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the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

Keweenaw Summer

 

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Summer here makes you forget there ever was a winter. The northern latitudes make for long days that make it seem like life here is, and never was anything but, dragonflies whizzing among wildflowers, their colors vibrating in air clear as glass. The world looks fresh as clothes hung to dry on a line. Highway 203 has been freshly paved and painted, and Bryan's cobalt jersey follows the yellow line like a Norman McLaren animation. Riding bikes along this road will make you think you've dropped into the opening credits of a children’s public television cartoon--a winding pastoral underscored by the canal. Kitchen gardens lay spread on lawns like quilting projects. Boats nod vehemently at their docks. Two- and three-man construction crews guide gleaming, compact little machines around piles of pale, aromatic lumber. (Everyone has a summer project going.) Children with cornsilk hair and acorn-brown skin walk in the shoulder, staring at us with impersonal wonder, sometimes shouting "Hello!" as if they don't expect us to understand their language. Nothing, since my three-month solo travel through France, has ever reminded me so much of that time as summer on this little peninsula does. That may be partly owing to the Tour de France dominating our every morning through June and July. Bryan is up like a shot in time for the stage opening each morning, especially on time trial days. I wake up more slowly, boiling water for tea while circumflex vowels and cedillas roll below Gascon castles and advertisements for Carrefour and Volvic. My head is thick with sense-memories as palpable as the grit of sugar at the bottom of a Bodum demitasse.  

 

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The drive along the Portage Canal will challenge your notion of what colors are—green is only the top layer in a melange of gold. orange and blue; blue is a handful of different hues muddled together in watercolor striation. Town is a scene from a nineteenth century painting, pensive peaked roofs and romantically weathered red sandstone brooding over their history on the edge of water laughing in the sunlight. The impact is such that even trips to the grocery store or the dump can move me to tears when I remember to consciously reflect on what the trip means: that I live here. I say it to Bryan and he says it back and we both smile like we’ve successfully cheated on our taxes. We’ve fallen in love with this place the same way we fell in love with each other—precipitously, immoderately, sign your life away-style.  

 

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When I lived in France, I was very conscious of my outsider status. Nevertheless, I felt I could fit in, because I shared with the French a spiritual complacence that theirs was the best of all possible worlds. In contrast, the Keweenaw feels like a distant country, in which I share with locals only the same language and national news. Furthermore, my raging enthusiasm for the place as it is only confirms my outsider status—Yoopers express their pleasure in terms of plans for improvement. “Good day to garden” translates as “What gorgeous weather we’re enjoying.” Where I would be prone to saying “Aren’t we lucky to live in such a beautiful yet uncrowded place?” the Yooper would say, “Can you use any chanterelles? We’ve found so many we can’t use them all.” Not to say they don’t do “useless” things such as hike or canoe or sit on the porch and enjoy the sunset. They certainly do; they just aren’t going to brag about it. Some people complain of the weather—that there’s been too much rain for their gardens’ optimal production. Some complain of the busyness and the quickness of summer in passing. I listen with polite assent, as a newcomer should.  

 

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A peregrine falcon flies across my path during a bike ride, snatching an insect right out of the air and tussling with it like a couple of biplanes dogfighting. Two hummingbirds chase each other in laps around the house, feeding off a seven-foot hollyhock in on our front porch. I can see them from where I’m sitting right now. If the door were open, they’d fly right in. While riding my bike past an empty field on 203, I pass what seem to be two ostriches standing in the shoulder-high mallow. They are sandhill cranes, their dun bodies betrayed by the bright red stripe over their heads. Unlike the deer and chipmunks and woodpeckers, they don't stop to gauge the danger I present; they make an unhurried but unequivocal escape into the woods. Later that week, Bryan comes home from an errand and reports having sighted a bear running across the street from McLain State Park. You wake up to the sound of roaring wind. But when you look outside, the trees are still, and the windows are not rattling. It's the sound of Superior, battalions of waves rushing onto shore. A drive along the coast from Eagle Harbor shows whitecaps in high relief, throwing up spray like handfuls of glitter at a drag ball. Superior makes no waves of its own—it has no tide. It has no salt, no kelp, no monsters. It is the monster. But in the summer, improbably, it laughs.  

 

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Summer has a teenage temperament. Days that you'd dream of on vacation give way within minutes to brooding tears that sheet slowly down the windowpane. We wake up to blue skies and fall asleep to thunder and lightning, and wake up again to a low-lying fog that lingers over the road like a cat in the afternoon sun. Every rain drums a sea of new flowers up from the ground: irises in June, lupine and sweet peas in July, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace in August. The crumbling flagstones at our front door are an island amid a hotbed of insect activity--fat, fuzzy bees reeling like drunkards, more species of butterfly than I've ever seen outside of a zoo atrium. (More, actually, because you never actually see them in those exhibits.) It seems to be mating season for the white admirals--a boot in the right bed of ferns raises a cloud of them, four or five caught in an orgy. We come back from bike rides down 203 and my face and jersey are spotted with wing dust.  

 

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I've been all over the country for four years, and no place has moved me like this one does. I've been to places where I've experienced that thump in the heart from beautiful nature or deep history or close community. But in this place, the heart thump is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath, air that travels speedily to the brain and lodges there, airing out the cramped neurons, scrubbing out cells oxidized by stress and ambition and the search for permission. All this flirting with different locations was good for its time. But being here makes me realize I don’t want to define my life by the things I don’t want in it. I guess what I'm trying to say about summer is that it’s reassuring me that this is where I’m supposed to be. I hate even admitting I was unsure, but I was.  

 

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Where are all the people on this beautiful day, out on the river? There are one or two, at most, on a weekday; a weekend might bring as many as six into view at once. But no one is in a hurry, and no one cares for crowds. If there are a few out now, there will be plenty of time for it tomorrow. June to August are the months for summer people, and we know they must be here because there are vehicles in the driveways and smoke rising from their backyards, but you hardly see them. There's no crowd because there's no hurry. People bicycle at a respectable but sedate pace; no hordes of cyclists in overserious get-ups tearing around the curves. Sports here seem not to be for their own sake, but for the sake getting out in the wind and sun and weather. Same for the fishing—Bryan goes out with our friends to the best walleye honey hole and comes back saying that they were all alone on the lake. They watched a loon dive and cross under their boat. They swim as if flying, he says. Winter never stops the locals getting out when they wanted to, but summer unleashes their "carpe diem" side. Longtime Keweenaw people live under constant awareness of how short these endless-seeming seasons are, and are very serious about taking their time with them. Summers are too precious to spend running around; taking advantage of them means taking your leisure. It's fortunate, then, that there’s nothing to do here except go outside. Or hang out a friend’s place and see who else shows up. Or hang out at the watering hole or on a porch and see what happens around you. Summer has a teenage temperament. We wake up to blue skies and fall asleep to thunder and lightning, and wake up again to a low-lying fog that lingers over the road like a cat in the afternoon sun. Every rain drums a sea of new flowers up from the ground: irises in June, lupine and sweet peas in July, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace in August. The crumbling flagstones at our front door are an island amid a hotbed of insect activity--fat, fuzzy bees reeling like drunkards, more species of butterfly than I've ever seen outside of a zoo atrium. (More, actually, because you never actually see them in those exhibits.) It seems to be mating season for the white admirals--a boot in a bed of ferns raises a cloud of them, four or five caught in an orgy. We come back from bike rides down 203 and my face and jersey are spotted with wing dust. In a single trip to town, we have to slow the car down for a fox, a raccoon, and a turtle crossing the road. (Not together—at different intervals.) Bryan stops the car for the turtle and stands guard over its safe passage. They are a lot faster than people give them credit for.  

 

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When you’re traveling in another country, all the mundane things seem worthy of description. The most worthy, in fact. It is those mundane things—the fermented flavor of their milk, the women wearing scarves around their necks, the way catcalls come off like compliments, the way ceramic tiles feel and sound under your feet, the odd shapes and sizes of household appliances—that make it so exotic. Something like the Eiffel Tower or a different language are easy to identify as different—you expect that. But the just left-of-center familiar things force you to recognize that the most different thing about this place is that you are in it, and in it, you don’t quite know who you are. When we write about the mundane things, the clothes that children wear or that all waiters wear fancy dress (at least they did when I was there) or the hand-drawn style that most advertising cartoons appear in, we’re really trying to figure out this alternate universe version of ourselves that has landed here. If we know what moves us about this place, we can know what drew us here, and what that should tell us about our own lives that we can take back home. That’s what makes it important to notice these things. I didn’t see all these things when I first saw the U.P., but I felt my bones rushing to bury their roots here, before the rest of me was even ready. The winter was utterly foreign to me—an Eiffel Tower in the experience of a southern California girl—but the summer has that adjacent exoticism that, examined, brings out the self that I didn’t know I had. A self of down vests and wool beanies, towering bonfires built for their own sake and steal-your-breath plunges into water ice blue and ice cold. Someone for whom black tea and rye rusks are an afternoon feast. Someone who can shuck off work to ride their bike for four hours and not feel worried or bad about it, because we know how precious these warm days are.  

 

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Fitzgerald's Inn--better known locally as "the Fitz"--hosts an annual Independence Day bash, a two-day feast of craft beer and what I'll stake as the best barbecue you'll find in the midwest. We've been looking forward to this party since we learned of it last year, and it doesn't disappoint. This is where the summer people are most in evidence. The first night is low-key and local. John and Charmaine, parents of the bandleader performing, coax all their friends out to shimmy and gyrate, and we join them, while summer people look on, confused or inhibited. John, a former English teacher at Calumet High School, wheels around to look at Bryan. "This is God's country," he declares. "The Keweenaw? This place is the last best place." He sweeps his arm toward the blushing water on the horizon, and we're already agreeing with him before he speaks again. "Lake Superior?" His head does something between a reverent bow and a shake of disbelief. “Fuck!"  

 

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Patience is the way of life here. There’s little point in resisting the seasons, so people give into them. In summer, that means being rousted out of bed by the insistent sunlight—it’s like “I’m here, enjoy me!” Knowing that it will go away makes you watch and look for it everywhere—where it swims in your morning tea, where it dances on the surface of the lake, where it winks behind the translucent hollyhock petals, where it travels ahead of you through a thicket, illuminating the downy fuzz around the thimbleberries. It’s patience as I never would have understood it before, trusting yourself to the season, shrugging off the hard work of resistance. It’s that permission to slow down and observe that takes me back. To find the extraordinary without going looking for it—what a thing. To find it in the most mundane act—drinking tea slowly, watching the waves bear the apricot-tinted sunset in to shore, lying down on the sand and staring at passing birds. All of it because that’s what I’m here for. We go on these summer sojourns in college to slowly observe our motions as dictated by a different place and culture. My most poignant memories of France were watering the geraniums in the little apartments where I stayed, riding a bike into town for an errand, disappearing into the crowd in a busy street, nursing a drink in a cafe awash in jaded voices. I remember how doing these things seemed to last for hours; the few months I spent there occupy the space of years in my brain. I remember thinking “This is the life I want, this is the person I want to be.” Then I got home to the states and resumed rushing through my drinks. I never got so far as finding myself a geranium to water. I think something in me knew I wouldn’t pull it off. It wasn't yet time. But now it is.  

 

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It’s not that the pace of life is so different anywhere else; it’s that the unfamiliarity makes us slow the fuck down, the way you do when driving in a different part of town for the first time. Our senses come alive trying to help us answer the question that routine is too quick to settle. Where am I? I asked it long ago, and the answer has come back, I am here, and the emphasis surprises me by landing on the first word. Only when we’re recentered in who we are can a place look as magical as it is. I’ve traveled all over the country for years and this is what I have learned. This is what makes me want to write down all the things  I see, the brown-skinned children with pale blue eyes and white hair, the two bald eagles arabesqueing over the road, the lone seaplane that makes its slow descent over the beach, tracing the gradient lines of sunset. Bryan lifts his glass of beer in salute. The plane dips its shoreside wing in response.  

 

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  Lake aside—if we may be so bold to put it there—the Keweenaw isn’t a place of extremes. The mountains are not thousands of feet tall like their younger counterparts in the Cascades or the Rockies. The waterfalls are hidden deep in the woods. The old-growth trees are few and far between. Even the depths of Lake Superior are something you’re more likely to sense than to see. But what it lacks in outsize impressiveness it more than makes up for in pure splendor.  A place that, if you’ll hold still, will hit you in the face with the amazingness of trees, the incredibleness of dragonflies, the largess of nature in general. A 20-minute walk through the woods with our friend Ray yields enough chaga to pay a mortgage (if Ray was interested in selling it, which he’s not). It’s a place that rewards intentional observation so profusely that you actually remember to observe. And observation leads to obedience, a yielding to all that is here, because it’s so beautiful you can’t help it. And before you know it, you’re someone that you wanted to be. Someone who transcends the busy complication just by watering geraniums.  

 

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The fireworks at the Fitz don't begin until well after last call. Any earlier and it would be pointless. Sitting beside Bryan on the pebbly sandbar, I notice that the twilight wind doesn't chill me. This is progress. Just for a second, I think about winter. It’s pleasantly hard to imagine in this magical imminent dusk, the time of day that pins time to the mat for the longest. A man in white linen stumbles past us, holding the hand of a beautiful, long-haired woman, both about my parents' age. "You folks having a good night?" Bryan, ever the gracious host, asks as they pass. The man raises a beatific face to the indigo sky. "The. Best." They kiss each other passionately as the wind picks up, blowing a cool smell of spent fire across the beach. I'm taken back suddenly to the college summer I spent in France, the night I spent on the Niçoise beach with Pierre and Anne and their two boys and their farmhand Bobotte, with his cowboy-leather face, his red knitted hat and his tarry cigarettes. Here, as there, is a timelessness that transcends nostalgia, a perfect intersection of European temperament and small town Americana. The quiet expectant hush, so unusual for a 4th of July gathering waiting on the fireworks, suspends the night just like the . The thread of salmon pink across the horizon shows no inclination to disappear. Five hundred people wait, quietly rapt, as if they have all the time in the world. The breeze stirs and is still, and there is no sound but whisper of the waves and, if you strain to hear, the whispers of elderly lovers in each other's ears. A distant crackle and then the sky explodes right in my face and my fingers dig into Bryan's shoulders and stay that way for the next thirty minutes.  

 

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Just as the tomatoes are coming in, I hear a man in the Keweenaw Co-op saying to someone how it felt like a shame to leave town in August, “just when it’s all…” He makes a motion with his hands like a dandelion exploding.

I know what he means. I feel that same exploding sensation inside me, knowing that we don’t have to leave.