Monday, September 07, 2015

Highway 61 Revisited

At the Java Moose, in Grand Marais, MN, circa 1999

"How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?" 

- Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone" (From Highway 61 Revisited)

In the fall of 1996, after I’d finished hiking the PCT, I moved to St. Paul, MN, taking up residence outside of southern California for the first time in my life. I was 22 years old.

The beauty of being 22 is that you have enough life experience to give you some confidence and determination without saddling you with the fear and hesitation that age can sometimes bring.

I was an Orange County girl who was a little afraid she would never get out.

Even by the mildest of standards, Minnesota would not be considered by most to be a hotbed of big adventure. (Most people just don’t know!) I’d had a roommate my freshman year of college who was from St. Paul, and she was living there and in the market for a roommate again. Lacking any other plan for my life, it was an easy sell, and I was off to Minnesota, just like that.

Though my roommate was a dear friend, our lives somehow did not intertwine much that year. Here’s what I did my first year ever of living in a city:

(1) Quickly got a job at a gear store called MidwestMountaineering. I’m not sure the Minnesota natives who worked there fully understood the irony of that name. Their store t-shirt depicted someone portaging a canoe. (On the other hand, I guess that did show that they knew what "mountaineering" in the Midwest really meant.)

(2) Learned to navigate the bus system. Don’t laugh. Before the internet era of easily accessible maps and timetables, this was not easy. Especially for a girl who’d always had a car.

(3) Adjusted my “It’s too cold to go for a run” standard to anything colder than -20F.

(4) Attended “employee only” parties with TNF athletes like Conrad Anker and Lynn Hill. OMFG!!!

(5) Got another job as an assistant teacher at an elementary school.

(6) Got another job as a middle school track coach. (See any patterns emerging here?)

Incidentally, it was tough making it to all my jobs on time with an unreliable bus system. That summer was when I bought my little red pick-up truck. Such a symbol of adulthood and independence!

Flash back to a couple years earlier when I was in college and just discovering the world of outdoor sports, falling in love with being a rock climber. Here are a few things that happened at that time:

  1. I read a book called Annapurna: A Woman’s Place by a woman named Arlene Blum. In addition to being an accomplished climber and guide, Arlene Blum was the director of an organization called Woodswomen. They led all-women adventure trips in the outdoors. They were located in Minneapolis, MN.
  2. I read another book called Leading Out: Women Climbers, Reaching for the Top. I adored this book! Its dog-eared pages and underlined passages still grace my overcrowded bookshelf. It was a collection of essays by a variety of women climbers, many of whom, as it happened, were from Minnesota, some of them former guides for Woodswomen. (Why were so many amazing women from Minnesota??)
  3. I distinctly recall sitting in my dorm room reading an article in a magazine profiling three different women and their unusual careers. One of these women was Beth Wald, a climber and professional photographer. She traveled all over the world taking pictures of incredible climbing feats and other outdoor sports. I was a sports photographer for my college paper at the time and an aspiring climber. This woman, I knew, had my absolute dream job. I cut out the article and saved it.

Back in Minnesota, and the track season was over. School was out for summer. With Midwest Mountaineering as my only remaining source of income, I applied for, and got, a job at, … where else? Woodswomen. I was a summer intern.

Now I was guiding women in adventures all over the state, doing sports I’d never tried before. I learned to paddle a canoe. I taught women and kids how to rock climb. I drove the support van on a week-long horseback riding trip. (There was no way they were getting me on a horse!) I was giddy with the brilliance of it all. "Look what I’m doing!" was a daily exclamation I made to myself.

One evening, I was having a beer with a couple friends I worked with at Midwest Mountaineering. One friend was trying to give some moral support to a friend of his, Beth, whom he’d invited along. She was apparently in crisis about what direction to take her life. We’d been chatting about this for nearly 40 minutes before I caught her last name.

“Wait!” I said loudly, slapping my hand on the table, drawing everyone’s attention. My jaw had dropped. “You’re Beth Wald?!” I didn’t know what to say. Here I was faced with this real-life, every-day, normal person, who also just happened to be my personal role model.

Of course, I told her the story of the magazine article. I don’t know if this helped her with her life crisis at all, but I like to think that it did.

That winter, I moved to northern Minnesota to take a job as a dog handler for a musher guiding dogsled trips for women.

Kisses from Wasimo, a badass lead dog on the dogsled team.

Running dogs is still one of my favorite things I have ever done.

That covers my first 18 months in Minnesota.

After that, I got a summer job guiding teenagers on climbing and canoeing trips up in the Boundary Waters. I met my husband there, and we got married in the fall of 2000 on the banks of West Bearskin Lake in the Boundary Waters.

Returning from guiding a 30-day canoe trip, and Andrew swam out to meet me.

The place holds incredibly potent and significant memories for me, but I haven’t been back to northern Minnesota in the 15 years since I got married there.


Last month was the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s seminal album, Highway 61 Revisited. Highway 61 runs down from Canada, through Duluth, MN, where Dylan was born, all the way to New Orleans, connecting him, Dylan felt, to the blues music and musicians he loved.

“Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it, and could go anywhere,” Dylan said of his choice for the album title.

My own kinship with Highway 61 goes north from Duluth along the shore of Lake Superior to Grand Marais, rather than south to New Orleans, but I’ve always felt similarly to Dylan in terms of the path it held in my life at one time. From dog sledding, to canoeing, to backpacking and rock climbing – Highway 61 led me to so many new adventures. Let’s not forget falling in love!

Wedding in the Boundary Waters, October 2000.

This week, I’m finally headed back to Highway 61 for another adventure. I’ll be attempting to go 100 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail in the Superior 100 which begins on Friday.

I’ll be trying to tap into that 22-year-old version of myself. That girl who had never been in temps below 30F but decided -20F was acceptable running weather. That girl who thought driving a team of huskies across a frozen lake was a perfect activity for someone born and raised in Orange County.

You see, lately I’m feeling a bit of that “on my own” spirit I had in my 20s, and finding a little of the “on my own” strength that being 22 provided. 

It’s been one year since my mother passed away, and it is not an understatement to say I still feel devastated by this loss every day. 

For complicated reasons, my husband took a job out of state (ironically, in Minnesota, though he will have to work while I am out there for my race). I miss him desperately.

I started a new job last week, and I go back and forth between being incredibly excited and incredibly overwhelmed. 

So many new things.

And this race? I am definitely afraid.

Of course, it’s not my first 100-miler, but let’s face it – muscle memory can only get you so far. I am under-trained, and I’m going without a pacer. "On my own," as it were. A rolling stone.

This thought both thrills and scares me. And that, I think, is a good thing.

And yes, here is where I’m going to put that famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote. Sorry if you’ve heard it too many times to count. It still speaks to me.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

It’s not that this thing is really going to be a horror. The death of a loved one puts that kind of thing into stark perspective. It is, after all, just a race. Just a run.

But, still.

My running club, the Donner Party Mountain Runners, has the tagline “Unafraid.” It is taken directly from words about the real DonnerParty. In talking about it with a fellow club member the other day though, we both admitted that we are plenty afraid. The important thing isn’t really to be fearless, it’s to go forward in spite of your fear. That is where real strength lies. That is how you grow.

I definitely knew that when I was 22. This seems like a good time to remind myself.

With that in mind, perhaps T Swift’s “22” is a better theme song here than Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” With apologies to Bob for the major shift in musical genre, that’s the direction I’m going.

“Yeah, we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way! Yeah, it’s miserable and magical, oh yeah!” – Taylor Swift, “22”

See you soon, Minnesota!


  1. Firstly, I am so sorry for the loss of your Mom, Gretchen. I can't even imagine that pain....I dread that thought so much. Good luck at the race, I somehow sense that you will thrive there. Run like you are 22 and unafraid. I know you will do well. Also, you missed your calling. You should have been a writer. Everything you write is so good. You have a special gift. Enjoy Minnesota and be well! I look forward to reading all about it!

    1. Thanks so much, Kelly - for all your comments! Whatever happens, I'm sure it will be an experience.

  2. Didn't know you were running Superior! Best of luck; let me know if I can give you any pointers (as everyone will tell you, the section after Crosby, 62-71 miles, is the worst). I ran on Highway 61 in St. Paul this morning.

    1. Nice! Yeah, I saw some pictures of that section ... should be fun to navigate in the dark. Heh.

  3. I'm so sorry to hear about your mom, Gretchen. So hard....
    Afraid is okay, as you clearly know. Keep moving forward. It's all worth it.
    This is a lovely post. Thanks for letting us in.

    1. Pam!! Aww, it's so good to hear from you. Thanks for still being out there and reading my blog (even though I never write anymore).