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Column: The sweet, calm solitude of winter

“I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road,” – Roger Miller

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MARQUETTE — If I were to walk down the middle of this windswept blacktop road on a fine day in July, I’d be taking my life into my own hands.

The heavy traffic from those summertime travelers headed out for the hills and the hideaways would never allow me the liberty I was taking here today.

I was simply putting one boot heel in front of the other, walking north into the icy wind down the cracked and broken centerline.

There wasn’t a soul in sight, except a brother raven gliding overhead, watching me walk. I tucked my cold stiffening hands into my warm pockets. The cold wind felt good across my face and through my hair.

I had a strong desire to be just where I was – out here all alone.

To some, these desolate, stark landscapes are not for the faint of heart. They are kingdoms of thick ice, shattered rocks and bare trees. Frigid temperatures keep the violets away where the sharp winds can cut your vocal cords out.

My eyes and ears turn toward the rolling swells of slush-packed water, slowly tumbling in against snowbanks along the shore of the big lake.

I am drawn to these places.

The quiet, the emptiness and the rawness of this rugged countryside stirs me gently inside, like sloshing whiskey and sour in a glass. Perhaps it’s an intrinsic instinct borne somehow during the last gasps of the Wisconsin glaciation.

Certain creatures appear fit for this place like the wolf, loon and bear. Humans seem misplaced – wandering in circles, searching for something to wander and search for.

And still, I feel at home here with no real sounds but the swooshing of the waves, a twittering of finches and the low rumble of the wind murmuring another mournful dirge.

An empty picnic table sits on a high bank over the water. The hotel is shuttered and snowed in. A rusted pickup truck with a dreary looking camper shell on the back, sits not far from the water’s edge, behind a closed metal gate.

There’s a brand-new black plastic sign on the gate, with fiery red-orange letters reading “No trespassing.”

Tall birches and once tremendous maples, lean and sag over the water, bowing to the laws of gravity and the appetite of the undermining waves.

Snow moves like mist across the road in front of me.

I arrive at a crossroads, with a snowbound byway trailing off to my left. In front of me lay the foothills of the distant white and gray mountains, and the crumbling abutments of a bridge over a frozen river. The ice is clear and hard.

It occurs to me this whole scene appears to be in black and white.

Even the hemlocks and the cedars trees look so dark in shades of camouflage, rifle green and olive drab they are clothed more seemingly in grays and blacks.

I am wearing black boots, blue jeans a blue-and-white flannel shirt and a slate-gray jacket. I feel like I’m all full of grays inside while my mind is all black and white.

When famous motion picture director Otto Preminger came here in the late 1950s, he recognized the colorlessness of the landscape. He intended late winter or early spring for his depiction of “Anatomy of a Murder,” selecting black and white for his presentation to replicate the landscape he saw.

As a kid, I grew up in the early 1960s when color television programs were new. I remember that “Batman” and “Jonny Quest” were incredible to see in color.

We figured back then if something was in black and white on TV it was because they hadn’t invented color by the time the program was filmed. It certainly would have been a strange idea to me back then that someone would intentionally choose black and white given an option for color.

The catkins on the trees are swaying back and forth, nodding too. The tall grasses are dried and thin, some brown, some red, others yellow.

At first, it’s often odd to be in a place completely alone. I think it’s human to feel that way. Then, the longer I am there the more comfortable it becomes.

I have learned to recognize this now from the outset and lonely places don’t make me lonely. Instead, they help me feel more focused on the things around me, without the human distractions of conversation, attention and obligation.

It’s also easier to hear your heartbeat, sense your mind thinking and your heart opening-up to the universe.

There’s a stand of white birches here off a short gravel road that circles out toward the lakeshore. I love white birches.

Two massive boulders contain iron plaques paying tribute to soldiers who served and fell. If I had taken that left turn back at the intersection, I never would have seen this place today.

I begin to hear what I think is a screaming at the height of my hearing, billowing and waving as it rolls past in the skies high above me. It’s the wind looking for a fire to stoke, a trailer park to topple or a kite to catch.

In a wintry scene like this, time and distance seem to melt away, leaving me to wonder how far I’ve walked, how far I’ll continue and what time it is. These are questions resting on the far back end of my mind while I cherish this time to dance slowly in a dream with this countryside.

A flock of about 60 finches, flits down to the middle of the road ahead of me. They’re nervously eating road salt, but they let me approach to within just a few feet. The road, like a coiled snow snake, unravels out toward the foothills.

My hope now is my mind will let me stay here awhile longer before tapping me incessantly on the shoulder, urging me to twirl around on my heel and head for home. I hear a red squirrel chattering, but I don’t see it.

I see the faded weekend trails of snowshoes and tracked sleds, rounding bends between the trees, up along the hillside and down along the shore. The signs on the road heading up here didn’t advertise winter much.

No phone, no pool, no pets. I ain’t got no cigarettes.

I make it to the place of the big sky where the overlook holds a skeleton key unlocking an overflowing treasure chest of sights more precious than gold.

The skies are clear enough to the see the horizon 20 miles away.

Down below, the summer’s pathways are buried in untold feet of snow. A wooden railed bridge sits above a serpentine creek whose waters are black and white – partially open, partially frozen.

This place is the cradle of the constellations and the comets, where the Milky Way must appear frequently in dazzling displays of purple, blue and shadowy quartz white.

I feel as though I could spend forever here – just being, and nothing else.

There are deer tracks in the snow up here where the scraggly plants growing out of the rocks claw to keep a toehold.

Like a soap bubble blown by a child, I know these moments out here won’t last long before I’ll emerge from this scant reverie somewhere among the concrete canyons and the chattering of electronic birds.

Saddened by the thought, I pull my jacket collar up and try to grasp a few more things to hold in my memory before I head back. Soon my boots are southbound, an afternoon sky draining the color from my face and the thoughts from my head.

Summertime is dead and gone.

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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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