My family has a cabin near Atlanta, Michigan–a small town in the northeastern part of the Lower Peninsula. If you look at the back of your left hand, it’d be somewhere between your middle and index finger, just below your fingernail. The place has always been sacred to me. Like so many other kids of suburban Detroit families, “up north” is where I learned to love the outdoors. It’s where I learned to ride a dirt bike, fish, hunt for blueberries, and build a fire. It was always a place of freedom, play, and discovery. But this past Memorial Day weekend, I made the typical “up north” trip for the first time in four years, and I realized how different vacationing at the cabin had become.
Since the age of five, I have been riding dirt bikes. My dad loved the sport of motocross after he discovered it as a teenager and he passed along his passion for the sport to my older brother and me as soon as we could throw a leg around a PeeWee 50. For years, the three of us tore up and down the ORV trails of the Atlanta State Forest until eventually my brother and I began racing motocross at tracks around the state.
This past year, however, my brother suffered a severe leg fracture while riding that sidelined him for the better part of six months. Two years before that, I suffered my own leg injury and exchanged my KTM 250F for a pair of crutches for the rest of the summer. For safety’s sake, my brother and I have both more or less hung up our boots in exchange for other slower-paced outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking. And so, for the first time in my 22 years on this planet, my summer does not involve motorcycles.
There are no weekend trips planned to ride the tracks or trails that have served as my fondest playgrounds for so long. There are no longer any dirt bikes in the garage up north or at home, and the dusty mornings spent with the smell of race gas, WD-40, and chain lube have become a thing of the past. During the drive to the cabin, I passed by a number of our old riding sites–trails stretching alongside M-33, a racetrack outside of Onaway, MI–and realized how much I missed riding alongside my dad and my brother.
As the weekend went on, I began to notice how unfamiliar the cabin and the surrounding terrain had become. The entire “up north” experience now seemed smaller. There was something unsettling about how the memories built by my five- to 12-year-old self had me overestimating the scale of the landscape.
Most unsettling of all, however, was that towards the end of the trip, my parents left the cabin a few days early in order to avoid weekend traffic. My girlfriend and I had planned to stay for another few days, and so for the first time, I had the place entirely to myself. Admittedly, I was excited at the prospect of having our own place of solitude in the woods for a few days, and it was indeed relaxing to stay at the cabin together, but to my surprise, as I tried to complete the typical up north activities–spotting elk at dusk in the backwoods, cooking snacks on the campfire, catching frogs by the lake–I began to feel an impending loneliness. The cabin was far too quiet and still; it felt empty. There simply weren’t enough family members around to fill it. My dad wasn’t grilling something outside the garage. My grandma wasn’t already cooking eggs the moment I walked downstairs for breakfast. Without the familiar faces, the cabin felt like any other place in northern Michigan.
I understand now more than ever what lies behind the sacredness of “up north” for so many Michigan families. For most of us, it’s not so much about what we do up north, whether it’s riding dirt bikes or ATVs, fishing, canoeing, or hiking, but what we do together as a family. The magic of “up north” in Michigan lies in the summer nights crammed together in tiny rooms, by the fireside, or packed tightly into the back of a pick-up marveling at the yellow, glowing eyes of a half-ton elk. I have always valued nature for its stillness and its solitude, but “up north” is undoubtedly an experience best enjoyed when shared.
Image by Jeff Waraniak