Six of us loaded up in a minivan with broken doors Friday evening and made the trek to the Great White North. Grand Rapids was drizzly and icy, conditions hovering just above and then below freezing, turning the whole city into a gray anxious mess. It was time to get out and get moving, and maybe find a little sunshine.
Toledo must have been a happening place in the mid 1800s, when Michigan and Ohio fought a short-lived battle for possession of the city. The papers at the time proclaimed that no one was injured, the only casualties being “a chinaman and mule,” giving you a short, but bitter, window into that era’s perceived value of human life. And also perhaps a small insight into their lack of decision-making prowess—in the compromise that followed, Ohio got Toledo and Michigan got the Upper Peninsula. The fools.
The UP has been a generous benefactor: iron, copper, and timber when those were the driving factors of a state’s economy. The boyhood wandering grounds of one Ernest Hemingway, the opus of Jim Harrison’s collected novels, and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Toledo gave the world “Casey at the Bat”, an epic poem of a downtrodden town whose only chance of redemption is a hard swinging baseball player who fails them.
But by far the greatest coup from the exchange is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Miles of protected wilderness, swaying birch trees, sheer sandstone cliffs and thundering waterfalls slapped up against chilly Lake Superior. During the harsh and unprotected winters, those waterfalls slowly begin the freeze into an ice climber’s paradise: endless routes, relatively quick lakeshore access, and the nearby town of Munising resplendent in cheap lodging and cheaper beer. That’s what we bundled in pursuit of—learning for the first time to scramble around a pristine frozen playground.
Water, especially running water, doesn’t freeze all at once. When the temperature drops below thirty-two the falls aren’t snapshotted into place, like Elsa’s magic coming of age tantrum. Instead, waterfalls freeze in the way stalactites form on the roofs of caves, slowly tumbling down from top to bottom, until grand pillars of ice stand in soldierly relief to the surrounding pines. And within each column is a stream of running water; urgently struggling against the lethargy of the season to complete its homeward journey back to mother Superior.
At some points in the climb, when the ice is particularly clear or the water particularly close to surface you can see the stream flowing. Or feel it kick back a bit when you swing in an ice tool or put pressure on a crampon point. The water freezes and thaws and freezes again, weaving intricate patterns of ice. Some are brittle and prone to chipping off at wild swings or casual contact, others are just the right density to lean your weight upon, to trust the natural rhythm of the world in its steadiness. It’s a dance of forearms and calves and foot placement as you wear knives on your boots and wield axes in your hands. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
In the evening that followed, with spotty cell service, we gorged overly fried food, sopped up a fair amount of the aforementioned cheap beer, and soothed our aching muscles in a slightly scummy hotel hot tub. I kept drifting towards the chorus of a John Prine song, Spanish Pipedream, where an exotically dancing friend of his proclaims:
Blow up your TV, throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home.
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus on your own.
Prine’s stripper gets a bit theologically circumspect towards the end, but I wonder if her mantra doesn’t hit that damn nail right on the head. Blow up your TV, delete your Instagram, go find something in the wild that matters. Come back and tell people about it. Spend the next four years, and hopefully not eight, dear God hopefully not eight, fighting for those wild and important places. Spend your whole life doing that actually. Eat good food and drink cheap beer with people that you love. Learn how to disagree. Throw out your TV all over again. Cry a bit, laugh a lot, don’t back down and don’t let the world push around those who can’t push back. Build a home where friends come over and eat a whole lot of peaches. Find Jesus together, and keep finding Jesus together with friends and strangers alike. And take joy in the happy accidents of the world, like claiming the UP instead of a shithole like Toledo.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.