How to Have a Minnesota Midlife Crisis

Skip the surgery, the Facebook stalking, the trip to Baja—and come back to Earth

this northern life, midlife crisis, health and wellness, mental health, canoeing, isle royale national park, lake superior, minnesota, wilderness
Combat your midlife crisis by getting outdoors

Photo by Jim Giordano

Last summer, I turned to my wife in bed, apropos of nothing, and said, “Everything I love is disappearing. My career. My hobby. Minnesota’s moose.”

I’d just turned 44. One kid. Solid marriage. Money in the bank.

Didn’t matter. You fall into a midlife crisis as into a manhole. No warning, looking straight ahead. Suddenly it’s dark, everything stinks, and there’s no obvious way out.

There’s not much you can do about it, other than die early. You hit middle age and realize you’ve crossed a line, gone over the hill. More of your potential is behind you rather than in front of you, and there’s no going back. Fame, fortune, your career as a flamenco guitarist—not going to happen.

The natural reaction is to go back the way you came, to retreat, to regress. Pull up your eyelids, pull down your hairline. Stalk old crushes on Facebook. Buy a three-wheeler and cruise to Baja with a couple of waitresses and a scuba tank.

But Minnesotans are skeptical of drama. Perhaps it’s the flatness, or the winters that leave little margin for error. We have one of the lowest divorce rates in the country. We are not among the places where people are most looking to fool around. We see where these things tend to end up: legal bills and jellyfish stings and an obstreperous machine that won’t fit in the garage.

Many of the middle-aged Minnesota men I know coped by buying a canoe. One, a bachelor, moved to a house on a lake north of St. Paul. After work, he would paddle toward the horizon, a monastic act, dissolving his desires in the permanent ink of nature. Far from returning to the shapeless potential of his youth, he was moving further away, to the fixed and true and unambiguous.

I bought a canoe in 2013, the year I left full-time journalism even as it appeared to leave me. I had begun to notice nature the way you begin to notice wallpaper, to see the forest for the trees. After 25 years away from the family cabin, I became obsessed with the fate of its resident loons. I bought a DVD documentary called Alone in the Wilderness, about a guy who builds a log cabin in Alaska and rarely returns to civilization.

Last fall, with my father-in-law, I took the canoe to Isle Royale National Park, an island in Lake Superior. I had resolved to see a moose before they vanish, and in the park’s 209 square miles there are now nearly as many moose as there are in all of Minnesota. A six-hour drive, a five-hour ferry, a two-hour paddle, and a 20-minute portage took us to a bay so sheltered, so still, it appeared to be painted. We were down to raw elements: rocks, water, trees. There was nothing to do but survive.

Every dusk and dawn, for four days, I paddled into the reeds and listened for moose. But the silence was complete. For years—as a writer, a photographer, a man—I’d been trying to measure up, to come out on top. But to go over the hill is to come back down, to abandon the pursuit of pinnacles. I sat in the canoe and slowly surrendered my expectations. I felt the silence, in its overwhelming gravity, returning me to earth.