The late August breeze has decorated our backyard fire pit with a garland of yellow leaves from a nearby walnut tree. That’s a walnut for you. Always the first to call it quits and drop the curtain on summer.
With our fishing poles and kayaks now stowed in the barn, I’ve reluctantly done the same thing. All that remains of summer is a plastic pail of dull stones that someone left on the patio. It’s hard to believe they’re the same red and green jewels we plucked wet and sparkling from the cold rush of a Lake Superior surf.
Eventually, they’ll end up in the flowerbed — just like the others did last year. No matter. I’ve already got plenty of Up North tchotchkes to clutter my fireplace mantle. What’s more, for this year’s souvenir, I’ve brought home something better: a keepsake memory that I’d do well to recall every day for the 45 weeks until my next vacation.
But while I’d taken a long to-do list Up North, what I really needed was a to-be list.
The setting was Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising. It was Friday afternoon, the last day of vacation. While I’d enjoyed the week, a part of me had never let go. I’d yet to feel deeply relaxed, that moment of blissful detachment when recreation becomes true re-creation.
It’s much like one of those agonizing dreams when you’re trying to outrun something bad but can’t make your legs move fast enough to escape. Except that on an overwrought vacation, the opposite holds true. You can’t stop running long enough to savor the good that you came to find.
Yet, we keep running anyway. So, while the family swam and combed the beach for agates, I strode down a hiking trail near the Miners River. It led through a dark stand of hemlock, but it wasn’t wilderness. It was too close to the beach and parking lot for that. The river, too, was pleasant but unremarkable; like dozens of other knee-deep, tea-colored streams in the Upper Peninsula.
Then as I veered off the main trail to visit the river, something stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t really a breeze — more like a fragrant exhalation from the woods itself. The air was deliciously hot, dry and sun-cured — sweet with the turpentine aroma of pinesap. Above the water, a circular wisp of air had swept two yellow butterflies upward. They rose in a delicate spiral, a DNA helix come to life. They mirrored each other’s moves as if choreographed. It was so human that it almost seemed creepy.
With that, something finally broke loose within me and fell away like petals from a long-closed bud. There came next a quickening of my senses and spirit. The natural world, the one I’d driven 500 miles to explore and enjoy, finally had my full attention. For the first time that week, I noticed how supremely comfortable I was in my baggy shorts, old shirt, fishing cap and sandals. Who could ever stand to wear anything else?
For the first time that week, I noticed how supremely comfortable I was in my baggy shorts, old shirt, fishing cap and sandals. Who could ever stand to wear anything else?
Everything that meant vacation was there. The lakeshore, the woods, the U.P. All the verdant grace of summer had gathered itself into this singular moment and place — here, in this one-seat shrine edged by the shaggy steeples of white spruce. You could still hear the rumble of cars on the washboard road to the beach. But the sudden quiet I’d found here was of a different sort, more within than without.
It was the kind of stillness I once tried to find through meditation but never could. It was like the soft, slow rest of an athlete’s heart after a good workout. I must’ve sat there for 20 minutes, wondering how such mercy could arrive on the wings of a thing so small.
We expect much from our vacations, sometimes impossibly so. We freight them with hopes of touchstone family memories, made in the concrete bustle of great cities or the granite splendor of mountain vistas. We overbook them with plans to feast on the culture, food and iconic sights that our friends and social media all deem worth seeing. I’d even managed to overschedule my “leisure” reading time. I lugged a five-pound bag of books to the U.P. but never touched a one.
Like most of us, I’d gone on vacation to do things — to fish and to hike and canoe. To eat pasties and ride the tourist boats out of Munising Bay. But while I’d taken a long to-do list Up North, what I really needed was a to-be list. You know it’s bad when they have to dispatch two little yellow butterflies to tell you that.
Tom Springer is an author and essayist who lives near Three Rivers in an 1870s farmhouse. His book “Looking for Hickories” was named a Michigan Notable Book in 2009.