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Column: Reflections on a snow-covered road

“Memory can’t you see, that’s not what I should be; after all she meant to me, I’m just a memory,” – Kostas/Raul Malo

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MARQUETTE — I’ve been wondering lately about dynamics, incidence, memory and time – particularly about how the swirling and blending of these ingredients can produce powerful life experiences unlikely to ever reoccur, except in our hearts and minds.

For me, this phenomenon is one of those things that is so plain and obvious, yet cryptic and camouflaged, that it’s scarcely given much thought.

When I do spend time thinking about it, it strikes me as profound.

I believe this circumstance is something deeply engrained in our human nature and experience in this world, like the intricate and exquisite patterns inherent to snowflakes, butterfly wings or agates.

What started me thinking about all of this was a recent drive down a snow-covered dirt road that isn’t plowed during the wintertime. I had decided to take perhaps a last chance look out here from behind the wheel before winter would claim again this rugged wilderness for her own.

I was alone.

This condition presents a dynamic different than any others.

Doing things by myself is much different than doing things with friends, family or strangers. Add or subtract even one person from the mix and the experience often changes completely – for better or worse, depending on the person and your perspective.

Subtract myself from the solo experience and it doesn’t even occur.

Think about that.

Consider how many wonderful and enriching things would have been missed in your lifetime if you never had been there to experience them.

Obvious to realize, yet subtle, twisting and sublime.

I’m struck by how even seemingly trivial events – like the way the clouds looked at sunset on a given day, in a specific place at a particular time – can be burned into my memory forever.

There have been more than 24,000 sunsets in my life. What was it that made the ones I recall often so special, while others fade casually, drifting into the sandstone lake bottom of my mind?

For me, this is where dynamics likely have played significant roles in making the memory stick.

Fireworks is a good example.

I don’t remember the first time I ever saw fireworks. That seems weird to me.

However, I vividly recall lying in the cool summer grass of Victory Park, when my boys were very young, watching the exploding and shimmering fireworks reflected in their wide eyes.

I also remember being in Anaheim Stadium with my dad when they shut out all the lights after the Angels-Tigers game for a 4th of July fireworks show. He said it was the best he’d ever seen.

These are images that I will hopefully never forget.

They are vibrant, palpable and they don’t fade – but I worry they might.

Remove my dad or my kids from these scenes and they all change.

However, sometimes, the addition or subtraction of various characters to a scene in life oddly doesn’t have the same profound result.

Sometimes, who was there is irrelevant. I know that I will always remember what the Pacific coastline, the Arizona desert or the Rocky Mountains were like for the first time, no matter who was or wasn’t there.

But there is this otherness, where I think more often than we realize we try to recreate moments or circumstances we’ve lived.

For example, I find myself returning to fish in places where I caught a single trout when I was a kid.

I revisit places where I’ve had fine experiences, wondering if there is any trailing mist, or fragments of those days, still lingering in the magic of the evening air.

Often, I find the place has changed, typically not for the better.

Sometimes though, things are right where I remembered they should be. The blackberries are still there, the fish are still biting, the root beer water is still flowing and tumbling over those same gray granitic rocks.

So, I drove up the snow-covered road, rounding bends where I had been only a few weeks ago trying to capture the brilliance of autumn through the lens of my camera.

All the leaves were down now. The rocky bluff was covered in snow, as were the grasses, now browned and bent, that shot up from the marsh along the creek.

The scene looked gray and bleak.

I continued ahead, deeper into the woods.

In some places, the creek had eaten through the snow to expose what looked like irregular pools of black ink or paint. Though the landscape was mostly quiet and still, the gurgling and simmering sounds of the open water soothed like windchime bells.

Curled brown leaves of oak and beech still hung from some of the tree branches. The varying shades of green in the conifers along the road – from olive and rifle to India greens – contrasted with the white and gray trunks of the poplars and birches.

There were still some bright yellows – golden like cornbread – brightening portions of the landscape from the remaining and resilient needles of tall tamaracks.

I moved up a hill, around a corner, past a small waterfall that was mostly concealed now under a showy shawl of snow. I noticed an old woods road off to my left.

I encountered another rise in the road. This is where I remembered I saw a ruffed grouse a couple years back, it’s head down and stretched out far – looking like a roadrunner – dash across the road.

Another seemingly innocuous incident scorched into my brain – maybe forever. Why?

The snow got deeper as I went, and the wind pushed the billowy clouds east, over somebody else’s head. I was left with a dazzling clear blue view. The sun shone warm on my chest.

The road narrowed as I wound farther along. I had past the clear-cut, the turnoff to one of the lakes and the place where the road hooked just before a wide wetland.

Understanding I would need to find a place to turn around at some point, I decided to do so when I came to a clearing that sat just beneath a rise.

I started back, stopping several times to get a few pictures.

As I got closer to the place where the old woods road traced off, now on my right, I saw something in the road that wasn’t there on my way in.

There were animal tracks crossing diagonally.

I got out to inspect them. I reached a road map out of the truck and tossed it on the ground next to the tracks for size comparison. I could clearly see the foot pad print and claw marks extending into the light snow.

At once I knew what animal had made the tracks, and I was sorely disappointed. I had just missed seeing a big bear – late for hibernation – cross the road. It couldn’t have been by more than a few minutes.

I have already wondered many times since if I could see the bear if I go back there to that same place in the road. Like that grouse, I will now likely always think of this place, for that reason, when I return.

This bear I never got to see cross the road and amble on between the trees will likely remain a memory for me for years to come. I can’t explain why, it’s just a sensation I have inside that this is going to be one of those things.

Back at the highway intersection, I turn left wondering what roads that decision will lead me down – what scenes will I experience and what will I miss not having turned right or back.

Like the soft watches of Salvador Dali, I remain entranced with the persistence of memory. Though often bewildered by all these things, I keep moving forward – one step at a time, making my own tracks down one road and up another.

Will I come back one day to rediscover, to relive, to find something I might have misplaced or forgotten?

Time will tell.

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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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