About a month ago, Anthony muttered aloud as he stared at his phone, his thumbs busy on its surface. “We should go somewhere after Christmas for a few days.”
Sure, because traveling with the kids is so much fun and will add statistically significant value to our holiday spirit.
He started hunting to the south, wishing apparently for a little warm weather. The Florida panhandle? We could drive there in just 12 (hellish) hours and rent a place on the Gulf of Mexico. But further investigation revealed that it would be a little too cold to really enjoy swimming in the gulf. We didn’t want to spend the money and emotional energy to fly somewhere even further south with the kids, and we couldn’t find a locale close enough to make warm weather drive-worthy. So I eventually said, if we can’t go warm, why don’t we go cold?
We rented a cottage near Sleeping Bear Dunes, a national seashore on the northeastern coast of Lake Michigan, about a 7-hour drive from our home. This is one of those perfectly under-utilized midwestern gems, a place of such beauty and quiet and strangeness that I can’t get enough of it. It’s made up of a vast array of enormous pure sand dunes and scrubbish dunes, some unexpected woodlands, stunning shorelines, mystical hikes along dunes and bluffs, and the freezing-yet-somehow-welcoming waters of northern Lake Michigan.
We’ve camped here a few times, but had never visited in winter. It’s north, so when we made reservations we anticipated snow and thought to bring sleds. Back in October and November the area had received almost 3 feet of snow. We imagined climbing some of the biggest sand dunes and sledding wildly down them, head first, crash helmets firmly in place and first aid kit well-stocked in the car.
But by the time we hit the road, the day after Christmas, there had been a warm spell and rain for a few weeks. All the meaningful snow finally melted the day before we arrived. Rain was forecast for the duration of our stay. We didn’t even bother to pack sleds.
Thanks for nothing, Mother Nature.
* * * * *
Fear not. Our family is proud, resilient, flexible! We are all that and more! We packed our outdoor gear and headed off. And of course we were not disappointed. Snow or no, Sleeping Bear Dunes is breathtaking, even under glowering skies. The sun never once shined down on us. But all the snowmelt along the shore turned the water into that unearthly teal/green/blue color that shows up in mountain tarns filled with glacial melt water. Our phone cameras couldn’t quite capture the color, but I literally gasped when we came over the last seaside dune of our first walk and saw it. Here are some of my favorite views from our hikes.
Oh hey, here’s a photo of Nick and me. Both of us are quite elusive about camera shots, so this is really rare, like finding a dodo and a snow leopard in the same shot:
See that doofy look on my face? That’s apparently what peaceful-but-also-slightly-stressed-out happiness looks like on a perennially grumpy person, because that’s how I remember I was feeling when Anthony took this shot. Either that, or I was making wind in the gusting wind.
I managed to get one decent face shot of the elusive and frenetic Nick, but it sure took a lot of work. For this one, we were lying on the beach, relaxing in the windbreak provided by an eroded shelf of sand. I finally got Nick to look at me and laugh for the camera by yelling at him, “MY BUTT IS GOING BOOM BOOM!”
My magic was as irresistible as my maturity is fictitious. Afterwards, Nick told me the boom boom trick would only work once. Sure enough, here was my next try – a more typical pic of Nick:
Nick did allow me to take a video of him. Mom, get down so you can see the blowing grass, and I will run. So I did that.
It really was magical out there.
We also got some good shots of Jesse. She is such a little beauty, but these days she dresses like a person who randomly grabs clothing out of street gutters in large cities, and her eyes carry such a weight of sadness.
I have no explanation.
Here’s what happens when I try to get the three other hypothetical humans in my family to line up for a photo, any photo.
* * * * *
The thing about hiking in dunes is that you can see really, really far across the blank expanses, and trails present themselves easily. One day, we headed out on a trail that would take us through large dunes and back around through a small wood. Jesse saw a deep dune bowl and wanted to slide and run down it, so Nick followed. Anthony and I did not, because when you go down a steep sandy dune, it’s pell-mell leaping and fun; but then you have to go back up the steep sandy dune, and that is a lot of slogging work. The kids went down the bowl, and they spotted what looked like a foot trail on the rim on the other side. Anthony hollered, sure, that’s our trail! You go and we’ll meet you there! But it turned out, our trail went the opposite direction, so the kids had to turn around and come back to us. This did not go over well:
We eventually gathered them up and continued on our way. It was mostly a fun walk. I eventually got Nick to stop feeling bitter, and then because it was getting late and dark, I also eventually got him to stop being afraid that we would be lost after dark. After all, he had brought two flashlights. He eventually let go of his fears when I explained that even if we got lost overnight, we would be fine. We would all four huddle up together under some brush, someplace out of the wind. We would maybe have some frostbite, and we would be desperately thirsty in the morning. Also hungry. And grumpy. But we would be fine. Either that explanation helped him, or it was the fact that I agreed to jog as much as possible along the remaining couple miles of trail.
Here’s an almost-360 meditation on the beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
The native American legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes is a sad one. There are different versions, but the one I remember goes something like this. Long ago, in the age of legends, a Mother Bear and her two cubs lived on the western shores of Lake Michigan. One day a massive wildfire erupted, setting aflame the woods in which the bears lived. Trapped between the burning woods and the lake, Mother Bear chose to take her cubs into the water and seek safe haven on a distant shore. They swam out, away from the terrible raging fire. Across the lake they swam, ever eastward. As the hours passed, the bears grew more and more tired. After an eternity, Mother Bear saw the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Exhausted and near death, she exhorted her children to hang on and keep going. But they were so tired. Using the last of her strength, she swam into shore. She turned around to help her cubs in, only to see their exhausted bodies sink into the lake and drown.
Mother Bear fell to the ground in despair, and fell into an endless sleep, awaiting the arrival of her children from the inland sea. The Great Spirit, passing near, saw her sorrow. He took pity on her brave children and made them into two small islands off the shore. He took pity on Mother Bear and made her into a giant dune, so she could watch over her babies forever.
* * * * *
This past year was complicated (unlike the three years before? I think not). Weight recovery from anorexia took time, and we weren’t able to safely do things that required a lot of energy expenditure from Jesse. Now that we’re really in a safe zone on that front, she contends with the body image issues that follow healthy weight gain, and she’s still recovering strength. And also there’s the ongoing coprolalia (aka Nasty Tourette). And also Nick’s anxiety and not-too-disruptive OCD. And also my own depression and anxiety and emotional exhaustion and volatility. It’s all very noisy and emotional and messy. Every member of my family ends up feeling like a pretty shitty person at some point of each day, because of things we’ve said or done that we regret.￼ And on this front, no one suffers more than Jesse, which is so very sad because she’s only 14 years old. We just keep picking it up and trying again, another day and another day and another day.
So after another tough year, it was a wonderful thing to get away from the regular grind and be able to enjoy a national park, and go on long hikes accompanied by tics and yelling and gritting teeth and whining and gloomy weather and the extraordinary beauty of land less touched by humans than usual.￼ It only takes a quarter mile, in bad weather and tough conditions, to get away from all the people. And being away from most human beings, in a space where there’s little threat of someone I know appearing unexpectedly, is a very peaceful and renewing thing for me.￼ On most of our hikes, Anthony had a phone for photos, but not me.￼ I just wanted to savor where I was, breathe the air, and let some quiet into my mind. Yes, I yelled at the kids every day at least once. No, I wish I hadn’t; but also yes, in any ordinary view of things, they deserved it.
There are days when I feel like Mother Bear. I exhort my kids, and especially Jesse, not to give up. Keep going, just keep going. I don’t know where the shoreline is, but I wish to find hope when I arrive, not despair. I wish to be strong enough to carry them in with me.
* * * * *
On the last hike of our trip, we turned the last corner and headed over the last dune toward a small stand of evergreens, through which we had to pass to reach the trailhead. It had been a tough hike, behaviorally. I was grumpy and I was behaving badly. So was Jesse. I noticed a small patch of moss growing among some brush. I looked more closely, and on top of little mounds of moss, no more than a few inches across each, were wee shriveled round leaves of a ground cover. I looked closer and saw that on a couple select moss mounds, lichens were growing; they looked like strange little fairy trees, no more than a quarter inch tall. It was magical, a miniature world from a strange manga tale. I called to the kids and pointed to the round leaves. “Do you think these are fairy wings or fairy poo?”
Jesse ran over and lay down on her belly. Her imagination had been awakened, setting her free for a moment from the obsessions and intrusive thoughts and tics that dominate her world so often. She lay there for some time, taking in the tiny kingdom. Nick did Nick, wandering around aimlessly and investigating everything. Anthony and I walked up to the top of the last bit of dune and sat together quietly. After a bit, we each rolled down the dune. The inevitable grunting and laughing caught the kids’ attention, and they joined us, thumping their own way down and enjoying the sweet dizziness that follows a good roll. We all walked to the trailhead together, with Jesse leading me on a short detour to investigate a “tree nursery” she had discovered in the woods.
It was perhaps fifteen minutes, a micro-moment in the long hours of our days together. I added it to a bucket in my mind of little moments during our trip — jogging and laughing on a darkening trail with Nick, snuggling with Anthony on the beach to warm up, standing on a bluff with a strong wind in my face, watching the dark clouds roll across the lake — and it was enough to fill my cup and give me memories worth saving, untainted by the flat dimensions of a photograph.
As we drove out of Sleeping Bear Dunes and headed back toward Milwaukee the next day, fresh snow began to fall anew.
Thanks for nothing, Mother Nature.