Sleeping Bear Dunes
Saturday, August 22 1998
ome of the bad energy from last night carried over to today. "You're the worst boyfriend I ever had!" Kim exclaimed on one exasperated occasion as I was busy working on catching up on the musings. I didn't want them to be lagging too far behind prior to today's adventure, an excursion to the northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan to experience the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It's a trip that's been on the schedule for weeks. Matt Rogers is the one who conceived of the idea and the plan called for Spunky Lisa to come along as well.
Eventually Kim and I made peace and she blamed her emotional fragility on her period, which came today. As you might recall, she used a tersely-worded email to break up with me almost exactly a month ago to this day.
It wasn't just me who was the target of Kim's crankiness. She was acting as if the whole world was somehow conspiring against her. She especially resented having to take her car on the trip up to Sleeping Bear. So she called up Spunky Lisa and said her car was acting weird and that it makes an annoying howling sound when it's going highway speed. But Lisa has her own problems. She's a notoriously bad driver and has had so many speeding tickets that she can no longer get liability insurance in Michigan. What's more, the plates on her car are actually for an entirely different vehicle. It turns out, though, that she actually does have insurance until early September. So after wrangling for awhile over the phone, Kim and Lisa worked it out so that we would be using Lisa's car but Kim would actually be doing the driving.
Matt and Lisa came over, Sophie the Miniature Schnauzer got a walk, and I wrapped up my internet interests for the weekend. We packed up Lisa's Toyota Camry with all the many things we'd be needing: tents, sleeping bag, extra clothes, bread, cheese, mustard greens, tequila, vino and marijuana (now called "wocka-wocka-wocka" after one of those weird spontaneous Matt Rogers non-English expressions). I had made a special request for tequila, because I look forward to the uncertainty and craziness tequila can bring to an evening.
e set off up US 23 to the north, stopping first in the quaint town of Brighton to drop off Sophie the Dog at a kennel known, believe it or not, as the Pet Ritz. The Pet Ritz is already the temporary home for more than a dozen of Kim's Mother's animals (until her smoke-damaged house is cleaned), so it was a natural place to leave Sophie during our Sleeping Bear vacation. What a strange place, the Pet Ritz. It was set on a farm, complete with a fat little goat in a tidy little pen in the front yard and a little gurgling pond full of frogs just in front of the door. We'd all been smoking pot just before we got there, so it seemed unusually strange and wondrously inexplicable.
Inside, the Pet Ritz smelled strongly of disinfectant and barking dogs could be heard off in the distance. Kim checked in Sophie under the "high care" program. The little Schnauzer would be getting three walks a day and probably veal cutlets and shrimp for dinner. It might have been a wonderful place for a dog to spend a separation from its master, but even so, you should have seen how overjoyed a pair of enormous retriever-type dogs were when their Mommy and Daddy came to pick them up. Spunky Lisa, who is terrified of big dogs, fled outside as they came jumping, smiling, panting and wagging towards her.
On the wall was a sign saying a $4 per day charge would be added to the fee for keeping animals deemed dangerous. Meanwhile a black and white monitor flipped from surveillance camera scene to surveillance camera scene throughout the building.
The set-up was tailor-made to set a neurotic pet owner's mind at ease, and it worked wonders, at least on Kim. After we left, she repeatedly stated that she didn't feel too bad leaving Sophie at a place like that, especially under the "high care program."
In the vicinity of Flint, Michigan, we caught up with I-75 and continued northward. Matt Rogers talked at some length about the rotting industrial wasteland that is Flint. He mentioned the film Roger and Me, a documentary about the floundering of Flint in the aftermath of GM's decision to relocate its factories to other countries. Especially funny in Roger and Me (a movie I once saw on PBS back before they started sucking up to Jesse Helms) is (and Matt reminded me of it) a scene where one of the laid-off auto workers tries to start a rabbit farm at her home in Flint. Too bad we couldn't see any of the industrial decay from the interstate.
I-75 continues up through Saginaw to Bay City on the southernmost end of Saginaw Bay. Saginaw Bay is the cleft in the mitten of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, cleaving the "thumb region" from the mainland. Around Saginaw Bay is more of the typical Great Lakes flatness, extending dismally as far as the eye can see. The only relief is the artificial hills made to accommodate the ramps and bridges of the interstate system.
One such bridge, crossing the Saginaw River between the city of Saginaw and Bay City is the Zilwaukee Bridge. You know how when you think of the town of Milwaukee, you think of beer? Well, when Michiganders think of the town of Zilwaukee, they think of its bridge. It has made the town famous, but it's not a good kind of fame. Evidently "the Mob" (in cahoots with the Teamsters) had something to do with the contracting for and construction of the bridge, bidding ridiculously low and then doing extremely shoddy work that had to be redone several times over the course of many years of construction. Spunky Lisa tells of passing the bridge frequently in her youth and it always looked different from the time before. Parts would be built and demolished repeatedly and when the two sides finally did come together, they didn't even match and so they had to be torn down and done again. It became the laughingstock of the state as it ran well beyond any predicted budget and construction continued years past the projected time frame. And once it was built, the monstrous Zilwaukee Bridge over the tiny Saginaw River proved unnecessarily large, since tall ships couldn't navigate the river anyway.
As we crossed the massive, gently curving Zilwaukee Bridge, Matt pointed out the bows in the structure. The surface wasn't a gentle arc in two dimensions as it should have been; it was lumpy and uneven. Whatever math had been used in its initial blueprints provided shoddy approximations at best.
We stopped at a rest area and had a picnic featuring weird combinations of food. On my raisin-bread sandwich I had humus, mustard, cheese and mustard greens. Lisa and Kim had all that stuff with sliced strawberries too. I've been known to use maple leaves when I don't have lettuce. According to Lisa, putting food together in weird combinations is mandatory when one goes camping. The stuff we were eating seemed sort of like the kind of food pregnant women supposedly eat, and it made me wonder how weird the combinations get when pregnant women actually go camping.
s I-75 proceeds northward out of the Saginaw region, the soil (according to Matt Rogers) gradually loses its fertility and capacity to hold water. Plants are left to grow mostly in nutrient-poor sand. This, in concert with the shorter and shorter growing seasons of the north, makes agriculture increasingly less viable. Not far north of Midland, Michigan (the home of Dow Chemical), most of the farms have been replaced with forests, and all of these are either second or third growth. The trees are spindly and there is almost no undergrowth except for Bracken Fern. Pines begin to appear mixed in with the deciduous species, something I haven't seen in the east outside the Appalachians. Eventually spruce and fir appear, imparting a decidedly northern look to the landscape. On one stretch of highway M-72, the countryside looked exactly like some parts of the Allegheny Plateau in West Virginia.
The terrain was also becoming increasingly hilly. Coming down an especially large hill in Kalkaska County, Kim was doing 76 mph in a 55 mph zone when a cop coming our way in the other lane flashed his lights at us. In the rearview mirror we saw him turning around to get us. Kim pulled into a business parking lot and freaked out. She didn't have her license, the plates on the car were all wrong, and there was marijuana in a little Guatemalan bag. She wasn't going down for this one, she said, and, climbing out of the car, she demanded to switch places with someone else. It was a bizarre request, to say the least, and no one was willing to trade places with her. Lisa told her she'd better get back in the car. Eventually reason returned and we sat with numb existential calmness as the cop came walking up to our car.
His name was Hoffman and he was an old, suntanned Sheriff, the Sheriff, in fact, of all Kalkaska County. As such we couldn't expect him to be too stupid or too responsive to all the usual tricks, but we could also be relatively certain that he wasn't going to do something ridiculous and unprofessional. Despite the situation presented, we did our best to come off as pleasant, attractive law-abiding yuppies from Ann Arbor. Kim had her dress the way she always does, hiked halfway to heaven, and Lisa, riding shotgun and also wearing a dress, was putting on her usual charm. Sheriff Hoffman gathered up our IDs, asked if there was any alcohol in the car (an emphatic "No!" from Lisa), quizzed Lisa about her ID (she yanked off her sunglasses and smiled when he expressed disbelief that the girl pictured was actually her), and asked what I was doing up from Virginia (I said I was visiting Kim, "my girlfriend"). He disappeared and we had a nervous little conversation. "Maybe he's Jewish," said Lisa, referring to the Sheriff's last name. If so, she thought half-jokingly that maybe he'd cut us some slack with a Cohen like her in the car. The marijuana was relocated to the space under the passenger seat. I reminded everyone of the many times Rory Miller has been pulled over by cops and set merrily on his way despite the many things illegal about both his driving and his cars.
Sheriff Hoffman returned to the car asking about the dubious nature of the tags being used on her car. "I know they're illegal," Lisa admitted. This was the biggest trouble we were in, and I was relieved when the Sheriff simply gave us a lecture about driving fast, driving without a license, and illegal plates but then set us on our way. Kim has a few legal issues to set straight (with Lisa's help), but at least the car wasn't impounded.
I drove the rest of the way to Traverse City, since the Sheriff wanted to see someone actually holding a license drive away from the scene of our getting pulled over. On the way, the forests contained ever-increasing concentrations of paper birch trees. Every now and then there was a cherry orchard. I was to learn later that this part of Michigan produces one third of the world's cherries. And there are probably beavers here as well.
Traverse City sits at the base of the phallic Mission Peninsula, which used to be covered with cherry orchards but now grows multi-million-dollar mansions. It's a touristy little town, full of fudge vendors and little shops trying to look quaint. An arts & crafts fair was happening today, so parking was a little tricky.
Matt Rogers had arranged with his old chum David Unger to meet us at a bookstore in downtown Traverse City. David Unger's older brother is someone with whom Matt Rogers collaborated in the early 90s in the creation of a supposedly revolutionary Hypercard stack, but this brother kicked Matt out of the project at the last minute, leaving a bitterness that surfaces frequently in Matt Rogers conversations even to this day. David, on the other hand, is a nature-loving, hygienically laize-faire musician who "plays middle-eastern-style banjo with lots of strange tunings." We found him in the bookstore's café as we ordered coffee from the mildly-retarded café staff. He's a short, stocky, bearded man with teeth stained by a pathological coffee infatuation. According to Matt Rogers, David Unger, back when he lived in Ann Arbor, would hang out at the Fleetwood for hours on end milking that $1 endless cup of coffee for all it was worth.
The plan was to follow David in his beat-up old blue Subaru all the way to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, where he would show us the less-traveled parts. Just getting out of Traverse City was difficult, though. For some inexplicable reason, David led us on a high-speed circular tour of the downtown, past a small canalesque river that (as Kim pointed out) looked exactly like the set for a James Bond movie.
Eventually, though, we were heading west through the increasingly impressive hills of the northwest Lower Peninsula. We passed through Glen Arbor, and it was a nightmare of camera-toting tourists and me-too fudge shops. I hadn't known this, but northern Michigan is famous for its fudge.
Finally we came to the end of the road, the base parking lot for the Pyramid Point Trail into the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. After only a mile of hiking, we were there, on the coast of Lake Michigan.
The view from Pyramid Point looking down into Lake Michigan. To the left is David Unger, to the right is Matt Rogers. The low peninsula hundreds of feet below (at the base of the sandy cliff) is the result of a recent sand slide. The tiny white dot on this peninsula is a beach towel upon which two people are sitting.
ow I've been around a long time, but I have never seen something so overwhelming in my life. I haven't been to California or the west coast, indeed, I've never once left the geography covered by a certain map you can buy of the Northeast United States. So I haven't seen all that much "oceans crashing into cliffs" kind of thing. I've looked out from near the top of Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, and I've seen the Lake Erie shore near Cleveland, which is dramatic in a few places. But none of that compares to Pyramid Point on Lake Michigan. Here you are, at the top of a massive ancient sand dune, and the mighty lake (which looks for all the world like an ocean) has chewed the dune away leaving something approximating a 300-foot cliff. You can look out over Lake Michigan and the only land you see is the Manitou Islands. Beyond that lies the end of the world. Down below, at the base of the cliff, is the remains of a huge sandslide. It's impressive on its own, but when you notice that the tiny white rectangle with two black spots is actually a beach towel with two people sitting on it, then you get a sense of how small people are when swallowed up by the sheer vastness of the geography. This was something Matt Rogers was telling me about the West, but I was getting a sense of it here in the tranquil, man-dominated East.
My friends reduced to tiny action figures in the vastness of the Sleeping Bear dunes. Off in the distance to the northeast is Lake Michigan, and beyond, the Northport Peninsula, which shelters the double bays of Traverse City beyond.
"Alien symbols" I made on the side of a dune by laying on my back and moving my arms in an arc and kicking with my feet, just like making a snow angel. Each is about six feet across.
From left: Matt Rogers, Spunky Lisa, Kim and David Unger working on a sand "worm civilization" based on an imprint left behind from when we buried Matt Rogers. In the background is another of my "alien symbols."
rom there we headed north-east, away from the lake and into the dunes. In one little vegetation-free trough between the dunes, we began to play. Matt Rogers began to bury himself in the sand, and we joined in and finished the job until only his face showed. When he finally rose to his feet, he left a hollowed-out pattern that looked sort of like a husk of a skin-shedding alien. The others played around with these remains, working them into a "worm civilization," talking about its history and civics as they built various structures. In Kindergarten I once got an an "unsatisfactory" for "joins successfully in play with others." In keeping with this early insight, I headed off across the sand to do my own things. The first of these was to use the dunes as a cat would use a litter box, but after that I contented myself with making "alien symbols" - little Q-shaped structures formed by lying on my back and moving my arms in an arc. Others did more athletic things. For example, Lisa managed to do cartwheels all the way down one of the dunes.
The sand was much like wind-driven snow in that it had a crust of hard-compact grains over a thicker layer of softer, looser sand. The occasional plants growing in the most active parts of the dune were weirdly desert-like in shape and blue-grey in colour, vaguely resembling sage but smelling altogether different. In more vegetated parts of the dune were plenty of horse-tails (a primitive non-flowering plant rich in silica) and a kind of grass that could inflict wounds if stepped upon injudiciously. Unlike the others, I walked around the dunes and occasional woods completely barefoot.
We headed back to the car to get all the things we'd be needing to camp out this night, and then set up camp in various small crater-like coves. Matt and Lisa worked on one tent while Kim and I worked on another. Meanwhile, David was off looking for wood, which was scarce on the dunes. There were occasional bits of ancient trees, but mostly the only wood that could be found was black cablesque roots from old dead bushes.
By the time David had the fire going, rain had begun to fall gently from the overcast sky. In the absence of a corkscrew, I uncorked the vino using my patented "screwdriver plunge technique." Then the tequila got passed around. Then the pot. As the rain fell harder, we all retreated into the nearby tent that Kim and I had set up.
We gradually became drunk and goofy. Both girls took off their shirts. Then I took off all my clothes.
We began to sing. The music rose like an insane genie above us, a weird mix of things, with each of us doing our own thing in little rhythmic patterns. To my ear at the time, it sounded like a hybrid of Native American chanting and techno. We all were convinced the sound was truly amazing, and Matt Rogers even wished I'd brought my four track (which would have surely been destroyed by sand if I had).
I was sitting between Kim and Lisa, having a grand old time, being drunk and boisterous and very much alive. But then suddenly Kim rose to her feet and bolted out of the tent. She didn't go through the door; she tore a fresh new hole in the side (in a fraction of a second, mind you) and burst forth like an angry hornet. The tent wilted like a tired old banana peel in her wake; she'd snapped at least two of the fibreglass poles.
Since the tent was no more, everyone got out except for me. Eventually Kim came back. I asked what the big deal was and she said she'd thought Lisa was doing something to me that should make her jealous. I was incredulous, since nothing of the sort had happened, certainly nothing she thought had happened. I told her I didn't want her being goofy-jealous like that, that I don't want to have a relationship under that sort of pressure. We made peace and fell asleep.
he next thing I knew, rainwater was pouring down around me. The tent's ceiling had collapsed down to the level of my nose and water was streaming in past my face and dripping down from all kinds of places, soaking small parts of me and everything around me. I tolerated it for awhile, simply hoping it would go away, but it refused to stop. So Kim and I got up and tried to fix the tent. It was hopeless, so I set up a new nest out in the sand (which, being sand, was wet but not soaked). I threw my heavy blanket down on the sand and climbed under another blanket, which I covered with the tent's rain fly. The rain pattered down on me and rolled off into the sand. Kim joined me in this new situation, and again I fell asleep, despite the increasing dampness surrounding me. Lucky for me it was a rather warm night.
Rain came and went several times. During a calm between storms, Kim found David out in the sand in his high-tech sleeping bag, the kind that is still warm even when it's soaked. She shared a cigarette with him and talked for awhile, hoping the storm was over. It wasn't.
Distant thunder to the west was drawing ever-closer. Eventually it was up over the coast of Michigan. Rain poured down and lightning slashed into the dunes. I was terrified and felt certain (as I always do in these situations) that I was about to die. I wondered if I'd lived my life to its fullest and thought that maybe I hadn't. I shivered, not from cold, but from fear. David abandoned the dunes and ran back to his car.
Somehow Kim and I survived the storm (and several brief bursts of rain that followed), but we were growing weary of the whole experience. The rain had soaked the rain fly and blanket so much that it was difficult to find breathable air underneath them. "At least there's no mosquitos," I said. Kim compared our situation to being in hell and having to pick a door to a room of tortures, and "at least we didn't get mosquitos."
That's when the mosquitos arrived. There was only one at first, buzzing around and causing me to constantly retreat under the covers. But then there were more, and one got me good on the neck. Kim decided at this point that we should head back to the Camry. She got the keys from a very warm & cozy Lisa, and we scampered across the dunes. I was completely nude by this time, and Kim was dressed only in a pair of frilly panties her aunt had given her. They were stained with blood anyway, so she tossed them unceremoniously onto a dune and we ran back through the woods. Being naked in this environment, we joked that we were "true naturists." But we felt more like American soldiers in Vietnam: bleeding and naked running through the woods, nipped at by unseen flying objects and cringing at rumbling in the skies. The first light of morning illuminated our way.
nce we were safely in the Camry, the contrast with the suffering before made our bed in the back seat feel far more luxurious than anything Webers Inn has to offer.
one year agofeedback
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