Lake Manistee, where I wanted to be. (Photo by Thomas Harvey)
Though we may have balked a bit a first
because we didn't want to miss out on lake time
my sister, brother and I would turn ecstatic
once we got to our side-trip destinations.
Still, I was in two minds about our side trips—always the same ones, one to Traverse City, and the other to the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes—since both involved a lengthy are-we-there-yet car ride that took up precious early morning and late afternoon time at Lake Manistee, where I could have been fishing or swimming or enjoying the woods or running around trying to find my backwoods idol and Buckeye Rustic Resort owner Morris Butcher. But once we got to our destinations, my sister Darla and I (and later our little brother Jim, when he grew old enough to join the fun) would turn suddenly ecstatic. These excursions generally came about mid-week, one after the other. In Traverse City, we usually lunched at a sandwich shop of my thrifty father and even thriftier grandfather’s choosing. But for the dunes, my mother and grandmother would get up early and pack a picnic, which never lacked a large supply of pressed ham and cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread liberally slathered with delicious butter, potato chips, potato salad, a thermos of coffee and another of Kool-Aid (grape, if I had anything to say about it) and some homemade cookies (usually peanut butter or chocolate chip).
Traverse City wasn't more than 17,000 people, but seemed like a big exotic
port city to us.
Traverse City took
its name from the eighteenth-century French trappers and explorers who called
the long voyage across the mouth of the huge bay on which the city would later
be built “la grande traverse” (the long
crossing). The first settlers in the area, then, referred to the body of
water—separated by a peninsula from the vast freshwater sea of Lake Michigan—as
Grand Traverse Bay. And the village that they would erect on its shores in the mid-nineteenth
century would eventually be known as Grand Traverse City, later shortened
simply to Traverse City.
It began, humbly
enough, as the enterprise of a ship’s captain from Illinois named Boardman, who
bought land at the mouth of a river where it flowed into the western branch of
the bay and founded a sawmill there, obviously with the idea of shipping lumber
on the great lakes. He gave his surname to the river on which settlers were to
build their homes, attracted by the sawmill and the excellent surrounding land.
Besides being the cherry capital, the area has long had abundant other farming
and is a major Midwestern vineyard region as well.
For us, it was just a
pleasant outing, walking around the city, buying tiny souvenirs, saltwater
taffy and baskets of shiny red and scrumptious black cherries—some of which we
were allowed to eat as we walked (“but not too many, because they’ll make your
belly ache”), and the rest of which were saved for making pies back at the
cabin. We gaped at the stunning views of the bay, with its turquoise strip of
water in the shallows along the shore that sharply contrasted with the navy
blue of the sudden drop-off.
Back when we used to
go there, it wasn’t yet a Federal park, nor was it yet the huge natural tourist
attraction it is today—even more so after being declared Good Morning America’s
2011 pick as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” It was never crowded, but
there were always people there who knew the area and never missed a chance to
go and enjoy a day of climbing and the magnificent views to which you were
treated once you reached the summit. Back then too, you could still make out
the bear where she slept under a grassy knoll overlooking Lake Michigan (a
landmark that, so I’m told, has since eroded to almost unrecognizable remnants
of the natural effigy). The “infrastructure” was pretty much limited to a
parking lot and a wooden building where souvenirs were sold. Everything else
was the incredible natural beauty of the dunes towering more than
400 feet above us and
inviting us to explore them.
Grand Traverse Bay. (Photo by Joel Dinda)
Traverse City coastline, seen from the Bay.
Captain Boardman would later sell his sawmill to the progressive partners of Hannah, Lay and Company. The firm invested strongly in the lumber operation and it was around and fueled by that business, in the 1850s, that Traverse City began to grow.
The city grew from humble origin on the
Drop-off! That word on my father’s lips had a mesmerizing effect on me. When you swam in a place like that, he warned, you wanted to swim parallel and stick close to the shoreline, in the “green” waters, because it got deep “right now” at the drop-off. The sound of the word conjured up images of lost ships and deep-sea monsters, of dark places the sun couldn’t penetrate and of hidden whirlpools that would suck you down to unknown depths from which there was no return. As I got a little older, I sometimes imagined mermaids with the dark, pretty faces, flashing eyes, long dark tresses and pierced ears of the “Gypsy” girls I’d seen in the port, saw them take me by the hand and lure me to the drop-off where I would gladly follow them, at the risk of mortal peril, because their beauty was so irresistible. The colors of the water kindled my imagination and filled me with wonder since it was hard to believe that something so Technicolor-beautiful could exist in nature.
Thirty years afterward I would wonder if Grand Traverse Bay had ever really been as spectacular as it had looked to me as a small boy. Probably not, I figured, because nothing is as big, as awesome, as indescribably wonderful when we grow older as it was back then, is it? But on going there on a whim when I was already past forty, I proved myself wrong. The contrasting turquoise and navy blue waters of Grand Traverse seemed just as incredible then as when I was nine or ten. I couldn’t help thinking it must surely be one of the most beautiful bays in the world.
Aboard "The City of Petosky": Reba Mae, Grandma Alice, Whitie,
Darla and Danny.
Only once did we vary from the dual-destination Traverse City/Sand Dunes side trip and go on a different kind of adventure: a Mackinac Island ferry boat voyage on Lake Huron. The great Mackinac Bridge—the world’s third longest suspension bridge, which today links Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas—was still on lead engineer David B. Steinman’s drawing board at the time, so ferries were the only way to get across the Straits of Mackinac between the non-contiguous peninsulas, if you didn’t want to drive all the way around. So a fleet of nine ferries was constructed with a total capacity of nine thousand vehicles per day, which signified major progress in northern Michigan land communications. But we just went for the ride.
The lake journey was part of one of our earliest Michigan trips. I must have been three or four at most. But I still recall the strange, scary sensation of our driving the cars on board the boat, and then the exhilaration of standing on the nodding deck, the breeze in our hair, the sky so blue and clear and the spray of the waves misting our faces. I also recall an old man with very long, very white and carefully parted and combed hair and a face like a leather mask, who held aloft pieces of bread in his gnarly fingers for the lake gulls that, amid their excited screeching, would swoop down and deftly snatch the offered treat from the man’s hand. It was a beautiful day and it remains in my memory as a real adventure, as exciting as any trans-Atlantic voyage.
Vintage souvenir postcard from the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
The Sand Dunes. Before the days of the white man, before the times of written history, the Annishnaabeg people told the story of a great forest fire on the sunset side of the great freshwater sea that they called meicigama. It was so intense and extensive that many animals perished. But a mother bear was determined that she and her two cubs would survive. She pushed her cubs into the great waters and the three of them began to swim toward the shore of the rising sun. But the way was long and arduous, and though the mother bear called to her young as she herself struggled to make the great crossing, the exhausted cubs lagged ever further behind.
mother bear arrived on the opposite shore, and there, looked anxiously back
hoping to see her babies right behind her. After a while, she climbed up onto one
of the high bluffs beyond the shoreline, and there settled down to wait and
watch, but her cubs were nowhere to be seen. Still, she waited, never giving up
hope, and finally, she slept, a sleep so deep that nothing could awaken her.
And so, there rose a wind, that gently began to cover her with a blanket of
sand until the land took on her shape and paid homage to her love,
determination and bravery. And witnessing all of this, the Great Spirit paid
tribute also to her cubs, causing two islands to rise from the great waters of meicigama.
Photo by Kerry Kelly.
This was how the region’s Native Americans (dubbed Chippewa by the French) explained the formation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Lake Michigan islands of North and South Manitou, which, since 1970, have formed part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park.
Photo by Kerry Kelly.
You climbed the dunes barefoot, digging in with your toes, the sun-kissed sand scorching the soles of your feet. Dad, Mom, Grandpa and Grandma, my brother, sister and I, all of us, were suddenly children on the dunes, laughing and panting and scrambling as we made the strenuous climb. We kids would always climb to the top two or three times over, just for the pleasure of the descent—a descent that was sheer abandon, since these were mountains of sand unbroken by rocks, or other obstacles, so that getting back down was a simple matter of throwing yourself off of the top and rolling, sliding, tumbling back down to the bottom. But on the last ascent, we would linger in the desert-like dream world of sand and razor-sharp grasses at the top, taking in the awesome landscape below with its peacock blue inland lakes and the huge, horizon-less, deep-blue expanse of meicigama (the big waters).
I never can recall a drive back to Manistee from the Dunes. After such an amazing and exhausting day, we kids always fell fast asleep in the backseat of the car and stayed that way until we once again turned in at the Buckeye Rustic Resort.
The Post-Side-Trip Side Trip. It was after just such a day, when I was, perhaps eight or nine that we arrived back at the resort an hour or so before sundown. I didn’t wake up until Dad pulled the car in next to our cabin. I was sleepy and grumpy and my hair, ears and clothes were full of scratchy sand. I dawdled outside the cabin for a while, dumping sand from my pockets and picking it out of my ears, vaguely depressed that the following day would be our last full one at Lake Manistee.
But just then Morris Butcher pulled up in his dusty, battered Ford station wagon. The tailgate was open and the backend was loaded with garbage cans into which he had been depositing refuse from the different cabins. Seeing me standing there, he took his ever present corncob pipe from his mouth and spontaneously asked, “How’d you like to come with me to the dump and see the deer?”
“Deer?” I asked.
“Yep. That’s where they hang out this time o’ the day.”
I nodded and smiled enthusiastically.
“Well, all right, Danny, then go quick and tell your mom. Tell ‘er we’ll be right back...maybe an hour.”
I started to go, but he stopped me: “But listen up now, son, whatever you do, don’t tell your granddad! Why, hell, if Mairel goes along, the way he runs his mouth, there won’t be a deer for miles around. Scare ‘em off just like he scares all the fish!”
I ran and asked my mother if I could please (please, please, please, please!) go, and since it was Morris I was going with, she finally acquiesced. So off I went, sitting up front with Morris, on the bench seat of his station wagon.
After a short drive on the main dirt road, we turned left onto a much narrower one—more a track than a road and so hidden in the underbrush and forest that you would never have seen the turnoff if you didn’t know where to look. We wended our way back through the birch and pine forest, made magical by the slant of the waning sunlight that filtered through the trees and highlighted this bit or that of foliage while casting the surrounding areas into penumbral gloom. The Ford pitched and jostled over the rutted, unkempt lane, the garbage pails clunking and clanking in the rear, until we finally pulled to a stop beside a large, open garbage tip. The smell of rotting fish heads, innards and other organic debris was overpowering. I held my nose, a gesture that drew a chuckle from Morris. When he’d finished emptying his pails and stowing them back in the station wagon, he took his Missouri Meerschaum from his mouth, tapped the tobacco out of it against his heel and shoved it into the hip pocket of his well-worn dungarees.
“Okay, Danny,” he said, “from here on, we go on foot, and quiet as Indians, okay?”
Morris led and I followed, trying to show just how quiet I could be and attempting to walk, as I’d been assured Indians walked, with one foot placed straight in front of the other. We negotiated a path so faint that I’d never have seen it without this old woodsman as my guide. At one point, Morris turned to me and placed a finger to his lips to indicate complete silence. Then he histrionically shoved his short, thick index finger into his mouth to wet it, held it up, pointed in the direction the wind was blowing and then indicated, with that same finger, the opposite direction. We were going to head upwind, his hand signals were saying.
We hiked briefly along a short ridge. Through the trees, I could see the sunset reflected in an irregularly shaped lagoon, the edges of which meandered in and out of the forest and were lined with dead trees that had rotted at the roots over the course of a hundred flood seasons but remained dramatically upright, colored stark grayish white, like bleached bones. Finally, we came to a kind of blind, crudely erected using tree boughs and brush, that afforded a clear view of the lagoon shore, and there we hunkered down to wait.
Again, Morris touched a finger to his lips and pointed in the direction of the lagoon. As if on cue, a family of white-tailed deer made their cautious way down out of the woods to the edge of the water to drink: first an old stag that stood alert, head raised, sniffing the air and twitching his long, mule-like ears, massive antlers spotlighted in the sun’s last rays. Then with a snort he seemed to let the others know the coast was clear, and along they came too, a younger buck with less elaborate antlers, a young doe and a little fawn. Warily, they waded a few steps into the shallows, stretched their long necks downward and began to drink.
It was a magical moment, an almost religious experience of communion with nature, in which we had faded into the surroundings and were thus privileged to share this intimate day’s-end moment with these stunning creatures. It was a Michigan experience that would remain with me forever, a place to go in my mind whenever all else failed to convince me that life was beautiful.