On the standard lower peninsula of Michigan hand map, the cabin on Crystal Lake is located about a quarter inch below the bottom of the pinky nail. A nook of the state carved by ancient glaciers into tree-lined hills, colossal sand dunes, snaking rivers and aquamarine lakes, this part of Michigan provides a stark contrast to the images the uninformed imagination conjures when provoked with the name of the state. Gutted buildings, decaying factories and burnt-out houses are an unfortunate part of the state’s identity, but up here, it’s a haven of natural beauty and outdoor activity, far removed from the harsh realities of economic downturn.
My great-grandfather had the cabin built on top of the bluff above the lake way back when my mom had just met my father. The family oversaw the construction from the old farmhouse, which is located just a few hundred yards away. My mom likes to tell the story of how my great-grandmother would bring her children up to that farmhouse for weeks at a time and they would have to make do with no electricity, no running water and no means of communicating with the industrialized world. For years, the kids would play amongst themselves and my great-grandmother sat idly by until the day that my grandfather was old enough to play cards. My mom contends that this was the happiest day of my great-grandmother’s life. Fortunately, the cabin was built with some more modern conveniences, but there’s no question that this place is far away from the connected lifestyles of our homes.
The cabin isn’t big, but its vaulted ceilings and open floor plan give it an illusion of spaciousness. Inside is an outdated kitchen, combination living and dining room, three bedrooms, which, due to some inventiveness on the part of my parents can sleep up to 8 people and 2 full bathrooms. The decoration is eclectic, to say the least, with thrift store finds, golfing trophies, Native American artwork and old books, among many other things, populating the shelves. Oddly, one of my favorite rooms is the unfinished basement, which, while terrifying to me as a child, is now quite charming. The strong smell of must, the cold concrete floor, rotting ping pong table and old sports equipment all tie into strong memories of being young and careless and full of imagination.
Outside, the cabin is surround by a large meadow to the west and north and dense woods to the east. The natural settings are populated by a wealth of flora and fauna, which make for a pleasant, if rather loud, symphony of birds and insects during the day and night. The birch, pine, fir and maple trees of the woods provide shady spots and a consistent whisper as the wind passes through their leaves. We used to pack backpacks with sandwiches and Pepsis and go in search of the ghost cabins in these woods. We had to navigate dense brush and one or two natural bridges to get there, but every time we found the two abandoned little houses in the middle of the forest, one being slowly crushed by a dying tree, the other completely empty save a few covered pieces of furniture, our skin erupted in goose bumps and the adrenaline-fueled sprint back to safety left us with scrapes and scratches all over our bodies after tearing through the foliage.
The cabin is at its best on sunny summer days, though the afternoons are sweltering and the nights can be sweaty. There’s really no better place to start the day than on the screened-in porch with a book, the overhead fan accentuating the cross breeze that blows through the open windows while the dog pants and looks for a cool patch of floor upon which she can nap. Life is slow on summer days and it does the body good to rest on the futon, especially in the morning, exerting oneself only when flipping pages of old Calvin and Hobbes comics for the hundredth time or reaching for a sip of iced coffee.
When things get too hot in the afternoon, it’s best to pack a small cooler of Oberon, cut up some orange slices from the drawer in the fridge and walk down the steep, crumbling road to the beach. When I was younger, one of my favorite things to do was to start running down this hill, feeling my body cede control to gravity and finding myself unable to stop the wild movement of my legs as I careened toward the flat land at the bottom. These days, though, the walk down is better taken slowly with stops along the way to smell sweet pine and listen for woodpeckers in their relentless search for a meal.
After emerging from the shady road, the sun begins to warm the skin and the lull of the waves hitting the small sandy beach greets one like an old friend. Crossing over the bike path, which was once a railroad that transported lumber and passengers from northern Michigan down to Ann Arbor and Detroit, the lake appears through the birch trees in spectacular fashion, its deep blue and bright turquoise water begging for toes to scrape its sandy bottom. It’s impossible not to oblige.
It’s easy to spend hours at the beach on Crystal Lake, perusing magazines in an Adirondack chair as the drone of far off motorboats and the rhythmic rustle of leaves take you into a hypnotic state. But it’s hot and bright and despite a few dips in the cool, transparent water, sunburn is inevitable and by late afternoon, the skin becomes angry and blotchy and begins to hurt. The hill is much less fun on the way up. Lactic acid burns the legs and the older folks at the cabin have to stop to catch their breath several times. I consider myself lucky that I can make it up in one try. We used to have contests on our bicycles to see who could make it up the farthest without stopping and, often, we could only make it about three-quarters of the way, stopping or falling over and skinning knees in the Callam’s rocky driveway.
Arriving back at the cabin in the late afternoon, hair soft and light, skin crusty and warm and the body drained from the sun and beer, throwing oneself onto the couch after a quick lunch of cool Maurice salad and lemonade is the popular move. I’ve never been much of an advocate of the afternoon nap, but soft pillows and hum of the insects override these values and the body shuts down for a couple of hours until dinner is on the table.
It’s light outside until nearly 10pm in the summer, as the cabin is on the far edge of the Eastern Time zone, meaning that the sun is still ablaze when the smell from the grill arouses the nostrils. The burgers are receiving the final doses of cheese that melt over like silky sheets. At the table, the chairs roll loudly over the linoleum floor as the group sits down and the dog lies at our feet in hopes of snagging a dropped morsel. We’re all sleepy and conversation is light, but one feels a sense of connectedness as we mash on tater tots and guzzle ice water. We’re all feeling the same – tired, dreamy and with a clichéd sense of distance from our computer screens. Our strained eyes thank us for this break.
After dinner, a game of euchre is usually in order and we clear off the table on the porch to make room. Chilled white wine cools the sunburn and prepares the body for bed amid the sticky humidity of a summer night. The birds start to quiet down and the breeze calms to reveal the steady chirps of the crickets. Everything in the world is sleepy as the sun finally ducks below the hills.
Looking out towards the lake as the final light of the day fades out, the eye is drawn to two young trees in the corner of the back yard, their skinny branches dancing in the light breeze. They are memorials, for my grandfather and grandmother, who spent years of their lives helping to make this cabin what it is today. Not only did they provide so many of the tangible objects that have become integral parts of this cabin’s identity, but the two of them also created the lasting memories that this place will always encapsulate with their laughter, life, personality and love.
Scanning the surroundings, taking in a deep breath of fresh evening air and listening to the rustling of the card deck, I know that they, just like I am now, are at peace up here.
Note: This is a rerun of an older piece of mine that I like.
“It’s a really beautiful plant,” he said.
“Cannabis. It’s a very beautiful plant. I used to grow it in the garden in Geneva.”
Jean-Pierre looked up from his copy of The Da Vinci Code. He smiled. Though he had squinty eyes beneath his bushy white eyebrows, they had a sparkle that came when smiled.
“I once purchased one kilogram of cannabis for two francs!” he said . He spoke each word very slowly and deliberately with his thick Swiss accent. He always spoke very slowly when he spoke English. It sounded like “I once…purchased…one kilogram of cannabis…for two francs!”
“Deux francs?!” I replied, half feigning surprise and half genuinely taken aback.
“C’est vrai. I’ll tell you the story, but I would rather speak in French.”
He marked his book and took a long swig of Spanish wine, finishing his glass.
“I was quite a young man back then and was travelling through the Middle East. We had just arrived in Kabul, coming first from Syria and then Iraq. Back then, Kabul was a different place. There were no head scarves. The women would wear mini-skirts cut down to there if you can believe it.”
He made a slash with his hand about mid-thigh.
“We were very tired and had big backpacks when we arrived at the hotel. At the smoky hotel bar, we had been drinking and enjoying ourselves when a man came up and asked if we would like to buy some cannabis. We said yes because we were exhausted and needed something to help pick our spirits up.
“Down at the bar we smoked the cannabis and drank wine together. After a while when we were feeling rather fuzzy we went upstairs to our rooms to go to bed.
“We had been sleeping for a few hours when we heard a knock on the door. I got up to answer it, still feeling very fuzzy in the head. When I opened the door, I was confronted by three men in military fatigues with rifles who asked if we had been smoking cannabis. They reminded me that cannabis was, of course, illegal in Kabul and that we could be prosecuted to the full extent of the law if convicted.
“At this point, as you can imagine, I was quite afraid and told the men that we had not, in fact, been smoking cannabis but was quite sure that another group of young men had been down at the bar.
“The soldiers must have been able to sense that I was lying because they held a brief conference in a language that I was unable to understand. One looked me up and down and said that he had some cannabis for sale. One kilogram could be mine if I was willing to give them two Swiss francs.
“Of course I couldn’t believe it. But, at the time, Swiss francs were worth quite a lot in Kabul and the soldiers must not have understood that, for a young Swiss professional, two francs was hardly anything, even back then. I told them, yes, I would like to buy one kilogram of cannabis for two francs. I gave them the money and they handed over an enormous sack of the plant.
“As you can imagine, we couldn’t finish all of it in the time that we were in Kabul and, in a few days, we had to return home. At this point, Janet and I had just moved to the Seychelles and had just had Sascha.
“So when I came home from Kabul with the cannabis – and quite a lot of it, mind you – I cooked up a huge dinner of Spaghetti bolognaise for myself and Janet. And instead of smoking the cannabis, I just decided to dump it all in the sauce. So we ate and ate and after we had finished, we had a nightabsolutement agreable!”
We all laughed and laughed out loud. Sascha put another log on the fire and the flames warmed my back. I could feel my cheeks reddening from the heat and the wine and the happiness rose like warm mercury.
Outside, the mountains sheilded us from the wind. The world stood perfectly still, the snow stationary on the ground and branches of the trees, the stars ablaze up above.