Every year, in wilderness areas all over the world, a few people take a walk in the woods and never come back. The people they leave behind will wonder forever what exactly happened out there. They will wrestle with a twisted gratitude — “he died doing what he loved, in a place he loved” beats dying in a hospital any day. Except the day it actually happens.
In June of 2005, Lloyd Skelton disappeared on a day hike in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. An experienced outdoorsman, Skelton had intended to take a kayak trip, but weather fouled his plans, and he instead set out on foot, taking a section of the Echo Trail along Whisky Jack Lake. A few weeks later, searchers found his clothing strewn along the trail, possibly indicating hypothermia, but no body was ever found. (Rachel Hutton wrote about the search effort in Minnesota Monthly.)
Minneapolis poet Roseann Lloyd, Skelton’s sister, mourned him at a funeral in which his kayak stood in place of a coffin, retraced his path with her feet and her imagination, and wrote “The Boy Who Slept Under the Stars,” a new book of poems that explores grief under these unusual circumstances.
He died in a place he loved. How many people can say that? Woods by the water. Trillium, Lady’s Slipper, Dutchman’s Britches. His Boundary Waters, his land and water, his edge of heaven, she writes, wrestling with the horrible/beautiful schism of the (sort of) perfect death.
“It’s a contradictory process with mood swings — the first poem in the book begins the wrestling with both sides evenly matched; later poems continue,” she says. “After a while of the back and forth, ambiguity becomes a daily word.”
In grieving, Lloyd finds herself among similar survivors. Two of her friends lost loved ones in the mountains, and she feels a certain kinship with the families of the disappeared across time, in Minnesota and beyond. Jacob Wetterling, Frederico Garcia Lorca, lost Everest climbers, and others who lost their way or were diverted are in these pages as Lloyd writes about missing those who went missing. The experience, she says, “opens our heart to the suffering of others. I don’t hesitate to talk to someone in grief as I might have before. I’m also open to receiving comfort in a way that’s new.”
Lloyd has published eight books, including three poetry collections, and has been an active part of the Twin Cities poetry community since the 1980s. She’s watched the poetry scene completely transform. “Who could’ve predicted all the coffee shops where people can read or slam their poems? Or people in their 50s texting and tweeting poems?”
She teaches writing at the Loft and works as an adjunct professor for several Twin Cities colleges, but now she also leads small grief groups, hoping to lead others out of the wilderness of loss. For her, writing has been the only way out.
“Writing forms thoughts, feelings and experiences into art and then that art goes out of your body — from your voice, breath, heartbeat and onto the page,” she says. “Then it has a place in the world. It’s not stuck unexpressed inside you. You don’t have to take care of it. That’s the healing.”