Family, Memories, Vacation

Up North


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Mac Wood's Dune Rides

Last year I took my boys on a vacation up north making a stop in Mears which was to be the second stop in my list of destinations. The dune ride has not changed since I was a kid. Even the color of the vehicles is the same. In a few days I will take the girls on the same, or similar, trip and this will be one of the stops. The story as told by the driver is this unfortunate man was skydiving when his parachute failed to open. I swear 30 years ago this same prop was used.

The “up north” as it’s been called by me since I was a kid has become an important if not necessary trip for me to be taken each year. If I don’t see it in the books or if it’s just not talked about I feel like I need to make it happen. There’s something about taking my kids to places I visited as a kid that makes me think I am sharing something with them about my life, almost a lesson. Perhaps it’s more about wanting to make them love the places as much as I did as a kid.

After many years in between visits the trend started up again with my wife who I think was not my wife at the time, or perhaps she was but I don’t remember, yet someone I wanted to share this experience with. Our first visit was to Ludington where we stayed in a bed and breakfast for a couple days followed by a drive north to Petoskey then Charlevoix. While I had a path in mind I remember we drove around a bit looking, well I was looking, for something that reminded me of my childhood. I didn’t say that but it was totally self serving in that aspect. No matter though I was happy to be there, with her, in a place I loved as a child. Why I think people will enjoy things as much as I did or do and why it’s so important to me I don’t know.

Last year I took this venture to a new level by not only going to some of the places I went as a kid but even a step further in really trying to hunt down a particular spot in the Sutton’s Bay area that was only a very distant memory. No real pictures to remind me, no street name but just the pictures in my mind. The problem with that is I think I paint a different picture in my mind than what is real at times especially with old memories where the lines of reality and dream cross over a little. Either way I was determined to find this spot even if it took half the day driving.

The spot I am referring to was a place for migrant workers to stay during the harvest season of cherries. Lodging was rough with no electricity, no running water and the floors of the structure were concrete and/or dirt. There was however a well pump outside and outhouse across the street. My father would take us up north to visit the sand dunes but not before he took us to visit his friends who were migrant workers staying in places like this, we made several of these trips in different spots along Sutton’s Bay. The deal was we would stay for a few days or longer with them wherever they were before going to a hotel for the “real vacation.”  Accommodations were always similar. I came to refer to them as “the outhouses” because of their basic outhouse/barn like designs, don’t get me started on the beds. As a child I thought my dad was doing this to teach us a life lesson on how some people get by with less even working very hard for basic necessities. Years later I would find out that was not the reason for the visit. Actually it was because lodging was free if we worked thus saving him money so the “lessons” were only made up in my mind. That’s alright because I grew up remembering the lessons and believing in them as valuable.

Not having a real idea of the location I did know it was right on the water and there was only one road that followed the shore all the way up to the top so my plan was to stick to that road looking closely for any signs that reminded me of something. After driving for a while I felt as thought I was on a silly hunt that would end in wasted time driving, my poor kids in tow having no idea what the point was. Even if I did find that exact spot would it even look the same after close to thirty years? Eventually I decided to turn around and continue to our planned destination which was the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Taking a turn down some road I believed would lead back and out of Sutton’s Bay there were these cherry trees that looked like something I remembered. I felt as though it was a spot I’d seen before but then again don’t all cherry tree fields kind of look the same? Not only that do cherry trees even live over thirty years? I stopped for a moment and snapped a picture anyway because there was something about the way the field dipped that I thought I remembered. A few miles later there was a house on my right with an old truck out front and a pole barn painted red and green. The color of the pole barn was something I always remembered so I knew right away I’d somehow found the spot. Directly across the street from this was a masonry block home, more like a garage, with sort of a walkout basement. Stopping to take photographs I couldn’t believe my luck at finding this spot however the masonry building was gone or at least the top level was gone.

The pole barn across the street. At the time it was packed with migrant workers.
The pole barn across the street. At the time it was packed with migrant workers.

I got out of my truck and saw the bottom half was still intact. Looking over the side I could see the room and doorway where we stayed all those years ago. My mind flooded with memories of  the few days we stayed in this spot. The swimming, goat killed for dinner, people all over the place and the bed spring sticking in my back at night. At the time I wanted nothing more than to get out of there and head to the sand dunes for a real vacation, staying in a hotel with running water. Now the place was empty with weeds overgrown on what was left of the building and small tool shed. I imagined we were the last to bring life to the area all those years ago, absurd to think, but I liked that idea. To me it was like my childhood memories were imprinted on the remains of the building, earth and surrounding water. I’d told the kids the story of this place a while ago and being there I went on enthusiastically about how “this is the place I told you guys about” but quickly I realized they were really not that interested.

This is what is left of the garage we stayed in. Shown is the first floor with walls missing. We slept at the right on the basement level.
This is what is left of the garage we stayed in. Shown is the first floor with walls missing. We slept on the right at the basement level.

Sitting there staring at the shell of the building trying to bring back memories of that time I wondered if it was a memory that I should have left alone. Things were different. The house was gone except the bottom portion and colors were not as vivid as I remembered. I wanted my kids to appreciate this place and understand the significance but in the end I was a little sad to be there as though I’d uncovered something that should have been left alone It was like a reunion with an old friend that you really don’t have anything to say to. My youngest son Andrew called from the back seat in an impatient tone, “Dad are we going to go get one of those Pasties you talked about in the U.P.?” That was my cue to make some new memories with my kids.

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