As children, my brother and I lived with our parents in a suburb of metro-Detroit. But really, we grew up on the lakes and rivers of northern Michigan. There, our father gave to us the values that come from experiencing first-hand, nature and wildlife. Hiking for hours through the Porcupine Mountains seeing black bears, camping along Grand Traverse Bay, fishing the flood-waters of the Au Sable River. We always stopped for lunch on a sandbar and the evening always ended with a roaring campfire, which my father prided himself on starting with the strike of one match. My father has passed now. And so too have so many other connections to my childhood. But I think of my father most when I am up north. When I sit down into a kayak for a trip down the Crystal River with my own two sons. Or, at an evening’s end, when I try to emulate my father by starting the campfire with just one match. So many camping trips and hikes with him, a singular memory for me now. And the campfires too. All one memory now. That always lead to the glowing white-hot coals somewhere around the quiet and still of midnight. A faint glimpse of the peace my father holds now.
And so it is, now that I’m north of forty myself, I recognize the impact, the imprinting and the permanency of my up north experience and how my character was formed through these experiences. My wife sees it when she and I are together with our sons up north. She teases me when we’re camping. Roughing it for her as a kid was a three-star motel. But she has proven herself a good camper, a happy one even. She watches me setting up our tent, gathering firewood and preparing our camp and comments:
You really are in your element,” she jokes kindly.
And truth be told, she’s right. She has always been right. Which is why we spent our honeymoon where? Up north. Traverse City. October. 1993.
And here we are fifteen years north of that week, spending as much time as we can up north; the last several years in Leelanau and Grand Traverse Bay. Leelanau for me is a place of harbors and history. Orchards and vineyards. Driving M22. The blue-green waters of the Glen lakes. The peacefulness of Port Oneida. And the contrast from one season to the next. It has all been a blessing to our family. A place where we deepen our traditions. At times, a place of healing. At others, a place of discovery. And though my wife and I were born and raised in Michigan, and though we visit up north several weeks each year, throughout the year, we are mindful that we are in fact visitors. Up north – this phrase attempts to categorize, through a geographical reference, an amazingly diverse region. Michigan is my home state. I’m born and bred. And these towns I visit, they are somebody’s home, someone‘s livelihood. There are times and conversations when we have become defensive on their behalf. And my wife has come to promote northern Michigan like no other ad campaign I’ve seen nor heard. And in that sense, we have come to view ourselves as kindly exiles, honorary ambassadors.
Earlier this month, we enjoyed a three-day weekend up north celebrating our fifteenth anniversary after first taking time to share a meal in Traverse City with friends from down-state. Walking in and seeing our friends in one of our favorite restaurants downtown was like showing them our home away from home, like kids showing off their bedrooms to visiting company. They’re great chefs our friends, and though my wife is a great cook herself, she feels the only way we can ever return their generous hospitality is by a meal from Poppycock’s.
We finished our meals, our friends drove on to Bellaire and we drove on to Glen Arbor. The next day we went north on M22 through Port Oneida, the sun poked through the clouds illuminating leaves now cresting in their autumnal colors, then on to Leland where we stopped so my wife could see a shop owner displaying her art. With a fresh coffee for me we were back on the road to Northport. Along Lake Leelanau , I slowed down to absorb the view before driving into town. Later to Omena and more art galleries and then Suttons Bay where we had the nice surprise of Martha’s Café which had opened after the summer season. In town, I bought a book for our youngest son and spoke of the coming weather with the gentlemen behind the counter. And heading south, we stopped at a winery and leaving with two bottles under my arm to share with friends, I drove my bride to Traverse City, where we had spent the first day of our weekend with good friends, where we had spent the first days of our marriage so many years ago and where we would spend our evening for dinner, and I, knowing other days together with her, would be this good.