Just north of the Mackinac Bridge is a giant statue of Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, some kind of inside joke between my parents, a tourist trap they both visited as children, one they insisted my brother and I must see. We were not impressed. What’s a tourist trap? I wanted to know. Why is his ox blue? Ryan asked.
In the photograph that conjured this memory, both Ryan and I are leaning against the tall chain-link fence separating us from the famous lumberjack and his ox, my fingers laced in the wire, neither of us smiling.
This photo was from a stack my mom brought up from the basement the week after my dad died. The photo was from a family vacation we’d taken camping in the Upper Peninsula the summer I turned ten. We brought the canvas tent my parents had bought from Sears the first year they were married fifteen years earlier. The week before our vacation, they had loaned out the tent to some family friend’s kids, teenagers, and when we went to set it up that first night at the Big Two-Hearted River campground, the zipper to the door was completely shot, off its track. No big deal, my mom said, and safety pinned it shut. This vacation had been months in the making, an attempt to retrace the places my parents had visited as kids before they met.
Neuroscientists who study memory suggest that the more times you replay a memory, the more you change it—that the act of recall itself changes some small detail or taints it with the present-day emotional milieu—so that the next time we replay it, it is the facsimile we are remembering, and inevitably altering again, not the original. In this way, memory is like generational data loss, a photocopy of a photocopy, and our most well-preserved memories are the ones we don’t remember at all, so we are never tempted to recall them.
Even the protagonist in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Song of the Hiawatha,” for which the Hiawatha National Forest of the Upper Peninsula is named, is the product of this game of telephone, a chain of distortions and mistranslations. Longfellow’s narrative content, a basic rehashing of the inevitability of post-contact submission, came from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s retelling of his Chippewa wife’s culture, itself a revisionist history: the reports of the conquered as told by the conqueror. Longfellow not only mistook Schoolcraft’s ethnography as credible, he mistook the Ojibwa spirit Nanabozho as synonymous with the Iroquois leader Hiawatha, arguing Hiawatha was more a manageable name in an English-language poem.
I thumb through the stack of photos my mom brought me from our vacation to the U.P., and I trace over them with a yearning to go back in time, to when our family was whole. The photos spark the memory of a story, one told and re-told so many times, it had become familial myth: the story of a flood and of my dad as the cement holding us all together.
We pulled into Fort Wilkins State Park late in the evening. Only one rustic campsite left, the ranger told us. We’ll take it, my dad said, and we pitched our tent on the flattest ground we could find. While my dad pounded in each plastic yellow stake, my mom inflated the air mattress she and my dad shared, pumping the foot pump with her right foot and then her left, taking turns until it was full. Then she zipped her sleeping bag to my dad’s sleeping bag and laid them on top of the air mattress. This was all I knew of married couples: both of them tag-teaming the chores, both of them wanting to be physically close to each other, their connection to each other the source from which their connections to my brother and me flowed. In the mornings, Ryan and I would crawl in there with them, a whole family held by those two cotton sleeping bags.
Earlier in the trip, we had camped at Tahquamenon Falls, had seen the yellow water raging over rocks, had learned about hemlock trees, that the same tannins that turn cola brown rage through the rivers in the U.P.
That night it rained, and our campsite was on the lowest ground in the campground, in the path of all that water carving a new drainage to the creek. I woke up soaked, the tent pitch black, and whispered, Dad, I’m wet.
He said, Yeah, I know. It’s raining. Go back to sleep.
I said, No, Dad, I’m really wet.
As the story goes, he clicked on his flashlight. We had a small plastic basin we used to store all our games, Uno and Catch Phrase and a deck of cards. In the beam of the flashlight, he saw the plastic tub floating around the tent and said, Jeanne, the kids are sleeping in puddles. Ryan and I had two foam pads, water toys for the lake. Our parents’ sleeping bags were dry, their air mattress higher than the waterline.
Outside the tent, it was pouring; lightning and thunder continued off in the distance. All I remember is darkness, and my parents frantically tearing down camp, throwing everything into a sopping heap in the back of the van. Our clothes, our sleeping bags, everything was stained brown from the tannins in the water.
Copper Harbor is an hour from the nearest town, like everything in the U.P. My dad cranked up the heat, and we drove, headlights reflecting off wet pavement. Somewhere along that dark, rain slicked, deserted highway, my mom spotted a black bear sniffing around on the side of the road and my dad stopped, headlights poised on the bear. Wide awake in the backseat, taking cues from my parents, I saw the bear as an omen, one we had the good fortune of seeing, something to revere.
In Houghton, as the sun came up over the horizon, the sky still heavy with clouds, my mom insisted on a laundromat, converting quarters into clean, dry clothes, sleeping bags, everything as good as new. She said, Let’s take a vote. This was how we made decisions then, ensuring everyone’s voice was heard. Everyone in favor of checking into a hotel for the night, then heading home tomorrow, raise their hand. No one moved. Okay, she said, unveiling the next option, everyone in favor of Dad getting a new tent in Wal-Mart and then finishing the trip as planned, raise their hand. Three hands shot into the air. This is the way votes usually went in our family, three-to-one, my mom joking that our dad was just an oversized kid masquerading as an adult.
We waited in the van while our dad ran into Wal-Mart, came out smirking, a boxed tent under one arm. He drove the van over to the edge of the lot, hopped out and opened the trunk, threw the old tent in the dumpster. I’m pitching the tent, he joked, Amelia Bedelia come to life, our mom not even bothering to hide the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Fifteen years later, my mom and I would return to retrace the steps of that trip, trying to reconjure a time when our family had been whole.
I’d been working out some theory about how places, like bodies, have a kind of metadata encrypted within them—like a meticulous minute-by-minute account of everything that has transpired there, with increasing digressive references and interlaced annotations on emotional context—that could only be unlocked by being physically present and moving through them kinesthetically. Especially in hallowed places and places of personal significance, that they contained within them a trace of our previous selves, and that going through the motions in the exact place would yield a kind of affirmation from the physical world, a more detailed remembering.
It had been two years since my dad died, and I wanted to re-remember our vacation there, to see the tannins in the river, to go back to the Great Shipwreck Museum, to stand on the shore of Lake Superior, feel the wind whipping across my face, and remember what it meant to be alive.
On the drive to the Two-Hearted River campground, my mom remembered the washboard road. She said the van had been new when we took that trip and that she worried the road would ruin her struts. A recent forest fire had swept through the area, changing the landscape, and I worried about the slippage of memory. We passed more than twenty logging trucks hauling out all the half-burnt wood, making the most out of the destruction.
At each fork in the road, we argued about which road to take, if we had made a wrong turn, if we should backtrack. I was going off the Google directions I’d printed; my mom was going off intuition, a fifteen-year-old memory of a road she traveled on once, when she hadn’t even been driving, and we both wondered for a while if we’d ever find the campground, if we’d even stayed in such a place all those years ago, if it even existed. This was a feeling I had often after my dad died, wondering what was real and what was imagined, what was a part of the idyllic childhood I’d constructed to preserve him and what was truth.
My mom and I eventually did find the campground, and I parked the car next to the river, the view of it dumping into Lake Superior one that I instantly recognized. All I’d remembered from this part of our trip was the safety-pinned tent door and a swinging bridge Ryan liked to jump on to scare me. The bridge was still there, but remade, sturdier, with less give. It was overcast and windy, and the waves were crashing hard against the shore. My mom wanted to find a rock, a memento she’d been in the habit of collecting, a way to keep track of all the places she’d been. I let my dog, Scout, off leash and watched her run, biting at the waves for a drink.
After our night at the Two-Hearted River, my mom and I drove to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. When we arrived, the museum was closed, but the lighthouse was open. We wound our way up the metal spiral staircase, and I remembered, or I imagined I remembered my dad holding my hand to keep me from tripping, urging me to pick up my feet. At the top, the house was an eight-sided turret of glass, like an old-fashioned lantern with metal seams welding each pane together.
At the top of the tower, my dad and I pushed through a trap door onto the narrow platform surrounding the glassed-in house. I gripped the metal railing with both hands, and my dad pointed out across Lake Superior and said, See that land there? That’s Canada. The wind whipped in off the water, and I imagined without the whitecaps, there would be hardly a distinction between the gray of the water, the gray of Canada, and the gray of the sky.
That night, my mom and I stayed at a walk-in campsite in the Porcupine Mountains. It stormed in the night. Huge thunderclouds rolled in from the north off Lake Superior, the rain coming down in sheets. Outside the tent, the wind howled and the branches above us creaked. My mom made a joke about widow makers, and then we laid awake side-by-side, both of silent and thinking the same thing. In the morning, I toasted English muffins over the two-burner stove while my mom loaded up the car with all our soggy camping gear, a reprise.
Looking back now on that trip, I think our retracing our own steps evoked a kind of flip-book gestalt, that illusion of wholeness, and maybe that was all we could ever hope to recover of our pasts.