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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I guess it was important to see James Dean’s grave. If it weren’t, I would not have driven out of my way 150 miles to Fairmount, Indiana, a few days ago.
It was a warm, muggy day as Nebra steered the rented Ford Focus east at Lafayette onto highway 26. There may not be 65 miles of straighter and flatter road in America than 26. Like much of northern Indiana, corn and soybeans bedecked the roadsides. And there is an endless string of well-kept farms and small, neat “villes.” Rossville, Geetingsville and Russiaville, and also Sedalia and Indian Heights. Near Oakford, I got out of the car to inspect a large field of Roma tomatoes not quite ready to harvest.
Fairmount is probably the largest of these metropolises. Population almost 3,000 in the 2010 census. One of those 1950s places that seems to have ignored the march of time. Quiet. Young girls in shorts ambling along the streets with apparently little else to do here in the middle of summer. Almost no vehicle traffic to deal with the town’s two or three stop lights on Main Street.
An attractive sign on the west end of town announces you are entering Fairmount “Where Cool was Born,” an allusion of course to Dean. A full-size rendering of the actor is on the left. He stands there familiarly. Thumbs tucked into blue jeans below the famous red jacket seen in his most iconic film, “Rebel Without A Cause.” The only thing missing is the cigarette. that usually hung down from his lips. Yes, cool was the image of James Dean. An arrow trumpets the Fairmount Historical Museum with its “Authentic James Dean Exhibit. A second rendering on the bottom right depicts Garfield the Cat. The asthmatic illustrator, Jim Davis, grew up on a farm near Fairmount.
Dean died in 1955, victim of a car crash at a road junction in California. He was speeding of course. Everything for Dean came fast, particularly fame. I came to realize over the years that it was not so much Dean the actor that I admired. It was “Jim Stark,” the character he played in “Rebel.” The film was THE movie of my generation. I’d been to Dean’s death site near Cholame, California, three times. So, as I said, it was imperative to visit the grave.
It was too late to visit the Museum. It closed at 5. So we settle for the James Dean Gallery which stays open an hour longer. The Gallery has much info to offer the Dean fan. The collection covers three rooms in the front of the old two-story house on Main. Nearby is a room with a projector that shows rare film clips of Dean.
At the front desk, I bought a postcard, wrote a note at a table in the next room and addressed it to myself in Phoenix. I then handed the card to the Gallery owner. He assured me he would hand-carry it to the post office so it would receive the “Fairmount” postmark rather than the standard one in Kokomo.
As the sun descended, we concluded a walk-around of the high school James attended. It’s in ruins, the roofs completely collapsing last summer and the whole she-bang is on the razing block.
It was then we headed north on Main to the cemetery. Many of the graves were still decorated with plastic flowers and other ornaments. At one spot Nebra pointed to a large headstone of the Scott family. The “Dad,” Jay Dean” (1955-2010), was born a few months before Dean was killed, and next to him “Our Son,” Jared Dean (1988-2007). Had to be James Dean namesakes, we thought.
Using the free map of Dean sites we picked up at the Gallery, it took little time to find the grave on top of a small rise on the cemetery’s north side.
I was immediately struck by how small the headstone was. The grave of his father, Winton Dean and wife on the north, is larger. I don’t know precisely what I expected but something definitely of size.
Walking about the grave I was dismayed to see all the junk. If you didn’t know better, you might have thought it a pauper’s grave in the neglected part of town. The debris, if you could praise it even that much, was left by Dean’s fans and well-wishers, I suppose. Cigarette butts, smoked and dropped on the grave and around it. Rocks, pebbles, a comb, plastic flowers, a crumpled beer can, an old warped photo of the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who appeared with Dean in his last film, “Giant.”
White-washed stones line the cemetery’s driveways. The ones in front of the Dean marker were covered with autographs of passers-by.
But worst of all were the “kisses.” I counted at least a dozen lip-prints in various shades of red around the actor’s name “James B. Dean” on the grave’s front.
It is a strange custom, this decoration or desecration of a grave by people wishing to express their adoration. But is it really for Dean these tokens are left? Or is it more for the giver? I can see someone dropping a half-smoked cigarette there and then having a compansion shoot his photo with him by the grave pointing to the cig on the ground. Celebrity worship is one of the worst aspects of human life, I think.
I was glad to leave the grostequeness of James Dean’s grave behind. I remember near his fatal crash site at Cholame, people had pulled out parts of a Dean metal sculpture and, I assume, taken them away as souvenirs. Very materialistic, unsatisfied by their spiritual connection there with Dean.
Maybe this will change my mind on something. I have always hated the idea of cremation. Ashes in a jar, carried around by the gods know who. To me, it is a selfish act, cremation. It is cheap, yes, but you leave nothing for those who come later perhaps seeking a spiritual union. Or information on the tombstone. Birth, death whatever. Ashes for the famous may be the way to go.
Anyway, I saw what I came to Fairmount to see. It has offered in its own way closure for me and James Dean.
All I wanted was a map of Chicago. A simple street map. That was it.
It’s not that I can’t find my way about without one. I have a GPS hand-held, a laptop computer and a cellphone. All can pull up digital maps, but none can give perspective like a big paper map. There, you can “x” important spots, get the big picture of the place. Write notes here and there. Save it as a mark-up of your trip. Admire it for its beauty.
Our version of MapQuest began yesterday, our first full day in Chicago. We have a small but expensive hotel room on the north side, in the Lakeview area. Just west of Lakeshore Drive and Lake Michigan.
It was a Sunday, a wet one at that. Heavy rain came down in spurts. Showers, I guess they’re called. How the devil would I know? I come from Arizona. Think three small rains in seven months. Along the sidewalks of Oakdale, we ducked under a few of the many towering trees and once under the roof of a parking garage in an apartment complex and stayed less than soaked in traipsing over 7.3 miles in the land mass of dark and trashy brick buildings south of Wrigley Field. Ugly but not disinteresting.
We called three nearby bookstores, even visited a gift shop, looking for a Chicago street map. No, none to be had. I was almost certain there would be maps at Powell’s, a large bookstore on Lincoln Ave. To my shock, the store was closed, out of business. “About two weeks ago,” said the cashier at a small hamburger joint where we sought shelter from Deluge No. 2.
At a gift store on Clark, the clerk directed me to some decorative maps of old Chicago. Then the light dawned. “You mean useful maps,” she asked, then led me over to another area and appeared to diligently search the shelves. Finally, she said, “I guess we’re out of them.”
We tried grocers including Treasure Island and pharmacies CVS and Walgreen. Again nothing. It’s like no one comes to the north side of Chicago who has never been here before. It’s like the young bearded guy we passed. We asked him where the nearest Starbucks was and without hesitation, “Clark and Belmont, a few blocks up on the left.”
Still, without a map, we managed to find two used-book dealers, Bookman’s Corner, and Bookworks, the latter where I purchased “The Last Days of T. E. Lawrence,” a brand new paperback marked down to $10. And we managed to find our way back to the hotel on Broadway, wend our way to supper on Saturday night at El Mariachi (Mexican) and on Sunday at PingPong (Chinese). All without a large paper street map, which, really, in some cases, can be a work of art.
Well, we may be mapless in Chicago. But we’re not clueless.