Outdoors North: ‘Up around the bend’
By John Pepin
“I’m a midnight girl in a sunset town,” – Don Schlitz
There is a place I am quite fond of others likely wouldn’t recognize as anything more than a wide spot in a sandy road out in the middle of not too much of anywhere.
It is a place without any widescale distinction. There are no water features here to draw anglers or boaters or campers. Likewise, there are no towering forests here today to give a person that feeling of being inside a grand procession hall.
It isn’t an area favored necessarily by hunters, berry pickers, picknickers or others.
For me, it’s somewhat of a used-to-be kind of place, with open skies, fire-scarred remnants of tree stumps, perhaps an inland pond at one time, but not now.
The strangest part of all of this is really my undefined affinity for the area.
It’s a place I usually only get out to once a summer season, if I’m fortunate. During the wintertime, I think about the place a lot and wish I were there to experience it.
This summer, I have yet to get there.
I never seem to be there enough for my liking. When I do get out there, it’s usually when I’m on the way somewhere else, where time prevents me from staying as long as I’d want to.
There are a lot of places I know that fall under that description.
I think the things I love about this somewhat non-descript place way out there among the scattered and small stands of quaking aspens is just that.
It is no place.
Or at least no place like so many others I like to visit.
The open skies are enticing. I always think about being out there to watch a meteor shower, but I never have. The birds that live there are relatively few, but they tend to be on the more colorful, decidedly bluish side – Eastern bluebirds and American kestrels.
I guess I’m forgetting about the clay-colored sparrows, which are not in this category of colorful birds, unless you consider their voices.
In general, I love sparrow songs because they are often loud, clear and bright and they jump out abruptly from even the densest shrubbery as something immediately new on the scene.
The clay-coloreds are like that.
The dirt road isn’t open during the wintertime so the times I do come to this place are often warm weather days – lazy times when a shade tree and some oft, gentle breezes to keep the mosquitoes at bay can make this place sublime.
Another draw to this place for me is a sense of great abandon or forlorn that seems to permeate everything here from the nodding bracken ferns to the few tall trees sagging and stilted growing here.
To me, it’s as though these features of the landscape know they are of tertiary importance to travelers at best. Of course, I am not one of those travelers.
There are badgers and ground hogs here that burrow into the sides of banks at the edge of the road. By the presence of freshly dug and clawed dirt, these animals are very active, but they are seldom seen, at least by me.
I have also pledged and failed to sit out here in front of one of these fresh dig sites for as long as it takes to capture photos of the animals living inside.
I remember seeing this place first as a kid from the back seat of my dad’s old, blue Pontiac 4-door he called “the old bomb.” I was like a dog in those days, with my head hanging out the window bobbing and looking at everything that came by.
I thought the blackened stumps were strange to see. They were no doubt relics from some significant forest fire activity, maybe even dating back as far as the turn of the 20th century – soon after the pine timbering days.
Those blackened stumps are still there today, just like they were when I was a dog boy in the back of my old man’s car.
Grasshoppers are also found out there. These insects have always been a fascination for me, from the times when I likely first encountered them amid the hot, dry and yellow grasses along the Soo Line Railroad tracks in the heart of our old mining town.
I was excited to see the varied colors and sizes of these insects that could blend in easily with the rocks between the steel rails, the grass or even the dark reddish-brown iron ore.
Some of the grasshoppers were bright green and yellow with red coloring on their legs. Others were drab in appearance, tending toward gray, light yellow or pale green. The dark, red-brown ones were the biggest.
They all seemed to make clicking noises, some when they were still, but most all when they would fly. We would walk slowly or stand still trying to spot them on the ground. They blended in so well.
When they took to the air, we could see them from a good distance away and we could hear them too. I used to like to sit calmly when one would chance to land on my blue jeaned thigh or my bare, suntanned arm.
As kids, we tried to catch them by cupping our hands together around them.
When we tried to look between our fingers or open our hands, it was as though the grasshoppers knew we would be doing that, and they were waiting for the opportunity to jump out and fly away. Click, click, click, click.
Seeing them out in this forgotten location provides a familiarity for me that I find comforting. Much the same is true for the old burnt stumps, the sandy dirt road or the summery clouds puffing across the late afternoon skies.
I have occasionally seen deer tracks in the dirt along the road edges, around the big corner. Crows know this place. They like the high places in the trees to sit and announce my arrival to everyone else.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think we all know I’m here now. Who cares?”
I think the openness of the area allows my mind to roam and my heart to soar, but I would guess those are somewhat subjective pursuits. Spiders, poisonous snakes and skunks all have fans.
If this place were a town, it wouldn’t have even one stoplight, maybe not even a stop sign. There might be some boarded-up or crumbling old
railroad maintenance shed falling apart along the tracks.
Maybe there would be a couple old houses or an old corner store or bar, but the screen doors would be hanging off the hinges, the windows would be broken out and nobody would have been inside for decades.
Passed over, passed by, passed up or just past.
Places like this make me wonder who else might have stopped here over the years besides me. What did they see in this place?
Did they love the solitude, the sadness and the nothingness like I do or was it something else for them?
Maybe the nothingness gives me a false sense that time has stopped out there, at least momentarily. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I know it’s a delusion.
I know the Grim Reaper never sleeps, is constantly on the move and swings his sharp scythe even in a quiet place like this. Tick, tock and all that crazy jazz. I dig.
Speaking of time, the autumn is upon us and the opportunities to get out to some of these more out of the way places is fading. I need to get on the stick.
Having crossed over the equinox, the amount of daylight is dropping. The sunset is earlier each evening. The birds that haven’t left yet for the south soon will.
At least we have more than a month remaining before it’s time to look our clocks in the face, grab their hands, or twist their dials, to make them fall back an hour.
It is in those ironic days, when the holidays and merriment approach, that darkness falls its hardest and most decidedly upon us.
Before that happens, I have got to get more dirt on my bootheels, wind in my hair and dozens and dozens of new water and landscape photos shot into my brain through my tired eyes.
I’m going up around the bend.
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.