Bruce said it
Even though it’s a Jeep ad
Whose map of America leaves out the UP
We need the middle
Note: For varying reasons, my husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.
June 29: Every year when we journey to Michigan, there is always that thrilling moment when we first see the Lake. Usually, we get it driving up from the south: topping a hill we see a dark blue horizon, almost indistinguishable from the sky. Smudged, indigo, almost invisible, it’s not an object, it’s an expanse.
My husband and I have been trying to prepare our grandson for the enormity of Lake Superior. Like most people, Shine thinks of lakes as small bodies of fresh water where you can see the other shore. We’ve seen a lot of those on our cross-country trip, especially in Minnesota — land of 1,000 of them, after all. (But who’s counting.) We’ve explained that Superior looks more like an ocean, like the Atlantic and the Pacific, which he knows well: no land on the other side, as far as you can see.
Because we are coming in from the West this trip, we first see the Lake in the port towns of Duluth/Superior, as a finger of water between ore docks and marinas. “There it is: Lake Superior!” Bud and I exclaim. “Eh, not so big,” shrugs Shine, ever the skeptic.
It is not until we get that northward view from the hill on M64, and then arrive upon the Superior shore itself in Silver City, Michigan, that he really sees the Lake — and is finally suitably impressed. Still, “eh, not so big” becomes a running joke of the summer.
Evidence of the pandemic has been unavoidable on this trip, constantly made palpable by presences (masks, radio commercials for online education, “closed” signs on stores) and absences (seats at restaurants, international travelers, traffic). Less evident have been the other seismic crises and changes affecting our country, namely police violence against black bodies and the resulting protest movement. In Los Angeles, the uprising had largely eclipsed the pandemic for weeks before we left town. Black Lives Matter signs, or their close kin, were everywhere, on stores, cars, homes, lips, and airwaves. I don’t think I’ve seen one BLM message since I left California — so I was elated to find a rainbow flag with the message “Everyone welcome” at the food coop in Ashland, Wisconsin. Finally, a sign of progress.
I haven’t even seen Biden signs across these nine states. Trump signs, yes. The only good news I can offer in regards to this admittedly unscientific evidence of America’s current political state is that there are fewer Trump signs than four years ago. Still, the change that seems necessary and inevitable on the coast is at best a whisper in the heartland — and that scares the shit out of me. Much work needs to be done if we are to wrest this country out of the hands of a maniacal hatemonger, and it won’t be achieved through silence.
We arrive at our cabin around 5 p.m. I’m always amazed just how beautiful this tiny house, with its natural edge pine siding echoing the waves of the lake 50 feet from its door, is. Built by Bud, it is filled inside and out with small tokens of love and beauty, from driftwood door handles to an Italian chandelier he salvaged from a Greek client to a leaded glass window we found at Habitat for Humanity in Miami.
Above the door on the inside is a sign that I had bought on LA’s Olvera Street for Mom, a sign she had told me she always wanted, and that I inherited — along with the land on which we built this cabin — when she died: “Mi casa es tu casa.” Imagine if this familiar welcoming Spanish phrase were America’s and Americans’ motto, hung at every portal to and in our nation: My home is your home. That was certainly Mom’s philosophy, as a public high school teacher in a small Midwestern town, and the philosophy Bud and I try to carry with us wherever we go, as we cross a country we still believe is great, albeit imperiled.
Coda: The day after our arrival in the Upper Peninsula, we got drive-through coronavirus tests at Ontonagon High School. Not wanting to bring the pandemic to a county that at that point had yet to have a single verified case, we quarantined until we got the results two days later: negative. Sadly, Ontonagon County did get its first case a few days after that — but so far, just the one.
Note: My husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.
June 25: I know, we’re crazy: We are driving cross country during the worst pandemic of the century. (“Worst pandemic of the century so far,” Homer Simpson whispers in my ear.) It’s our annual road trip, from our home in Los Angeles to our cabin in Michigan, where my husband was born and I have summered for 50 years (!). In the past half-century, you can count on one hand the number of years we have not spent time in the Upper Peninsula. It’s our individual and combined Ground Zero, our happy place, our Walden, our home. Nonetheless, we seriously considered not going this year, for what I thought was an obvious reason: that five-letter and two-digit word, Covid-19.
But there were compelling reasons: Number one, my mother-in-law’s failing health. Heart attack, heart surgery, stroke, carotid artery surgery, kidney stones, etc.: She has suffered a litany of ailments in the past few years, and my sister-in-laws have shouldered the burden of care. Also, Bud’s daughter is there, his siblings, his friends. And I am hoping against hope that I might get to see — at least through a window — my father in his nursing home in Wisconsin. Usually, summer is the time my immediate family and my extended “Lake family” of friends convene here in Michigan. This year, I don’t know if I will see any of them.
At least I have my grandson. The novel coronavirus has caused all sorts of novel plot twists in people’s lives, and for my husband and I, it has meant taking care of Shine, 9, only child of my stepdaughter Kenda, this summer. After four months of home school and care, his parents, in Miami, must get back to work. So unexpectedly I’ve gotten something I have wished for but never thought would happen: I’m co-director of Camp Gramps. Shine has only been to visit his Michigan family once, when he was an infant. It is time he meets them. So not only are we driving through nine states and half the breadth and depth of the country during a pandemic; we have a grade schooler with us.
We are not completely insane. While it is not why we are going, the thought of leaving a county that is constantly in the news as a Covid hotspot, for one that has yet to have a single recorded case of the virus, is certainly appealing. (Update: The first case was confirmed over the July 4 weekend.)
The 2,000 miles in between are admittedly a deterrent. Yet in general, the route has so far been refreshingly virus free, especially compared to LA. Sure, on the infection maps, there are a few orange and red hotspots, but they can easily be driven through — don’t even gas up. We are driving, not flying, and we have planned a trip with as few interactions with people and surfaces as possible. We have a picnic basket and cooler full of food. We are carrying a special purple coronarivus backpack, full of masks, sanitizer, gloves, wipes, etc. We love to experience the American West every summer. But this year, we will enjoy it primarily through the truck windows.
Still, if there is one lesson I would want to convey at the end of our journey’s first day, it’s this: Don’t go to Utah.
We stopped just across the border in St. George, one of our usual haunts, perched as it is amid the beautiful red and black rocks of canyon country. But I was shocked when I entered the gas station/Burger King. The usual Mormon broods of seemingly endless blond children always freak me out, but this year they were like pandemic panic horror show poster children, as they filled the tiny bathroom — no social distancing, nary a mask in sight. At the food-ordering line, I had to ask them to back up. Maybe Utahns have so many children they consider them expendable, but I value my only grandson.
Basically, no one in Utah wears masks. Not the desk clerk at the La Quinta Hotel in North Orem, nor the guests, nor the gas station attendants.
Don’t go to Utah.
We loved the scenery as usual, though found the highway surprisingly full. But we sprinted to our hotel room and will slink out in the morning. Here’s hoping the people of Wyoming are a little smarter.
John Lautner grew up with ancient rock under his feet and towering pines above his head. His mother painted the walls and ceilings of their house with flowers and clouds, and his dad filled it with learning. From the family’s log cabin high on a bluff, you can see miles of Lake Superior water and Michigan forest. Midgaard lives up to its Norse name, meaning between heaven and earth.
I’ve written before about my obsession with Lautner, the mid-century modernist maverick architect and native Yooper. Sunday, I got to walk in his footsteps. Thanks to the generous time of his daughter Karol Peterson Lautner, I visited Keepsake, the house he grew up in, and Midgaard, the camp he helped his parents build in the 1920s. We even kayaked to see Midgaard from the lake. It was a last-minute visit to Marquette and a highlight of the trip, right up there with the eagle.
Keepsake and Midgaard are both based on European styles, German and Norse. Lautner’s professor dad was of German descent, his artist mother Irish. And yet in their use of native wood (cedar and pine), anchoring to the rock (boulders lead underfoot up to Midgaard’s door), and fervent embrace of their landscape, these are thoroughly American homes — the America of optimistic embrace and progressive ideas. Marquette may be an obscure outpost in a remote region, but it’s also a university town. John’s parents were well-traveled bohemians, cosmopolitans in the American woods. They picked the site for Midgaard — perched among rocky spines atop a cliff — because it reminded them of the Alps.
One can see the imprint his UP upbringing left on Lautner as he went on to Taliesin to study and work with Frank Lloyd Wright, then founded his own company in Los Angeles, building such landmark homes as the Chemosphere and Pearlman Mountain Cabin. For one, those boulders reappear — he uses them as furniture in houses he built in Malibu. Lautner wasn’t the first American architect to make a fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces central to his work — he learned it from Wright, for one. But I think he took it further than anyone else. There’s a spectacular, spiritual quality of the environment up here in Michigan that’s indelible, that shapes your outlook. It’s why Lautner embedded glasses in the ceiling of the Sheats-Goldstein house, to recreate the dappled light of the forest. It’s why at the Arango house in Acapulco, he embraced the same kind of limitless horizon you get on the widow’s walk at Midgaard. It’s why I return to the Upper Peninsula ever summer, this eternal quest for an Edenic restart.
We also visited Bud’s brother Bob and Bob’s wife Kelly in Marquette. Cole jumped into their pool over and over, dancing and shouting, “I’m happy!” Kelly took him for spins around the water on her air mattress. He got mad when she dumped him but forgave her, and they sat on her front porch talking about pets. Cole doesn’t see his aunts and uncles all that often, but he’s been getting some quality time on this trip.
This year we’re staying on the beach in Michigan. Last year, we were in the woods. I was an artist in residence in the Porcupine Mountains. Here’s an edited version of the journal I kept — yes, journal not a blog.We didn’t even have running water, let alone Internet — that was part of the Walden-esque story. I donated this text to the Friends of the Porkies, the organization that runs the AIRP. Though I keep thinking I should try to get it published — suggestions?
I may hate camping, but I love the sound of Lake Superior waves hitting the shore mere yards from my bed. This spot of land in the Upper Peninsula — barely half an acre, no house, a dirt road, but 97 feet of beach frontage — is the place to which I feel most connected. It’s where I’ve spent summers since I was younger than Cole (though at least we had a trailer). Bud was born and raised in this neck of the woods (literally), as were his daughters. And Cole, too, comes into himself when his feet hit that sand.
Our days in Waupaca were restricted by rain. That allowed us to fully enjoy the addition and renovation to John and Judy’s “cabin,” which is bigger than most houses. Particularly lovely was the screened-in porch. Screened porches are one of the finer things in the world, and if Bud and I ever do build here — which I swear we will — a screened porch we will have. The best part of the trip was playing “Oh Hell.” Cole’s number smartness makes him good at cards. He loves playing with his uncles. As soon as they arrived, Cole grabbed Paul’s hand and led him down to the pond. Otis, the otter-dog, saw the water and promptly jumped in, not realizing it was green muck. My brother helped my son excavate dinosaur bones out of plaster and then assemble the T. Rex; I remember Brett patiently gluing together models when we were kids.
Waupaca’s turning into a cool little town, with nice, if a bit pricey, stores on Main Street. I coveted many items at a place called Panache, settled on some hip socks (damn travel budget). Gotta love a downtown centered around a library with farmers selling fresh produce on the weekends. We bought lots of meat — summer sausage, kielbasa, even oxtail — at Niemuth’s, the German meat shop that’s packed Saturday mornings. We celebrated both Judy’s and John’s birthdays. Congrats on the first three quarters of the century, Dad.
I feel lucky that my parents are doing relatively well healthwise. For the first time I can recall, our old, close childhood friends the Von Eschens are not at their Lake cabin this summer. Liz is in the late stages of a cancer she has battled for two years. They are like a second family for me, and I’m heartbroken for them. So while the lake water is about the warmest I ever remember it being and sparkling clear, a bald eagle flew past yesterday, and the wild raspberries are ripe, this stay feels all wrong, like the fabric of my life here has been irreparably torn.