The Lighthouse—no doubt you have heard of Split Rock Lighthouse. It is the representative image of northeastern Minnesota, if not for the whole state.
Split Rock lighthouse—highest lighthouse in the world they always proclaim, meaning highest above sea level, although what significance lies in that fact, well, you can decide.
The Lighthouse—despite the cracked and scarred wall of rock above which it is anchored, its name is borrowed from the river a few miles down the shoreline.
A lighthouse with all its symbolism.
The River—it looks unpromising as you drive over the bridge. You probably are not looking west at the morass of the river but looking east out over Lake Superior lying so near just past the rotting stumps of two previous bridges.
Split Rock River—a mile above the swampy estuary stands the feature for which the river and the lighthouse take their names. On the favorable winters you can walk up the frozen river to have the best point of view to see the split rock, which few have seen.
A river with all its symbolism.
1994, Friday, December 31
In the afternoon Maggie calls from Duluth with tempting information for her sister Ruth, who lives down in The Cities.
It has been one of those uncommon winters in Northeastern Minnesota. First came several inches of snow before Thanksgiving. In early December the thermometers hid most of their red in their bulbs. The rivers froze into secure walkways; only a few light flurries of snow dusted the ice.
The forecast for the weekend is for highs around zero with clear blue skies and calm winds.
Having been raised in east Duluth, Ruth has the North Shore in her DNA and in her soul. Only two years out of seminary, for now she is the second assistant pastor in a large Lutheran church in a northern suburb. Her dream is to find the right call in the Arrowhead, the closer to Lake Superior the better. However, a bit of a glitch came along. She met Albert and married. He also dreams of living in the north, despite being from the St. Paul suburbs. His job is the glitch. He is a bio-engineer, a job not in high demand, if any demand, in the North.
They are torn between north and south. As you will see, they are also torn east from west.
After Maggie’s phone call they plan a day-trip to walk a river, as Ruth and Maggie did with their father as children. Ruth suggests, Albert agrees, that they walk the Split Rock River. New Year’s Eve is not their night; neither of them is a party animal, or even a party house plant. Before going to bed at ten, they pack up what they will bring and organize what they will wear.
1995, Saturday, January 1
At 3:45 the alarm chimes. At 4:15 they are out the door. Traveling north on I-35 they are mostly silent, each sipping from a travel mug, anticipating the exhilaration of the day ahead. What they share most in common is being outdoors on bike, foot, snowshoe, ski, and canoe or dangling over a cliff on a rope. Although this will be their first day together in the cold, both relish the northern forest in any weather. Their brief marriage has had its bumps and now, and then, a flat tire. But today as they start the drive north, they are in sync.
Ruth, age 26, name taken from the Bible, and Albert, age 27, named for Albert Einstein, have been married only five months following a three-month courtship. Before the wedding Ruth’s pastor father, after watching the couple together and considering the background of his future son-in-law, asked her if she had applied proper pre-marriage counseling to herself and Albert. She lied that they had. He knew she lied. She knew he knew.
Before the wedding Albert’s physicist father, after watching the couple together and considering the background of his future daughter-in-law, asked Albert if he had thought the marriage through. Albert answered, “Not as fully as I should, perhaps, but look at you and mother.”
His father answered, “But, then, not all things are rational, are they?” Albert’s parents eloped after a brief courtship. His mother’s artistic temperament and his father’s scientific frame of mind caused rifts, until they learned to appreciate each other for who they were, which in the end increased their appreciation for themselves. Albert and Ruth were blessed to come from strong marriages. Ruth would say “blessed;” Albert would say “lucky.”
Half way to Duluth Ruth switches her thoughts to her sermon tomorrow. As the second assistant pastor she seldom gives a sermon and is excited for the opportunity, even on a low attendance Sunday. She has a framework for the sermon in her head, but does not want to finalize it, hoping that this day will give her a story or a metaphor. At the same time Albert thinks about the challenges of living the life they have dreamed, if it does become possible for them to move north. The dream is their most common conversation. He is well-equipped to handle the technicalities and skills of the challenge, except for finding a job in the north.
South of Duluth Ruth asks rather absently while she drives, her mind still on her sermon, “You do remember I am preaching tomorrow?”
Before saying “yes,” Albert hesitates. For several hours he regrets the half second of hesitation. Albert was distracted by his thoughts; his mind, you see, does not switch gears as quickly as hers. He offers being distracted as his excuse, telling her he was dreaming of their plans. She knows better, or thinks she does, silently dismissing him as an emotional adolescent. You know how it is with newlyweds: every word, gesture, and silence is dissected, parsed, given vector analysis, psychoanalyzed, and plumbed to its emotional depth.
“You do not seem to be willing to support me.” She speaks on the threshold of his hearing, a sure sign she is upset.
Again he hesitates. “I’ll come, tomorrow, I’ll come . . . you know I don’t believe . . . It doesn’t make any sense to me, is all, but I’ll come to support you.” He did not mean to sound self-sacrificing.
“Not all this world is logical,” she replies. “Many things are no more than an intuitive response, like love. I do not think my faith. I feel my faith. You cannot separate me from my faith. I come with my faith.” She too tries to state her words as only the words without any tonal connotation. She fails. After brief thought, she regrets challenging his love for her, which she knows is unfair. Knowing you are being unfair does not always stop you from being unfair. She does not know how to take back the tone of her voice. They are silent, looking straight ahead out the window. She sees a grim, dark, lifeless world. Albert sees a leafless landscape, merely dormant, protecting itself from winter, gathering itself for spring.
He answers, framing his voice with right-angle corners, “I came to you without religion. That is my life-long reasoned decision.”
On their third date, the third in three nights, they found this chasm and tumbled off the edge. Next day they promised not to make it a divide but to accept each other as they are. Yet the motivation to change each other has festered in every conversation that hints of religion or nature. They do not quarrel about the creation itself. The timeline and process of creation are not her stumbling block. She feels her way through the Bible. The book of Genesis is for her emotional truth, which she told him has been “perverted by males who have engineered Christianity for 2000 years.” She chose the word engineered for his benefit. He was astute enough to catch that she blamed males for lack of emotional perception and astute enough not to say he did.
Ruth was enraptured by Albert’s first telling of science’s explanation of creation. She praised him for the best rendering of the story she had heard. He failed to notice that she called it a story. She told him his words rang with his passion for science. He had never before thought of it as a passion but was pleased with the thought. She said, “I see the fingerprints of God in every wonderful detail you explain.” He let the implied challenge pass. It was a moment of fertility in their love, when both of them breathed in the wonder of the personality for whom they have such sudden feelings, when differences seemed trifling compared to attraction.
Do you remember that moment when discovering each other was a rapture? Do you perhaps remember when the other person’s passionate interests and personal history were the seeds for love? You knew your lives were blending; you thought without lumps. After a time, love either gets you past the lumps in your mashed potatoes—or they go sour.
As well as the outdoors, Albert and Ruth share preferences for quiet, neatness, orderliness, simplicity. For peaceful meals in their neighborhood diner, where they can sit and sip coffee and slowly share a dessert. For Indie movies. For classical music and folk music. For reading instead of watching television. For visiting art fairs and museums. He prefers her long strawberry blond hair in a pony tail. He loves her ease with people of all sorts, although he thinks she should be less open, more careful about street people in their south Minneapolis neighborhood. Although she speaks softly, she moves quickly, darting here and there with her lithe athletic body. She is attracted to his dark round eyes, “almost like cartoon eyes, you know, like Porky Pig,” a tease which he likes. His voice is rich and assured. He is shorter than her by a fraction of an inch but seems taller because he stands so erect and moves with a slow fluid ease. When they walk down the sidewalk together, they lean gracefully against each other. People turn and watch. A street photographer took their picture walking that way. It is on the wall of their neighborhood diner. They live in what had been his apartment, to which she brought splashes of bright color, which mesh well with his white walls and off-white curtains. They alternate her multi-colored pottery plates with his white china.
Except for religion, their talks glide smoothly over a wide range of topics. Even in politics, about which they do not agree, they do not disagree.
They have yet to grate upon each other over the small things that can divide, such as toilet seats, toothpaste tubes, placement of dishes in the cupboards, height of the shades during the daytime, proper time to open Christmas presents, and names for the two children they plan to have in a few years—no rush. They are young and eager for the world. Maybe their children will be born in the North.
In Duluth they stop to buy gas and granola bars for a first breakfast. For the sake of their empty Thermoses, they stop at Maggie’s. Without disturbing the sleeping family, they wait for coffee to brew and water to heat. She pulls him close. Each apologizes in that way new couples do, not sure if they are sorry, confused for what exactly they should or should not be repentant. They kiss deeply. The thermoses are filled, and they are out of Duluth.
Albert, now the driver, chooses the four-lane. Ruth had assumed they wold take the scenic route close to the lakeshore to watch the sun rise out of Lake Superior, which inspires a sermon thought. She tells herself, “It’s a New Year’s sermon, after all. It’s the journey, not the destination. This moment is my metaphor . . . But Albert will be there. It will be a criticism of him. Do I censor my sermons for my husband? No, of course not . . . the sunrise, not the rush. Perfect for tomorrow, January 2 . . . If I’m afraid of his reaction, then he is not really supporting me, is he? Is he?”
Albert’s mind is planning the interior of the small house of which they both dream. Books will be the clutter issues. They both have many books. How to deal with that? Her books she brought from her apartment along with the the multi-colored units that stack into book shelves. He has his books in black shelves, which before Ruth he thought of as his splash of color, although he did not know the term “splash of color” before Ruth. Their books are unmixed, which is logical. The challenge of the dream house is all those books. He does not want to give up a single book; she will not either. But what if they make the books their wallpaper? He is pleased with the decorative thought; he never would have thought of things like wallpaper and splashes of color before Ruth. His books, floor to ceiling, down one side of the main room; her books, floor to ceiling, down the other side, or mixed. Separate was logical. There is no logic to mixing them, and books need to be arranged logically. But what conclusion might Ruth draw from unmixed books. How did books get tricky?
They both come out of their thoughts as they drive through Silver Cliff tunnel, the engineering of which is one of Albert’s favorite parts of the North Shore, but he better not tell her that. Both wonder about the long silence they have just lived, miles along the shore, right through Two Harbors without noticing. Has it been a companionable silence? Is the rift still there, hiding in the console which divides their two seats?
“Have you been thinking upon your sermon?” Albert asks just to fill the silence, then regrets he has raised the subject.
But Ruth, thinking his question is designed to show support, is pleased he asks.
When a pause would have been wise, Albert continues, “I’ve been thinking about our dream house, well, if we get to move up here, about your books and mine, about how we’ll shelve them all and organize them in a small space.”
Her flush of love evaporates. She speaks in her barely audible voice, “Is that what’s significant for you? Like we don’t want our books to intermix?”
He wonders, how did she draw the correct conclusion out of the little he said? “No. Well, all those books. We both will want to keep our books. We both use them in our work, or some of them. We’ll have to plan to have them all in our small house. That is all I meant.” He knows he sounds defensive.
“Yes, I see.” Her voice is so soft that Albert half-guesses at her words. What does she see, exactly?
They are frozen in silence until they pull into the small parking lot at Split Rock River. The radio tells them it is five below on the hill in Duluth, five above in the Duluth harbor. Here, close to the lake, the second number applies. As they walk away from Lake Superior, the temperature will drop. They button up in layered winter clothing and step out of the car. Albert wants to hold her, as he had in Maggie’s kitchen so recently. He decides it would be awkward, by which he does not mean in their thick clothing. Ruth wants him to hug her. “I hugged him at Maggie’s. It’s his turn . . . We would be like two fat bears hugging,” which is a humorous thought in the tension.
Albert preps his backpack by adding his thermos of coffee, his camera, two extra lenses, a large bag of trail mix, their sandwiches, a small notebook and pencil, and a first aid kit. Ruth preps her backpack by adding her thermos of hot tea, fig cookies, a sealed plastic container of couscous, forks, napkins, and her sketch pad with four pencils and eight colored ink pens.
At the edge of the slippery slope leading to the river, they link arms and edge their way down. At the river, they separate. Albert works his way over to the north side of the river into the tussocks of grass, islets of brush, and stunted trees scattered in the frozen swamp. He photographs a bird’s nest. Ruth stays on the south side of the river, which is more river than swamp. She takes out her art materials to sketch the view up the river, which, despite the cloudless sky, will look best in graphite. The ink in her pens will freeze. Being left-handed, she slides them up her right sleeve to stay warm against her skin. She takes off her outer thicker glove to sketch in a thin glove which allows her to feel the pencils until the cold permeates the thin material.
She looks up. Albert is farther up the river, down on his knees photographing the skim of snow blown against grass and brush. He is playing with light and angles, the sun still lying low over the lake and casting shadows up the river. Ruth shivers with cold, a moment of delight in her somber mood. Being in the cold enlivens her, gives her trust in who she is, a child of the North. Soon her internal furnace will kick in and warm her. Facing the lake, she does some jumping jacks. Albert snaps three pictures of her. She turns and sees him; they wave to each other over fifty yards of ice and work up the river in separate lines.
As he wanders among the islets and swamp, Ruth slowly gains on Albert. In a sheltered area, she sees footprints in the few inches of drifted snow. She realizes that Albert was photographing the footprints earlier. She chooses to perceive an air of mystery about the prints: who and why. The when she knows. But, of course, it is only a river-walker like her and Albert. She turns and catches sight of him focusing on something in a balsam, another nest or a cocoon, or a caterpillar tent. She does admire his skill with a camera. One moment his scientist’s eye frames some aspect of creation; the next moment his artist’s eye, learned from his mother, is capturing light and beauty. Sometimes his two natures meld in the lens.
Pulling her colored pens from her sleeve, which makes her feel like an inept magician, she sketches an islet in bold abstract with as few strokes as possible. After a couple minutes she mutters, “Too many strokes, a failure of a sketch, a sketch of failure.” Her undergraduate major was art. She yearns to be a minimalist but always over-reaches. “Too many lines, too many colors, too little negative space, too little to tease the eye of any beholder.” She feels warm, too warm, wishes for a spark of cold.
Albert emerges from the swamp a few yards ahead of her. The narrowing of the river forces them back together. Albert takes photographs of the hill above the south bank. Ruth sketches in monochrome the regiment of birches outlined against the blue sky two hundred feet above her. Shading in the shadows between the trees, she tries to leave the white birch as negative space between her graphite marks. It ends up a muddle. She wishes she could accept sketch failures; after all, the very meaning of sketch implies a transitory effort, a mere flash in the brain. Albert’s camera gives her a moment of envy, which passes in shame. The cold has left her.
The river funnels them to a gap a mere thirty yards across. The north bank is a high rock wall bowled out by centuries of corundum-laden water. To the south is a similar rock wall, not as high, pointing out into the river like a knife edge. They have come to the split rock.
Albert steps into the split, between knife and bowl, to change the film in his camera. Ruth surveys the rock walls, noticing for the first time, by benefit of her husband’s teaching, that the stone of the knife and of the bowl are identical, that the layers in the rock align. She moves to be beside him. He puts up his hand to stop her in her third step. In a voice as soft as is her voice when she is upset, he tells her, “Don’t move.” He points the lens at her, adjusts the focus ring. “The light is striking your face just right, or better, if you turn your body to face south and look at me over your shoulder.” She does. “You are beautiful. The sun is striking across your face. The blue sky frames the tufts of your hair showing from your cap in highlights. No. Don’t smile. Just look right at me.”
After he takes five careful photographs, he walks to her and kisses her. He still speaks in the whisper, as if this were a sacred place. “You told me about this split in the rock. I could not picture it.” He takes two photographs.
She whispers back, “Oh, but you have not seen it all.” She takes his hand and guides him through the split and points to the left, where the river drops a dozen feet over a rocky waterfall, now frozen into castles, minarets, steeples, mounds, staircases, and faces with beards, big noses, small eyes, and Neanderthal eye ridges. Albert walks a counterclockwise circle of the bowl to study the rocks and then the waterfall. Ruth steps into the center to sketch the waterfall with her eight too-bright yet perfect colors. Her two sketches both work, minimal but representative of her feelings of delight with cold. Albert uses many angles to photograph the rock walls, the waterfall, and her as she sketches, rapt in her success. He is envious; he will have to wait a few days to judge his efforts with the camera.
The lowest four feet of the bowl opposite the waterfall is a niche, granted by the power of the water swirling off the falls when the river overflows. She crouches in the niche and allows herself one cup of tea and two fig cookies, saving the rest for their meal. Still studying the frozen falls, Albert stands beside her, allowing himself one cup of coffee and two fig cookies. She tells him, “Fig Newtons in the cold, just like in my childhood.” She looks up to the top of the rock walls and tells him, “No vantage point up above gives a good view of this secret place.” She imagines being on the dangerous point of the knife above them and looking down. The image tickles a memory. From above, Albert would look like a buck standing protection over a doe lying on the ground, which she once saw in her childhood. Ruth rises and stands beside him. Albert smiles at her and kisses her and goes back to studying the rocks.
She whispers, “This is a sanctuary. You see geology and vast time. I see grace.”
“Yes.” he replies and kisses her again. She realizes he does not recognize grace as a Christian term. He thinks she is describing the physical appearance, which she is, but adding to it her spiritual reaction. She wants to tell him, “This is how we have been so far on our walk up the river. You freeze reality; I add emotions and spirituality.”
When she puts her thermos back in her pack, he, oblivious to any change in her mood, does the same. She asks, “Do the footprints go up the waterfall? They must because I have seen none heading back.”
Albert investigates the bit of snow at the base of the falls. “His prints are right here. This would be the safest place to climb.”
“Is it a man? I assumed a woman.”
“The footprints are crisp and clean. The man, or woman, beat us up the river this morning.”
“Yes. I saw that, as well,” Ruth answers.
“There was no car in the parking lot when we pulled in. Or am I confused?”
“No. No car.”
He looks at her face, which he misreads, in that way men do. “Are you cold?”
Expecting him to know her feelings without her telling him, as women will do, she answers, “No. I am warm.”
“Yes. I know what you mean.” He does not, but he stumbles into saying the right thing. “This place is . . . I know it’s just a place after all, but this place . . .”
“It is! It is! I mean it is more than just a piece of geography or geology. The rust of the rocks. The blues of the sky. The lemon light of the sun. The greens and whites of the trees up on the ridges. The perfect calm of the air. We are together. Maybe here is my sermon topic.”
He is confused but does not ask. Instead he takes the coward’s way and kisses her. She smiles and hugs him, her mood swung back again in his favor. “Come on, let’s scale the ice.”
As they climb, he offers to help her, but soon she, the surer of foot and longer in trust, helps him up the last few steps. The river, which narrows to a dozen feet over the falls, curves around the right wall at an acute angle. They turn the corner into a canyon which slowly widens and rises between the rock walls. The swamp is no more, replaced with slopping ice and rock. Ruth takes the lead, finding safer footing in the patches of snow, through which the footprints lead, until the snow ends, all blown off the ice into niches in the north wall.
Holding hands, they give full attention to their foot placements, until she stops on a small level terrace of ice on the north side of the stream. She turns Albert to face her. They hug. “Are you cold?” he asks.
“Yes.” Her delighted smile confuses him. “Albert, around this protrusion of rock I remember something else. Another surprise for the biologist photographer.”
“What else could there be?”
The river arcs to the north one last time and then finds its true northwest course. She leads him around the corner to where the rock, receiving the best heat of the sun, is splattered with colors, which in the sun against the white terrain look brighter than they are.
“I chose the colors of my pen for this moss, as well as I remembered it anyway. All these reds and oranges and yellows and greens in all this cold and black and ice and brown and snow and rust rock.”
Albert takes his camera out of his pack; Ruth takes out her sketch pad and pulls the warm pens from her sleeve. They each become lost in their own world of color. She sketches from a distance, resulting in another muddle. She moves up to be closer. Albert shoots from against the south wall, then the middle of the river, and then, after changing lenses, from close range. She tries to catch the layering of moss in the patches. At first she fails. She flips the page and succeeds. He watches her out of the corner of his eye, knowing not to tell her the colors on the wall are muted, not bright primaries.
“These are, you know, not moss. They are lichens.”
“Aren’t they the same thing?” She is still lost in her sketch.
“No, no. Lichens are complex. I love lichens. They look simple, but they have evolved to be a composite of different life forms, kind of like a community living together, mostly algae and fungi, but other life forms, too, like bacteria, sometimes. They are amazing, all the different forms they take, the different colors they have. Each life form gets something out of the intermixing of their growths. The algae do photosynthesis, and the fungi gather moisture and nutrients and hold onto the rock or bark or whatever it is growing on, or they are growing on. Some can look like little trees or like a moss. I cannot do their taxonomy, but there must be many different kinds growing here.”
“Wow! Like a whole little world right there. I had no idea.”
“Might be better to say several whole little worlds on this wall. They can survive severe cold, too.”
She keeps drawing. He wanders down the wall to inspect all the different forms and colors.
When he turns back, he sees her sitting on a large flat rock, like a low table, near the middle of the river. When he comes back to her, she has flipped to a new page and is writing furiously with the green pen. He studies the rock on which she sits. “This rock is an erratic. It does not match the natural rock here. Floods have moved it down to here. I suppose in a century or so it will tumble over the falls.”
She stops writing, closes the notebook and clutches it to her chest. “I feel so wonderfully cold. I have my sermon topic. You gave it to me. It’s perfect for the new year. Community, like you describe the lichens, which you will have to tell me more about on our drive home so I get it right. Interdependence, how love grows into trust and willing sharing. Here, sit by me. Let’s have our meal.”
They spread the feast across their laps and look at the lichens, finding forms, like children finding sheep and ghosts in the clouds. She finds an elephant, he finds pancakes. She sees a dancing bear; he sees a shoe. She points at a bowl of fruit, he points at a forest.
“All of that is just random chance.” He did not mean to raise the subject of their divide. He was referring only to the forms they see. “Well, I mean, isn’t it interesting how things just happen to look like that, I mean, the elephant and the shoe?”
“Yes, but doesn’t psychology say we will see thing as we want to see them? Isn’t it just our perception, how we see these things? I do see that the elephant is an accident of how they grew that way; yet my perception seeks out forms it knows.”
“You sound almost like an evolutionist . . .”
They are silent, sipping coffee and tea, munching on cookies.
She asks, “Did we find each other only by random chance? Was it a plan of God’s? I don’t know. How does God work?”
“‘God does not play dice with the universe’.”
“I know that quote! It’s cool. I know it’s more an argument for big natural forces than for faith. But I like to perceive it my way.”
A voice speaks from ten feet behind them. “A blessing on you both.”
Managing to jump up in alarm without spilling their drinks or dropping their cookies, they turn to see a person. It is the face that arrests them: a strong face, round with prominent cheek bones, a narrow peaked nose, and intense large eyes of an unidentifiable color because they lie in dark shadows cast by the sun resting over one shoulder like a personal adornment. The skin is translucent, showing very little pink from the cold. Despite the deep wrinkles framing the face, it has a youthful quality. On the head is an aged maroon stocking cap over which a faded tartan scarf is tied and under the chin. Long wavy pepper and salt hair peeks out from hat and scarf and drapes wide over the narrow shoulders.
“I should apologize for giving you a fright, but it is just such a joy to find others out here walking the river on New Year’s Day. We are our own little parade in the wilderness. We could build a float with lichens.”
The voice is frailer than they expect, cracking every few syllables. She, for it is a woman, wears what appears to be the clothing of a man: thick gray and black striped woolen pants rolled up over heavy masculine boots, a straight heavy wool coat of either black or dark blue or dark green; countless washings have obscured its original color. She has yet to move but looks as if she has a graceful walk and gestures.
“Young and in love. Young and in love and out here studying the lichens on New Year’s Day. I, like you, young man, admire the lichens. Young lady, I wish I could hear your sermon. Where will it be preached?”
Ruth answers, “In The Cities. But I wish you would be there. I would like to see your face as I talk.”
Albert says, “There was no other car in the parking lot.”
She smiles at him. “Maybe I am a figment of your perception. Or a wraith. Or an angel. But sadly I am just an old woman out for a walk. My neighbor dropped me off two hours ago by now, I suppose. I do not wear a watch.” Albert pulls up his sleeve. “No, do not tell me the time. I am not allowed to drive any more. A wise decision. She is probably waiting for me, trying to read in her car and not able to because another car is sitting there in the lot, making her all worried that some maniacal killer has walked up the river just to find me.” She laughs.
“You must have been out here before sunrise.”
The woman’s voice grows stronger in answer to Albert’s patronizing tone. “Young man, I have been walking on the trails and rivers of the North Shore for over sixty years, which seems to me is less dangerous than driving around the Twin Cities. God has given me a gift, a last chance to be here. This is only the fourth or fifth time that I have been able to walk this easily up the frozen rivers. I cannot manage snowshoes anymore, but hardly a winter has passed without me snowshoeing up the Split Rock, Silver Creek, Knife, Gooseberry, Baptism, and even a couple times the Temperance, after climbing up the rocks a ways, and I was seventy-one the last time I did that. God has given me another gift, running into you like this, who I hope will give me a cookie, what with that whole bag you have there.”
“Oh, yes, sorry,” Albert says and offers her the bag.
“Sit on the rock with us,” Ruth pleads.
She walks to their rock and takes two cookies out of the bag. Now her eyes look lighter, a hazel mix of colors and flecks. The wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, which only appear now, relay her delight. “I will sit only if you tell me your names. I don’t parlay with strangers.”
“I am Ruth. This is Albert.”
“Ruth is an old-fashioned name for your generation . . . then call me Naomi.” She laughs.
Albert is confused. “Isn’t Naomi your real name, then?”
She laughs again. “Are you two married?”
“Yes,” answers Ruth, stepping close to Albert and holding his arm.
Naomi says, “Then, entreat me not to leave thee, nor return from following after thee. For where thou walkest on frozen rivers I will walk; and where thou eatest cookies, I will eatest cookies. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
Albert is still confused, but enchanted by this woman, despite her talk of God. “What about some couscous or trail mix? We brought too much.”
“Trail mix! Yes, indeed.” She sits on the stone. Ruth sits next to her. Albert hands her the bag of trail mix. She takes the mitt and glove off her left hand to eat. They see that her hand, unlike her face, betrays her true age.
Albert asks, “What is your real name?”
Ruth jumps in, “Please, let’s just leave it at Naomi. I would love if it were Naomi.”
“You two young lovers were talking about plans and accidents. At my age looking back, life looks like a bunch of accidents that became a plan, or maybe a purpose, or at least a pattern. It was odd how I met my husband. Don’t worry, I’m not about to bore you with all the details. I came from a rich Minneapolis family. He came from a poor farm family. I was used to having my own way and being given all I wanted. I did not know want from need. He was a Mennonite. He taught me to live a simple life, living on the least and sharing the extra. Over the years we found a church and did not worry about all the theology, only our trust in God, although my husband studied lots of theology plus books on how to make and do things. I read literature and books on nature. When we were first married, we let small things matter; we almost separated. How silly all that looks now. Oh, the years we had! Friends we had! Love we had! The real Naomi ended up without children, didn’t she, I think? We could not have them, but that made us closer and made us more giving. Now, there, enough of that. When I follow your tracks down the river, will I see them together?”
They both look sheepish. Albert answers, “Well, we did different things. I took pictures and she sketched.”
“Young man, Al, I shall call you. That is the same thing, isn’t it?” She closes up the trail mix and hands it to him.
Ruth asks, “You said God has given you a last gift . . .”
“So you caught that, Reverend Ruth. It is the best opinion of another young man of science that next winter I will not be out walking, if I am still walking the earth at all. But that is nothing. Al, you are now looking even more worried about me. I will ask a favor. The waterfall sometime recently grew higher and harder to climb. You must walk up farther, out of the canyon at least. Before you do, could you help me down the waterfall?”
“We’ll help you all the way to your friend’s car.”
“No, you will not! I have socialized enough today. I want back my solitude and you two have not walked far enough.”
“Yes, Naomi,” Ruth answers. “We will help you down and then continue our walk. Naomi means pleasant.”
“How nice. And Ruth means what?”
“It has been translated into several meanings. Friend or pity or beautiful.”
“That is pleasant. You are beautiful, Ruth, is she not, Al?” He nods. “You are too, Al.”
She stands and starts walking down the ice to the falls with confidence and poise. They leave their packs on the rock and follow her. As they walk, she asks them about their courtship and wedding. At the bottom of the falls, she says, “Young lovers, so young! Think of how much you have to learn and how exciting it will be! Ruth, you are a hugger. Go ahead.” They hug. “Al, you are not a hugger, so I will shake your hand. And, Ruth, a sermon on lichens and love. Wish I could hear it. I do admire the lichens.” She walks through the split rock and is out of sight.
They are silent as they walk another mile up the ice to where the river becomes a stone and pebble lined stream with birch trees arching out above the ice. Neither takes out a camera or a sketchbook. They talk little, stay close together as they walk up the river and then back to their car.
Albert offers to drive the first half of the way home. After he turns onto the scenic route to Duluth, Albert asks her to read the story of Naomi and Ruth from the Bible that she always has in the car. When she is finished, he says, “That one part was read at our wedding, but I did not know why. Now I know. Read it again.”
“I have it kind of memorized from the King James version, which is more poetic. ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, nor beseech me from following after thee. For whither thou goest I will go and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people will be my people. Thy God my God.’”
“What do you suppose was her actual name? We should have asked her more questions. She would be good to get to know, like making her one of our people.” They laugh.
“Mother told me that when she and dad were courting car front seats were long benches. She would sit right next to my father as he drove. I wish I were doing that right now. Stupid bucket seats!” Ruth watches Albert decide not to answer. “Go ahead and say what you want to, tell me how foolish it was.”
“Well, it would be dangerous. No seat belts then, I know. But it was dangerous.”
“Naomi made a choice not to tell us her name. I think she has lots of friends.”
“The day was wonderful, after that bad patch at first,” Albert replies. “She was the best part of the day. If we lived here we could snowshoe all the rivers every year. The Mennonites don’t drive cars or use electricity, right?”
“She was a breath of cold air. We both fell in love with her in mere seconds. Some Mennonites, I think, are like the Amish. Most just seek a simple basic life, like we want to do. I admire them.”
“Aren’t we living a simple basic life now, as much as we can? Would we learn more by reading about how they live?” Albert asks.
“Or, even better, getting to know some Mennonites and learning from them.”
“We forgot to wish Naomi a Happy New Year.”
“Or maybe a Happy New Day.”
They are silent, until as they rise up out of Duluth, Ruth murmurs, “Stupid bucket seats.”
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017