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Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – September 21, 2018
I am surrounded by waves. Lake Huron on the right. Lake Michigan on the left. They roll back and forth across an invisible border. Becoming one. The unsettling hum of steel grates under my tires. Above, the iconic steel towers shudder. Below my wheels, the concrete sways. A lullaby motion that both soothes and disquiets. My eyes flicker side to side, then forward. My hands tighten on the wheel, not so much in fear as in determination. In 1989, a Yugo was blown over the side of the Mackinac Bridge. It took eight days to find the car and the driver, a thirty-one year old waitress from downstate. A life cut short by recklessness and weather. Tomorrow is the twenty-ninth anniversary of the accident.
My hands unclench as I approach the toll booth. A sigh of relief escapes. Days of sunshine or storm, it always feels like a victory to make it to the other side. It always feels as though I’m crossing over a point of no return.
I pull into the bridge view park and stare at the far shore, the Lower Peninsula. I push the door open and stride into the wind. Today is my fiftieth birthday. Half a century of existence. How on Earth did this happen? For most of my life, I felt like I was nearing the end. Wanted it to end. Now it feels like I’m just getting started.
Will Grant make it across before it closes? I left before he could drive up to meet me. The radio warned of high winds. The Bridge would surely close by afternoon. Now our meeting point is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We had planned to do a cruise, but Lake Superior is in turmoil today. It is not disappointment that I feel, but excitement. At last, I will witness one of the legendary gales.
Grant has no mobile phone, so we must revert to sibling telepathy to communicate. My youngest brother likes to be out of reach. As do I. I recently caved in to convenience and bought my first smart phone. In the world beyond, a flip phone was enough. Taxis, pizzas, and the rare text from students were the extent of my phone communications. Anyway, most of the Upper Peninsula is a cellphone dead zone. You are on your own.
The U. P. is as mysterious and daunting as any of the exotic lands that I’ve visited. It is a soul-swallowing place. Vast cedar swamps and impenetrable, claustrophobic forests. A place for those who wish to never be found. Plane crash sites remain undiscovered for decades. This territory is ruled by the beasts which wander within: bears, wolves, moose. Apocalyptic swarms of insects. And the Great Spirit of Ojibway legend, the Manitou.
It’s been eight months since my return to Michigan. The most difficult thing to get used to is being accessible again. Aunts, uncles, and cousins have re-emerged. Friends and acquaintances. The faces in my memory have morphed. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of younger selves. The in-between years that I lost. The people we were then and who we’ve become. Or, in my case, unbecome.
To them, I look the same on the outside, but I am somehow unrecognizable. You are so different. You used to be so judgmental, so condescending. You seem so content with life, with who you are.
The person I was really judging was myself. I pushed people away and withdrew into anonymity. A self-inflicted punishment for my nonconformity. I have no idea when or how the pieces of my life will reassemble. My adventures are now those of human connection. The most intimidating adventure of all. I’m not sure I have what it takes.
It is in the banalities of daily life that you truly get to know someone. The morning coffee, the home improvement projects, the errands. The female domestic rituals push me far out of my comfort zone. Bridal showers and weddings and baby showers. In this world, I am truly lost. However, I understand the vulnerability that parenting entails. Grant and my littlest sister Jessica were like my own children. I decided, long ago, that I would never allow myself to love that deeply. Ever again.
I add an hour to Grant’s promised arrival time. I have been on this Earth too long to put much faith in others’ timing. I find a tiny cafe in Grand Marais. The largest plate of nachos I’ve ever seen is set before me. The owner is from Bay City, where I was born. She mentions names of people she knows who went to my high school. People I used to know. People who never left. She’s had a hard time integrating with the Yoopers, the local people, and wants to move along. I ask her about Jim Harrison, the famous writer who lived in this tiny village.
“I never met him, but he frequented the local bar,” she says. She goes to the window. A wistful gleam lights up her eyes. Her voice drops to a throaty whisper. “The lake will be so gorgeous today.”
A chill moves through me. A thrill. Of all the lakes, Superior is my beloved. All those years ago, I stood on her shore, a child so lost and fearful. She taught me the meaning of awe and its connection to love.
Life is not segmented artificially by what we call days, months, years, dawns, noons, evenings, night; rather, life is segmented by our moods, impressions, traumas, odd transferences of power from inanimate objects- the aesthetic principle – dreams, linked by time spans of loves and hates and indifference, unexpected changes in the prism of our understanding, areas of passion or lust that disappear in a moment, lapsing into a kind of sloth, dread, and slowness. – Jim Harrison, Sundog.
I brace myself for the wind and push out the door. He better be there, dammit. I’m always on time. Let him wait for me for once.
The sinister downward slide of a car window. “Hey. I knew that was your car.” That goofy grin under those dark sunglasses.
I am unable to maintain my scowl.
Down to the lakeshore we go. He struggles to stand upright, to walk against it. His long, gaunt limbs ripple in the wind. For a split second, it appears that he might blow away. My breath catches in my throat. I restrain myself from reaching out. He doesn’t need me anymore. It is far too late.
Pictured Rocks to Munising to Ishpeming. We leave my car at the hotel and take his beige Lincoln Continental. I brush aside mechanic detritus and settle into the grimy leather seat.
“I never spend more than four hundred dollars on a car!” he proclaims. Several similar models, which he mines for parts, populate his front yard. “As long as you move them around every once in a while, the city can’t make you get rid of them!”
Grant has the IQ of Darwin, while also being a prime candidate for the Darwin awards, which honors those who die in the stupidest ways. His cigarette bobs up and down on his lower lip as he barrels from one topic of conversation to the next. He recently purchased a hundred acres in the same area as my parents, our brother Billy, and myself. His trail cam has captured elk and a seven-foot, five-hundred pound bear. He has big plans for his vast property. His future house will be mostly subterranean, built into one of the high ridges. He will hang huge speakers on trees and blast elk bugles across I-75 in hopes of luring more of the beasts onto his land. He will put up a billboard slamming his employer, one of the big Detroit auto companies, and then make them pay him to take it down. He shares his life with five chihuahuas. He works as a master mechanic. He subsists on a diet of Red Bull and organic chocolate milk. He scrapes his teeth clean with a razor blade. He was born on Valentine’s Day. He is thirty-nine years old.
His exuberant shriek haunts my memory. His favorite television show was the Weather Channel. Blazing brown eyes and a Koolaid mustache that reached up to his eyes. Life was a constant source of wonder.
His voice is deeper and quieter now, but still filled with exclamation. “If you see a dead porcupine on the road, call the local tribes! They’ll pay you up to four hundred dollars! Did you know that scavengers always go for the anus first?!”
Our conversation trajectories are as much of a surprise as the roads we meander. The comical sexual exploits of his coworkers, obscure economic theories, the origin of new slang of which I’m ignorant. All of it is interspersed with random, but relevant, lines from offbeat movies. Little is said about our childhood. He remembers the policemen talking to our mother on that night. He remembers nothing of the road trip around the U.P. that we took soon after. As soon as school let out, my grandparents loaded us up in their vans and ferried us across the Mackinac Bridge. To safety.
We follow Highway 28 across the Upper Peninsula. For hours, we see nothing but the woods, gray sky, and road signs advertising homemade pasties, which Grandma says are tasteless, doughy meat pies that are not all they’re cracked up to be. I ride in Grandpa’s work van with Billy, Grant, and the dogs. The radio is tuned to an AM talk radio station, because it’s the only one that comes in. The weatherman announces that there’s no end in sight to the abnormally wet and cold weather.
Grandpa blows his last lungful of smoke out the window and stubs out his cigarette. “Cold weather keeps the black flies away.”
Billy sits on a large toolbox and reads a Popular Mechanics magazine. He hunches over the magazine and gnaws on his fingernails. He seems unaffected by the problems with our father, except that now he gnaws until his cuticles bleed.
Grant sits on my lap in the passenger seat and stares out the window. Slow motion blink of his big brown eyes. He mimics Grandpa. A deliberate slouch, a thoughtful nod. He takes phantom sips of coffee from his identical cup. Every day that he’s around Grandpa, he regains more of his enthusiasm. Joy replaces the caution that has crept into his voice.
My throat tightens. Please let him go back to how he was before. He is three years old. Maybe there’s time to erase all of the bad stuff.
Cruncher and Bigfoot lie at the very back of the van, next to the box that holds the air mattress that Grandpa and Grandma sleep on at night. The smell of wet dog and wood shavings fills the van.
I take the road map out of the glove compartment and secure the seat belt around Grant. I move to the back of the van, spread the map out on the floor, and trace my finger along the thin red lines that crisscross the U.P. Munising, Marquette, Iron Mountain, Ontonagon, Escanaba, Copper Harbor. Unknown places with unknown people. So many places to start over.
Grandpa glances over his shoulder. “Would you like to go everywhere?”
I can only stare at him.
“I can’t promise you that we’ll go everywhere this time, but we’ll see as many places as we can.” He winks at me.
I clutch the map and allow myself a smile.
I place my hand on the road atlas that sits between us. I haven’t gone everywhere, but close enough. My days of running away are over.
My mother says that Grant and I were the most affected. We closed ourselves off, lashed out. Turned our backs on the world, our middle fingers raised in defiance.
Our itinerary is different than the one we followed so many years ago, but no less mesmerizing. Tannin-tinted waterfalls. Mt. Arvon, Michigan’s highest point.
At Marquette, we encounter Lake Superior surfers. It is said that the best waves are in the deepest winter, beyond the ice that gathers at the shore. Crazy Yoopers.
Down old logging roads, deep grooves in soft dirt. The car bottoms out. The undercarriage scrapes the ground and then springs back up. Grant whips the car to the side as a trio of slick SUVs pass by, headed in the opposite direction. Faces turn to stare, heads shake. Grant and I look at each other and laugh. I’d so rather be us than them.
Silence falls between us.
“You never listen to the radio?”
“They play the same crap they’ve been playing for thirty years!” His lips pull tight for a quick drag. The cigarette snaps to rigid attention. He twists his mouth to exhale out the window. “I prefer to listen to my thoughts.”
Journey. Led Zeppelin. And, of course, the obligatory Bob Seger and Ted Nugent. It’s been decades since I’ve heard most of what floats over these airwaves. It was already classic when I was young. Shouldn’t more music have been added to the playlist over the years? Music from the eighties and nineties. What’s popular in America these days? I stare out the window. I don’t know who anyone is anymore. I lean my head against the cool glass. And I don’t care. An endless parade of forest fills my vision. Autumn’s first tinge graces the treetops. I’m not sure I know who I am anymore. But I’m getting there.
I flip through the atlas. Grant enjoys driving backroads for hours. Just to see where they lead. There is no such thing as nowhere. Before I left America, I would do the same on my solitary days off. In Michigan, Southern California, and Arizona. There was always a folded map by my side, such a perfect companion. Endlessly captivating, never judgmental.
I place the atlas on my lap and swallow hard. “Do you ever feel like you’re not one of them? I mean, not part of humanity?”
“Oh, God, yes! They did a study and discovered that two-thirds of people have no internal dialogue whatsoever! They call them NPCs, non-playable characters. Like in video games. They’re just running on a program with no self-reflection at all!”
I roll my eyes. “And no one wants to deal with the least bit of emotional discomfort. It’s character-building to have hardship, loss. It’s part of life.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “Reminds me of that scene in Star Trek V, the one where they search for God. The Vulcan takes McCoy’s and Spock’s past trauma away, but Captain Kirk refuses. ‘Pain is what makes us who we are!’ he says. ‘I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!’”
I smile. Confronting trauma and regret is not for the faint-hearted. And there are some things you just never get over.
Grandpa died just days before my high school graduation. That long drive home from the Cleveland Clinic. How were we going to tell Grant? He was waiting at the door with a new card he had made for Grandpa. He was seven years old. We didn’t have to say it. He could see it on our faces. His hands crumpled the card. A hard sheen of rage snuffed out the soft ray of hope in his eyes.
A letter tucked into a casket:
Grandpa was very sick. I missed him very very much. He was very nice to me. He was a very good person. This was written by Mr. Grant W. Douglas II. God please give this to Grandpa when he’s with you. Please God. I’m sorry I said I hate you.
Dad went crazy. Grandpa died. I took off for California. My visits home may have caused more pain than happiness. The distant echo of his voice still tears through my heart. The serrated edge of rage. Please don’t go! Why do you always have to leave?
Why did I? My mother insists that they respected me for it. They were not my responsibility. Such a fine line between helping and allowing others to take responsibility. I sigh through the knot in my throat. It would have been worse if I had stayed. The alcohol and pills and other drugs I took to cope. The harassment from my peers which had started to involve my family. My departure certainly saved us from yet another tragedy. All I can do is cherish the time we have left together. Cherish the nows that remain. This is why I came home.
We emerge from the forest. The mouth of the Huron River gapes. Murky, sluggish, it bleeds into the lake, which now slumbers. A mirror-like sheen glimmers in the diffuse sunlight. Two campers sit side by side on the beach. Not a sound emanates from either.
We stare across the river, the border of the mysterious Huron Mountain Club. Grant breaks the silence. “Next time I want to pan for gold! Bring a kayak and go along the shore! Most of the time you’re escorted away, but sometimes people get invited inside! Or I can just parachute into one of the lakes! They don’t own bodies of water!”
“What would you do there?”
“Fish, probably. I’ve heard that there still might be grayling in the lakes!”
Back in the car, we creep along the perimeter of the Huron Mountain Club. Established by wealthy industrialists in the 1800s, there are only fifty members who are allowed to own cabins. The members are notoriously secretive. They refuse to speak to the press. The land has become one of largest tracts of primeval forest in the Great Lakes region. The only outsiders who are allowed in are seasonal workers and researchers. The focus has long since changed from hunting to conservation. The lakes and rivers and forests are absolutely pristine.
Henry Ford was famously denied membership until he bought adjacent land and stopped a highway from being built through it. This highway, Blind M-35, is the focus of Grant’s attention. We drive as far as we can and then park. I note the fresh ATV tracks in the sand. I tense up. This is the heart of moose country, but I’m more wary of humans than animals. We are unarmed. My heart begins to pound. Grant’s fixation is no different from my infatuation with forbidden places: North Korea, Transnistria, Belarus. One sure way to get us to go somewhere is to tell us we shouldn’t.
The silence is so thick that it muffles our words. The forest becomes sparser, otherworldly. Spongy moss underfoot. Fluorescent orange lichen is splattered on the slender tree trunks. Around the next curve, over the next hill. But the only thing up ahead is more sandy road. We have no choice but to turn around and head back.
I walk along the lakeshore, collecting pretty pebbles. Agates have distinctive bands and glow when the sun is low on the horizon. But there is no sun today. Gentle waves seep through the pebbled shore and recede. A merry tinkle. Water chimes. The lake ascends into mist. Somewhere, a foghorn blows. The lonely toll of lighthouse bells. The numbness that has imprisoned me since Dad’s breakdown ebbs away. Tendrils of fog reach out and enfold me, obscuring the world. Something special is happening. Something only for me. My breath catches in my throat. I bow my head. I am so safe here, alone. The fog drifts into the forest, a procession of phantoms carrying my fear away.
At Big Bay, I walk along the driftwood-strewn beach, stepping over the contorted tree carcasses. The power of the lake surges through me. Messages are churned up from the depths, transported in the waves, and hurled upon the shore. What would I say to that skinny little girl with the freckles and braces and shoulders slumped with so much burden? So many things. Do the best you can with the choices you make, some of which you will regret. Others will fill you with wonder. There will be help from that which runs the show. Life will both annihilate you and take your breath away. One day you will stand on this shore again, a survivor of so many apocalypses. Every atom of your being will be younger than ever.
And you, beautiful girl, what do you wish to tell me?
Please don’t forget me.
Grant watches me from afar. With a look exchanged, we head for the car. So much said in things unsaid.
It’s not possible to have certain epiphanies before middle age. It is a point of no return. We can crow all we want about how we’re never too old to do whatever we wish to do, but choices narrow. Minds and bodies degrade. But it’s never too late to open our hearts and reclaim our souls. To face our demons and learn from them.
The driver’s side door slams, jolting me out of my reverie. I glance in the sun visor mirror and cringe. It will take me forever to comb the knots out of my hair.
Grant lights a cigarette and starts the car. “Hey, you wanna take logging roads back to Marquette? I’m pretty sure it’s possible. Worse case, we turn around.”
I smile and settle into the seat. “Absolutely. The only roads worth taking are those unknown.”