At the end of May 2016, Cooper, his mom, and I crossed south under the Detroit River, across the border to Canada. In a small, fuel-efficient car, you can make it across southern Ontario to New York with one tank of gas, no currency exchange required. (Sidenote: you should always take the tunnel, no matter what Google Maps tells you, because the Ambassador Bridge belongs to Detroit’s Mr. Burns, billionaire Matty Moroun. Don’t line his pockets.)
It was Memorial Day weekend, and we were bound for Rochester, New York, where Cooper’s sister lives. Near the end of the Canadian leg of the trip, you catch glimpses of Lake Ontario out the car windows. My family taught me the excitement of glimpsing big rivers under highway bridges, gorges extending into the distance, as well as our gleeful exclamation—“Hawk alert! Hawk alert!”—upon seeing raptors overhead. I was satisfied that it was less than halfway through the year, and with Ontario, I had already seen three out of five Great Lakes that year (an April trip to Cleveland had included a brief stop at Lake Erie; more on that later).
My parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my grandparents on both sides crossed Ontario between New York and Michigan countless times. My Aunt Margaret has lived away from Michigan, on the other end of the Great Lakes world, for more than fifty years now.
I don’t personally know the area well, beyond the asphalt and interchanges, but still this piece of Canada, which was once part of the same inland sea as Michigan, feels a part of my heritage. Each time I make the journey with my mother, she reminisces. She describes detours to antique shops, picnics by the lake, ice cream cones and other adventures that happened long before I was born. She also tells me stories she has read about the Seneca, one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) League, whose land ranges across the New York-Ontario border.
Lake Ontario is connected to Lake Erie by the Niagara River; when Ontario narrows on its eastern edge, its waters travel onward to the Atlantic as the St. Lawrence Seaway. When I drive to Rochester through Canada, I reenter the U.S. below the western start of Lake Ontario, crossing the Niagara in the process. It’s faster to avoid the falls, but if you have the time and energy for crowds and parking, you can stop en route like we used to do when we were kids. It’s amazing to think, as you watch the awesome flow of water spilling over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian side), that even more water surged over the cliffs before the U.S. and Canadian governments negotiated how much they could siphon off to run their power plants downstream (the water level mandated to astound the tourists varies from day to night, from tourist season to depths of winter).
In Rochester, we decided on a scenic drive for Saturday, exploring the Genesee River gorge south of Rochester near the Finger Lakes, in Letchworth State Park. The beautiful river tumbles down three impressive waterfalls and through the deep canyon it has carved since the end of the last ice age. Wooded green hills roll into the distance. At the other end of the park, the massive Mount Morris Dam mars the view, protects Rochester from flooding, and has presumably upended the ecology of that part of the river, although the Wikipedia article about this dam has no environmental section. The Genesee River flows into Rochester, which hosts another big waterfall right downtown, before emptying into Lake Ontario.
Lake Ontario was maybe the second Great Lake I ever swam in (Erie might have happened, but I have no childhood memories of it). I remember two or three summers, where after a week up north on Lake Huron, my brother and I traveled with our closest cousins to my aunt’s house in Rochester. She had to call ahead to check the water quality at the city beach, but we got to swim there a couple times. I remember once when it was safe to swim in, the water appeared almost black—I’m not sure what was floating in it, but it makes me sad. It would be so wonderful, so lucky to live in a city with a Great Lake beach—and so heartbreaking to live in sight of that wide-open water and know that heavy industry and agriculture were making it unsafe for human life. I know: I grew up along Lake St. Clair, the big lake that (along with the St. Clair and Detroit rivers) connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie, and we never wanted to swim in it because of high E. coli levels all the time.
On the drive home to Michigan, we stopped at Hamlin Beach State Park on the Ontario shore west of Rochester. The lake was darker than Lake Michigan often looks, this intense blue-green, but crystal clear in the shallows. The lake may be small in surface area, but it’s much deeper than Lake Erie. Some devotees of Michigan and Superior dismiss Ontario for being smaller, with too many cities—Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Rochester—polluting its nature. Lake Ontario can’t help that. Only we can help that, protect it and clean it and forge a way of life where our cities are clean enough, wild enough—and our outlook is open enough—to appreciate the beauty lapping up on the shore right in front of us.
I read somewhere that Ontario comes from an Iroquoian word that could be translated as “sparkling water.” Now whenever I think of Ontario, province or lake, it sparkles.
I guess all that was just to say that I had a few moments with Lake Ontario last year, but it was too early in the season to swim.
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My birthday at the start of June ushers in the summer, and so the summer is the new year for me. As a kid, I counted my years by the summers, and what shines brightest from them is the time spent with family and friends on Great Lakes beaches. I remember where we stayed each year, near the Au Sable River on Lake Huron: the yellow cottage with my parents, the condo with my cousins that became two condos and then a house and then gloriously two houses together on a private beach, two perfect summers in a row. The up north streak ended by the time I was in high school, although there were also day trips with Emma and even a full week on Lake Huron with Ali and her family. But the summers were marked more by road trips for concerts, my high school trip to France, the summer in college when I lived in a little house with my best friends until I left to study in Germany for a year. The summer Cooper and I started dating, for real this time. Eventually Cooper and I started traveling up north together every summer, and I was so happy to have this piece of my childhood back.
I have a lifelong commitment to swimming in the Great Lakes—to being the first one in the water, the last one out—even if the cold water turned my skin blue. As a child, I was very aware that Marisa was supposed to mean “sea maiden” in Italian, although it frustrated me because it was the lakes that I loved—I didn’t even know the sea! Even so, I wove it into my personal mythology, tied my love of the water to my name.
After my year in Germany, I was overjoyed to reunite with my best friends and my favorite lake, Lake Huron. The summer of 2010 kicked off Lake Michigan’s new status as my every-summer-lake. In 2011, I swam in Lake Michigan and visited Toronto with Cooper, but although we took a ferry to the Toronto Islands and visited the Beaches, I didn’t jump in Lake Ontario. We also didn’t make the long day trip from Toronto to Lake Huron’s massive Georgian Bay, but we did stop along Lake Erie on the way home, bringing the lake total to three. I think that summer was when the enticing dream was born: could I swim in all five Great Lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior—in one year?
The state of Michigan is surrounded by four of the five, so it seems like an achievable goal for a Michigan resident who loves beaches and road trips.
You Can’t Love Just One Side of a Lake
Since then, I’ve wanted to collect all the lakes each summer. Partially because I like things to be complete, all the pieces beginning to end, nothing left out. Partially because I’ve just never done it.
But above all else, because I love the Great Lakes and I’m curious about every side of them. I’ve never wanted to be a typical anything, but in terms of summer, it turns out that I’m a typical Michigander. I’d rather be Up North.
Last year, I finally visited all five lakes in the same twelve-month span, although I didn’t swim in all of them. The different trips took many hours of plotting on my part, thousands of miles in the car, and perseverance when I was tired of thinking through logistics. Thankfully, I powered through, and I’m satisfied with every single trip. Although I ended up replacing a few destinations with less ambitious journeys, Cooper and I still made a point of visiting many beaches we’d never been to before.
“You know, it’s not just one side of the lake that we love here in Michigan, we love the other side, too.“
I hadn’t thought of it that way until I heard Lee Sprague speaking at the Water Protectors Symposium last month, but the truth of it reverberated in me as soon as the words were out. You may have a favorite shore, you may own a specific piece of land along a body of water, but the water within a lake is always moving, and if it’s not safe on one end, it’s not safe anywhere.
Water Is Life
I was sitting on my couch trying to think through this piece. How to plunge in, to weave the litany of beachy weekends into the absolutely essential facts of environmental injustice, injustice toward marginalized communities and everyone who depends on water to live, and it’s so big that I couldn’t figure it out. I was procrastinating, scrolling through Facebook, and I saw a post by Linda Black Elk, the coordinator of the Medic Healer Council at the resistance camps at Standing Rock. She wrote about how she and her almost-two-year-old child encountered Senator Al Franken on a plane in Minneapolis. Her little boy grabbed at Al Franken’s hair as they walked down the aisle, and she recognized the senator and said, “No DAPL.” He replied right back, “Mni wiconi,” which means, “Water is life,” a tenet of indigenous beliefs and the rallying cry of the Standing Rock Sioux and their fellow waters protectors as they stood on sacred ground and prayed that the Dakota Access Pipeline would not prevail. My eyes watered, reading it, because the fight is so important, because water is life, and because I want to help but don’t know how.
2016 was a huge year for water. When I first thought of writing this series last fall, My Year in Lakes or My Year in Water, I didn’t quite realize what it would need to encompass. I’d been writing snippets of things about the lakes all summer, all tangled up and full of excitement from the many trips we’d taken. I knew that I lived surrounded by the greatest lakes in the world—twenty percent of the world’s freshwater is in the Great Lakes basin. I also knew that the state of Michigan had poisoned the drinking water of the city of Flint, and that the water still wasn’t safe to drink straight from the tap (still isn’t!). But I wasn’t thinking then about how clean water is in peril across the United States. Nor did I realize that Michigan’s most important natural resource is under threat from all sides.
I hope you’ll follow along even if your home is somewhere different from mine, because you probably love where you’re from, too. I’m tying this to the Great Lakes because this is my home, that’s my story, but water is important to everyone on this planet, and so I’m sure it needs to be protected, wherever you are.
First Lake of 2016: Michigan
So if I take you back eighteen months to where I meant the year to start, January 2016, that means we begin with Ludington and Manistee, on the Lake Michigan coast in the northwest of the Lower Peninsula (but south of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City). Cooper and I drove up to his dad’s house in Manistee on a Friday evening, a four-hour journey, and arrived under cover of darkness. In the morning, the lake greeted us under blue skies, framed by tree branches and the snowy dune in front of the house, and Cooper’s dad made us breakfast: buttermilk pancakes, bacon, and eggs. Good food and good views; going up north almost always feels like vacation, even if we’re only there for a day and a half. This time, we’d made the long drive in winter because Cooper’s sister was visiting from New York, so we, along with Cooper’s brother and his trusty hound, gathered there for a belated Christmas.
The afternoon found us at Ludington State Park. We’d tried to go hiking in the Nordhouse Dunes, our favorite spot nearby, but in the national forest, they don’t plow the roads in winter, so we’d turned around and headed farther south to the state park. It’s a popular place; on a summer weekend, the parking lot can fill up completely. Before you even get there, you see cars parked on both sides of the road, right up against the dunes. At the end of one summer vacation, we pulled over there too, scampered over the dune following one of many little paths squished into the dune grass. Right on the other side of the tall, sharp grass is the lake.
This was the last Saturday in January, and although the park wasn’t empty, it wasn’t full, either. It was easy to find somewhere to park and a trail to follow. Two miles later, Cooper, his sister, and I stood by the lighthouse, enjoying the wind and the waves and admiring the otherworldly ice formations along the edge. We walked back to the car along the beach, treading on sand solid from frozen water.
My thoughts were not on the greater world that afternoon. They were focused on the here and now, the sand and sky around me, or the book on my lap when we were back at the house. I was reading George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life on that trip. I had gotten past the beginning and was captivated by what I was learning: the way the landscapes of England and Europe used to look before humankind simplified them so drastically, how great an impact beavers and their dams (instead of hydroelectric dams) make to the resilience of a riverbed and its resident species and surrounding ecosystems, that rhinoceroses and elephants used to roam where London stands today in a temperate climate similar to what we’ve had ever since.
Monbiot explains that the way water flows in the ocean has changed, as the number of fish and whales has changed. The way nutrients cycle from the surface to the ocean floor impacts the organisms who can live there. Trawling the sea bottom destroys it all. Everything is connected.
It sounds like a sad story, but what I learned about rewilding is that, given protection from humans and other species that would harm the new growth, given some key elements of the ecosystem that came before, plants and animals are able to rebuild a complex, adaptable environment for themselves. If we don’t lose everything, we can bring some of it back.
What does this have to do with My Year in Water? Something, for sure. Maybe everything. I hadn’t re-launched my blog yet (that came in March), but I was taking notes from the book, trying to capture everything that inspired me so I could write about it, knowing that this welling hope, these enchanting possibilities of allowing our world to become less human-centric, while benefiting humanity at the same time—that I wanted this to be part of my future world. I hadn’t gotten any farther. It was just a tiny shift in perception of my position in the world. But I wanted to know what efforts were underway in the United States, how I could somehow pitch in. I started by telling everyone I knew that they should read the book.
Inklings of Enbridge Line 5
Outside in the January air in Ludington, I was happy to feel chilly and alive, and excited about the mini sand stalagmites we had found in frozen sand caves. I wasn’t thinking about oil pipelines; I’d barely given the concept consideration, although I had casually supported Obama’s rejection of Keystone XL the year before. I wasn’t really aware of the extensive sand mining that had destroyed many Lake Michigan dunes, or the oil leases in Ludington itself. I think by then I must have heard of Enbridge Line 5—that there was an oil pipeline that crossed the state of Michigan, at the Straits of Mackinac where Lakes Michigan and Huron come together in a mix of wild currents. I think I’d heard about it, and been outraged momentarily without internalizing what it meant, without understanding the issue as something that could involve me. The National Wildlife Federation reportthat started the conversation about Line 5 was published in 2012; the University of Michigan Water Center’spilotreporton the currents at the Straits and what they would mean if the twin oil lines ruptured had been released in 2014. Whatever I had read already, as I stood on the edge of Lake Michigan that day, I definitely wasn’t considering what it would look like, what it would mean for all those who depend on the Great Lakes for their livelihoods, if oil spilled in our Great Lakes.
While You Wait for Installment Two:
There are some time-sensitive issues requiring public comment, which will only take a few minutes of your time if you choose to participate. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, as well as I can. If you’d like to follow along with this series by email, I’ve started a TinyLetter newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.
+ Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac / Comments must be submitted Wednesday, June 28!
Enbridge has submitted a new permit request to install additional supports to the Line 5 twin pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac, without first participating in a public hearing process. Submit your comment heresaying that the State of Michigan must conduct a comprehensive review of the condition of the pipelines before granting another permit to Enbridge, which has consistently violated the conditions of the pipeline easement. Lots of information is available at www.oilandwaterdontmix.org(the only truly safe action is to shut down the flow of fossil fuels and decommission Line 5).
+ ET Rover Natural Gas Pipeline Encroaching on Ann Arbor YMCA’s Camp Birkett / Construction imminent
This natural gas pipeline’s current route puts a YMCA day camp within the incineration zone. Ann Arbor YMCA was not notified of this fact, and construction is now imminent. The current route would cut off neighborhoods and the entire camp in the event of a pipeline explosion. You can get information from the YMCA here about submitting a comment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The company (Energy Transfer Partners of Dakota Access Pipeline fame) also hopes to skip the expense of odorizing the gas in this area, which means the public wouldn’t be able to smell if there was a leak! More information here, and Washington Post article about the massive (two million gallons) drilling spill caused by Rover pipeline construction, which ruined pristine Ohio wetlands, here.
(Of note: Enbridge Line 5 transports Canadian oil and gas to Canadian markets, with very little sold in Michigan. Michigan land and the Straits of Mackinac are a convenient shortcut for them; an incredibly dangerous risk for the Great Lakes. The ET Rover pipeline will also carry its load to Canada; from my understanding, there’s no demonstrated need for additional natural gas pipelines in southeast Michigan.)
My friend Meg, a translator of Spanish and Catalan literature, was living and working in Barcelona winter semester, so of course I had to visit her. Neither of us had been to the País Vasco (Basque Country) or Galicia, so we decided that beyond Barcelona, we would head northwest to San Sebastián in Basque Country and then to Santiago de Compostela and Fisterra in Galicia, which is the westernmost part of Spain and just north of Portugal. (There are photos on Instagram under #MarisaInSpain.)
It was an excellent spring break, full of seaside vistas and pastries and train travel and tapas and beautiful old buildings. We stayed in nice pensiones with simple, well-designed rooms that surprisingly only cost us each about €20 per night (the nicest rooms I’ve ever booked). We alternated long walks and sightseeing with cafes, park benches, and the occasional siesta, which was a good balance (although it would have been better if we hadn’t been working on our laptops during so much of the downtime).
Coming home, I saw Ann Arbor in a different light. I was surprised by how wide the streets of downtown Ann Arbor felt after crisscrossing the streets of Gràcia in Barcelona for days, where tree canopies shadow one-way lanes that pedestrians fill until a motorbike or car appears. My little city’s streets disappointed me a bit: their width seemed so gratuitous. The parked cars and wide lanes felt like a canyon separating the people and shops on either side of the road. Of course, Ann Arbor’s downtown streets aren’t wide at all compared to many others, but I felt the change from the neighborhood in Barcelona acutely.
Still, Ann Arbor is home, and there are many things I know I’ll miss when that’s no longer true. For years now we’ve wondered when we might leave. Cooper and I first thought we might move to Detroit several years ago, when he finished his PhD coursework. I resolved to do all our favorite Ann Arbor things then, to say yes to anything fun and enjoy a final summer here, a perfect autumn of cider mills and walks in the Arb(oretum), which we did so often when we were in college. But staying put was easier and cheaper than uprooting ourselves, and once I found a mythical job with benefits, there was another incentive to stay. So we waited, unsure when Cooper would finish or where he might find a job. More than once I thought the next year would be our last year here. In the moments when we realize our lives could soon take a new turn, the familiar becomes more precious. This encourages us to take advantage of what we can while we’re still here: to go to the film festival during the work week, to visit all the parks and restaurants we still haven’t been to. It also made it difficult to decide last summer if we should postpone our Lake Superior vacation for Iceland. What if it was our last summer near the Great Lakes?
I’ve looked forward to the adventure of a new place for years. I love my apartment, enjoy living in this pretty college town that is populated by friends and family. But I’ve long looked forward to putting down firmer roots in my next home, living in a neighborhood where people get to know each other, instead of so many neighbors cycling in and out every year as they graduate from college. I don’t have a history of being involved in my community; I am not good at reaching out and making friends, at sharing myself in person, carrying on a conversation when I’m uncomfortable. So for a while, I procrastinated. I wanted to be involved in issues I care about, but I thought I’d wait to lead life differently wherever we ended up.
But I got sick of waiting. I didn’t do as much as I should have, but I helped register people to vote. I volunteered with the campaign to fund ourRegional Transit Authority.
Then the election happened. I still didn’t know where we’d be in a year, but waiting to take action was no longer an option. So now I’m putting down roots in the place that I expect to leave. Of course, there’s no harm in doing so, but it feels a little odd sometimes. After ten years here, I’m seeing things from a new angle, getting a more human-centric view of this place, and it makes the looming farewell even more bittersweet.
There’s a lot for me in Ann Arbor. And the more community events I go to, the more people I connect with and things I learn, the more I love this town. I’ve known all along that this city is full of like-minded people, but now that I’m experiencing it more fully, I sometimes wonder if I’m crazy to imagine going somewhere else.
Kerrytown, Ann Arbor
County Farm Park
We’d imagined life in Cleveland, which could be a good place for Cooper to work and for us to live, and is still pretty close to home. I was excited about a program in Austin that Cooper was interested in, thinking it would be fun to live in a completely different place for a year or two, until maybe he’d get hired at a university back in the Great Lakes region. We were prepared to go almost anywhere, if there was a good job for him. Finding a tenure-track position is no mean feat.
We talked with friends about how we hoped for the sliver of a chance that we could make the smaller move back to the Detroit area; the want was still strong, our hearts were still invested in the city (and our parents who live nearby, and our people across the state). We talked also of how I’d always wanted to move away for a while, experience a bigger city or a different climate, new people and perspectives. That comes with the exciting but also troubling possibility that somewhere else would be perfect for us, and we wouldn’t come back.
In the past couple years, I’ve drawn closer to this state of mine. I’ve always loved the lakes, but learning about Michigan’s history bored me as a child. From an early age, I disliked Metro Detroit’s massive sprawl (ugly and inconvenient); later, I hated how dull it was to live in a suburb so committed to quiet uniformity, and dreamed of leaving.
In the time since I graduated from college, and stayed, and stayed, and stayed in Ann Arbor, I’ve learned a lot more about the state, its politics, our cities and towns and natural wonders. I want things to get better. I want people to be safe, wildlife to be protected, our governments to help instead of harm us.
By October, it was becoming clear to me, though I couched it in a sea of maybes, that if we want to build connections and be a part of communities we care about, if life is fleeting and we don’t really know how long we have, if these battles are critical now—and they are—then maybe it’s foolish to think that in my overall life trajectory I would still prefer to have moved away and then come back, when I have no control over the distant future and only some control of what’s coming next. So maybe, maybe the best thing is to finally do the things we want to do right now, live somewhere in our lifelong home state, which has so much going for it and yet so many profit-hungry Republicans stacked against it, to work to make the place above all other places in our lives a better place, see our best friends on the weekends and help out our parents and hopefully be part of the city we have watched and cared for and had so many beautiful memories in already.
I grew up in the suburbs, where you had to drive to get anywhere interesting. (Although today my dad bikes all the way from Grosse Pointe to Johnny Noodle King in Detroit, there’s no way my mom would have let me do that…and yeah right that teenage me would have even wanted to bike so far.) I used mass transit on rare vacations in what I would have called real cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, even navigating the Paris metro with my classmates on that first, heady trip to Europe. I used the bus sometimes in college to go to the mall. And then I moved to Germany for a year.
It was a completely different world, where a student could pay I think like 65€ for six months of unlimited public transit in the city. I lived two minutes from a Straßenbahn stop, and so I could take the tram straight downtown, or to my friends’ dorm on the other side of the city, or to the train station, where high-speed trains took me to Munich and Slovenia, Prague and Paris and Berlin. I could take a bus from the train station to the regional airport—something you couldn’t do in Ann Arbor back then, unless it was a major university break and you were a card-carrying student. It was completely different to live alone for the first time in Freiburg, instead of somewhere in Michigan, especially carless.
I learned to love transit in an extremely privileged way, when I was living off financial aid in Europe. When I came home, there was a car I could take from my parents. I mourned the loss of rail travel because it was so fun, because it worked so well, and because I saw no logical reason not to have it. When I killed the car, there was no money, and I didn’t consider buying a new one. Cooper ended up needing his own car, and so we didn’t have to depend exclusively on the erratic Amtrak schedule to keep our romance alive while he lived in Detroit. Luckily, I’m able to walk and bike. I’m happy with the decision to pay more to live centrally, or to live in a small space to live centrally, and eventually I learned to love that I don’t own a car.
Let’s be real, though. I have a car. I share it with Cooper. We don’t use it every day, or even every other day, but we have it whenever we need it. We take the bus and bike because it’s less stressful for us, much cheaper, better for the planet. We take the bus because for us, in central Ann Arbor, it’s easy.
I wanted to write a love story to train travel. I want to make you love trains as much as I, a surprisingly dorky twenty-eight-year-old woman who never went through a public transit obsession as a small child, but who as an adult reads train travelogues and histories sometimes in her spare time. I really do get excited when I see streetcars in New Orleans, when I get to ride a subway. But I don’t have time to write that, because it’s not all sorted out in my head. Transcontinental trains have long stories, long reaches. And though the U.S. definitely also needs more long-distance trains and tracks, better trains, faster trains, southeast Michigan in particular needs a regional transit system.
I believe in that, too. Not just the sexy ICEs and TGVs of Germany and France, the intriguing yet unlikely train route from Ann Arbor to Traverse City that’s being researched. Not just the light rail I wish was already planned for the full length of Woodward Avenue, instead of just a little blip, or the light rail they might one day build to cross Ann Arbor. Not even just the commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, that people were talking about when I started college ten years ago—although that is a fucking big deal and a huge start, and the commuter rail is part of the historic and necessary transit package we are voting to fund in southeast Michigan tomorrow.
Because this isn’t about me, even though the commuter rail line is what might impact my life the most at first, and is what I most hoped for, these many years. This transit millage, to fund the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, is about connecting people, uniting our region, making it so people who can’t drive or can’t afford to drive or don’t want to drive or just don’t have a car that day because it’s broken or whatever, can get on with their lives, like they live in a real place that respects them as human beings and wants them to be able to work and pay their bills and feed their families.
Connecting Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties—the only major metropolitan area in the country without regional transit—and expanding and improving their transit options: this is a social justice issue, this is an environmental issue, this is an economic issue.
And so I didn’t write that lovely story about big trains going to far-off places, because that’s not the battle we’re fighting today and tomorrow.
Also because I’ve been busy calling voters and dropping brochures these past few days, and I haven’t had time to write seriously. If I hadn’t decided to do this NaBloPoMo thing again (a commitment to post something every day in November), I’d be asleep right now. But I wish I’d written this post, which maybe ten people will read, a few days ago at least. I wish I’d volunteered sooner and more. I desperately hope it works out tomorrow, for transit and for Michigan, and for America and the world.
When I got off the bus at work that Monday, the first thing I felt was the invigorating chill of the October air mixed with the cheery morning sunshine. The prairie patches grown by the university as a less labor-intensive, more biologically diverse and sustainable form of landscaping, still buzzed with life and waved in the breeze. I felt light and free and happy as I strolled past, the earlier dread of missed buses and unknown inbox contents set aside.
How do I hold onto that feeling? How can I possibly hold onto that feeling when I have to wave my ID card at the door, climb the three flights of stairs (my choice, but I don’t always enjoy it), and turn on the computer, that mesmerizing and dulling device that rules so many work lives?
I could have walked the entire way to work, but only if I was ahead of schedule.
I could have sat down on that sidewalk like a weirdo and breathed in, breathed out the peaceful morning smell, willfully ignoring the heavy car traffic behind and the hulking office buildings ahead. But knowing that I was only briefly postponing the inevitable, that I needed to move along and get to work, would have distracted me.
What I thought, as I walked toward the wide expanse of parking lots that I snake through to cut the most direct path to my building, was that this was why I wanted to go up north that weekend. I wanted to leave everything behind except for my boyfriend Cooper (I’d take Haroun and Table Cat too, if they were dogs) and put all my focus in the moment, in the beautiful forests and waters of the Upper Peninsula. No worries except about what’s for the next meal. Feel tall standing on big rocks. Bouncing feet along the trails. Bundled up in sweaters and scarf and jacket against the wind. Experiencing things that really matter.
The thing is, travel is also stressful. There’s always an opportunity cost. In the final four to twenty-four hours before departure, I start to panic. Why do I want to leave this apartment and these cats that on a usual day, I wish I had more time for? Why do I need to skip town, when town is full of good food and better people and really, lots of pretty trails and a cozy bed I know? How will I know what I want to wear two days from now? When will I ever write about the trips we already took, when will I curl up with all the books in my stack and catch up? I rarely get much reading done on trips, because no matter how long we spend away, it’s not quite enough. Often, I get lost and exhausted in the decision-making.
Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I don’t know how to be present, maybe I don’t really know what I want, because I want too many things.
We hadn’t planned our getaway yet, didn’t have a place to sleep, but it was only days away. Cooper had a long to-do list, better tended to with undivided attention at home…and yet, despite not working out the logistics, we had planned on an escape to Lake Superior all year. There was nothing I wanted to do more than this.
So We Went, and It Was Glorious
We spent two nights at a motel in the unincorporated community of Paradise, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. We visited Tahquamenon Falls surrounded by the resplendent colors of autumn, all golden light the first afternoon. We visited the Lower Falls again for a longer hike the next day, when we had the world mostly to ourselves, cocooned under cloudy skies with all the trees and the largest lake in the world* in front of us. The final morning, the beach at Whitefish Point was all ours, too, as the blue-green waves crashed and crashed, and the blue sky started to peek through.
Why do I travel? I travel to feel free, to fly loose from daily cares, from what others want from me and from what I demand of myself. I travel because I like to see new things, because I like to bring stories I’ve read to life and build my interest for other place’s pasts and presents. To disconnect, and to connect.
Things were really simple on this trip. Heavy storms the first night and the next morning put our power out, and so we cleaned up and wrote by candlelight, internet-less, until lunchtime. Other than that, our goal was to be outside together—mission accomplished.
Whale watching was on our to-do list in Reykjavík, but we didn’t plan ahead for it. We also figured that it would be wrong to leave Iceland without seeing any puffins, as colorful, goofy, and famous as they are. On our second to last day in Iceland, Cooper, Emma, and I drove the southern coast of Iceland, from Grindavík all the way to the town of Vík, near the island’s southern extremity. I had intended for us to catch the ferry to the Westman Islands off the coast, where we were sure to see puffins, but time was short, so we focused on the mainland instead. One beautiful spot was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, where many puffins nest in the spring and summer. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually find a puffin, since we weren’t sure exactly where to look, but it was exciting when we did! So exciting, in fact, that we decided to go on a puffin boat tour in Rekyavík the next day, instead of whale watching.
Day one, we wandered from our apartment by the old harbor, heading down any street that struck our fancy. We met a friendly, giant calico cat near houses with inviting gardens. It was bright and sunny, and I could instantly imagine spending long afternoons and late nights here, grilling dinner and chatting outside until the sun got to setting.
On the way back to our apartment later, we saw two probable tourists greeting an even bigger animal. The next day, he was out again, and so we got acquainted with the giant feline we thought could have been a dog, christening him Huge Haroun. Same colors, same fur—but his head was at least twice as big as our spunky Haroun’s. We pet Huge Haroun until he caught sight of another cat and bounded off in pursuit. We felt sorry for his target, whether he or she was enemy or reluctant paramour (we suspected the latter).
We passed some churches and wandered through a pretty, green park, also populated by friendly cats, along with some relaxing Icelanders and their little dogs.
From my repertoire of weird Icelandic facts: Dogs were made illegal in Reykjavík in the 1920s, due to a tapeworm that they passed on to humans, often fatally. I think it was in the 1980s that the city started allowing exemptions to the law: if you paid an annual fee, and your neighbors consented, you could have a dog. Dog ownership is on the rise in the city, but Reykjavík remains a city of cats, and friendly ones at that. Most of them have homes: cats are required to be microchipped in Iceland, and a study I read about somewhere found that almost all of the cats they met on the street belonged to someone. What lucky cats they are, free to roam this pretty city and make friends all around. One of the apartments we tried to rent required guests to keep a window open, so their cat could come and go, and Cats of Reykjavík posted a funny story from someone who woke up with a strange cat in their bed. There’s approximately one cat for every ten peoplein Reykjavík—it’s my kind of place.
Before we wound our way down to the city center, we found ourselves in a neighborhood of impressive houses, still mostly made of corrugated metal painted pretty colors, and also surrounded by lovely gardens. We were on a little hill, and looked across to see famous Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrím’s church) in the distance. We headed vaguely in that direction and explored the charming city center, talking for a while by Tjörnin, the small lake behind the parliament building, and mysteriously passing up a waffle cart opportunity in favor of (quite good) vegetarian dinner, like responsible adults. (We got rave reviews of the waffle cart from my friend Carolyn when we met up with her on our final day, but failed to track it down. Do better than us!)
Alþingishúsið: the parliament building on Austurvöllur square
Hallgrímskirkja and Leifur Eiríksson
Harpa music hall interior
Harpa music hall exterior
The waterfront beckoned, so we walked along it, before eating dessert al fresco at Café Paris on Austurvöllur square. On our way home, we watched the sun set over the harbor, Snæfellsjökull (snow mountain glacier) far off in the distance. Continue reading “Reykjavík Does It Right”→
The possibility of a trip to Iceland appeared in my inbox out of the blue. A few minutes later, I was already texting Jane back, mid-evening-walk. I had very little practical knowledge about Iceland then, though I had seen a lot of photos from people who had been there. It wasn’t anywhere on my current travel list, but it had been when I studied in Germany for a year in college. So Iceland was a wildcard, but not completely unknown.
(Okay, practically everywhere was on my list that year, when budget airlines and high-speed trains, not to mention open borders, made anything seem possible. The big destinations I missed out on during study abroad—not that I’m complaining—were Morocco, Turkey, Scotland, and Scandinavia, including Iceland. I also failed to see large parts of Germany, which I regret more. Hamburg and Bremen and the North Sea and Dresden and the castles on the Rhein; I barely even saw the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, which surrounds the city I lived in.)
At that point, late May, our big plans for the rest of the year were nil: Cooper and I had, yet again, ruled out the possibility of a trip to Italy and Germany. Too expensive, too ambitious, and Cooper now had conflicting obligations for September. We weren’t sure what we should do instead. Jane, who’s been friends with Cooper since middle school, was preparing to move from Atlanta to Minneapolis with her husband Ed. I was preparing to invite myself to Minneapolis, hopefully en route to Lake Superior’s North Shore and a road trip home through a more northern Ontario than I’d previously encountered(another harebrained idea I wasn’t sure we could pull off in the time we had). Jane wrote back that they were thinking of Sweden, Denmark, or Iceland for a vacation before her job started, since she had never been to Europe and flights weren’t too bad from MSP. Did we want to come?
Staying away from mainland Europe quelled my instinct for extended, multi-country trips. The flight to Iceland from Detroit was cheaper than any other European destinations for the summer. Plus, it’s a small country. Michigan is almost two and a half times bigger in area, and Detroit has far more people than Iceland does. We thought it would be manageable, and rewarding, since it’s bursting at the seams with beautiful and unusual scenery. How often do two of your closest friends offer to meet you in Iceland? Of course we wanted to tag along!
I looked into costs, plane tickets and car rentals and accommodations. We panicked, a little, since by this point Cooper and I were expecting more of a drive-your-own-car trip, not a journey to a much more expensive continent (okay, technically, tectonically, Iceland is on both the North American and European plates). I worried it meant we wouldn’t be able to afford Europe proper next year.
I clicked through slideshows of the top Icelandic sights and got overwhelmed by how much there was to see, all over the country. I narrowed in on southwest Iceland and still found more than we could do in six days. I definitely wanted to go. A week after Jane first mentioned it, Cooper and I bought tickets for $860 each, to fly to Keflavík International Airport via Minneapolis. Emma, my oldest and most adventurous friend, decided to meet us there too, on her way home from Ukraine. So we rented a two-bedroom apartment, plus sofa bed, in Reykjavík, and a little automatic car. Cooper and I traveled around the Great Lakes region, worked, read about Iceland (mostly me), bought hiking boots (Cooper) and a rain jacket (me), and waited for July 30th.
Absolutely, 100% Worth It
I love Iceland. I expected and hoped to enjoy the trip, of course, and I knew the company would be great no matter what. But there’s a lot of hype about Iceland—everyone seems to return enchanted—and I wasn’t sure if it could be as good as people say.
The first thing we always do when we arrive is run down to the beach, or up to the bluff, to say hello again to our friend the lake—whichever Great Lake it may be. It was true when I was a kid, up north with my cousins. We’d get to our condo or cottage for the week and immediately ditch the grownups, drop that first bag of the many provisions we were supposed to be unloading from our caravan, and run down the path or over the grass and into the sand, to see our long-lost friend, Lake Huron.
When Cooper and I get to a beach, we usually kick off our shoes and walk up to the shoreline where the waves lap up and the sand is wet and firm. If it’s not swimming weather, we’d still like to get our feet wet. Even in winter, we want to dip our fingers in and commune with these giant bodies of water, which surround the land we live on from so many sides.
Of course, wherever you vacation, you usually want to take stock of your new holdings on arrival, however temporary their tenure as your home may be. You want to claim the best bedroom, perhaps, but more importantly, seeing the lay of the land helps you stake a claim on your vacation, and bring it from the realm of anticipation to reality. Your vacation may begin when you pull out of your driveway at home or your plane leaves the runway—suddenly, predictably, and yet improbably airborne. You get a step closer to vacation when you leave the interstate, or land at the distant airport. Another step closer with that first glimpse of lake through the trees, or foreign signs everywhere, or crossing city limits. You come off the numbered smaller highway and onto country roads with periodic mailboxes and gravel driveways tunneling into the trees, tall and impressive although they aren’t as old as we’d like to dream.
But I’m not really there until I’m face to face, as it were, with the lake. Then, vacation has arrived.
It makes me so happy that Cooper shares these customs with me, this friendliness with our lakes (and admiration for the sea, when we find ourselves on ocean beaches). I don’t know if anyone taught me to feel this way toward the land and water, or if I came upon it instinctively. Not every Michigander acts like me. But Cooper, who comes from a different family, is so similar in this.
In a way they are low-key deities to us, our nature gods to whom we delight in paying homage.
There isn’t time enough, my friends— Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends— To find the time to have love, work, and friends. Michelangelo had feeling For Vittoria and the Ceiling But did he go to parties at day’s end?
– Kenneth Koch’s poem “You Want a Social Life, With Friends,” via Austin Kleon
Before I get started, you should follow the link to read the whole poem (published in The New Yorker in 1998), because it’s funny and kind of true. I should print it out to hang over my desk, or maybe somewhere I actually routinely spend time, like on the wall by the bathroom mirror, as a reminder to focus on what matters and not get carried away with trying to do all the things.
All the things cannot be done. I know this, and yet I still want so much. Fitting in love, work, and friends isn’t exactly my problem, as long as the ‘work’ we’re talking about here is the job I report to every weekday. Cooper and I spend a lot of time together, I try to see my local friends regularly, and, you know, I sit at that desk and deal with email and go to meetings as expected. But I aim for more than love, job, and friends. When I count the work I’m not paid for, the creative pursuits like reading and writing and tending my little garden, and then throw in a latent desire to be in shape—a distinct need I feel every day to move and stretch more, which is hard to accommodate in the office—and add those to a deep commitment to travelling somewhere almost every month, the time runs out.
This is why I think the entire goalof so-called work-life balance is garbage: why are so many people struggling to elevate their entire non-working lives to the same level as their jobs? Life is made out of many components; work may be one or several pieces of the puzzle, whether paid or unpaid; but I see no reason to split the pie in two and give half to my employer, and half to my friends, family, health, home, and other dreams. This is a complaint and a philosophy for always, although it’s not what I’m trying to write right now.
Suffice it to say: there isn’t time enough, my friends, so mark what matters and go for it.
It Must Be Summer (‘Cause You’re Never Around)
What matters for me this season is travel. Road trips and tall trees and rivers and lakes are what our weekends have been. So I won’t complain about my job, which I am so fortunate to have. Less than two years ago, I had two or even three jobs at a time, with unpredictable schedules and requisite night and weekend hours. 2015 was my first summer ever, really, to hit the sweet spot: weekends free, paid time off, access to a car with air conditioning, and money enough for gas and the occasional plane ticket. Last summer, Cooper and I traveled to New York and Wisconsin, visited Kalamazoo and Lake Michigan regularly, and spent ten glorious days exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was pretty excellent. This spring and summer, though, I’m living the dream. Continue reading “There Isn’t Time Enough, My Friends”→