the elephant rock story

by Jeannine Ouellette

Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks.  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m interested in place.  How a sense of place—the places we love, the places we’re drawn to or that we remember most powerfully—intertwine with who we are and who we become. As British novelist Alec Waugh (older brother of the better known Evelyn) said, "You can fall in love at first sight with a place as with a person." And as a writer, I’m profoundly interested in how place affects story. Maybe both of these interests are ultimately the same.

Either way, I knew intuitively that I wanted my writing and yoga retreats to take place in unique and fascinating places, places that could work their own magic on the creative process. I also wanted the retreats to have an overarching name, an identity of their own beyond my name as an individual. And I wanted that name to have a strong resonance within me that, ideally, others would feel whenever I would say, see, or think the name.

Immediately, this brought me to Duluth, my birthplace, and to the stark, wild geography of that rocky city perched above the world's most magnificent lake. This geography moves me every time I experience it or even think of it. And I know this feeling is true for so many people from the world over who visit Duluth, no matter where they were born and raised. I grew up near Lincoln Park,  one of the Duluth's oldest parks. Before I was born, it was called Garfield Park, but the name change was complete by the time my family moved to the green house just up the hill. I walked the two blocks from our house to Lincoln Park Elementary, across the street from the beautiful 35-acre swath of park that straddles Miller Creek and stretches from 3rd Street to Skyline Parkway. It’s forested with white pine, cedar, mature paper birches, and large willows. Lincoln Park’s paths wind alongside waterfalls, gorges, and, in an open area near the park’s edge, Elephant Rock, a hulk of exposed ancient bedrock long ago worn smooth by glaciers. And yet, the smooth surface of the elephant’s back is also deeply gouged with long scratches from the scraping of sharp rocks in that long-since melted ice.

When I was a little girl, my sister and I would go to Lincoln Park with our dad. He’d stand at the base of Elephant Rock as we scrambled up the grassy slope to climb atop it from behind. “Catch me!” we’d both squeal, taking turns sliding down the elephant’s back into our dad’s arms. My parents had already divorced—my dad left when I was two. Yet, both in spite of that and because of it, this memory of sliding into my dad’s arms from Elephant Rock, the sun-warmed rock against my bare legs, retains a patina of joy for me. This muted joy persists even in the face of the sometimes ugly truths of my childhood, and the more complicated way in which I’ve come to understand these memories now. 

I haven’t lived in Duluth since I was six years old. But when I became a mother, I made a regular habit of bringing my own children to the place where I was born. I wanted to share with them my love for the shockingly cold waters of Lake Superior. I wanted to teach them how to stand on rocks and “tease” the crashing waves, inevitably getting soaked in the process. I needed to show them how to exhaust themselves searching for gold and orange and blood-red agates, and then, how to bask in the restorative heat of glacial rock and fierce sun. And I wanted them to know and love Elephant Rock, protector of the deep truths we hold as our own, however beautiful and scarred those truths may be.