Outstretched hands: A missed connection

Leaves crunched beneath my boots as I stepped onto the bike bath. A thin layer of snow outlined my footprints. Wind poured from Lake Michigan, leaving a chilly aftertaste, like drinking ice-water during a blizzard, and frozen waves stood in the bay.

Despite the frost and naked trees, the cold seemed to whisper of hope and joy—almost a flirtation. Christmas was near. A snowflake kissed my wind-chapped cheek, and a Christmas tree, looking almost embarrassed by its cheerfulness, twinkled from a window.

Turning my back on Lake Michigan, I climbed a hill. A man emerged from one of the houses I passed. He walked across the road with a lop-sided gait, and I raised my gloved hand in a semi-wave. He gave me a smile that matched the temperature and flashed a thumbs-up sign then pumped his arms in imitation of my vigorous march. He didn’t speak, but his grin stretched wider. Yet, his face still seemed frozen.

I continued on but something nagged at me. I wondered what had happened to him. A stroke? An accident?

The sidewalk descended, so steep that I had to jog, thrown forward by gravity. Soon I met the man again on the circular road. I strode down the hill, and he slowly ascended. The smile reappeared on his face. This time excitement reached his eyes–perhaps glad to be walking on this wintry day, full of promise for the cheerful season to come.

I blurted out another good morning, but he was still silent. When we were side by side, I looked into his eyes, then glanced away. The moment ended, a connection almost made yet lost in seconds.

Because, too late, I saw his outstretched hand, opened and waiting for my own hand to be placed inside his mitten. I reached out as he passed, my arm stretching to his back while he continued up the hill. But he didn’t notice my action either. The silent, smiling man crested the hill and disappeared.

As I walked back toward Lake Michigan, I hoped he understood that I hadn’t seen his gesture. I thought about other outstretched hands that I had missed during my life.

When I reached the trail, a solitary woman with a dog strolled ahead of me. The dog, stopping often and sniffing, tugged at its leash. A lamppost was particularly irresistible, and impatience wafted from the woman like cheap perfume. Frizzy curls covered her head like a cap, and I said hello, turning to catch her eyes, hoping for a chance at redemption. She mumbled a greeting out of the side of her mouth, her thin lips turned down.

My thoughts returned to the man on the hill with his awkward gait and silent smile. Next time I’ll be ready for the outstretched hand. During this, of all seasons, I’ll be ready.

Leaving Lake Emma

lake_emma_sunset 010We left Lake Emma for the final time as homeowners under a gray sky, swollen with rain. Memories trailed behind us, mingling with falling leaves–a collage of years fused onto amber, pink, and burgundy tree bouquets. Sun pricked through the clouds and illuminated a cluster of yellow leaves, an autumn lantern, lit from within, fragile and temporary.

We arrived at Lake Emma on a similar day almost fifteen years ago, and settled into its rustic ways… Or rather Lake Emma settled into us.

Brilliant fall colors exploded like Vegas showgirls next to their Puritan evergreen cousins. And on that first night, the sun slipped along the horizon as a huge flaming ball, leaving behind pink cloud islands floating in the sky. A soft duskiness draped itself around us and never left, filling us with a quiet peacefulness, the solitude of Michigan’s remote inland lakes.

Through Lake Emma, I learned the seasons of the north woods. Spring brought fiddleheads, crouching low, readying themselves for their summer performance when they sprang into ferns, a musical collaboration with nature. Turkey vultures, like a coven of witches, hunched over roadkill or perched on treetops, observing passersby.

Loons dominated summer nights with their eerie call, and during a paddle up the Ocqueoc River—Lake Emma is its headwaters–clouds of ebony jewelwing damselflies erupted from beneath a cedar. KayakThe moment carved itself into my memory as the jewelwings—every bit as beautiful as their name—fluttered around me, creatures from a fairy tale, ethereal and illusive.

Doubletracks snaked into dark woods, and thick weeds, like sea-serpent tentacles, reached out from Lake E’s murky depths. Bears lumbered across dirt roads, and a bobcat, carrying a rodent, once bounded in front of me as I biked along.

Chalk-fronted corporals—a type of dragonfly–gathered on our sandy driveway by the dozens. They seemed to join me when I jogged, rising up next to me, like combat pilots, and fighting off deerflies—the nemesis of Lake Emma. Lake EmmaWinter occasionally snowed us in, leaving us forgotten by the outside world, and we’d ski along the roads, as if cars had never existed.

It’s the place where I rediscovered Jane Austen, reading Emma, appropriately enough, as the red pines shimmied with the wind and sunlight danced on the knotty pine walls. Lost between pages, only Ms. Austen as company, the day passed and shadows lengthened, keeping me embraced in Lake E’s perfect silence.

I might have left Lake Emma, but it will never leave me.

Places we love, like the people we’ve loved–to borrow from Proverbs 3:3–are bound around our necks, written on the tablets of our hearts. Their presence, even when we aren’t fully aware of it, influence our lives in countless ways.

SunsetKayakLake Emma resides deep inside me—a cloud of ebony jewelwings, forever fused to my soul.

Mountain Biking with a Literary Ghost

While traveling through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—as I am now—my mind often takes a literary bend. Not uncommon for me, but it’s Great Lakes freighters, foreboding Lake Superior, stretching to endless depths, and rugged inhabitants (Yoopers), enduring winter for six months out of the year*, that come to most people’s minds when thinking of the U.P.

MTBYet, while mountain biking this week through the rolling, dense forest and rocky cliffs of Western U.P.’s massive trail systems, I found myself thinking about author Jim Harrison, once a summer resident of Grand Marais. The Woman Lit By Fireflies, his novella, has to be one of my favorite titles of all time, and in another novella, Brown Dog, he perfectly captured an aspect of the Yooper spirit and culture.

Two mystery series by Steve Hamilton and Joseph Heywood also pry their way into my consciousness, a reminder of my to-read list. The remote, semi-wild feel of the U.P. provides the perfect setting for murder and intrigue.

But it’s an older, somewhat forgotten writer, Robert Traver, attorney and author of Anatomy of a Murder, on which the classic film, starring Jimmy Stewart and a very young, sassy Lee Remick, was based, who most often joins me in my mental wanderings.  Although best known for that novel, Mr. Traver was actually a prolific outdoor writer, specializing in fly fishing.

It’s easy in the U.P. to conjure up long-gone authors. Time seems inconsequential, a nuisance best ignored. Quintessential cabins hug remote shorelines, as if they were always part of the landscape, created like the hills by glacial carvings.

And one afternoon, during a ride on those hills, I pedaled along a skinny trail with Carp River’s rapids churning below me. Waterfalls spilled over rocks, merging with the river in a silvery pathway, cutting its way through the earth. I pictured a lone angler, flies decorating his vest, casting next to the river. He murmured a greeting and tipped his cap but otherwise remained silent as sun and shadows flitted across his features.

The trail took me around a corner, swooping across a hill before forcing me to gear down for the next climb, leaving the ghost of Mr. Traver behind until my next visit to the U.P.

 

*During a cross-country ski trip to the U.P. earlier this year, I marveled at two elderly women as they skied, scarf-less, in single digits as a frigid wind slapped against my face. “We grew up here,” they informed me. “We like the cold.”

Cherry Pie and Landscape Quilts: A day of cycling

Beulah, Michigan’s Cherry Hut

I noticed the ad while thumbing through a local travel guide during lunch at Beulah’s Cherry Hut. Pie sat on my fork, waiting to be popped into my mouth. Ice cream melted on the plate in a swirl of plump cherries and creamy vanilla.

State of the Art Framing and Gallery, the ad read, along with a photograph of a quilt unlike anything I’d seen before. Northern Michigan’s forests and lakes exploded from the tiny picture, as if they’d always been created from fabric, needles, and thread. Landscape quilting, it was called, which seemed an understatement.

I had to see these quilts in person.

Time slipped around me, pooling into infinity, completely unimportant on a cloudless summer afternoon with nightfall hours and hours away. Our bikes were propped against a rack outside the Cherry Hut, and State of the Art Framing and Gallery, according to the ad, waited only a few blocks away.

Miles of riding stretched in front of us: a circumnavigation around Platte Lake then back along Lake Michigan to Frankfort, my favorite sort of afternoon—exploring the world by bicycle with stops along the way for cappuccinos, lunch, and cherry pie. The kind of day–without boundaries or agenda, as limitless as Lake Michigan’s sand dunes–that practically screams for a side-trip to a gallery.

A few minutes later, we pedaled down the quiet Beulah streets to the gallery’s simple storefront, but what waited inside belied the deceptive exterior. All the seasons burst from the walls in brilliant and muted colors. Trees, fields, flowers, and lakes came alive. Ann Loveless’s quilts brought the outdoors inside, as if she had the ability to sew nature.

Later, while biking next to Crystal Lake, I compared the blues of the water with Ms. Loveless’s creations. And it occurred to me how beauty and wonder are everywhere, whether watching a dragonfly flit over a pond or admiring the skill of a quilter. All it takes is the slow rhythms of a summer day and the freedom to allow oneself to explore it.

Forget Punxsutawney Phil, I say summer is around the corner…

Pigeon RiverForget Punxsutawney Phil, I say summer is around the corner… or at least in my mind, which seems fixated on warmer days filled with biking, hiking, and splashing in Lake Emma. Blame it on the dreadful weather forecast–rain: a word one never utters in a ski town. So, I’m allowing myself to drift away from the gloomy drizzle, which is turning my ski trails and slopes into mush, and remember a sun-smothered day surrounded by greenery and butterflies, a little like stepping into a children’s book.MTB

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A blue cloud hovered over the mud puddle. It burst apart as my mountain bike bounced, then splashed, through the water. Dozens of butterflies flitted around me. Their delicate wings sliced through the air, so close I imagined a soft caress. I pedaled past them and they rejoined, becoming a cloud once again and settling near the water.

I hesitated, straddling my bike, and turned around. A butterfly fluttered its wings and rose, but the others were still. They appeared as one being, a giant winged creature of a blue so extraordinary it seemed not of this earth.

The moment felt like a gift, as if I had tumbled into a favorite storybook: The Secret Garden mixed with a dash of The Wizard of Oz. Few creatures whisper magic like the butterfly and its winged friends. I had never thought much about these insects until we bought our house in northern Michigan. There, among the red pines and restless wind, they gather like welcome guests, friends returning after the brutality of winter.

SunsetKayakA few years ago, while paddling the headwaters of northeastern Michigan’s Ocqueoc River, I rounded a corner and encountered dozens of green damselflies. My paddle dangled in my fingers, and they descended upon my kayak. I drifted in the narrow river. Their wings vibrated in the sun, and they moved constantly, sensing what I was unable to see.

Last summer zebra-striped dragonflies zipped along while I paddled the Upper Peninsula’s Indian River. At times they crashed into me, their bodies feeling strangely powerful. And on northeastern Michigan’s Black River, butterflies flounced among white pom-pom flowers, the scene so perfect it belonged in a children’s picture book.

These winged creatures are nature’s showstoppers, never failing to entertain. Returning one evening from a hike, my headlamp caught a giant, brown moth gathered on our porch. Attracted to the light splashing from inside, it looked almost prehistoric. Petite pink-and-yellow moths rested nearby.

On another kayak trip, my paddle skimmed over northern Michigan’s Lake Emma. Drops flew in the air, and I noticed a black-and-white dragonfly playing in the spray. It flitted here and there, in and out of the moisture. I paused, captivated by the charm of a dragonfly’s water dance, another opportunity to see how magical, how astonishing the world really is.

McCall Memories: The White Dogs

While riding the Payette Rim/Bear Basin Trail this morning—blue sky, yellow leaves, white birches—my husband Keith and I passed a shepherd, a short, swarthy man, adjusting the saddlebags on one of his horses. We walked our bikes and exchanged solemn greetings. His border collie barked, stopping when the man muttered something only the dog could hear, and sheep wandered nearby in the forest. It reminded of another ride years ago on the same trail but a much different autumn day.

McCallMTB

Five Great Pyrenees, snarling, bounded across Bear Basin toward Keith, who madly pedaled his mountain bike. His legs spun but the dogs closed in, mud streaking their white fur. They sprinted against a canopy of clouds, a silver cloak covering the sky, like a gray background used in a photography studio.

Snow kissed the rounded summits of the mountains surrounding us. My eyes teared from the cold and Keith’s orange bicycle blurred. The frigid October morning bit into my gloved fingers. The largest dog, eyes never straying from Keith, broke away from his four companions. His loping strides took him farther and farther from the sheep the Pyrenees guarded.

The animals milled around, oblivious to danger. Occasionally one bleated as they rammed into each other, but they were mostly silent, following the lead of the four shepherds that stood nearby. Two border collies pranced behind them, and one of the men raised his hand to me in recognition.

We had met earlier in the day as the sheep were being herded down a mountain toward Bear Basin. The Pyrenees, one of the men said, fought wolves, bears, and cougars without hesitation. The shepherds, with their wagons and horses, seemed to have stepped from a Western novel. They watched the Pyrenees without concern, looking almost bored.

All of this unfolded in front of me within minutes, but it seemed much longer. The gray sky stretched endlessly, and the five dogs, still growling, gained on Keith. Fear filled me as I perched on my mountain bike, a few hundred feet behind him. I straddled my bicycle and watched, unable to help.

Quickly, though, wonder replaced fear. The dogs powered forward with raw beauty and strength. I thought about the random timing that had brought us to this moment and how life brims with these chance events.

Apprehension mingled with awe and I hopped on my bike. The dogs slowed and barked, no longer worried that Keith threatened their precious sheep. As quickly as the Pyrenees had approached, they retreated, returning to their duties, and we continued, as if nothing had happened, following the forest road back to town.