About this time yesterday morning I was driving along Lake Michigan, then crossing the Mackinaw Bridge and leaving the Upper Peninsula behind. This morning I’m back home on the banks of the Ohio River. A weekend bookended by bodies of water and by two places that are easy to call home.
I went to Curtis, Michigan this weekend for the North of 45 Writer’s Retreat. Driving north through Indiana and Michigan was like turning the clock backwards on spring; the green of the trees faded with each mile until the branches were bare again. I stepped into my car in short sleeves and when I stepped out, I needed a coat. The ice on the lake there had broken up just yesterday, so I missed by 24 hours the sight of a body of water as wide as the Ohio covered in a thick sheet of ice. The ice breaks up one day and then the next, there’s not a trace of it left.
This was my first time in the U.P., though I’ve wanted to visit since reading my friend Ellen Airgood’s novel, South of Superior. You know how you read about certain places and think to yourself, “I need to go there.” That’s how I felt after I read about the landscape of the Upper Peninsula as described in South of Superior. The landscape, and the people.
So now I have discovered Madison North. Curtis is much smaller than Madison–only about 800 people for most of the year and 1200 when the summer folks show up. During the winter months, they’re likely to get around by snowmobile. They don’t have any Louisville or Cincinnati or Indianapolis close by. The biggest city in the U.P. is Marquette, which at 21,000 is not that much bigger than Madison, though it is a university town. It is a long drive from the U.P. to almost anywhere.
Talking to the folks up there, you might begin to wonder why anyone would choose to live in such a place. The cell phone service is awful and sometimes running water is a luxury. One of the women at the retreat had taught at Copper Harbor, a community in the U.P. so small and isolated that they have a one-room school; when she taught there, kindergarten through seventh grade made 21 children. People in the U.P. will tell you that they moved there precisely because it is so hard for the outside world to find you. It sounds, at times, as if the U.P. is Alaska for the mainland–cold and wild and far away.
And of course, it is beautiful. There’s water everywhere–Lake Michigan and Lake Superior and thousands of other small lakes. The whole of the land seems to be water. There are beaches and fishing and hunting. Miles of untouched forest. You can sometimes see the northern lights and on cloudless nights, you get a view of the stars untouched by the competing glow of gas stations and mini-malls.
But there are other places that are beautiful. And much warmer. Why go so far north? They might say they go to the U.P. to be where people can’t find them, but really, they go there to be together. We stayed at Chamberlin’s Ole Forest Inn in Curtis, a combined bed and breakfast, restaurant, bar and local hang-out. There is nothing much more to say about it except that it was home. A little like the 605 here in Madison, only with a beautiful view of the lake.
Sitting at the bar at Chamberlin’s, you saw people come in and hug. You saw folks get caught up on the details of their lives and what’s been happening around town. I sat next to one of the regulars, a retired colonel who had served in three wars and came in every day for a coke and some company. Bud and Kelly, the kind people who own and run Chamberlin’s, are likely to be sitting there as well. If you talk to them or any of the other folks who live in Curtis for long, you realize that they are living in a place they love with people they care about. And they’re happy to include you even if you’re not quite ready to take up residence. You realize you are home.
That’s why people live in the U.P. They have figured it out. They understand how important it is to love a place and the people in it. They suspect, as I sometimes do here in Madison, that maybe it is the most important thing.