Sunday, October 15, 2017

Reporter's notebook: A busman's holiday up at Big Star Lake

Posted By on Sun, Oct 15, 2017 at 10:39 AM

PHOTO BY MICHAEL JACKMAN
  • Photo by Michael Jackman

After spending a week in a cabin up north, I'm very happy to be back in Detroit. I went up there ostensibly to work on a book project and take some walks in the woods to recharge my batteries. Mostly I sat on the couch writing, drinking beer and cocktails, and eating canned food and potato chips. I did manage to venture out to look into the woods once or twice, then head back in.

My apparent laziness is actually discipline in disguise. I adhere to the creative process my pal Lindy Lindell calls the "buns and fingers method" — you put your buns in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard. It's simply impossible to write effectively without doing those two things. I actually got in six 10-hour days. Most guys go to cabin for a week and return home proud about coming back with this many points or that many fish. Me? I brag about the 22,000 words I hauled home.

The cabin was more like a small home in the woods around Big Star Lake. It was well-appointed, with everything I needed: a kitchenette, a bed, heat, electric power, and WiFi. The only problem I encountered was an unwelcome guest. I heard some knocking around upstairs and went up to look. I found that what some people call a "toe-biter" had moved in.

I was able to learn more about it from a website called something like "These 10 Insects Will Send Shivers Down Your Spine." I'll allow you to do the unwholesome searching yourself. Let's just say this creature was big enough to make thumping noises when it flew into things, and had pincers that looked particularly active. I managed to corral it under a Rubbermaid container and considered leaving it there for the duration. But I decided it was best to usher it out of the cabin in a large coffee can and set it free. I was too worried that if I left it there it might possibly hatch more disgusting insects!

Now I realize it could not have been gravid. They carry the eggs on their backs where you can see. (Click on this if you dare have a peek!) I was later revolted to learn that this foul creature has a special beneficial adaptation: "When encountered by a larger predator, such as a human, they have been known to 'play dead' and emit a fluid from their anus ... only to later 'come alive' with painful results."

That was nature enough for me. Shortly after meeting my toe-biting acquaintance, I felt ready for a taste of civilization. The nearest town was Baldwin, pop. 1,200, and I went charging over there one afternoon, partly to search of more provisions, mostly chips. Baldwin has a small but intact downtown with sparse but tightly knit village life. Everyone seems to know one another. I got a chop at the shop of "Duffy" the barber, and during an hour's time a half-dozen people came by, two just to chat. I was delighted to eavesdrop.

Apparently, the town's big controversy is a how the Baldwin Downtown Development Association wants to help create "The World's Largest Brown Trout Sculpture" a soaring, 25-foot fish representing the historical significance of brown trout to the village. This statuary seems to have wide support, though some think the DDA should put its energies to more pressing uses.

I can't blame Baldwiners for sniffing at a big shiny fish. As statistics show year after year, Northern Michigan is feeling serious economic pain. Residential values still haven't recovered from the housing bust that has ground on in the area for almost a decade now. The people in the village of Baldwin — many of them elderly, disabled, obese (I should talk) — seemed to be hanging on by their fingernails.

I know it sounds corny to say it, but the folks I met seemed to thrive on old-time values — honesty, fidelity, thrift, kindness. I liked them, and wished they were better provided for. They ought to be rewarded for their stubborn persistence with at least a bit of added comfort, and probably not in the form of a soaring 25-foot fish.

On the way back to the cabin, I stopped at a roadhouse that was almost empty of guests on a weekday afternoon. I took a seat at the bar and looked around, taking in the two scoped rifles dangling from the ceiling on lines, as well as the ghoulish witches the owner had apparently brought in for Halloween festivities. I had a burger and a Bloody Mary, and relaxed into the perfect state of satisfaction, when suddenly Tim McGraw's "How I'll Always Be" came on.

I'd never heard it before. It's a weird song. The lyrics are all about being proud of being a 100-percent heartland American. The narrator disdains cocktail bars, little cars, and proceeds to defend his identity by conjuring cliché after cliché — one-room churches, porch swings, fresh-cut hay, rusty roofs, Hank Williams ... even sunsets!

What's weird is, this song's narrator, 100 percent proud of being a hick (nothing wrong with that), seems to have a shit-ton of money. His is a world of fast cars, motorcycles, and "sitting up high on the road" in his big truck.

Not to harsh excessively on songsmith Chris Janson, but ... where's all this money coming from? Clearly not from a job at Wal-Mart. Other than references to busting one's back, "handshake deals," and eschewing getting things for free, the narrator seems to hardly mention laboring, surprising given his taste for expensive pursuits, racing 2- and 4-wheeled vehicles, and going out driving in his big-ass truck. (I imagine an off-the-lot $65,000 Laramie Longhorn contractor's truck — 15.5 Avg MPG — would do.)

It just struck me as a bit odd to hear this paean to living large in the sticks. Especially in a place where the locals are struggling so gallantly to hang on. Maybe I'm just old. To me, country music about country pride used to talk about having to subordinate fun to work, family, and the big man in the sky. Is that no longer worth celebrating with a whoop and a Stetson in the air?





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