I had seen it on the map: “Twelvemile Beach.” It sounded beautiful, and I was looking for a good hike out to the water. I started fresh in the morning, though not unreasonably early. There were a few cars at the trailhead and I figured I’d run into others hikers as I went. It took the better part of an hour, and I crossed many forks in the road along the way. Each time there was a little wooden sign pointing the way to the trail I was on, the trail that led to Lake Superior.
The hike was beautiful, serene. There were tiny streams and ponds. Giant boulders shaped by time. Strange plants that belonged in a movie about a foreign world. After a while I could tell I was getting close. Maybe I could hear the water, or smell the change in the air. I don’t remember what it was exactly, only the inarguable feeling of being near the great open water.
I came to a clearing with three small wooden signs. There were four different trails listed on the signs. None of them were the trail I was on, nor were they pointing to anywhere I was trying to go. The path straight ahead was unlabeled, and I briefly considered how far I would be willing to go down an unlabeled path without confirmation I was heading in the right direction. The water felt so close. It couldn’t be that far. I walked forward on the path, and within 25 feet the dirt turned to sand. I pulled my shoes off to get through a steep bit of loose sand, and walked past the trees just beyond it.
And there it was. Lake Superior. She was beautiful.
I looked as far as I could in each direction and could see no one. There were no people, no boats, no buildings. There were no other trailheads, and no footprints in the sand besides my own. With shoes in hand I strolled down the beach, sand coming up between my toes. Just like at the Shipwreck Coast Museum, the water felt dangerous and inviting. The waves were constant and crashing, but just small enough to make you think a quick swim wouldn’t be so bad. I wondered if she’d ever managed to snag any hikers off this trail.
After walking for a while I reached the passable limit. The sandy shore became a rocky one, and the waves crashed up several feet in the air. I took a few pictures and marveled at the water’s power and reach. I turned to walk back, amazed to still see no one. I followed my own footprints, sometimes finding that they’d already been washed away by the waves.
When I reached the trailhead I stopped to take one last look at the empty beach. It’s not easy to find somewhere so beautiful, so easy to get to, yet so void of human influence. On my way back I came upon another solo female hiker stopped at the same confusing set of signs that had flummoxed me. I was about to let her know that she was only a minute from the beach when she made the right decision and passed me by. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had decided to leave at the exact right moment to have my entire beach experience to myself, and to allow her to have the same. Her moment wasn’t to last however, as I watched a group of three German hikers pass by towards the beach only a minute or two later.
Shortly before I got to Michigan my sister insisted I add another song to my Road Trip Playlist. It was Simon & Garfunkle’s “America,” and I have to agree that it’s a great song for driving across the country. I would play it in my car while driving past big open farm fields, and I would hear Paul Simon declare that “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” When I hear that line, I think of Twelvemile Beach and my footprints in the sand. I think of hiking through the woods and fighting off the chill in Sault Ste. Marie and that night I woke up to the sound of some unknown animal snoring just outside my tent back in Interlochen State Park. It felt like I was in Michigan forever, but certainly not for too long. They told me to see the beaches of Northern Michigan, and I believe this is what they meant. They meant the beaches that seem too unreal to believe. When I close my eyes I can still see the water. Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
You don’t have to look at Lake Superior for very long before you realize what it really is: a siren. It’s beautiful. It’s endless. It’s enchanting. It will lure you in and swallow you whole. I guess that’s why they call its southern shore “The Shipwreck Coast.”
On the very end of Whitefish Point and far away from everything and everyone is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The museum grounds include the entire Whitefish Point Light Station, which is still under the control of the Coast Guard. Most of the buildings are no longer needed for official use, and they have been renovated to tell the history of the station and the many shipwrecks that happened nearby. One building is filled with rescue equipment. Another has mannequins and old furniture and is set up to look like the old light house manager’s home.
The actual museum building has artifacts of past wrecks. Some are recreations, some are reminders, and some came straight from the bottom of Lake Superior. The museum’s pride and joy is the recovered bell of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the most recent and largest ship to wreck off this tragic coast.
It was one o’clock in the morning on November 10th, 1975 when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, commanded by Captain Ernest McSorley, first encountered a heavy storm on its way from Superior, Wisconsin. The ship had been sailing within range of another large ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, since 5PM the day before. The two ships battled the storm all night and through the next day, until the Fitzgerald lost her radar. The Anderson tried to get closer to provide guidance to the Fitzgerald, which was now sailing blind. The winds had reached 67 miles per hour, and the waves were as high as 25 feet. The light house at Whitefish Point was down, and the mighty Fitzgerald began to list. At 7:10PM, some 18 hours after the storm had started, the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald asking how she was doing. “We are holding our own,” McSorley reported. Less than ten minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. The ship’s bell was recovered many years later, and brought to the museum as a tribute. The rest of the ship remains on the lake floor along with its entire 29 man crew.
The Whitefish Point Lighthouse is still in operation, and visitors to the museum can get a private tour up to the top for a small extra fee. I was the only person who had purchased at ticket for the 1PM tour. The guide was a man in his late 40s, and I met him at the base of the lighthouse. An older woman stopped us and asked about joining the tour. He told her the number of stairs involved and asked if it sounded like something she could do. She hesitated.
“If you have to think about it you probably shouldn’t do it,” he told her.
He wasn’t joking. The stairs were steep and small and bound up tight in a spiral. They’d be hard to climb no matter how fit you were. As we got close to the top, he warned me not to hit my head on the ledge, explaining that there was a mesh bag of rubber ducks there to catch my eye. I was thinking about the silliness of the ducks when I hit my head sharply on the ledge.
We made it up to the observation deck and my guide explained that visitors aren’t allowed up alone by order of the Coast Guard. He recited the handful of facts he knew about the place and told me to take as many pictures as I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to know about the lighthouse, so I started to ask him questions about his own life. He lives only a few miles away from the station, which makes him 70 miles away from civilization.
“If I wanna buy blue jeans,” he explained, “it’s a two hour drive.”
He told me about a time he got all the way down to St. Ignace to go shopping, only to realize he’d forgotten his wallet. “You learn to make lists,” he said. “You can’t afford to forget anything.”
He only lives near the museum during the summer months, though he’s considering moving there full time. He told me the biggest hurdle was that no one comes to plow the roads near him, so he’d have to invest in his own snow removal equipment. It was, as he put it, “a big commitment.”
In the museum I had seen a huge, beautiful, reflective lamp that was once used in the lighthouse. My guide explained that it had been replaced with a modern one, prompting me to ask if I could see the new light. From the observation level there was a small but steep set of stairs leading up to where the lamp was. My guide told me that we weren’t allowed up there. I nodded with disappointed acceptance. He looked around, first at me, then at the absence of everyone else.
“I bet it’d be okay just to poke your head up,” he told me.
My guess is he’d never had a tour of one before, so it was never possible to let just one person take a look. In my travels I’ve found that being alone grants me a certain amount of trust with everyone I meet, and a strange amount of freedom and opportunity.
I stepped up onto the second staircase, going just far enough to see the light. Compared to the beautiful beast in the museum, it was very small – maybe the size of a watermelon. It was dwarfed by the room it was in, which was built to house a much bigger lamp. It was black and dull and mounted on top of an overly industrial-looking black canister. I remarked on its surprising appearance on my way back down the steps. My guide told me that he’d never actually looked at it himself, and started up the steps to take a peek. We were both amused by the underwhelming nature of the lamp.
Considering the presence of modern navigation on even the smallest vessels, we don’t often think about advances in lighthouse technology. We assume every ship knows where it is by the blinking lights on its dash. What use is there for lighthouses in a world like that?
I suppose on a great sea like Lake Superior, there is still a reason for this very old and undeniable sign of the shore. When the water stretches farther than the eye can see, there’s comfort in finding both your literal and figurative bearings.
Sault Ste Marie was a perfect disappointment. And I mean that as a compliment. It was absolute perfection.
From Sault St Marie all the way to Coeur d’Alene
Angels on the freeway speak to me
Crosses on the road
With names that I don’t know
A million whispers telling me where to go
It was over a decade ago that I was sitting in the grass at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. The band was Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe with the Okemah Prophets. They played a good set, and I liked them enough to walk up to the stage and buy a copy of their live album “Doin’ It For the People.”
But I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
It’s a good album with some great tracks. They do a cover of the “Cocaine Blues” that I prefer to Johnny Cash’s version. It was the album where I first heard “There Stands the Glass,” a terrific country song if ever there was one. But one song stood out more than any other. It’s an original. It has to be, because there is zero record of it anywhere except on this particular album. It’s called “Sault Ste. Marie,” and it’s the only reason I know how to correctly pronounce the name of that town (Soo Saint Marie).
From Galveston Bay all the way to Grand Marais
Highway signs whispering the way
Don’t matter where you’re bound,
They won’t let you turn around
Getting up and falling down right where you lay
The song is also to blame for why I went up to the upper peninsula of Michigan in the first place. It’s true, I had heard that the beaches were lovely. It’s true, I figured I could always go to Chicago another time. But honestly, I had to see Sault Ste. Marie. The song was a regular road trip anthem. And not the sunshine and good times sort of anthem. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the kind of song you play at night. You play it in the rain. You play it when the journey is long and the path is rough. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the song that convinces you to keep going when you’d rather just give up. I had to see the town that would inspire such a song.
And I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
I arrived in Sault Set. Marie in the late afternoon. It was gray and cold and windy. The town is small, but not quaint. It’s a border town, but not the kind that attracts tourists. It’s the kind you imagine to be full of people looking to get out.
I asked the manager at the hotel what there was to see, and he recommended the locks. I spent some time in the locks museum, mostly to get out of the freezing weather. Near the river the wind was strong and bitterly cold – worse than anything I’d felt in months. I waited on the platform with the other tourists for the next big boat to come in. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie allow large ships to move between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, along St. Mary’s River. The boats are big and the locks are small, which means the ships move slow. It was easily an hour between the time we first saw the big ship come around the bend and when it began to lower into the locks. People took pictures. A few girls old enough to know better were giggling over their own photos and the phallic nature of the ship. I watched the flags flapping furiously in the wind. It was mildly interesting. It was terribly dreary.
I’m the last of the true believers
In the past and the fallen leaders
Can’t let go even though I know
I been long since left behind,
Left for dead, and left for blind
Maybe I’ve lost my mind but I do not think so
And that’s why it was perfect. The song “Sault Ste. Marie” reminds me of the underlying sadness of the open road. The road is not a home. The road is not where you intend to be. Even when it’s about the journey and not the destination, the destination is always there in the distance. Sometimes the highway gets long and lonely and endless. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it rains. Sometimes it feels like your whole life has become a never-ending parade of the world’s most dismal gas stations. But that’s when you put on a song like “Sault Ste. Marie,” fling your arms out to the side, and tell yourself, “Yes I am here. Yes I am aching. Yes there are miles to go. Yes, yes, yes. And I will keep going, because at this moment, this sad, sorry town is exactly where I ought to be.”
And I still believe in the sorrow of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
She’s gonna shed her grace on me
NOTE: An additional fact you should know is that Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe are absolute dolls. Because the song isn’t well known, there was nowhere online for me to confirm that I had correctly transcribed the lyrics for this post. I emailed them and they responded the next day with the lyrics AND a couple bonus MP3s of the song, both in studio recordings and a sweet version by Three Dog Night with the London Philharmonic.
I drove up and down Highway 31 for almost an hour before picking a church. There were a lot to choose from, but none of them were jumping out at me. Eventually I turned down the road to Eden Bible Church because I’d never been to anything that called itself a Bible Church. Besides, something about the nearby Church of Christ building made me nervous.
I was greeted at the door of Eden by an older man, the kind of man whose jokes might be offensive if he wasn’t so damn charming. I took my place in a pew and couldn’t help but notice the family sitting behind me: One woman in her 40s or 50s and seven identically dressed boys. The age range of the boys was about six to thirteen, and all of them were wearing lavender dress shirts with dark purple ties.
“Where are the girls?” I asked their mother.
“Didn’t have any,” she said with a shrug and a smile.
An usher handed me a crisp, 9×6 folder made of quality paper. It was their welcome packet, and it was full of information about the church and its activities. There’s an “Over 55” luncheon for seniors the forth Friday of every month, an evening service at 6PM on Sundays, and every Wednesday is Family Night. The back of the worship bulletin had a prayer request for their missionaries, and listed 13 people in 7 countries. My favorite was the L.A.D.I.E.S. F.E.L.L.O.W.S.H.I.P. of Eden Bible Church, which is easily the longest and most obnoxious backronym I’ve ever seen. It stands for: Learning And Doing Inspiring Embracing Supporting Friends Enjoying Love Laughter Of Women (who) Share Hearts In Prayer & praise. It sounds a bit like something I would have come up with during an improv game.
Then of course, there was the Sunday School Program.
“Children are important at Eden Bible Church and their training begins early.”
Reading that line in the welcome packet sent a shiver down my spine,. I’m a Sunday School teacher myself, and I just can’t bring myself to think of teaching as training. Training is what soldiers and athletes do. Education is what you get from teachers. Even so, reading their program guide made me jealous. Eden Bible Church has five Sunday School classes, plus two more for adult education. Their classes start at 9:15AM, almost two hours before the regular service. Kids are split up into groups with no more than a two year age range, just like you might have in a public school. When I was growing up, my church used the one room school house approach to pedagogy, and I consider it an accomplishment that my current congregation has the resources to separate the kids into two age groups. At our church the 12-year-olds aren’t sitting through the same lesson as the toddlers. At Eden, they aren’t even sitting through the same lesson as the 10-year-olds.
After church I met yet another woman with seven boys, though she informed me that six of hers were adopted. I couldn’t help but look for the fathers in both cases, and never managed to find them. Everyone at the church was very kind, very welcoming. After the service they wished me well on my trip, and I continued my drive up through Michigan.
The people of Eden Bible Church fit so neatly into so many stereotypes I would like so much to believe. I can tell myself that their church must offer a simplified, straight-forward message that keeps people coming back, unlike my own denomination whose primary features are the muddy mystery of the divine and a consistently declining population graph. I can pretend that even though they have a much stronger and more established education program, it’s probably more rigid and didactic than my own. I can imagine that my own inclination to remain childless is a much choice than the decision to have seven boys – adopted or not. I can be proud to live in the heart of a modern city, rather than in the pinky of the Michigan mitten.
And in thinking all those things, all I manage to be is the arrogant, liberal stereotype I assume they want me to be. And of course the assumption that they want me to be an arrogant liberal is just another stereotype I have of them. I suppose my training began early, too.
Such is the vicious cycle of The Other. Were I to stay in town for a few more Sundays, maybe catch an adult Sunday School session or crash the potluck lunch, I would probably change my tune. In traveling, I run the constant risk of learning just enough to make myself feel smart, while not discovering how much more there is to know. It makes me second-guess every conclusion I draw. I am constantly asking myself: Was my experience authentic? Do I know enough to draw a conclusion? Will others find my thoughts arrogant? The fear is always there. “You’re wrong,” they’ll say as they shove contradictory evidence back in my face. And I’ll sheepishly back away, because I know that I leaped before I looked. As one of my favorite novels once taught me, it’s easy to jump to the Island of Conclusions, but it’s a long, hard swim back.
Thinking about it now, I wish I would have known about Eden Bible Church’s extensive Sunday School program ahead of time. I could have asked to sit in on a class. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so envious of the program if I had been there. Or maybe I would have coveted their personalized lessons even more. I sometimes wonder if jealousy isn’t at the heart of all pre-judgments. It’s not just about Eden’s philosophy or their language, it’s the fact that they’re doing so well with it. It’s the same with any group or interest. You want the things you love to be successful, because that means you were right to love them in the first place. Sometimes we have to admit that at least for now, what we love doesn’t appeal to everyone. We have to remind ourselves that the success of another doesn’t detract from our own interests and pleasures. It takes constant, conscious thought to cure ourselves of jealousy-based prejudice.
Or, I suppose, it just takes training.
Let’s face it: I don’t have anything insightful to say about sand. I considered skipping this post altogether, but my experience at Sleeping Bear Dunes was a lot of fun and it seemed a shame to say nothing. Perhaps this goes not into the category of “important life changing events” and more into the category of “fun things you ought to try one day.”
The winds off of Lake Michigan have, over many years, created massive sand dunes on the shore. These dunes are so big they seem rather unimpressive at first glance. When you first step out of your car, it’s no different than looking out over any other bluff onto the lovely but expected Michigan scenery. It’s only after you really consider the ground beneath you that it becomes impressive. You are not standing on a cliff that is covered in sand. It’s sand all the way down.
I took a detour to the unfortunately named Inspiration Point before hopping on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. One of the final stops on the scenic drive is the Lake Michigan Bluff, which has an unobstructed sand slope from the top of the bluff all the way to the water. Despite the many stern and clearly posted warnings against it, many visitors felt the need to run all the way to the bottom. I opted not to do so, having paid a lot of attention to the people trying to climb back up. As a casual observer, I would estimate that the distance to the water is at least 200 meters, and the incline stays at a steady 45 degree angle the entire time. People weren’t hiking back up, they were crawling on all fours. Plenty were just sitting down, and I couldn’t tell if they’d wised up and stopped their trek to the bottom, or simply run out of steam on the climb back up. Perhaps I should have asked one of them if it was worth it, though I imagine for many such adventurers pride would have gotten in the way of the truth.
Regardless, there was another dune to climb. This one was park-approved and traveler recommended. I drove over to the creatively named Dune Climb and parked my car at the base. It didn’t seem like much. It was steep, but not unreasonable. It was sandy and hard to walk through, but I gathered that was sort of the point. It was also immediately clear that the whole point of climbing up was the amazingly fun run back down.
I dropped my shoes at the bottom (as was the custom), and started up the dune. It only took a few minutes to get to the top. Or rather, it only took a few minutes to get to the edge that I thought was the top, only to see another 20 minute climb ahead of me in order to get to the actual top. The second half of the dune leveled off for a bit, but there was a lot of distance between me and the small pair of benches at the peak. I carried on, watching the teenage boys race each other to the bottom and seeing the little kids chase after the tumbleweed. There was something a bit surreal and foreign about being surrounded by so much clean, soft sand, yet being no where near a beach.
When I finally reached the top, I took a spot on the open bench. My feet dangled off the end. So much sand had eroded away since the bench was installed, I could barely get up onto the thing at all. I took a deep breath, admired the view, and then took off. There is only one way to get down off the Dune Climb, and that is running at full speed like a 3rd grader. I ran the first third of the way, then switched to a wide, hopping, side-to-side stride. Each step sunk deep into the sand and sent me further forward. My limbs were flailing in every direction and I would have felt self-conscious had it not been so ridiculously fun. It helped that I wasn’t even close to having the silliest stride on the dune.
When the sand leveled off in the middle I slowed back to a walk in order to catch my breath. There was one more run to go. It was the short but steep stretch I first saw before I realized how big the Dune Climb really was. I briefly considered flinging myself off the side and rolling all the way down on my belly. If I wasn’t so averse to having sand in my clothes, or if I knew I’d have quick access to a shower and changing room, I probably would have done it. Instead I opted for another full speed run, turning around just in time to see a dozen other people running along side me.
In conclusion, sand is fun. That is my big, insightful take away on this one. I went to a place with a lot of sand and I ran around and it was fun. I got to be a little kid for awhile, and I got to watch a bunch of other tourists do the same. I can see why the Dune Climb comes so highly recommended. It turns you into a child. Few and far between are the places you can arrive at by car and end up going back in time.