Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Monday, July 30, 2012

Future Olympian?

I love watching the Olympics.  Seeing young people from all over the world succeed as a result of incredible determination, focus, and discipline is inspiring.  It also leaves me a little sad that I never had the drive to accomplish something on any platform, let alone a world stage.  (I feel the same way when I watch the Oscars).  The Olympic athletes are all heroes, even those who never stand on the podium and receive a medal.  Just getting there is really something, and I am proud of all the athletes.

Today, I watched the Women's Kayaking.  I love kayaking, though I don't get to do it often enough.  The course was challenging, and I saw several women struggle to get their head inside the red pole, and fight their way up the mechanical current to pass through the green poles that eluded them on the pass down.  I got to thinking, "I could do that.  I could be an Olympian!"  Then I remembered I am old and have a shoulder issue, so the dream quickly died along with the many other dreams I had.

It's probably not the best time for me to watch the Olympics, since I am going through a mid-life crisis of identity.  I never thought I would have a mid-life crisis.  I used to be so together.  For 20 years I was perfectly content to stay at home and raise my family.  But when my son came home from his freshman year of college in May, and we began the typical fight between parents who want some respect from the 19 year old who wants to be an adult (i.e., no rules, no responsibilities, it's summer) it occurred to me that my children are going to leave me.  Eventually, they will do what I have taught them to do; go out in the world and make their own way.  The mid-life crisis hit me right where it hurts.  Where does that leave me?  What am I going to do?  Obviously, because I'm OCD, I will continue to clean my house, because no one else can clean it as well as I, and I will do laundry every day, though less of it.  I suppose I will even cook an occasional meal.  But is that it?  I want a paycheck!  I want to do something that earns the respect of my grown children and my husband, something that speaks of who I am beyond a mom.  The problem is, I got nothin'.

In a rare moment of open and honest discussion, I brought this very topic up with my 19 year old son, Max, last night.  He came home early, which immediately made me suspect that something was wrong, and joined me by the campfire I was enjoying.  We had a nice long talk after he assured me that no, nothing was wrong, he was just tired and wanted to come home (Gasp!).  It was the best night I have had with Max this summer, talking about life, working out a few issues we've had, speaking of youth and adulthood and balance.  I apologized to Max for not being much fun to be around lately, and tried to explain a little bit about my personal identity crisis, because he is old enough now to hear his mother speak as a person, not just his mom.  I told him that I just want to find something I am very good at, that I love doing.  Quietly, Max said,

"You already have."  Thinking that my son was about to tell me I am a good mom, instead he surprised me by saying, "You build a great campfire".

It took me a minute to let that sink in, but he was right.  I do build a great campfire, and I love doing it.  If it were an Olympic sport, I would be on that podium, with my national anthem playing and a gold medal around my neck.  I have trained 25 years building campfires, and they bring people joy and comfort.  Yeah, I'm that good.

I find it rather uplifting that Max, a college sophomore, still sees me as a hero, even in the smallest way.  It may be difficult for him to adjust to being home again for the summer, and it is certainly difficult for me to adjust to a son who doesn't need me much anymore.  But in the middle of my very adult issues, he finds a way to make me a hero.  I love that kid.  Umm, man.  Boy.  Whatever.

Max doesn't realize it, but he helped me find a new and better way of thinking about my mid-life crisis. If I can be a Gold-Medal campfire builder, what else can I do?  Can I grow to be a serious blogger?  Can I find a job with the Department of Natural Resources and spend my time doing something I love? Can I travel more often in a tin can and meet people and change their lives in small but significant ways?  Maybe.

Max gave me hope.  He planted the seed of thought that even though my children will leave me, they will still love me as I love them so very much.  He made me believe that I have done something right, which means I still have time to do more things and eventually find the thing that will define me.

As my fire burned down last night, I impulsively added one more log, trying to prolong this newly found connection with my son where we can both act like adults and enjoy something simple together.  But as the log sparked and the flame took flight, Max stood up and said, "Night, mom".  I finished the bonfire alone, but that's okay.  I do most things alone anyway, which made my brief time with Max that much sweeter.  I may not be an Olympian, but I am a mom, a hero, and a person who is ready to let my kids go and always be ready to welcome them back.  I am ready to be more.  Doesn't that deserve a medal?  Or at least a hug from my son, which is even better.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

War and Peace

Woodstock.  Vietnam.  Make love, not war.  These are a few of the topics discussed with my temporary neighbors on a recent camping trip to the U.P. of Michigan.  And that was just the first night.  Subsequent nights led to conversations about Jesus, doing Acid in the 60's, (them, not me) veterans, Agent Orange, naughty neighbors, helping people, religion, faith, flower power, and handguns.  And dogs.

My new friends were interesting, to say the least.  But Al and Terri are also the most open, generous, kind, and giving people I've met in a long time.  They are one of the things I love most about camping.  You get to meet real, honest-to-goodness hippies.

The trip began as a campus visit to Northern Michigan University for my daughter, but in usual Kiki fashion I extended my stay to include camping on the shores of Lake Superior, some nights alone, and a couple of nights with my girls.  Another mom, Dinah, and her daughter joined us as well for the campus tour.  Dinah had never camped, and I'm not entirely sure she liked it, but never once did she complain and we had a really good time.  I love introducing people to "living in God's country", taking in the beautiful nature around us and meeting other people of like minds.  Or, in the case of Al and Terri, people of slightly different minds.

After a very long drive, pulling an ancient tin can that is still making a horrible racket under the hubcap,   I arrived at my destination, Gitche Gummi Campground on Lake Superior.  Upon pulling in, the first thing I saw was a rather old man jogging down the drive, wearing running shoes, a speedo swimsuit, and nothing else, unless you count the white zinc covering his nose and lips.  It was a startling sight.  Even more startling was when he stopped at my car, asked who I was, and told me to drive down the hill and find my site, he'd check on me after his run.  I had just met the campground owner, Jeff. He makes a helluva first impression.

First impressions are important.  They are also often wrong.  The big picture in my head as I drove through the campground looking for my site was that of a run-down ugly mess.  But as I continued to circle the campsites, four times because I couldn't find my site, I realized that the dirt and gravel road was rather smooth.  I would later discover that the road was in such good condition because every evening Jeff hooked an ancient grader up to his ancient Chevy and pulled it through the campground several times, leveling the bumps and filling the holes to keep it smooth.  What I first thought was junk piled everywhere was actually art, metal sculptures and displays made by none other than Jeff to depict the history of tools used in the area long ago, tools that defined the way of life in the U.P.  The dark buildings obscured by trees were actually stunning log structures, again all built by Jeff, that housed the showers and restrooms, a fudge factory, library, and billiards hall.

Gitche Gummi campground was, at one time, a thriving and beautiful oasis on the shores of an unforgiving lake.  I'm told that ten years ago, you had to make your reservations there a year in advance in order to get in.  Jeff had the financial means to keep up with the many, many updates and repairs continually needed in a campground.  Then the economy tanked, the weather didn't cooperate, and now Jeff is a solitary old man just trying to get by and do the best he can.  He works so hard!  From early morning to late evening, every day, Jeff does what he can to keep his campground running.  Before my time there ended, I came to appreciate all that Jeff does, rather than all that he needs to do.  I also came to love Gitche Gummi campground and the people I met there, planning to return next year for an even longer stay.

First things first, though.  I couldn't find my campsite.  I saw little wooden posts with the site number carved into the sides.  I saw #39, #43, #44, #45 and so on, but where was #41?  Finally, on my fourth pass, I stopped in front of a Van/RV covered in flower power and peace decals, and asked the woman outside if she knew where my site was.  She pointed to the site right next to hers and said,

"It's right there!  Didn't you see the sign?"  She then proceeded to crawl under a very large bush, part the branches, and reveal the post that said #41.  Ah.

Once I went through the ritual of setting up camp, I took a moment to look around and realized my site was absolutely perfect!  When I had originally contacted Jeff for a reservation, he asked me what kind of site I like, saying it is very important to match the right guest with the right site.  He could not have been more spot-on with what I wanted.  The site was small and secluded, tucked into a corner.  I had a level high-rise on which to park my camper, hook-ups were conveniently placed close to the trailer but out of sight, and Jeff had piled wood chips in the corner where I would put the girls' tent.  The site then dropped off sharply to a depression of thick undergrowth and towering pine trees.  It was lovely and private.  A large boulder sat near the firepit, providing a natural table between two camp chairs.  The ground was soft enough near the tent to spear my Spirit Pole into the earth, protecting the entrance to the tent and calling to the elusive wolf that I have yet to see.

Jeff had told me if I needed any help, ask the couple right behind me in the hippie van.  I hated to intrude, but I could not get the awning over the tent by myself, it takes 2 people.  I asked, and Al jumped right up to help.  We put the awning up, set it in place, and chatted for a bit.  He was very friendly, couldn't wait to introduce me to his "beautiful wife", and invited me to their site later to enjoy a fire.

Because Dinah and the three girls would be arriving the following day, it took me five hot and sweaty hours to get everything set up.  In the evening I finally showered and felt somewhat human again, so I built a small fire and settled in to sew little plastic tabs on my new curtains, wanting to get them hung before the girls came.  As I sat and sewed, (if you know me at all, you know I do not sew!) I became aware of a melody drifting through the air, a voice that seemed to come from the heavens and still my heart.  This beautiful voice sang hymns of joy and praise, filling me with peace.  Walking around my camper, I was surprised that the singing came not from a stereo, but from Al's wife, Terri.  It was beautiful and uplifting, and as I thanked Terri for sharing her lovely voice, she blushed and shrugged her shoulders.  A gift of song, accompanied by humbleness.

The more I learned about Al and Terri, the more I looked forward to our next conversation.  They have lived through much, and still are fighting an unacknowledged war with the V.A.  They survived the 60's , Al returned from Vietnam with lifelong nightmares and the effects of Agent Orange, Terri went through a time of ill health, in addition to the many difficulties we all share of making a living and raising a family.  But their laughter is quick to come and lasts long, their smiles are bright and frequent, and their love of God and country is strong.

Terri led me to the field of wildflowers from which I cut a beautiful bouquet to brighten my campsite.  Al told me how to find the giant sand dune well behind the campground.  They introduced me to Tippy, the golden retriever who loves to play catch, and White Paw, the little puppy of undetermined breeding who only wants to be loved.  When the dogs barked, Terri would tell them no, then count, as if a parent to a child, 1…2…3…don't make me say 4!  and the dogs would stop.  Al and Terri dressed in matching outfits, happily walked their dogs, swam in Lake Superior, picked wild blueberries, and relaxed in the Flower Power RV.  They cooked outside, took the time to look around them, met and helped other campers, and laughed a lot.  They were great camping neighbors.

The evening before we would spend the day at Northern Michigan University, I was informed by my daughter that we would all spend the next night in a nice hotel.  Worried about leaving my camper for a night, I was assured by Al and Terri that they would keep watch over the tin can.  Terri said,

"We've got The Judge on our side!"  Confused, Terri then reached into the van amid the Peace decals and produced a Taurus handgun called "The Judge".  Having recently completed a CPL course, I was fascinated to find that these people, who believe in peace, love, and happiness, had their own licenses to carry concealed handguns, and their "Make love, not war" RV contained an arsenal of weapons.  But based on their use of safe handling techniques, their knowledge of their guns, and their attitude toward life, I concluded that Al and Terri are responsible, legal gun owners.  Even though I have a CPL, I have yet to buy a handgun, so I was actually comforted by the fact that Al and Terri had my back.

After our campus tour (during which my daughter emphatically pronounced she would not go to a college so far away from…anything) and our night in the hotel, I bid my girls farewell and returned to the tin can and my new friends.  Because it was raining, I used Jeff's laundry room to wash and dry my bedding, cleaned the tin can, and settled in for a lovely rainy afternoon of reading and blogging, which was the precise moment the sun came out.  I abandoned my book and went for a bike ride, walked the shores of Lake Superior, and took in as much of the surrounding beauty as I could.  I settled up my bill with Jeff, told him I would be leaving in the morning, and Jeff then pronounced me his Camper of the Year and gave me a free Gitche Gummi coffee mug.  It's awesome.

My final evening of my first camping trip ever to Michigan's Upper Peninsula was spent sitting around a campfire with Al and Terri.  They entertained me with stories of  their wealthy yet greedy neighbor back home who intrudes on their land, the young veterans returning from war whom they have helped, and the permanent home they are looking for in the U.P.  We talked about music, faith, and people we have known.  We shared some laughs, enjoyed the quiet comfort of a fire, and hoped for a view of the Northern Lights.

In the midst of our good time, it occurred to me that Al and Terri are at war.  We all are, really.  Our enemies are divorce, addiction, the government, the economy, the loss of a job.  We arm ourselves with positive thoughts and prayers to conquer cancer, depression, or heart disease. We use words as weapons to fight our neighbors, an annoying relative, a boss who crosses the line.  Some are even at war with themselves.  We all fight to protect our feelings, our families, our choices, and our beliefs.  But we also pick our battles, because we know not every battle can be won.  We seek small victories while we keep moving forward, and count those victories as blessings.  And…we don't let the little wars consume us.

Al and Terri are at war, but they are also at peace.  They showed me that having the strength to fight comes with the strength to love and forgive.  Their weapon of choice is kindness, their strategy centered on giving, sharing, and helping.  When Terri sings and Al smiles, you momentarily forget your own battles while you remember what's good.

I met many other nice people at Gitche Gummi.  There was the retired Airstream Salesman, who toured my tin can and gave me some great ideas for further restoration.  I shared a few laughs with the retired couple who, on a whim, drove to Lake Superior without a plan to escape the heat, only to find it was every bit as warm here as it was below the bridge.  There were the homeless teenagers who were lost and didn't care, the man who had brought his 74 year old father-in-law to sleep in a tent for the first time.  Everyone at Gitche Gummi had a story, a smile, and something to share.

If you ever find yourself in the U.P. looking for a place to camp, I hope you'll find your way to Gitche Gummi.  But if you do, don't judge it by your first impression.  Rather, judge it by the impression it will forever stamp on your heart.  Beneath the clutter, beyond the Speedo, and above all else are good people who want to welcome you into their hearts at Gitche Gummi.  And who knows?  Maybe some day, when the economy turns around and things get better for everyone, you will need to reserve in advance, but for now, I like Gitche Gummi just the way it is, and I think you will, too.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The True Colors of a Tin Can

The simple things have always appealed to me.  The decision to give up tent camping (though not entirely) and switch to a camper included a conscious decision to keep it simple.  The Tin Can spoke to my reminiscence of days gone by, and I swore I would never change her.  For 10 years, I enjoyed living, for bits and pieces of time, in the Tin Can, with few improvements and satisfied with a simple shelter.

I guess I didn't count on getting older.

For the last few years, I have held this idea in the back of my mind to update the Tin Can, make her my own.  It wasn't that I wanted something fancier, though having plumbing that works is a bonus, I just wanted her to be a place of refuge, I wanted the Tin Can to reflect me.  The project began last year, when my husband generously sent the 1970 Airstream to the restoration Guru, Tony Secreto, for updating of the systems.  When I finally got her back, she had all new plumbing, heat, a hot water heater, original Airstream propane tanks, and a new hitch, plus countless other minor updates.  This summer, my husband and I began restoring the interior ourselves, and it has been so much fun!

BEFORE: Preparation Time!
I started by taking everything I could out of the Tin Can.  Cupboard doors came off, yucky carpet ripped out, furniture gone, drawers emptied.  Having formerly been a cleaning lady, I found myself disgusted by the 40+ years of filth I uncovered.  I thought I kept the camper spotlessly clean, I could not have been more wrong.  But before I could begin cleaning, I wanted to sand down all the wood.

BEFORE: Roof Vent

BEFORE: Filthy Closet

BEFORE: The sanding begins
Anticipating a challenge with old wood, I was pleased to find that the sanding was easier and quicker than I feared.  Down to bare wood, the camper was covered in dust and grime.  Two days of cleaning every nook and cranny made my heart lighter but left my hands bleeding and sore.  Just a quick tip:  The cleaning product, TSP, doesn't just eat through rubber gloves, it eats through flesh as well.  Then my hands turned purple and swelled up like little water balloons, but I didn't care so much because the Tin Can was clean!  The really fun part was yet to come.

I chose a stain for the wood called "cabernet", and it was exactly what I wanted.  Once the first coat of stain was on, a light sanding was required.  I asked my husband to help me with that, because my hands were clenched into semi-permanent fists from the flesh-eating cleaning solvent, but while I went into the house for a half hour to make dinner, the husband took control of my project.  As soon as I stepped back into the Tin Can, it occurred to me that the oven, stove, and sink were missing.  Hubby decided new ones were necessary, as well as a new counter.  Okay, then.  Add more time, more money, and more appreciation for my mate on this project.

BEFORE: But I was only gone a half hour!

BEFORE:  The old kitchen

The removal of said appliances and structures revealed the last of the grime, but I found Simple Green worked just as well as TSP.  Also, I now had the opportunity to stain the wood behind the counter and inside the cupboards.

BEFORE:  Refrigerator…GONE!
It should have come as no surprise - but it did - when my husband also tore the refrigerator out.  We probably should have done some research first.  There are no longer any RV refrigerators made that will fit in the space provided in the 1970 Airstream.  Creative thinking on my husband's part led us to cap off the propane option, tear out the venting system, and install a Best Buy fridge with a freezer on top.

I took the Tin Can to Kitchen Supply in Vandercook, Michigan for a new countertop.  The owner, who fears getting a reputation for creative design in an RV, not only made me a beautiful new countertop, but he built a cabinet under the new range top to replace the discarded oven (don't need it), and built a walled enclosure and bracket system for the new refrigerator and microwave to keep them from moving while traveling.  Once that was complete, I had additional staining to do, then on to the paint.

AFTER: New countertop

I had consulted with my good friend Debbie on the colors for the interior.  I showed her lots of examples on Pinterest of other Airstreams that I liked, and we took ideas from all of them to create my own design.  Debbie is full of ideas, at any given moment, for how to design a beautiful living space and she helped me define exactly what I wanted.  Once I started painting the walls, my excitement level grew.  I could begin to see the picture in my mind taking shape, and the result was beyond my dream.

I needed help with the curtains, but thanks to the combined efforts of my talented sister (thanks, Tracy, for dropping everything while mom and dad's living room was on fire to come to the scary fabric store during my time of need) and Nora, of D'Nora's Tailoring in Jackson, Michigan, I got my new curtains in time for my first-ever trip to Michigan's U.P.

Then my dad bought a piece of bird's eye maple, my favorite wood, and built me a new side-shelf for the couch.  I am so grateful to have a piece of my dad in my Airstream.  My son, Max, laid the new carpet (well, most of it, but he's 19 and had "plans" so I had to finish it) and my girls gave me encouragement, helping by doing laundry and preparing meals so I could keep working.  It warms my heart to know that my family and dearest friend wanted this project for me as much as I wanted it for myself.  I could not have done it without any of them.


A few personal touches here and there, and the Tin Can is ready for unveiling!  

Dragonfly Windchime
Flowers from Local Farmer's Market

Dream Catcher

I still have a couple of minor things to do.  My nephew Gary searched long and hard to find original parts to build a table that tucks away when not in use, and I am anxiously waiting for his fine craftsmanship to complete my dining area.  I need to make doors or curtains for the four cubby holes under the couch and buy an old dining room chair, recover the seat cushion, for additional seating.  My sister is making some throw pillows out of the sentimental choice of dragonfly fabric, then the Tin Can is finished until next year.  The summer of 2013 will see a polished exterior and new custom awning, with sides.

Are you ready?  Here it comes…
BEFORE: Living Room

AFTER: Living Room

AFTER: New refrigerator and wall

BEFORE: Kitchen

BEFORE: Bedroom

BEFORE: Bedroom

AFTER: Bedroom

AFTER: Bedroom

The Tin Can was simple, basic, and marginally functional for years, but now her true colors are showing.  She has become my other home, filled with the colors of me and the work of many hands which are near to my heart.  The Tin Can's true colors are warmth and love, peace, happiness, and dreams that come true.  She's mine now, but also my family's, my friends', and she even belongs to a few strangers we will meet along the way, people who, like me, seek her embrace and shelter from the storm. Isn't she beautiful? And CLEAN!
AFTER: Closet
AFTER: Polished Roof Vent

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dreams Really Do Come True

So many times I have walked the shores of the Great Lakes in Michigan, longing to get away from all the tourists and vacationers who invade the beaches each summer, looking for the same enjoyment as I. When I would get to the end of the State property and see the sign marked "Private Land", I would stare longingly at the empty shoreline ahead of me and wonder what the people were like who were lucky enough to own a piece of the beach.  I dreamed of letting my dog, Rooney, run on the beach, and not seeing anyone for miles.  Today, for just a few hours, I lived the dream.

After a frantic push to get my 1970 Airstream restored, I was able to finish enough of the work to put her back together this week and head way north to Cheboygan State Park.  I had never been there, but available campsites on the 4th of July are few, and it was the first park I looked at on the DNR website that had a few sites still open.  I have always gravitated to the west side of Michigan, so heading east to Lake Huron has been a new experience, certainly one I will never regret.

A Quiet Campsite

The state park in Cheboygan is one of the best kept secrets in Michigan

My site was shaded and secluded, with lots of privacy and a cool breeze coming off the lake.  Temperatures were in the 90's, but the tin can stayed cool under the canopy of trees that framed her.  Rooney found the grove of pine trees in my site a comfortable place to sleep.  It was so quiet!  Even though the campground was mostly full, people were enjoying the sounds of nature and the sight of Lake Huron peeking through the campsites.  

Rooney, hot on the trail
                                                                             I spent the first day exploring the many trails that are well marked and offer shade.  I felt sorry for Rooney, though, because even on the tree-covered trails the air temperatures were high and he was suffering in the heat.  When we returned from a long hike, Rooney dropped on his bed of pine needles, panting, worn out.  It was then that an older couple walked by with their dog and stopped to ask about the Airstream.  As we talked, they told me of a short trail just down the road that leads to the beach, where dogs are allowed.  I have never camped in a Michigan state park that allowed dogs on the beach, so I verified the information with a DNR officer, and the next day we walked that trail.

It was only a ten minute walk, but when the trees fell away to reveal a sandy beach, I was shocked and elated.  I could see down the beach forever, and there was not another person in sight!  Rooney and I walked for a bit on the water's edge, splashing our feet and cooling off, when in a moment of trust I did something I have never done before; I let Rooney off his leash.  He loved it!  He ran in the water of Lake Huron, then ran out, shook himself off, and loped down the beach.  Every so often, he would stop and turn to look at me, as if to say "C'mon, hurry up!"  It was heartwarming to see my dog do what dogs should do, run and splash and get muddy and hurry back to my side.  I spent the afternoon walking a deserted beach with my dog running free, and it was good.
Rooney, Unleashed!

An endless empty beach

As we returned to the campground, I stopped in to see Rachael at the Check-In Station.  I asked her what she thinks makes this campground so special, and even though she has only worked there a short time, she said,

"It's because we are old-fashioned".

The Perfect Campsite
Ah, she defined what I was feeling.  Only 20 amp service is available there, so there were no big campers with air conditioning units running and people staying inside to escape the heat.  No, all the campers were in tents or simple trailers, and we all were sweating together, not complaining, just glad to be living outside for a bit.  No one was fancy.  It was a campground full of simple people, like me, who want to get away from real life for a few days and let their kids ride bikes without helmets on, splash in the water, and sit outside to eat, talk, remember a childhood that was more basic, yet far richer, than what we know today.

The View
The rocky bottom of Lake Huron
Cheboygan State Park is happily no longer of the best-kept secrets in Michigan for us in-betweeners.  Remote tent camping isn't for everyone, neither is high-tech RVing.  This place is for people who want to be able to plug in a light or a radio, who seek solitude on the shoreline, and who want a quiet camping experience with just enough comfort to remind us of home.

I intend to return often.  For this happy camper, Cheboygan State Park offers just what I need.  A quiet and private site, a clean campground, and miles of empty beach with my dog running free.  If this was a dream, I plan for it to be a recurring one.