Have you ever wanted to live in the wilderness, in the woods, along the shore of a distant lake? Have you ever dreamed of chopping wood, building your own small house, raising babies among trees and deer and flying squirrel?
Have you desired to let go of the busy rat race of the city, pack your belongings and point the GPS of your soul to the Great White North?
Back in the “old” days of the late 1970’s, two young newlyweds in East Lansing, Michigan, had just graduated from Michigan State University’s journalism program.
They lived in a house doomed to be bulldozed for future development across the busy highway from a bustling mall. The bathroom floor had already determined its demise and sank into the earth. The wife took a temporary job as a secretary to a psychologist, and the husband painted cars in the garage.
Yet, they dreamed of moving to the Great White North. The wilderness of the soul. They knew–yes, they knew–that Life pointed north, and that the busy downstate Michigan life of psychologists and auto painters would soon be a distant memory.
Instead they would live as pioneers, carving a small cabin from a clearing between maple and poplar trees. They would soak cloth diapers in a white plastic pail. They would bathe in icy lakes. They would build crackling campfires and roast s’mores until the end of their days, oozing marshmallow and Hershey chocolate delights.
Ahhh, the dreams of youth! (You’ve dreamed a few of these dreams, as well, haven’t you? I can see it in the way you sigh and suddenly long for that lost innocence of knowing the world was your oyster–or polar bear–and you could do anything, anything, yes, anything!)
The young couple in the throes of college graduation–yes, I will now admit they were Kathy and Barry–wrangled about where to settle their northern bones.
First, you must understand more about the state of Michigan, upon which their feet trod. The bottom third of the Pleasant Peninsula (State motto: If ye seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you) consists of cities and farmlands. Your population has settled here, placing plows against the earth and planting beans and sugar beets. In the 1920’s, southerners set their inner GPS for the north and moved to towns like Detroit and Flint, working long hours at the Ford and Chrysler and Chevy plants.
Barry’s grandpa drove his young wife up from the hills of Tennessee, Cades Cove, to be exact, and found work in Henry Ford’s emporium. Michigan overflowed with folks assured of good work, a decent wage. It was a good time for the Mitten State.
Let’s return to geography. The second third of Michigan (we’re moving up now, folks) is known as “Up North” to those from the first third. People who have made a decent living in the southern cities of the state buy cottages in the upper half of the lower mitten (don’t get confused now), near towns like Traverse City and Kalkaska and Gaylord and Grayling and Charlevoix.
Barry’s folks had a place in Houghton Lake where our young hero had already ruined his knees using them as shock absorbers on snowmobiles, and my family swam in the warm waters of Intermediate Lake, near Bellaire. We paddled to disappearing islands where once a dance hall rose in the middle of the lake. We skied in the winter–except for our heroine, who whizzed down the Shanty Creek slope at top speeds and toppled into a fence at the bottom, and never set foot on another ski hill until another disaster later in life, which will perhaps one day be reported, if you insist. My brothers rescued a Catholic priest whose boat was sinking. (Fate then determined they would marry Catholic girls and convert from their good Presbyterian upbringing.)
But I prevaricate. I am still trying to point further north in Michigan, above “Up North”. That is the Upper Peninsula, more fondly referred to as the U.P. or the Yoop. This peninsula is accessed by the Mackinac Bridge, and then meanders at least five or six hours to the west. It rests above the Great State of Wisconsin, and many folks here furrow their eyebrows and think they shouldn’t be Michiganders at all. Yoopers live here, and they are mythological hardy folk, raised on porcupine and bear, or so downstaters sometimes scoff.
Barry and I tossed a coin. Would we move to Alaska or the U.P.? Alaska or the U.P.? Alaska was our first choice, but, gosh, darn, it was so far from our families. It was a little too far, wasn’t it? Couldn’t we eat our muskrat in the Upper Peninsula, please, Barry?
So Kathy headed for the Michigan State University Journalism board to look for job opportunities in the U.P. (She was also very tired of smelling auto paint in her falling-down house across from the mall. Barry disagrees with Kathy’s assessment. He thinks it was a fine house! It is an area of dissension in their marriage.)
And–sure enough–a journalism job existed in the Upper Peninsula! In a town called L’Anse. A newspaper called the L’Anse Sentinel was looking for a reporter. Hurray! The young journalism graduates shivered in anticipation. They agreed that Barry would interview the job and Kathy would, by golly, find something else. Yes, she would, because life always has a million opportunities, doesn’t it? Even in the woods?
Interjection! Interjection! Kathy, you forgot to tell something important. About the trip around Lake Superior the previous year. You know, when you loaded Barry’s Honda motorcycle in the back of your pickup truck, and did the “circle tour” around the lake. You have to tell your readers these things. You can’t let them assume you’ve made the move without viewing the “wilderness” to which you are moving.
Another interjection! You have to go back even further, you delinquent story-teller. Go back to age twelve, when your parents loaded you and your brothers in the back seat of the your eternal station wagon and drove to the Upper Peninsula. You can’t forget that fateful trip.
That’s when you stayed in an A-frame cabin in Mass City, the cabin of one of your parent’s friends (they call them cabins in the U.P., not cottages). It was about 90 degrees and the cabin featured no indoor plumbing and you slapped fierce biting mosquitos the size of bats and swarms of black flies taller than Paul Bunyan and you prayed to God–I swear this part is true- “Dear God, get me out of this Godforsaken Place.”
God has a sense of humor, I swear.
When we were trying to figure out whether to move to Alaska or the U.P., God was grinning. He remembered the prayer.
“Yep,” He said, “that’s where she’s going to spend the rest of her living days!”
**Even though you maybe didn’t realize it, you are in the middle of reading Kathy’s memories of her early days in the U.P. You are hearing about why and how she ended up in her little house in the Big Woods on the shores of Lake Superior. You are going to hear about their attempt to leave the U.P. and their flight from a Southern-Mafia-type boss in Texas. You’re going to hear about their half-coyote dog. You’re probably going to even here about how the God-forsaken place became…well, I can’t tell everything in this paragraph. More to come, as they say. (Although when the next segment of her memoir appears in blogging print is still up for grabs. It may come tomorrow or, gosh darn, she may forget she promised to tell you more and write about other topics such as taxes, health care or snow.)**