By Nickalas Adams

birches

The tires of Johnny’s Jeep tear up ore tailings into a cloud of red dust. This dust furthers our odds in winning, since the pickup in pursuit is surely driving blind. The noon sunlight cutting through a lane in the lush canopy above makes the dust cloud seem like a moving wall that can’t keep up. Our Jeep weaves at high speeds between the numerous boulders, holes, and fallen trees. The vehicle in second place plows over all, the driver indifferent.

Inside the cab of the Jeep, I anchor myself in the passenger seat, holding onto the door through the window and a Mountain Dew in the cup holder. John drives like an angry teenage troublemaker who just received a license and powerful vehicle, which is exactly the case. He sits back with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the E-brake, wearing a most focused expression. The only line in John’s face appears to smirk at one of his passengers hitting his head on the roof and swearing loudly.

The red dirt road is progressively narrowing when we take an exit on the right. A grassy trail guides us now, stained red in ore. Caution should undoubtedly be used when taking this path, but the rules don’t apply to us. We fly through the flooded areas, spraying red water three directions. The first cliff is just ahead, and barring a sneaky shortcut move from the opposition, we are the clear winners of the race’s first phase.

The berm comes into view and we fist bump on our victory. The Jeep stops and the four of us pile out, towels in hand. Each of us wears ratty old swim trunks, a cut-off t-shirt and some form of flip flops, all stained red in ore.

The second phase of the race is now underway, and teammates have transformed into opposition. We jockey for position, cantering carefully down the grade. It isn’t steep, but the rocks are sharp, and a natural spring leaks icy red water directly down the pathway, making for slimy traction.

Just before the cliff, there lies a ten foot rise, and to climb it requires traction, something not offered by laceless shoes. This final challenge has cost many sure winners their victory in the past. Some brave souls have taken a run at the hill, and if they used enough speed could make it, but if not, bloody toes would hamper the day’s fun meter. I have been the victim of bloody toes before, and I therefore settle for being the second to take hold of the rope. I wrap the frayed, blonde anchor line around my hand as far up as I can reach and use my other to keep outward pressure. I walk my feet up slowly and pull out in rock climber form. It’s a hell of a process, but we’re now at our jumping platform.

Gary is the one before me up the rope and looks to be the first in the water when, sprinting out of nowhere, Joe flies past and disappears off the edge, giggling as a child but pointing his middle finger. He even manages to throw his sunglasses back to the cliff while in midair.  Looking only slightly hurt, Gary pauses with me and enjoys the view.

The pit is massive. It was a mining site many years ago. The mining industry boomed on “the Iron Range” for years when wars demanded ore. A major downsizing of the industry has been underway for decades now, due to more efficient technology and outsourcing. As a result, the surrounding towns emptied out as the pit filled up with water. Leaving was a hurried process, though, and there are still trucks and other mining equipment lost in the depths.

After that messy evacuation, the pit continues to fill up, and it is now over 300 feet deep, averaging over 100 feet. On a bright summer day, this man-made destruction is as breathtakingly beautiful as the Hoover Dam. The huge cliffs can be as high above water as 150 feet and as low as 10 feet. Various rock types and formations are clearly visible in a layer of

Rocks in this region take pride in the number of feet they can cut.

earth, which is not meant to be so exposed. Deep, jagged red edges jam up against sandy, boulder-filled washouts around the pit’s perimeter. Some small birch and popple trees manage to cling onto their crumbling foundation, although the larger ones tend to fall away.

But it’s the water that makes this destination so worthy of a race. The gently turning waves resemble something from a desktop background; the blues and greens of the crystal clear water can be absorbed—not described. The color is intoxicating. It’s alive. But damn, it’s cold.

This particular cliff is small, only about a 15-foot drop. We like it because it’s the least dangerous, with a poorly-fashioned stairway to climb back up after jumping. We didn’t make the stairway—other cliff-divers did—but we treat it as ours.

I drop my towel next to a bush and notice a jury-rigged water bong stashed in the ore-stained foliage.

“Toner must have been here guys,” I say, grabbing the contraption and firing it in their direction. It’s a two liter bottle with a pen casing sticking out the side and gum holding it in place. This piece of scrap is not the only human waste item in the area—the roads surrounding the pit are littered with shit: TV’s, washing machines, couches, old campers, drums full of old motor oil, carpeting, car batteries, spit bottles and roaches. People see a red dirt road and figure it’s easier than making a trip to the actual dump for proper disposal. And the damn punch tickets you have to buy…

I practice jumping by tossing my Crocs into the water below. The right shoe catches wind and glances off the cliff wall before joining its mate.  I dive off the carpet-covered platform and land in the target zone between my shoes. The water takes away my air and leaves me struggling for breath in my state of laughing and choking in the clean water. Yes, perfectly clean. In all of my words on the dirty grunginess of the surrounding area, consider the pit water to be the opposite in every regard. It’s what the makers of Aquafina had in mind. It’s hard on the skin and refreshing on the eyes—like sticking your head out the car window on an early-spring morning. It enhances the mood of your insides.

I swim to the lower platform of the climbing area to cover my feet. Although the easiest climb of our jumping points, rocks in this region take pride in the number of feet they can cut.

Our other pals finally arrive at the cliff to bear news of hitting a tree. It was nothing serious, but the truck got a little dented in front. We all take turns giving the driver a hard time between jumps.

“That’s alright, Hag, just tell them the tree was in your blind spot.”

“Gramps is going to kill you, James.”

“Well, it doesn’t look too bad now, but it won’t be long till the rust starts.”

“Dumbass.”

After a short time, we need a bigger drop. So we hike back to the vehicles for another ten-minute drive of hearing loss and neck damage.

The second cliff is a forty-foot drop. Every first timer that I’ve seen takes many looks over the edge before finally saying to hell with it and jumping. There’s no doubt that if you land wrong at this height, not only would it hurt, it could also injure. One victim jumped on his shoes floating below and broke his toe. Another tried jumping with wide-soled Etnies on his feet, and the impact of flat-calm water was too much for his knee.

As for experienced jumpers, we’re off the cliff and climbing back up the scale as if it were a practiced trade.

My first jump is a long one. Although forty feet is always the same distance down, the mind controls how long a jump takes. There is a lot of time to think when you’re in free fall. Sometimes I see how many times I can swear before hitting the water, just in an effort to lessen this effect. And you always wonder if you’ve jumped out far enough—Will I be deep enough? Long jumps usually result in panic right at the end because the feeling of the fall being too long for survival is instinct.

I throw one arm out from my pencil dive just before impact in a subconscious effort to slow myself down. My arm slaps the wall of water as my momentum wins over my buoyancy temporarily. The stinging starts when my lungs fill with oxygen again. As I gain my placement and wits, I admire the burning on my skin and the immediate cooling effect of the substance surrounding me.

The downfall of the forty-footer is the climb back up: it’s treacherous. The rocks are loose in their constant erosion and inevitably sharp. A tattered, segmented and randomly-knotted rope hangs from a slightly uprooted tree at the top. The braids of the rope are large, and the colors are unidentifiable beneath the red iron ore stain. Anything you touch on the climb rubs off the red dust. It’s a permanent dye. It stains tree bark right through to the core, and it stains skin right down to the soul.

In my climb up the cliff, I thank my Crocs for holding up once again despite missing pieces and with fishing line securing the strap. I kick down loose dirt and boulders unintentionally; a large chunk kicks way out, nearly hitting Hag down below.

“Blake, you asshole. Trying to kill me?” he shouts up,

I rise and fire my rounds in three quick, trigger kisses.

more shaken up by his rough day than mad at the event.

“Hey, you weren’t under me when I started this climb. Back off further next time,” I say back, slightly rattled. In my flustered state of hurriedness, I scrape my leg on a jutting shard of red rock. I wipe away oozing liquid with a stray sock, unable to differentiate between blood and the ore stained water droplets.

The jumping never gets old at the forty-footer, so it’s the climb back up that decides the end. When we are tired and too cut up to continue, we uncase the shotguns and shoot at anything—including each other.

We get back in the vehicles to navigate over to a large clearing at the base of the biggest mine dump—Seven Cities. The reason for this name is simple enough; if you drive up on top of this mound of overburden at night, seven different towns can clearly be seen: Cohassett, Grand Rapids, La Prairie, Coleraine, Bovey, Taconite and Marble in that order from west to east.

Seven Cities was a spot made famous when a classmate was stabbed nine times on top of it. This classmate had been bullied all through school, and even Gary pushed him down two flights of stairs once. He followed a gang up to the summit in hopes of friendship, but it was a trap. The attempted murder was only interrupted by two stoners out on a burn cruise. Randle would be sunk in the depths of the pit right now if it weren’t for those two.

“Loser buys Goodtimes?” I ask, loading my 12 gauge semi-auto shotgun.

“I’m game, but winner has to order and it has to be a large,” John replies quickly—he gets too nervous talking on the phone. He knows he can’t outshoot me, but he also knows he can’t come in last. Gary and Joe are awful shots.

“Hey, fuck you guys. My mom only gave me twenty bucks today, and I still have to sharpen my skates. Large ‘za is way too much,” Gary says, teeth black with tobacco grains.

“It’s twenty more bucks than we got, Gar, so nut up,” John says in a tone of finality.

We unload the clay pigeons from the back of the Jeep, and although they rest in the cab of the vehicle, a thin layer of red dust coats the box.

I start throwing the saucers one by one with the three gunman taking turns. Every so often a challenge arises on who can shoot the clay first. This makes for a dangerous scene if the discs are not carefully thrown straight away.

After only about fifteen minutes of shooting, we have a clear picture of who is to call for pizza and who is to buy. But just as Gary hands me his cell phone, the other carload of pals fly by, unloading their guns out the windows and into the tree branches.

“Bring it on, motherfuckers!”

“Oh, we’re getting them,” Johnny says. “Get the fuck in the Jeep.”

And without a word of objection, we load up and climb Seven Cities at thirty miles an hour. Upon reaching the top, John gets out with shotgun in hand, forgetting to put the Jeep in park.

I scramble from the passenger seat to apply the brake and shift to park before we go over the edge. “Real nice, Johnny,” I mutter.

John starts firing his gun towards the ground a few hundred feet below, and I get out to see what in the hell he’s aiming at.

Here our pals in the truck are visible, maneuvering the trails. Although out of range for a lethal shot, a BB shower could be fun. When our prey realizes they’re taking fire, gun barrels point out the windows and fire back at us. They come closer.

I am forced to laugh as I retreat to the safety of the Jeep. My friends are idiots, and it doesn’t make me feel like I belong any less. In a year or so, maybe alcohol will slow us down, or girlfriends claim our hours and scents. Maybe we’ll become boring and content. But right now, we are wild, frenzied kids with car keys, guns, and a playground too large to be tame on.

Gary crawls to the edge and unloads his pump-action in the direction of our other half of best buds.  He rolls left behind a mound to protect himself and smiles nervously as he reloads.

“Whaddya think, buddy boy?” he shouts.

“I think you can feel free to rock on,” I say from the Jeep, now safe from the line of fire. “But I like seeing and shit so, I’m commanding base security over here.”

“Toss me the last Four-Ten skinnys. I’m out of ammo! Center console! On the double! They’re coming up to a clearing!”

I open the dusty lid and dig out shells. I find only two. He catches the first smoothly, then lurches to snatch the second with skill. He nods and curtsies to an invisible crowd, showcasing as though applause is thundering, but it’s only distant gunpowder explosions.  He releases his last two cracks over the edge and runs to the Jeep.

“Relief! Put that cannon of yours to use, Hauss!”

I grab my semi-auto and stay low as we trade places. In passing I grab his sunglasses from his nose. I peek over the edge, and the opposition is plenty far away, so I rise and fire my rounds in three quick, trigger kisses.

It’s warfare.  We battle each other until our shell boxes are light, our gas tanks empty and our ravenous hunger tided over.

birchesNickalas Adams is majoring in English and minoring in Humanities at BSU; he likes to write when he’s not out there living it.