Nighttime road trip offers much solitude

JOHN PEPIN

“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street.”

— Elmore James

As I sat behind the wheel, looking out the windshield, the countryside was cloaked in a thick soft robe of fog, making the copper mining era houses across the highway — now mostly boarded-up — look every bit of their age.

It was early in the evening, but the rainy spring weather made everything darker than it should have been. Another couple of hours and I would have a nighttime drive ahead of me, skirting along the hemline of the big lake, heading south and then west.

Right now, I’m sitting here waiting. It’s quiet, but not relaxing, there’s a meeting set to start in a little while for work. I’d have a cigarette, but I don’t smoke. I feel like I’m a long way from home.

The windshield wipers slide slow across my view, once to the left and then back to the right. It looks like the rain is just about stopped, but it won’t last.

With the meeting over, I walked out of the doorway of the building and felt the raindrops falling. It was a good feeling, one I had missed for a long time. I made no attempts to duck under a doorway or the edge of a roof.

Seeing rain on your windshield and being out in it are two very different things.

I walked slowly to the car and got inside. I pulled the driver’s door shut and it closed with a noise that always seems louder when it’s raining. Inside the car, the sound of the rain was muffled, but I still heard it gently tapping on the roof.

I reached down to spin the ignition. The engine started and I put my foot on the gas. The tires turned over wet gravel and then wet pavement, making the sounds of just another somebody out there on the highway in the rain, trying to get home.

I turn on some music loud and the drive gets better the farther I get from the lights and the cars and the people of town. The farther into the blackness I drive, the more the rain picks up, spinning rain songs on the jukebox in my head.

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain, telling me just what fool I’ve been; I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain and let me be alone again.

Earlier in the day, the rivers had been rushing torrents on my drive up, with normally peaceful little roadside cascades roaring over rocks and racing under the roadway. Now, with all this rain tonight, even the wet snow and ice-clogged backwaters would soon be flowing clear with open water.

I cross the county line and the black, slicked pavement gets even darker, making it harder to see exactly what’s on the road. It’s hard to tell if I see water running off the shoulder, puddled rain in my lane or roadside ditches overflowing.

Whatever the case, I pay good attention to what’s in front of me, uneasy about the possibility of deer dashing out in front of my car. I had seen at least a good dozen standing in the fields off to sides of the road earlier in the day.

The smell of the rain seeps in through the vents of the car, making my head spin slowly. I take a big deep breath. It’s heavenly.

A few more miles, and the fog has completely covered the roadway, making it hard to see much of anything. I hug the double-yellow centerline. In the distance, headlights approach, allowing me to see there are no silhouettes of deer in the highway.

Walking around, some kind of lonely clown; rainy days and Mondays always get me down.

Here’s the lakeshore now, on my left. It seems like it would be a little too easy to hydroplane off into the black night and the ice-cold water. Pulling up the big hill, where water had been tumbling down the cliff face earlier, there’s a pile of cracked and crushed sandstone fallen into the road.

The sight reminds me of a television show I watched a couple of nights ago where a rolling boulder crushed a hiker’s leg out west. He crawled, dragging his leg, for a mile before having to sit and wait for rescue helicopters.

And I was having trouble waiting for a meeting to start?

I passed the old Ford center and the gorge where the canyon waterfalls raced, and I didn’t turn at the crossroads to Duluth. Instead, I rolled deep into moose country.

Driving, especially at night, seems to open-up my mind from all the muddy minutia of details, complications and constrictions to allow me to think clearly.

At times like these, my mind can flow effortlessly over decades to recall scenes I’d thought I’d forgotten, unravel things I’ve tried to with difficulty to reconcile or just have a chance for my brain to breathe.

There are huge piles of cut logs stacked at the end of a dirt road. As I breeze past, the scent of pinewood reaches me. The fog starts lifting a little as I wind through the serpentine turns between the lakes. I can’t see them in the dark, but I feel them there.

A few more miles and I pass the old camp where I went to vacation Bible school one summer as a kid. I still think about that a lot more than I’d think I would. We hiked up to a cross made from logs that stood high on a hillside.

I remember we sat around a campfire, talked and sang songs until the rocks around the fire pit cracked from the heat. I also recall sitting out at the shore the next day because back then I couldn’t swim. I could smell the pine trees then too.

Here comes the rain, falling down on me; showered in pain, nothing remains of what used to be. Here comes the night.

There’s the turn off to the high country. I’d love to go up there, but not tonight. I pass through the town the Tower Lake wildfire tried to eat. The candles and all the other lights are burning low tonight.

It still seems a lot later than it should. Another turn off on the left; this one goes up to a lake my folks took me to when I was young. Weeks later, my dad showed me a picture in the newspaper of a wooden sign there ripped in half by a black bear.

I cross the bridge where my car slid sideways across the centerline one winter when I was in high school, with oncoming headlights glowing over the hill ahead of me. It’s raining still, but it’s slowed down enough to loosen my grip on the steering wheel.

The fog is gone from the road too, but it’s still hanging like gloom or Spanish moss from the branches of the trees.

Now the sky’s been crying, the tears rolling down my door.

It seems that suddenly I’m pulling the car into the driveway at home. I get out and shut the door. It’s dead silent. In a few minutes, the rain I drove through would catch up with me.

Sitting on the couch, I would hear it again tapping gently, and then harder, on the roof. Soon afterward, I was asleep.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.