Updated: Jul 23, 2022
Note: This is post #2 in a series of blog posts about my experience attending a 2-week writing retreat with author & teacher Natalie Goldberg on Madeline Island, WI. Start with the first post here.
After I arrived to Madeline Island via ferry, I dragged my suitcase a block or two in the rain to the cozy Farmhouse Cafe and ordered lunch. When a waitress squeezed by me at one point, she said “That is the biggest suitcase I’ve ever seen.” I felt a little embarrassed but also proud of the fact it was so big because it was carrying my lodging within it- a tent, a cot, all my sleeping gear, a small stove so I could make coffee in the morning, and all the other things you generally need to survive. I refused to spend hundreds of dollars per night on lodging when 14 nights at a nearby campground would cost the same as just 1 or 2 nights at most places.
For the entire hour and a half that I was at the cafe, I had my phone in front of me to continuously update both Lyft and Uber to try and find a ride to the Madeline Island School of Arts (MISA), but- unsurprisingly- there were no drivers today.
I'd been determined that, rain or shine, I would survive this 2 week retreat without a car, whether I had to walk or bike, but I was off to a rocky start. I knew from looking before that there was, in fact, 1 Uber driver on the island, and my plan was to just hope they’d be around on a rainy Sunday afternoon. They weren’t.
So, I simply called MISA to ask if they had any suggestions, and they were happy to come pick me up. I asked how much it’d be, but they told me nothing since it was so near and they were already out and about in their van collecting new arrivals. Woohoo!
An older gentlemen named Charlie- who turned out to be the owner of MISA and its other campuses- picked me up about 10 minutes later, eyeing my suitcase with suspicion and verbalizing his skepticism at my plan to walk and bike for the commute.
“I’m not too worried about it,” I said cheerily, “I’ve really been looking forward to getting outside and walking again; it’s gonna be awesome!” He narrowed an eyebrow, shook his head with a sigh, and took me to MISA, where I checked in, quite early.
Noting it was still raining, he offered to drive me to my campsite 5 miles away, which I gladly accepted. I chose one of the bikes available to MISA students, which we awkwardly squished into the van, leaving the back door open, and we set off. I was very chatty and wiggly and excited, bursting with questions, and Charlie humored me (/tolerated me) with advice and answers during the drive in the blue-gray mist with saturated-green trees lining the road. When we turned a corner, Lake Superior appeared for a long stretch in all her glory. I finally became quiet as I stared out into its vastness, once again humbled and silenced in awe by Mother Nature.
When we arrived to Big Bay State Park, you could tell Charlie was even more doubtful of my plan. We found my campsite and stopped, unpacking my bag and the bike. I was so excited that I was bobbing up and down on my heels, ready to get things set up in this glorious, flat rectangle surrounded by forest - all mine for the next two weeks. It was empty but for a fire pit and wooden picnic table. The only sound was the the rain softly falling against the thick green leaves all around.
“Do you know if you’ll get service out here?” Charlie asked, looking around at a whole lot of nothing.
“Not sure, but it’s OK if not. It’s nice to be disconnected, isn’t it?” I smiled. He frowned. “It’s really OK,” I tried to reassure him, since he was sticking around making faces at everything. “I’m not that far from MISA, and I’ve done crazier things and survived. I’ll be fine. Thanks so much for the ride. Can I give you a hug?”
That did the trick; he backed away and into the van, saying “Ah… maybe one day, when things are less crazy, you know?” I nodded, and he told me to call MISA if I needed anything, and finally pulled away.
When the van was out of sight, I filled my lungs with the wet forest air, reveling in the humidity, which we tend to lack in the desert back in SoCal. I looked up at the tall treetops and how they made their branch-paintings against the overcast sky, feeling glad to be back in the Midwest since moving to Redlands about 1 year ago. As my sweater got wetter and wetter and my suitcase started to darken from the rain, I thought, there is no place I’d rather be. There is no other thing I’d rather be doing.
Because of the incessant rain, I opted to set my suitcase on the picnic table and cover it with my umbrella while I went for a walk to try and wait out the rain before setting up camp. I found a trail just two minutes from my campsite and followed it through the woods, over a bridge and through a bog, and was spit out onto the shoreline of Lake Superior. Nobody else was there, and I thought I’d dissolve into puffs of joy.
In my teal poncho and wide-brimmed sunhat, I stood at the edge of the shore for a long while, watching the raindrops fall onto the still lake. I lost track of time and just absorbed everything around me.
Kind of literally, actually. But you know what I meant.
After a while though, it became clear that the weather was not going to clear up, so I went back to my campsite and set up my tent in the rain. Still fresh and full of energy, I clumsily bumbled through the process, putting the rain fly over everything first so that the inside wouldn’t get too wet before I put it up, which worked pretty well. Having done this once already on my first real backpacking trip with Mike during a thunderstorm on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore tail had prepared me for this moment. I put some things on wrong or backwards, and I didn’t have a rock to pound in the stakes, but I did enough to ensure that I’d have a good-enough, dry-enough shelter to come back to.
I was ready to go to MISA and relax for a while before the 6pm welcome dinner. Maybe meet some other students, maybe read a bit. I grabbed a dry sweater and put it in my backpack, fixed my poncho over it and myself and my head and stuck my sunhat on top of it. I’m sure I looked really cool.
I knew this moment was coming, and while I had hoped to not have to bike 5 miles in the rain on my first commute to MISA, I was still equally as excited and ready for it.
While I’d originally chosen this particular bike because of its enticing bright yellow and pink combination, my glee over that was short-lived when I discovered that it was stuck on 5th gear. I also quickly learned that the flat-looking road with its neat and tidy bike lane actually did have the tiniest of inclines for most of the way to the school. While practically imperceptible to the eye, it was not to my legs.
No matter. Nothing could dampen my spirits on this first day. I smiled like an idiot the entire way there.
Despite the poncho, I got drenched (saw that coming, did you?) Since I couldn't let it dangle into the spokes, I had tied it on both sides knowing my arms and legs would get wet, but I’d only packed a sweater in my backpack to change into once I arrived. Woops.
When I finally, finally got to the MISA campus, I peeled off the bike and took it to its rack, knowing there was no way in hell that I'd be taking it back to my campsite. Charlie saw me, shook his head, and told me to follow him inside, which I did.
And as soon as the door opened, I saw someone admiring some art of the walls. I immediately recognized Natalie, and I froze on the small mat in front of the door as it closed behind me. I was dripping water everywhere on it, and my shoes were loudly squishing when I moved.
Shit, I thought. I had pictured a hundred different ways of meeting Natalie Goldberg for the first time, and none of them included me presenting so idiotically in front of my hero.
She looked so small. She had a dark maroon and black shawl wrapped around her shoulders as she took in the art on the wall, paintings from previous MISA students, mostly of the surrounding farmhouse buildings and scenes of Lake Superior. At the sound of the door, her head spun toward me, her face covered with a black mask, her eyes looking almost like shiny black stones in her face.
She turned to face me and all the noise and ruckus I was causing. My eyes grew wide. “Hello!” I burst out, trying to hold back my fan girl energy as I stood on a mat just inside the doorway, green pants completely soaked through, water still dripping off my poncho that poked out like a humpback behind me. Oh my God.
“This is not how I thought I'd meet you,” I said laughing, anxious smile, deer frozen in headlights now. I think my nostrils flared for some reason.
“Oh no,” she said, holding out her hands, “This is perfect!” And proceeded to ask where I'd come from, a little about me, and then the most miraculous thing happened- I became comfortable, and we even commiserated as teachers. For a moment, we were equal. For a moment, I could forget that I was a strange soggy mess as I asked her about how she was doing post her 8-week online live class (that I’d just finished before coming here). She deflated somewhat, head lolled to the side, eyes rolled- her whole body told me what it demanded of her, took from her- and I told her I could relate too, to an extent, briefly sharing how teaching the last five weeks of the last semester I taught online really, deeply took it out of me and threw me into a funk.
“Oh, I'm really glad to hear it wasn't just me,” she said. “ It took me a couple of months to recover.”
We talked a little more. I told her about how her books helped me write my own, about my small business, Teranga Market, and when things moved on and she went to grab a homemade cookie out of a jar, she turned and said, “Katie, do you want a cookie?”
Guys, when you hear your teacher/hero/mentor say your name out loud, it is in and of itself a precious moment. For it to be followed by an offer of a cookie, it's even sweeter.
And though I didn't really actually want a cookie, I said yes immediately, because you say yes when Natalie Goldberg offers you a cookie.
But as she pulled out the cookie from the glass jar with tongs and reached toward my outstretched hand, it fell to the ground. We both looked up and made eye contact, and she asked if I wanted another one, and I just instinctively shrugged and said “Nah, it's probably fine,” and ate it.
Sometimes the way we meet our heroes doesn’t look like what we imagined.
Sometimes, it’s way better.