“NO! NO NO NO!”
I was yelling through our car’s rolled up window at a teenager, 8 p.m., 20 degrees, walking across a street through a snow drift and to the local Dairy Queen – the kind where you order and eat outside. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts.
“That is NOT how you do life.”
Becky and I were in Two Harbors to get some grub on our first night on the North Shore. And oddly enough, this kid wasn’t the only one walking around with no coat on. I guess for them, 20 something was a heat wave.
Winter sucks. Once New Year’s has come and gone, it’s an unending slog of full work weeks until Memorial Day. Becky and I started breaking that streak of dark and cold misery with our trip to Alma, Wisconsin last year. We found new freedom in visiting a tourist destination in the off season. Sure not everything is open, but the stuff that is has no lines!
This year, we fell in love with pictures from the North Shore in winter, particularly at Breezy Point. A cabin to ourselves seemed perfect. Getting three nights for the price of two made renting our own cabin cheaper than a crappy hotel room in any other season. Totally affordable.
Sunday we Arrive
So we packed a suitcase, filled the tank, and headed north on Sunday morning. At the time, late February, there was no snow on the ground in the cities, which is an unsettling state of affairs for Minnesota. The snow returned to our lives outside of Duluth, where it had fallen the night before. So much so that parking lots had become lawless mazes of cars who parked wherever the shit they wanted so that lanes narrowed into impassable oubliettes, drivers backing out or abandoning their cars in rando spots that made it impossible for others to escape.
We stopped at Hepzibah’s Sweet Shoppe for a bunch of $4 truffles that are worth every penny – worth it to the point we sometimes half-joke about driving to Duluth just to get some more on a Saturday. And with that we headed north on old Highway 61.
Becky here: It’s not a joke. I actually mean it. You’re thinking to yourself, who would ever pay $4.00 for a truffle? But see, you haven’t seen the truffles or tasted the truffles. Unlike other truffles, i.e. Godiva, Lint Lindor, these are so large, they give you two truffles in one. My FAVORITE is a pina colada one, where you get the taste of coconut and chocolate, but not the stringyness of actual coconut. My other favorite is champagne. These truffles are so amazing and delectable that they have to be refrigerated if you aren’t going to eat them right away.
Another requisite stop, Russ Kendall’s Smoke House in Knife River to pick up $50 of smoked trout, whitefish, and cheeses. (I’d return again in two days for more.)
Becky here: Again, you’re asking yourself, why would anyone spend that kind of money on smoked fish and cheese? WHY? Because we have been back from this beautiful trip for 27 days now and there is still two packages of cheese and some whitefish left. This makes easing back into the dregs of everyday life a bit easier. I can eat smoked cheese on crackers for lunch, and the smell of the smoke takes me to the shore and the taste makes me hear the waves crashing. See…this is why a weekend trip to get these items is truly a necessity. I wonder why Joel thinks I’m kidding about it.
Our home for the next few days was just a few miles down the road. Breezy Point: Cabins on Lake Superior is a collection of maybe a dozen red cabins lining the rocky shore of Lake Superior. Our cabin, #4, was furnished with a kitchen complete with island and cooking equipment for our stay. The cozy living room had a couch, chair, fireplace and smart TV that we could use our HBO and Netflix accounts on. Two sliding barn doors opened into the bedroom with an adjoining large bathroom.
Wood paneling, lake themed artwork, iron light fixtures and throw pillows and blankets give the cabin an aged, lived in feel. Nothing detracts from the view streaming in through two large picture windows that overlook the porch and rocky shoreline just twenty feet away. You can FEEL the waves’ seismic thundering on the shoreline. More on this in a while.
Our first night, we cruised the extra few miles into Two Harbors to hit up the grocery store, a Shopko (our first sighting in years, and man was it like traveling into the 80’s – severe Woolworth’s nostalgia), Betty’s Pies for a slice for later, and take out from Black Woods Grill and Bar. We got Chicken Pot Pie, Mac ‘N Cheese, and Black Woods Walleye. This turned into four meals for the both of us over the next few days. Four delicious, can’t-believe-it meals. Felt like Jesus the way this take out kept on giving.
Becky here: This was our hygge trip. So, here are the hygge items we can already check off: A fireplace: check, Things Made out of Wood: check, Nature: check, Blankets and Cushions: Check. But we still needed candles and warm drinks. Our visit to Shopko and grocery store yielded both. Joel purchased the largest purple candle I have ever seen. It was an interesting choice, but I have come to love it. We keep it burning in the front room when we hygge at home.
Monday on the Road
Given the weather forecast, we knew Monday would be our day to go out and about. After breakfast, we jumped in the car and drove north along the shore. We had two must-do goals, with a bunch of side quests if there was time.
Wait a minute. He’s forgetting several important facts. For the first time in our North Shore adventures, he made me drive. ME. I hate the tunnels through mountains…oh the screaming. But, it did give him a view that he usually does not get a chance to see. AND, he also forgot to mention how he didn’t grab my coat before we left. I assumed he had it because I was busy making snacks, but that explains the cold nose and hoodie pictures. In the end we purchased a nice fleece in the Gooseberry Falls gift shop that will be his spring jacket, so it all worked out. That phrase: “so it all worked out” is one of those phrases I use frequently about vacations. Everything seems so important in the real world simply drifts away and only the fond memories of the trip remain.
My goal – see Gooseberry Falls in the winter. There’s something about a waterfall in the winter that just captures the ridiculous power of nature – frozen and fluid at the same time, the falls did not disappoint. Note, no one shovels the walkways in the winter, so walking down the steep staircases and ramps is at your own risk. We found out after the fact that they had shoe crampons for sale in the guest shop that would have come in handy. Luckily, we only had one fall, me, and that was a slow-motion disaster that was barely a fall.
Our second goal was to get this picture at Grand Marais. Becky and I have been losing weight over the past year, so she wanted a before and now pic to show the progress we’d made since October.
Becky here: I LOVE the picture from October. It helps me through some trying times at work. I just sit and stare at it because we look EXACTLY how we feel. Sometimes pictures only capture what we think we are supposed to be feeling at any certain time. You know that whole, “Slap on some lipstick and you’ll be fine” attitude. I wanted to capture the same exact picture 4 months or so later. This is us, genuinely, vulnerably happy.
With The Angry Trout closed for the winter, we ate across the street at the Harbor House Grill, which was pretty empty at 2 pm, so we could share a fantastic Walleye entrée surrounded by interesting art and no crazy tourists. We watched the calm harbor, not even frozen, and walked a bit more to the Trading Post to get some more fun stuff.
The plan was to go up to the top of Lutsen Mountain on the way back, but by 3:45 when we got there, the lifts were closed for the day. We went down to the beach at Lutsen resort, grabbed some of their poutine to go, and headed home. It was getting dark by this point, and in our 4 hours on the highway, we’d spotted at least 30 deer. They had no fear! It was ridiculous how many deer we drove past. Well, that Becky drove past. She’d taken driving duty this time so I could watch the scenery, which meant watching a crap ton of deer.
Becky: I seriously do not know why I let him tell the stories! He missed an amazing part of the Lutsen trip. We went to the bar to order the most amazing poutine I’ve ever had. EVER. We sat at a table where he had a whiskey, and I had a glass of wine. We just drank slowly and talked about all we had seen and done that day. Letting it all sink in. We took a moment to be in the moment. I have a VERY difficult time being in the moment. So, when Joel and I are doing something extraordinary or even ordinary activities, I turn to him and say, “This, right here, I could do this for the rest of my life with you.” And for that moment, we are able to both be in the moment and grateful of the moment at the same time.
We got back to our cabin in the dark, I worked on my fire building skills, which over the course of the next 24 hours would mean just practically throwing an entire Sunday paper in there to get it going properly so the big wood logs had enough time to warm up and dry out from the snow. That night, we dined on poutine and truffles across from a snapping fire and Shopko candlelight. We started binging on Girls episodes. We’d get through two seasons during our stay.
Tuesday Going Nowhere and Loving It
Tuesday, the snow never stopped. Tuesday was our Hygge day. I would get 3 more bundles of wood over the course of the day to keep the fire going. The snow fell heavy in chunks, the waves picked up power, and every tenth one smacked the shore like its ancestors had been wronged by the rocks and must be avenged.
For my life, I’ve felt like vacations have been a “what do we do next” event. Hotels are where you sleep but not where you spend any real time. Why travel somewhere else to stay in a hotel that’s the same as any other hotel. There’s too much to do and see in this new land! Vacations are excursions where filling the time with adventures and experiences is the only way to make the expense of traveling and time off work truly worth it.
Becky changed that for me. With Itasca and our trips around the state, the main focus is on the down time. Even when we went to New York City on our honeymoon, I would often be the one to go off to find some grub or walk around the neighborhood while Becky napped during the early afternoons. By night, we were fully out and about to musicals, comedy and more. For the two days we spent at the Waldorf Astoria at the end, however, we stuck to the room. To be honest, our feet wouldn’t have handled much more anyway.
Back in college, I did the backpack-around-Europe-for-3-weeks thing, but one of the most memorable times of that trip for me was the three days I spent at Lake Como in Italy, where there was nearly nothing to do but read and relax. It’s a way of vacation that my gut rebels against, but once I’m in it, I can’t think of any active adventure being as wonderful as just sitting still and being.
So this Tuesday, with snow keeping the roads ridiculously treacherous so there was no good reason to move, we could truly burrow into our couch nest by the fire and do nothing but talk, read, watch Girls episodes, and have occasional bits of food. I only left once to get more fish since the shop was closed on Wednesdays. I saw 2 deer in those 4 miles. Otherwise, we were Hygge-ing the crap out of life. Time became still, a repeating series of wave crashes and fire sparks. We melted into the blankets, wool socks, flannel pajamas and hot chocolate. Naps reigned supreme.
Becky, again: Let’s just be honest, Joel would be disowned by his Viking ancestors because of his fire making skills! He tried, and with each bundle of wood that was a bit more wet than the one before, he did his best. Joel didn’t mention that all of the footage taken from the lake was from the balcony of our cabin. Seriously. Joel, also attempted to explain the waves, but he didn’t quite make it there. When the waves hit the rocks, the entire cabin shook and reverberated. The Lake was so strong, that we could hear it and feel its power. Falling asleep to the loud wonder of it all was a gift. Our hygge trip was magical. My soul felt at home and at peace with the earth, air, water and fire.
Wednesday, though, inevitably came. We bargained and negotiated, but failed to figure out how to add another day to our stay. Packing that morning was the hardest we’ve ever had at the end of a trip. The weather was clear, however, and we had a few more stops in Duluth to get some better fitting clothes for our smaller frames.
Again! Before we left, we went back to Two Harbors to visit a used bookstore there. But it was sooo much more than a used book store. It was also an artists’ consignment shop. Each had a stall of their merchandise, unique and incorporating a bit of the North Shore into every piece. I have this problem where I think that if I just get the perfect gift from a gift shop, the vacation will stay with me longer. I do this quite often at Itasca. But there really isn’t anything I could buy that would ever be like a portal back in time.
Leaving was much harder on me than Joel. Poor Joel had to uproot my heart from this place where I felt solace and connection to nature. Winter is about snow, and I didn’t want to return to the dead earth, traffic, work stress of Minneapolis. I just wanted to commune with this place forever. I’ll admit it took me a long time to recover from the post vacation blues. But I still have 2 blocks of smoked cheese AND a weekend where I convince him the drive to Duluth would be the best idea in the world.
This is definitely a place that we will return to, though. A perfect winter getaway.