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.
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.
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.