Sam Cook, For the News Tribune
We didn't see the mustard purge coming. But then, we didn't see the triple-bypass heart surgery coming, either. Some things in life just sneak up on you. The bypass surgery happened almost three weeks ago, when it became apparent to Phyllis, my partner in 47 years of marriage, that trying to carry a pan of freshly harvested tomatoes across the kitchen was a bit more than she could handle.
The word came down late last week: Freeze warning. That announcement always gets our attention here in the North. Yes, some of the leaves have already turned. Grouse and duck and bowhunters have been out for a while. But nothing proclaims the official beginning of fall like the first frost warning. The frost was to occur right on time — Sept. 29. That's the average date of first frost in Duluth, according to the National Weather Service.
A man of about my age stood up when I walked into the West Duluth restaurant. I stopped when I saw him, and the two of us sized each other up from across the room. I was looking for a former colleague with whom I'd worked in Colorado 40 years ago. He was looking for me. We hadn't seen each other in more than three decades. We stood there motionless for several seconds, each of us wondering: "Is that him?" Then we both broke into broad smiles. Yep. It was us, all right.
NORTHEASTERN MONTANA — A September evening, and the hunters putter around their camp in a farmer's hay yard. The western sky is starting to paint itself rose and purple over the wheat stubble. We go about our simple chores. Dogs' paws to check. Gear to square away for the morning hunt. Headlamps to locate.
I ran into a friend of mine at the dentist office the other day. We hadn't seen each other for a while. More typically, we come across each other on Duluth's semi-wild trails, hiking or biking. Day or night, we always stop and catch up on each other's lives. The topics range from kids to dogs to hunting to wilderness travel. Though we're probably 20 years apart in age and our families are not close, we have many common interests.
I was getting my morning paper from the front door when I saw them in the mist. They were a small cluster of adults and kids a couple of houses away, standing at the curb, waiting for the school bus. It was the first day of the new school year. A dad stood near his young son. Not far away stood a woman I presumed to be a mom, under a large, rainbow-colored umbrella, and her daughter, who may have been the smallest child I've ever seen waiting for a bus. A somewhat older girl stood not far away.
The smartphone buzzes from atop the dishwasher. Incoming call. Child No. 1, the phone tells him, calling from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Ready to board for Amsterdam and on to Edinburgh. Home alone, just finishing the dinner dishes, he dries his hands quickly. She had come home to her former nest in Duluth for a brief visit, then down to the metro for an old friend's wedding.
We walked across the cobblestone and sand to a shelf of flat rock on the shore of Lake Superior. A Saturday morning. Late August. Brighton Beach. "I want to go to the lake," Phyllis had said several minutes earlier. We had picked up a blueberry muffin to share, and Phyllis had brought an iced coffee. We plopped down on the rock, which was still holding the previous day's warmth. We were not alone. All along those ancient rocks, people had come to be near the water.
Our friendship was forged over bulging Duluth packs and bins of trail food in the summer of 1976. Mike had come to the Ely outfitting business as a fishing guide and all-around handyman. Phyllis and I were green as sphagnum moss, a couple of Kansas transplants who had landed jobs with the same Moose Lake outfitter. We were all young then, in our 20s, but Mike had already spent a summer guiding anglers on nearby Snowbank Lake. He was bright and funny and competent in a lot of disciplines. And he knew how to catch fish.
I see the couple up ahead on the trail. It's early morning in one of Duluth's trail-rich parks. I know who they are. It's Jan and Larry. Birders. They're moving slowly, looking up, binoculars slung around their necks. I stop on my morning trail run to visit with them. We may talk birds. But we're just as likely to talk dogs, or weather or deer hunting or any other aspect of life that comes up. I always look forward to seeing them on the trail. I know I'm going to come away with some nugget of knowledge or awareness that I didn't have before.