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Column: Autumn Queen has laid down her scepter

“It feels like the first time, like it never will again,” – Mick Jones

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MARQUETTE — As the sprawling countryside tumbled out before me, I was surprised to see the trees virtually all stripped bare of their autumnal dress.

Traveling just a couple of hours, a hundred miles or so, brought me to a different world, one where the Autumn Queen had already laid down the point of her shimmering scepter in the dirt.

She had no doubt since headed east and south, bringing her kaleidoscope color show to other maple stands, oak groves and aspen reaches – to the quiet streets and old schoolyards in little towns, where children welcome her with their tiny musical, bird voices and gentle hearts.

Here, where I was, those days had already gone by. I felt as though I had slept late and woke up expecting fireworks on the 5th of July.

The hardwood trees stood like skeletons, white-boned and withered. The autumn hay was rolled, dotting the landscape in bales from fore to aft. Where there was color left in the trees it exploded on the branches.

Red and yellow apples left branches heaving and slumped over, while the crimson firestorm of winter berries shocked the views around the low wetlands. One apple tree I saw had so many apples on it there wouldn’t have been any room left for leaves.

The subdued color scheme of the landscape gave greater punch to the bright white of the birches and the poplars. Against the blue de France skies the contrast was breathtaking.

I was headed west, driving up a gray highway that snaked its way between brown farmlands, nodding deer at the side of the road and creeks, cold and clear, their bottoms lined with fallen leaves.

“We’re going all the way, ’til the wheels fall off and burn. ‘Till the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies.”

At a stop light in a lonesome town, I pulled the wheel right and started to move north to a destination I had never been before.

This was a place where there were plenty of trees – hardwoods, hemlocks and firs -but where thick mud made from local clays had a firm foothold on anyone, or anything, ambling down the quiet forest path.

Even the river was not immune, rolling and rambling, clay-laden and milk chocolatey, it swirled in pools, slurped over rocks and whispered in the slows.

My start down the trail left me contemplating the starkness of the surroundings. A scolding red squirrel didn’t seem to want me in the woods, a beeping red-breasted nuthatch might have felt the same.

It didn’t matter to me.

I would be past them in a few steps and they could go on with their scavenging and noise making. I wouldn’t even be a memory to them in just a moment or so.

“Vaya con dios, mi amigos.”

The day was brighter than the wind was cold, but I wore a zippered jacket down the path just the same. Tremendous rains over this part of the peninsula had left water pooled in the forest, maybe for weeks?

This trail was a connector, a transportation device, that could bring a man west to North Dakota or east to Vermont if he had enough time, energy and heart. I asked a man who walked it all what it took.

He said three pairs of hiking boots and six-and-a-half months.

Now there is somebody whose shoes I’d wished I’d been in – all three pairs.

He said where I was standing was about a third of the way east from Dakota country, but that the woods here were characteristic of the trail itself – remote and wooded, quiet and peaceful.

I moved farther down the path, over a hill or two that took my wind and down a slope toward a ridge. Below to my right I saw and heard the river, rolling sluggishly over smoothed stones and ledges, delivering the mail and passengers downstream.

I didn’t know how much farther I would need to go, but I was going to get there, regardless. The more I walked the more the trail coiled and twisted downhill, closer to the water.

In the distance, I could see an opening through the trees and a flat rock ledge off to my right. The river here had been busy, smoothing, shaping and grooving the rocks – through floods, drought, ice and snow, she had bent these tremendous ridges of stone to her will.

The pock-marked faces of some of the ancient, irregularly shaped stones were sunning themselves, while the glistening waters flowed around them.

This was the place I was coming to – the places I wanted to get to.

Pine trees grew up from between dead and dying bracken ferns as a tremendous roar from a plunging waterfall swept over the rocks to a shallow, but wide, pool below.

At the edges of the river, there were places to hide – to walk behind the waterfalls to look out through the translucent curtain downstream.

I took deep breaths and felt the charged air rush into my lungs, the negative ions purifying my blood. This was one of those places I could lie and look at the sky, or close my eyes and listen and feel, for hours.

Heartbreaker, soul shaker, I’ve been told about you.

Standing down river, looking back up to the roaring torrent at the ledge, I wondered which is most pleasurable: being someplace for the first time, or returning again and again to a familiar haunt?

This place was new to me and it was magnificent – sensational.

I wish I’d had more time to come to places like this with my dad when he was alive. I didn’t know it then, but we spent too damned much time on stuff that didn’t matter.

I think his leaving this world painfully taught me one thing – to try to make the most of each minute of every day – to get up and go outside where things are really happening, even when I may not feel like it.

Doing that not only keeps my black dog whimpering under the bed, but it also puts light in my eyes and opens my senses to beautiful, magical, almost indescribable, things beyond the ordinary, the temporary.

I can come to a place like this and find home and heaven all at once.

The birds and animals, plants, trees and rocks all know this same truth.

If I sit long enough, I can feel them all in my heart and know they can feel me too – even that chattering squirrel and the nuthatch.

Who knows?

Maybe, they will remember me, after all.

For me, I know I’ll hold this day tight for as long as I can.

I’ll put it in the cupboard with the rest of the best times I’ve had – those that I can recall with reliable regularity – keeping it close enough to get to on a hopelessly dark, deep winter’s night.

I get back to the car with the sun already fading.

I sit for a couple of minutes with my head on the wheel.

I’m soon driving back down the northern road, feeling wild and free.

Like the shadows of the approaching evening, I’m rolling out across the countryside.

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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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