You smell it: wood fireplaces, leather couches, and chlorine. Out the window: Superior – white and wild. You’re in Swedish lodge, in the north woods. “We are all checked in,” your partner says.

You’ve read about places like this. How they were beds for tired loggers who were gone from their families for months. This lodge, in particular, has been passed down through generations. The halls run dark, lined with Lincoln Log walls, and black-and-white photos of men cutting down trees with giant, two-handled saws.

Which is unlike now: a time that feels … well, less authentic.

And so, you throw on your favorite red plaid flannel shirt and leave for the afternoon. You, your partner, and your dog head up Highway 61 to Caribou Lake, home to a Lutheran church camp your father attended in the ’50s. It holds the most beautiful wooden chapel you can imagine.

As you peek inside a rickety old screen door, past the pews and up the altar, a large window reveals a lake of blue glass, untouched. And on the other side of that lake, set on a hill: a painted wooden cross – so white and pure it reminds you how you were raised: how to tell what is right from wrong, how to stand up for what is right, how to feel in ways that are kinder. How to be a boy or be a man.

* * *

When you were 11, your mother bought your first red flannel for a trip to Eric’s cabin. Known as “Big Eric,” he was a guy from church you didn’t want to mess with. Athletic, he was picked first for nearly any game on nearly any playground. But at times, when it seems no one is looking – he was different, softer.

You reply without thought, in the most earnest way you can. Because you want to do what’s good. It’s the Midwestern way.

Jonathan rylander


Especially up at his cabin – really, an old farmhouse tucked down a long dirt driveway. It was late fall, then – as it is now. And cold. Your mom told you the flannel would keep you warm, and you remember how it did – and how it matched the liner of your sleeping bag. That cocoon you could crawl into after playing football, raking leaves, and sitting by the bonfire.

A fire blows hot air in contrast to the chill of fall. Beyond the orange and red flames stretches a field so wide open. By mid-October, the corn stalks give up. They lie there, muddy from truck tires and football and leaves. Piles of cold, dry leaves dads keep tossing in the fire, Leinenkugel cans in their open hands. The choreography of it all comes rich with jokes and laughter, and boys shoving one another – rough housing in ways they know they shouldn’t but do.

And then: “Eric, what do you say you go inside and grab the big cooler in the kitchen? You might need some help.”

“Sure, Dad.”

You might have felt a world away from Eric and his strong countenance, the way he was tough and mean like those loggers in the cabin you see in pictures now. So you respond: “I’ll help. I can go with you.”

You reply without thought, in the most earnest way you can. Because you want to do what’s good. It’s the Midwestern way.

In the kitchen, you find the cooler. And when you do, you think about friendship. Of how rough Eric is on the field, yet how gentle and kind he is with you.

* * *

It could be anywhere up here, in the far north. Especially now in colder, crisper, albeit darker days that leave you searching for something – a camp, a view, a fire – that brings you back to lighter times.

Back to the feel of autumn and simpler things: warm sun, cold lake water, hot chocolate that burns your throat. Moments when you began to see the world differently – in your own way. A way that feels right before the wrong can hit. Like the electrifying shock of flannel pulled from the dryer. Or the moments when Eric and all your other friends tackle each other – and then fall, together, into the deepest pile of leaves that turns the world dark, yet safe.

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