When I was a child, I knew exactly what the perfect vacation spot looked like: the Honeymoon Haven from Superman II. If you’re a little fuzzy on your Christopher Reeve Supermans 1-4, it’s the Niagara Falls, Fortress of Solitude, “Kneel before Zod” one. While on assignment for the Daily Planet, Clark Kent and Lois Lane pose as newlyweds and check into the most elegant hotel I had ever seen in my life. Heart-shaped beds, satin pillows, pink couches, floor-to-ceiling lava lamps, and a fireplace with a satin tassel that operates the same way Morticia Addams called for Lurch. Tacky? Yes. Did I want to live in that pink trash reality? Yes.
I wanted so badly to grow up to be that kind of woman and have that kind of lifestyle; and if General Zod and Co. showed up, even better. My 1980’s lifestyle was less “fast-paced, hard-nosed journalist independent woman” and more “my dad’s out of work again and my mom buys my clothes from my classmates garage sales.” Clearly, there was a long road ahead, but I determined then and there in the Kodachrome grime of 1980 that I would do whatever it took to transition from white trash to pink trash.
When I was eleven, my family made a trip to Niagara. It was only a few hours from our house, but as I have never been on a first name basis with reality, I decided that everyone who traveled to the Falls had an experience similar to the one Clark and Lois had. Somewhere between being told we were going, and being told to get in the car, I decided we’d be staying at the pink paradise of the Honeymoon Haven. That I’d meet Superman —possibly in the souvenir shop, both of us hunting for the perfect snow globe— and, knowing my brothers, he’d have to rescue at least one of them from falling over the Falls. My time had clearly arrived, and I was on my way from Deborah Drive North Ridgeville to Lois Lane Niagara Falls.
I dug out a garage sale suitcase I’d optimistically bought with my cosmopolitan future in mind, packed my grandmothers old nightie (the nicest hand-me-down I owned) my glitteriest second-hand, iron-on tank tops and plushest terry cloth shorts in both orange and avocado, so Superman and Lois would immediately recognize my star power. I added a week’s worth of day-of-the-week underwear, so it would be obvious to the hotel staff that I belonged in a place as classy as the Honeymoon Haven. Did any of the other five members of my family pack a single thing? No. But then again, I was the Marilyn Munster of my family, and wouldn’t they be embarrassed when the Kent-Lane’s invited us out for dinner? I added my sticker album in case Lois wanted to trade—I suspected her sticker collection was top-notch—and slammed my suitcase shut, certain my reality was about to change for the better.
What I did not take into account was the fact that my parents were flat broke in the 80’s (which is a special kind of broke), had four kids, and that the only reason we were going was probably because my dad probably lost the extra hours on second shift that were keeping us in generic hot dogs and charity pork and beans. The last thing they wanted to do was to stay overnight with us anywhere. My Niagara Falls Superman vacation became a miserable three-hour drive across the Rust Belt with no air-conditioning, stuck in the back seat with my brothers, one of whom was five years older than me and happily whiled away the hours punching me in the thigh and shoulder, and two younger brothers who spent the drive filling their diapers and throwing up on me. What followed was a quick drive past the Falls, my mother informing us we had food at home, my father flooring it home because he’d had it with us, and not staying overnight at the Superman hotel. I was inconsolable, my Superman dreams in tatters. But I carried that image with me; that tasseled fireplaces and heart-shaped pink pillows were not only the definition of a class just beyond my reach, but vacation, a middle-class concept light-years beyond what most poor kids can imagine.
I grew up and realized Niagara is a tourist trap. There is no pink tasseled hotel in Niagara Falls. Christopher Reeve died a terribly sad death and never shopped for snow globes with me. Margot Kidder never became my best friend or traded stickers with me and died after a lifetime of battling bipolar disorder. Somewhere along the way I accepted that nothing could live up to the castles I built in the air.
But one day, a young mother now with two kids of my own, I happened upon a picture in the newspaper. It was of two green chairs on a grassy hill overlooking Lake Michigan. A western beach facing the setting sun, brilliant blue water, a shade of glacial blue you knew meant cold. It was a review in the travel section of the The Plain Dealer about an old-fashioned rental up north. I found myself reading it over and over again, suspiciously studying the picture for clues beyond what was pictured. Why on earth would I want to go to an old cottage in the woods? Why would I want to go north and swim in a cold lake when I could go south and swim in a warm salty ocean? Cottages sound cute until you are confronted with the reality: spiders, damp, and close quarters. But I could not let that image nor the description in the article go. The details were tantalizing. 1950’s lodge. Bonfires. Carriage houses. Porches. S’mores. Stone fireplaces and pianos. Too good to be true? Probably. But instead of throwing the clipping away, I tucked it into the back of the filing cabinet where it sat there for years. And we went about our lives and took other vacations to warm, sterile destinations, threw our money at cache rather than cozy, and I gave up on magical destinations in favor of accommodation and convenience.
And then one year we didn’t plan a vacation. Oh, we had a million reasons, I'm sure. Work, money, the house, the kids. "Let's just stay home this year." But by the time June rolled around, my husband was so burned out from his job, he called me and said, "Book us into somewhere. Anywhere. In August. I'll make it work." I immediately thought of the clipping, shoved so far back in the filing cabinet, at first I thought I'd lost it. But there it was, everything as sentimental and seductive as I remembered. I fingered the yellowed clipping and studied that panoramic view. "What if we head north? Try something new."
I called a place so charming the owner answers the phone with a distracted "Hello?" and nothing more to indicate the lodge is anything more than someone’s house. I asked detailed questions about amenities, local attractions, asked for references. In retrospect, I'm amazed Greg didn’t laugh outright at me. But he was patient with me and answered all of my ridiculous questions in the slow, laughing manner that we now know so well, "Well, a lot of people like it here,” he said. “We're not what you'd call a fancy place. But it's clean, and if you like it, I'll hold a spot for you every year. Actually, you're kinda lucky a place opened up. Doesn't happen too often. We have families that have been coming here since the 50’s. They leave their reservation to their kids. Yes, there's a stove. It usually works. But you have to bring your own sheets and pillows and towels."
There was nothing in his sales pitch that would normally make me hand over money. But those chairs. That beach. That sky. Something deep inside told me that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't go at least once. Go and see if somewhere was really that beautiful, if magic truly existed way up north on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Seven hours in the car. A long winding road through the woods, and then suddenly, a white frame farmhouse. A tiny handful of white carriage houses tucked into the woods, more playhouses than anything substantial. Brilliant silver-white birch trees outlining the top of a hill that rolled down to a rocky shore. Beyond, the lake, blue and brilliant, exactly like the picture. And there were the chairs. Green and old, edged in moss and lichens. Exactly like I'd dreamed they would be.
A chalkboard hanging from the white frame of the lodge read, "Marshmallow Roast! 8pm!" The front door stood open, but we knocked anyway. There was no reply. Not sure what to do, we opened the door and walked in. A staircase disappeared up the wall to the left, a dusty deer head peered down at us dubiously. Down one of the hallways, the sound of someone vacuuming. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a fireplace the size of a Volkswagen, made of the tumbled stones I would later see dotting the beaches of the entire north shore. And everywhere, books. Tables piled high with mounds of books, baskets of decades old newspapers and faded magazines. Wrapping around the entire great room, sagging old couches, mismatched comfy old chairs, low tables, a grand piano, and floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with more stories than I could read in a lifetime. The walls were some sort of pickled paneling that was neither blonde nor brown, like a speckled hen's egg. The entire back wall of the room was glass, the waves crashing below the only sound.
But one detail stood out more than the rest. The smell. The entire place smelled like pickles and roses. A hint of damp that flirted with mildew. Cypress, pine, and freshwater. The tang of yesterday’s fire wafted out of the oversized hearth. I can't explain to you why the smell of roses, pickles, and damp forest became my favorite smell in the world, but I would imagine it was that moment, that day, and it was because I'd stumbled on a magic I’d surrendered somewhere in childhood. I found what I didn't know I so desperately needed.
As we stood there hovering on the threshold, a man appeared through the glass door. He wore the uniform of the elderly, neck wrapped with a scarf, a sweater more appropriate for January than August, tortoise shell glasses and shining penny loafers. He nodded at us in greeting, then sat down at the piano and began playing. He played slowly and from memory; the library filled with a sentimental song from the Fantastics.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow. Try to remember when life was so tender That dreams were kept beside your pillow. Try to remember when life was so tender That love was an ember about to billow. Try to remember, and if you remember, Then…
Another man wearing shorts and a t-shirt, his greeting the same laughing voice he’d had on the phone, appeared from around the corner. Greg introduced himself, then sort of vaguely gestured at the staircase. "Your room’s up there. We don't have what you'd call a "check-in process," he said with a rueful laugh. “Have fun, let me know if you need anything.” Then he resumed vacuuming and left us to explore on our own.
We've been coming here for years now and have a better understanding of how this place works. There's never more than twenty or thirty people here. The same people come the same week every summer, so it's always the same cast of characters. It's not a resort, a hotel, or an AirBnB. When asked to describe it, I can’t. I just stare off into the distance and usually mumble something unsatisfying. My words fail me because it is impossible to project the images from my head that describe this place best. Old-fashioned keys that no one uses. A handful of whitewashed cottages, a musty old library. A deep, cold lake and a pile of kayaks. A jumble of old bikes and a foosball table missing one-third of the players. A pool table with a root beer can jammed in one of the pockets that we all just work around. Closets filled with old blankets, sweaters and swimsuits draped over rock walls, sand and driftwood and bonfires. Each visitor some manner of introvert, giving each other little more than a friendly smile and, more importantly, their space.
The children—always the same ones mind you, but each year a little older—circle each other nervously at first, then form a fiercely loyal gang that runs around eating everyone's food, occupying the tree forts in the woods, staging grand wars and complicated games until they wander back to their parents, filthy and sleepy, late at night. They have kayak battles in the lake, build impressive battlements of sand and rock, fly screaming out from the rope swing before dropping neatly into the lake, causing every parent in sight to hold their breath until they emerge like laughing otters from the shimmering surface. This roving gang of adolescents always include the younger children with a level of patience I rarely see outside of this place. There are always tears when we leave. “I’ll miss you.” “You’re my best friend” “Promise you’ll write.” “I’ll see you next year.”
Poet, novelist and essayist Jim Harrison holed up here in the 1970’s, just around the corner from the bookcases and piano. During a hard Michigan winter, ice piling up perilously close to the lodge, with nothing but his typewriter and a steady supply of marinated herring and wine, Harrison wrote Legends of the Fall. I think about Harrison a great deal when I am here. Michigan boy, toast of France, master of the novella, a man of many vices and many stories. It’s easy to understand him here, in a place as raw and simple and honest as he was.
There is the attic room where we stay, the little carriage houses, and the huge library downstairs. And that's it. Greg has offered us a place in one of the carriage houses, which are a bit larger, but we like his attic. It’s a strange sort of luxury, being bunched up on top of each other in one tiny room. At home, our tendency is to go to our corners and ignore each other. That's not an option up here. The only luxuries this place provides are the view, togetherness and peace of mind. Frankly, Greg doesn't charge enough.
Days are spent in the lake, napping on the beach, stopping to eat whenever the mood strikes. In the summer, the water alternates between dead calm and giant rolling waves, both of which are ideal for floating and daydreaming. We hike and talk, about important things and nothing of consequence, memories of last year’s visit and next year’s plans. We sit cuddled up in the library reading or sprawled on the hill in the wind and sun, doing nothing more than enjoying each other’s company. All of the lodge’s inhabitants wander around in a peaceful daze, broken only by the shouts of laughter from the children. Time exists only as a countdown between first day and last day, sunrise and sunset; the moon rising over the Milky Way.
At the end of each day, everyone gathers on the hill overlooking the lake. No one misses a sunset. It always begins as a slow trickle but before you know it, everyone has settled and found a spot to watch the sunset. The older ones, like the man who plays the piano, take the more prominent seats, as the rest of us cluster about. The children race around on the hill and the beach. My children usually take the opportunity to sneak the horde into our attic room to loot the freezer for ice cream while the rest of us watch a sunset that feels transported from a simpler time, a gift from the north, custom made for this special place.
In the summer, the sun sets between the two Manitou Islands, illuminating them in an evening light show that catches the Sleeping Bear Dunes, her slumbering hips curving towards the water and on to the horizon. The Chippewa tell a bittersweet tale of The Sleeping Bear, a mother whose cubs drowned in Lake Michigan, too weak to make the journey to life on the other side. So broken was her heart that the Manitou gods created the two small islands, North and South Manitou, as markers of their watery graves. The Sleeping Bear reached the shores of Michigan and fell to her knees, unable to tear her eyes from the water that took her children. But the gods took pity on her and transformed her into the great dunes themselves, so that she could gaze forever at her lost children.
As a mother who knows what it means to lose a child, when I see the sun set between the two lost cubs, caught in their mother's gaze for all time, it feels like a blessing. A gift from the setting sun bonding mothers and lost children forever in a strange sort of beauty and grief. And while it is a truth I wish I didn't know, I am grateful for the moment of simple clarity every time.
This place has a magnetic draw, pulling in quiet, like-minded people, creating a safe haven for the shy, the awkward, the gentle, the thoughtful. I find it hard to believe these quirky people have actual existences outside of my week up north with them. I always have the feeling they wait for me on the hill, an existential band of ghostly eccentrics, watching for me to arrive at summers end.
Greg was being honest when he said it’s not a fancy place. Everything here sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. The beds are lumpy. The stove has two settings: off and inferno. The furniture is old and musty, but soft and cozy. The pots and pans are a mismatched assortment you might find in a cardboard box at a garage sale. But my tiny attic kitchen doesn't have one more thing in it than I need, and when we turn off the lights at night, I can hear the quiet breathing of the three people most dear to me against the constant crashing of waves. I am overwhelmed with the bounty such simplicity can give.
The woods on the hill are a safe place for my children to create their own kingdom. The water is rocky, but they have learned how to navigate it by memory, picking their way through the cleared path beneath the crashing waves, honing in on the glacial rock thirty feet out that, if you stand on it, makes you look like a giant. The shoreline curves just enough to grant them the thrill of independent kayaking yet gives me peace of mind that my children are safe on the deep Great Lake.
Every morning, my husband and I hike miles of beach, alone in the cool morning air. And while we may see eagles, otter, deer, and fox, what we never see is another soul. Fossils, embedded in the autumn-colored rocks of Michigan blanket the beach; we admire them, collect a few and walk on. Our children, back in the attic, slumber away. The old question comes to my mind: lost on a deserted island, what you would take? I'd take him.
The westernmost peninsula of Michigan is called Leelanau. Considering most of Michigan is named for the Native Americans that inhabited it, you would think it was a real name, but you would be wrong. I read this week, in the stack of local history books in Greg’s library, that it's not a genuine Native American word. Some local politician more than 150 years ago made it up, a mish mash of local lore and the many immigrant languages that were brought here. It's supposed to mean either "delight of life" or "lost daughter." Sitting on the hill in front of this fortress of solitude, surrounded at long last by real magic, this lost daughter is filled with delight that here, all lost things in life are found. In abundance.