I can’t remember my first trip to Mackinac Island. I only know that it seemed to be a semi-regular thing when I was very little, for the four of us, my parents and brother and I, to go there, spend some time in town, maybe visit a landmark such as Arch Rock, and then head back home. I was too little to truly appreciate the visits and as time went on they became fewer since the rest of my family came to view the place as little more than a tourist trap. With the first impression that sticking to town might give, they could have been right. I was too little to understand the concept of a tourist trap, however, and even though I didn’t appreciate the entirety of the island as I do now, I was openminded enough to appreciate the little bit of it that I did understand.
The one thing that made a lasting impression on my child’s mind was the Haunted Theater. At first glance this would seem to be the ultimate in a tourist-trap location, but recall how young I was when I became acquainted with it. I didn’t see silly wax sculptures and monsters. I saw bizarre creatures and scenery that, seeing how transient and fluid my memory was, shifted and contorted as the years passed; I could swear that I had seen something in particular, yet successive visits would prove me wrong, it wasn’t there, or it wasn’t quite as I’d recalled it. This just added to the mystery of the place. Hadn’t there been some sort of upside-down room…? There wasn’t the next time I went. I could have sworn there was a monster in a steaming cauldron, but no, he wasn’t there. A few things remained as I’d recalled them, though. Here was Angelique, the hideous woman at her mirror. Here was the green Geebee stooping over his victim, the weird half-human monster perched atop Arch Rock, and the ghastly, glowing-eyed Mitchi Manitou. The display that left the greatest impression was the menacing Ocryx with his wolf’s head and giant wings, conjuring up monsters from bottomless Devil’s Lake. He was the one, the sign beside the glass read, who was responsible for making all these displays possible. I didn’t pay much attention to the signs describing all these beings. I just knew they held me in awe. Year after year I would visit the island, just to see them.
The years went by; my family forgot about the island, but I came to enjoy going there in the summer. I began to pay more attention not just to the town but to my surroundings. Firstly I paid more attention to the displays in the theater, and discovered that at least a few were based on local native mythology–I could not find any mention of Ocryx in the stories, but Mitchi Manitou and the Geebee were familiar. I began to make up my own stories about these beings, before I had even learned much about them or their culture. I also ventured out of the town to look at the landmarks a bit more. Arch Rock, Skull Cave, Sugar Loaf, and Devil’s Kitchen were familiar to me. As time passed, however, I explored further, finding Crack-in-the-Island, Cave of the Woods, even the out-of-the-way Eagle Point Cave and Friendship’s Altar (though those were not to come until many years after childhood had passed). And I learned about landmarks that no longer existed, such as the Fairy Arch and Scott’s Cave and the Giant’s Stairway. Between my visits to the island, I had created my own “fantasy” island in my head, its layout and natural landmarks virtually identical to the real Mackinac Island, but populated by monsters and creatures inspired by those I’d seen in the Haunted Theater and had read about in the local lore. I began to write stories. What’s more, I began to really learn. The Ojibwa were the people who had believed in Mitchi Manitou and the Geebees, I found. I looked for books on them and their beliefs and culture, found a few, started reading. That was around 2003. Almost seven years later, my collection of books about not only the Ojibwa and the island but related and neighboring tribes and Michigan’s early history and geology in general has grown to over three hundred volumes, and I’m still collecting and seeking things out. My bookshelves are long since out of room. It seems I’ll never get tired either of these stories or of the island that inspired them.
These days, I wish I had been perceptive enough, when little, to truly appreciate the trips we took back then, though it’s to be understood why I didn’t, I was just a little girl fascinated by the scary monsters. Rock formations and caves and whatnot didn’t inspire me. I wasn’t interested in Indians and their stories. I was barely even a writer yet. Times and attitudes change. All I can do is savor what I know and am learning about the island and its lore now, on my yearly summer visits when I walk for hours along woodland paths looking at sea stacks and limestone caves rather than at wax monsters behind glass. Whenever I visit the island, I barely spend any time in town at all–I can’t wait to be off into the woods on my adventure of discovery. What will I see this year, I always wonder? I feel pity for the majority of tourists and visitors who never bother to leave the confines of the town or who, at most, stop by Arch Rock, perhaps, for a photo. I realize it’s their choice not to visit the more out-of-the-way spots–not everyone is into geology and Indian legends, and their loss is my gain, as I have fewer tourists to dodge when I take my own pictures–but what about all the people who might be inspired by such things, if they only knew they even exist? Take a look how very long it took me to notice all that was right around me. I regret that in all my years of school, we never learned one thing about the Ojibwa or local history and nature and lore aside from one brief, perfunctory unit about the logging industry. Think of all the other kids who could have been inspired if they’d known about the things I learned only once I was an adult. How much would I know now if I’d gotten started on all this when I was little?
And not every visitor is going to step into the Haunted Theater, see the wolflike Ocryx and the evil-looking Manitou, and start mulling over what their stories might be. I guess I was just lucky that my imagination worked that way.
I hope to share my further adventures and thoughts on what little I know about the island and its lore and my explorations there in other entries; I just thought a bit of background would be a good place to start. We all have to start somewhere, whether it be in a wax museum or in a blog, after all. If I can inspire just one person the way the island has inspired me, then I’ve done some small good.