When I wish to remember something, there are two ways in which this can happen.
I can recall a person, place, event or whatever it may be as a normal memory in my mind; that is, one in my head which may have colour, sound and motion. An instant replay version if you will, a past scene being re-enacted. I can pull these types of memories to the forefront of my mind and think about them any time I choose.
The other types of memories I hold are of feelings; the emotional state of mind that I have at the time I am experiencing something. These aren’t the type of memory that I can instantly repeat or reply, after all I simply can’t make myself have a repeated feeling no matter how hard I might try; that’s not how these things work. On the other side of that, I might not even realise that something has had such a profound effect on me at the time. However, if these feelings are strong enough when they occur and imprint my mind, I find can often lead to a profound sense of déjà vu at times, where I’ll stop in my tracks and try to work out why I have the sense that I have felt this exact same way before.
And that’s precisely what happens to me one mid-afternoon as I cycle around the small town of Grand Marais, Michigan, perched on the shores of Lake Superior.
We make our way north to the town of Grand Marais from Seney for a very specific reason; it is the gateway town to Pictured Rocks National Seashore, which we plan to drive through in two days’ time. For the moment though, we decide to stop in one of the few RV parks we have managed to locate in this area, a literal stone’s throw from the lake and with a never ending low rumble of waves in the background.
To reach the town we took a drive through thickly forested land and small towns, with an increasingly deserted feel to them. We weaved through areas of both live and standing dead trees, noticing just a hint of the change of season to come; the leaves tinged with a lime green or lemon colour as they lightened.
Driving into Grand Marais one might think we’d entered a ghost town of sorts, the streets feeling deserted with only one or two cars to be seen, and a stiff cool breeze blowing in off the lake sending a couple of fallen leaves scuttling down the road. In stark contrast, pulling into the RV Park found us surrounded by all of the people making the most of the end of season, with the majority of families and children having headed home for the beginning of the school year. And yet even with all of our neighbours, there was a calm and settled mood around the camp, like everyone was in their own little bubble of tranquillity and that was to be respected. People sat around their campfires, cooked their BBQ and did their crafting; all quietly and unobtrusively.
I spend my time in the mornings working on course assignments, and then in the afternoons take myself outside on my bike for some fresh air.
Loops and I briefly scout the town together the first afternoon, from the point to the beach, discovering that Grand Marais has very little life to it. Not dead, more like it has settled in for a long winter nap. There are people living and working here in the sleepy town, but it is winding down from its busy summer season when no doubt the streets throng with people. It delights me that we get to experience it this manner, and do not have to share it with the masses.
The second afternoon I decide to spend solo, finding the opportunity to take some time just to myself, something that has been difficult to find during our travels. I peddle directly away from our camp and on the road that leads out of town, mostly because this is the longest and flattest stretch of asphalt I can find and I feel like really stretching my legs. It’s overcast and deliciously cool; I can smell someone cutting grass nearby and notice a sprinkling of familiar conker trees lining the streets. I pass by houses, mostly with rental signs hammered into the ground outside them, spot a museum, two small market stores, a hardware shop and two different eateries. For a tourist town that is besieged in the summer it is incredibly small, but what I do thankfully notice is a distinct lack of tat. No shops flogging t-shirts, shells and plastic tacky goods. I get very much the impression that this is just a small, picturesque community for normal people who can stand the hoards in the summer and survive the hardships of the winter. I can easily believe that a winter here would feel like being at the ends of the earth, where no-one would ever be able to find or bother you. I like it very much.
And that’s when it hits me. Bam! Out of nowhere.
I have the sensation that it’s 2.30pm on an ordinary day at home, when I’ve just left school and I’m walking back to my house on my own. I’m flooded with the overwhelming feeling of being free. Of leaving school and knowing that all of the other schools in our area don’t get out for another hour, and all the adults in the world are stuck in the office; and here I am strolling the streets and enjoying almost a secret world, all to myself, while everyone else is still confined.
Simultaneously it’s Easton Village or Itchen Abbas on any given afternoon in the 1980’s; quiet, scenic, charming and quaint, with no one else around. A light warm day, the rare glimpse of a blue sky and perfect fluffed pillow clouds and the deadly silence and stillness where you can clearly hear blackbirds, thrushes and wren chittering in the hedgerows.
I have no idea why, but this is how I suddenly feel while I am in Grand Marais, a world away from home, gently cycling along a street overlooking the cove that leads out to the Great Lake. It is both the oddest and most incredibly comforting feeling all in one go. It makes me smile to myself and feel happy. It gives me a warm glow and an appreciation for this little town, a town that gives me such a close feeling of my home.
Unexpectedly I find I’m in the mood now to cycle back to the bus and visit the beach that lies behind the RV Park, having not done so yet. I’m beginning to realise that during our travels we visit places that I’m not actually taking full advantage of; that there are times for instance where we may pull up to a site and have an amazing lake view but instead of sitting outside and enjoying it, I’m tired from our driving and setting up and opt instead lay on the sofa with a book or watch TV and end up missing out. It’s positively wasteful now I think about it.
So I am about to change that. I’m going to go and see what Lake Superior has to offer me.
It takes only a minute to reach the stairs leading down onto the beach, and with each passing step, the rumble of water grows more ominous in my ears. I descend, and tread my way through the sinking sand to stand in front of the lake.
The wind here is harsh with a sharp bite, tugging at my clothing with a feeling of aggression, but that is nothing compared to the water itself. Freezing cold, dark and murky with churned up sand, the waves are roiling, crashing onto the beach. I look over the expanse and it looks back at me in fury. The whole atmosphere is angry and hostile, bubbling with rage; but in the same breath, an incredibly beautiful, haunting and invigorating vision.
I stroll barefoot through the sand, surprised at its warmth despite the cloudy, chilly day. Off in the distance I can see only a handful of people, no one near enough to disturb my solitude. I walk and observe the environment around me, in awe of the natural force of the lake and its effect on my mood. As I walk I notice stones on the beach, Lake Superior is noted for the sheer diversity of the stones to be found here. Out of habit, I lean down and begin to collect the different types I see – various colourations, textures and sizes.
Collecting stones always reminds me of my father. It is something he would do when we went away on holiday, he would pick up unusual stones and hand them to me for inspection. He would tell me that I could alter the tilt of the world by carrying a stone from one place to another. I remember one holiday in particular (I’m pretty sure we were in Scotland or thereabouts) where he and my mother gathered what must have been half a tonne of small boulders of pink granite that they felt would make a lovely rockery in our garden. At that time we had a huge garden and on our return found that we had only brought enough back to cover a small patch of ground, so we simply ended up with a rather odd lot of pink boulders lying about, which always made me smile when I looked at them.
Thinking about these memories and looking at my small pile of stones in my hand, I begin to cry. I am flooded with an overwhelming sense of grief, grief of a weight I haven’t felt in a long time. I sit and think of my dad as my tears turn to heavy sobs, and I can feel the waves sucking the sound from me, swallowing it greedily. The pounding sound suddenly becomes enormous in my ears and all encompassing, literally pushing down on me; and there I wallow in the sand until my sadness subsides.
I rise and continue my walk down the beach and come across a washed up tree, bleached white as bone, striking and lovely to look at. I place my hand on the tree to find it smooth as silk and soothing to touch. I notice thin pieces of root that have snapped off the base and I find a twig I like, sized and shaped just perfect for my hand. I pick it up and swing it around, and smile. I’ve found myself a wand. I feel like Harry Potter.
I sit for a time on the log, stroking the wood in a reassuring way and practicing piling my stones in different styles and taking photos of them. I guess in my mind I am trying to be artistic with them, but in reality I think I am just enjoying spending the time by myself, the opportunity to simply be me without someone else watching, talking or simply being there.
Once I have had my fill of fiddling with the rocks, I continue to sit and simply watch the water, noticing now a gull about 20 feet from the shore. He is sitting still in the water, wings tucked into his side, passively riding the waves; bobbing up and down with each roll. He looks perfectly content. I am happy for him.
I realise that the chill of the air is now seeping into my bones and that I will need to head back to the warmth of the bus. I also realise that I have indeed been missing out, each and every time I choose not to at least take an hour of my time outside in a new place; to simply sit and absorb the world around me. I promise myself to try and do better from here on out.
But for now, a cup of tea and a ginger nut biscuit is calling. I leave my stones where I have arranged them with care and with my new wand in hand; I wave magic into the air as I head for the bus.