Monday, July 27, 2009

passing through: Michigan

In the course of my six childhood years in the States (I was here not as an immigrant, but because of my father’s work for the UN), I went to summer camp twice: once at a “private, but what’s unusual about us is that we tolerate children from communists countries” camp near Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (the camp directors had lefty world peace leanings at a time – in the fifties and early sixties – when this wasn’t so fashionable), and a second time at a YMCA camp in New Jersey.

I don’t know what children are singing in camp these days, but in both camps, as in my UN International School, I learned a lot of ditties about harmony and getting along. And the counselors (and teachers) sang these as if they meant it.

Most of the songs are stuck in my memory (as my daughters will attest – they had to listen to them). One sweet song gave the title to this post – passing through... it was such a favorite! A tribute to all the fleeting moments in life which, in the scheme of things, seem trivial. Except that they’re not. Of course, the song said it all in less fussy words.

As we leave Cross Village, the place where my grandparents lived in the years right after the Second World War, I slowly begin to take in the Michigan that is today’s Michigan. The place of cherries and roadside cherry stands…




…the place of coastal tourism (this is in Charlevoix, where we paused for obvious reasons)…


…and the place of great summer camps.

Oh, now I’m running back in time again. Because we’re passing through the part of Michigan where for five consecutive years I had one, then the other daughter go to summer camp. (Interlochen Center for the Arts.)

The place is open and welcoming to the casual visitor and this time Ed and I are nothing more – just visitors. He’s curious about it (though honestly, Ed is curious about the functioning of pretty much anything – from machines to fisheries to corrupt banking systems to art summer camps) and so I show him the bits and pieces that once defined summer for my daughters – the concert auditorium, the lake, the practice huts, the place where uniformed campers congregate for a song (something more sophisticated than passing through).




It’s been ten years since a daughter was left here for a month of arts (and isn’t it nice that there is this place that gives balance to the emphasis on sports at most other camps), but it most certainly feels less remote and dusty. Unlike in Cross Village, this past was my past.

It’s after eight. We still have a short drive to the coast. The ranger station at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park closes at ten. We need a permit to set camp for the night.

Predictably, Ed opts for the backpacking camp sites – the ones that require a hike into the wilderness. Also predictably, these wilderness sites are unclaimed and available (at the same time that the ones clustered around the parking lots are booked solid).

We pay for the permit and set out with our gear along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan.


It’s after 9 and the light is fading. And so is my confidence in our ability to get to the designated area in time – before dark and before the rain comes.


And it is unfortunate that I am right to be worried on both counts. The sky grows dark and the rain comes down. And, to add spice to the mix, the lightening starts just as we are beginning to veer into the forest.

I’m a coward about storms. I knew one might crash down on us this week-end, but Ed went to great lengths to convince me that we would survive and that I would not be burned to a crisp by a bolt striking close by. Indeed, he did a Net search to demonstrate his point: 600 deaths in Wisconsin last year from automobile crashes. 12 deaths in Wisconsin in the last thirteen years from lightening. (And 13 in the last thirteen in Michigan.)

Yes, fine, data on the Net are convincing when you’re studying them on your computer screen in your condo. In the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, they’re random numbers that mean nothing at all. With each crash, I pick up the pace, so that I am running (some would say wildly, frantically), in search of a place where we can pitch a tent.

You wont get hit.
I have a camera, that’s metal. I’m a target!
I’m carrying tent poles, that’s metal. Neither of us is a target.
Last year, I heard….
I told you, you wont get hit.

I didn’t get hit. But the torrents of rain made sure that we would remember the storm. Sleeping in wet clothes is memorable.

But, on the up side, our tent is an ingenious little number that assembles in two minutes flat and stays dry no matter what. Of course, what goes in wet, stays wet. But the sleeping bag is warm, the sound of rain on the tent cover is soothing (just as it was on the roof of my grandparents’ village house in Poland: you can spend a whole night interpreting the comings and goings of rain clouds, basing it on the sound of raindrops on a roof). And, some part of me feels happy that the day ended on a wild note. As if something more had to be added – a calm end to a sentimental search for family would have been too tame, too inconsequential.

Our night at the Dunes is short. We know we have to be up by 6 so that we can hike back to the car and drive up the coast to Leland, where a ferry leaves at 10 (and they don’t wait for no one! – I’m told) most of the days of the week for North Manitou Island.

We’re packed and hiking along the shore by 7. No sign of a storm now. Only the wet sand tells me that heavy rains did pass through here.



We load the gear in the car and head north. It’s a pretty strip of land (the Leelenau Peninsula), but I hardly notice. I’m typing away at my computer, anxious to put something up on Ocean before we board the ferry for North Manitou Island.

The island is currently part of the National Park system. It’s not a large swat of land: maybe 8 miles by 4. What’s unusual about it is that it’s part of the declared American wilderness. I’m told that only 5% of federal lands are wilderness, and half of these are in Alaska. So it’s a rare thing. And a good thing. Because wilderness means that you are permitted to camp anywhere. And there are no motorized vehicles. No commercial enterprises. No pets, no RV’s. Nothing: just you, your tent and nature.

We board the ferry. As the little boat fights the waves of Lake Michigan, I look around me at the mix of passengers. A girl scout group (I’m guessing here).


A dad and his very young son. The dad has been to the island many times but this is a first for the son. The boy is so very shy. But he has plans. He wants to camp near the old cemetery. And swimming: he would like to do that right away. And maybe pick some wild raspberries. If they’re ripe.

I know that the boy is from a split family. I hear it in the way he weaves his mother into the conversation. And I want to pat the dad on the shoulder and say – the boy will be okay. But how do I know. He’s barely six. There’s a huge chunk of life before him.

On the island, we attend a mandatory info session, given by Ranger Hunter.

Three things I care about: your safety, preservation of resources and your fun – he tells us.

The guys loves teaching. You can tell: he wants us to learn.

Here are the rules: camp 300 feet from the shoreline, take out trash, bury your b.m. 6 inches, don’t light fires. I spend the evening and half the night checking for violations. This is federal land. Your land. But it will outlast you. You and I, we’re only passing through.

He reads us a lengthy quote to that effect. I swear, he's choking up on it. Probably from Teddy Roosevelt, Ed whispers.

We pick up our packs and search for a camp site for our two nights here.