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Outdoors North: The crossroads and the scarecrow looming up ahead

JOHN PEPIN

“Something really special, something you could feel, something you could count on that was real.”

— Bob Seger

There’s a place I know, a crossroads with a scarecrow.

I hear voices there of old things dead and missing or things that never were.

On summer afternoons, the rains fall there and over the winding river and the lake tucked in behind the trees. Ghost anglers try their luck in the waters of the cranberry bog. I hear them huffing and mumbling in between breaths of the wind.

I wonder if they are happy to be there fishing or wishing they were someplace else? Has heaven forsaken them, leaving them here instead? Is there a place in these wilds where they too call home?

Wispy like mist, they float over the water or gather at the base of a tree trunk to sleep. Shrinking like vampires, they disappear in the sunlight, but they’ll be back on another rainy day.

Traffic coming down the road from the other direction, a big logging truck or a grader leveling the dirt and the gravel, blocking my way through to the other side.

I sit here and wait, ducked behind this dash of scrub, in a place I park before walking down through the wet, green grass and the mud to the riverbank.

Someday, maybe I’ll float down that way on the current, drifting down to the bottom to settle beneath a submerged log, like a big brown trout.

So many of the things I’ve seen and done over my time have amounted to continuous searching for one kind of a home or another. Over there instead of here, up there, not down here.

Like a lonely hitchhiker, I keep walking.

I’m looking for truth and light around each bend in the road.

It can be discouraging. Sometimes I want to quit altogether.

In times like these now, with the iced winds and powerful gales of winter’s ravenous hunger and tremendous, unslaked thirst, the crossroads and its wooden and splintered post and signs pointing here and there shiver just like I do – frozen to the core.

The sweet grasses of summertime lay choked and brown beneath the snow.

Desperation seeps in like poison. I figure I’ll stay here just a little longer to see if things change one way or another. When they don’t, I decide to leave, but feel as though I could be making a mistake.

So many trade-offs, no matter which way you go. Thirty-four miles to heaven’s gate, a lifetime’s journey back.

Even at a crossroads, it can be easy to lose your way. I sometimes wish my long-lost lover would walk to me and talk to me and tell me what it’s all about.

I feel like a wood frog that is half frozen solid and half alive, living and breathing. Am I living or am I dying? This real, solid deep freeze is the toughest kind of wintry weather for me. It’s the kind of cold that makes me shake, even though I feel warm to the touch.

The snow that was soft and sticky a couple days ago crunches now when I walk on it. If had taken the other direction at the crossroads, I might have ended up in California or New Mexico by now. Shows what I know.

Ice-blue skies in winter, flaming trees in fall, magic golden summers, I think we had them all. Out along the shoreline, between the sea and sand, diving in the cool, dark waters, walking hand in hand.

And yet, somehow, I sense a change for the better on the wind. The springtime’s purple martins are winging their way north. So far, they have made it into Florida and a handful of other southern states.

How could their return after a trip of thousands of miles, from the Amazon Basin to the quaint bird condominiums of Ludington Park not inspire hope and confidence in life itself, in some way of things remaining, things continuing to come?

In this weather, the birds are hungry too. The cottontail and the gray squirrels move swiftly from place to place, like they are afraid to move any slower or they might freeze solid.

Still, to experience this sub-zero ice box is to experience something raw and wild and real. It’s not something everybody does. There is exhilaration in just a trip to the mailbox, especially if you don’t wear a jacket.

The biting winds and committed cold grab ahold and don’t let go. It makes me feel alive to take in the wind and feel my lungs freeze inside. It’s fresh and clean and true.

I’ve set my mind on getting a fire started one night this week in the fire pit. I want to sit out there on one of these crippling cold nights and experience the night next to my fire.

I have never done that before.

I know there must be things out there, under those conditions, that are different than under the more favorable circumstances I’m used to. I imagine it would be a delight just to watch the smoke from the fire twirl skyward through the trees.

I imagine the cold would make it dance in a different fashion than what I am used to seeing. Perhaps real slow and swirly, around and around and around.

Maybe the stars would be easier to see through crisp, clear skies. Maybe the wolves and coyotes don’t howl? Maybe the owls are quiet too?

I plan to find out.

I recall stepping out from a warm cabin on a frigid winter night, I think it was in February too.

On that night, the stars were bright, and the cold air again felt refreshing with my having emerged from the cabin warmed a touch too much for me by a roaring fire.

I remember the sounds of traffic on the highway and an eastbound train chugging along seemed louder or easier to hear that night. The snow didn’t crunch when I walked. It wasn’t as cold then as it is now.

In my mind, I can see the glowing orange zig-zagged lines from an old, metal space heater we had in the house when I was a kid. I remember it pushed out a good deal of warmth. My parents kept it in the bathroom.

I also had a hearth clock over my bed in those days. It had a red lightbulb behind some fireplace logs. With the light lit, in the darkness of my room, just the glowing light from that little red bulb made it feel warmer on winter nights.

We also had an electric fireplace in that old house during the late 1960s. It was a strange purchase, I thought. It hung on the wall in the living room but was only rarely used.

When you’d turn it on, there was red and orange colored lighting that flickered behind some fake logs. Another switch would throw heat into the room with the help of a fan built into the metal housing of the unit.

When we did turn the heat on, there was so much dust on the element, it smelled like something burning and we’d shut if off quickly.

I remember breathing the air when that thing was running made my chest burn.

Back at the crossroads, the scarecrow is gone — vanished completely.

Maybe he was only there in my mind?

I can plainly see him when I close my eyes.

He’s laughing at me, as though he knows the answers to all my questions, but he can’t or won’t speak. He’s just got stitching across that burlap, patched face of his.

If there really is a way home for good, I hope I’ll find it.

Until then, I’ll keep wandering the expanse of this fine countryside, walking the cross ties, climbing the bluffs, haunting the creeks and the streams and those old dirt roads, stopping to rest under the shade of a sheltering oak, taking a cold drink of water now and then — checking my maps as though I know where I’m going.

Sometimes I wonder how far down these roads I’ve come.

There’s another corner coming up and there’s always another crossroads.

Maybe if there’s a scarecrow at this one, he’ll be more willing to point me in the right direction. One step and then another, one foot in front of the other.

One day, gone like the mists of the ghost anglers.

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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