I grew up forty-six minutes from Itasca state park—32,000 acres of dense forest and lakes, the crown jewel being the knee-deep stream of cold water that will eventually trickle and feed into the Gulf of Mexico 2,500 miles downstream. People come from all over to stumble across a dam of half-submerged boulders and claim I walked across the headwaters of the Mississippi.
I’ve done this on at least six different occasions. And now, home from school for the summer, I feel as though I’m somehow above the flocks of Asians and sun-burnt hikers that swarm the clearing with their small children and selfie sticks, documenting every rock and river bank and family moment they can catch in focus. I am determined not to be seen as a tourist and justify myself as slightly superior since I am native to this ground. At least, more native than they are.
My boyfriend has driven seven hours up for a long weekend and because this sun-filled Memorial day is his last day here, and he has never been, my family piles him into the mini van with my four younger siblings and hauls us up to Itasca.
Reaching the gravel bank, I lead him into the clear water, feel the gentle brush of current against my calves and swing my plastic flip-flops in my left hand. We wade downstream, treading on stones that may end up in St. Louis or Memphis, breathing in humidity and bogs and marsh, watching the minnows flee in front of us, flickering like refractions of sunlight.
Before we have to leave the park, we make a side stop so we can hike the half mile up to Aiton Fire tower—a rickety assembly of stairs and beams, all leading up to a five-by-five wooden hut that looks out for miles over the trees. The sign at the bottom reads “Not for those suffering from dizziness or fear of heights—no more than six at a time.” Mom is perfectly content waiting on the ground.
The stairs are steep, and I don’t even feel bad about quickly losing breath. At each landing, a sign tells you what layer of forest your passing: ground cover, understory, midstory, and soon we’re above the canopy and my feet are still clanking on metal steps. When I stop for rest, I can feel the tower wobble in the wind.
110 feet up and everything seems left behind. The endless green of summer trees bleed into each other across the acres, and even the birds are below us now. The tower cab is a perfect square with wide windows caged in chicken wire, and above the windows are signs that indicate North, South, East, and West. The rest of the wooden walls are scratched and colored with graffiti. Most have left initials and names and drawings like Jimmy + Taylor surrounded by a heart. Others left notes saying things like You did it! and Blake was here and Never stop being inspired. I always try to see how many names I can remember, peak into corners and cracks to find any writings I may have missed.
There’s something so innately human about wanting to make marks, to be remembered. And every time I find those marks I hope I’m somehow fulfilling that longing, in a small way. I think we pick places like these to reach out—ones that draw out breath or press us tight or remind us how feeble and unstable we are in the midst of this world. Much like the flocks snapping selfies by the headwaters and video taping their toddlers and pocketing postcards in the gift shop, we want some evidence for ourselves and for our experiences. We seek out ways to prove a sort of significance, not trusting our senses and memory to be enough.
The wind whips at the heat and sweat on my face, and I lean into it, eager to be swept away. My family soon begins the decent, and I should too since there are others waiting to make the climb, but I don’t want them to. I want to stay suspended in this elevated unsteadiness a while longer. Learn what it takes to balance. Become a part of this landscape, if it will take me.
We are so eager to conquer this world—to leap rivers and clear fields and construct towers into the sky, our grip becoming tighter when we see that even steel wavers. So caught up in proving our aliveness that we forget what it means to be.
I won’t carve my language into this wood, and I won’t post about being here either. As of right now I may stand above the trees, but I know their roots go down deeper than the beams that hold me. I have faith in this world and my place here. May I ever be rooted with it.