Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Conveniently Located Hanging Tree

People with a debilitating phobia learn to avoid certain situations, so you would think I knew better.  As much time as I spend outdoors, hiking in the wilderness and deep woods, I shy away from areas that present the perfect environment for snakes.  Tall grass, wet and marshy fields, and rivers are the prime places for me to skirt around.  I know this.  I do it all the time.  Except this time.

I had traveled a day ahead of my family to the village of Empire in the Sleeping Bear Dunes to set up camp for our annual Family Camping Trip.  It's always a great weekend, with camping much less an emphasis than a whirlwind tour of all the area tourists attractions.  My husband loves tourist attractions. We were exploring the entire Leelanau Peninsula this year, since we try to go someplace new every year.

I love the annual Family Camping Trip, but struggle with camping in my beloved northern Michigan and spending all my time with crowds, overpriced food, and busy streets.  I want to be in the woods!  Early morning of the day my family would arrive was the only time I would be able to wander alone in the woods.  I made a quick stop at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor's Center, in search of a Trail Map, to fulfill a promise I made to my daughter, Birdie, to scout out some running trails for her as she is training for her first half-marathon.  The Visitor Center is very well staffed, with many exhibits and plenty of informational brochures available.  I found a Trail Guide, and purchased it on the Honor System by dropping a couple of dollars in the "Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes" box.  Another reason to love the wilds of Michigan.  Do you think a visit to any big city would include payments on an honor system?

Looking through the guide, I found a nearby trail system that would be easy for Birdie to access and drove a few miles to Esch Beach, within the National Lakeshore.  It wasn't particularly easy to find, and the old road that dead-ends at the beach is hilly with the asphalt washed-out on the edges.  Because it was still early, I walked through a small dune and came out on a completely deserted Lake Michigan beach, with dunes rising up behind me and the lake rushing toward me.  The sun was shining on dewey dune grass, making the dunes sparkle like diamonds.  I had found a very private stretch of beach and could not have been more delighted.

To my left, a small, crystal-clear creek emptied into the great lake.  According to my map, this was Otter Creek.  After walking the shoreline in solitude for about an hour, I returned to my car and found a sign located next to the vault toilet giving the history of the lost town of Aral.

It's a fascinating story.  According to Michigan's Lost Towns, Aral was a logging community in the late 1800's.  But perhaps its most intriguing story is not told on the official plaque at Esch Beach.  Behind the sign a very old, large tree lies on the ground, having toppled over a long time ago.  It's called The Hanging Tree.  On August 10, 1899, two Benzie County deputies were sent to Aral to place a lien on the stacked logs at the mill for unpaid taxes.  Mill Manager Charles Wright met the deputies on the road with a pistol and a rifle, and shot them dead.  The bodies were left where they fell and the mill continued operations as though nothing had happened.  As news of the double murder spread, the people of Aral became increasingly angry, and sent a telegram to Benzonia to inform the sheriff of the trouble.  As the sheriff dispatched a posse of twenty men to apprehend Wright, the mill manager shut down operations and disappeared into the woods.

Courtesy National Park Service
By the time the posse arrived, the angry mob was out for revenge.  Charles Wright had employed a man to act as interpreter for the Ottawa Indians, and Peter Lahala was thought to know the whereabouts of his boss.  The posse dropped a noose around Lahala's neck, and the Indian was hoisted in the air from the hanging tree.  The sheriff lowered him, asked where Wright was, and when Lahala couldn't answer, they hoisted him up again.  Before this grim justice could be fully carried out, Wright was dragged from the woods after being captured by a group of men, and Lahala was released.  Wright was sentenced to a life of hard labor at Jackson Prison.  One year later, his sentence was commuted by the Governor.

I find stories like these add so much more to my experience in a particular spot.  I drove my car about 50 feet up the road, and turned off at the trailhead.  A single-lane dirt two track led to several trailheads, so I kept driving to find the best trail for Birdie.  I knew she needed to run at least 12 miles, so I consulted the trail guide and started marking the different loops she could take.  As I drove further, I
Courtesy Google Images
saw Otter Lake on my right, and immediately thought I was in prime snake territory.  Going deeper into the woods, I stopped at Marker #4 and got out to walk, veering away from the marshy banks on the lake.  I walked a bit in my beloved woods, circled back to my car, and prepared to head back to the campground and wait for my family.  I had a clear idea of the route Birdie would run, and felt good that I was able to find it for her.

Driving out, I noticed many clumps of wildflowers growing right next to the dirt road.  With such a narrow lane, I figured I could lean out of my car window and cut some wildflowers for my vase at the campsite.  I was nervous, knowing that that proximity of the lake and the long wild grass and flowers were great hiding spots for reptiles, but I was able to cut several flowers without stepping outside of the car.  As I came upon the bridge over Otter Creek, I spotted the most unusual clump of flowers, right next to the corner of the bridge.  They were beautiful!  I told myself that I had enough flowers, I was pushing my luck, and I would actually have to step out of the car to cut these.  River, dense undergrowth, bridge, shade on a hot morning, all screamed at me to just keep driving.  I stopped.  The flowers really were breathtaking.  I leaned out the window and scanned the ground, particularly around the base of the flowers.  I took one of the cut flowers and threw it out the window, to see if anything moved on the ground.  The morning was quiet, I saw no movement, and decided I was safe.

Open the car door.  Grab the scissors.  Put one foot on the ground next to the bridge flowers.  Keep one foot in the car.  Lean over, grab the whole bunch of flowers, and make one quick cut.  That was my plan.  As I reached down to cut, a very large, very black snake reared up from the center of the bunch…ohshitohshitohshitgetinthecarouch!slammedmyfootinthedoorohshitohshitohshit!  I hit the gas with the car door still open, called my husband, who was still driving north with the kids, and saw my world turning black around the edges.  When my husband answered, he knew what had happened right away.  He's heard that wheezing and moaning before.  He said, "Are you in the car?  Pull over, pull over!"  He knew chances were good I was about to faint.

I actually handled it well this time, considering the size of the snake and the surprise attack it launched at me.  I kept driving, resisted blacking out, and my husband talked me through it.  I was pretty shaky for several hours, and experienced flashbacks, but I didn't faint, so that's progress.

Later that afternoon, after my husband arrived, I drove him out Esch Road to take him and my son to the deserted beach I had walked earlier.  No longer deserted, we couldn't even park, so we drove out and I instructed him to turn down the dirt road to the bridge so I could show him where "the incident" occurred and let him check out Birdie's running route.   As he slowly drove over the bridge, my son hung his head out the window and said, "Oh yeah, there's your snake, Mom".    GoGoGoGoGoGo!  We peeled out of there, spraying dirt and small rocks behind us, and went back to the safety of the campsite.

Later that night, Birdie arrived at the campground with her boyfriend.  After greeting them, I hugged my daughter and said "Guess what?  I found your running trail today!"  She smiled and replied,

"Oh, thanks, mom, but you didn't need to.  I plan to take a break from running this weekend."

This would be an ironic end to my story, wouldn't it? Sadly, I'm an idiot, and the story isn't finished yet.

On the last morning of the Annual Family Camping Trip, I once again arose very early, and decided to drive back to Otter Creek Bridge to get a picture for my blog.  No sane person with a snake phobia would have returned there, but again, I had a plan.  Turning onto the dirt two-track, I stopped the car immediately, left it running, and using a 300mm zoom digital camera lens, leaned out the window to snap a photo of the bridge, where "the incident" happened.  A wild rabbit hopped across the lane, and I shot a beautiful picture of the rabbit sitting right in the spot where the vicious snake attacked me.  Backing out of the dirt road, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Now, I would never again return to the Otter Creek Bridge.

I had my shot for the blog, my family headed home, and I went north to spend a few days in the U.P.
 While there, a huge storm blew in, and I spent a cozy evening in the tin can, with the rain beating down on the roof and the wind gently rocking the camper back and forth.  I passed the time by downloading all my pictures onto the computer, and when the photo of the rabbit at the bridge came up, I thought it was a really pretty picture.  The sun was hitting the rabbit's back, making its fur shine.  The colors were glorious, the picture was perfect.  Wait…what is that long black thing in the lower right corner of the screen?  A stick?  A root?  Zoom in…ohshitohshitohshitohshit!

Yup, you guessed it.  My attack snake was crossing the road in front of my car when I took the picture. I never saw it until I zoomed in on the frame, safe in the tin can staring at my computer.

The next time I decide to go to Otter Creek Bridge, would someone please erect the fallen Hanging Tree and threaten me with it?