Fall’s chilly grip approaches writer

John Pepin

“It ain’t no superstition, child, the blues is really real, get yourself together, got to deal with how you feel.” — Steve Forbert

After a string of glorious days that shone like new pennies, precious as pink-rose pearls — sunny, warm and summery — a gray, cold, dark morning came breathing the chilly breath of autumn.

Her touch was wet and clammy, her fingers not yet icy and hard, but by no means warm. I hadn’t seen her lurking in the shadows of summertime, but as I rounded a blind corner, there she was, ready for me with a blanket of melancholy.

I faltered and fell while the skies got darker as the morning wore on. Outside my window, I saw the black silhouettes of birds hopping on bare limbs.

Fog enveloped the lakeshore, making the entire seascape disappear before my eyes. Inside me, the blue-black shadows swirled in their varying densities, rising and sinking, burning cold like a lava lamp of sorrow.

It was one of those days I never seemed to fully get into but couldn’t crawl out of.

I felt stranded, standing still, like being a long way from the trailhead, wet right through and the sun dipping down behind the trees.

No matches. No dry clothes — unprepared to negotiate the rough and rocky shoals of these treacherous straits. There was only one way home and that was out.

There were many times when days like this would put me down for more time than I care to admit. Trapped in a black box that keeps getting smaller, squeezing like a devil’s tourniquet, minute-by-minute, I’d hope for any glimpse of muted sunlight to filter through the rolled down window shade.

Rarely did it arrive.

When the dank waters had risen past the windows and was crowding the ceiling tiles, a kind and learned gentleman tossed a lifeline in my direction.

Though more than a little waterlogged, when I reached for it, I grabbed ahold of some secrets potent enough to counter the bad juju conjured by my wicked dark queen.

Many of the secrets this gentleman magician revealed to me involved relocating the map leading home that I’d misplaced somewhere on the floorboard of my old rusted truck. It had been discarded while my heart hung from the rear-view mirror, my eyes focused on the dark road ahead, headlights out.

With the map in hand, I was shocked to discover the best of the tricks in his bag works every damned time.

I wish I’d understood its mechanics years ago, the power and what exactly comprises the skeleton of this grand illusion. Oh, the fragile worlds within I might have conquered.

The first part of the trick is the hardest.

I contort my mind to try to discount all I the gray and black I see before me, replacing these images sculpted from sadness with welcoming places in my heart, mind and soul where I’ve been, forgotten or wanted to see, but never went.

For me, I remember there was a small path between the orange hawkweed and the ox-eye daisies that stretched through high yellow grasses, from the simple gravel parking lot behind my grandmother’s white house, with red-trimmed windows, to a small creek that twisted through a choke of alders.

I remember being there on that path, maybe only once, when I was a very small kid. It was a sunny day. Just being there was everything I needed. I felt happiness that flowed like a wellspring, bubbling over and widening over the field.

On another trail, miles away, I knew of a place where brown white pine needles covered the ground. This trail led down to an old wooden bridge, where the names of dozens of passersby had carved their names or initials.

Some of these messages gouged into the wood included hearts and numerals indicating the year they were carved for posterity. Lovers and others, hoping for heaven, making wishes and at least this small mark on the world.

Beyond the span, mighty granite stones were exposed, providing grand places to sit to look at the river, watching the black, silent water roll slowly by.

Lying on my back, the blue skies rolled overhead, much like the river, pulling puffed white clouds slowly downstream, while the green pine boughs hung overhead.

There are dozens of these sunny scenes, concealed amid the groves of grief and the tangles of thorns inside my saddest days.

Once one of these reverse imagery places has been envisioned, I needed to summon enough strength to get off the couch and go there.

Maybe it’s this second step that’s the hardest.

It’s hard to go anywhere when your arms and legs seem to weigh a thousand pounds, fingers are 10 pounds apiece — my spirit sunk down through the couch cushions to the hardwood floor.

Many times, it was not possible to take this step. I remained enchanted under that dark spell, powerless to raise myself up.

Eventually, through patience and instruction at the kind magician’s feet, I slowly became stronger. I began to feel enough to see.

Despite the tremendous effort involved in taking these two rudimentary steps to this magic trick, the final reveal proved to be worth every ounce of difficulty.

Like being through the looking glass, arriving in these places, I find everything seems different and I am a stranger in a strange land. The sky seems to change color from moment to moment and all the shades are wondrous and warm.

Here, in these places where the natural world reigns supreme, the seductive black magic queen appears in a cracked mirror, no longer attractive or enticing.

The voices on the winds here have always known my name, where I’ve been and where I’m going. I am at ease, sensing all will be revealed in time.

I feel high, like I’m walking in a dream where your long lost best hopes, dreams and loves could ease out gracefully from behind a tree at any moment.

My brothers and sisters are here among the trees, the rocks and the waters of the lakes and streams. They are always happy to talk or listen.

Even the air seems different — thinner, cleaner, easier to breathe.

Thoughts come freely and my heart soars on the wings of a hawk or a beautiful blue and white jay, dipping and gliding through the trees. My wounds are salved.

The shadows in the corners of my mind become bright places ready to grow, to receive the secret codes embedded in the coil of nature that twists, doubles, triples and repeats into the infinity of the universe.

Then, like Betty and Barney Hill, I discover I’ve lost time as I’m back to earth, behind the wheel of my truck, heading down the old railroad grade, where the small brown rabbits sit at the edge of the road.

My heart is light and open, the black rain clouds can then only reveal their beauty, power and rumbling thunder. I smile, soaked by the afternoon sun shower.

I am alone, but I don’t feel lonely. The isolation is calming and welcomed. There is music everywhere — in the air, my head and my heart.

With the fall equinox around the corner, the days will soon shorten considerably, bringing more than a stray blue-gray day to these shores. There will be more times when the shadows are longer than I can outrun.

But with more than one magic trick in the back pocket of my blue jeans, the days when the elevator shaft opens wide to drop 140 floors won’t scare me so much.

For me, the tree-walled cathedrals of the woodlands conceal the best tonic — their power is indescribable, irrefutable and free.

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.