My family likes to go camping a lot. And when I was a kid back in the 1980s, one of our favorite spots was Devil’s Lake State Park. We hiked the bluffs and played games of 500 with a tennis ball at the beach. We dove into the water off a big flat boulder along the Tumbled Rocks Trail we nicknamed “The Big Kahuna.”
But there was a spot in the Quartzite campground that blew my mind as a kid, and we called it, “The hill that goes up that goes down.”
One weekend, our family was cruising up the middle lane of the campground on our bikes. The road up ahead appeared to rise slightly through a patch of woods. But as we made our way through the trees, we picked up speed and had to hit the brakes. That was weird. I looked back over my shoulder and sure enough, we had just cruised up a little hill.
“We got down to the other end of the road and said, ‘Wow, that was different,'” remembered Dan Kolberg (he’s my dad). “I mean, it looked like we’re gonna be going up a hill. Instead, we coasted all the way here.”
Back at the campsite, I remember my kid brain searching for an explanation. Was the spot enchanted by some sort of magic, magnetic, geologic, gravitational anomaly?
My dad’s reply?
“Regardless of what the cause is, it’s like it’s one of the seven wonders of Devil’s Lake,” he said.
For the rest of the trip, my parents cooked dinner, sipped coffee, played cards and cracked peanuts. But my brother and I were back on our bikes — up, down, up, down, eyes wide and laughing.
So what was really happening there? Well, when I want to know something, but I don’t want to Google it, I like to ask my old friend, Bob Sundling. He’s always known quite a bit about quite a lot. He said that if the horizon is obscured, then other visual clues like trees tell us what the lay of the land really is.
“But in an area with dominant winds, if the wind’s always been blowing from one direction, all trees may have grown with a slight downwind lean,” said Sundling. “And it might only be a few degrees, but it’s enough that our brains are thinking, ‘Oh, that’s straight.'”
“We tend to think we have a good inherent ability to judge up and down and horizontal and vertical, but it really depends on these external clues,” he continued.
So, does that mean that I wasn’t riding my bike through a magical wonder spot?
“Probably not,” replied Sundling. “I mean, it is possible. For example, if there was say, a black hole passing through the earth’s atmosphere at that time. And I think you would have probably noticed a few other strange things happening like the end of the world or that type of thing.”
Last summer, on a camping trip to Devil’s Lake, my daughter and I grabbed our bikes and headed up the middle lane of the Quartzite campground. She’d heard all about this magic spot in the trees and wanted to try it out for herself.
“It was pretty weird because by the looks of it, we should have been pedaling harder than usual to go up a hill,” my daughter remembered. “But when we actually got to it, it was easy coasting. We just went right down, even though it looked like we were going up. The hill that goes up that goes down!”
Maybe we’ll head back to Devil’s Lake this summer and relive this goofy little bit of magic in our lives. It makes me grateful for this world that always seems to have a surprise waiting just up the road…or down.
MUSIC: “Flying” by The Beatles