At bedtime, and with his eyebrows lifting his smile, Hollis comes to where I’m stuck in my armchair. We can’t commune as we once did, through garden harvests and sledding and playing catch together. It’s wrenching, but it needn’t be ruinous. Narrow forms can supercharge artists, and Hollis is keen to question me. So, supposing I might escape into another’s shoes, he dares me to claim the name and to show him how I got there. Then he turns playfully macabre. If I become a living corpse, will I hang loose and let myself go skeletal? Or will I schlep my dead flesh, fighting to preserve it, until the effort is unseemly? Picking up a football game from the background, we both note the exuberance and the injuries and the coaches’ boiling blood. Hard counts and play-action faking leave us cold. During our final minutes together, we analyze the dogs in our lives, the seasons, and comic book villains. I know that he reflects on all of it. Back in his bedroom, I hear him finger the electric piano, examining the intervals and delighting in extremes.

There’s much to discuss at these meetings, but we often come back to confirming our favorite foods. That heats up talk of restaurants. In my life I’ve had the privilege of celebrating with legends of fine dining, and I’ve run across some killer ethnic eats on midtown avenues and gravel roads in Mexico. I savor the memories of Friday night take-out from my adolescence. But, I want to start telling you about the places I came to treasure over a decade or more; places that stayed the same while I aged; places I’ve recently visited or can see returning to soon, despite my ridiculous condition. I’ll serve side dishes of personal history, philosophy, and travelogue that may not leave much room for the restaurant itself, but so be it. Sound good?

Let’s roll north on US-169 in September, as the twin cities tumble into countryside. We cross and re-cross a slow, meandering flow, and the Dakota people called it a river of Spirit before clumsy whites corrupted that to Rum and made their bogus name stay. Up ahead, Mille Lacs is bigger than such insults. The lake entertains the sun and the winds, and for miles we sweep along its shore, mesmerized, before pushing due north through pocked and soggy ground. The town of Aitkin waves us over the Mississippi, looking just like any random waterway. Now the land rises and leaves are sifting through the conifers. Deep green meadows call to deer. Past birch bark and moss-covered rock, the road could take us to the heady edge of the Boundary Waters.

But our turn-off is approaching fast. Back in the early seventies, Quadna Mountain Resort was swinging until the energy crisis starved its party. Suddenly, the miles from Minneapolis were a liability. Gasoline became precious, and who would pay to heat all of those cubic feet through the winter? The place got propped up and finally diced into timeshares, but cash never ran freely enough to keep its big lodge vital. Secretive interests took the ski hill. They built a fenced perimeter befitting a cult, and now, out on the golf course, nine lonely holes watch the sky for a sign. 

The place is still lovely. On a lane lined with maples, Sneetches huffs with recognition and Caleb shouts, “Yay, the Forest House!” He’s six years old. We park by a familiar bank of townhomes, and Mac bursts from a door. “Hi, guys!” He frees Hollis from his car seat, breathing over the intricacies of a five-point harness. I have a question for him. “You do know what I’m ready for, right?” No, bud. “Why, Papa’s spaghetti!” Mac always serves his specialty here, often on the nights that we arrive, and the man guards his traditions more than anyone I’ve known. He’s grinning as we file inside, our backpacks full of jeans and sweatshirts for a couple of days up north.

A fire leaps and pops. Janine sits beneath a pair of old-time snowshoes on the wall. My mother-in-law is out of place here, but she’s game. Danielle’s sister is just in with her own family, and Chole swirls her red wine as she recounts the week’s absurdities. Upstairs, Big Mike gets Jack and Isabel settled. The house will be crowded but warm, and we’re all pleased to be here.

My little gang has returned each fall since we moved to Minnesota, but I first came with Danielle in the days before we had our boys. Mac and Janine have owned a slice of time at Quadna for two decades now. There was once a proper cabin in the family, on a lake thirty minutes from here, but its needs for upkeep were forever pressing. Like boats, cabins demand attention and investment, and those woods and waters have to be deep inside of you.

When I get up the next morning, Chole and Mike have already returned from taking the three older kids to breakfast at the Hill City Cafe, a place that’s known to crusty locals who remind me of my old neighbor, Bruce. Downstairs, most of the adults prepare to do a whole lot of nothing. They’ll unwind as college athletes and bright, turning leaves play behind glass; drink screwdrivers and pry open paperbacks, far from laundry and errands and email. Danielle will feed Hollis and then get down on the floor to play with him. I need to get outside with the other kids. There are things to instill and things to release; we have some breathing to do.

To be continued…

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