June 10, 2009

Alpena: Dairy Queen and mini-golf

In this excerpt from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America, the kids and I make ourselves at home at a funky hotel in friendly Alpena, Michigan:

"You are an intrepid woman!” said Susan, as she pushed her chair back from the desk in the small office of her Water’s Edge Motel to get a better look at me and the kids. We liked each other instantly. She was a 50-something pistol with firecracker-red hair. She talked fast when she wanted to, slow when she wanted to, and she looked you right in the eye. Her drapy cotton clothes- loose trousers and shirt in a turquoise print more Maui than Michigan – were the sartorial equivalent of downtown Alpena’s crayon-colored homes and businesses.

Susan sized us up and rented us a room, the $60 end unit closest to Lake Huron, with a bench outside. She wanted to know where we’d been, what we’d seen. She asked the kids what they thought of it all and smiled knowingly at the “It’s okay,” and “I like it. It’s good.” She looked back up at me and nodded. As I signed the credit card slip, she pushed her chair back again, and looked at the three of us. Then she looked Adam and Dana in the eye. “These are times you’ll never get back with these kids,” words aimed at all of us.

The Water’s Edge sat at the water’s edge, on its own stretch of sand, and right next to the public beach at Mich-E-Ke-Wis Park. We saw Susan all the time, as she lived in a green cinderblock bunker-like structure to whose rear was attached the straight line of modest motel units, of which ours sat closest to Susan’s personal space, closest to the lake. Susan’s house, which looked homemade, was a beautiful thing to me. The funky bunker sat right on the beach and had a killer view of Thunder Bay, and Susan had a big rectangular window from which she could watch the moods of Lake Huron at all hours, in all seasons. I imagined a conversation between Susan and her husband 10, 20, or however many years ago, after they’d tapped the last cinderblock into place and nailed down the roof. Susan would probably have started the conversation.

“We should paint it.”

“What color?”


“Dark green?”

“No, something wild and sea-foamy, like Huron all whipped up. I’ll go find something.”

And then, I imagined her in the paint store, passing the quiet greens, and emerging with gallons of something called, maybe, Tropical Great Lakes Green, like the color of the Maui-Michigan pantsuit that worked so well with her blaze of orange hair.

We made the Water’s Edge and the spaces and places near it our little universe. The kids were free to roam around, up to but not including stepping into Huron unless I was with them. There was plenty to keep them busy while I brought my journal up to date and did laundry. The park, the beach, a Dairy Queen, and, the mini-golf that I could see from our room’s bathroom window.

Every half hour or so, Adam, Dana or both would burst into the room (made into a commodious accommodation by the keep-door-open-park-New-Paint- right-outside method) and ask for more money for golf and video games. Adam spent a fortune in quarters in the arcade, trying to win a free round of golf. When they were all golfed out, we went to the beach, just as the lifeguards were calling it a day and packing up the rescue surfboard. At 7 p.m., it was still over 70 degrees, and a big ball of orange sun the color of Susan’s hair still lit the calm, indigo water. “You can wade out there for quite awhile,” she’d told me, “before you have to make any decisions.” Dana, who’d been our official Great Lakes water temperature tester, pronounced Huron, “this part of it, anyway,” the warmest of any she’d sampled.

Susan’s big, logy dog had pooped all over the little patch of grass that separated the motel parking lot from the beach, grass which served as a parking lot for her motorboat, the Susan. We picked our way carefully around the boat and the dog droppings as we came and went. Susan took note of our comings and goings.

“You have great kids.”

“I do. Thanks for saying so. They are pretty cool. The kind of kids you can live in a minivan with for a whole summer. We’ve made it to Michigan, and we still like each other.”

“I wish they’d gotten to see the turkey vultures we’ve had lately. Or the deer. I get deer on my lawn sometimes. And a great blue heron my husband calls Mister Blue. And, I hoped you’d be lucky enough to see a freighter. They call regularly, and it’s quite impressive as they come into the bay.”

I wished we’d seen all those things, too, and said so, but added, “The Dairy Queen, the mini-golf and the beach were enough for the kids. Just what the doctor ordered at this point in the trip. They had a lot of fun.”

“The mini-golf is a good neighbor. Nice and quiet.”

I told Susan I loved Alpena and felt lucky we’d come upon this fine place as we came into the homestretch of our American journey. It was a perfect near-ending, an ideal finishing touch. (Had we invoked the interstate escape clause when we’d reached the mitten, we would have missed it.) “I’ll always remember Alpena. It’s the kind of place I could live in.”

Susan smiled and looked out at Huron. “People say kids from Alpena spend their first twenty years thinkin’ about how to get out, and the next twenty years thinkin’ about how to get back in.”

Other people think about getting in, too. “We get lots of retirees movin’ in, because it’s cheap. They’re all snowbirds. Drive their RVs to Arizona in the winter.” She shook her head. “I can’t see sittin’ around in a lawn chair.” No, Susan’s ideal winter is spent right there in Alpena, watching out her big rectangular window for the Great Lakes freighters that anchor close to Thunder Bay to wait out the freeze in Superior. An ice cutter could make Alpena’s Huron port accessible, but they don’t bother, because “the water starts to flow again in February.”

In the morning, I sat on the bench outside the room and laced up my sneakers in the still-dark, and, by the time I’d stretched, a glorious red-orange sun had started to ascend from the watery horizon. I ran to the orb’s rising and watched it gain height, degree by degree, splashing magnificent shafts of colored light across Huron’s surface as it climbed, slowly turning dawn to day. I watched it detach itself from the horizon and become a full and colossal tangerine, a blood orange hanging great and ripe over the gentle swells of the vast lake.

After the run, Susan caught me leaning against New Paint, stretching. “My, what a fit specimen.” That made an old chick feel good. I’d loved her when she’d called me intrepid. Now, I wanted to take her home. She asked if we’d slept well.

“Slept well, and rose well. I just watched a magnificent sunrise.”She turned to the lake. “That’s why we could never leave.”

Buy Ribbons via the PayPal button in the right sidebar and get free shipping in the U.S.