By Mardi Jo Link
Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
Okay, so check us out. It’s 2 a.m. and there we all are, sitting around the table at Paw Point Lodge. If there exists a more improbable group of girlfriends than us, I don’t know where you’d find them. Not on Drummond Island; we’ve already claimed that rock.
At the head of this table is Linda, busy counting all our cash. Wickedly funny and sometimes animated but never one to gush, she started our annual trip more than 20 years ago with $75 and a roll of quarters from her tip jar.
Susan is in the kitchen, mouthing the words to a Van Halen song while texting her husband, downloading a geo-cache coordinate and mixing a cocktail.
Pam — scooping up a teaspoon of potato salad, but vowing next year to bring baby spinach — is just being her relaxed, happy self.
Mary Lynn is here, yet not here. She was taken from us more than a decade ago by “a cardiac event,” and I miss her.
I take my place at the table then, across from Andrea and Jill — the youngest of the girls at 43 and 45. Put them in charge and we’ll be kidnapping a cop, fixing a flat with nicotine gum, then singing covers with the bar band.
And sitting next to me with her perfect posture and pretty heart-shaped face is, finally, Bev, aka “the Polish Princess.” She might have a Medicare Part D card in her purse (if she could find her purse; dammit, it was just right here), but she still looks like a cover girl.
Within our group is every combination of married, divorced, re-married and staunchly single; world travelers and homebodies; Republicans and Democrats. We’ve got graduate degrees but also high school diplomas, barely and miraculously bestowed. That we ever became friends at all is miraculous.
“When are you going to write our story?” the girls asked me.
There are eight stories, I reminded them, not just one.
“Fine,” they said, undeterred. “Then write yours.”
First Trip, October 1933
I was a 31-year-old wife and mother of two, a bar waitress with a college degree, and getting into Jill’s red Fiero that morning was the most radical act I’d committed in years. My husband stood on the rickety front porch, our baby in his arms. Next to him squirmed our 3-year-old son, grasping his father’s leg with one hand. I’d rarely been apart from them for more than a few hours.
It’s going to be okay, I thought. It’s only for the weekend…I’ve earned this.
Jill drove the quick two miles to Peegeo’s, the bar where she and I worked, and we met up with two other co-workers, Linda and Andrea. The sun was crowning over the trees when the four us scrambled into Linda’s Jeep. I knew the name of the place we were going — Drummond Island — and that we’d need four-wheel drive, but little else.
“Sure you’re ready for this?” Jill asked, when we were far enough from home to see Mackinac’s iconic bridge ahead.
“Clear your head!” Andrea hollered, before I could answer, “and prepare yourself!” She held her fingers in front of her face and then slowly slid them apart like a security gate, illustrating exactly how I might go about clearing my head.
As for how to prepare myself, I had absolutely no idea.
The three of them had been to Drummond once before, and despite feeling excited to be along, I was still aware enough of my luck to be in awe of their friendship. When I was around new people, only a tiny percentage of what I was thinking ever came out of my mouth. And what I was thinking was that my presence in that car felt provisional: I was the untested one they’d decided to try out.
If I fit in, I’d be included — not just on Drummond, but back home, too.
Back then, friends were the one thing I’d wanted more than anything else. Not just any friends. I wanted them. Those three women were everything I wished I could be: tough, undaunted, independent. They had cool to spare.
Once we were on the island, I hoped some of it just might rub off on me.
I have no idea whether other American women in their 20s and 30s liked to two-track, but boy, we sure did. From our houses or Peegeo’s, it was a bit of a drive to access the rugged dirt roads that twisted through the woods. On Drummond, two-tracks were around every corner.
Branches brushed across the Jeep’s hood and soon it felt like we weren’t only in the woods, we had become part of the forest itself. We were on a frontier like the women adventurers of old, crossing the prairie in our one-wagon wagon train — if those women had traveled at night, their 4WD fueled by gasoline and blues-rooted, guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll.
I felt wild with the independence of it.
“Copper beech! Tamarack Pine! Prairie sedge!” I hollered, not sure whether my college botany professors would have been proud of my retention or aghast over the circumstances in which I was using it.
With Linda at the wheel, we charged through those woods, bouncing over rocks and sticks at 40 miles per hour, mud splashing onto the windshield and into our open windows, the constant sound of grass and weeds whipping by underneath us, her tape player blasting my Zeppelin. An hour or so must have passed like that before we slowed down and Linda turned off the music.
It grew eerily quiet. Because the scenery veering in and out of the headlights had remained disturbingly constant. Trees, shrubs, mud, night.
“Where are we?” Jill asked.
I was raised in an active family of outdoor enthusiasts. We’d camped, fished, hiked, sailed, canoed, swum, ridden horses and backpacked all over Michigan. But I had never been to Drummond Island, a land separate and mysterious from all those other places I’d seen. I felt wholly dependent on Linda to find our way back to civilization.
She turned off the ignition. “Let’s just think about this for a second,” she said, “before we run out of gas.”
Drummond’s unknowable darkness closed in.
“You okay?” Jill asked me. I knew she was being nice, but my grin faded as I considered the sub-context of her question. She thought I was worried, or worse, scared — a sissy la-la.
A month before I’d read in the newspaper that NASA had lost contact with its Mars Observer. The space probe had been on a one-year interplanetary cruise and only three days from reentry when it disappeared. I pictured it without power, locked out of orbit and catapulting through space.
Next, I remembered visiting Mammoth Cave with my family as a kid, and how when we were as far down into the earth as the tour went, our guide switched off the overhead lights. Inside that darkness my little girl’s body felt like both nothing and everything at the same time. The only sounds were the dripping of cave water and my mother’s soft breathing.
Being in the blackness of Drummond Island felt just like that. It was damp and chilly, and the only sounds were the tick, tick, tick of the engine cooling down and the soft exhales of my companions.
I wasn’t only someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, or even someone’s mother anymore. I was a person in my own right, a woman who had real friends now, part of a silent, woodsy sisterhood.
I wanted to prove to these women they were definitely my people and I, theirs.
“I’m good,” I told her.
Just then there was a rustling in the leaves. Perhaps it was a trick of the dark, but the sound seemed big and only inches from the outside of the Jeep. Bear? The mystery of something wild and alive in those woods was thrilling. I felt a surge of ferocity. And then I remembered something.
Yes, we were lost. But we were lost on an island. All we needed to do was keep going, as straight as the two-track would allow, and we’d eventually come to the shoreline.
“I say we just keep going,” I said, offering up my first real suggestion of the weekend.
It wasn’t a particularly brilliant idea; it was just the obvious choice and the only way we’d ever get back to our rented trailer at Frank’s before daylight. Continued motion would become our motto on Drummond, as well as a guide in our mainland lives. Our sisterhood would grow. Four more women would join our annual sojourn north, and no matter what fate put in our way, we’d travel in one direction: Forward.
“Works for me,” Jill said.
Linda started the Jeep and put her foot on the gas. A few minutes later, we spied a diamond-shaped light blinking in the distance. DeTour Reef Light, the old lighthouse anchored in the St. Mary’s River, not far from the ferry dock. Which meant we weren’t more than four or five miles from Frank’s.
It must have been after 4 a.m. when we pulled up. The light in the front window of his house was still on. The thrill of braving the night woods faded into exhaustion, and once we walked inside, I felt a collective sigh exit our bodies as one breath. ≈
Author Mardi Jo Link lives on the Big Valley in Northern Michigan. BLUE illustrator Gary W. Odmark resides in Holland.