It's hard to believe it's been three years since my Indian summer in Petoskey's great northwoods. On the bright side, I feel like I'm finally able to write about it with a disconnected vantage point - which is a long way from where I was last summer; whatever happened in my personal life will never be able to take away from the beauty of my Northern Michigan experience and the special spot in my heart the place holds. This is a piece about Petoskey for a larger piece of writing I'm currently working on:
My college sweetheart awoke me with a gentle kiss on the forehead, the type of kiss when you are in love that makes you feel as safe as you’ll ever be. I stretched my arms and yawned, half-smiling in my content as the daylight broke in through the blinds of the sliding glass door that led out to that wooden deck at the feet of the dark Northern woods behind the house. I curled up in the now expansive comforter, reaching my arm over the vacant impression in the bed where her body had been.
When I finally awoke the woodpecker was already busy at work at the large oak in the backyard, my girlfriend gone to another day’s work at the tourist restaurant in town, and the house quiet in the way that houses in the woods get in the early day – not even a creak in the wooden walls. I nibbled on an English muffin in the lonely breakfast nook, reading about some local hero pictured on the front page of the small-town paper. I scrubbed the dishes left behind by her breakfast with lemon dish soap, feeling like some retired old man or a housewife with the kids gone off to summer camp. The bathroom mirror, fortunately, reminded me that I was still, in fact, a younger man with a lot of life before me – disasters far from my wildest dreams still looming in life, joys unfathomable to a 22 year old man still awaiting. I ran my toothbrush under the faucet and brushed my teeth – the flavors of mint and well water reminding me of the taste of Up North – with renewed enthusiasm for my daily hike.
The driveway winded for a quarter mile through the front woods and heaps of dead autumn leaves, gone unnoticed for years. Out past the neighborhood drive on Hunter’s Ridge, a hilly, country road stretched for miles of wood and farm land, its hilly crescents rising and falling like concrete tidal waves. The gargantuan northern white pines towered above either side of the road– the great red cedar trunks like enormous pillars, and the bows of pine branches up in the air, perching atop the tree like the bald eagle, the king of the northern Michigan woods. Only a sliver of blue sky appeared above the road, the leafy branches above enclosing the road in a canopy. I walked along the edge of the road, feeling the soft, pillowy bedding of pine leaves beneath my feet, the smell of mint and spruce wafting upwards. The great, lonesome hawks floated high above, peering down from a soft blue sky in search of potential prey – chipmunks scurrying across the forest floor, garter snakes peeking out of holes in the earth, field mice hiding beneath the floorboards of hunting shacks. And down the road, in the distance, the trees opened up to reveal the vast lake, water calm and stainless – Walloon Lake in all its pristine Hemingway glory.
Walking down that two-lane country road, Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” tucked underneath my arm, old cabin whiskey in a coffee mug in hand, I looked between the tree trunks for Nick Adams’ ghost, thinking he might be dashing along a trail with his young Indian Pochahontas, or toting his beebee gun at his side, creeping carefully over fallen, rotting tree branches, or laying up against a tree – straw hat draped over his eyes, napping and dreaming of the Last Good Country. You could feel his spirit up there in the great Northern Michigan woods. It was a calming presence. I felt as far away as possible from Detroit and Ann Arbor, the worries of the day left all those miles behind in Southeastern Michigan. Up here, it was as if the industrial revolution had never happened.
At the lake I walked down the wooden boardwalk steps to the rocky beach shore, Petoskey stones hidden in the puzzle of century-old stones and pebbles, and looked out across the lake to the Scots pines watching over the lake on the other side. Small cottages – secluded log cabins and pastel yellow and pink summer homes – stood at the far side of the lake, hidden between the shade of the pines. I picked up a smooth, flattened stone and hurled it side-armed at Waloon’s glossy surface. The stone hit the surface and skipped three times, creating ripples in the steel canvas, before falling to the depths of the lake amongst the murky seaweed and wise old Trout lurking there.
I looked up from the clean black and white pages of my book, tucked a feather in between the pages as a bookmark, and listened to the cicadas buzzing from the trees – the soundtrack of that summer. I took a look at Walloon spread out before me and thought about the previous years, not feeling like college was over at all but that come autumn my best friends and I would be back together at the college house, preparing in the early hours for a football Saturday tailgate. I knew college was over, but I didn’t feel it. I was blissfully unaware of what would happen come autumn. At any rate, it didn’t seem to matter; breathing in that clean, summer air, it felt like the days never changed up there in the north woods.
I brushed an ant off of the hairs of my leg and watched him disappear into the jungle of the blades of grass underneath me. I took a long sip of whiskey out of my coffee mug, a ceramic white mug with the Michigan black bear printed in black across the front, and swallowed hard, feeling the elixir work its magic through my upper chest. I stared into the puddle of rusted brown in the coffee cup, feeling like an old man. The previous year had left me drained. The sweet burn of the whiskey brought back a lot of those memories – not of things I had done but of things I had failed to do, wasted hours and frustrated moments and opportunities forever lost because Time had eaten so much of my life and I would never get it back.
I said my silent goodbyes to Walloon and began the long trek up the country road back. Walloon behind me, Petoskey and Lake Michigan hidden below the horizon a dozen miles ahead of me, the sky suddenly turned a shade of gray that foretold of rain. I climbed up the first crescent on my way home, hastening my pace. Amidst the northern woods, the forgiving North sky above me – it was easy to see why Hemingway had chosen this place to heal his wounds when he returned to America from the great war, his skin tattered and his psyche in ruins. The Mexicans say that the Pacific Ocean has no memory. If the Mexicans ever saw Northern Michigan, I think they might say the same thing about this place. As I looked into the deep woods, darkening even more so as storm clouds billowed overhead, I got the feeling this was a place where you could lose yourself in more ways than one.