After 4,136 miles, I am at home again. My previous two trips out to the edge, around and back have been almost 8,000 miles and over 5,300 miles, so the edge is getting closer to home. One of the things this means is that while distinct, the territory I cover is more familiar to me. The area of the country east of the Mississippi has varied regions to be sure, but, as an example, my own state has Appalachia, Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Valley and Ridge zones. Pretty much what the eastern half of the United States has. One of the key differentiators is the extent of the ice sheet southward during the last ice age. Basically it extended just south of Chicago — from Manhattan along an east west line following roughly the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. I spent this section of the edge, and will spend most if not all of the next section, north of that line — traveling areas that were buried beneath a mile or so of ice during the period that home was relatively warm. For me, though familiar in terms of flora and fauna, this northern section is sharper. The edges are cleaner lines drawn against crisper backgrounds. The water is clearer. The mountains quicker. It’s like adjusting the focus a little bit on the familiar and seeing it all a little clearer.
What’s missing in this eastern section of the edge so far is that sense of bewilderment at the size and scope of the territory. It is more immediate — even against the backdrop of a series of lakes containing something like 20% of all the fresh water in the world. I expect someone growing up out west has that feeling coming east, but its more one of being surrounded. This is a key element of this adventure for me. To see things that astonish me, to see things that re-focus me, to get a sense both of a stranger in a strange place and a local with a new appreciation for a known one.
On this trip, the edge was mostly a water barrier between the US and Canada. It is a vague thing, hidden by thousands of lakes and bogs, or floating somewhere in the middle of a giant lake. As such, there is no sense of it. Until I passed the Customs building in Sault Ste. Marie, I really had no sense of being on the edge of the country. I’m sure there were a few spots where the sign pointed to Canada and had single digit miles on it, and International Falls and Sault Ste. Marie both have great bridges into Canada, but there is no tension, no feeling of our country coming to an end and another one beginning. There is just a familiar landscape, less populated and more sharply focused, alight with the colors of fall and alive with a wildness that just doesn’t really exist in the interior.
The Great Lakes offered a utility of the edge I haven’t seen really since Louisanna. The working edge. A place where being where you are means leverage to do things that simply can’t be done from another place. An industrial vibe full of history and tragedy and growth and collapse. A leverage used and abused, appreciated and then broken through relentless appetite. I think there are so many similarities between the fishing trade I saw hanging on by a thread in Louisanna and the industrial trade that once thickened the shores and waters of the Great Lakes. Both were like a gold rush for a time, both were used and abused, both now cling to life amidst the glory of a countryside that is slowly re-taking what was once taken.
And I don’t think there is anything about this to be ashamed of. History, for me, is important not just because of the events themselves, or the actors that stand out, but also for the context in which it all takes place. No one gets a chance to make a decision about anything with full and complete knowledge of every eventuality resulting from that decision. But everyone, if we take the time, gets a chance to make a decision with a full and complete understanding of what has happened before. It’s not uniquely American, but I think we as a country and a culture, do bring a recognition for past mistakes and a compassion for those who made them to our decisions. At least we have so far. So we see the value of rare natural places alongside their commercial potential and look for some balance because we know we screwed up before. We recognize the individual drive and capacity, built on liberty, that we each possess, and balance that against the need to sustain that drive and capacity in the presence of others. At least we have so far. While there are places desperately in need of preservation and protection, and those efforts need our support, it is astonishing how successfully we have empowered and enriched a nation s young as our’s, across a spectrum of people as diverse as our’s and maintained a natural wonder — both on the edge and within it — that can stop the breath of even the most jaded observer.
It’s possible this is a result of the land itself — it is so big, and so rich we simply havent’ gotten to it yet. Or it is so powerful it simply can’t be conquered. But I haven’t seen that. I have seen communities that have stolen and repented. Used and used up, and returned to protect. I am optimistic at our ability to continue to grow as a country, availing ourselves of our natural resources to continue to provide for ever more people, while saving the places that stand ready to help us remember at least some of what makes us what we are, and to humble us with evidence of our own powerlessness. It’s hard to maintain this optimism in the face of dire warnings and desperate pleas that come over the airwaves and computer screens every day. And it hard to maintain when the very obvious needs for protection seem to go unmet — perhaps because they are lost in the noise of so many other calls for action. One thing about the edge is that I’ve remarked on before, is that it is practical. There seems to be a real ability — maybe from necessity — to recognize when things have gone wrong, and to change to make amends. To stop digging a failing copper mine, and redirect energies to promoting access and tourism. To re-tool a factory and a skill set to make windmills instead of car parts. To study and understand a sustainable way to harvest and replant and completely leave alone, stands of timber. To sit at home amidst the ever-blurrier familiar and read the ever-direr news, is to lose sight of this. But to get out and go see for yourself is to be renewed, and re-focused.
I’m going back in the Spring to finish the the edge of the Great Lakes from Toledo to Niagara Falls, and continue across Northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Western Maine to the northeastern most corner. I have no idea what I will find there, but I know what will happen to me here. In the planning and in the doing, I will grow ever more proud of this country, and ever more aware of our triumphs and our failings. And I will grow ever more grateful that I have the chance to visit the edge.