When I pull into a town like Munising, as I did yesterday morning, it’s always with a lot of nervous excitement. More often than not, I know absolutely nothing about a place before arriving, except perhaps for a very rough idea about the size of a place based on the size of the dot on my road atlas. If it’s on the water, I know there will be water. That’s pretty much it.
Without fail, it takes me less than five minutes, one or two turns at most, to locate the public library. That’s where I park, stretch my legs, get my bearings. The symbol used on street signs to point the direction to the library is one of my favorite nuggets of roadside iconography. A perfectly circular head, an “L” shaped body, and a book. A reader in the act of reading. I kid you not, this sign assuages my fears of dystopia. I might need to get it tattooed on my body.
Yesterday, Sunday, the library was closed, so I went to a place called Falling Rocks Cafe & Bookstore instead. I had already made myself a relatively glorious three-course brunch on Sputnik - leftovers from the prior evening, a three-egg spinach omelette, two pour-over coffees, and fresh fruit. So it wasn’t food that I was looking for, just wifi, atmosphere, an outlet and a toilet. At Falling Rocks, all of these things were available in abundant supply, in addition to free popcorn. The barristas were smiley, real smiley, and the tables and chairs were huge and wooden. I chose a spot between two screen doors that opened up to East Munising Ave, the main drag, where I could see and smell the freshness of Lake Superior.
It’s a major source of pride for me that I’m able to constantly find these little slices of heaven without Google Maps or Yelp. Indeed, I maintain that it’s actually a whole lot easier to find what you’re looking for if you’re always looking up. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate myself; Falling Rocks is, after all, the only cafe in Munising. But I began to experience the magic of “analog” location discovery long before my roadtrip began, in places like New York City, Oakland and rural northern New England. It’s not just that you discover better places, but the act of discover itself is superior. I watched people walk in and out of the cafe staring at their phones. They weren’t dazzled when they walked in the door because they peeked at the presents before Christmas morning. It’s only possible to “find” cool things if you’re willing to get lost.
Every few hours, I go for a walk. The National Forest Headquarters, a few blocks from Falling Rocks Cafe, was closed. Oh yeah, I thought to myself, Sunday. When it comes to work, I don’t really do the whole weekdays/weekends thing, but this is one of those circumstances where I’m confronted with the ever-true axiom that “no man is an island.” Unless you’re really willing to disappear – and I’m not! – there’s no getting away from the fact that most of society lives in a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five reality. So although I often have my best work days on weekends and take weekdays “off” (I don’t like even speaking in these terms because my “work” really never feels like “work,” but that’s yet another topic for yet another essay) I still experience the rhythm of the week. Stuff’s closed on Sunday. Campsgrounds are packed on Saturdays. I try to roll with it, to play these situations to my advantage, but sometimes I get thrown off. Whatever. It happens. Interruptions that throw rhythms out of whack are just as natural as the rhythms themselves. Storms happen. Rivers need to flood.
Eventually I found the specific map I was chasing, a large county map with a detailed view of the National Forest land, at the Pictured Rocks Interpretive Center a few blocks away. And since all three park rangers on duty looked like they needed something to do, I told them all about my trip and asked them for advice about boondocking on the Superior side of the Upper Peninsula. Two of the rangers, both women, one quite young and one very old, must not have understood what I meant, because they started telling me about their favorite sites in the National Park, twenty bucks a night, reservations required.
Thankfully, the third ranger, a middle aged man with a literary name I envied, “Bill Winter,” understood exactly what I was after. He grabbed the maps out of my hands and, with a sharpie, started making marks all over the place. “Okay, so you’ve got Walmarts here, here, here and here.” he said, circling a handful of towns in the Western part of the state. Then he put stars next to the best secret spots and finished with, “The only reasonable place here for groceries is Family Fare, but keep it light. This is a vacation town so you’ll pay vacation prices everywhere.” Gold mine. This, I thought, is exactly how I survive without Yelp - people like Bill Winter who know what time it is, and who are willing to share out of the kindness of their hearts.
Later in the day, at Family Fare, the prices actually seemed quite low, but I still followed Bill’s advice. I’ll do a full pantry refresh when I get to Marquette.
Munising is surrounded by beautiful waterfalls, so it’s an excellent area to explore on foot. While meandering, I followed some hand-painted ‘Yard Sale’ signs to the driveway of a very old man named Thor. He was basking in the late afternoon Michigan sun in one of two plastic chairs with his hands folded on the top of his huge pot belly. I poked around his things for a little while before we got to talking and soon I was in that second chair. When I told Thor about my travels, about Sputnik, he replied with the best compliment that one man can give another man: “You’re free!” But when he found out that I don’t know how to fish, he was rightfully appaled.
He set me up with all the basics, hooks and floats, directly from the tackle box in his truck, and he told me he wouldn’t take any money for some wooden picture frames and art books I had my eyes on. He showed me how to tie knots, cast a line with a stick, and where to look for certain kinds of fish. I took diligent notes and I’m glad I did. At one point, I saw my future flash before me: I would catch a lot of fish in my life. Thor, forever, would be my first teacher in that regard.
Then I saw his license plate: SASQUATCH.
Thor is a bonafide Bigfoot hunter and so in addition to talking about love, life, art, nature, travel, and my relationship problems, he told me, with great gusto, about all things Bigfoot. At a certain point in the conversation, I moved from the chair to the ground to do some forward folds and stretch my legs and spine. Ultimately, I remained on the ground, cross-legged at Thor’s feet, to keep him in the perfect storytelling position. Or, more specifically, to put myself in the perfect listening position. And that’s where I was when I decided to believe. In Bigfoot. Not just because I thought it was funny, although of course it was, but because it seemed like it might make me a better person somehow to believe - for real - in something crazy.
Thor is an excellent Bigfoot storyteller. He animated his words with sounds, faces, and gestures. He whispered. He mimicked Bigfoot’s breathing and grunting. He fell silent to increase the tension. It was incredible. I’m sorry, reader, but I can’t retell these stories in this format, but if you want you can look up Albert Ostman or Derek Randles, two names I scribbled down. Two men who have seen a Bigfoot firsthand and have dedicated their lives to finding answers.
At the risk of sounding crazy, I’ll tell you exactly where I stand on this matter: Like Thor, I believe in paranormal activity. And I believe that rural folks in wilderness areas are the only ones who are tuned-in enough, sensitive enough, to look out for it and to recognize it when it happens. City slickers live with their heads down. They can’t see the stars and they can’t hear the person right in front of them. Tales of Sasquatch date back to long before the arrival of white man to this part of the world. From my perspective – and this relates to Bigfoot but also to life in general – it’s sad to close your eyes and ears to wild ideas. And it’s a lot more fun to give yourself permission to imagine a world that’s crazier than anything in our wildest dreams.
In other words: I’m with Thor.