Saturday, August 6, 2011

August in Minnesota: On the Road
 It happens in the town of Roscommon on our way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I notice a change of pace and a difference in the trees. The people are friendlier, less preoccupied. We drive into this town off Interstate 75 to use the restroom: a small bathroom with a toilet from who knows when—not the corporate layout of the highway gas stations. The woman behind the counter and her customer talk about the hot weather. As I leave I let loose an enormous yawn and she calls out, “Hey none of that in here, it’s contagious.” I smile as I walk sleepily out. We’ve been driving all day and we drove all day yesterday from Vermont to Michigan to our final destination of Minnesota. Roscommon, I say to myself as my husband drives us back out to the highway passing spruce trees and fir that spike high into the sky.

The trees here are Nordic trees—pines and birch, less hardwood, no lush undergrowth. We drive north towards the Mackinac Bridge—the third longest suspension bridge in the world—and the azure blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac, towards the sandy shores of Lake Superior and silent horizons fading into sky. I tell my husband people are nicer in the Midwest and he snorts. His loyalty to New England and his home state of Vermont remains watertight. But it’s true, I say, people are different here, they call you “honey” or “doll” and seem to genuinely care for you.

In Mackinaw City we stop at the Cunningham Restaurant for pancakes and eggs. The lady who takes our order, a middle-aged woman with a heavy tan and frosty eyelids, calls me “dear,” and I look over at my husband who is fiddling with his phone. “Hey, did you hear that,” I whisper after she’s left. He looks up at me, what? “I need to take your picture,” he says. “You look so lovely.”

"Big Mac"
 We cross the bridge as we did last summer and as we plan to do every summer on our way to visit my family in Minnesota. Its two towers make it look like the Golden Gate Bridge though it’s not quite as long. The water of the straits glistens greenish blue like a lagoon or southern ocean. We pass St. Ignace and drive northwest through the crinkly pine forests of the UP. I favor this northern terrain, the smell of pine and dry air, the yellow sand dunes of the lake. The coniferous forest of pine, spruce, fir and cedar, of birch, lichens and bogs composes the landscape of my Northern Minnesota home.

photo by Lee Frelich
 As we enter this world in Michigan, I begin to reflexively crave this landscape. In Vermont I am so taken with the deciduous forests of the Green Mountains that I forget the beauty of the pines. The landscape of Vermont is lush and dense, snaked with rushing streams rather than still lakes or bogs. Northeast Minnesota is home to berry picking while Vermont is known for its apples and maple syrup. As I write this my mother and sister are out berry picking this morning and a few days after we arrived, my sisters Bess and Hannah took me mushroom hunting in the forest.

There is something distinctly different about the way people here, specifically the northern part of the middle of the country, treat each other, as there is something specific and distinct to every region. But because I live in Vermont I naturally contrast Minnesota to the green mountain state. “Cold,” is the word I think of first when I recall New Englanders. Though, amusingly enough, Vermonters think of themselves as friendlier than New Yorkers or “flatlanders” (people who do not live in their state). Vermonters see themselves as living a slower life, but then maybe they’ve never been to the Midwest. If you want to live a slow life stop by Roscommon, I giggle to myself, or come to the Side Lake area where my family lives. Of course, I admit, I live in Burlington, Vermont’s largest metropolis, and not a small New England town. But even when I pass through the small towns of Vermont it isn’t like passing though the Northern Midwest where people will speak to you like they’ve known you forever.

I don’t necessarily want to go around chatting it up with everyone, even in the town where my siblings, cousins, and I went to school and I do know a good percentage of its 4500 residents from working at my grandfather’s and then my father’s pharmacy downtown, I mostly try to remain anonymous. Working behind the counter where I “run the till,” otherwise known as the cashier, I hope most customers will mistake me for one of my four blond sisters, though usually at least one of my sisters is also working with me and our father or our aunt. Why, I wonder do I prefer to listen to them and not tell them what it is I’m doing (the natural question to ask)? I like to hear what they’re doing, but I worry they won’t understand why someone would be tirelessly writing day after day, making a living working odd jobs at the age of 30 and frankly, I wonder this myself most of the time, so where would that conversation go—therapy session?

Back on the road through the UP, my husband wakes me from a nap to go swimming in Lake Superior. I’m leery of the water’s cold temperature but the sand is golden and plentiful and the lake is a spectacular Blue Grotto that rolls right into the spotless cerulean horizon. I lie in the sand while my husband wades in and dives under, waiting to hear the verdict on the water’s temperature. When he gives me the OK, I go down and step in the water—it’s chilly but tolerable. The waves lap against my shins as I wade in. At waist deep I plunge under; the cool water feels cleansing and I sense summer is only just beginning for me now, at the end of July.

We’ll make it to my parents’ by nine that night; our final road a small meandering driveway through the woods. We’ll sit glossy eyed on the sofa trying to unravel from the two days of driving. It will take me nearly a week to adjust and to return to my work, which looms in the back of my mind like an angry child longing for attention. The guilt becomes unbearable and so here I sit, again, writing it away. What a strange compulsion this has become. It happened in Roscommon, I think, the trees and the people changed. The longing for home, a place they say we only understand after we’ve left, grew up out of the craggy land, the pointed pines and cone shaped spruce, the bogs along the highway and the chilly sapphire waters of lake after lake after lake.

Sunset Cove


woodbird said...

Just lovely, Emily. I'm a Vermonter who has always loved the UP and the waters of glad to get to know your landscape through your eyes.

Parker Quinn said...

Beautiful, I think I would prefer the landscape and water of Michigan and Minnesota than Vermont. I like forests of spruce tall evergreens, blue lakes with golden sand. It was the cabin in those woods, painted green and brown with large upstairs windows that looked to the top of the fir trees and sky that I so often dreamed about. My writing cabin, a place that in a dream my mother waited for me, and the curtains had scalloped edges and the pine smell was strong.

Emily Arnason Casey said...

thanks Woodbird, I have really enjoyed your blog and posts about Vermont... Lois, how beautiful to dream of such a cabin and your mother. thanks for reading!

Karl said...

I used to work in Mackinaw city as a historical interpretor. I spent my days off crossing mighty mack and hitch hiking in the UP. It is beautiful there, and your writing makes my heart sick for it.
Thanks for your reminder.