In September of 1919, a twenty-year-old war veteran named Ernest Hemingway went on a camping trip. His wounds still throbbing with the pain of mortar fire and romantic rejection, he took a train to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to mull over the events of World War I while fishing the great rivers in the Land of Hiawatha. It was on this excursion that Hemingway conceived the inspiration for “Big Two Hearted River,” a story from the semi-autobiographical Nick Adams Stories in which a young man, recently returned from war, embarks on a solo fishing trip for some time of reflection.
His muscles ached and the day felt hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.”
As a fellow writer infatuated with Michigan (who also happens to be named Nick), I felt it was my duty to make a solo pilgrimage to the Two Hearted River.* A sort of literary Hajj, if you will, to pay my respects to both the river and to Papa. I crossed an item off two bucket lists that day—Pure Michigan goals and famous authors’ haunts—by drinking Two Hearted Ale beside the Two Hearted River while reading “Big Two Hearted River.” I didn’t want to merely read Hemingway; I wanted to know him.
I’m willing to admit it’s the snob in me that demands this, but I’ve always loved the idea of making every reading experience as authentic as possible. I skipped stones across the ice of Walden Pond before picking up Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” I read McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses on a canoe trip down the Rio Grande. For any Steinbeck fans out there, did you know that it is possible to eat lunch at his boyhood home, and even use his toilet? I speak from experience.
“The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country.”
The road to the Two Hearted River is not an easy one. Laughably distant from the nearest cell phone service, I was forced to rely on my recreation atlas, frowning when I saw that all the roads along the Two Hearted were discreet, dotted lines. After turning off M-123, I followed some old dirt tracks whose only descriptors were the logging codes prescribed to them by timber companies—none of which appeared on the roads themselves, just the map. For the first ten miles, I passed semi trucks and logging cranes, which turned the roads into muddy, branch-strewn swales.
Eventually, the dirt roads petered into sandy two-tracks through a forsaken land. A fire had burned here a long time ago—decades, no doubt. Very little had returned, just the occasional juniper bush or stunted pine. It was as if I had passed through some sort of tesseract and come out in Kazahkstan or Patagonia. I was nervous being on my own, in a new vehicle, and out of cell range, but I couldn’t help pressing the gas a little harder over the crest of those sand dunes, savoring each moment the wheels drifted over the charred landscape. This is Hemingway’s country, I kept thinking. “The last good country,” he called it.
“He was tired and very hot, walking across the uneven, shadeless pine plain. At any time he knew he could strike the river by turning off to his left. It could not be more than a mile away. But he kept on towards the north to hit the river as far upstream as he could go in one day’s walking…Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned, he knew that.”
After the thirty-sixth mile of gunning it over the treeless two-tracks, just when I was beginning to think I was lost, the road opened up in a sandy sluice, curving downhill sharply toward a narrow, obscured valley.
And there it was, the most fabled river in all of Michigan, the mighty Two Hearted.
The road dead-ended at a boat launch with a few scattered campsites nearby. I parked the Escape and jumped out, giddy with excitement. The weather was spectacular for early December, sunny and snow-free. Before I even had a chance to pitch my tent or walk down to the river, a bald eagle soared benevolently overhead, causing me to shriek with delight. Camp vibe nirvana had been achieved.
“It was a good place to camp.”
There’s something pleasant about camping solo. When there’s no one to talk to, one listens by default. So I kayaked upstream, floated back down, and listened to the gentle drift of the river. I sat on the beach and listened to the Lake Superior waves. I stared into the fire and listened to the sizzling pine boughs. Sometimes I thought about things, and sometimes I thought about nothing.
And of course, I cracked open The Nick Adams Stories and a can of Two Hearted Ale.
I realized Nick Adams was way more hardcore than Nick Meekhof. Nick Adams hiked here. He built a shelter out of pine branches and cheesecloth. He caught his dinner and drank unfiltered water from the Two Hearted.
But this is 2016, and I drove here in my Ford 4×4, slept in a $150 Kelty tent, and drank as much craft beer as I could justifiably fit in the trunk of the car. And there were places to go and things to see yet, and so I left early the next morning. But hey, Nick Adams made excuses too.
“In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any farther today… There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
There’s a lot I didn’t make time for that night. I could’ve spent days paddling that river, or honing my (nonexistent) fly-fishing skills, or hiking the North Country Trail along its banks. But for various reasons—apathy, lack of time, a sense of postwar rejuvenation, an already fulfilled sense of bucket list glory—I decided to press on. There are plenty of days coming when I could explore the Two Hearted.
* Now, I know the true Hemingway experts out there will be quick to remind me that the events described in “Big Two Hearted River” actually took place on the Fox, but as Barney Stinson would protest, “Ted, just—okay?”