I am sitting on the porch of a cabin in the middle of Minnesota. It’s dusk. I just heard a loon, and that inimitable trill sanctified the whole season. It’s the Official State Haunting Birdcall, and Minnesotans are hard-wired to stop whenever they hear it, and think: that’s the sound they play in the lottery commercial! Or the sound they heard while camping as a kid, or while out on the lake one night with friends in high school. The loon, she speaks to us. Unfortunately we are not loons and thus cannot mate with it. So it's a bit of a waste. It's like playing Sade records for an octopus.

There’s wind in the trees above, rustles in the rushes below; the lake itself is silent. It moves; the wind gives the water a ruminative quality that’s slightly unnerving. How can anything so vast be so silent? But it is.

This resort is enormous. It was begun in the 20s as a golf course, and over the years they’ve added cabins and hotels and lodges and bought up everything else in the neighborhood. One of the hotels whose architectural and structural distinctiveness was absorbed into the collective has a particular 40s vibe: Williamsburg but streamlined.

That's the closest lodge to our cabins. Another wing was built in the late 70s, alas; it leads to another hotel from the 40s, which was woody and dark and creepy. It’s all empty. The peak season ended yesterday, it seems; everyone went back to the Cities to begin the work of autumn. So this entire apparatus – cooks and groundskeeper and waiters and marina attendants and maids – is running for us and maybe a half-dozen other guests. I feel like I’m as far from civilization as I’ve been in some time – and by that I mean the lodge’s wifi doesn’t reach down to our cabin.

I’ve been away from the Bleat because it’s been busy and different. Both are good, but together, they’re the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of life.  Thursday – last Thursday – I went out to the Fair to co-host the Hewitt show, and that was amusing. Even when the skies turned green and the tornado warnings arrived and the rain came down with such force that the tiny studio shook back and forth in the gale, it was amusing. I fully expected we would be broadcasting the third hour from Munchkinland, complete with Helen Thomas’ shoes curling up under the booth. (Sorry. Ann Coulter, if you prefer.) Friday night I went to the trivia contest at Keegan’s pub, lost, and ended up on the back porch getting lit up like the tree at 30 Rock and talking to folks from other websites.  Back home. Up the next day for a party at Jasperwood, the annual Hewitt bash; this one was the Best Ever, as befits the season, and broke up around 3 AM. I cleaned up the house and made it to bed around four, feeling like I was moving around in one of those iron deep-sea diving suits. Tired.

And got up the next day with cheer & glee! Off to lunch with relatives (we’d had guests all weekend, but they left a light footprint) then I got down to work. I had to turn out five columns before we left, and somewhere through the third it struck me that I hadn’t taken the requisite vacation days this year. So, well, to heck with four and five. Filed, packed, stowed my gear in the Element and went to bed.

Up and out on Monday morn.

On the way up we stopped at Treasure City, which I knew Gnat would love. Number one piece of religious kitsch observed this decade:

Because without salvation you will go to (s)hell, I guess. Gnat
bought a small wooden chest and filled it with lovely polished stones, which she’s now examining in the cabin (while watching the Cartoon Network. It’s everywhere. There’s a new cartoon called “My Gym Partner is a Monkey,” and it’s every - damn - Cartoon-Network - cartoon; same squat character design delineated with thick black lines, same exaggerated fast gestures with the same sound FX, the same Xs for ears, same same same.) After Treasure City it was just half an hour to the resort; the road took us through a town of 5000 souls that nevertheless had big box retailers and acres of retail – it all feeds the cabin and resort trade beyond. Money, money everywhere.

We checked in, noticed the place was rather skant on the human side, noted the gloomy appearance of our lodgings and the nice cheerful quality of the cabins, and asked if we might not upgrade.  We could.

It was lovely enough, and had a nice view: You get one tree! Upgrade, and you can have more.

It also had a motel smell I can’t quite describe, but it’s Old Soap. Not ancient soap that’s gone bad, but old brands. It smelled like Palmolive. Maybe that’s what the maid uses, and she sweats a lot. Whatever it was, it comforted me; it’s right up there with chlorine as a prized childhood aroma. And since Gnat wanted to go swimming right away, I got a nostril full of that as well. She did cannonballs in the empty pool (empty of other patrons, I should add; as a good dad, I check to make sure there’s water before she leaps in) while we read the local paper. (Interesting editorial page; apparently Bush lied, and the overwhelming majority of letter writers agree. Except for one!)

We ate pizza on the veranda of one of the 394 restaurants. Took a walk to a small strip of stores; there’s a fudge shop and a coffee shop and a market with quality hooch and espresso. Sat on another deck overlooking a stream, then wandered around the grounds. The sunset was pink and blue, and I whistled the theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s 6th, cursing and thanking Disney for making me think of pegasuses.

Now we’re going to go down to the deserted spooky lodge and play some card games. Later a waiter will spill Advocat on my jacket, then take me into the restroom where he will clean it off, and note that I am the caretaker; in fact I have always been the caretaker.

Gnat has strewn her rocks on the floor. I believe she needs correction. Be right back.

(Incidentally, if your QuickTime is current - i.e., if you can see the other movies on this site - you might want to know whether or not I could resist boiling down "The Shining" to 53 seconds in honor of our family retreat. I think you know the answer.)

We went to the lodge – the 40s one, where Bogart might possibly have sat and smoked, not the spooky Overlook one -  where the promise of WiFi was not fulfilled. So we played checkers until the lodge closed, then walked back up the road in the dark. Back in the cabin we played UNO, and I lost four out of five. The kid, she can play UNO. She’d be great at Monte Carlo, coolly appraising Le Chiffre. When the game was done and we were settling in for the night I decided to go shoot the exterior with the camcorder’s Nightvision feature; I so rarely get the reason to use it, I figured this was the time. Nothing like scary green reeds to say “Vacation” in the monthly family movie. I walked down to the shore, careful not to topple into the water, because that’s a stupid way to die. People don’t say it at the funeral, but they’re all thinking the same thing: idiot. When I realized that the footage would be interesting only if a pair of eyes stared back at me, I shut off the camera, and looked up. To paraphrase Dave Bowman:

My stars. It’s full of God.

I went back into the cabin, got Gnat out of bed. She held my hand as we walked around to the front; I told her to look down. We got to the middle of the lawn between the cabin and the shore, and laid down and looked up.

She gasped.

It’s so beautiful, she said. We saw the clouds of stars, the bright ones burning a billion years away, the dim pricks in the firmament that probably represented an entire galaxy, or two, and as usual you remember the wise man’s formulation: either we are alone or we are not, and either is astonishing. Although each has its own implications.

We laid in the grass for a few minutes, holding hands, looking up at the stars. Your mind goes through moods quite quickly – they’re pitiless, indifferent; they’re somehow benevolent. They’re remote but tantalizingly close. They overwhelm with their numbers, yet you can ignore them all by studying one, and giving it the full force of your conjecture. A choir of light, a million silent voices, one great chord you cannot begin to imagine – but you’d know it if you heard it.

We went inside, and she read a Spongebob book. I came out to the porch to write.

Even the light of the laptop drives the stars away. It’s amazing: I hold down the brightness key while looking straight ahead, and the Big Dipper emerges in the sky, clearer and bigger than I’ve ever seen before. There has to be a lesson here. Gosh. Now what could that be.

Part two tomorrow, such as it is. Forgive the slapdash Bleat design; I'm on vacation. I get to be lousy. Lousier than usual, anyway.


c. j lileks. email may be sent to first name at last name dot com.