Palisade Head

When I got back from vacation on the North Shore of Lake Superior with my family, my knee had a big scab on it and a lot of people asked me, “What happened to your knee?”

I usually said something like, “I slipped on a rock, fell, and banged it.”

In one exchange, a stranger said, “Your knee.”

And I said, “Yes.”

Here’s what happened to me and my knee.

For several days, we stayed in a comfortable cabin just outside of Silver Bay. And from the cabin, we could see Palisade Head, a basalt cliff rising three hundred feet above Lake Superior. It reminded me of El Capitan in Yosemite, but it was a lot more accessible. It fired my wanderlust. I wanted to be on it one morning for the sunrise, but I couldn’t talk anyone into joining me.

On the night before I planned to be on Palisade Head, Ky was standing in the backyard, taking in the weather and the lake. The sun had set, and there was a strong wind and some light rain falling. I snagged a blanket from the couch and went out to join him, wrapping the blanket around us.

It was invigorating. The wind transformed the lake into an ocean of huge, white-capped waves. The waves crashed into the cliffs all along the shore and sounded like thunder. There was no beach; there was just the end of land, some trees clinging to the edge, and the lake, somewhere, far below. The wind off the lake brought the spray up the cliff walls, and it dampened us, made us shiver.

The next morning began as usual. My alarm was set for 4:15, but I awoke just after 4:00. I moved as quietly and efficiently as a thief. I made some coffee and checked out the weather and horizon. It was beautiful, 54°. It was clear and calm after last night’s clouds, cold wind, and rain.

The sunrise from the back yard of the cabin in Silver Bay.,

The sunrise from the back yard of the cabin in Silver Bay.

The last sliver of the moon was just visible above the horizon. It’s that white speck off to the right, in the wisp of the tree branches. The sun was below Lake Superior, but I could see its glow in the clouds and through the clear water. The horizon (the lake below and the sky above) was bathed in soft pink light.

The wind was shushing the trees; and the waves, crashing into the basalt cliffs, sounded like gentle thunder.

I got dressed for my run and made a clean escape from the cabin, leaving my family asleep. When I pulled off the highway and into the parking lot at the base of Palisade Head, the sign said, “No oversized vehicles, day use only, no camping.”

Where does that highway lead to? Highways and trails only lead where people have been.

I figured, in the Sienna at this hour, I was okay to proceed. It was almost day. I was quite alone.

After winding my way up the narrow road, I parked in a tiny lot, and headed a few yards over and onto a boulder. I climbed up to a high point, well-back from the cliff’s edge.

Sunrise from Palisade Head

Sunrise from Palisade Head

At 4:40, I snapped this picture of the sunrise. High above the waves, the cry of a loon reached me. And the woodland birds were singing to raise the sun. Below me, the waves were shushing softly against the cliff wall.

The sliver of the moon was glowing, its convex edge seemingly balanced or drawn or bent to the sun. The moon is off to the right; it’s that speck of white about one-third of the way into the blue.

That is my large automobile.
That is the gorgeous sunrise.
That is the sliver of the moon.

Well, how did I get here?

I was witness to the new day dawning in the extended maritime twilight. I had caught the moonlight and sunrise in the pool of my eyes. I was ecstatic.

I looked off to the southwest, wondering if I could see Split Rock Lighthouse, where we had been the previous day. If I was going to see it, I would need to move a little farther out, further from safety. Crouching down, I eased onto the downward slope of the boulder. There was a ledge below me, and I was still well-back from the edge, the cliff. I figured if I could make my way down about eight feet to the ledge, I would have a good chance of seeing the lighthouse. A couple more steps, and I would get on my butt.

Walking forward, my insulated coffee mug in my right hand, I placed my right foot, swung my left forward, and my right foot slipped on the dew-damp surface. Nobody heard what I shouted, cried except me. My butt hit rock, my shoulder jammed when I tried to break my fall, and my mug went skittering down the slope, stopping on the ledge below.

Instinctively, I turned to my right to face the rock and scraped my right leg below the knee. The rock bit. I tried for a hand hold or some purchase to slow me down. There were several little crevices that I had been planning to step into, but now they were coming too fast. No luck.

One small bounce off the rock, and then skittering-down I went, following my cup. I banged my left knee, and I landed hard on the ledge. I was crumpled in a ball, feeling the zings from jangled nerves and scraped skin; I rolled onto my back and laid down on the rock to take an assessment.

The stars were beautiful. And the air was cool.

Me? I was badly hurt. My jammed, right shoulder complained the loudest. It had me gasping for breath. My right knee was next; I could tell I had a good scrape there. My left knee was banged; maybe it was bruised. And I looked at my hands. They were red and raw, but no cuts, no scrapes.

My God! What have I done?

I lay there, wondering if I would faint.

I am vasovagal. That means if I am hurt or experience an emotional trauma, my nervous-system may over compensate. My heart rate will drop and my capillaries will dilate, which will cause me to faint. Some people faint at the sight of blood; I have fainted at the sight of Matt Damon operating on himself during the beginning of The Martian. But I did not faint during the grizzly mauling in The Revenant. I’m just saying, I had a fighting change.

I was laying there, taking deep breaths, and thinking about standing up. Looking up at the sky, taking in the beauty of the stars, breathing in the air, I was not sure if I would be running that morning or just heading back to the cabin. I might have to cancel the whole day. I had come close to canceling the rest of my life.

One step. One slip. I didn’t expect to slip.

After a few moments, I sat up. With my arms around my knees, I felt ok. So, I put my feet underneath me and got into a squat position. That did it. I was going to faint.

I laid back down and found a comfortable place. As comfortable as they come on a basalt head land. I elevated my feet, so that as much blood as possible would come to my head.

I prepared myself like a sacrifice.

Then, on that rock, three-hundred feet above Lake Superior, as the sun was rising, the moon was fading, and the waves were crashing, I fainted. I went deeper than sleep. I faded to black. Everything paused. Like an epileptic, a Shaman, I experienced the Great Blackness. I hit the reset button. I became One with the universe. I came face to face with eternity, the that’s-what-it-is.

When I came back to Reality (the here-now), rising out of that ink-black abyss, I felt only slightly better.

After a few moments, I was back up, clammy and wobbly, but alive, awake. I was thankful it did not end there. Standing up and clambering up the rocks, I felt better for having fainted, like the relief of throwing up. I knew I would be okay to run. I checked my watch. There was still coffee in my mug, and it was still warm.

I had been thinking of myself as a stone, appearing to the world without emotions, a blank slate. Tough. A chip off the old block, free to flow downstream, rolling with the punches. Arriving at the mouth of the river, on the beach, I knew I would spend some time getting tossed around, smoothed. But I hadn’t expected a waterfall experience. And I wondered if going over a waterfall was scary for a rock.

Wait. Rocks don’t have feelings. (What I feel I’ve always known.)

It was a mystical experience, existential. In that moment, I knew what it was like to be a rock, and I think I still remember.

In any case, Palisade Head had smoothed off another rough edge, drawn blood from this stone. Or broken me loose, set me free. Pushed me one step closer to the Ocean. Dropped me in the water.

It reminded me that each step could be my last.

Letting the days go by. Water flowing underground.

And I’ve thought… We don’t know when the bomb will go off, when the planes will crash into the towers, when the money will run out, when the oil will run dry, when the air will become too poisonous to breath, when the zombies will come, when the forests will burn, when the oceans will boil, when the asteroid (the Hammer of God) will strike, when the war will be fought, when the earth will grow no food, when hurricanes will rake the land, when our loved ones will suffer and die. But I swear to you (verily I say unto you), there are disasters to come; and when they do I will either be zeroed out, or I will pick up the pieces and carry on.

From the picture of the sunrise until now, it was about nine minutes.

Then, it was the same as it ever was.

My knee

My knee

At first I thought it was a chip, a scrape, a smoothing of my rough edges. But now I know it was a bite.

Palisade Head found the blood inside this stone.

I am a rock that bleeds, that breathes, moves and thinks. I will be returning to rock and then to dust in no time. All it takes is one step. One step at a time.

Palisade Head left its mark. And its teeth sank deep.

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