Friday, July 9, 2010

North Country Heart

Late summer, 1999. A typical August afternoon, hot and humid in Upper Michigan's Porcupine Mountains. My best friend and his dad had introduced me to a week of wilderness camping. The three of us, sweaty and tired, had just filed out of the woods and into the van for the long ride home. Then a snare shot from the radio kicked off a song that would reshape my whole spiritual identity.

"How does it feel?" Dylan's voice sang as a chant, as a taunt, as a prayer, as an exaltation all wrapped together, straight into my skull. As if God, and not Dylan, was amused and asking a wondering child, "How does it feel?"

I felt alive. Awake. My own self. The hike through birch and pine had been miles of sudden wild rain, muddy trails, and granite cliffs. Those days encompassed my first long journey alone, without my parents. I'd never carried a heavy pack before, had never walked so far over such stark terrain. My best friend had shown me a leaner, more intimate way of appreciating the world. That sense of empowerment made every sight and smell seem fresh and vivid. And beyond it all, the most powerful impression: the mutable and dark blue Lady of the Lake, Superior.

Dylan himself was born on the shore of that great water, and its unforgiving, surreal nature fused with his art. I was in the very spot where his muse lived, and I could feel the magnetic energy of his lyrics rising like steam off a marsh. Once upon a time, Miss Lonely lived in the thick forests. Napoleon in rags drank from the brooks with his Siamese cat. And the mystery tramp sat on that rocky beach letting no one off the hook without a price. Those characters were as ancient as the North Country itself.

The song had the force of an ore freighter hauling a potent and exhilarating challenge. I was no longer a spectator in life, amused at the bums and the folks just hangin' out. I was a complete unknown committed to my own life's path, responsible for my own success. Dylan, backcountry prophet, made clear that no excuses were acceptable. I had to carry my own gear and hike my own trail. I was an adult.

Over a decade has passed from that revelation in the wilderness, and I have never gotten over it. Like a Rolling Stone, more than anything else I've come across since, redrew the inward map of my spiritual journey. I've listened to Dylan hundreds of times and know his entire canon. I've gone on many long journeys since then, too. But even now, when I hear that song, my life immediately becomes new again. I carry that memory of the North Country with my best friend, listening to Dylan, in my heart. It's my touchstone place for understanding Creation.