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Outdoors North: First sign of warmth brings inspiration

JOHN PEPIN

“By the way, you look fantastic in your boots of Chinese plastic,” – Chrissie Hynde

In the basement of our old house, there were musty boxes and drawers of old doorknobs and keys, hinges and other parts to things my dad had kept. I guess he was expecting to use them one day, but he never did.

For some reason, just holding some of these things in my hand and looking at them seemed to hold some significance to me.

These were door parts from before the Gilded Age, before the Titanic sunk.

The doorknobs were clear glass cut and fashioned to resemble diamonds. The squared door locks were heavy and made from metal. The keys were of keen interest to me. They were heavy too, with bows at the top that were often decorative.

Some of these keys were 3 or 4 inches long and were often kept in places other than pockets. You might find them hanging from a nail, concealed in an old slide box of some kind, behind an item on a shelf, on a key ring or hidden atop the ledge of a door frame.

There were skeleton keys, made with inside bits hollowed to allow them to work on doors to many different rooms. I would image this would have been helpful for use in a hotel, even just a big house.

The doors these type of keys were used for, at least ones that I remember, were very heavy and thick and made from dark wood. Skeleton keys are thought by some to be good luck, a way to open new doors to opportunity.

People collect these keys. I can see why. Just having one in your hand seems to imbue the holder with the feeling of having obtained something substantial, though what that represents exactly might be elusive and subjective.

I think my dad’s holding onto these items was for more of a practical sense, rather than any nod to good luck. For me, their substantial nature seems to communicate a quality lost on much of today’s key construction.

I love all those antique items like solidly built egg-timer minute glasses, watches, compasses and keys – all those old things.

Thinking about skeleton keys and my dad keeping them, makes me wonder what I have around this house that I hope to use one day, but never will. A couple of years ago, I finally sold an antique typewriter I had.

It had originally been a gift from my aunt. It was built before electric typewriters. I loved its heavy, mechanical rat-a-tat-tat construction, the bi-colored ribbon that allowed you to type letters in black or red and the bell that rang on every return.

When I first went to college, I used it for a lot of my papers. In my last address move, I decided the typewriter had outlived its latter life as a living room conversation piece. Parts and service were hard to come by.

It hasn’t been gone long enough for me to miss it yet, but I guess long enough to make me think about it then and now.

Lately, I have been feeling like I need a skeleton key for life.

I think the pandemic is trying to make me believe the key I hold is only good for one door, and that door leads to a very small, dark and dank closet.

Outside this afternoon, the sun is shining across the entire landscape, casting blue shadows from the trees across the surface of the soft and airy snow.

I love the patterns these shadows make on the white canvas. So many beautiful swirls and turns and long, luxurious stretches of lines that curve smoothly and softly.

I saw a robin’s nest from last season today, still holding together, but overflowing with snow. It’s encouraging to think that the definitive spring sound of the song of these birds will arrive here in a little more than a month.

For a few moments, I watched a white-tailed deer today up against the base of a bluff, pawing at the snow, digging for something to eat. A cottontail rabbit and a red-bellied woodpecker were also part of the scene.

The ice-box conditions of the past couple of weeks put a thicker coat of ice on the inland lakes, around the rim of Lake Superior and even some of the streams. I traveled to one place I know where this is a soulful river, hoping to see some open water in winter.

Instead, the entire stretch of what I could see, except for one narrow slice of rippling water, was frozen and snowed over.

I wondered whether I might be able to walk down the river. It looked that way, but I wasn’t willing to try. Too much opportunity for a negative life experience. But seeing the fresh and undisturbed snow made the idea tempting.

Just as my dad had collected door parts, keys, square nails, screws and other construction material items, the bottom drawer in my mom’s old pedal-run Singer sewing machine was packed full of buttons – so many I’ve never seen since.

She kept them for practical reasons too – to sew on to clothes missing a button. But like the old keys, though on a much lesser level, I used to love to run my hands through the buttons, marveling at how many there were.

I liked all the colors and the glossy finishes. Some were made from metal and some were multi-colored of varying dimensions. But the buttons never held any magic beyond the moment for me, not like the metal keys.

I think I might look for a nice, old key to keep in my hiking bag as a good luck charm.

I somehow feel these kinds of charms or talismans can provide us with a type of mental grounding – some sort of sense that we are headed in the favored direction.

I could see how an old photograph kept in locket might do the same thing, especially powered with the memory and spirit of a loved one attached in the picture.

The weatherman says the deep freeze has ended and the temperatures are trending upward. That news right there holds the promise of more outdoor activities to come.

This time of the year reminds me of the little nudges I might feel in the very early autumn that let me know winter is peeking around the corner. Those nudges happen maybe with a cold, damp wind on a cloudy day.

Today, the opposite appears true. I feel the first signs of warmth reminding me springtime is not far down the road ahead. Maybe the robin’s nest got me to feeling this way, or maybe it was the warm sun across my face on a south-facing afternoon slope.

Perhaps it was the warmth and the notion of springtime or the beautiful patterns in blue across the top of the snow that got me to thinking about keys and doors and the opening of things.

It’s certainly not a closing feeling I have on my heart.

So, the game is afoot. The hunt for just the right skeleton key good luck charm has begun. Maybe by the time I find it, I will be standing in the warm, summer rain, thinking of Ben Franklin with his skeleton key and kite.

Unlike Franklin though, I won’t be looking to prove anything especially.

I’ll just be looking for a way to get out into the rain, appreciating that moment in time and trying to keep my feet grounded in the dirt, my skeleton key tucked safely away in my hiking bag.

Editor’s note: 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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