On Mackinac Island

Looking down on the town and harbor.

Looking down on the town and harbor.

Readers of the travel mag, Conde Nast, voted Mackinac Island in Lake Huron one of  the “top 10″ islands of the world.  That brought caution to my contrarian mind.  Call something paradise, kiss it good-bye.  So went the Eagles’ song anyway.

But there we sat, Nebra and I, waiting patiently at Dock 1 for the 2 o’clock ferry to Mackinac.  As the moment of departure arrived and the Star Line’s “hydro jet” parked alongside, the dock quickly filled with other tourists who, I assumed, had each coughed up $25 for the round-trip fare.  Some even carried luggage for an extended stay.

Star Line is only one of three big ferry companies to service Mackinac traffic.  Along with Shepler’s and Arnold’s, Star Line is bunched into a busy area of motels and restaurants on the east side of Mackinaw City, in northern Michigan.

So what’s the attraction out there?  For one, a few handsome old hotels and 19th Century churches at the port, Mackinac City.  Uphill from the town is an old fort built around 1715 and the Michigan governor’s summer residence.  And, what interested me most, some hiking trails along Huron and through beautiful evergreen forests.

The Michigan governor's summer residence.

The Michigan governor’s summer residence.

As we boarded the two-tiered boat, most everyone grabbed seats on the open upper deck.  It was a sunny Sunday yet cool even here in August, so Nebra and I steered to the lower deck and found seats by the starboard windows.  As we made for open water and the 20-minute ride to Mackinac, the boat’s powerful engine shot water up in the air behind us, 20-30 feet high.  It was an enjoyable voyage over.  Huron’s choppy surface was decked out in eye-pleasing shades of blue against the distant islands of green.

From a distance of a mile or so, the port seemed attractive.  A large marina, sailboats, and a busy harbor.  Big nicely painted home along the shore.  But leaving the dock, you immediately run into another picture which is Mackinac City’s Main Street.  The busy thoroughfare immediately destroyed the first idyllic view.

An efficient but messy mode of travel.

An efficient but messy mode of travel.

Small garish shops lined the bustling street.  Most, it seemed, sold  fudge.  Noisy tourists, inattentive children on bicycles, young families wheeling babies in carts, horse-drawn carriages with camera-toting riders.  You could not have found a more inhumane human place in Kalamazoo.

We picked up a free island map and decided to eat at the least congested restaurant we could find.  That turned out to be the Mustang, I believe.  It stood on a side street and served bar food.  We regretted our order of hamburgers.  After eating, Nebra asked about the food.  “I thought the white onion was good,” I told her.

Arch Rock, a hole in limestone.

Arch Rock, a hole in limestone.

Fortunately in walking northerly on Main Street, we soon ran into the Coastal Trail and proceeded along the eastern side of the island to a geologic formation called Arch Rock.  But first we came across the city street cleaner, a cheerful man sweeping up the mess the horses left.  And Nebra, in fun, had to wrench the man’s broom and manure pan and do a little sweeping of her own.  I do think it made the street cleaner’s afternoon a better one.

Only after passing the sprawling Mission Point Resort did I start to feel good again.  Though we had plenty of hiking company, the crowds thinned and were soon reduced to the lingering memory we would have to trundle back through the place to catch our ferry.

Mackinac finally grew enchanting, this mix of unexpected wildness of forests and white limestone by a dazzling blue lake.  Canada geese bobbed along the shore.  We stopped numerous times to ponder the natural world.  What kind of flower?  What kind of tree?  Was it Mountain Ash?  We huddled by a tree I thought was a Paper Birch, scanning our guide to plants in northern Michigan.

At one point though, the human need to create meaningless art forms emerged.  Zillions of rock cairns began to dot the shoreline.  I was at a loss to explain some of the cairns poking up from Huron itself.  The bafflement continued until Nebra reminded me that until a few years ago that not only Huron but all the Great Lakes had lost vast amounts of water.  The cairns had obviously been erected in the ebb years when the rocky coast was exposed.

To reach Arch Rock from the shore requires some stamina.  That meant mounting the hundred-some wooden steps to the top.  And when you get there, you see many have taken the easy way up, by carriage from town.  And once there, you see too it is over-ridden by kiddies with Canons, all in a rush to take selfies and absorb nature in the new digital sort of way.

The coast from Arch Rock.

The coast from Arch Rock.

The Arch proved a decent destination, a huge hole in the limestone, resting, I read, 146 feet above Huron.  The vistas are great from the wood platforms nearby.

We hiked back to town by a different route, slipping along a well-kept trail through old forests.   It was like a nature trail with signs along the way identifying various trees.  But you are never too far away from the noise of tourists returning on the carriages to the tune of clop-clop-clop on nearby pavement.

Probably the most impressive  thing we saw came outside old Fort Mackinac.  Near sundown, a group of uniformed Girl Scouts performed a ceremony to take down the American flags, not only at the fort but at the governor’s mansion and a few other spots to boot.  Make no mistake.  These are very serious girls who seem to take their duties to the highest level as they break into groups and march 100s of yards to their assigned destinations.  Impressive.  We followed three of them to the governor’s residence where the flag was lowered solemnly in front of a small gathering of spectators.

Girl Scouts on the march to lower flags at fort and governor's residence.

Girl Scouts on the march to lower flags at fort and governor’s residence.

Down the hill to the harbor we came, wasting little time in the still-busy foot traffic of Mackinac City and reaching our assigned dock well in time to catch the 5 o’clock ferry back to Mackinaw City.  The return passage proved uneventful, and I was glad to be back on the road to Petoskey.  We planned to leave our pleasant house on East Mitchell in the morning, bound for Chicago again.

While Mackinac Island turned out to be a pleasant afternoon’s experience, I doubt I will ever go back.   As it turned out, once is enough.  Too many tourists.




That wage thing

In 1963, I worked on a bridge construction crew in Kansas for the going minimum wage of $1.25 an hour.  I was married and had two children.  When they raised my hourly wage by a nickel I thought I had gone to heaven.

My “slave wages” of 51  years ago equal $9.58 in today’s money.  The federal minimum wage in 2014 is $7.25.  So, in essence, I was making 32% more than the working poor of today.  If I had not received a federal loan — which I repaid in full — I would never have had enough money to go to college and eventually make a decent living.

For conservatives in America to complain that raising the federal minimum wage would hamper business owners and kill jobs amounts to just another of many big lies that Fox News and other right-wing media tell us.

Wonder what’s wrong with America, why this country is going downhill?  You don’t have to look far from a fair minimum wage.  The greedy are driving the car and the accelerator is pressed to the floor.

East Mitchell, Petoskey

Landscape makes the difference

Landscape makes the difference

In Hemingway’s novella, “Torrents of Spring,” Scripps O’Neil walks along Main Street in Petoskey looking for the pump-factory where he hopes to get a job.   The author describes the street tersely:  “It was a handsome, broad street, lined on either side with brick and stone-pressed buildings.”

It is still a handsome street but now, in real life, it is Mitchell Street.

Mitchell begins at the base of the hill, nearest the marina on Little Traverse Bay, and extends upward through the heart of the shopping center and the pretty little park with its perfect green grass and an old cannon in the middle.  Beyond comes the red-brick library and, then as Mitchell steepens, a charming residential area filled with old homes.

Another nearby home.

Another nearby home.er 

We stayed in of those old houses for five days last week.  It was a two-story frame house and nothing special.  We parked in the back off the alley and made use of the nearby table and chairs that rested under a giant sugar maple.  The house was more or less home to a curious black squirrel and a cardinal.  Up the alley one day,  cottontail guided us up to the outlet at Lockwood.  It was an idyllic place with flowers, wild and tamed, abounding in every direction.

It was not always the  homes that caught our attention.     On our walks up Mitchell, going “home,” it was the norm to see a man seated on a porch smoking a cigarette.  He had a large, wooly mustache that reminded of a walrus.  I think maybe he was a fixture there, nailed down, unable to move.  We passed him so often that he started waving to us.  Never got around to asking him if he was kin to Hemingway.  But there was a resemblance.

An Episcopal Church near hill's summit

An Episcopal Church near hill’s summit

One gorgeous evening with temps in the 70s, Nebra and I ventured up Mitchell to the summit of the first hill.  We marveled at the beauty of these old homes and admired the work it took to keep them that way.

Petoskey, as I’ve written before, has “Hemingway’s Michigan” historical signs all round town.  His father, a Chicago physician, built a cottage west of here on Walloon Lake in 1899, the year the Ernest was born.  And it was here he came every year, it is said, until 1921 when he married Hadley Richardson at Horton Bay, a small community near Walloon.

Hemingway never came back.  Not in person.  He did come back in his mind through his stories and in “Torrents.”

Off out there somewhere, hope perhaps

Did my great-great grandmoter come to Amboy, Indiana, on these tracks?

Did my great-great grandmoter come to Amboy, Indiana, on these tracks?

Railroad tracks that vanish off into the distance fascinate me.  They are tracks with no train and no obvious destination.  I think this fascination has something to do with hope.  Maybe I hope that what’s at the end of the tracks is better than where I am at the moment.  But I really don’t know.

Just a few weeks ago, I set out in search of the grave of my maternal great-great grandmother, Sarah.  She is buried in a Quaker cemetery on the north end of tiny Amboy, Indiana.  I found the grave, all right, with its worn monument covered with a tawny lichen.  It has been there more than 125 years.

I believe, but don’t know, that Sarah came to Amboy on a train from Ohio, on these same tracks.  The old Pan Handle line split in eastern Ohio, and this spur, to Chicago, cut by the north side of Amboy.  I had Nebra drive to these tracks on the east end of town.  I stepped onto the tracks and saw that they vanished into the far-off northwest, toward Chicago.  The tracks passed through patches of forest, and I wondered if some of those trees witnessed Sarah coming in to town that day to begin her last big adventure.   It was exhilarating to think about.  I felt close to her.

More recently I stood on yet another set of tracks, these on the northern edge of Petoskey, Michigan.  This was the old Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad line.  The view north led to nowhere in particular.   They just vanished in the distance.  No trains travel on the line these days, and the old station has been remodeled and turned into business offices.  The rails are rusty and grass threatens to hide the wood ties.

Hemingway wrote about these tracks in "Torrents of Spring."

Hemingway wrote about these tracks in “Torrents of Spring.”

It was on these tracks that the family of the great writer Ernest Hemingway came into Petoskey for its summer vacation beginning in 1899.  A steamer from Chicago would unload the clan at the dock in Harbor Springs, north across Little Traverse Bay from Petoskey.  The Hemingways would then board the GR & I train for the 10-mile ride.  Once in Petoskey, they would board a second train on a smaller line that would take then west to Walloon Lake where they had a cottage.

These tracks also provided the young Ernest with the closing scene of his farcical novella, “Torrents of Spring.”  Yogi Johnson and an “Indian squaw” are walking north up these tracks in the dead of winter with no clothes on except for shoes.  They are followed by the Big Indian and the Little Indian.

“Night in Petoskey,” Hemingway wrote.  “Long past midnight. . . . The town asleep under the Northern moon.  To the north the tracks of the GR & I railroad running far into the North.  Cold tracks, stretching North toward Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.  Cold tracks to be walking on this time of night.”

So I stood there, on a sweltering August afternoon, and thought of Hemingway and what it might have been like to be there with him at a time when he was young, confident and hopeful.

That was decades before he blew his brains out in Ketchum, Idaho.

Why Petoskey?

One of 11 stops on the Hemingway self-guided tour.

One of 11 stops on the Hemingway self-guided tour.

Petoskey was always my idea.  Nebra had never heard of this small Michigan town of 6,000 on the shores of the Lake by the same time.  And, to be honest, I wasn’t sure how to spell it until we were almost there.  “Petoskie” was finally deleted from my mind in favor of the accurate “Petoskey.”

The answer to Why Petoskey was this.  Hemingway.

Petoskey was where famous writer Ernest Hemingway spent boyhood summers with his vacationing family.   The father had gone so far as to build a cottage on one of the lakes west of town, in 1899, the year Ernest was born.  And, after his stint in World War I, in Italy, he came back to Petoskey on occasion, the last time in 1921 when he married for the first time.  So there was that.  The lore.

But even as we approached Petoskey several days ago I was clueless what kind of place it was.  Atypically, the research bug alluded me on this one.

What we found driving down Highway 131 into town from the south was one of the most beautiful little places in America.  A town set on hills leading down to a marina largely filled with sailboats, gorgeous old homes amid giant trees.  And there was our vacation rental on Mitchell Street in the middle of it all.  And, one of those giants, a Sugar Maple, shot up toward the clouds in the backyard.

Even a half-century after Hemingway’s death his presence lingers strongly.  At the Chamber of Commerce information center, at the corner of Mitchell and Howard, you can pick up a free Hemingway tour guide with 11 points of interest.  At one of the town’s two nice bookstores, McLean and Eakin, on Lake Street, the staff has organized a Hemingway collection with just about every book he wrote and many of those published about him.  It was there I picked up a paperback copy of Hemingway’s “Torrents of Spring,” a fictional piece supposedly set in Petoskey.

West of town, at Horton Bay, where the Hemingways summered, Ernest’s life is buoyed at the Red Fox bookshop.  The owner sports a beard ala Hemingway, gray and trimmed, and can cite from memory passages from Hemingway works.  A quaint and interesting place.

But there’s more to Petoskey and environs than Hemingway.  Much more.  But that is a bit on “Why Petoskey?”

Fairmount High

Fairmount High falling apart.

Fairmount High falling apart.

The owner at the James Dean Gallery had warned me.  Don’t expect too much if you visit Dean’s old high school up the street.  It was in ruins, he said.  The roof collapsed the previous summer, in 2013.  The entire structure would soon be razed.

I asked Nebra to drive up there anyway.  We had come to Fairmount, the little town in east central Indiana where Dean grew up, mainly to visit his grave in the cemetery north of town.  But it was at the high school where Dean first learned to act and appeared in plays on his way to Hollywood stardom.

The school rests just east a few blocks from downtown.  It is bordered on the north by Adams Street, on the east by Buckeye, on the south by Jefferson and on the north by Vine.  A chain link fence surrounded it.  We parked on Adams and walked around the property.

On 2nd floor, Dean's speech class on right, auditorium on left

On 2nd floor, Dean’s speech class on right, auditorium on left

The old Fairmount High was in better shape than I expected.  Most of the walls remained intact.  But the roof was caved in, in shambles.

We met a pair of local women taking an evening walk.  The eldest said she had gone to school with Dean, but offered no particulars.  She said the school had been abandoned since when? 1971, she thought.   I asked if she would pose for a photo in front of the school’s entrance that said only “High School.”  No “Fairmount.”  She politely declined.  I know.  Shoulda put a gun to her head.

As I finished my shooting tour and walked back to the car, a man approached walking a small dog.  He said his name was Bob Johnson.  He worked at the Fairmount historical museum on Sundays.

“How much do you know about the Dean saga?” he asked.  “A little,” I said.  At that point, Mr. Johnson began a quick rundown of Dean’s life in Fairmount, starting with the father working as a dental technician in nearby Marion.

At the end, he pointed up to the second floor of the school.  Adeline Nall’s speech class was on the right, the auditorium where Dean appeared in school plays, on the left.  Ms. Hall, who is said to have greatly influenced Dean’s acting career, outlived her star pupil by 41 years.  She died in 1996 at age 90, Dean of course dying in 1955.

Front entrance to Fairmount High.

Front entrance to Fairmount High.

As I walked to the car, a touch of sadness came over me.

While mortals like Dean come and go, you think of a school building, like a Carnegie Library, as a place that lasts forever.

It’s the apostrophe, stupid

The last few days have been pure hell in, as the state’s welcome signs say, Pure Michigan.

It started the day we moved in to a vacation rental in Petoskey, a resort town on Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula’s northwest corner.  It was a beautiful old two-story house on East Mitchell, nicely furnished with antiques.  Gorgeous old homes landscaped to perfection decked the streets on all sides.   The rate was $135 a day for a minimum stay of a week.  That’s moderately priced in this area.

Only one bad thing.  No Wi-Fi.  Still, no sweat.  We had Nebra’s I-phone.  We could create a Hot Spot with it, and I could tap into the Internet with my year-old Acer laptop.

That’s the way it was supposed to work.  Trouble was this. “Nebra’s I-phone,” as it was officially designated by her, would not converse with my laptop.  Every time I clicked on “Nebra’s I-phone” I was told no connection was possible.  It was the same story day after day for three days.

I did notice something right away but didn’t think much about it.  “Nebra’s I-phone” appeared on my laptop’s list of potential Internet connections as “Nebra€s I-phone.”  What was a euro sign doing there?  Finally, as frustration built, I asked Nebra to go into Settings and rename her I-phone using anything but an apostrophe.  She changed the name to “Nebra I-phone,” and, voila, I’m in like Flynn again, on the Internet.  My laptop, so it seems, could not translate her apostrophe.

Happy days are here again.