Sunday, October 16, 2011

The other kind of hiking

At age 13 I went on a hike with my sister Katie. She was working on her Ph. D at the University of Utah and I was visiting her over fall break. A brilliant geophysicist, my sister loves being surrounded by rocks. Where other people look at canyons and mountains and see interesting formations and pretty colors, Kate sees fault lines, compositions and millenia of plate tectonics at work.

Let's walk to the university, she suggested, and take a little detour through the foothills for a more scenic route.  Scenery sounds nice, I agreed, and off we went.

Several hours into the walk I realized why we had packed water bottles and an entire picnic. Though her school was only a mile or so away from her apartment, I was now standing five miles up a mountain. "Foothills" be damned - I was breathing pure oxygen and treading carefully high above dark canyons.

Here's a little Geophysics 101: when speaking with a geophysicist, notions of scale differ greatly. A layman's eternity is a rock scientist's millisecond. "Little" detours compare accordingly. Hence my position atop a mountain far from any sign of the city.

Ten miles up and down rock faces did a number on my feet. I had borrowed her sneakers, only a half-size too small, and when I took them off I was greeted with bloodied socks. A few toenails had turned purple and two months later, during the family Christmas celebration, they fell off.

Yesterday was not that kind of hike.

Yesterday involved actual hills (not mountains) and more scenery-gazing than walking. Hills are hard to find in Minnesota, a land mostly shaved clean by the glaciers. To gain a little vertical perspective - at least in the eastern half of the state - the best places to go are the Mississippi and the St. Croix river valleys.

I live along the Mississippi but for my birthday expedition I wanted something new. I wanted glacier deposits, frozen lava flows and remnants of ancient fault lines. Perhaps I'm more like Katie than I realized - I like rocks too, though I'd rather write about them than measure them.

Four of us set off for Interstate Park, so named because it straddles the St. Croix River in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. We walked. We talked. When the ascent wore us down we sat and looked down at the valley below.

We had initially agreed upon a five-mile loop but I don't think we made it three. It didn't matter. The scent of the pine cones underfoot mingled with smoke from scattered campsites and the leaves above and below us shuddered in anticipation of the winter. We shivered too, at first, but as we warmed up as we climbed.

It gets dark early now and so as evening fell we followed the sinking sun down the narrow path to the car. Back on the highway signs at first advertised "Pumpkin' Chuckin' here" and corn mazes, then Gander Mountain sporting goods stores and Dairy Queens. Eventually the signs and billboards disappeared to make room for converging highways and we were back in Minneapolis.

At home in our top-floor apartment in an early 1900s brownstone I put a lasagne in the oven and put the tea kettle to boil. We were cold and the hills-induced aches were settling in but our toenails were still firmly attached. Come Christmas I bet mine still will be.

*Hey there Kate - if you're up for climbing mountains again I've got my own hiking shoes and I don't ask "Are we there yet?" every five minutes anymore. I like your kind of hiking too.


  1. Sounds like a good time. Not quite as dramatic perhaps as mountains and canyons but good ole' MN fall weather makes for a pretty walk.

  2. Glad to see you are wandering again. Autumn is such a wonderful time for hiking (and climbing mountains, I suppose!) Great as the outdoors are, a warm home and hot tea are just so good after a walk in the woods. Someday, you will have to visit "Penn's Woods" in the Fall.