Everyone has their own “God’s Country.” Many use that phrase when describing their hometown or dreamland, usually stemming from picturesque views or heart-warming feelings it provides. Perhaps it’s a favorite vacation spot. Or, maybe it’s as simple as the habitual day-in-day-out work environment. Nonetheless, I believe all humans are shaped and inspired by their immediate surroundings, their personal “God’s Country.”
For me, it is the Northwoods. The Heartland. And, as I like to call it, “Where north becomes “The North.” The region of the Northwoods includes major portions of Minnesota (Superior National Forest), Wisconsin (Chaquamenon-Nicolet National Forest), and Michigan (Ottawa, Hiawatha, Manistee, and Huron National Forests).
Recently, I made my first trip to the far North. Major highways were scarce. Cities with established populations evolved into unincorporated villages with consisting of no more than a library, dive bar, and post office. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I was in Canada. Basically, I was.
The Northwoods (also known as the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province) covers most of the area I had mentioned, spanning into parts of Ontario and Quebec. Overall, it’s a forested ecoregion of conifers and junipers, a temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome transition zone between the Big Woods (forested lands of the central and southern parts of MN/WI/MI) and the true boreal forest (found almost entirely in Canada, the Scandinavian region, and Russia). Truly, it was a magical place, dotted with lakes and thick woods in every direction.
As I experienced this newfound culture from the driver’s seat of my car, the density of the forestlands started to overwhelm me. But, I loved it. After driving eight total hours alone (after a four-hour run in southern Wisconsin), I was tired and ready to sleep. Despite limited visibility in the night and no GPS or cellphone signal (I had a flip-phone), I was certain Lake Superior loomed near and the Porcupine Mountains weren’t far ahead.
The next morning, I made it to the Porkies and had a hell of a run on the gnarly Lake Superior Trail. It was 52F (in August!) and windy. Clear skies. Muddy. Root and rock-infested. The trails I had run weren’t to be found anywhere back home in Michiana!
However, the body learns quickly. To navigate these trails as fast and efficiently as possible, it required 100% total concentration, which was exhausting, yet super rewarding. A single glance up to take in the grandeur of the scenery could have meant a torn up ankle, resulting in a long hobble back to the car, depleted of calories and hydration (in bear country!). Always, my number one objective when embarking on these types of runs is to ensure health and safety, first!
Folk who live in the Northwoods seem to be cut from a specific cloth, the “tough” cloth. The winters are harsh. It’s a grim, tough land. The region isn’t overrun by the ski or tourism industry. The highways are scattered with old, abandoned motels and bars. Crappy convenient stores. Essential gas stations. Old antiques. Broken down, ancient, rusted trucks sit in yards and half of the vehicles I passed seemed to be logging trucks, revealing the economy’s industrial dependence. There weren’t many condos or resorts. It had a “real feel” to it and I loved that.
My psyche was nourished but cognizant that I had an eight-hour trip back home in front of me.
I pass another vacant motel. The Lake Superior wind blows the Tyvek wrap right off, revealing its wooden frame, and after a moment of thought, I knew I’d be coming back.