Preferring to err on the side of caution, we scrapped plans to drive to Marquette, MI this weekend in favor of a more southerly route, based on our own inexperience at driving through windswept wintry isolation (the U.P. is sparsely populated) and the knowledge that an impending weather storm was headed Northern Michigan’s way. As we hurriedly packed overnight bags and the usual parental/three-year-old necessities on Saturday morning, we chose not to dwell on the impending irksome task of carrying our once-living Christmas tree outside and strapping it to the car. Sunday being the last day Traverse City would accept them at the designated drop-off point behind the District Library, we had no choice but to haul it there before embarking on our weekend excursion.
Once all less-strenuous preparations had been made, Jess and I tipped the tree so she could undo the still water-filled tree stand. Needing more room, she suggested I pull it toward the door, and in my haste I did so with an overabundance of effort, and in doing so spilled said water, spreading it and a deluge of brittle pine needles across the the floor in the foyer. After enduring The Look That All Husbands Know for several uncomfortable seconds, I stated something to the effect of ‘there’s no turning back now’ and jerked the tree the rest of the way outside, spraying the once pristine ivory snow in the front yard with hundreds more dead needles. Refusing help, as men often do when frustrated, I hoisted the dying tree that served us admirably throughout the holiday season across my shoulder and trudged around the house to the car, pausing briefly to enjoy the Subaru’s newly acquired ice-beard.
After unceremoniously rolling the tree atop the car, I succeeded once more in slinging dozens of the little greenlets, although this time most found their way on my beanie, coat, jeans, and the windows of the Outback, which not long hence I would of course need to be driving. Undaunted I began strapping the tree down, in the process poking myself in the eye with branches more than once, and finally completed the unenviable task with a few minor curses.
I was still brushing decaying plant life from the vehicle’s windows when the time came to load it, and after Jess and I had done so and were prepared to depart, I flipped the wipers on to brush away the last remnants of pine and sleet. Only one wiper was working. Switching it off quickly fearing further damage to whatever was wrong with the mechanism (I have as little understanding of car repair as the layman would of, say, brain surgery), I stepped out to stare blankly at the unmoving black appendage as if to will it back to life. Jess suggested something, but I could only remember a few days earlier when she had reached over helpfully and switched them on while we were taking Jackson to daycare, at which moment I had yelled ‘No!’, knowing as I did then that the wiper was frozen in place. Thus, apparently, her attempt to assist a few days prior had damaged the motor, or so I surmised. On some unbidden impulse, I decided to reach in the open door and try turning them on again to aid my ‘fix-it telekinesis’ with brute force, and as the lone wiper swung back to life, it clipped it’s useless companion. This caused the working blade to sever itself from it’s housing and take flight toward my forehead – which it struck (with little fanfare, I might add), resulting in no real wound but a veritable gutting of any pride I had left.
Driving around what has been affectionately dubbed by our GA colleagues as ‘The Tundra’ with no windshield wipers is akin to jumping into Lake Michigan in January: unwise at best, life-endangering at worst. Knowing my usual repair shop was not open on the weekend but resolving to find another, we drove straight to the Subaru dealership; surely, a new-car dealership offers repairs on Saturdays. We discovered that, not only were said dealership’s services unavailable, but the entire dealership was closed. Now, the ridiculousness of the morning became too much, and Jess and I began to laugh together. We finally allowed for the probability that our weekend would be spent indoors, but decided to try one last place I had been to with the car: Marathon Automotive. Upon arriving there, I pulled on the entrance door, and though lights were on in the building, found it locked. I smiled at Jess and returned to the vehicle with an acceptance of our fate, but saw out of the corner of my eye a man coming out to speak with me. He informed us that although they were indeed closed, the mechanic was onsite, and while off the clock may be willing to assist. We pulled the car around, and, in five minutes, this Hero Mechanic (after muttering some mysterious incantation of the black arts … or just doing something similarly mysterious), had both blades moving. We were exultant. The trip was saved (mostly). After handshakes and ‘a little cash for the trouble’ were exchanged, we still needed to actually buy one wiper blade to go on the wiper arm that had earlier catapulted its charge toward my face without so much as a warning. Hero Mechanic directed us to where the nearest Auto Zone (ie, Temple Of the Wiper Blade Installation) lay beckoning, and with renewed faith we set off to complete the first phase of our quest to Leave Town.
The matter-of-fact, though imminently helpful Auto Zone employee installed the blade with a swiftness I can only attribute to sorcery, and after more fervent thank-yous, JC3 set off. We were happy to finally be on our way, but we were most happiest at the willingness of three Good Samaritans (especially Marathon’s employee that unlocked the door and Marathon’s Hero Mechanic, on his day off) to stand outside and work in 15-degree weather without complaint and make the Subaru whole again and save our weekend. More often than not, Jess and I realized, the people of Traverse City – business owners that think customers wouldn’t car-shop on Saturdays notwithstanding – choose to help others even when convenience to do so isn’t an option (and yes, I know Auto Zone employees everywhere are supposed to provide wiper-aid, but I have been turned down before for help in such matters in more densely populated areas when employees were ‘too busy’). This small-town attribute is of no small importance to cynical folk such as myself. These men’s actions added to the growing list of ways this place chips away at my own developed sense of misanthropy (no small feat).
A little more than an hour later we arrived in Manistee, MI, a 19th-century logging town-turned-beach destination astride the Manistee River where it flows into Lake Michigan. Aside from the upscale condos and large Victorian homes that dot the small city’s sandy shoreline and inlets, Manistee’s downtown Riverwalk area, with its patchwork of closed and open business, has the start-and-stop feel of an area in the midst of revitalization, with a current of potential simmering beneath a hard-won past. Emblematic of this positive transition, and the focal point of our sojourn here is the Ramsdell Inn , once the town’s First National Bank, now fully restored and transformed into a classy though small inn of about ten rooms, with TJ’s Pub providing drinks and dinner downstairs. We had inquired about a room online the night before but had no response, and so we decided to simply drop by and hope for the best.
Upon entering we saw that the spirit of the building’s original purpose remained on display, all the way down to the bank vault, which had been transformed into the inn’s tiny gift shop. A placard set atop the front desk urged us to call the number given, as at that moment housekeeping was being attended to. While thinking it strange that the desk manager was also personally involved in the readying of rooms, I dialed the number, whereupon I was informed that they were ‘Sold Out’. The oddity of my exchange with the unseen concierge and the clash of the modern, signed movie poster on the wall amongst the century-old bank furnishing had us smiling again. We shrugged off our luck and walked back to the car. Warmer temperatures and a light rain had joined forces to erase the snowy gloss of the town that had surely been there only hours before, and with the usually-icy rails of the Manistee Lighthouse now devoid of said ice, we waved goodbye to the picturesque sands of Manistee.
All told, a humorous beginning to our weekend getaway, but we were still having a good time, and things would continue to improve as we pressed on to the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness trail. Stay tuned… -Jim