Michiganders have a secret that’s not discussed with out-of-staters: There is a mass migration that takes place each summer; city dwellers leaving their homes to find peace in the lakes and woods far away. It happens mostly on weekends, starting near Memorial Day, and lasting through Labor Day. We simply call this, “going north.” But the mundane name belies its nature. There’s a ritual to this movement. Routes and stops stay the same from year to year; from generation to generation. These landmarks take on the nature of a chant, an invocation of mystery–the strange and delightful way that a three-hour drive slowly spreads to five, to six, to eight or more. Stopping, shopping, eating, looking, smellingtastingexperiencing all along the way. Luxuriating in the coolness of the Great Lakes wind on your skin, when compared to the stagnant suburban summer air. It’s brilliant. It’s disorienting. It’s liminal. You don’t have to be anywhere any particular when. Space and time lose rational meaning, and become Birch Run–Zilwaukee Bridge–Pinconning–TurkeyRoostWeissKocher’sAlward’sSnufferme! Morning becomes afternoon, trees become more common as cities shrink away, and finally, finally, you jump out of the car, run down a path by your cabin, and stand to stare at the last rays of light shining on the lake which you, deep in your heart, call home. If you are an impetuous child, you may strip off your shoes and stick your toes in the water, before running back to help bring your pillow in from the car. If you are older, you may stay only a moment, but that moment is a promise that you will return, shortly, for a good wade.
Trips like these were the hallmark of my childhood summers. My family has had a cabin on a lake since the 60s (when my great grandmother married her second husband), and–in memory–we spent most warm-weather vacation weekends there. Usually, we’d drive up on Friday afternoon (sometimes avoiding traffic, sometimes not) and return midday on Sunday. We’d buy groceries, and if there were leftovers we’d just leave them in the fridge for the next weekend. Usually, we’d have at least one longer visit that lasted a week or two. We’d forward our mail, and check the answering machine down home in case anything urgent came up. Those were the best trips, because we could go further north, to Macinac Island, and the Upper Peninsula, in its stony glory.
The cabin is a modest place, which grew up organically from two large chicken coops and some outbuildings. My Nonna decided to call it “Snuferme” as in, “It’s enough for me,” and the name has kind of stuck. There are two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a large central living room wherein the place’s singular source of heat–a woodstove–resides, and a delightful front porch. Most of the light fixtures are old, and look like relics from the early 1900s that were converted to accept electric bulbs. The majority of the remaining decor screams 60s. It’s choc-full of weird memorabilia (like an enormous mounted trout that one of my great uncles caught), smells musty when you first open it, and triggers my allergies something fierce. I love it. Whenever I see the white peak of its roof rising through the trees, I feel my heart surge with joy. There aren’t many places I’d rather be, no matter when I’m there.
That being said… this particular visit was not like the trips of my childhood. I’ve never been to the cabin alone before. I also don’t think I’ve ever arrived there so late at night, or on a Saturday evening. And, well, it’s after Labor Day. Although hunters will be making their own pilgrimages north in a month or so, things are pretty dead right now. School’s back in session, and tourist season is over. No one expects visitors. The roads were practically empty. And the town of Hale–well, I passed not a single car when I drove through. But that might have been because I was there at 11 PM.
Another difference: For the first time I can remember, I didn’t go down to the lake the day I arrived. It felt wrong somehow, to not greet the lake first thing. But it’s astoundingly dark up there at night, and I found myself very nervous–of what I have no idea. Most of the animals in the area–deer, skunks, squirrels–are more likely to run from me than hurt me. In any event, I ended up unpacking my car, and then going to sleep relatively quickly. Unfortunately, because of the bad case of nerves, every little scratching made me wake up and turn on the lights. It was not a good night.
In the morning, I went down and greeted the lake in proper fashion: barefoot. I let the bluegill fry nibble on my toes, and waded around in the shallows for a while. Then I lay on the dock, luxuriating in the feel of the sun on my back, and listened to the birds in the trees, the humming of the cicadas. Then I noticed that lily pads kind of look like Pac Man. And this happened (and by “happened” I mean, I went into full-on nerd mode):
Eventually, I went into town to buy groceries. The local supermarket is called “Kocher’s” and always smells delightfully of freshly made bread and donuts. Normally, it’s pretty busy, even on Sundays. But again, it wasn’t what I was used to. There were maybe 6 other patrons there, and only one cashier. I felt terribly conspicuous. Hale is not a large town, and outsiders are obvious. I’m sure it was all in my head, but I felt like everyone was staring at me, thinking, “Who is that? Doesn’t she know summer people aren’t supposed to be here anymore?” It didn’t help that I was there in my California-plated car. Still, the only person who commented at all was the kid who took my groceries out to my car. I said that I could carry them, and he said, “No, we’re supposed to help everyone. It’s cool.”
My face must have revealed my bewilderment, because he smiled and said, “not used to this, huh?”
“No,” I replied, “not. at. allll.”
He laughed a little. “Yeah, we’re the only place I know of that does this.”
I was both lacking in small bills, and unsure if I was supposed to tip him, so I just thanked him and then went back to the cabin. (I felt kind of bad about that, actually. But what was I supposed to do? Do you tip the person who takes your groceries out to your car if you didn’t ask them to? If you can’t tip someone, is it rude to ask about it?? Where was Miss Manners when I needed her?) I thought about it on the drive back, and still have no answers. However, I dropped it once I got home. I had to sit down and plot my stay.
See, I’ve played for years with the idea of moving to the cabin, and part of going up there alone was to see what that might be like. But I also had an idea for a short film, and I wanted to try making it without interference. Doing that was going to require some serious moving of stuff, before actually filming anything. Our cabin has somehow become a repository for things that people don’t want to use, but can’t stand to give away completely. While it means that there’s a delightful assortment of bedding available, it also means that things are very cluttered. I didn’t want a lot of visual noise in my shots, so I moved all manner of stuff to the back room, and then had to cover some furniture with blakets. (Sun damange + mice = “rustic” furniture… not quite what I was going for. The film is surrealistic, not post-apocalyptic. Although, now that I think of it, this would be a pretty great location to film something like that. Hmm…)
It took most of the day to get things set up for filming, but I still made time to go for a walk that evening. I took a lot of pictures of the trees and lake… and also some ridiculous pictures of myself (apparently) offering reverence to the sun:
Also, I took some long-exposure “ghost” pictures, just because:
Then, because I am a 100% mature grown up woman, I went into town and had ice cream for dinner. Yes, really. The Hale Ice Cream shop has quite the assortment of flavors available, and their waffle cones never leak. And besides, that’s one summer ritual that I could actually cling to. When you’re up north, you must have ice cream for dinner at least once! My favorite combination is half raspberry chip cheesecake, half moose tracks. I thought very briefly about getting Superman ice cream, but then remembered that it’s kind of gross. So Michigan-patriotism feelings aside, I decided to go the personal-nostalgia route and get what I liked.
My second night at the cabin was slightly better than the first. I slept for what felt like longer periods, but I still kept waking up every couple of hours to the sounds of scrabbling. Retrospectively, I think it was animals on the roof, but in the pitch blackness of night, it sure sounded like someone trying to break in. The sound of the wood stove blower
Pretty much the whole of Monday was occupied with filming. I took a break in the late afternoon to go on another walk. Delightfully, there were still some huckleberries on bushes on our back property. I picked and ate a handful, their tart-dry flavor bringing up nostalgia for pancake breakfasts of summers past.
Near the end of the walk, a kid who looked like he was a senior in high school tried to pick me up. A car passed me by, and about two minutes later, the same car came back in the opposite direction, and stopped by me with a window rolled down.
“Miss, are you okay? Do you need a ride?”
“No, I’m fine thanks. I’m just walking back to my parents’ cabin.”
“Oh, so… do you live around here?”
“No. I’m only visiting for a few days. How about you? Do you live nearby?”
“Yeah. I live off of [road]. I just thought I’d make sure you’re okay. It’s getting dark.”
“Thank you. I appreciate the concern. I’ll be fine. I just wanted to take a walk.”
“Oh, okay then. Have a good night!
“Thanks! You too.”
He drove off, and I started giggling. Poor guy. I’m certain he thought I was a lot younger than I am. I almost wanted to say, “Kid, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a decade on you,” but figured that would rude–and also, not nearly as interesting. At least he was polite about the whole thing.
In the evening, I mapped out which scenes I would film the next day. I also went through the “guest book” we keep on a table in the living room. People have been recording notes about their visits in it since the 70s. A lot of it is very dry. “X, Y & Z are up. Half an inch of rain in the gauge. Been fishing and went to St. Vincent De Paul. Going home tomorrow. Had a good trip.” But occasionally there are funny or revealing entries, like one where my cousin is making fun of her dad because she caught more fish than he did. (She was eight.) I started writing longer things about 10 years ago, when I realized that more descriptive entries were more interesting. For example, I found this:
I’d completely forgotten that I’d been working on that novel while I was at the cabin. It also reminded me that I should really revisit that novel. It’s a bit daunting, though, because I’ll pretty much have to rewrite the entire thing. It was a dystopian setting, and the world building was faulty (plus a lot’s happened in the last decade that would affect the world’s origin story). To be fair, I guess it wasn’t too bad for a nineteen year old. It was definitely better than my first novella!
Anyway, I did eventually go to bed. But actual slumber was out of the picture. It was hot–a warm air mass was moving in–but I was worried about leaving the windows open. Since I didn’t want to light a fire, I could hear every tiny little noise the cabin made, and I kept waking up just as I was about to sleep. Finally, around 5AM, I said, “Heck with this, maybe I’ll finish filming tomorrow, and go to the UP today.” Unfortunately, because I hadn’t really slept, driving was really hard, and really scary. I turned around within 20 minutes, and was finally able to get to sleep. The one good thing was that I got to see the stars… and I got to take this picture:
Once I finally got up (around 11) I finished filming. It was 94˚, so it was quite exciting to be wearing long dresses all day. (By which I mean, vaguely disgusting, and very sweaty.) When I was done, I was thrilled to change into my swimsuit, and jump in the lake for a quick swim.
I decided that it was hot enough to justify another ice cream cone. However, when I parked at the shop, I got distracted by a calico cat out back. As I was petting it, the owner came out and offered to let me have the little guy. Unfortunately, I’m not really at a place where I can adopt a pet right now. Otherwise, I’d have taken him in a heartbeat. I explained why I couldn’t take the cat, and we ended up spending 45 minutes or so talking about life. I told the owner about driving out from California (“Are you kidding me? I can’t believe a little shit like you drove all the way out here from there!”), and he told me about moving up here from Missouri in the 60s to take a job at Ford. He ended up retiring about 10 years ago, and bought the ice cream shop as a way to make a little extra money.
The kicker? He totally offered me a job–for next year. Apparently, he only keeps the place open April through October for profit reasons. But he basically said he’s looking for someone reliable to work there, so he can actually take a full day off. I was kind of tempted to take him up on it–can you imagine the stories you’d get, spending the summer you turn 30 working with high schoolers scooping ice cream in a tiny town??–but you know, I don’t live in Michigan anymore, so I said I appreciated it, but probably wouldn’t take him up on it.
Nonetheless, he gave me a cone for free.
After I got back to the cabin, I started moving things back where they belonged. That night, I found a way to prop open a window so that it would be safe and let in a breeze. I slept like a baby.
On Wednesday, I was all set to have a relaxing morning, drinking coffee and enjoying the serenity of the porch before packing up and leaving. Unfortunately, the neighbors were doing something with a backhoe (Hiding bodies? Digging a pond?) so that absolutely did not happen. Instead, I finished moving things back to their proper places, and then drove back down to Chelsea. I regret not seeing my second cousins who live nearby while I was up there, but I just had to have some alone time on this trip. Plus, my Dad had returned home from the oilfields, and I kind of rushed back. Sorry guys! Hopefully the next trip will be a little more normal, and I’ll be able to visit anyone who is around.
All in all, I’d say this was a fun trip, but it was definitely different.