Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Saturday, October 13, 2012

We're Not In Kansas Anymore

I recently returned from a nine day trek throughout the Northeastern corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and I experienced so many amazing things that my outline already has my story broken into at least five posts!  This first post in the series recalls the beginning of my journey, prior to the days my friend Debbie joined me.  It was a solitary time of exploration, both of the land and of my heart, and I am excited to share it with my few real readers (thanks again!) and my thousands of imaginary ones.

Photo Courtesy of Bob Stovall
The drive from southern Michigan to the U.P. should take about 5 hours, but because I can never be without a hot cup of coffee, resulting in frequent stops, it takes me about 7 hours, and with each passing mile I felt less stress, less shoulder pain, and more clarity in my thoughts.  With Eddie Vedder playing on the iPod, I made my customary final stop before crossing the Big Mac at the Mackinac Rest Area, to climb with a reluctant Rooney up the steep trail to the scenic overlook.  It's a bit of a ritual to look out over miles of treetops, take a deep breath, and simply be in the moment.  Then it's off to the bridge, which used to be a source of anxiety but I have now gotten so used to hauling the tin can over the grates that I can actually look out at Lake Huron on my right and Lake Michigan on my left and enjoy the stunning view from the crest of Big Mac.

I will admit, a ship passing underneath gives me a brief flash of it crashing into the bridge, but that story comes later.

As I drove over the bridge and entered the U.P., I said to Rooney, "Hey buddy, we're not in Kansas anymore".  That's what I always think when I enter the U.P., because it is a place like no other, removed from what we consider the civilized world and into a world that is a bit behind the times, yet more civil than home. I had gotten a late start on my day, so I decided to stop at the Straits State Park for the night.  Bad decision.  It was raining, and I had so much stuff packed in the trailer for "glamping up" my campsite that I had to pull out the awning on Twinkie and unload wicker furniture and a little red wagon just to get in the camper.  I didn't even unhook from the Yukon, I planned to just sleep and get up early, leave by 8:00am for my real destination.

I turned on the first of two full propane tanks, fired up the furnace in the tin can, and settled into my dreamy bed to read and listen to the rain.  The temperature was predicted to drop to 34 F that night, but I was warm in bed.  However, I could not sleep.  I was a little depressed, and very anxious to get to Tahquamenon Falls, frustrated that I had to stop for the night.  After a restless night, I woke in the morning to one compelling thought; I was freezing!  The furnace had gone out, and would not restart.  After packing everything back into the camper, I stopped at the ranger station and asked for advice on somewhere to go in St. Ignace for furnace repair.  Each place I went to sent me somewhere else, always maneuvering the tin can into tight parking areas.  Finally, at the fifth stop, the Mackinac Heating and Cooling owner came outside, checked a few things, and discovered my propane connection had shaken loose underneath the camper.  He fixed it in two minutes, refused to let me pay him (I think he kind of admired me for heading into the wilderness alone) and I was on my way, three hours later than planned.  It was all good though, because my next stop would be Tahquamenon!  I bought a large fresh cup of coffee in St. Ignace, and fifteen minutes later took the exit for M-123, at which point there would be nowhere to stop for coffee or a bathroom until I reached my campsite.

Arriving at Tahquamenon Falls State Park Lower Falls Campground, I was surprised to see a long line of campers in front of me, waiting to check in.  What were all these people doing here?  I was supposed to be camping in a sparsely populated campground in the Fall!  Don't these people know it gets cold up here?  And there are bears?  Geez.  I was lamenting all of this to Rooney, because I frequently talk to my dog on long solitary trips as if he is a person, when I noticed the license plate on the camper in front of me.  Kansas.  Hey, people, you're not in Kansas anymore!  Rooney and I got a good laugh out of that.

When my turn came in line, I was in for another surprise.  Most state campgrounds in Michigan have a "site specific" reservation system, meaning when you reserve online you can choose a specific site.  I like that system.  A few though, including Tahquamenon, are not site specific and you just make a general reservation for the time you will be there.  I assumed that I would check-in, and the ranger would show me the available sites on a map, and I would pick one.  That seems logical.  But we weren't in Kansas anymore, and they do things a little differently in the U.P.  When I pulled up, the ranger told me to drive to the lower loop, pick any campsite that didn't have a camper or tent on it, drive back up the hill, park, and let him know which site I would be on.  As I pulled out to roll down the big hill, it suddenly occurred to me that the five campers in front of me were also driving around, picking their site.  What if one of them took the site I wanted?  Oh crap.  I drove into the campground loop, quickly found my perfect site, but based on the surprisingly low number of empty sites, I had to assume that one of the five in front of me had chosen this site as well.  Looking for a shortcut to head off in front of the other drivers, I felt like Ben Stiller in "Meet The Parents" when he was racing his future father-in-law home from the restaurant.  I cut through a one-way campground drive, going the wrong way, cursing at the dog-walker in front of me who wouldn't move out of the drive, cutting my eyes over to the two campers going the right way on the next drive over.  One looked like he was heading back out, the other was still surveying sites.  As soon as the dog-walker stopped to let her dog sniff a tree, I swerved around her and pulled forward like a bat out of hell, darn it! the other camper was in front of me!  When I got to the top of the hill, I tried to beat that other camper into the ranger station, but he and his wife walked in just ahead of me.  I held my breath as the ranger asked them which site they wanted, he paused, looked at his wife, and said "5".  Yay!  I wanted 4.  We would be neighbors.

After checking in and happily driving back down the hill to the Riversbend loop, I figured out why my new neighbors didn't take site 4.  In my haste to quickly assess sites, looking for the right view and privacy and pretty trees, I neglected to notice that in order to back into site 4, I had to turn the camper at a 90 degree angle and squeeze the tin can between two very large trees, with about 6" clearance on either side.  It took me 6 attempts, with my new neighbor watching me and shaking his head like I'm just a dumb woman, but I got Twinkie in.  I wasn't sure how I would pull her out, but I had 8 days before I had to worry about that!

It was already 1:00 in the afternoon, and I had a lot of work to do!  Normally, I camp simply, but the one time each year Debbie joins me, I "glamp" up, because Debbie is not, by nature, a camper, and I try to make our surroundings really nice for her.  First thing, I got out of the Yukon, shouted to my neighbor "I got her in!", he laughed, then I hooked Rooney on his lead line and hooked the other end to the picnic table.  Rooney can run away and pull a large picnic table behind him, but he only does that if I try to walk away from the site without him.  I gave myself a moment to take in my site.  Standing next to Rooney, I planned where to hang my bamboo fencing, how to set up my chairs and wine bottle hurricane lamps, then I turned and went still as I saw the view behind my site.

I could look right down at the Tahquamenon River from my site, and hear the lower falls that were cascading just around the bend.  Peace.  I was filled with peace.

It took me several hours to set up camp, but the finished result was worth it for Debbie.

My campsite selection is very important to me.  I need some privacy, a view, the ability to place Rooney's lead line where he can sit next to me by the fire, but not get too close to set himself on fire, which he has done before.  I need trees spaced just right to hang the fence.  I need to be close to the water spigot, so Rooney can see me when I fill my jug with water.  (Otherwise he runs after me, picnic table and all).  But mostly, my site has to feel right.  This site was perfect.

I always look for wildflowers, even when I'm not Glamping!
After setting up tables and seating areas that we never once used, and placing some wildflowers in a vase, I was finished.  By now, it was getting chilly, so I fired up the furnace, pleased that it seemed to be running properly, and more pleased when I didn't smell propane outside Twinkie's door.  I wasn't sure if that connection held during my race through the campground to get my site.  But it did, and the tin can was warming up.  Relieved to be done with the work, I took Rooney for a nice long walk to find his "poop path".  Wherever we go, Rooney selects one spot to do his business every day when we walk.  If I don't walk him there, he doesn't poop.  He picked his spot, thankfully not too far away from the camper, as those early morning walks were cold, and we walked on down to the lower falls.  Seeing them surrounded by Fall color again gave me the sense that I was in the right place for this moment.  Even Rooney seemed quite content!

I had planned to include more in this first post, but I have been criticized before for writing long posts, so I think I will end this with a few last thoughts and write the rest in another few days.
My camp was set up, Rooney and I had walked, we had both eaten, the campfire was dying and the sun had set on this long day.  I was so full of anticipation for the rest of this trip, but also wanted to make sure I wasn't missing a moment while looking ahead.  The moon was almost full, and I wanted to take the steep path behind my tin can down to the river.  Rooney was worn out, so I put him in the camper while he checked his emails and updated his Facebook status (just kidding, he wasn't really doing that.  At least, I don't think he was really doing that).  Using only the moonlight to guide my steps, I walked down to the River, sat on the bank, and thanked God for this opportunity, this beautiful place, and a full life.  I wasn't in Kansas anymore, but I was home.