Outdoors North

Headed down a very familar road

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Somewhere along a high road, the air began to turn cold, she said she missed her home. I headed on alone.” — Bob Seger

Like people, roads have character and they have souls.

Walking along a certain dirt road I know on a summer day I can feel the road almost breathing in and out as it chokes up dust in the sweltering heat.

A twist of wind twirls sand into the air. The road is parched, needing a drink of rainwater. Not a cloud in the sky. Maybe afternoon will bring a thunderstorm.

Wolf tracks here in the dirt are faded. Among the cobbles and rocks up and down the tired shoulders of the road, orange hawkweed and ox-eye daisies are reaching skyward.

They love the sun, but they would welcome a drink of water too. It’s warm for June.

As I go around a corner, the road slinks under a cool canopy of towering green-leafed maple trees. I leave the open space of the field behind.

My body sags, its tension coming out of the direct sunlight. The road seems relieved to me too. Its sands feel cool to the back of my hand.

I look for a stump to sit on to relax just a bit. I hear the red-eyed vireos and the rose-breasted grosbeaks concealed behind the leaves.

The mosquitoes like this shaded resting place, preferring it to the hot sunshine, which is more the domain of buzzing bees, flies and, of course, the glorious grasshoppers in all their splendid variety.

I love the clicking sound grasshoppers make, their old, wise-looking faces and all their amazing color diversity – from coppery brown to bright yellow.

The mosquitoes float in a small cloud over the bracken ferns that have popped up bright green almost waist-high now. Old cracked bones, fallen from the arms of these tremendous maples, stick up through the ferns toward the sky.

Once strong enough to hold against the hard winds, their forks making places for birds to nest, they now have succumbed to the carpenter ants and the other forest insects that seek, with an undying mission, to reclaim them for the earth.

The branches of the standing trees whisper and swoosh over the top of all of this, the canopy forming a dense, protective umbrella. These guardian trees watch over their dead and dying, swaying in the summer breeze.

The sound is comforting. Just hearing the rushing sound makes me feel cooler, as though I am hearing the blades of a fan twirling softly in the corner of my room at home, sending me relief from the heat.

I get up to walk again, waving a hand over my shoulder to bid the forest farewell.

Not long afterward, I approach a bridge over the river.

As the summertime wears on, the sounds of the water flowing in this stream – like those of morning’s twittering birds – diminish. The birds have mated and nested while the creeks and streams have carried away all the snow and ice melt of springtime.

Maybe if it does rain, it might raise up the water level just a touch or two, turning the glug of this slow-rolling river into a poem of motion and feeling.

The bridge here has carried log trucks, campers, cars and pickups from one side of this woodland stream to the other for all my days. The span seems weary to me. It would just about have to be, with all the work it’s done for so long.

Meanwhile, it continues to take on travelers. I can feel it welcoming me to walk across, stop to look at the water or hop the guardrail to approach the stream for the touch of cool water on my face and hands. I am thankful.

Inside the curves of this road, down over the next few miles, there used to be a series of quiet campgrounds. All have gone to seed today, with one exception that has been stripped of its water pump, pit toilet and signs.

It sits right here along the water’s edge, with a rock stairway that leads down to the river’s banks. Informal trails from overgrown campsites do the same.

I’ve traveled countless roads in my time, from big cities to quiet beaches, but none sits finer in my mind than this old dirt road right here.

I’ve got memories that return me to childhood when we used to pause on the bridge in our old family station wagon to get a listen and a look at the water.

Not far from here, we spent several nights one summer watching a sow black bear which would bring her cubs to a grassy forest opening around the same time every evening. We’d watch the cubs play around tree stumps in the field.

This old road has always beckoned me and, once I’ve arrived, I’ve been greeted by my old friend and then bid happy trails on my way to the next place. The road has always been here to walk on and to talk to.

I think a lot about my dad in June – on his birthday, the anniversary of his dying and on Father’s Day. I’ve thought recently that one of the very best things he ever did was to introduce me to this road when I was so young.

Even though there were many years when I didn’t visit, I know this road’s every turn.

I know where the blackberries, raspberries and the apples grow, the places where even the smallest creeks cross, the site of the old homestead and the deer camps along the riverside.

I can even distinguish the kinds of rocks that make up this old road’s bed from those of other roads. These water-rounded cobbles and stones likely came from elsewhere. Rocks like these are most often found between the rails of railroad tracks.

There’s a place I know where the swallowtail butterflies congregate in the wet mud at the bottom of a big hill. There are cutover areas where the tears of the forest have dampened the dirt.

Through fires, flooding, downed trees, winter storms and savage winds, this road has always recovered. It feels like it’s a thousand years old to me. It’s so very kind in its warm and welcoming ways, offering solace, contemplation and friendship.

If I had to guess, I’d say it would be neither male nor female. I’d suppose it’s more like a ghost or a spirit that appears differently to each walker or rider who will also undoubtedly see themselves reflected somehow.

I always ride this road with respect. I move slowly to hear the wind and the birds in the trees. I move slowly through big mud puddles and turn softly around corners, wondering what story the road will have to tell me up over the next hill.

These old forest roads have given me so much, I try to take care to keep them here for as long as possible.

I wonder sometimes whether there is some little kid in the back of a hatchback out here somewhere, maybe even right now, getting the same thrill I had in going for a woods ride with my parents all those decades ago.

I hope that there is.

When I’m traveling this road, I feel like I’m floating sometimes. It’s usually on warm summer days like this or when the chill of the autumn air is biting.

The blades of an old windmill still turn at an old farm out here. A rocky section of this country byway turns up past evergreens and poplar trees, where the aspens are quaking.

This road doesn’t cover many miles. A stone’s throw from home. Paradise up ahead.

Like visiting an old true friend, it’s always hard for me to say good-bye to this road and head for home. My figure gets smaller in the distance as I head back to my vehicle. I get in and turn the engine over.

As I putt along, the outline of my Jeep gets smaller and smaller in the distance, blackens to silhouette and then finally disappears around a bend.

Back behind me, there in the warm sand and amid the muted pink and gray road stones, I’ve left part of myself that I’ll be back to find later. In exchange, I’ve taken the road with me in my heart and my mind.

Like always, that will keep me warm inside until I find my way back here again one day – no matter how long it takes.

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.


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