Kathleen Bangs: How "Cold Woods" Came to Life
It was a drizzly, cold November morning on the opener of Minnesota’s deer hunting season. I was driving into the remote town of Grand Marais, an outpost hugging the north shore of Lake Superior, to attend the second day of a writer’s conference. We were meeting in a log building on the main drag. The day’s class was titled Write What Haunts You.
With a few minutes to spare, I ducked into an adjacent coffee shop. As the barista handed me a mug, I puzzled over a sign on the wall. “Oh. Yesterday I thought this place was called Java Loon. But it’s named after a different north woods animal?” I asked.
She smiled. “Yes, we’re Java Moose. There’s a sticker if you’d like one,” the barista said, pointing to a pile of large round stickers on the counter between us. Not really a sticker person, I didn’t know what possessed me to pick one up. The sticker indeed displayed a drawing of a moose, not a loon. I stuck it into my jacket front pocket and headed to class.
A police officer, moonlighting as a mystery writer, sat across the table from me in Write What Haunts You. Before the instructor began, I took him aside. “You know, there’s this unsolved case that often bothers me this time of year, about a missing man in the Minnesota woods.” I had no intention of ever writing about the missing person. But the opportunity to ask a cop if he had ever heard of the case was too tempting to resist.
During the break I went to step outside for a moment to enjoy the pine scented air, and a close view of the world’s biggest lake. As I pushed open the glass double doors, something caught my eye. A blur of animal coming toward me at a gallop. For a split second I thought it was a freakishly giant Newfoundland dog, with wiry colored fur the shade of green moss.
With my right leg through the door, and only a pane of glass separating whatever was barreling toward me, its wild eyes caught mine. I saw mostly white, the look of panic. With a collision imminent, instinct kicked in. Stepping backwards, I yanked the door shut.
The animal’s head slammed against the glass with a loud thunk.
Apparently unfazed, it made a sharp turn to the left, disappearing across the street toward the coffee shop, gone in an instant.
“Did anybody see that?” I yelled, flustered.
“I did,” said a man’s voice, from behind. It was the police officer. “That was a juvenile moose.”
What were the odds? Of a near-miss with a wild creature, a moose no less. With the moose sticker still in my pocket. After just getting up the nerve to finally ask law enforcement about the case of a missing man. I still don’t know if the universe was trying to jar me into action, or silence. But I did feel that the story of a man, long presumed dead, needed to come to life. I stepped inside, sat down, and wrote "Cold Woods."