Inspiration Lives Above the Bridge

[Alpena Public Library, Sepember 18, 2003]

I am not going to read much from my work tonight. For me a book is something that is best read in the mind, with all the characters turned actors and animated by our imaginations, guided by the writer’s words. The ability of a novel to capture our imagination and interest is the measure of the writer’s skill.

A reporter recently asked me why I keep returning to the U.P. and its people for my inspiration. My explanation reduces to two words: Up North. As I once wrote, north is as much a philosophy as a direction or destination, a place where you know when you are there or you don’t. Those who can’t feel it and embrace it generally try it only once. But those who stay and embrace it, well, they are my love.

Up North is a geographical part of our state and a state of each of our minds. It is a philosophy that drives a way of life and for those who choose it, or whom it chooses, it is non-negotiable, sacrosanct.

For me Up North begins to exert its effect when I cross the Rifle Line, and pines and paper birch begin to proliferate. But my Up North really begins when I cross the bridge into the Upper Peninsula.

A magazine writer asked me what the allure of the Yoop is, that it seemed to him that I saw things there others didn’t. I surely don’t have unique vision. The difference between my observations and others is that I have the opportunity to write them down and share them. Or rather, that I’ve made the commitment to do this.

Japanese author Murasake Shikabu wrote one thousand years ago, “The art of the novel happens because the storytellers tells his own experience of men and things, whether for good or ill — not only what he has passed through, but even events which he has only witnessed or been told about — and this has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut in his heart.”

In an historical context the novel is a written extension of the oral story-telling tradition, and in this vein it is driven by the heart more than the brain, by passion more than reason, by interest in the place of the individual within the group, and by the allure of the setting.

In my travels and wanderings I have encountered bears, bobcats, a lynx, wolves, coyotes, elk, and deer. I have seen otters playing on ice, the coupling of bald eagles and timberdoodles, and I once say small birds riding on a bald eagle’s back. Michigan has many beautiful places and things, such as those just describeed — and much more  –all out there waiting to be witnessed and experienced. But you have to gt off your butt and  go find them.

Nature aside, it is the positioning of the individual within groups, and even groups within groups that deeply interests me, for example Detroit Mayor Kirkpatrick calling the U.P. “Michigan’s Mississippi.” The relativity of groups in our state is fascinating and accounts for a large part of my interest in the U.P.

Sociologists, anthropologists and historians tell us that extremes in geography tend to attract eccentric, individualistic individuals and the tougher and more severe the geography and climate, the more individualistic the inhabitants tend to be.

The U.P. is such a place.

Michigan author Jim Harrison, who for a long time had a cabin near Grand Marais, once described the U.P. as a wilderness by default, I suppose because it is so thinly populated, with adjacency to heavier concentrations of people.

In truth the U.P. is a scruffy wilderness, where cedars pack so closely together that it is dark below the canopy most of the day and blue ice lices in root crotches into July. I recall returning to K.I.Sawyer from a mission during my Air Force days and radioing the command post for a weather report and being told, “Blowing snow.” It was the fourth of  July. “But it’s not sticking,” the CP added.

The U.P. is a place where some summers see only a day or two above 70 degrees, and the next summer will bring two dozen over 90. Winter days of twenty-below barely attract comment and such temperatures can stretch on for days and days. Up north is not for wimps.

I can remember going to play basketball in Escanaba in February — more than a hundred miles from Rudyard — and a hundred cars in convoy with the team bus — in a snowstorm that deposted ten inches that night. I never even heard tof he concept of a snow day until I had children in the Portage school system near Kalamazoo.

The Yoop is a place where people understand the nature which engulfs them is as potentially lethal as it is beautiful. And it is a place where more and more people are only beginning to understand what they think of as a limitless bounty can be impacted by the things they do.

The land is a bank account, with no deposits possible. The more withdrawals we each make the close we get to empty and gone.

The Upper Peninsula is dominated by state and federal land, but many who live there, think of the land as theirs and share it only grudgingly with those from Below The Bridge, a term which covered everything from Mackinaw City south to Tierra del Fuego.

The U.P. is a place where unemployment is rampant, yet people find ways to stubbornly scratch out a living so they can lead the life.

It is a place where village bars serve as social clubs and social service agencies. The people of the U.P. are good neighbors, mean they are there for you when you are in need, but not in your face and not poking their noses into your business.

The U.P. is a place where a perecieved slight might get you a quick fist, but fight over there will be a handshake and a bump and a beer.

It’s a place where you are expected to be able to make and fix stuff and improvise in all aspects of life.

It’s a place where hard times are as ubiquitous as snow and easy times as fleeting as a hummingbird outsided the screened porch.

The Upper Peninsula is a place where many youngsters pack their bags at first opportunity, but never lose their sense of place. Like Marines, once a Yooper, always a Yooper.

Within weeks of enrolling at Michigan State in 1961 a bunch of Yooper boys, former jocks, managed to find each other during our first term on campus. We still harbored some hard feelings over games lost and individual combats, but we also understood instinctively that those who lived the way we had lived — at least for the duration of high school — possessed certain characteristics and traits of character that brought comfort and familiarity. The group included: Bill Wallen and Mike Proctor of Soo Loretto; DJ Erickson of Gwinn; Mike Vairo of St. Ignace; Rob and Seb Rubick of Manistique; Jim Olsen of Ontonagon; Jim Ailes of Munising; Bill Ellingboe of Crystal Falls; Jim Jacobson of Marquette; Gary Clensy, Dan Riordan and myself from Rudyard.

I was born in a rural area of New York Statea, not the U.P., but I was privileged to live in the U.P twice, the first stint my sophomore through senior years of high school, and the second sorties, 1966-1970 at K.I. Sawyer AFB, where I was a navigator in a SAC tanker.

One month from today I turn 60 and only seven of my 60 years were spent as Yooper resident, and then merely as an interloper. You do not become a resident unless you were born and raiseed there, or have lived there long enough for people to forget you weren’t always from there. My brother in law has lived in Marquette twenty years and is still considered one of the new people on his block.

Over the five decades I wasn’t a resident of the U.P. I found myself constantly drawn north.

My fascination with the U.P. is sometimes as much about what it isn’t as what it is.

Like many rural areas of the country, it is not a crime-free utopia.

Like many rural areas it does not have a social safety net.

And like too many places in America these days, it has no bedrock economy.

The Upper Peninsula is a place with compassion for those who accept it on its own terms and are not intent on recreating up there the places they left — with a better view.

I spend quite a bit of time each year riding around with conservation officers. They tend to talk candidly and drag me to whatever the job presents day by day. I have been with them to eject rowdies from campgrounds, encountered hunters who were drunk and /or high on drugs, stopped drunk drivers, disarmed drunks with loaded, concealed weapons, been in night vehicle pursuits, pulled dead animals off of highways, been first on the scene of accidents, searched for and located lost hunters, searched for missing persons, presumed dead, crawled through cedar swamps in the middle of the ngiht to interdict walleye poachers and once fell in a stream in the middle of the night and knocked out all my teeth.

I have slept in officers’ homes, shared meals with them and thier families, gotten to know their children and watch them grow, and in my smoking days left their trucks filled with clouds of smoke.

It has struck me how dificult and lonely the jobs are and how dedicated are the men and women who hold the positions. I’ve seen how difficult it is to live in a small community and wear a badge, especially when the badge puts you at loggerheads with people who believe that because they have always done what they wanted in the woods, no woods cop or government is going to make them do otherwise.

To some extent the interaction between conservation officers and perpetual violators is a game, but the game sometimes turns deadly — and lethal.

In the course of working with officers I have met a lot of unusual locals and a lot of stange outsiders who come to the U.P. only to take what they want from it — just as trappers did, then miners, then the loggers.

I remain interested in how the area is a magnet for unique, eccentric people and how officers live in communities that  profess  general support for law enforcement but believe deep down the laws ought to apply to every one but them.

Many citizens remain unaware that conservation officers are fully-empowered police officers, not just “fish cops.” An officer friend of mine tried to pull over a vehicle south of Mio and the vehicle fled. By the time my friend got the vehicle stopped he found a very mellow driver who was going down to Detroit to get more drugs because, “Like man, my stash is like wasted.”  The stop produced a physical confrontation and “cuffing.” Later heading north to lodge the prisoner, the officer asked the man whey he hadn’t stopped when he saw the blue lights, and the  the man said, “Dude, I knew you were the man in the woods, but I didn’t know you were the man on the road too!”

I never fail to be impressed by the abilities of these men and women to sort out dificult, confusing situations and to use good judgment and common sense far beyond my capabilities.

We have conservation officers in every county in the state, but it is those who operate in the U.P. who continue to attract my interests, in part because of the magnitude and solitude of the geography. The UP is larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, and Marquette County is larger than the state of Rhode Island — the largest county east of the Mississippi River. It takes stamina to cover such territory. And courage to do it alone most of the time.

When I write I do not work from outlines, either general or detailed. As in life, I  let the stories unfold, with lots of surprises, blind alleys, mistakes, dead time, and wasted days.

People often ask me which character I am and the truth is that there is a part of me in every character because I am their creator.

If there are recurring themes in my books, they are probably these:

How does the individual fit into the group, be it community, organization, or family?

How does one act professionally without getting caught in the trap of careerism, that is acting in ways that are designed to advance your career?

How do geography and climate influence the culture and quality of life for officers and their families?

Like many people, I continue to be fascinated by the age-old conflict between good and evil and invent characters that like us are complex in their motivations and actions, beliving what Shakespeare said in Henry Fifth: “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, would men observingly distil it out.”

Some books are planned. Some impose themselves on me from sources I can’t identify.

Some time ago I was sitting down to write one night, and out came the following:

“I died at sundown. My death, like most, was unexpected, especially by me. The odd thing was that nothing seemed different afterwards. I still had my body and my mind and I still gnawed at my fingernails when I was anxious. I had heard all those stories about sweet-faced angels in heaven, or dark, scarlet-eyed serpents in hell that slither contemptuously through your bodily orifaces. But I can tell you, it’s not true. Take it from someone who’s been there: Death is a STET written in the margin of your life.

“What happens after you die is that you keep right on living, just as before, no real change, not even in Circadian rhythms. There’s still doubt, and your circumstances will shift, but these are the same forces that prevailed before you passed over. You still have to feed yourself, void yourself and drive on the right side of the road, unless you die in the British Empire or Japan. If you were suscpeptible in life, you will still get an upper respiratory bug once each winter, and there will be times when you feel trapped, depressed by a death not worth living. If you needed major tranquilizers in life, you’ll probably need them no less in death. And tood or bad, a draft beer will still taste the same.”

Thus a novel begins to take on life and shape, and off goes this fellow, newly deceased, fly rod in hand, to explore heaven, wondering if God or angels will appear to welcome him. Along the way he meets some interesting people, presumed dead, who carry on pretty much like they had in life, eating, drinking, sleeping, earning a living, making love, and fishing and hunting.

One day the finds a place on a river where every casts brings forth an identidal twenty five inch brook trout, regardless of the fly employedd, or how poor the cast, the result uniform and at first this seems to confirm he is in heaven, but as the catching continues unabated all night withouth variety, he begins to wonder: Could this be hell masquerading as heaven? Such a turn would be the worst irony of all.

More than a decade later I am still writing that book and continuing to search for the same answer.

At this point I can’t say with any certainty where hell is, but I know that, climate aside, my heaven is forever north…up here…up there.

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