A Journey to the Northwoods

We were somewhere near Eden Prairie, on the edge of the Twin Cities, when I cracked open a can of Hamm’s. “My stomach ain’t feelin’ too good,” Duke grumbled. “I think I had too many tacos for lunch.  One of you guys needs to take a turn behind the wheel.” I looked down, pretending that I hadn’t heard what he had just said. Then I turned my head to look out the window and spotted what appeared to be a large Canadian Goose honking and hissing and diving around the truck. It looked like it was attempting to land in the small fishing boat that we were trailing behind us. “Mother of God!” I exclaimed. “What the fuck does that goddamn bird want?”

Pete was sitting shotgun, intently focused on packing up and puffing on his one-hitter. “What are you griping about?” he muttered, exhaling a large cloud of smoke that fogged up the windshield.

“Nevermind his outbursts,” Duke said. “I can’t drive anymore.” He threw on the blinker, steered us onto the shoulder of the interstate, and we came to an abrupt stop. No point in mentioning that crazed goose, I thought. The poor bastards will need to deal with it soon enough.

Duke and Pete quickly exited the vehicle, switched seats, and then we continued on our way. After a few more miles, we saw a flashing sign indicating that I-494 was shut down for road construction so we reluctantly took the suggested detour. The detour led us over to the Crosstown, but we found that it was also congested with heavy traffic.

“This looks like a fucking parking lot,” I said. Duke took out his smartphone and queried Google Maps for alternative routes. Google advised him to take the next exit and dart north along Highway 169.

“Take this next exit,” Duke said. Pete tamped down on the brakes and started to change lanes, but then pulled back just in time to avoid colliding with a blue minivan that was trying to merge in from our right. “Pay attention to what you’re doing!” Duke yelled, slapping his hand on the dash. “Didn’t you see her back there? Don’t forget that you’re trailing a boat!”

“Fuck minivans,” Pete muttered. “I have no patience for this bumper-to-bumper grind . . . settle down and don’t get your undies in a bunch.” He was trying his best to sound confident despite the fact that we had just barely averted tragedy on the highway. “I have it all under control,” he continued, reassuring us of our safety as he changed lanes. The blue minivan had backed off and was giving him room. “Let’s try to get to Remer before the sun goes down so we can get your boat in the water and have some fun. Steve and Eric are probably already there.”

Fun. Pete was right. It was Remer or bust, and there was absolutely no time to waste. After all, this was supposed to be a vacation—an opportunity for all of us to break free from our mundane routines in suburbia and enjoy some freedom under the sun on the southern shores of Big Sandy Lake in the Northwoods of Minnesota.  Duke’s younger brother Steve, and Steve’s good friend Eric, had left several hours before we did.  “They’re probably already fishing,” I agreed.  “Just shut up and drive.”

We seemed to be making decent time, despite the amount of traffic, cruising along in Duke’s white Dodge Ram pickup. The bed of the truck was packed tight with our suit cases, duffel bags, golf clubs, fishing poles, tackle boxes, two large coolers filled to the lid with ice-cold Hamm’s beer, and a leather briefcase which contained a wide assortment of powders, herbs, and other goodies. Quite honestly, the only thing that really worried me was the Hamm’s beer. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man who’s had one too many Hamm’s. And I knew we’d all be more or less drunk on the stuff for the next five days.

“Think we got enough beer?” I sarcastically asked from the backseat.

“There isn’t that much to do in Remer except drink beer and go fishing,” Duke explained. “You’ve been to Remer before. You already know this.”

Duke was right; I had been to Remer once before:

A couple of months earlier, over Memorial Day Weekend, I had been vacationing on the shores of Woman Lake in Longville, Minnesota with my wife and two young boys. I knew that Duke’s cabin wasn’t that far away, so, instead of heading straight back home on Monday afternoon, we decided to make the twenty minute drive into Remer and find a spot to have a late brunch.

Right after we arrived into town, I noticed a large wooden sign for a little restaurant called The Woodsman Café, so I parked the car in an empty lot just across the street.  We all exited the vehicle, carefully crossed the road, and then filed through the front door of the restaurant and up the handicap-accessible ramp to the hostess stand.

The Woodsman Cafe in Remer, MN“Can we please get a table for four?” my wife asked the hostess.

She looked at us suspiciously and then smiled. “How ‘bout a booth?” she suggested.  We nodded and followed her to an empty booth at the front of the restaurant that looked out onto Main Street. “Here are a couple menus,” she said, tossing two menus onto the table. “You guys ever eaten here before?”

“No,” my wife answered. “First time . . . we’re just in Remer to visit one of my husband’s friends . . . could we also please get some Kid Menus and crayons when you get a chance?” she asked politely.

“Yeah, sure . . . I’ll be right back with them,” she said to us while she looked over her left shoulder. “Just try to be nice to your waitress when she shows up,” she whispered to us. “She has a quite mouth on her, but she’ll bring you your food. She had a rough morning.”

“We will,” I said.

I looked around the room. The walls of The Woodsman Café were lined floor-to-ceiling with fake knotty pinewood paneling that adorned newspaper clippings alongside photos of fishermen and hunters posing alongside their catch or kill. The place had a certain small-town charm to it, despite the monstrous Lions Club banner hanging just above the cash register.

After about ten minutes, our waitress finally arrived at our table. Her eyes were half shut and she seemed to be out of breath. I couldn’t tell if she was overworked, hung-over, or perhaps a bit of both.

“What can I get y’all to drink?” she asked us in a thick southern accent.

“Coffee for the two of us,” I said. “And pineapple juice for the kids . . . please.”  She scribbled our drink orders down in her tiny notebook, and then turned and walked away without saying anything.

“Is she alright?” my wife asked me.

“As long as she brings us our food,” I smiled. “I’m gonna step out front and call Duke. Please order me the Steak ‘n’ Eggs when she comes back. Eggs scrambled.” I stood up, walked back down the ramp, and stepped outside to dial up Duke.

It rang four times before he finally picked up.

“We stopped in Remer to have brunch,” I explained. “We’re at The Woodsman Café.”

“For real? You should come by,” Duke suggested.

“I’m not sure we’ll be able to,” I lied. “We’re all really pretty tired. It’s been a long weekend. We’re just on our way home.”

“That’s bullshit,” he argued. “I don’t care if you’re tired. You need to stop over.”

“Alright, alright,” I laughed. “Settle down and give me directions.”

“OK, head west and then take a right at the stop sign, where the Holiday Station Store is. Then keep an eye out because you’ll need to take a left on the fourth gravel road you come to.  It’s kind of hidden. Then stay on that road for about another three-quarters of a mile until it comes to an end. Then you’ll need to turn right.  We’re be right there, on your left.”

“Should I be writing all of this down?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I guess that depends on how much marijuana you’ve smoked today.  Just call me if you get lost . . . I gotta go . . . I need to finish mowing the lawn . . . goodbye.”  I hung up on the call, put my phone back into my pocket, and then walked back inside the restaurant to wait for my Steak ‘n’ Eggs.

About 30 minutes later, we arrived at Duke’s cabin and found him and his family down on the dock with their poles in the water, fishing for whatever was willing to take the bait.

The whole scene looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting or an Ansel Adams photograph. I gazed out across the shimmering waters of Big Sandy Lake and reflected on the beauty of it all. I was overcome with strong feelings of peace and tranquility, but the serenity I had found was quickly dashed when I glanced over at my wife and noticed that she was in serious pain.

Her jaw dropped open as if to scream, but there was no sound, at least there wasn’t initially. She soon began hobbling around and managed to limp her way off the dock, making her way to the base of a large tree where she sat down to inspect her left foot. She took off her open-toed sandal and started gripping her foot tightly with both hands, rocking back and forth in sheer agony. She had been stung by a ground wasp.

It’s just a bee sting, I thought to myself. It can’t possibly hurt that bad, can it? I contemplated telling her to try and suck it up and tough it out, but luckily my better judgment prevailed and I kept my stupid trap shut. As we all stood there—trying to decide what to say or what to do—another one of the crazed ground wasps flew up from beneath the dock and nailed me on the back of my arm, just above my elbow.

Now I’ve been stung by bees before, but this time was completely different. It felt as if someone had hit me square in the elbow with a ball-peen hammer.  I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat, gasping for air and holding my arm, just thinking about it.  I was wincing in pain, bending over at the waist, and grabbing my arm.  “I think we’re gonna head back home,” I announced. “I don’t feel safe here.”


Duke started fumbling through the glove-box. “I can’t find ‘em,” he said. “Didn’t you put ‘em in here?”

“Find what?” I asked.

“The sugar cubes,” he smiled. “This trip won’t be complete without them.”

“Don’t worry about those,” I argued. “We should get to the cabin before we even think about opening that can of worms.”

“Nevermind . . . I found ‘em,” he said, pulling the small plastic baggie out from underneath the owner’s manual at the bottom of the glove-box.

“Give me those,” I said. “We can’t get into that right now. It’s too soon. We aren’t even halfway there and you’re already drinking Hamm’s. You don’t need anything else in your system right now. Let’s wait until we get there.”

“It doesn’t matter what I’m drinking . . . I don’t think. Pete’s driving now, not me. Let’s just each take one cube right now,” he said, grinning at me through his newly purchased aviator sunglasses. “And we can each take another when we get to Garrison.”

This is not good, I thought. We were less than an hour into our drive, Pete had almost caused a horrific traffic accident, and now Duke was suggesting that we all drop acid. I hesitated momentarily before taking one of the sugar cubes and popping it in my mouth. It was only a matter of time now I thought. Sit back, relax and wait.

But things took a turn for the worse as we neared Brainerd, when Duke reminded us that we still needed to pick up burgers and hot dogs, and decided—with little warning—that we needed to make a stop at the nearest grocery store. I contemplated staying in the truck, but, at the last possible moment, I hopped out of the Dodge and followed them as they walked across the parking lot and into Cub Foods.

I caught up to them near the fruits and vegetables. “Let’s make this quick,” Pete said. “I want to keep moving.” We made our way to the Deli, grabbed some burgers and bratwursts, and then high tailed it to the express checkout lane. Duke swiped his credit card while I bagged up the food.

“I’m tired,” Pete said to me as we loaded the groceries into the truck. “I didn’t sleep well at all last night, and I’m not feeling anything at all from that sugar cube.”

“You will be,” I said.  “In the meantime, I have something in the briefcase that I think might help you.”

I remembered that I had purchased six bundles of Khat from my Somalian neighbor.  Each bundle was wrapped in a palm leaf, tied with string and twisted at the bottom. Although I had been told that one bundle is enough for one person to chew over several hours, it still seemed like too much.  I unlocked the briefcase and retrieved three small bundles.

I handed one of the bundles to Pete. “Just peel the sticks and hold it in the side of your mouth like chewing tobacco,” I said to him. “In about twenty minutes, you should be wide awake.”

It was almost 6:00 p.m., and we still had quite a ways to go. And very soon, I knew, we would all be completely twisted. But there would be no going back. We would need to ride it out until we were able reach the safety and seclusion of Duke’s cabin.  Then we’d be able to rest.

About thirty minutes later, we were all jabbering back and forth at such a frenetic pace it was next to impossible to understand what anyone was saying, and it was only when I stopped talking and sat still for a few seconds that I noticed I was undergoing a serious body buzz. I could feel my spine starting to tingle. I was filled with a dangerous and nervous energy, a feeling that something was about to break, for good or ill, and that I would be a part of it.

I should note here that we were munching the twigs whole, ignoring my Somali friend’s advice. Peeling the twigs was too messy. Besides, the leaves had a horrible texture that does not lend itself to being chewed very easily, and the twigs were infinitely more chewable. I was told that eating the twigs whole can sometimes make people sick to their stomachs, but we all seemed fine in that regard.

As we approached Highway 6, I was starting to experience wild visual hallucinations and I could only assume that Duke and Pete were as well. How long can we maintain I wondered. How long before we slide off the highway and smash into one of these pine trees? I looked at the speedometer and it was still hovering over 80 miles per hour.

“You should slow down a bit,” I said to Pete.

“Please quiet down,” he replied calmly. “I’m trying to focus on something.  If I want to hear what you have to say, I’ll ask you to talk.”

When we finally arrived at the cabin, Duke and Pete grabbed the bags of groceries and brought them inside as I stayed behind to unload the beer and the rest of our gear.  I removed the fishing rods and tackle boxes from the back of the truck and walked them to the detached garage. Then I walked back to the truck to grab my large black duffel bag and the briefcase.

“I don’t know if we should bring all of that inside,” Duke said. “Eric and Steve might be uncomfortable with all of that.”

“Don’t fret,” I said. “We’ll keep it locked up at all times. I sure as hell don’t want to leave it all out here in the truck.”

“You afraid raccoons are gonna steal your shit or something?” Duke joked. “Fine . . . bring it in. Just be sure and stash it somewhere safe and out-of-sight.”

There was just enough daylight left to get the boat off the trailer and into the water.  We managed to launch the boat and made our way out across the lake at top speed, leaving a plume of thick gray smoke in our wake.

We drove around the lake looking for Eric and Steve and found them fishing for large-mouth bass near the shore among the lily pads. They hadn’t caught a thing, even though they had been out on the lake for more than a couple of hours. “Not even a nibble,” they said. “These frog lures suck.” Both of them looked despondent and on the verge of giving up.

Soon we had the lake all to ourselves—which proved fortunate since Duke’s alcoholism was starting to manifest itself in ugly ways. At one point he was pissing off the side of the boat while continuing to steer it with his one free hand. He nearly fell overboard twice, but luckily I was there to grab him by his shirt both times.

As the next couple of hours passed, the beer began to dull the effects of the Khat, and my hallucinations were down to a more tolerable level. Duke and Pete threw their fishing lines in the water, but the fish weren’t biting.

“Why aren’t you fishing?” Pete asked me.

“I prefer to fish with live bait, and I don’t have any leeches right now.” I explained. I took another sip of Hamm’s and gazed up at the bright blinking stars, but before I could locate the Big Dipper, a small fuzzy winged creature swooped down from out of the darkness and grazed my right arm.

“Motherfuck!” I blurted out. “What the hell was that?”

“Probably a bat,” Duke replied.

“A bat?” Pete asked. “Out here?  In the middle of the lake? You serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious,” Duke said. “They fly the lake at night eating the mosquitos. The light from the boat is attracting the bugs, and the bugs are attracting the bats.”

“We can turn off the light then,” Pete suggested.

“I think we should go back to shore,” I said. “I can’t handle any bats right now.”

After a bit of a debate, we all agreed that the arrival of the bats was a sure sign that we should pull up anchor and head back in, but, before we could do that, Duke’s phone rang.  It was a call from his wife to tell him that Bank of America had called her and was reporting suspicious activity on Duke’s credit card.

“It might seem kind of annoying, but I really don’t mind the fact that they monitor this kind of stuff,” Duke said to us as he dialed up the number for Bank of America’s Fraud department. He entered his account number using the keypad on his Galaxy S III and waited to be connected with an operator. For legal purposes, I decided to record the call using my cell phone as a makeshift dictaphone.

Unfortunately, I could only capture Duke’s contributions to the conversation:

“Yes, this is Duke.”

. . . .

“No, I have not received a new card . . . not that I know of.”

. . . .

“But my card doesn’t even expire until December of next year.”

. . . .

“No, let me ask you, have you ever had a Hamm’s?”

. . . .

“A Hamm’s.   Beer from the land of sky blue waters. When a man hands a man a Hamm’s, it means something.”

. . . .

“Yeah, I think it’s all good. I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary, although, like I said, I never received the new card.”

. . . .

“Before I forget, please note on my account that I’m in Remer.”

. . . .

“Remer.  Minnesota. R-E-M-E-R.  If I use the card here, I don’t want it to be cancelled or anything. I’m on a little trip here with some friends.”

. . . .

“I will be back home on Sunday.”

. . . .

“Thanks much, and hey … be sure to get a Hamm’s as soon as you can. Bye now.”

Duke tapped down on his smartphone with his finger and ended the call. We pulled in the anchor and sped towards shore beneath the moonlight.