I spent my youngest years in a beautiful small town in Connecticut. My siblings and I frequently walked (some of us toddled), without adults, to the corner grocery store. As I recall it now, there was just one main road. To get to the store you crossed the road, followed it up a slope, and there it was — the swinging door that led to a magic world brimming with Atomic Fireballs, Bazooka bubble gum, and Good Humor ice cream bars. At this treasured emporium, everyone knew us — and likely knew exactly what we were looking for.
After my father was transferred to Ohio and then Michigan, my countrified life was gone. Now I live in a pretty big city in metro Detroit (when we married, my husband and I chose to live equidistant from both of our parents’ homes), but over the years I’ve wanted to make my life small again. My outdoorsman husband, who hadn’t seen snapping turtles or leaping fish in far too long, and I found our something small amid very big trees, big lakes, and big rivers, by accident. In July of 2001, we were Up North golfing and saw a for-sale sign at the end of a long driveway that led to a tidy cottage in a tiny town on an inland lake. Almost faster than a great blue heron took off from the cottage’s dock that day, we purchased exactly what our hearts needed.
The first time we drove down its pine-lined driveway as the cottage’s owners, we slowed the car to a turtle’s pace, put the windows down, and just breathed in northern Michigan. (We still do that every time we arrive.) I always say I wish I could bottle the scent of Up North — pine mingled with fresh air, bark, and earth. When our sons were younger, they’d complain as we approached the cottage and asked them to turn off their devices and let the crisp breezes and the sounds of nature in. Today, they cherish that tradition.
I know how Lindsay Navama felt when she started to sense a need for small-town connectivity and more nature. Navama, who wrote a cookbook called “Hungry for Harbor Country” (featured in this issue), was living a pretty hectic life in Chicago before she got serious about finding a cottage in southwest Michigan. “We wanted to pivot … to find a sense of community in a smaller place,” she told me. Oh, do I understand. Since day one of owning our cottage, we’ve sought out small, family-run grocery stores, farms, and restaurants. When we find them, I sense yesteryear wrapping around me. One farmer we recently met invited us to jump in his truck and offered to take us through the acres of trees he’d grown; he was happy to spend an entire afternoon chatting with us. He also grows the sweetest U-pick raspberries. Then there’s the chef/owner who scurries over to greet us whenever we enter our favorite eatery. Because she discovered my husband follows a gluten-free diet, she now tells us before we sit down when there’s a gluten-free dessert with his name on it. And I can’t forget the bike shop owner who takes extra time to dig out a map and enthusiastically show us the trails where he hears eagles screech.
Kim Mettler, this issue’s Postcard contributor, says: “I often refer to living (Up North) as a Norman Rockwell-type experience; you know at least a handful of people anywhere you go in town.”
Back in 2001, we also discovered what my family and I call “the general” — as in “general store” — which is so similar to the one I adored as a kid. These days, a grown woman can be seen there regularly, eyeing the candy and purchasing Atomic Fireballs (in the intervening years, she’s given up the Bazooka bubble gum).