumulus clouds for months.

We pay more attention to the roadside cliffs on our return trip down MN 61. Layers of granite, siltstone, shale and sandstone, in a wide variety of colors, are plainly visible. (To our eyes, that is, but not so much in the lame picture below - sorry. Look closely, though, and you’ll see the layers.) We learn from a handy geologic marker that these layers are evidence of the last volcanic activity in MN, which was 1.1 billion years ago. At that time, volcanoes apparently erupted intermittently for 20 million years along a huge continental rift from Lake Superior to Kansas. The cycle of eruption, sedimentation and renewed volcanism created the layers in the cliffs. So here, too, we’re seeing geology hard at work, visually evocative of the power and majesty of time and the forces of nature.

We start talking about how geology is a descriptive science, as opposed to an experimental one where you can theorize and then test. With geology, you look at rocks, etc. and theorize, but you can’t test. My husband, the medical doctor, is rather dismissive of the bona fides of descriptive sciences, but as he explains the difference to me, I start thinking about the inexplicable nature of the question why no matter what kind of science we’re talking about.

All science seeks to answer what and how. A descriptive science like geology answers what pretty well and does a decent job with how, albeit without any ability to test and prove, but it doesn’t get into why. Other sciences do get into why to some degree. Medicine, e.g., can tell you why you die if you pick up a bacteria, develop an infection and leave it untreated, although it can’t tell you why deadly bacteria exist in the first place.

This makes me wonder whether why is even an important question when dealing with natural forces that occur over billions of years. Why is so quintessentially a human question, and human experience is less than an eye-blink in the enormity of time where a human minute is analogous to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Vis-à-vis nature, why is really a totally irrelevant question. In the end, the only real answer is why not? Existence is no more or less likely than nothingness.

And, obviously, the same is true whether you’re relying on science or on religion, supreme beings, deities and the like to explain the universe for you. There’s a freedom, I think, in not imposing the human brain’s need for purpose on things like mountains and volcanoes and billions of years. They are because they are. And given their inspirational beauty and power, isn’t that really enough?

Feeling quite refreshed by this philosophical turn of conversation (and perhaps a little impressed with ourselves), we turn back to navigating through Duluth, once again on US 2. We were originally planning a side trip around the Apostle Islands, but decide to skip that and the 70 or so miles it entails now that the day has indeed turned overcast.

But it’s a nice bright overcast. We drive along happily, enjoying the quiet road, the dropping temperatures and the thickly forested and very gently rolling landscape. We’re tickled by several signs in the northwestern Wisconsin town of Ashland (pop. 8600): Timeless Timber Lumber & Gift Shoppe (read that again – have you ever heard of or imagined a lumber and gift shop?); and, at the Bayview Park Fair, which is underway, Deep-Fried Cheese Curds and Cheesecake on a Stick (separately, I hope, although the sign is ambiguous) or for those not so cheesily inclined, Lobster & Shrimp Boil.

It turns out that the Pearson Salted Nut Roll, a world-class salty-sweet treat I remember from childhood and haven’t seen in years, still exists in Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Full of protein” the wrapper proclaims, so we take the wrapper at its word and buy them at every stop we make to keep in the car for snacks.

Our route takes us through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from Ironwood past Iron River and through Iron Mountain. (Three guesses what’s in the ground here.) For about 75 miles, the U.P. has a Montana thing going on (virtually complete lack of towns), but with lush forest instead of lush plains. It’s tranquil and the miles pass by quickly as we listen to music for the first time on the trip.

Bidding a fond and, this time, final farewell to US 2, we rejoin Wisconsin a little over a hundred miles north of Green Bay (the city, this time) and before we know it we’re on 57 North to Door County. This road has improved dramatically in the decade since we were last here. It used to be a sorry procession of impatient families (hassled parents, restive kids) in cars with Illinois plates driving along jumpily behind agonizingly slow campers with Wisconsin, Indiana and assorted other plates for miles and miles and miles, with very limited opportunities to pass. Now, it’s deluxe divided highway most of the way. 57 joins 42, there’s the beautiful bridge over Sturgeon Bay, and then the two roads split again, 42 to wend its way up the Green Bay side of the Peninsula, 57 over to and up the Lake Michigan side.

We stay on 42 and arrive at our temporary home away from home just in time to watch the deep-pink sun slide into Green Bay’s smooth, smooth waters.

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