Back in late summer, I had reason to spend a great deal of time in Red Wing, Minnesota.
Tired of daily drives back and forth from St. Paul, on one particularly warm evening I decided to stealth camp up on Barn Bluff.
I timed it nearly perfectly – I marched up the bluff just as the sun was going down, and had a good twenty minutes of twilight to find a pair of trees off the beaten track between which to string up my hammock.
The spot I decided on was right at the edge of the north face of the bluff; in fact, the north tree was actually rooted a few feet down off the plain of the bluff. From that vantage, there is a marvelous view of the river and surrounding bluffs.
I strung up the hammock in record time, with no botches. Ie., the trees weren’t too far apart, or too close together, or too big, and the first lashing was high enough and tight enough.
I took some time before it got totally dark to walk back over to the western end of the bluff, take in the view of Red Wing, and answer a few last emails.
The river looked like a sheet of glass; it was a completely windless night.
As I got up to leave, I noticed a lone figure coming up the trail from the top of the old Kiwanis stairs, so I dashed back toward the prairie trail, and off into the weeds back toward my hammock. I don’t know if he saw me; in all reality, he probably took the fork that heads down off the bluff, but for a good half an hour, I was wondering if he was still around.
I suppose that that kind of paranoia is endemic in a situation where I’m doing something I technically shouldn’t be doing.
I settled in and listened to the night. I began to be able to distinguish the sounds of traffic on Highway 61 vs the traffic going over the bridge toward Wisconsin. Through the leaves of the trees, I watched a star make its way to the west. Cassiopeia was rising on the northeastern horizon.
I could hear trains on both sides of the valley. On the Minnesota side, I could hear west-bounds from as far away as Frontenac, and maybe even the western end of Lake City.
I kept my ears peeled for Amtrak #7, whose arrival should have been imminent. Instead, a westbound freight came through, at track speed, indicating that Amtrak was running late.
It did finally show up, about an hour late, easily distinguishable by the horns that Amtrak’s engines have, by the train’s short length, and also the squeal of brakes as it rounded the curve into town.
After a two minute stop, I heard it accelerate away toward Prairie Island.
Then I started drifting in and out of sleep. The temperature was perfect; it seemed possible that I’d actually get a good rest for a change.
A couple of hours later, around 1am, I started noticing brief flashes of light. I frequently see such flashes back at home coming from the spotlights of towboats going up and down the river, so in my half awake state, I assumed it was one of those, perhaps on its way to the barge terminal on the west end of town.
However, as time went on, I also noticed that the stars had disappeared, and that the wind was picking up. A thunderstorm was approaching, and there I was, smack dab on the point of highest elevation in quite a wide radius!
I had to decide, and quickly, whether to ride it out, or to “fold the con”, so to speak. Since by now the only light was courtesy of sporadic lightning flashes, I thought it would be more difficult to tear everything down and traverse the steep downward slope in the dark than to simply ride it out.
I had about twenty minutes to batten down the hatches, and get my gear under plastic, and my bike underneath the hammock. Satisfied I did all I could do, I went back inside and watched the storm come in. It was actually a good hour before the rain started falling, and another hour before the brunt of the storm hit the bluff. At its peak, I could hear tree branches snapping, and water running off the side of the bluff.
The hammock and rain fly were secured as tightly as they could be, but would only be as motionless as the trees they were tied to.
At the tail end of the storm, the wind was fierce – the best test yet of my abilities to lash down the rain fly. A few good gusts really seemed to threaten my knots, and then I’d be in a world of hurt, but luckily, everything held, and the wind calmed down, eventually becoming non-existent.
And not a drop of rain had gotten on me!
Would I now get some sleep?
As it turned out, the answer was no. It was over 90 degrees when I went up there; now it was in the low 60s and the air was damp. Even though I had thought ahead and was wearing several layers by that time, I didn’t have a blanket, and I started shivering.
Two more hours of that, and I decided to give up and tear everything down.
That took about ten minutes, and by then, the moon had come out, so there was plenty of light to help me navigate my way down the trail.
As I marched along, this light also helped me spot a skunk that was steadily marching up the trail right toward me! I froze. He froze. Then he turned around.
I thought, “This cannot be happening!”
He apparently didn’t think I was too much of a threat; he had turned around only so that he could head back down the trail. I let him get well enough ahead, and then carried on.
I got back to the car, stowed my gear, and then walked to the local cafe for breakfast, arriving at a little after 6am, no worse for wear. And to be honest, I probably got much more sleep than it had seemed.
It all seemed like a smashing success, except for one problem. An old friend didn’t make it back with me: as I folded the newspaper to begin working on the crossword, I realized my beloved space pen was missing!
I checked all of my pockets, my jacket, my bags, and I unfurled the hammock, but only found some loose change.
Conclusion: it had fallen out of my pocket somewhere on the bluff!
To make a long story short, I climbed back up the bluff that afternoon in search of it, but I found nothing. If it had fallen out where I had camped, I could very well have stepped on it and plowed it under the soft soil. The search was fruitless.
I had been carrying that thing every day for nearly seven years, and I didn’t want to give up on it, so, two days later, I went back with a metal detector! My first sweep turned up nothing (except for the quarter I threw on the ground as a test); I was just starting a wider sweep, and bam! out of the corner of my eye I saw one end of it sticking up out of the weeds and dirt.
Triumph! I laughed wholeheartedly.
The detector hadn’t actually been needed, but, as these things go, if I hadn’t brought it, I probably wouldn’t have found my pen. On the way back down (for the fourth time that week), I came across a man and his dog on their way up. Seeing the detector, and probably the smile on my face, he said, “Hey! You find anything good?” I said, “Why yes! Indeed I did!”