Filling Your Niche

Bemidji and back

We didn’t originally plan on taking a family vacation this year, but then there were some vague mumbles of irritation made toward my daughter’s crib, which has been sitting up at our summer cabin pretty much since she was born. So I looked at Dan and said “Guess we’re going to Bemidji this summer to pick up a crib.”

It just so happens that one of the (I think) 3 or so climbing areas in Minnesota conveniently falls in between Nebraska and Bemidji– what are the chances!– so we broke up the 15-hour drive with a quick camp and climb at Blue Mounds State Park.

blue mound sign

In the middle of dinner, this cat showed up. We fed her some leftover sloppy Joe filling (best ever recipe here), and she promptly curled up in the girls’ tent and went to sleep. The next day, the cat (dubbed JoJo Blue for the combination of sloppy Joes and Blue Mounds) tagged along on our climb.

dan jojo

As cats do, she then decided she was over us and definitely over our dogs, and ditched us without warning. Happy trails, JoJo.

After some Father’s Day climbing, we loaded up the cars again and headed north.

Bemidji is this tiny city in the middle of northern Minnesota, population 12,000 or so. Apparently one of the first things my great-grandparents did after hopping off the boat from Norway was to grab some lakeshore in this middle-of-nowhere town and build a summer cabin.

For years, the menfolk used Week 1 of their vacation time to come and drop the wives and kids off at the lake, and used Week 2 to pick the family back up again at summer’s end. In today’s modern family unit, the men vacation alongside their women and offspring; the cabins expanded from the original one, Restwell, to three on the main property and one across the street. The one across the street, Sunwood, was built by my grandpa for my grandma; that’s where we stay.


Normally, there’s about a jillion relatives milling about the lake. This year, though, our trip fell early, so we were the only ones there.

And it was awesome.

There is a particular magic that lies in watching your kids enjoy the exact same things you loved as a kid, and in the exact same place. Walking the same beach. Same little waves licking your toes and theirs. Sipping the same metallic artesian well-water. Enjoying the same view from the end of the dock.

lake bji

Picking up different-but-the-same smooth, frosted beach glass and different-but-the-same pretty rocks from the lakeshore.

Past and future overlap at Restwell. I watch the girls collecting and exclaiming over their beach treasures, and simultaneously remember Miss G at age 4 doing the same thing, along with all the times I spread out my own beach treasures on the dock as a kid, giving my grandma a tour of each and every one. And as an adult, I’m now positive that Grandma listened to me with a faraway smile while remembering her own childhood beach treasures, because that’s how long this place has been around: generations.

finding lake treasures

I’ve felt disconnected from my roots the last few years. When I was 7, my parents decided to uproot us from California and make Bemidji, my favorite place in the world up till that point, our permanent home. Virtually overnight, the vacation bliss of the cabins devolved into rules and obligations. No– no, not overnight. So gradually I didn’t notice for years, like being served cupcakes every night for dinner… then for lunch too… then for every meal… yet never losing that initial moment of excitement for yay, cupcakes! Then– oh, wait. Cupcakes.

There’s a world of difference between getting to go to the cabins and having to go. Every single day of summer. From first thing in the morning until long after dark. Unlike when we were there on vacation, I was no longer allowed to bring a book to read, under the premise that I had to visit with relatives. In reality, with no cousins my age, I wandered the beach, lonely and bored, summer day after summer day, year after year, all the magic fully drained from what used to be paradise with only two rules: 1) no yelling for help unless you really really mean it and 2) no wearing swimsuits to the table for Afternoon Coffee. Those were replaced by one rule instead: You will attend, and you will enjoy.

I was not allowed to bring any friends to the cabins with me, because they weren’t family. My summer social life, even through high school and into early college, was based entirely on the schedule of relatives leaving or arriving from the lake. Every family event trumped anything that mattered to teenaged me, every single time, even if it was the 23rd fish fry that summer. And my immediate family stopped taking family vacations of our own.

Sunwood, hidden away from the lake and back in the trees across the street, somehow fell outside this blast zone. Even as Restwell tarnished for me, Sunwood still beckoned, warm and glowing, all the more welcome a respite for its disuse and virtual abandonment, especially after my grandma died.

Then my sister asked Grandpa if she could live there fora  summer with a friend. He agreed and unshuttered the windows. The spirit of my grandma was revived along with daylight streaming through dust motes; Sunwood in its reincarnated second life then became a haven for me and my friends during our angsty teen years, maybe the only place any of us felt grounded and safe and sane.

But no amount of cedar-soaked charm can undo Sunwood’s unfortunate juxtaposition smack in the middle of my hometown. Even years after moving away, I still find Bemidji full of strings attached. Always, there are guaranteed, unwanted run-ins with some ex-friend or ex-boyfriend or the parent or spouse of an ex-friend or ex-boyfriend every time we go to the grocery store or the coffee shop or wherever, because Bemidji is a damned small town. And always, there are family obligations– which should be fun, because piling together in a jumbled mess of cousins and kids and dogs is pure Restwell spirit, but I have trouble enjoying fully because of my overexposure to cupcakes as a kid.

I left Bemidji a long time ago. I simultaneously miss it daily– miss what it was– and feel like I’ve escaped a tar pit. As the idyllic small town of my childhood has transitioned from never-changing to adopting a stack of really unpleasant changes– blowing up my high school, for example, and opening a Wal-Mart– feeling positive about investing the time and money in a trip up north has become increasingly difficult.

And all of this is just so fucking sad. Everyone has their magical place when they’re a kid, often the site of a family vacation but maybe a particular tree you used to climb or little corner of wilderness you used to play in. Maybe it turns into a housing development or something, and most of us mourn it and move on. But me, I’m mourning something that’s still in existence, which is a unique and excruciating pain. My feelings for Restwell became cluttered and complicated decades ago, and the loss of a once-simple and deeply heartfelt joy left a huge, mourning hole that’s tentatively bearable but never fully healed.

My love for Sunwood remains, but that scab rips open anew every year when the decision-makers talk about remodeling one thing or another, throwing out this or that from my forgotten cabin across the street and my absolute favorite place in the world that everyone –blessedly– left alone for years. I wish they’d go back to leaving it alone; making yet more changes to these things that should remain unchanged is soul-shredding to the point of me completely checking out and shutting down whenever the subject comes up. And that’s where I’ve been for years.

Then came this summer.

This rushed, random trip inexplicably closed a decades-old schism. It’s been a long time since I felt whole, refreshed, nourished after a trip to the lake. Maybe it was the absence of the friendly chaos of many relatives and in that silence I could finally feel that old childhood love well up again clear and true, or maybe it was that moment when Miss L, looking over the lake, mentioned casually that she thought her boyfriend would really like it there and I realized that despite custody schedules constantly changing and college looming and the lack of a true childhood home for either kid, that this place would be always be the same anchor for the girls as it was for me my entire life. And still is for me, as much as I’ve denied that fact, even to myself. A holdfast: the thing seahorses cling to in turbulent waters.

coffee sunwood porch

The main cabin is named Restwell for a reason. The deeper meaning behind that name might get lost amid casual everyday use, but now I think about that name like it’s brand new. Rest well. Revel in the rejuvenating properties of evening loon song and the gritty feel of sand in the bed and the burst of blueberries over vanilla ice cream and the fishy seaweed smell overlaid by crisp mint and sweet wildflowers. Then depart feeling well-rested down to your soul. Vacation and detoxification and benediction, all in one.

Maybe it’s okay to let Restwell reclaim its magic in my life, and Sunwood too. Maybe, with the kids growing up and moving out, we can make Bemidji our place of reconnection instead of some new home in Albuquerque that doesn’t exist yet, and that neither kid will visit more than occasionally. Maybe the problem isn’t the change itself, but instead lies in our ability to let changes enter, allow evolution to take place and coax it the direction we want it to go, like training vines up a trellis.

After a too-brief stint of a mere 2.5 days in Sunwood, Dan and I packed the crib up in a trailer, along with a neglected desk I’ve always loved, and brought them back home. We also brought home a huge stack of ideas for rewiring the entire cabin, insulating and renovating the walls you can literally see daylight through in some places, and making this place that we’ll someday inherit more usable for the life we actually live instead of left as an untouched monument to a past that no longer exists.

We left Bemidji with our hearts full and happy, hitting Blue Mounds again on the way back. We went climbing on this gorgeous granite formation that rises incongruously from the Minnesota plains.

blue mounds

The day was frustrating; the rock was slick, and the area has no-chalk laws, so we called it quits after a couple slippery hours. When we got back to the car, who should greet us but JoJo the wayward cat, whose body language very clearly said “Listen, I’ve thought about it, and I’ve had it with this place. I know you have dogs, but I guess I’m willing to risk it.” We scooped her up, and she made it with us as far as a rest stop in Nebraska before she decided maybe the life of a farm cat would be more to her liking, and vanished into the corn fields.

JoJo gets it. When a place or a situation feels right, you commit. And when it doesn’t, you skedaddle.

Beyond explanation, Sunwood feels right to me again, and my commitment– to my past, to my future, to my integrated present– is renewed.

I bought new moccasins to celebrate.

new moccasins


Maarit • 07/02/2015

Previous Post

Next Post

Leave a Reply