Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world
17317980582_b8252b2760_k.jpg

Stories

The First Fire

You can see it on their faces tonight, as they stand around the fire in the snow. Even before that, you could hear it in their voices as they called down from the top of the ridge, see it in their eager skidding down through the high-piled drifts. By the time they threaded their way through the trails Bryan carved out (with an axe last fall, with a shovel these past months), and came to a stop at the leaning tamarack that points like a ship's prow toward the horizon, they were in love. Like a kid looking at a new bike under a Christmas tree, like a boy gazing up the stairs at his prom date.

DSC_5972.jpg

We looked at other tracts of land when we first visited the U.P. A little mushroom-shaped promontory outside L'Anse; a bayside plot or two in Marquette.

But this one, with its sweeping overlook, natural amphitheaters and the creek running through the back, stole our hearts. Even the Blue Ridge Mountains in fall and the Delaware River Valley in spring couldn't break the Keweenaw's hold over our imagination. By the time we came back, we weren't just here for land we could own. We were ready for this land to own us.

We wanted to belong to this audacious little island, proudly surrounded by the biggest freshwater lake in the world. We wanted to be on the west side, where we could watch the water catch fire every night. We wanted to be so far north that it scared us a little.

After watching the forested dunes change from blue-green in spring to gold and red in autumn, it's wonderful to finally see them covered in snow. The sides of the roads are banked high and solid. While Bryan and Lechel dig out space for vehicles to park, I slide down the other side and set candles in colored jars along the path. The sun is priming the horizon in swaths of pale pink and blue-grey and ashy yellow. Bryan breaks into the stash of wood we collected last fall, and builds the fire in the same spot where we slept the first night we contracted ourselves to this land.

IMG_1091-1.JPG

We signed a small tower of papers, shook hands with Ben the realtor and Amy the banker, and immediately came here with the tent and the frying pan and the ghillie kettle. That night, Bryan built a fire on the pebbly shore, and we listened to the waves sing while waiting for the northern lights. The display we got was the kind that makes you believe in signs.

First night northern lights.jpg

The next morning, I drove to the monastery and came back with their mountainous blueberry muffins, just pulled from the oven. It was getting hot on the road by the time I returned, but it was cool down in the clearing. Bryan had the kettle going and we strung up the hammock and ate and looked for freighters in the evaporating fog.

Later, we baptized ourselves as owners of a beach, swimming until our bodies were warm in the cold water. The light was turning pale--when we saw our neighbors approaching from down the shore in their glorious green canoe. Roger and Carol bought the next property over in the 80s, paying the same for it that you'd pay for a just-okay used car nowadays.

We met them two years ago, on one of our first clandestine visits to the land without the realtor. They found us exploring the two-track on the east side, and invited us to their place, a high-raftered cabin built on stilts, entered by way of a drawbridge that Roger designed. They showed us the pump system they use to draw water from the lake--a now-verboten practice grandfathered in for them--and the dock where they lost their other, better canoe during a storm, meeting each other's eyes in condolence for this still-fresh grief. Roger brought out handfuls of agates he'd found along the beach. Carol told me that in the springtime, the dune is carpeted with trilliums, the ephemeral angel-wing flowers that everyone in Michigan knows and few have actually seen. 

All that was two years ago. We came back to creep on the property many times, but hadn't seen them since. We watched as they rhythmically pulled, heads down in concentration, past the dock on their property and up to where we sit, blasted by the pale western light. Only when they lift their oars from the water did they look up at us, as if we'd all been planning this appointment and the hour had struck.

Carol said, "Did you buy it?" Speechless with fortune, we both nod and babble. Carol lights up. Roger murmurs, in his moccasin-on-dry-leaves voice, "That's good. We're glad it's you."

DSC_6046.jpg

The wind is low tonight, the snow deep, the sky clear, that wonderful indigo with its inexplicable green seeping through, lighting up the frozen edges of the lake. The cured wood sends up smoke in a perfect column, permitting everyone to draw close, shoulder meeting shoulder. Ray passes around a bucket of chicken wings cooked in his patent hot sauce. Bryan tells stories. In between, we try to point out the layout of our dreams--the yurt will go there, on a raised platform bermed into the slope, the bath house will have a peaked roof to let in the western sun, the sauna will definitely be wood fired and, eventually, have a door that opens onto a wood fired hot tub at the southwestern point of the deck. 

When they look in the directions we point, their eyes have the light of recognition. It's not because I'm doing such a bang-up job of describing our vision. It's because they are seeing their own cabins, their own gardens, their own trails bent to the individual way the forest calls them.  

I wish I could see what their visions look like, the lines and appointments that wink at them out of these woods. Would their roof have the same precipitous pitch as mine? Would they hang bells in the trees? How would they arrange the tiles under their wood stove? 

Bryan's younger brother sidles up and warns me not to be alarmed if, once this place is built, I look out the window sometimes and see him half-naked, wandering among the trees. He'll bring his own tent, he promises, if he can just wander around howling at the moon once in a while.

That's what it's here for, I tell him.