Every February, mom and grandma take the long drive up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to experience the heart of winter in the tiny town of Paradise and watch a dogsled race. The UP 200 is a qualifying race for the Iditarod and I am fascinated by its modest exoticism.
Even before I reached a maturity level where it occurred to me to be nice to my mom, I reluctantly admitted that the trip sounded rather awesome. And since the age where I began to work to actively appreciate her, I have been trying to come along on one of these annual trips, but it’s never happened before now. I’m doubly excited to be here because we will be returning to some of the sanctified scenes I passed through on foot a year and a half ago on a backpacking trip en route to a new life.
Well, this new life is approximately as messy as the old had ever been and I need a break. I don’t know of a unit of measurements for internal chaos but this is registering pretty high. I need to escape that other life for my sake and the sake of those I’ll be leaving behind for awhile. This trip presented itself on the horizon from the squiggles of my everyday life and I am clinging to it. It’s time to rise up: up to the UP, up from the morass of my self-pity and confusion, and up to a place where distance grants perspective and climate demands clarity.
I pack and drive the hour from Detroit to mom’s house, which is in the total disarray of pre-departure frenzy when I get there. There are more tote bags than I can count and, if they were labeled, each one would read “miscellaneous.” I immediately retreat. I expected we would eat out most meals and just have some snacks for the car but Mom has made a pot roast and soup and is shoving a frying pan in yet another bag because groceries up there are scarce and we need to be prepared.
The car is packed but it needs an oil change so, even when we leave we don’t leave and now we have an hour in town to kill time. 350 miles to go but we’re checking out the audiobook display at the library while we wait on the mechanic. My choice is The Nick Adams Stories featuring the adventurous northern-Michigan bound alter-ego of Earnest Hemingway. Grandma picks out Sherlock Holmes. We go to the bathroom one last time for the 4th time and finally we are ready to go.
In the car, I call and text all the Yoopers in my phone book. They’re are people I met along the trail and we hardly know each other but we share the bond of serendipity and the excitement is real. I can’t explain the thrill of talking on the phone to someone I consider a friend and re-realizing out that he has an insanely cool accent. Apparently there is a bonfire tomorrow night right along the sled-dog race route. I drop hints that I may need a place to crash. I can’t wait.
We stop at a gas station just south of the peninsular divide. There is an outdoor tip box and I wonder if pump jockeying is in vogue in places as bitterly cold as this. Inside, there are glass-encased meat jerkies from local hunters and snowmobiling maps. I use the bathroom as one does at all opportunities where long drives and coffee are involved and make an incredible discovery. Inside the lavatory is a clunky metal dispenser, which is not for tampons rather full novelty adult products. I appreciate that they bothered to put this in the ladies room.
The sign first draws my eye for its bastardization of the apostrophe- “Aroma’s” condoms, which was a great segue into some truly awesome marketing: “European lubrication!” For all the injustice and harm wrought by capitalism in the world, I find it wonderfully refreshing that there is an opportunity to pay money in exchange for a mysterious party favor from a gas station bathroom. I stick 3 quarters into the adult surprise machine and receive a tiny matchstick-size box. The description is so bewildering that I fall under the impression that I am beholding a new and previously unknown form of contraceptive but no, it’s just a little condom labeled for “novelty purposes only.” A condom that tells you it’s worthless? Well, that is something new.
I put in another 75 cents and get another matchbook, this one contains two “natural male enhancement” pills. I imagine what thoughts must be running through the mind of the man (or woman?) who takes these. I wonder if the ingredients include anything other than sugar and shame.
As we cross the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula, grandma reminds us about the Bridge Radio Station. AM 530 features a 5-minute message on loop, which, roughly speaking, you can listen to twice as you slowly traverse the 5-mile span of the bridge. Twice I was informed that “’Comfortable’ and ‘friendly’ are the two words that best describe the hundreds of hotels, motels and bed and breakfast inns…” The message is the most earnestly-positive non-controversial public message I have ever experienced. It feels like passing back through time, and the hazy darkness lends itself to such an illusion.
Once on the upper of peninsulas, we miss the exit that would wind us northwest into Paradise and, instead, find ourselves headed northeast on to Canada. But even after discovering our mistake, we are forced to prolong it because there are no other roads to exit onto. Like dunces on the wrong escalator, we stay stuck in our error until the road we took gets to where its going. At last, we reach an exit where we can turn around– the aptly named Detour Village, which is little more than a well-worn curved road.
We listen to Hemingway’s stories as we drive through the dark. In one, Nick Adams is a young boy when he realizes for the first time that the universal law of death applies to him, too. He discovers that he will die. He had known it before but never really felt it. It is real to him now- an emotional fact, not just an intellectual one. And in the midst of this new fear, he is shocked to discover that the world keeps turning and life carries on, as surely it will once he is dead. Nick is worried, but at the end of the story he finds peace, not because he’s accepted his eventual death, but rather because he “now feels quite certain that he will never die.”
The story makes me smile, it makes me think. I wonder when I first knew I would die. I wonder if I really know it now.
It is very dark.
Paradise is 5 miles away.
The temperature without wind chill is -14.
The wind is high on the Lake Superior shoreline against the blunt side of the car.
As we approach town, the snow piles get higher both because there is more snow to get out of the way and because there are more people whose way it needs to get out of. The scale of the volume is hard to grasp. Snow connects roofs to the ground. Street signs are submerged. The snow doesn’t just blanket, it buries. The roads are narrower as the snowy shoulder becomes an elevated lane. The car’s loss becomes the snowmobiler’s gain as the territory that used to carry Fords and Chryslers cedes to Yamahas and Suzukis. It truly is another world.
Memories from my time on the trail are washing over me. This is a place of powerful and conflicting memories: pride for what I did, shame at what I failed to do, eagerness to learn from my mistakes and aversion to facing them. The worries of Detroit are receding but I can already see that there are ghosts waiting for me here.
Boosh! We smash into a 10-foot high snow bank. Technically, this is a car accident, but actually, it’s nothing. The soft snow absorbs us like a pillow. Stunned for a minute, we reverse the car a few feet and then continue driving. I find the absurdity of that innocuous impact to be totally hilarious but mom doesn’t seem to get the joke.
The air is so cold that it feels foreign to breathe. The temperature seems to close down the air pockets in my lungs in such a way that makes it hard to extract oxygen. The sky is clear and the stars are bright. We are here. Paradise.
Get along to the next post in the series here, why doncha?