It is a “tourist” thing to do; to creep along the shoreline of Lake Superior with your pants rolled up and search for agates. A well-banded, red agate can be worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Our only instruction on finding them came from an elderly woman who told us, “glance across the stones and if you see one that sparkles, it’s an agate.” And then she opened her hand to reveal her prize of the day: three tiny crystals nestled into the deep wrinkles of her palm. They were not agates, but we didn’t tell her that. By then end of the morning my pocket was bursting with multi-colored rocks. Some, I was sure, were quite valuable.
But we hadn’t come all this way for the stones. It was an anniversary, of sorts. Twenty years ago, Bob and I split up in Utah. He took a bus back to New York, and I took our van up to the tip of Minnesota. We wanted different things then. He was ready for love and stability, and I just wanted to explore. In that long summer up north, I had met three lifelong friends. It was time for Bob to finally meet them.
Snow had already accumulated on the side of the road, but the sun was shining when we got into the car and it was warm enough to pull off our winter coats for the long ride up. “If you see a green tractor, pull over. It’s Brian,” Dayna had told us. We knew that seeing Brian on this trip would be unlikely. He lived in his hand-built cabin in the woods and tended to his dozen dogs; living a life away from people on purpose. Brian was the epitome of a Northwoods man: solitary and wise. When Dayna divorced him last year I think it was because he was too much of both of those things for her.
“Remember when we swam all the way to Canada?” Dawn asked.
The road was smooth and monotonous, but its familiarity kept sprouting up old memories. “I do,” I replied. “Remember when we canoed too close to that bull moose?” We were always looking for adventure back then, but this time in the woods, we craved quiet. “Tractor,” Dawn yelled. I looked over and saw Brian perched on the seat of the vehicle. His legs were crossed and he was grinning right into our car, as if he was expecting us right at that moment.
We veered onto the gravel roadside and Brian climbed down from his seat to meet us. He took a big drag of his cigarette, paused, then asked, “How…are…ya?” I had told Bob about Brian’s ‘smoke-talk’ where his words come out in halted bits, followed by a huge puff of smoke. I was thrilled Bob got to see it in Brian’s first sentence. He told us about losing his special dog ‘Pickle’ and how life on the land was getting to be too hard on him. There was no room for small talk on that Minnesota roadside. “I have to get back on the water and paddle,” he explained, wiping the crusted dirt from his jeans. “The people I work with now don’t talk about their feelings (long exhale); they think it’s not manly.” My hands were in my pockets, playing with my new agates as I listened to him.
“What ya got there?” he asked, hearing the sound of them tumbling. Bob and I both pulled out our collections for him to see. “That there, that is a fine rock,” he said and plucked a bland grey stone from Bob’s pile. “I think it just fits perfectly in your hand,” Bob explained, “an ideal holding rock.” He passed it around for each of us to feel. It was silky soft from the weathering of tides and its shape, somewhere in between round and oval, naturally made your fingers want to close over it. I looked at him, proud of his rock, and knew that he was right. It was perfect. I opened up my fist and let my agates spill onto the gravel. He had been right all along.