Into the Wilderness: Exploring the Minnesota Gunflint Trail

Seagull lake

Wildflowers burst along the side of the road and clear lakes sparkled in the warm sun. The scent of the pines covering the gently rolling hills filled the air. And just when I thought life couldn’t possibly be more spectacular in the far northern wilderness of Minnesota along the Gunflint Trail, I was caught in a sudden hailstorm—both humbled and proved completely right. Life is spectacular here.

Although I grew up in the Twin Cities, I’d never ventured farther than Two Harbors when I was younger. Thankfully, two of my siblings have spent decades exploring Minnesota and know where the treasures are tucked away—which is how I came to Grand Marais.

A town of 1,300 people just 40 south of the border with Canada, Grand Marais is many things: Coolest small town in America, French butter scones at The Pie Place, a haven for angry seagulls, jumping off point for gorgeous waterfalls and hikes, and a gateway to the endless Boundary Waters.

grand marais bear pentraveler
I mean, yea. You make a cozy with ears for your wooden bear statue, and you deserve the “coolest small town” ranking.

Grand Marais is also the start of the Gunflint Trail, a very old route for the Ojibwa, the original people of northern Minnesota, and from the 1700s, a trading/traveling route for the early Europeans on the continent. Today, the Gunflint Trail is a route into the wilderness—which you know because you pass a sign with an old-timey voyageur carrying a canoe and a bear in a boat as you turn onto County Road 12 from downtown Grand Marais. And then another trail sign for good measure on a water tank with a moose.

The Gunflint has enough experiences to keep you enthralled for weeks, and enough draw to keep me longing for it even now, weeks back home. If I had to choose (so hard to choose!), here are my Top Five on the Gunflint:

1. Canoe and portage the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

A 1,090,000-acre wilderness of lakes separated by slivers of forest, hills and glacier-carved rocks, the Boundary Waters stretches from Lake Superior 150 miles west to Voyageurs National Park. With canoes rented from Stone Harbor Outfitters in Grand Marais and my brother’s 10-year-old Princess Pug who had never spent a day hiking in her life, we were totally prepared and excited to explore a small piece of the wilderness.

pug in canoe in boundary waters
This oh-so-dainty Pug can be a bit of a princess. “I’ve never seen a pug in the Boundary Waters before,” one canoer said to us on one of the lakes. Unspoken, but clear from his tone: “I’m not really sure there should be a pug in the Boundary Waters.”

Our route was simple on paper: Clearwater Lake-portage-Caribou Lake-portage-Little Caribou Lake-portage-Pine Lake-Johnson Waterfalls-return. (I swear, on a map, it looks both short and easy.)

Fifteen seconds into the first portage, we realized this was not going to be so easy. First, although the canoes only weighed 40 pounds, we didn’t have shoulder pads for carrying them (major mistake!), so the wood bit into muscles. Second, the portage path was a mud slush over our ankles for nearly 1 mile on the first portage. Third, Princess Pug decided trotting through mud was something she definitely did not want to do.

But being three out of four hardy Midwestern stock, and one very in-shape East Coaster—well, and one city-only-ever-until-now Pug—we sucked it up and took turns portaging the canoes and the pug, trudging through the mud. All of which was immediately forgotten on heavenly Caribou Lake, with its glassy water and only the sounds of birds and the breeze for company.

Caribou Lake MN
More proof that Minnesota in the summer can’t be beat.

Seven hours and fourteen miles later (never believing deceptively easy maps again!), we treated ourselves to 12-inch malts at quirky Trail Center restaurant while the now thoroughly muddy Adventure Pug slept in the car.

2. Discover movie-perfect lodges and quirky restaurants.

Tucked away along the Gunflint Trail are very Northern Minnesota quirky and delicious restaurants catering to locals as well as explorers. If you like beer-battered walleye and wild rice, you will be in heaven. And if you don’t like those two Minnesota staples, please just go on to Wisconsin.

In addition to perfect malts, Trail Center Restaurant has to-die-for bread pudding French toast with pumpkin-spiced maple syrup. If I ever had to eat only one food ever, this would be it. I might end up weighing something like a baby elephant, but I would be happy. And baby elephants are adorable anyway. Trail Center also has 14-inch round, 2-inch thick flapjacks, for which they offer: Eat 3 and they’re free!

pentraveler Trail Center restaurant
The pancakes are about the size of this wheel that hangs from the ceiling at quirky and delicious Trail Center Restaurant on the Gunflint Trail.

Further down the road, the Gunflint Lodge looks like it’s from the setting of a romantic comedy—beautiful wood lodge right on a stunning lake. This one just happens to look across to Canada. (Plot line: Minnesota fisherwoman bumps into Canadian fleeing via the lake. Big reveal: it’s Justin Trudeau! You’re welcome, Hollywood!) The lightly beer-battered walleye with mango chutney and wild rice are as dreamy as the scenery.

wildflowers on the Gunflint Trail
Gunflint Trail so pretty.

3. Look for wildlife during a drive along the Gunflint Trail.

Lupine and other wildflowers (invasive but beautiful) line the roadside, and lakes peak through the pines. In the winter, moose are often sighted licking salt from the road at night.

As my brother the Minnesota birder told us how he’s never seen a lynx in the wild, we crested a slight hill on the Gunflint Trail and in front of us on the road lay—a lynx, clearly injured. At up to 40 pounds and three feet long, these brown and white wild cats are a federally threatened species and roam just a few remote parts of Minnesota. Which doesn’t stop many people from thinking they see them frequently in their backyard, calling the DNR to report a lynx when really it’s just Puddles the Neighbor’s Cat.

We watched as this massive cat staggered to its feet, a paw bent fully backward, and all winced for the animal. Thankfully, it hobbled off the road to avoid further injury, and my brother called the DNR to assist as soon as we got back to service.

lynx in northern MN
Even injured, this powerful Lynx we saw along the Gunflint Trail looked like the powerhouse of a hunter that it is. Hard to imagine confusing house cats for this, but well.

4: Revel in Mother Nature’s summer randomness.

Just a few miles before the Gunflint Trail ends at Gull Lake, my friend and I rented a canoe for a leisurely afternoon paddle on Seagull Lake around on its many islands, sure it would be another gorgeous day like earlier in the week with my brother.

Except as we paddled out, we struggled to maintain forward movement into waves from 10-15 mph winds. And then dark clouds appeared on the horizon. And then we were a little lost in the many islands.

Just as lightening appeared in the much-closer and getting-darker clouds, we docked on a small island and identified the best rock and pine to huddle under. Within minutes, pea-sized hail pelted the ground as thunder shook my bones. The downpour soaked through our pine covering as we watched the islands disappear behind a sheet of rain.

With what looked like a short break in the clouds, we speed-paddled back to the dock, only to get soaked by another wall of rain.

But then, just as quickly, the clouds moved on, and we were back to sunshine and glassy water. I couldn’t help but laugh at the changing weather. Mother Nature in the summer in Minnesota never fails to surprise.

Seagull lake
In about 1.5 hours, we experienced high winds, a hail storm, severe downpour, and glassy water on Seagull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail.

5: Watch the sunset at Honeymoon Bluff.

From Clearwater Road, the pull-off for a short hike up to Honeymoon Bluff is a perfect end to a day on the Gunflint. From a rock outcropping high above Hungary Jack Lake, the sun sets over the pines and the world glows a soft gold to pastel pinks and blues.

honeymoon bluff MN
As the sun set over Hungry Jack Lake, I felt so full.

I long to be back there now, exploring hidden treasures in the sweet air and ever-changing skies. After two amazing Minnesota summer trips in a row, I’m already dreaming of where to explore next in my long-ago home state.

Walking the Path of the Gods in Italy

In Italy, the evidence of belief is everywhere in gorgeous, glorious form. The columns of the Temple of Vesta stand sentinel over the remains of Rome’s ancient forum, a radiant dove watches from high above St. Peter’s tomb in the Basilica, and carved into smooth marble, Cupid and Psyche embrace for eternity in Florence’s Uffizi museum. But of all the beautiful buildings and prized masterpieces in Italy, I found conviction most clearly in the landscape—Amalfi Coast’s Path of the Gods.

I’d originally envisioned a January hike through the Amalfi Peninsula as another multi-day Patagonia-like affair, including one day on the famous Path of the Gods, or Sentiero degli Dei. It seemed entirely possible from the blogs and one book on the topic, and I’d done at least three whole hours of planning. My friend and I would hike from the town of Amalfi to the town of Sant’Agata over three days, stopping for pasta and wine and a comfortable bed.

Hard to go wrong.

Of course, when we arrived to Salerno—the point for which we would take a SITA bus to Amalfi—it was snowing and windy, and everything absolutely did go wrong.

Undeterred, and with a slightly-above-freezing temperature in Praiano the next morning, my friend and I asked our hotel owner for directions to the Path of the Gods. He took us to the window and traced the path we would climb up the steep mountainside. It wouldn’t be the full Path of the Gods, but it would be the most beautiful part.

“Up to the convent, then up again, over to that town, then down to Positano,” he explained. “Two hours, no problem.”

path of the gods pentraveler
From Praiano, the Path of the Gods is straight up to a convent, then west to Nocelle, then down to Positano.

“Easy peasy,” I said to my friend. “I bet we could make it all the way to the end of the peninsula if we wanted to.”

amalfi peninsula pentraveler
Just to be clear on the extent of my delusion–you can barely see the end of the peninsula in this photo. I thought I could hike this whole thing in one day. On the plus side, no one can say I’m lacking self-confidence.

The hotel owner pointed us to the stairs across the street from our hotel, conveniently marked with a “Path of the Gods” sign. Up we climbed through the town’s narrow stairs, flanked by white houses and framed with bright pink flowers and lemon trees. Painted Roman myths mixed with Christian paintings and sculptured gods dotted the climb along the stair’s wall and then the forest as we gained elevation.

path of the gods 1 pentraveler
I think this is Medusa.Or the sun with curly rays.

Thankfully, the wind had quieted today, none of the fierce gusts of the previous days in Italy this trip.  The sun rose and warmed our skin, although a broken pipe pouring water into a spontaneous ice sculpture reminded us that it was still quite cold.

At about stair number 1,000+, we reached the convent of San Domenico and the church of Santa Maria a Castro, a sweet rest stop. Two men and a dog arrived shortly after us—one, the caretaker of the convent, opened the small church and asked if we wanted a snack.

Never one to turn down an espresso in Italy, I chatted with the man, practicing my Italian.

He said for a few days in the summer everyone from the village comes up to the small church for a special mass, the whole area lit with candles. Inside, the church was cool and dark, its frescoed walls looking untouched since the 1400s when it was built.

san domenico pentraveler
Easy to imagine this beautiful church from the 1400s filled with candlelight.

Freshly caffeinated, we continued up past the church, where the Path of the Gods was immediately less clear. Exposed small rocks led up with a sharp vertical drop to the side. We scrambled up, wondering aloud if we were still on the path.

But then—a sign. (An actual one, no doves or anything like that.) To the right, a hike to the summit, and to the left, continuing the path to Positano. We veered left, walking the two-foot ledge fit snuggly into the cliff. I say “snuggly”, because I am happy being literally dangled from a rope two stories high, but if you have a fear of heights, this is probably not the path for you.

path of the gods 3 pentraveler
It helps to think of these types of paths in comforting terms because otherwise you might just be terrified you are 400m/1300ft+ above sea level with a sheer drop to your left.

Time faded as we followed the mountains’ curves into hollows and out along its ridges. We passed a ruined house and belled goats roaming above us on the mountainside. The path widened briefly, where a couple sat snacking on the most amazing location for a picnic bench I’ve ever seen. White and orange markers reassured from time to time that we were, in fact, going the right way.

mary statue path of the gods pentraveler
Every second of the Path of the Gods is breathtaking. Sometimes because you think you are going to fall off the cliff edge, but mostly because of the view.

The exposed cliff toyed with perspective, feeling never quite closer to our final destination, and I finally admitted there was no way we were making it to the edge of the peninsula today.

Eventually, we started a descent that curved back along a hollow into a wooded area, then out again with guard rails appearing as we approached the town of Nocelle.

guardrail path of the gods pentraveler
Don’t be fooled, guard rails are very rare on the Path of the Gods.

In Nocelle, the first sight that greeted us: The Kiosk of the Path of the Gods. Closed. “Get your prosecco here!” the sign said anyway.

I glowered at the sign. I wanted that a bubbly drink very much after the last four hours. Why had our owner said only two?! Until that moment, I’d been quite happy with our nearly solo January walk—we’d passed only seven other hikers the whole time. But faced with a closed refreshing beverage shop, I had my moment of doubt.

Just then, two cats appeared, purring like little motor boats, so I took the solace they offered, and we started the descent through lovely Nocelle. 1,700 stairs of descent, to be exact.

nocelle stairs pentraveler
Purring cats in Nocelle tried their hardest to make up for the closed beverage shops.

By the time we reached the road, I was ready to fall to my knees—not just in gratitude for being done with the stairs, but also because 1,700 stairs is A LOT.

We crawled/walked the last stretch to Positano and collapsed into the first restaurant we found open along the beach. With a glass of prosecco and gnocchi on the table, the stairs were forgiven and I found all that was left in my heart was the lightness, once again, of a beautiful experience.

positano sunset pentraveler
The sunset over the Mediterranean Sea in January from the nearly empty beach in Positano is something to behold, and hold onto, long after it has sunk below the waters.

Traveling with wrong and light on the Amalfi Coast

Amalfi view at sunset

As the sun sinks lower over the steep mountainside 3km up from the town of Amalfi, Italy, I shift my backpack forward, and a bubble of laughter escapes my lips. My friend and I just finished descending 300 steep steps to the hotel where we’d booked a room for the night, only to find it definitely, fully shut down. Now we have 300 steps back up to the roadside—and the nearly empty road—with our bags and no working phones.

“CIAO!” I yell, laughing fully this time.

Absolutely everything about this day has not gone according to plan—which has made it my favorite day so far on this two-week Italian trip.

Pastries in Sicily
Another cannolo? Why, yes, grazie! We were probably a combined 30 pounds heavier post-Sicily portion of the trip.

Lost and delayed

First, there was the Catania, Sicily, airport, where we couldn’t figure out how to leave our rental car. No attendants, no instructions. Just our flight time approaching rapidly. And again, no phone. (Note to self for next trip: Pay the extra $10 to turn on international service!)

Thankfully, a kind stranger passed by and pointed to a box where we should drop the car key, about five feet from where we stood. (He was also kind enough to not roll his eyes, raise an eyebrow, or make other totally warranted comments about dumb tourists.) We dropped the key, and then wandered the perimeter of the walled and wired parking lot, unable to locate the exit. Just as we were starting to ration out the remainder of the cannoli—it had been at least 12 hours since the last—a freezing blast of wind hurried us along.

Oh, did I mention it was below 32F? Ever since we’d visited Erice, a castle on the top of a mountain, we’d had fierce wind and cold—very un-Sicily like weather.

By the time our plane landed in Naples, we were a few hours behind schedule. The tourist information booth advised on a bus to Salerno, from where we would take another bus to Amalfi. But by the time the bus was 30 minutes late, we caught a horn-obsessed taxi to the Naples train station. Cars and people packed into chaotic, lively streets, and we were most certainly no longer in laid-back Sicily.

Delayed and freezing

We disembarked the train in Salerno and I couldn’t stop laughing—because not only was it sunny, it was somehow snowing, too. In southern Italy, where the averages are usually 45-55F in January.

As the wet, windy snow smacked us across the face, I asked a fruit vendor when and where the bus to Amalfi departed.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not running today because of the snow.”

Va bene,” I said. “All right.” Except it was definitely not.

Freezing and kinda screwed

We ducked into a café and I had my third espresso for the day. While divine inspiration continued to elude me, we loitered outside the café.

Three burly, bearded men approached us at the corner, cigarettes hanging from their lips.

“Are you lost?” the burliest one asked, in perfect English.

I smiled widely and sent up a “grazie!” because here was divine intervention in the flesh—the travel angel.

If you’ve traveled extensively, you know what I’m talking about—a stranger who helps you find your bus, or hotel, or a secret spot to eat with no motivation other than helping a foreigner who is clearly hopelessly lost and clueless.

Now just delayed again 

Over the next ten minutes, the trio found where we could buy tickets, when the next bus would arrive (not canceled after all!), and directed us to the exact bus spot, finding us again even after we thought (wrongly) we were on the right path.

The bus ride to Amalfi unwound like a dream—switchbacks tucked in tight U-shapes into the cliffside, the ocean a sheer drop to the left. The sun haloed clouds and outlined castles on outcrops. I overused “Wow.”

Amalfi coast views
Awe-inspiring and carsick-inducing views await along the Amalfi Coast road in Italy.

From the town of Amalfi, we caught a bus to our hotel-keeper meet-up point on a road 3km up the mountainside from the town. While no one was waiting as promised, we saw the sign for our hotel and remembered the 300-steps-down description. So down we went through the lemon and orange tree groves, tucked into narrow winding terraces.

Stairs in Amalfi
If anyone tries to tell you 300 steps aren’t that much, they are using an alternative fact.

Which is what we’re walking back up now. And why even though it’s getting dark and there seems to be absolutely no one else on this mountainside and we still have 200-some steps to go back up, the scenery is so lovely that I really don’t mind at all.

“CIAO!” I yell again, figuring if we can find a person with a phone, we can at least call the hotel keeper.

“HELLO!” I switch to English in the completely unrealistic chance anyone who is listening doesn’t realize I am not actually Italian and do, in fact, need assistance.

Unhelped but also fine minus a little huffing and puffing, we arrive back at the top of the stairs and start walking back down the road as the sun sets.

Amalfi view at sunset
Beautiful views make everything better, even after 600 steps up and down from an abandoned hotel.

Just as I’m ready to flag down a passing car, we spot a roadside market and ask to use their phone to call the hotel number. A man answers, and we work out a deal with him after explanations pass on both sides. He takes us back into Amalfi, from where we catch the 8th transport of the day to Praiano, just 6.3 miles west on the peninsula.

We hop off the bus and thankfully our hotel for the next night is open and has space, so we settle in. The hotel owner points us to the two open restaurant options, where I inhale the most amazing spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and red wine on our red-and-white checkered tablecloth, set across the room from a wood-burning pizza oven.

Outside the window, a stiff wind sways a tall tree’s neon-lit branches, and I find that I can’t stop smiling.

Nearly everything went wrong today, and yet, I’ve never felt so light.

Praiano in January
Lovely Praiano in the early morning January light, quiet and beautiful.

One month into something new: Fitting in like a hen in the dark

When you start something new and hit bottom not long after, you can either call it quits or pull and prod yourself up the hill to a better place.

I hit bottom in Italy around Week 2. I didn’t fit in, I couldn’t understand people, I missed my routines.

(Also, I’m in Italy. A friend recently mentioned I have neglected to mention this critical and wonderful detail.)

After giving myself permission to indulge in a few mopey days, I started building internal bridges and soaring Italian fortresses, getting stronger and more confident in this new place.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of a wonderful analogy from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: You must place a new hen in a chicken coop in the night — if you do it in the day, the chickens will violently go after the newcomer. But in the night, something wonderful (or massively forgetful) happens, and in the morning a newcomer is not new at all, just another one of the flock who seems to have always been there.

I’m starting to feel like the hen that was placed here in the dead of night. Not without some sharp picks from the other chickens (really just my own fears), but overall — I fit. I belong, and that is a precious place to arrive, whether in a new job, place, or relationship.

Beautiful cobblestone streets of Padova Italy
of course i want to belong in these wonderful streets of italy!

Unlike the chickens, I have a good overnight memory, so I needed to do some self-pulling and prodding to get myself out of the slump and into this happy place where I am now, a little over one month in.

Realize that you belong here enough. New job, new place, new relationship — doesn’t matter. You are smart, qualified, cute, and gosh darn it, people like you. Basically, go with the “fake it until it’s true” strategy.

Sure, I don’t necessarily look like I am from here (I’ve asked many people many times if I could pass for Italian, and the answer is always, unequivocally and immediately, “No”). I’m only just learning to speak the language. Mostly I speak a Spanish-Italian mix that requires correction every other word, making for very long conversations.

But I love to talk to new people and make new relationships over a glass of wine, and I agree a little shot of coffee is all you need in the morning, so I’m telling myself that I belong enough to walk down that street with confidence now.

italy loves bikes! i love bikes! italy, let’s love each other!
italy loves bikes! i love bikes! italy, let’s love each other!

Know you can bumble through anything. Ideally, you’ll gracefully sail through the challenges something new throws in your path. You will offer a new idea, and your coworkers will all congratulate you for your brilliance and shower you with champagne for taking the initiative and making the company gobs of money.

Maybe more likely, as you are learning the ropes of this new place, you will mess up. Repeatedly. You will offer a new idea, and you will get silence, blank stares and a raised eyebrow.

The key is to realize that when you mess up, no one other than you will remember tomorrow. Even that awkward moment when you misunderstood the situation or instructions or said “I’m sorry, excuse me” to your boyfriend’s parents when you meet them instead of “nice to meet you,” like you meant to say — it all passes.

Which brings me to the most important getting-out-of-the-slump technique.

You must laugh at yourself more often. Fake laugh, if it’s not real yet. Try out different laughs. Find yours and have it at the ready. I prefer the confident, “oh I’m so charming that I just totally messed that up” laugh, shoulders back, a toss of the hair, followed by a wink.

Laughing will get your happy hormones to kick in, and even if your cheeks are deep red and you want to crawl into a hole, you’ll physically start to feel a little better. Which hopefully will then trigger your “I can do this—I do belong” internal monologue.

verona italy at night
i actually used my little confident fake-laugh to recover after a night in Verona when i hit a low point, crying in a pizzeria because i was feeling homesick. if you can’t laugh at the fact that you are in a stunning historical city and crying in a pizzeria, you’re in trouble.

Say yes more often than no. Saying yes, even internally, is another confidence-booster. Even if your brain is exhausted and you really want to eat lunch alone, or that dish looks gross, or happy hour with coworkers doesn’t sound great — say yes anyway. You will start feeling like you belong more with every yes.

Be honest with yourself and say what you want. Not saying what you want is unhealthy. We all know this, and some of us have paid thousands of dollars to shrinks to help us spit out what we already know we want to say, but just need a little (read: a lot) encouragement to actually say it.

Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t make it easy, especially for a Midwesterner who would rather avoid anything that feels even remotely like confrontation or disagreement or surfacing of emotions.

At two weeks in, when I was feeling caged and antsy and lonely and everything bad, I was holding in what I really wanted—some space to write and be alone. But I was afraid that asking for this would be hurtful to my boyfriend. Fear held me back and was creating all this ugly internal icky-ness inside me.

With encouragement from a friend, I said what I needed out loud to him, and like magic, all of the icky swamp inside me drained away. Beautiful bright fields of space opened up.

well, since i’m in italy, it’s got to be a field that is covered in succulent grape vines, of course.
well, since i’m in italy, it’s got to be a field that is covered in succulent grape vines, of course.

What feels like a miracle is that these beautiful bright fields have stayed with me. I’m making friends, I’m bumbling through speaking a new language, and I’m eating incredible food. I feel whole. I belong!

I am a lucky hen in a medieval stone city, drinking a little café in the morning and local wine at night.