Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Monday, April 30, 2012

Running Through Alaska In Six-Inch Heels

I admit it; I can't walk in high heels.  They pinch my toes and make my hips hurt.  I avoid dressing up at all costs in order to avoid wearing a shoe that was originally designed by a man to make me look taller.  Unfortunately, I have passed this trait on to my teenaged daughter, Keely.  Recently, Keely was nominated for an "Oscar" award at her high school as part of the Spring Festival fun.  As a nominee, she was required to wear a formal gown.  We had just bought her first prom dress, and of course she refused to wear it before the prom, so I gently suggested to her that she find a dress to borrow.  A much, much taller friend loaned her last year's prom dress, a lovely gown that was elegant, simple, classy, and very, very long.

Having concern that she would step on the hem of her borrowed gown and rip it, Keely went to Target and bought these:

Wow!  My daughter is going to wear these?  The only type of women I know who can pull this off are women with attitude.  Keely tried the shoes on, and her attitude said "Where are my flip-flops?"  I then tried the shoes on, and my attitude shouted "I was raised by wolves!"  But then along comes my little Nina, my tiny 11 year old daughter with the skinny legs that make up three/fourths of her total height.  Nina tried on the heels, and her attitude screamed  "I am ALL that!" with the accompanying flip of long hair.

Walking down the hall like a top runway model, wearing her soccer uniform and shin guards, with her cleats carelessly thrown over her shoulder and heels on her feet, Nina stopped, gave a round-house kick, and declared "Take that, Terminator".  Not sure where she learned the kick or when she saw an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, I was, nonetheless, impressed.

This brought to mind my upcoming Alaska trip.  Yeah, my mind can make that leap.

Sometime before I turn 50, I intend to travel to Alaska for a month of camping and hiking.  The focus of my trip will be Denali National Park, six million acres of wild land bisected by one ribbon of road.  I recommend you read Denali's Research Administrator Lucy Tyrrell"s blog about walking all 92 miles of the road in sections, at  .  I plan to do that, as well as some off-road hiking.  In her blog, Lucy gives several accounts of seeing grizzly bears while on the bus to her starting point, but she never saw one while she was walking.  Which begs the question, if she saw one 10 minutes ago while safely riding the bus, what would she have done if she ran into the grizzly again while she walked?  She doesn't say, but it got me thinking.

I have done much research into this trip.  Should I go in the summer, when there is busy tourist activity but more park activities?  Or maybe Spring, when you can drive 30 miles down the road instead of Summer's 15 mile limit.  But the weather is iffy in Spring, and the tour buses aren't running to get you deeper into Denali.  Fall brings a Lottery, where a lucky few get to drive the whole 92 miles with few other people around.  Camping at any of the many campgrounds is open all three seasons, but not always accessible.  Weather is always unpredictable in Alaska.

I have researched my routes, my plan for hiking to different campgrounds, my options for camping in the tin can, and safe habits for campers.  I have studied the nature and habits of wildlife and read suggestions for staying safe.  I even spoke with a few guys I know who are big game hunters and have traveled in Alaska.  One of them gave me the following words of wisdom:

"Take a big gun and know how to use it.  If you see a Grizzly 15 feet away, he can be on you in 2 seconds flat.  If you think you can outrun him, try running through Alaska in 6-inch heels.  That's how effective you'll be in outrunning him."

As amusing as the image is of me running through Alaska in heels, his analogy brought some serious concerns to light.  What would I do if I encounter a Grizzly?  According to Lucy Tyrrell, sightings are common from the bus, but what about when you're walking in the wilds of Alaska?  I need to give thought to how I can get the most out of my experience while taking appropriate measures to stay safe.

In the next few years, don't expect to hear stories of me running through Alaska in 6-inch heels.  I am leaving Keely's shoes home.  I don't know about packing a gun, yet, but it is something to consider if I learn how to use it.  I do know that eventually I will tell you stories of endless days, and Northern Lights.  You will hear of wolf sightings, Grizzly meanderings, and countless songs of birds.  I may not be able to meet that Grizzly head on with a swift kick, the way Nina would, but I will have attitude.  My attitude will be one of awe and reverence and respect for the creatures who make Alaska their home and allow me to visit.

By the way, Keely won the Oscar for "Ray of Sunshine".  I am happy to report that she walked up to the stage with poise and grace, never once tripping on her borrowed gown.  I couldn't have been more proud.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I'm Not A Real Camper

Yesterday I reached a personal goal of 500 pageviews on my blog.  Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to the people who have taken the time to check out what Peace In A Tin Can is all about.

Serious writers and bloggers may think 500 views in one month is no big deal, but since I am new to blogging it is a very big deal for me.  In my excitement, I sent a text message to a few friends sharing my reached goal, and was surprised to hear such encouraging and positive comments back from them.  I floated through my afternoon with a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart, proud of myself for moving on from a lost job that I loved to something positive.  Writing has been a dream of mine since I read "A Little Princess" by Frances Hodgson Burnett when I was 8 years old.  I was so drawn into the story that I promised myself one day I would write a story that filled someone's head with dreams and pushed them into doing something they never thought they could do.  I still have that dream, but sadly no story to tell yet, so I am dipping my toes in the literary waters by blogging.

The friends who responded to my text were all young people who have worked for me in the past at the Lake.  Because we worked long hours in the summer season, I got to know these young adults, and I'm pretty sure I earned their respect.  Many of these kids have become close family friends and heros to my kids.  Coming from them, kind words mean so much, since they are all studying for college finals right now and preparing to enter the real world, yet still share in my excitement.  Still riding on that high, I called an old friend, one I rarely see but keep in touch with.  She is a camper as well, and since I had sent her links to my blog I was anxious to hear her reaction.

Her reaction was not what I expected, and left me speechless.  The first thing she asked was what is my blog about.  I guess I can safely assume she is not one of the 500 pageviews.  I told her it's about camping in Michigan, with some personal reflections thrown in for good measure.  Her next comment broke my heart a little bit.  She said,

"But you're not even a real camper."

Huh?  Apparently she thinks that because I camp in the tin can, I am not a real camper.  She went on to say things like microwaves and air conditioning have no place in the woods, a comfortable bed is not camping, and so on.

It occurs to me that my friend has paid no attention whatsoever to the things I've been doing the past several years.  I love tent camping.  Shorter trips require nothing more for me than a tent, a sleeping bag, some food and water, and a campfire.  I often seek solitude in the woods and gravitate toward a more rustic experience.  BUT, I also enjoy longer trips in the Airstream.  It should be noted here that my unrestored Airstream is not luxurious.  I do not have air conditioning, the tin can isn't even insulated.  There are holes in the floor.  I added the microwave last year because sometimes it rains and I can't cook over an open fire.  The tin can is basic and simple, a bed inside and a sink where I can wash my face and hands.  My husband graciously had the plumbing re-done, so as of this year I can use the bathroom and shower.  When I camp for two weeks, at some point I need a shower!

Whether I camp in a tent or in the tin can, I am outside all day regardless of the weather.  I ride my bike on single track trails, I hike, I chop wood, I cook over the fire.  I do not sit in my camper and watch TV, I go outside to roam my beloved woods and streams, I wade into lakes and kayak down rivers.  I only go in my camper late at night, after my fire has burned down, to sleep.  I consider that camping.

Truth be told, I consider every person in a campground to be real campers, even the retired folks in the fancy RV's.  They choose to be outside, they embrace the nature around them, they are walking and moving and spending quality time outside.  That's camping.

My friend's comments were hurtful and petty.  I have always considered her to be my oldest and dearest friend and now I'm wondering if that's true.  I don't think she really knows anything about me, who I am and what I do, what matters to me.  I will hesitate to share good news with her again.

Maybe I'm not a real camper.  I like to decorate my campsite with pretty things from home, I can't go camping without my laptop because then I couldn't write.  I prefer sleeping in a tin can, off the ground, snake-free.  I make my bed every day in the tin can, which means I straighten out my sleeping bag and zip it up, because I like a clean and organized area.  As shameful as this is, I bought an antenna for the tin can and go in the camper every day at 5:00pm to watch a fuzzy broadcast of the local news and weather.  I am obsessed with weather.  I actually plan my hikes so I can be at the camper at 5:00pm. But by 5:20, I'm back outside.

I'm not a real camper.  I should be embarrassed that I shower in the tin can in a 3ft. wide space that includes the toilet.  I have to turn the water on and off while I shower, because I only have about 2 minutes of hot water.  Not comfortable, but you won't hear me complaining.  I don't pee outside.  I have a little heater.  Goodness, I even have real dishes…AND a coffee pot that brews automatically at 6:00am every morning.  I am a fake, a fraud, an offense to real campers everywhere.  I deal with it.

So maybe my old friend gave me an hour or two of self-doubt yesterday.  Old habits die hard and it takes little criticism for me to start feeling bad about myself.  Fortunately, my friend Debbie contacted me later with words of support and encouragement, and I moved past the hurt and focused again on looking forward.

I can always count on Debbie.  She is the 5-Star Luxury Resort kinda gal who fought my efforts to get her into my woods for years.  Then a couple of years ago, Debbie was going through a rough time and just needed to get away for a while, so out of pure desperation she joined me for 2 nights on my Fall camping trip.  The 2 nights turned into 4, and Debbie was hooked.  She now accompanies me occasionally, and I am always happy when she joins me.  Of course, Debbie's not a real camper either, she brings wine.

Along with Debbie, and the friends I texted yesterday - Alex and Charles - I have daily support from my husband and children, who believe in me even when I don't.  And I have 500 readers.  That's enough for me.  How lucky am I to have so much support?  I think I can live without the endorsement of all the real campers.

Today, I hope my readers will go outside.  I will think no less of you if getting outside means driving with the car windows down, or just walking to the mailbox.  We all do what we can to enjoy the outdoors, and I am proud of you for trying.  Keep on keeping on, eh?  Have a spectacular day!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wilderness State Park: A Modern Perspective

Unit Map, Wilderness State Park
My previous post gave a brief history of Wilderness State Park in northern lower Michigan, which is not only interesting but plays a role in the modern day park and how campers and day-use guests enjoy the area.  As stated, most of the area was logged or burnt by fire prior to 1900, leaving only one small stand and scattered trees intact.  Yet, through the efforts of Michigan's outstanding DNR, the area has been allowed to re-grow naturally and now stands as it once did, providing its visitors an opportunity to experience a Michigan landscape as it occurred prior to European settlement.

Every time I drive the 8 mile road into the entrance to Wilderness State Park, I run the risk of losing control of my car because I am so busy looking at the landscape.  It is such a beautiful place, and the thought that I am seeing it almost exactly the same way my ancestors saw it takes my breath away.  The many different eco-systems I pass through were not created by man.  They are a wonder of nature and sustain thousands of different forms of life.  That's pretty cool, would you agree?

I prefer camping in the lower campground, where the lucky few who know how to play the DNR Reservation System can reserve a campsite right on the beach.  The first thing I do upon arriving at my site, before I even set up my tent or unhitch my camper, is walk from my site to the shoreline (it's a short walk!) and stare out at Lake Michigan.  I feel like I've come home!  It never ceases to amaze me how the sandy paths leading to the water are not man-made entirely; The wind sweeps channels through the native dune grasses that naturally carve paths.  The paths may be kept clear from use, but they've always been there.

Once I've set up camp - which, if you know me, you know it takes a while to construct my "glampsite" - I go for a walk on the beach.  One of the nice things about the beach at Wilderness State Park is that's it's sandy, sometimes gravelly, but I have never seen a snake there.  They tend to hide on the more swampy beaches, or along reed-filled inland lakes and streams, but you don't see the snakes on the Northern shoreline of Lake Michigan.  This means I can take my shoes off!

In addition to beach walking, there are 22.75 miles of mapped trails to hike or bike, and metal detecting is permitted in the park, though any items found must be reviewed by park staff and may be retained pending further investigation.  I am always mindful that when I walk the beaches and trails of Wilderness State Park, countless artifacts lie beneath the surface.  It would be amazing to find one, but most likely the park staff would keep it.

Because I have a strong Native American heritage, I feel a connection to this land.  Once, when camping at Wilderness with friends, we met up with a guy who had found a piece of driftwood at the park and fashioned it into something he called a "Spirit Pole".  It is an acknowledgment of the people who came long before us, and is believed to honor the native spirits.  He taught me how to make one and I thoroughly enjoyed planting it beside the campfire and believing my ancestors were with us in spirit.

Every morning of my trip I would ride my bike 2 miles east of the campground, on the road with my faithful (and since departed) dog Murphy.  When we reached our destination, I would climb to the top of a small sand dune overlooking the great lake, let Murphy off his leash, and allow him to run for a bit.  He was a good dog and never strayed too far from me, but the landscape in this particular spot is indicative of much of the Lake Michigan shoreline; sandy open dunes with patches of pines and scrub brush growing out of the dune.  Murphy would weave in and out of the pines, chase mice from the brush, and when he had enough, would come sit next to me, sharing the spectacular view of Lake Michigan.  It was the best way to start my day, peaceful and serene, staring at the water with my dog at my side.  These days, I would be unable to do that; my current dog, Rooney, is a Newfoundland and a naughty one at that.  I could not take him off-leash unless I never wanted to see him again and wanted to risk getting fined by the DNR as Rooney happily swam out in Lake Michigan.

Later in the day I would ride my bike east again and hit the Big Rock Trail or the Hemlock Trail at Mt. Nebo.  Both are great trails, and the last time I was there I had ridden for 6 days straight without seeing a snake.  So when my friends and husband suggested a long group bike ride on our last day there, I was pretty comfortable that I could join them without incident.  I wish I had realized that the grass cutter had preceded us earlier that morning.  We rode up to the Pines campground on top of the hill, saw the buildings that the CCC had built almost a century ago, took the Red Pine Trail past Big Stone Creek and the dam, where I held my breath the entire way ever fearful of snakes, and came back out to the road from the Hemlock Trail.  It was a great ride, I was enjoying the feel of forward movement and laughing with my friends.  As we rode on the road, where the grass cutter had trimmed the tall grasses on the sides of the road just that morning, I looked down and saw it.  A dead snake.  BAM! I am riding faster and faster, panic attack hitting me full force, when I look down and see another one.  My husband sees what is happening and is frantically trying to catch up to me, because he knows I am not breathing and adrenaline is pushing me faster and faster.  The only thing that saved me that day was keeping my feet on my bike pedals (not on the ground) and the kindly old gentleman who passed us in his truck heading back to the campground.  He realized something was wrong and turned back.  My husband lifted me into the cab of the truck, put my bike in the back, and the kind man drove me back to the campsite.  I almost made it through the week without disgracing myself!  What really bothered me, though, was those snakes had been hiding there all week as I happily rode my bike, and only came out when the grass cutter came along.  They were stalking me, I just know it.

Some points of interest, other than snakes, at Wilderness State Park are the CCC-built buildings, the dam, and the many trails.  Also, the majority of the many miles of shoreline consist of wide sandy beaches with scattered cobble, backed by one of the best developed and most diverse forested dune and swale complexes in Michigan, with some spectacular wetland areas mixed throughout, which I avoid for obvious reasons.  The beaches provide some of the habitat in Michigan for the federally endangered piping plover.  The piping plover is a beautiful little bird that nests on the beach, and most of the shoreline in Wilderness is designated protected area as a critical habitat for the bird.  Volunteers guard known nests, and the piping plover is the sole reason why dogs are not allowed anywhere near the beach.  People, too, can inadvertently step on a nest without being aware, and destroy the fragile eggs.  The DNR tracks the birds and protects them as they continue to pair and increase their numbers.

Another point of interest does not come from Mother Nature.  It comes from the general store 1 mile west of the park.  One of the things that brings me back to Wilderness is the Saturday morning glazed donut holes, fresh from the oven at the General Store.  I cannot begin to describe how delicious 2 homemade, warm glazed donut holes are.  Okay, usually I eat 4.  But when I've just returned from my morning ride to find 6 warm nuggets waiting for me, it is like heaven on earth.  I will fill my plate, sit in front of a morning campfire, and listen to the waves as I eat my 8 sweet treats.  Sometimes I have to go for an extra long bike ride to burn off the calories from 10 donut holes, by honestly, even a bike ride can't quite remove the feeling of a dozen warm glazed pastries nesting in my stomach.  Make sure you stop in at the General Store on Saturday morning.  You won't regret it!

On that same trip with friends, we came upon a man on the beach who had 10 kayaks that he allowed people to use for free.  I've said it before, campers are the best people who just want to share their love of the outdoors.  We borrowed a couple of kayaks and paddled around the shores of Lake Michigan for hours, being introduced to an activity that would become a particular interest of mine.  Thanks to the stranger on the beach, I now own a kayak, and plan to discover the blue waters of Lake Huron in it this summer.

If you go to Wilderness State Park - and I hope you do! - go for the unique and varied terrain, the history, the trails, the beach, and the magnificent waters of Lake Michigan.  Experience the donuts, the friendly campers and DNR staff, stunning views and abundant wildlife (except the snakes).  Even though you are not allowed to camp directly on the beach, sometimes you can set your tent up pretty close to the shoreline on the right camp site, put a camp chair next to your tent, and breathe.  After you spend your day swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, discovering and learning, sit in your chair, next to your tent, and look out over the water as the sun sets on another beautiful day.  Sweet dreams, everyone!

NOTE:  For more information on the varied habitats and piping plovers at Wilderness State Park, please go to my source,

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wilderness State Park: An Historical Perspective

You'll always remember your first time.  The first baseball trophy, the first kiss, the first car.  The first time you met your future mate, the first time your child said "Mommy".  For me, the list includes my first camping trip at Wilderness State Park near Cross Village in Michigan.  I make it a point to return there every few years for its miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, untouched wilderness, and many hidden corners to explore.

The lands contained within Wilderness State Park and the waters bordering it are enveloped with history well known in the development of Michigan.  It is without a doubt that the park area was used extensively by the Indians as a haven in times of trouble.  Waugoshance Point was specifically mentioned by Alexander Henry in a journal of his travels.  On June 6, 1763, Henry and three other English prisoners were taken by canoe from Fort Michilimackinac toward Beaver Island.  Because of a heavy fog that morning the Chippewas followed the shoreline westward, periodically sounding four war whoops - one for each English prisoner aboard.  As they reached Waugoshance the Chippewas again gave their four whoops and surprisingly, received an answer from the foggy point of land.  An Ottawa appeared and spoke with the Chippewas, luring them close to land.  Then many Ottawas sprang from cover and charged the canoe, forcibly removing the four English prisoners.  The Chippewas were allowed to go on their way, and eventually the prisoners were escorted to Montreal by the Ottawas and set free.

Big Rock Trail Head
Indian Artifacts have been found in the park and surrounding area, such as arrow and tomahawk heads.  No doubt many more artifacts lie beneath the surface at Wilderness State Park. I may have come across one of these artifacts once while biking in Wilderness State Park.  I had left the Big Stone Trail, which is a moderate hiking and biking trail just east of the lower campground, and was biking in a wooded area, following a deer track.  It was a glorious bike ride, weaving between trees and around roots, rocks, and fallen branches.  I was going along at a pretty good clip, eyes on the ground 5 feet ahead of my front tire, when I came upon a small marshy stream.  Ever fearful of snakes, I increased my speed and plowed right through the stream, going up a shallow incline on the other side.  I was so exhilarated at that point, I wanted to throw my hands in the air and shout "I'm Alive!!!"  for all the woods to hear.  Instead, I glanced up (excuse my language here) and shouted,


About 6 feet in front of me, I was staring dead-on at this:

I was about to hit the end of this tree face first.  I skidded my bike sideways, fell over, then panicked at the thought there might be a snake nearby, hopped up and rode like a bat out of hell out of there.  In hindsight, I suppose that tree fell during some recent storm and lodged itself there, but at that moment, staring it down as I catapulted towards its wicked point, I sincerely felt as if I was staring at an ancient Native American war weapon.  Act of Nature, or Artifact?  Hmmmmmmm.

Even if this is a more recent development in woods weaponry, the very same situation may very well have provided inspiration for our native ancestors as they defended their land in the early 1800's against other tribes and English settlers.  You will never convince me otherwise.

In 1855, Father John Bernard Weikamp established his benevolent, charitable, and religious society of St. Francis at Cross Village.  Eventually 2000 acres of land fell under its domain.  Though the land was used extensively for farming, cattle, and logging, it fell into disrepair upon Father Weikamp's death in 1889 and was finally abandoned in 1896.  For the next 40 years, the land was owned by English settlers operating three large-scale saw mills.

As fires and lumbering operations denuded the land, it became useless to landowners.  In 1902, "One Forty and Surrounding Land" was sold for as little as $1.00.  Much of this land reverted to the state for nonpayment of taxes.  As the years went by, more private holdings came into state ownership through purchase and land exchange.

In 1921 and 1922, a house and outbuildings were constructed to house a resident manager, Frank Lloyd.  In 1928, the lands were turned over to the Parks Division, and the area officially became "Wilderness State Park".  Its first manager was Thayer Denny, followed shortly by Daddy Bronson.

The singlemost time of greatest development at Wilderness State Park occurred during the Depression, with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  Beginning October 1, 1933, A CCC Camp was built on the hill where the present outdoor center now stands.  During their stay until 1937, the CCC established an impressive building record, including all interior roads and bridges, five trail cabins and one trailside shelter, dining hall, a stone and log observation tower, 60ft in height atop Mt. Nebo, a trail system with benches, a 15 acre area cleared for the campground, and the dredging and damming of Big Stone Creek to form Goose Pond.  When the camp was discontinued in 1937, a pit was dug in the camp area and all of the hand tools were buried so they would not be used by local residents and thus create hardship for local merchants.

1937 brought three changes to the park; the burning down of a trail cabin at what is now appropriately called "Burnt Cabin Site", a new park manager by the name of Bill Parker, and with the ending of the CCC program, the beginning of the Works Project Administration (WPA).  In addition to the employment of common laborers, the WPA employed craftsmen such as artists, writers, musicians, teachers, and architects.  WPA workers completed several park projects between 1937 and 1942, including three log dormitory buildings presently in use at the outdoor center and the development of the campground with restroom facilities.  With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, little was done within the park other than maintaining the status quo; however, the old CCC Camp and Waugoshance Point were taken over by the Navy and placed off-limits to civilians.  Between 1942 and 1946 the area was used as a testing ground for the Navy.

Sturgeon Bay

Waugoshance Point North
Sturgeon Bay Sand Dunes
During the postwar years, the area on the hill was used as the Pines campground, while the beach area below was used as a day-use area.  On June 18, 1947 the Conservation Commission established a Game Refuge at Wilderness.  Hunting and trapping were prohibited, but the law was later modified.  Then in 1951, the Conservation Commission dedicated four sites within Wilderness State Park as Preserves;  Crane Island Natural Area Preserve, Sturgeon Bay Preserve, Waugoshance Point Nature Study Preserve, and Big Stone-Cecil Bay Nature Study Preserve.

With that, Wilderness State Park became the park we know today, with continual updates to the campgrounds and bath facilities.  In my next post, I will continue this fascinating journey into the modern day park and my experiences there.  I know you are holding your breath in anticipation, but go ahead and breathe, it will take a while to write it.

Thanks for reading, I hope I have piqued your interest in Wilderness State Park!
Waugoshance Point South
If you are interested in a more extensive tale of the history of Wilderness State Park, you can read the reference document used for this blog, "A History of Wilderness State Park" at

Friday, April 20, 2012

When Imagination Comes Alive

Wow!  I just discovered that I have actual readers on my blog!  And even a few followers!!!!  Thank you to all who take the time to read my blog.  It is a big deal to me to know that, after 47 years, my voice is being heard.

I hope you all will keep checking back, because next week I will be starting a series on places to go in Michigan that not only include my personal reflections, but some fascinating histories behind areas in this great State of which you may not be aware but will perhaps peak your interest.  I am anxious to hear feedback from any of you who have also visited these places!

Before I begin my series of great places in Michigan, there is something personal I must share, because it will pop up in just about every post.  My name is Kiki, and I'm an Ophidiophobiac.  I have an unreasonable fear of snakes.  The conscious part of my brain knows that the tiny little garter snake in the grass can't hurt me, but I can't even begin to tell you what the subconscious part of my brain believes when I see a snake.  The act of writing down the things that run through my mind would induce a major panic attack and I would be unable to finish this post.

When I see a snake, whether live, or on the TV, or even a picture of one, I instantly need to get my feet off the ground, my heart starts racing and skipping beats, I can't breathe, and after a minute or so I black out.  When I come to, sometimes I wake up screaming and the process starts all over again, or, if someone is with me who knows how to handle the situation, I can be calmed down.  When it's all over, I sleep deeply for hours.

To give you an idea of how severe this phobia is, when my youngest child, Nina, was 6 months old, I was sitting on the couch one day while she played happily on the floor, rolling around and scooting back and forth.  I asked my older daughter, Keely who was 6 years old at the time, to watch Nina for a few minutes while I started dinner.  A short time later, Keely burst into the kitchen, and the look of utter and complete horror on her face made me jump to the immediate conclusion that something was wrong with the baby.  I grabbed Keely's shoulders and shouted at her, "What?  What's wrong?!!!"  She replied, in a whisper,

"There's a s-s-s-s-snake…in the HOUSE!"

My reaction was instantaneous and severe.  One of my worst fears was happening, my home is my safe place and suddenly it wasn't safe anymore.  I dropped a spoon, ran out of the house and jumped in the car out in the driveway, struggling to breathe, panic taking over my body.  Keely called my husband, Steve, on my cell phone and handed it to me.  When Steve answered, I choked out "snake, in the house" and he immediately turned his truck around on the highway and headed home.

About 10 minutes later - and keep in mind that technically, Steve was about 15 minutes away - he came tearing into the driveway, tires squealing and brakes protesting.  He ran to my car, looked in the back seat, woke me up and shouted at me, "Kiki!  Kiki, focus!  WHERE IS THE BABY?"


Steve covered the distance between the car and the back door in one second.  In my panic, I had forgotten Nina.  He came out moments later, holding a laughing Nina, and then disappeared back into the house.

Keely held Nina in the backseat while I rocked and moaned and tried to stay conscious.  When Steve came out of the house, he was holding a hockey stick and breathing heavily.  My hero, my Knight in Shining Armor, had killed the snake and disposed of it in the woods.

Later, I found out that the snake was very, very small, a baby garter snake, that had been hiding under the same changing table I had stood at, barefoot, an hour earlier, changing Nina's diaper.  I spent the next three days sitting on top of the kitchen table - even at night - holding two hockey sticks.

We hired a Critter Control guy to inspect the house and seal up any areas where a snake could get in.  To this day, if I see a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye while in the house, I jump up on the nearest piece of furniture until I am convinced there is no snake in the house.

Many people wonder, if I am so afraid of snakes, why do I spend so much time hiking and sleeping in the woods.  Just about every time I go into the wilderness, I encounter a snake.  My sister believes its personal with the snakes, they actually seek me out, because she says she never sees one.  I always see one.  The reason why I keep going is because my love of the outdoors is greater than my fear of snakes, and I will not allow this phobia to keep me from doing the one thing I love most to do.  So I go, I panic, I recover, and I go again.

In my mind, imagination comes alive.  The images that flash through my brain the instant I see a snake are not real, but to me they are very real.  When imagination comes alive, there is little I can do to combat it.  The good news is, in my imagination there are lots of things that aren't real, and every once in a while, those things come true in a positive way.

For years, I have been writing to an imaginary audience.  All of a sudden, you are real.  I didn't conjure up my readers.  I took the steps to expose my writing, and the real readers followed.  If I can take steps to make imaginary readers real, maybe someday I can take steps to make real fears imaginary.

I never give up hope that I will conquer my fear of snakes, just as I've never given up hope that someday, someone will want to read what I write.  So while many of my posts about traveling in the great outdoors will invariably include a snake story, because I really do think snakes seek me out, I hope that you will be amused and confident that, as long as I can laugh about it (laugh about it much, much later!) I can keep doing what I do and loving life.

And hey, thanks for reading.  Today, my heart is light and my hope is high, and it's all because of you, my very real audience.

P.S.  Sorry there are no interesting pictures in this post.  I cannot post a pictures of a snake, for obvious reasons.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Have A Beer

OMG!!!!  Hillary Clinton had a beer!  Why is everyone so worked up about this?  Seriously, who cares?  Whether you agree with our Secretary of State's political position, whatever you think about her ability to lead, you do not have the right to judge her because she went out after hours and had a beer.

We all live in a society of very judgmental people.  I'm tired of all the women who gently suggest to me that a stylist could "do something" with my hair.  I'm frustrated with the fifth grade girls at my daughter's school who are just plain mean, and are teaching my daughter to be just plain mean.  All around me are people who are far more concerned about how I live my life than worrying about their own.

This is why I periodically go into the woods to be alone.  I get asked, all the time, why I choose to leave my family and live in the tin can for a short time.  The question accompanies a judgement of being a bad mother, a freak, a loner, an irresponsible and selfish woman who cares only for what she wants.  I have given up trying to justify my actions.  Frankly, as long as my husband and kids understand and support my choices, I don't care what anyone thinks they know about me.  But there is an answer to that question of why I do it, and it's most likely not the answer you think.

A few years ago, I loaded up the tin can and set off for Ludington State Park on my second annual Fall trip.  When I arrived at the campground, I was surprised to find that not only were all 358 sites occupied, the park rangers were turning campers away by the dozens.  I had anticipated a quiet campground in October, but the weather was unseasonably warm and the salmon were running.  Because I always reserve my campsite, I was admitted amid the angry glares of families turning their RV's around to leave.  When I pulled around to my site, I knew it was going to be dicey backing in, but my husband has taught me well and I knew if I took it slow, I would get Twinkie parked.  I pulled forward, backed up, pulled forward, jumped out of the truck to see how close I was to that big tree on my left, backed up,over and over until I almost had the tin can in, but found my truck in a very tight embrace with a large bush.  This little lovefest was keeping me from backing the rest of the way in.  So I pulled out and started all over.  I checked my rearview mirror and was startled to see a tiny, very old man standing there.  Hitting the brakes, I rolled my window down and the man said "You're not doing it right".  Normally, I get offended at men who try to tell me how to back in, because it happens all the time and even though I am pretty damn good at backing in, men see a single woman driving a camper and immediately need to jump up and rescue her.  Unfortunately, this time the little old man was right.  I was doing something wrong because I could not get Twinkie backed in.

The little old man gave me a few directions and minutes later I was in.  I was grateful for his help, but he just waved me off and shuffled back to his site, three spots behind me.  But I had arrived and I was excited!  I unhooked the camper, plugged in, opened my awning, and set up my home of the heart.

I was staying for two weeks, and the tiny old man was there for the duration with his wife.  His name is Hump, and he is a delightful creature who enjoys living outside, cooking over a fire, fishing from a canoe, and caring for his wife.  Hump and I developed a friendship.  His campfire stories about growing up and raising a family were funny, yet always had a clear lesson to be learned from his 80+ years of experience.

Each morning, Hump would stick his head in my campsite while I built a fire and say, "Mornin' girlie.  You survived the night."  I am not sure if Hump just can't remember my name, or maybe he doesn't like my name, but he always calls me "girlie".  In any other circumstances I would be offended, but when Hump says it, it's endearing.  He will sit in my camp chair and enjoy his first cup of coffee, watching me build a fire and barking out instructions.  Then he asks me about my life, tells me about his, and sometimes we just fall into a comfortable silence, sipping coffee outdoors and watching the birds.

One night, I took a cup of coffee over to Hump's site to sit by their fire.  Hump is convinced that my late night coffee is the reason why I don't sleep, and I let him think that because it is too hard to explain my insomnia to most people.  We were enjoying the bonfire, having lively conversation, and his wife brought me a cookie she had made that afternoon.  After taking the first bite, I was in heaven!  It was, without a doubt, the best cookie I had ever tasted, and I said so.  Hump's wife proudly told me she makes cookies all from scratch with good ole' God-provided ingredients, and I told her the effort was worth it.  We sat there, me happily munching away, Hump quietly watching the fire, and he looked at me and said "You're alright, girlie."

This is why I go camping.  I love being outside, I love bonfires and deer in the woods and birds in the trees, salmon in the river and kayaking and the waves of Lake Michigan.  But more than anything, I love the people I meet when I go camping.

Contrary to popular opinion, I do not go camping alone to get away from my family.  My husband and kids just don't love it like I do, and while they occasionally join me, it's not something they want to do often.  So sometimes I get lonely.  But campers are the best people in the world.  They don't care about my crazy hair, my political views, or why I am alone.  It doesn't matter to them that I don't wear makeup or what I do for a living.  They simply see every camper as another person who loves what they love, and it's all that matters.

When I am home, I am judged for not being like the other mom's at school.  People write me off because of how I look and the things I do.  But in a campground, no one cares.  I can be at home and filled with self-doubt and constantly thinking about my actions and how others will perceive them, but then I go camping, and a complete stranger, a man who works hard, helps others, and has a lifetime of experience to share, thinks I'm alright.  That's why I go camping.

Sometimes, when I meet people in a campground, they'll invite me to their fire for a beer.  If Hillary Clinton were in that campground, they'd invite her too.  No one would take her picture holding a bottle and spread it all over the internet.  No one would ask her how things are in the Middle East.  They'd ask Hillary what she saw that day hiking in the woods, if she wanted to try fishing tomorrow because they'd love to teach her how, and if she was looking forward to sleeping under the stars.  We'd all sit and have a beer.  The only thing we would care about is listening to the wind, sharing a laugh, and ending our day on a good note.  That's the way life should be.  That's alright.

Monday, April 16, 2012

This Is My Other Home!

In my previous post, I recalled the more serious aspects of my weekend for my imaginary readers regarding my attendance at the Concealed Pistol License Instructional Course required to apply for a CPL.  Read that post!  It covers the somber decision to consider your right to own and carry a gun in Michigan.

But in my own imagination, I am a humorous and delightful blogger, therefore I must also share the lighter side of my weekend.

I packed up Twinkie the Tin Can on Friday morning and hit the road under sunny skies and warm weather.  It didn't occur to me to check the weather forecast.  I hadn't camped in Twinkie since October of last year, so you can understand my excitement to spend three days in my other home, my home of the heart.  Actually, if you've never lived in Twinkie, you most likely won't understand my excitement, in which case I feel sorry for you.

I normally camp in State parks, enjoying spacious sites and scenic settings, but my options were limited for camping within a close distance to the Caledonia Sportmen's Club where I would spend Saturday and Sunday learning about guns and the law.  The only campground available to me was at least in the middle of nowhere, the way I like it, but didn't offer much else.  No worries.  Camping is camping.  I would have preferred, however, that my fire ring was bigger than 18 inches and not placed a foot away from the bushes, but the subsequent rain acted as an effective deterrent from starting a brush fire, so it was all good.

So, what happens when you place twenty-one women in a room with three guys and a bunch of guns?  You produce a bunch of heat-packing mamas!  And grandmas.  Add in one lawyer and consider that the three guys really know their stuff about guns and you get a bunch of women who are now capable of protecting themselves from a dangerous attack.  Please note that me and my new friends have acquired an enhanced vocabulary and skills set that means you don't want to mess with us!

The course and its fine instructors were a serious matter, but the weekend had its lighter moments.  I met some very interesting women who ranged from completely ignorant about weapons (that would be me) to mildly comfortable around guns to knowledgable shooters who can and have killed their own dinner.  There were professional women, retired women, a mom-and-daughter duo, stay at home moms, and women who work hard just to get by.  We were collectively young, old, trying to be younger than we are and anxious to be considered mature adults.  We were scared, excited, unsure, and confident. We had a common goal, and it was enough to bridge the gaps that in certain social settings tend to separate women.  I loved it!  It was great to be in a room full of women where our differences didn't matter because we all came together to learn how to protect ourselves and our families.  Isn't it awesome when the one thing we all have in common matters more than the many ways in which we are different?

Most of us, at some point, asked a question that I'm sure made the male instructors roll their eyes later, but the guys were patient and answered all our questions without making us feel stupid.  I can only imagine how nerve-racking it must have been for the three guys to stand in front of a bunch a gals holding guns with no idea how to use them, but these guys have nerves of steel and the ability to be aware of the slightest wrong movement from a hand holding a .45 and quickly but gently correct us.  At one point, though my gun was unloaded, I found myself pointing it right at Gary while chatting with him.  He slowly reached out and pressed my gun down, reminding me of my major mistake in forgetting the First Rule of Gun Safety.  I was so embarrassed, but I also didn't forget the transgression and never made that mistake again this weekend.  I made plenty of other mistakes, but not that one.

 When I originally planned this weekend, I wasn't thinking of applying for a CPL so I could own a gun and carry it in my purse while shopping for groceries, or keep in my nightstand in the event of a nighttime intruder.  I really just wanted to see how difficult it would be to have a gun with me when I'm camping or hiking, so I could conquer my fear of snakes by shooting them.  I was informed by Lee that I can't really do that.  For one, it is frowned upon to discharge a gun in the woods of a state park, and secondly, I would have to be a pretty damn good shooter to actually hit the snake.  But I am also planning a trip to Alaska, and Lee pointed out that there are gizzly bear in Alaska and it would be a good idea to carry a fairly powerful gun there.  Good point.

Even though I didn't consider the option of carrying a concealed weapon in my everyday life, Lee and Gary pretty much scared me sufficiently into thinking it might not be a bad idea.  Seriously, if I'm out in the woods alone, then someone else could be out in the woods alone, and that someone may see me as a golden opportunity for foul play.  Since I don't see myself as such an opportunity, it took this class to make me realize that as much as I want my beloved woods to be my safe haven, it isn't.  Which also leads me to realize that as I am sitting in Twinkie writing on my blog at 1:00am, I'm not all that safe here either.  The newly discovered leak in the roof and the thunderstorm raging outside are less of a concern now than the potential for bodily harm.  The reed on the ground outside my camper that I keep staring at through the window in the fervent hope that it doesn't move and turn out to be a snake is not as worrisome as the fact that no one else is near and those further down the lane wouldn't hear my cries for help through the storm.  After everything I learned from Lee and Gary this weekend, I am coming to the realization that guns aren't so scary when you become familiar with them and understand the law concerning your rights and responsibilities.  The idea of being unarmed in the event of a threatening attack is, however, scary indeed.  So I am in the unexpected position of reconsidering my purpose in contemplating a CPL and gun purchase.  I came here dreaming of killing snakes and grizzlies, and now I am facing the nightmarish thought of the possibility of needing to point a gun at an attacker.  But as Lee so eloquently stated, if it comes down to me and an attacker, I want to be the one who lives.  It's not about winning, it's not about killing.  It's about surviving.

I liked the part of the weekend where the instructors were yelling at us, goading us into yelling at an imaginary attacker (kinda like my imaginary readers) before rapid firing into a moving target.  One of the gals, in the heat of the moment, screamed "GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE!" at her imaginary attacker, which got a laugh from those of us observing her ability to warn the bad guy before shooting him.  Another girl warned her paper target rapist over and over "I have a gun and I will shoot you, I have a gun and I will shoot you" then she yelled "I am shooting you NOW" as she let loose 6 bullets into his paper chest.  As if the attacker didn't realize she was shooting him.  Maybe you had to be there, but it was funny.  I honestly don't know what I yelled, because my adrenaline level was so high at that moment I can't remember much except firing the gun and seeing five holes in the target, which led me to believe that Lee knew what he was talking about when he discussed tunnel vision.

I also liked watching this group of women calmly conquer their fear of firearms and accepting that it is a cruel fact of society that we have a need to protect ourselves.  I liked the look on their faces when they turned around after shooting a weapon for the first time, the look that said "I am not weak; I am capable".  I liked meeting Margaret, who is smart and funny and seems so happy, yet turned serious on a dime when she picked up a gun.  I think, if we had spent more time together, we might have become friends.  She has an adventurous streak as big as mine!

My favorite part of the weekend though was meeting Lee, Gary, and Nick, the three instructors whose passion for the Second Amendment is backed by their extensive knowledge and expertise in weaponry.  It is always inspiring to see people in action promoting something they believe in fully, sharing their talents and intelligence with those of us who have much to learn with open minds.

The storm has passed and the reed on the ground has not transformed into a vile reptile.  My deadbolt is secure, the brief but torrential rain has sufficiently extinguished my bonfire, and if the deep puddle that has taken up residency under Twinkie in the guise of a small pond doesn't rise any higher, then I am safe and secure for the night.  With a tummy full of Captain Crunch with Crunch Berries and a heart full of confidence in my ability to hold a gun without accidentally shooting myself or someone else, I am going to sleep well tonight and dream of the feel of a .357 in my hand and shouts of STOP OR I WILL SHOOT!  It's been a good weekend.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

This is my Home

I love my home.  When I walk through my house at night, turning on all the outdoor lights and setting the house alarm, I check on my sleeping children before going to bed and think, "All is well, we are safe".  But what if we're not?  This is my home, and I've taken steps to keep it safe, but can I really promise my kids nothing bad can happen here?

I can't.  We have been robbed while we slept.  Our neighbor was held at gunpoint while she was robbed.  It is the thought of "What if?" that led me to do something I never thought I would.  I started considering buying a gun.

I believe in our Constitution and the rights granted us in our Amendments.  I believe in the right to bear arms but never thought I would exercise that right.  Not wanting to rush into anything, I began exploring the option of owning a gun and keeping it in my home, discovering the DNR's B.O.W. program (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) and finding a weekend class on obtaining a Concealed Pistol License.  Curious, I decided to see what it is all about.

Lee, Instructor Extraordinaire
The program was held this weekend, put on by the Great Lakes Outdoors Foundation.  The NRA-Licensed Instructors, Lee, Gary, and Nick, presented themselves from the very first moment as knowledgable and capable men.  The initial class time was fascinating as they spoke of the laws which allow American citizens to protect themselves, giving us every possible scenario of what is justifiable, and as important, what is not.  But throughout the class, I was nervously anticipating what would come next; learning how to shoot a gun.

All twenty-one women attending the class were told and shown, repeatedly, how to safely handle a gun, before we even walked outside to the shooting range.  I was extremely nervous.  Guns kill.  Handling one was a scary and unsettling thought.  I wanted to know as much as possible about handling a gun before I even touched one, and Lee and Gary quickly put some of my fears to rest.  What was coming next, though, was an experience I will never forget or regret.

Gary supervising ammunition selection and loading
Lee gave the command for Group 1 to step forward.  This was it.  I was about to load a gun and shoot at an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper.  The instructors had several guns for us to choose from, and I skipped the .22's and went straight to a .38 revolver.  Gary showed me how to load the gun with ammunition, all the while scanning with his eyes to make sure everyone had their gun pointed in a safe direction (down and front), and fingers off the trigger. I felt the weight of the gun, and the weight of the responsibility, in my hand.  Then I stepped up to shoot.

It was amazing!  In one moment, I was scared, focused, empowered, and courageous.  I emptied the chamber, ejected, and stepped back to look at the target.  My shots were all over the place, but I didn't care, I had done it!

Commence firing!
The rest of the weekend was a journey of self-discovery as I became more comfortable handling a weapon intended to kill.  Make no mistake, you do not own or point a gun with the intention of simply warning or injuring an assailant.  Lee and his guys made it very clear that, when justified, you shoot to stop an assault, plain and simple.  That means you shoot until an attacker can no longer hurt you.  You have to be prepared to shoot to kill.

It was all very heavy and serious stuff.  It is one thing to sit in a classroom and hear different scenarios in which you would be justified in protecting your self and your family from serious bodily harm, rape, or death.  It is a little harder to imagine yourself being capable of such action, but with the excellent course materials presented, you can begin to picture it.  Standing in front of a target, holding a loaded gun, makes it more real, but it all still stays in that context of "What if?"

I have to say, Lee and the guys are great.  The course material is not only very thorough, covering topics such as legalities, ethical responsibilities, potential situations, gun parts, handling a gun, different methods of carrying a weapon, and above everything, safety, safety, safety, but the delivery of the material was outstanding.  These men understand women and our fears.  They understand how vulnerable we can be as victims.  They also understand how strong we can be as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters.  They showed us nothing less than respect and admiration for wanting to strengthen our homes and safety.  They made us laugh, addressed our fears, and taught us not to be ashamed or proud of our right to bear arms, but to simply consider discreetly exercising that right.
Nick looking on as the ladies choose their weapon

Throughout the weekend, they stressed the mentality of being a responsible gun owner.  They kept addressing the frame of mind required to aim a gun at an attacker, and they warned that adrenaline can alter that mentality.  It culminated in a powerful exercise at the end of the day, an exercise that left me and the other women with a clearer sense of whether each of us is capable of protecting our home and family.

This time, the targets would move.  The instructors stood behind us as, two gals at a time, we quickly approached the target, loaded our weapons as the instructors shouted in our ear from behind us, "Someone is coming!  Load your weapon!"  Hands shaking, I dropped five rounds into the chamber, and was required to shout, LOUDLY, "Stop!  I have a gun!  I've called 911!"  Nick was behind me yelling that he has a pizza for me, open the door, while I am shouting over him "NO!  Go AWAY!  I have a gun!  If you open the door I will shoot!"  Nick is yelling, I am yelling, my adrenaline is pumping, it is all very intense, then at Nick's signal from behind me, Lee activates the target and Nick is yelling "SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT!"  I shot all 5 bullets in rapid fire, then removed my finger from the trigger, ejected the casings, pointed the gun safely down and away.  It was then that I looked up at the target, an outline of a man.  All five bullets had hit center mass.

Because of the adrenaline rush, I was elated.  But I was also extremely sobered at the same time.  If that target had been a person, he'd be dead.

Wow.  Did I feel good about that?  Or scared out of my mind?  I knew, without a doubt, that if an attacker came at me in a parking lot, or entered my home, I now possessed the skill to stop him.  But could I really do it?

I will tell every woman I know to take this class.  They can either look on for the B.O.W. program, or for Lee's next scheduled class.  It is worth the time, worth the class fee, worth the experience.  Now that I have completed the course, I have the requirements necessary by law to apply for a Concealed Pistol License in the State of Michigan.  I am no longer afraid to hold a gun, load a gun, or shoot a gun.

But…I have a lot of thinking to do.  I need to talk to my husband, and then my kids, about everything I've learned.  I need to know how they feel about their wife and mother carrying a gun.  Most of all, I have to ask myself if I am capable of shooting to stop an attack.  Can I kill someone, however justified, and live with it?  Because if I can't, it would be incredibly irresponsible for me to own a gun.  If I won't shoot, my attacker will simply use my gun to shoot me.

Shooting from concealment.
These girls made it look easy, but it's not!
My family and close friends expect that I will now go right home and apply for a CPL, buy a gun, and start carrying.  I am not going to do that yet.  First, I am going to follow Lee and Gary's directive to create a safe room and a safety plan in my home for myself and my kids.  I am going to discuss the responsibilities and ramifications of owning a gun with my family.  And I am going to think long and hard about holding a gun and yelling "I have a gun and I will shoot".

There are currently 320,000 people in Michigan with a CPL.  That means that 320,000 people in this state are exercising their right to bear arms and are licensed to carry a concealed weapon.  As Lee demonstrated to us, the person standing in line behind you at the grocery store could very well have a loaded, holstered gun under his shirt, or in her purse, and you cannot know that by looking at them.  Do you know how many people with a CPL have committed an unjustified homicide in Michigan?  None. The law abiding citizens who pass the requirements to qualify for a CPL take that right seriously, and do not abuse it.  When a stranger knocks on your door, you won't know if he or she is concealing a gun, legally or not.  You won't know a stranger's intentions when you open the door.  But you should know what you will do if that stranger attacks you, or your family.

When someone knocks on my door, they may be planning to harm me in my home.  There is every chance that some day, "What if?" will become what is.  Am I willing to protect my family, or myself, in my home?  Are you?  Take this class.  Learn everything you can from Lee, Gary, and Nick.  Then ask yourself if you could shoot to stop an attack.  Ask yourself if you are truly safe in your home.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Tent, A Sleeping Bag, And A Can of Green Beans

I have often found that some of the worst experiences in my life turn out to be some of the best experiences of my life.  Had I not dropped out of college to care for my ill mother, I would not have met my husband.  Had I not undergone three years of painful treatments, I would not have had my three beautiful children.  If I hadn't lost my job, I would not be having all this fun writing to my imaginary readers.  But the one bad experience that comes to mind, the one that forever changed who I hope to be, is my first time camping.

I grew up in the city.  At night I was lulled to sleep by the sounds of cars hitting the loose manhole cover in the street just outside my window, people shouting, loud music playing.  The BOOM BOOM of bass speakers matched my heartbeat and calmed me.  My days held a cadence of skateboard wheels rhythmically hitting the cracks in the sidewalk, children laughing, tires squealing, and radios playing disco hits from the 70's.  I never knew what silence sounded like, but I always wondered.  I didn't mind so much living in the city, but somewhere deep inside, even as a young child, I dreamed of wide open spaces and quiet.

It wasn't until after my first two children were born that I first experienced that dream. A college friend, Donna, talked me into going camping with her and her then boyfriend, Dennis.  (They are married now).  Donna had been telling me about a trip they had planned, where they would camp in a tent near Mackinaw City and participate in a 100 mile bike ride down the shoreline of Lake Michigan to Harbor Springs and back.  It sounded so exciting and fun, I wistfully wished to her that I could do something like that.  Donna asked,

"Why can't you?"

I told her I had never camped before, I had a 3 year old son and 6 month old baby girl at home whom I had never left, I didn't have any equipment,  my husband would never let me go, and so on.  She said,

"Don't make it so hard!  Borrow some equipment and come with us.  All you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, and a can of beans."

Hmm, that sounded easy.  I asked my husband if I could go, he rolled his eyes and said "whatever".  I called a friend whose husband was a camper and asked to borrow his tent and sleeping bag, and I went to the store and bought a can of green beans (not being sure how they would play into my meal plan) and various other food that could be eaten out of a package, and a bag of apples.

Wilderness State Park is on the uppermost western side of the lower peninsula of Michigan, boasting 8 miles of pristine shoreline along Lake Michigan.  I loaded up my car and set off for an adventure!  I was so excited to go camping, I was feeling pretty rustic.  It would be good to have a weekend away from home, live outside, breathe in the fresh air and sleep under the stars.  The 5 hour drive there was full of daydreams about pitching a tent on the beach with no one around for miles and hearing the waves lap the shore as I drifted off to sleep.

These daydreams apparently held no basis in reality, because when I arrived at the campground, I was dismayed to see hundreds of campsites packed close together with thousands of people running around.  I checked in at the rangers' station, deciding that the bored woman behind the counter simply could not be classified as a ranger, and drove to campsite #32 in Wilderness State Park.

For the rest of my life, I will remember site #32 fondly, and always try to camp on that site every time I go there.

As I drove down the single lane through the campground, traveling at 2mph in order to avoid all the kids on bikes and scooters and dogs being walked along the lane, I heard bike tires crunching on gravel and people shouting and music playing from radios, though now it was 90's music, and I thought it didn't sound any different than the city.  It wasn't until some years later that it occurred to me that the same sounds heard here did, indeed, sound different than when heard in the city.

I eased my car into my campsite and was relieved to see Donna and Dennis in the site next to mine.  I jumped out of the car and Donna greeted me, saying "You made it!"  Well, of course I made it.  I had driven on trips before.  It was about 5:00 pm, and I saw Dennis hunched over a campfire with a grate across it, cooking some chicken, and a couple of blackened tin cans in the fire.  Ah, hence the green beans.  I said to Donna, "Oh good, you're cooking dinner.  I'm starving!"  Donna replied,

"That's our dinner.  You have to cook your own".  Oh.  "But first," she said, you should set your tent up.  You don't want to do it in the dark".  I asked if she would help me, and she smiled and said no.

"Wait, I thought you were going to show me the ropes"  I exclaimed.  She informed me that she never said she would teach me how to camp, just that I should learn to camp.  She was my best friend, she talked me into this, and now she wasn't going to help me?  Fine.  I can set the tent up, how hard can it be?

Two hours later, as they sat by their cozy campfire with their stomachs full, a cold one in their hands, Dennis took pity on me and pointed out that the bag the tent came in had directions printed on the side.  Oh.  I took a deep breath and said "I need a beer".

Donna laughed and said, "Yeah, like that's going to help.  Did you bring any beer?"  I put on my most pathetic sad face and said no.  They didn't offer to share.  "How about coffee?"  I didn't bring that either.  I was in big trouble now.

I got the tent set up.  It would have been nice if Donna had told me to bring a ground mat, or pointed out the hill that ran right down to the edge of my tent.  I then drove 12 miles to town, bought firewood, coffee, and $100 worth of camping supplies that I did not know how to use, stopped at McDonald's for a fish sandwich, and drove back.  Donna and Dennis were sleeping, so I built a fire, boiled water on a shiny new campfire grate in a shiny new cast iron pot, and made coffee.  It was late, and as I sat back in my brand new squeaky camp chair, gripped my coffee for the lifeline that it was, and looked around, I realized everyone was quiet.  I could hear the waves lapping the shore.  It was a beautiful sound, and it was in that moment that my love of camping was born.

I crawled into my little tent, curled up in my sleeping bag, and drifted into a deep sleep, content with myself for figuring it out on my own.

It rained that night, of course.  I woke up before dawn in a wet sleeping bag floating in 2 inches of water.  Seriously?  I really wished Donna would have told me about the ground mat and placing my tent away from the hill.  I rolled my eyes and said out loud, "Whatever".

This was the day that Donna and Dennis were going on their bike trip, but I wasn't in good enough shape for that.  What was I supposed to do all day?  Donna suggested I take the ferry to Mackinac Island, rent a bike, and ride around the nice flat road that circles the Island.  That sounded pleasant.  She reminded me not to forget my backpack.  My backpack?  To carry water and fruit, she said.  Oh.

So I drove into Mackinaw City with an apple on the seat next to me, bought a $50 backpack and some bottled water, and boarded the ferry to the Island on foot, proudly wearing my backpack like an experienced outdoor woman.  Renting a bicycle, I set out to circumnavigate the island, but before I left the merchant area, I saw a huge tent set up on the lawn of a hotel with a banner reading "Rare Lilac Auction".  What a wonderful day this was turning out to be!  I love lilacs and decided to stop in and see what the fuss was all about.

Different rare varieties of lilac tree saplings were being auctioned off to the highest bidder.  There were some very serious bidders there, and I did not understand many of the terms the auctioneer was using, but when he announced a tree from China, his description sounded so pretty, I began to bid.  I guess this lilac wasn't as rare as the others because few people were bidding, and I bought a 12" sapling for $35.00.  I was so excited!  I wrapped it in my sweatshirt and placed it in my backpack, then continued on my bike ride.

As I rode around the Island, people who passed me in the other direction, or passed me from behind because I was so slow, would laugh.  I was in such a cheery mood, I waved at everyone and laughed with them.  But after a bit, I started wondering why everyone was laughing at me.  Was my good mood really that visible and contagious?  By the time I was halfway around the Island, my butt was numb and I couldn't feel my feet anymore, and my hands had blisters the size of a volcano.  This wasn't so much fun anymore as work, and the people laughing at me were starting to piss me off.  I was hot, sweaty, achy and tired, and I just wanted the stupid road to end so I could buy some fudge and drink my water.

The ferry ride back to the mainland rejuvenated me somewhat, so I stopped in town and bought more firewood, steaks, potatoes, and beer.  With 2lbs. of  fudge in my backpack nestled among the trunk of my rare Chinese Lilac Tree, I was good to go.

By the time I saw Donna and Dennis riding their bikes toward our sites, I had a fire going, steaks grilling, potatoes boiling, and a beer in hand.  I jumped up and waved to them, then kinda cowboy-walked out to greet them.  Donna said,  "Hey!  How was your day?  Why are you walking funny?"  I told her my day was great and I was walking funny because I had ridden 12 miles on a bike with a very hard seat.  Then I got all excited to show her my backpack, so I ran to the car, got it out and put it on, and turned around, shouting,
"See?  I look like a camper now!"  Donna and Dennis both burst out laughing, and that was the final straw.

"WHY does everyone keep laughing at me?" I demanded to know.  Donna said,

"There's a tree growing out of your head."  What?  I went over to the car and looked at my reflection in the window.  Sure enough, my rare Chinese Lilac Tree, placed so carefully in my backpack with the leafy branches left out so as not to break them, appeared to be growing out of my head.


I served Donna and Dennis the dinner that I made them, and we spent a remarkable evening around the campfire telling stories about our day.  It would have been nice if Donna had told me that raccoons will eat anything, even fudge, but apparently that's not her way, so I went home the next day 2lbs. lighter without the fudge.

For much of that first camping trip, I was miserable.  I was hungry, wet, hot, cold, sore, and laughed at.  I was caffeine-deprived, sleep-deprived, and compassion-deprived.  It was the best trip ever.  It was the beginning of an awakening for me, that sleeping in a tent in the woods is better than a Five-Star hotel, that campers are hardy and fun people, and that the little voice inside me all those years that tried to convince me I'm not really a City Girl was right.  I camp often now, and have taught my kids how to camp.  I've had some wonderful trips with family, friends, and sometimes all by myself.  But still, to this day, my fondest memory is of that first trip.  I am forever grateful to Donna for not teaching me how to camp.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eddie Vedder Gets Me

There are a lot of things I don't understand.  That's just the way life is, but most of the time I don't need to understand because I have faith.  Faith in God, in society, in nature, faith in goodness prevailing.  But every once in a while, my faith gets overcome by confusion, and it was during one of these times that I ran away to Drummond Island.

I had never been there before, and a mild winter in February is not the most popular time to go.  I wanted to be above the bridge, traveling somewhere in Michigan's U.P. because I have heard many stories of how remote it is if you go to the right place.  Seeking a way to escape from life and people for a bit, I chose Drummond Island because I saw an ad for a motel there that boasted clean rooms for $59 a night.  I went to Drummond because it fit my budget.

I had no idea what to expect.  I eagerly looked forward to the trip, planning on isolation and time spent alone with God.  However, God had something else in mind.

 My first taste of the U.P. came in a bar in DeTour while I lunched and waited for the ferry to the island.  I sat alone among 4 patrons who mercilessly teased the waitress/bartender, but tried to tune their banter out and focus on my self-imposed solitary confinement.  However, as I was leaving, one of the old men there, who had spent my entire lunch loudly discussing bleeding coyotes with his near-deaf companion, called out to me, "Hey, miss?"  I turned back and he asked "Where ya from?"

This was to become a familiar question.  I told him and he asked what I was doing there.  This led into a long discussion of where he was from, how he grew up, and the detailed account of all the land and businesses he owns on Drummond Island.  He also gave me the names of people I should talk to in order to get the most out of my experience.  I was curious about the lack of markings of any map I had, so I asked him how I would know if I ventured off State land onto private property.  He said it didn't matter; if I stumbled into someone's back yard, they'd likely invite me in for coffee.  "You're in the U.P. now, miss.  People are friendly here", he said. 

Good to know, but I wasn't looking for friendly people, I was looking for solitude.  

My first night on the island was uneventful.  I checked into my motel room, which means I entered a hall through a back door and found my room key hanging in the lock.  Security is not a big priority on Drummond Island.  Then I drove around to get a feel for the island, quickly discovering that there are only four roads to speak of, but they take you in every direction.  I was particularly interested in the Alvar out on the Maxton Plains, but decided to start my adventure closer to the Four Corners (yeah, you've probably realized that's where the four roads meet).

The Dam
The next several mornings as I loaded my pack and prepared to set out for the day, I stopped to chat with LaRae, who works very hard to keep the Drummond Island Hotel clean and comfortable for her guests.  She helped me with directions and had a wealth of information on how far I could drive on winter roads, and where to leave my car and start hiking.  I could leave my car in the middle of a two-track with no worries, because no one else was going to come along at that time of year.  LaRae sent me to the Alvar, the rest of the Maxton Plains, the fossil ledges and Marble Head.  All long hikes, but well worth it.  She suggested I stop in and see Betty at the Drummond Island Tourism Association (DITA).  Betty's office hours are hit-and-miss in February, but I did catch up with her and not only did Betty give me some great tips on seeing some of the more remote areas of the island, she also gave me snippets of her own life there which were amusing and interesting.

Betty told me I had to stop into the General Store out by McKinley Point.  The owner there said I had to go across the street and try the deep fried green beans at Chuck's.  He was right.  At Chuck's, they told me where to go to find the Albino Buck.  At Northwoods, I watched a lively billiards match among the locals, which involved a lot of cheering, jeering, and high fives.

Fossil Ledges
My days were spent hiking, following my own path.  I tracked two different wolves, but never saw them.  I saw birds I couldn't identify and skirted a pack of coyotes for the better part of a day at the Dam.  I hiked the fossil ledges at DI's Township Park, where the bear slept under my feet and the silence was absolute.  I hiked to Glen Cove and Marble Head, Big Shoal Bay, took pictures of a copper bottomed sailing vessel at the Yacht Club, and frequently returned to the Alvar where Mother Nature paved paradise and put up a parking lot in the form of solid shale exposed by a glacier 10,000 years ago.

But my evenings became something else entirely.  Every person I saw walked up to me and said "Where ya from?"  They were genuinely interested in who I was and what I was doing on DI.  Every person I met lead me to another place, with more greetings of "Where ya from?"  Every place I went introduced me to another kindness, to someone who was eager to share their love of Drummond Island and help me find it's uniqueness.  The islanders know that the maps don't tell you much; it's their experience that pointed me in the right direction.

Big Shoal
Half-way through my week, I attended Mass at a beautiful little Catholic church.  The congregation was small, about 34 people.  As soon as Mass ended, the woman in front of me turned around and said "Where ya from?"  We chatted, and she pulled me into a tiny little room for coffee.  The traveling priest, Father Johncvu, approached me and said "Where ya from?"  He asked what I was doing on Drummond, I told him I was there for some solitary hiking and thinking. 

Father Johncvu looked deep into my eyes, I felt as if he were looking deeper inside me, and asked if I had heard God's creatures. 

At the time, I thought he was referring to the coyotes and eagles and wolves.  But as the week continued on, it occurred to me that, while I was enjoying my lonely walks, seeing an ecosystem and all it's hidden treasures unlike any I had seen before, what I looked forward to most were the evenings when I met the islanders and heard their stories as they asked me mine. I began to appreciate the sense of community the people of Drummond Island share, and even got the feeling I was becoming an honorary member.  I started thinking that these people, with all their quirks and odd friendliness, love their island and look out for it and each other.  It felt like one big family.

God's voice didn't come to me in the middle of the woods.  It came to me from these people.  

The Alvar
They taught me that they need each other, are willing to give to each other, and will take a stranger and make her feel at home.  I learned not just about their island, but about their community.  I didn't expect to be drawn to the people of Drummond, but they pulled me in and made me feel welcome.  They restored my faith in God and human nature.  They don't know it, but the people of Drummond Island gave me a gift.  Life is what it is; accept it, embrace it, share it.  They gave me the strength to return to my life with the idea that I can't control what happens to me, I can only control how I react to it.  

They showed me a place where people matter and billiards is serious business, a place where sometimes the road ends too soon, but if you're willing to walk on, there are beautiful surprises waiting for you.

I hope to return someday to Drummond Island.  The people there may not remember me, but surely I will never forget them.  In the words of Eddie Vedder,

"I'll take this home that's inside me now, like a brand new friend I'll forever know".