When the new year descends…old memories emerge

MARQUETTE — This is a very familiar road. I’ve been down it more times than I can remember, and yet, I can’t place where I am exactly.

In the darkness, I see the snow-covered spruce growing just off the banks plowed up along the edge of the road. The skies are black and the light from my headlights converges to shine a single beam far ahead into the night.

I’m caught up in a reverie.

In my mind, I hear the dry-boned, hollow sound of footsteps, hard-soled shoes on wooden steps, climbing higher. The staircase circles as it winds.

The footfalls belong to a decrepit long-bearded man whose breathing becomes more labored the higher he climbs. He’s moving toward the cold and drafty room at the top of the flight that houses the tower clock.

Once inside, he pushes the old wooden door shut with his forearm, while his hand reaches for the ornate glass door knob to see if it turns. He wants the door locked behind him.

Lighting an oil lantern, the man catches the glint from the sharp and hungry blade of a long-handled scythe standing in the corner. There’s a giant hourglass here too, standing on the floor. The sand has just about all run out.

Pulling on black steel chains that hold weights, the old man pushes metal shifters, locking gear teeth into place. A shaking withered finger reaches toward the face of the clock, softly sliding its three hands together beneath the midnight numerals.

The bells peel from the tower over the snow-swept streets of the town. A mouse who had emerged from a hole in the baseboard to watch the haggard old man take his last climb to the clockworks sniffs the air, standing on its hind legs.

Hickory, dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one, the mouse ran down, hickory, dickory dock.

I’ve been thinking deeply about how another year has come and is just about gone – flying out of sight like a witch on a broom as quickly as it came into view.

Despite my attempts to slow it down, time marched at dizzying speed forward through dark rainy days and the sunny afternoons, windy raw winter nights and cool summer evenings.

Through all that time, the sun and the stars twirled in mathematic circles in the skies, moving the clock forward to this moment on the longest day of the year. I can almost see numerals floating through the air, along with a whole language of ciphering symbols.

For some reason, the dying of a year sends wistful shivers through me, like pulling the palm of my hand across a blanket making blue-green-white sparks snap into the air. Dozens of childhood Christmas photos flicker past in my mind, feelings of hope and failure flashing at once, deep breaths taken on my way up the mountain.

It’s either real or it’s a dream there’s nothing that is in between.

Glancing ahead, a year seems like a very long time, but in the rearview mirror it disappears quicker than one of those mile markers reflecting from the black at the side of the road.

They said, ‘Slow down, I see spots!’ The lines on the road just look like dots.”

This time of year, 50 years ago, we here on this big blue beautiful planet were taking our first look at ourselves from the moon. That photograph sent back by astronauts continues to hold a whole world of magic and provides a mind-clearing perspective.

A hundred years ago, the “war to end all wars” had just wound down. Looking through back to those days, I find surprising details in the classified advertisements.

A lady dropped a purse containing $4 and receipts near the fruit store. A 40-acre farm, a few miles from town, with good land, roads, house and barn is selling for $1,000.

Wanted: Good girl for general housework.

Wanted: Men with families to move to the woods to cut logs and wood; best of wages guaranteed; no rent to pay or fuel to buy; provision furnished at the lowest possible prices.

Services rendered: Home laundry: Family washing a specialty; washings called for and delivered; all work guaranteed; washing done by the pound, 10 cents; ironing 8 cents per pound.

Madame Lee – She tells you the past, present and future; love and business; marriages and divorces; guaranteed satisfaction.

The visions dancing in my mind; the early dawn, the shades of time. Twilight crawling through my windowpane.

I look to the sides of the road trying to find a landmark I can identify to help me locate my place, my position. It takes a mile or so before I can understand where I am – past the old camps, the frozen reservoir, still following the lakeshore, not yet to the place where the river’s mouth opens wide.

Take the feelings inside, like all the magical colors in the big box of crayons and mix them all together. Am I “burnt sienna,” “forest green,” “Indian red” or “aquamarine?” I’m all of them and at least 60 more.

Sparkling, dazzling like the colors of birds and butterflies, soft-textured, low-lights, highlights all together, like the camouflage of millions of forest creatures.

In the daylight, I’m walking through the snow along a road, trying to get closer to a handful of grosbeaks and grouse gathered to eat up the road salts.

The woods are quiet, but by no means asleep.

There are signs of life everywhere, though for many, they may not be perceived.

Snow flocking the trees is becoming a familiar sight. In some places, the glazed branches from a recent rain and freeze are still moving together at the will of the winds, sounding strange – like some sort of plastic rods being moved against each other.

The best news I read all week was that some of the summer birds are already winging their way north from South America, following the rise and fall of the sun to reach our backyards, fields and woodlands, right on time for spring.

Time remains a strange and curious phenomenon for me. Since the days when I was a child using a sandglass to time boiling eggs, I’ve gained no real better understanding today.

There always remains an attraction to clocks for me, whether the tower type with the old shining faces, or the hand-crafted varieties of old, with metal hands and the embedded dials of pocket watches.

From the metronomic ticking sound or the winding noise to the silent sweeping of the second hand, clocks are fascinating. They have a big job, providing representation of time and all that portends for life on earth.

When the new year descends, I’ll be somewhere in the pines pulled off to the side of the road, watching the moment pass looking to the skies for a ghost of the starlight, bouncing to me from inside the great constellations.

Time wound tight for another year, I’ll be hoping the months ahead move us all to higher ridges along the mountainside, places where the water is cold and quenching, the orange-red sun sets with satisfaction, the grass is green and shaded, the water icy blue and promise shines true and clear.

In those places, hope endures, peace prevails, and life abides.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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