Point of Reference  

dunes, lake michigan

These sand dunes have buried boys alive. My father once told me a|story about a boy who dug a tunnel here and when the wind picked up, and the sand started howling, he crawled in and disappeared into the Earth. His parents had walked ahead and when they came back to look for him, all they could find were sand whipped mounds covering the dunes.

Exposure. To leave a person or thing unprotected. In other words, submitting oneself to the elements, bareness in open space, telling your story to listeners. I have climbed these dunes three times in my life before today, but never alone with my mom and never past the first hill. Today we are exposed— to the sky, to the dunes, to the wind and sand, to the lake ahead and to each other. These dunes are haunting and they will pull you under; they will offer you shelter in their grandeur then toss you to the lake below. Walking here is an act of humility; we are as small as a grain of sand and our footsteps will be gone by the time we turn around.

I’ve been having dreams about coming to the dunes in Traverse City, Michigan since I left the state to travel. Up North (as we call it) is the most romanticized, tourist oriented stretch of land I’ve ever been to. There are hob-nob cabins in the woods, cherry pickin’ farms in the summer, fudge and go-carts, shops where you can buy lavender potpourri and oven mitts shaped like busty grannies sitting in rocking chairs. This is the northern Michigan you hate to love, but come back every year regardless to celebrate its undeniable beauty.

Imagine the shape of a glove and you have my state. The dunes are located on the most north-western edge, overlooking Lake Michigan . The lake has a surface area of 22,300 square miles. On this day the water is a fine silk of graying blue, a wild expanse of glacial memory. As recently as 16,000 years ago this land was ice, thousands of feet deep. When it melted away, what was left is now sand, deposits of glacial drift. In 2008, I am making contact with this past. I am sensually involved in the brittle air, a reminiscence of time. It is May and still the cold snaps at my nose and lips.

When I was five years old, I came here for the first time and climbed the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. When you are that small, a mountain of sand appears as a never ending sea to the sky. I have a picture of myself sitting cross legged at the top, a tanned, sturdy looking girl amidst the sandy bluffs that grow prairie sandreed in their valleys. As a child I was protected from solitude; given sports, art and dance to preoccupy what could have been a very lonely, only child childhood. These dunes were a playground, and I treated them with the wildness of a child. I wish I had a memory of this moment sitting in the sand, how it felt to be so small against something so vast. I probably just smiled for the camera and rolled down the hill, like a spinning hotdog, into the arms of a parent waiting at the bottom.

I am twenty-three, and I’ve asked my mom to return to these dunes with me. I have just returned from traveling in South America, and before that living in Seattle. Leaving is something I’m just good at. I haven’t been home in a while, and my mom and I have never gone on a trip alone together. After working her entire adult life as a social worker she needed a rest and hasn’t worked in about two years. She has redecorated the kitchen and the basement, taken care of the dog and cooked dinners for my father. I have asked her to join a book group, take a yoga class, volunteer at the humane society. She appears content; I never ask. Our relationship is gentle, almost a whisper. But today, she wants an adventure, so we drive four hours up from Detroit to the lake and spend some time eating fudge. We will climb the dunes tomorrow, first thing in the morning.

What does it mean to see a place of familiarity eroding before you? Every time I have come to these dunes they have been altered by weather and storm. But I have been changing too. When you leave a place, neither you nor it come back the same. These dunes are shape-shifters, slipping to the lake in the form of erosion. It is a natural process of waves and wind wearing away the base of the plateau on which the dune rests. Here, the wind is a soft whistle, and the water a place of silent trance. The dunes are threatened, like us all, for extinction. As resilient as they are, their very way of knowing the world is shifting every day, and invasive plants, like purple loosestrife, take their hold on the land.

I have never felt the dunes in such motion like I do today; it is a movement of spirits reclaiming their land. There is a myth here taken from the Chippewa Indians. Legend has it on the Wisconsin border of the lake a raging forest fire broke loose. A mother bear and her two cubs fled to the waters to swim across the lake. The mother made it to the other side, Michigan, while her cubs grew weary and drowned at sea. She stood on shore waiting anxiously, yet they never came. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands off the shore to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then a solitary dune to represent the mother. Because of the valiant, yet unsuccessful attempt to protect her children against the harshest elements, the mother bear is remembered as faithful and fearless. This story, like all good legends, is understood best by walking through this shifting landscape so that we may unearth the stories beneath our footsteps.

The stories in my own family, retold to me by my grandparents, my mother and my aunt, are those that keep a family rooted in a shifting place and time. My grandmother has told me that her uncle gave her a violin as a child. She was a shy, only child and played this instrument into adulthood. My mother was given piano lessons and attended Interlochen, the performing arts camp not too far from these dunes. She too played the violin, and on performance night stepped out from the orchestra and played a solo with both. It seems every birthday I am told that my mother dropped her sister’s 10th birthday cake. I am retold how my parents moved to Alabama with a mattress on the roof of their car for school. Told of my grandparents dancing the cha-cha at the SunSpa in Florida. But these stories like the land are eroding beneath our footprints; we want to remember them so we inherent them to our children to protect the memories.

Exposure. We are climbing, my hair above my head like twirling tumbleweed. There is mom, trudging behind me, calculating her pauses and breaths. Ahead, an image of me, her long-legged daughter swinging fast over these hills. I look behind, a peek of her head, one foot over, and there she is, over the hump. She wants to keep going. Let’s make it to the lake, she says. Lake Michigan stretches miles before us— it is like a can of paint has spilled over from the sky and filled this lake with blue. This landscape has an illusory effect over your perception. What you think is ten steps ahead could be a mile away. You are standing in a bowl carved from eons of sand slides. To climb a hill requires stamina and sturdy knees. After the big hill there is no one else but us and the ghosts. We are here among wildflowers named pitcher’s thistle, brushy shrubs of juniper and small pine. The grasses bow to the ground; this is both the beginning and the end of time. A loneliness settles in, trapping us in its bones.

In these dunes the lines of time blur. Three months later I will leave home again and drive with my father across the Dakota and Montana plains to a new life in the mountains. Isolation, open space, exposed. Without clouds or weather there is no point of reference for my mind to grasp hold of the sky. This blue could be as small as a backyard swimming pool, or as big as nothing I can imagine. Only the grasslands and corn fields between my car and the horizon give me perception. It is that feeling of loneliness again, like I am one grain of sand free falling into infinity. Wide open space is not something that calms me, and yet time and again I find myself moving to these unprotected places in search of a new existence.

I have never seen my mother exercise. Today she has the conditioning of a marathon runner. I run a bit ahead to look over the next hill, expecting to see the lake right below my feet. What I see is miles of sandy bluffs, grasslands and sharp edged peaks. I turn around and shout down at her, “it’s not that hard when you start climbing, it only looks hard from a distance.”  “It’s true,” she replies. There are thirty years in her life I was not a part of—she must already know what I’ve told her. We walk side by side for a while in silence, letting the solitude of our pace overwhelm our thoughts. Why are we still walking? We aren’t going to reach the lake. I am thinking these things and looking at her, and watching the birds swoop inland. It is not about the lake. It is about dunes, the process of formation and degradation in a constantly shifting landscape. This is our relationship and we are walking it together for once. These shifting sands are known to bury trees, and as the dunes move on, ghost forests of dead trees are exposed. Skeletal trunks and branches unearthed by the wind. The dead are among us.

Unbeknownst to my mother and me, in two months her father will lie in his hospital bed, ask her the date and time, and pass away. The two of us will pace outside his room, and when the nurse comes out, shakes her head and says “I’m sorry” my mother will look to me, a taller, broader image of herself, and bury her sobbing head into my arms, my shoulders, my chest. We will be haunted by his ghost because neither of us will be ready to let go.

But today, in these dunes, we are trying to connect on a level that we both know is beyond reach, but neither of us will stop walking. Because we are both shape-shifters too and have been crossing terrain without each other for years. She is the most familiar person to me, her face and hands are mine, but how do I know her? Our relationship is constantly eroding and restoring—it always has been. This is our landscape. 

This essay was previously published in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment

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