to the moon


[Tweddle/Treat Farms, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: evening hike with James, 8:45p-10:30p]

I rarely plan a hike in advance. When we both have an ache to be outside and a serendipitous moment of free time, we go. I think through the list of options (always limited by the available time) and choose our adventure based on what I hope we’ll get to see there.

However, this hike was inspired years ago after our first visit to the Tweddle/Treat Farms. The presence of so much history coupled with the surrounding natural beauty put me in mind of a nighttime visit. I imagined a moonlit walk through fallow fields. A mysterious, shadowy walk through the woods on the old road connecting the farmhouses.

Somehow, that hike never happened. Too cloudy. No moon. No time. Each time we’d return for a hike — usually on the way back to the car — I’d remark that we really should come here for that moonlight visit I’ve always imagined. Yes, we really should. We should do that this year… sometime.

Last night, “sometime” finally arrived: a Thursday evening free of errands and appointments. A calm evening with no clouds was forecast. Can we? Should we? Let’s go!

And so, after dinner and dishes, we made an appointment to meet with the sunset at the WNW horizon at 8:45ish where at least a day’s worth of to-do’s, distractions, and unknowables would be exchanged for a fistful of colors, a blanket of stars, and a silver dollar moon.

As we headed up the trail in the gathering darkness, daylight seemed to be holding on somehow, resisting night’s advances. Meanwhile, our conversation was a tad grumbly, filled with litanies of recent complaints reaching even as far as our vegetable garden’s performance. Finally, a silence fell over us and we heaved a long, exasperated sigh for the twin misfortunes of great ambition and elusive free time.

We reached the Treat Farm just as the sun dipped below the surrounding duneland leaving the landscape bathed in peachy, soft light which warmed the greens and blues in the old apple orchard. Mostly killing time, we walked among the old trees, marveling at their tenacity — bearing fruit though nearly hollowed out by time and the elements. There’s a metaphor in there (aside from low-hanging fruit), but I’m betting time holds the key to the words of wisdom these trees offer.

Seeing deer-forged trails through waves of tall grass, we followed in their wake, pausing to admire the pastel sweet peas and the lone pear tree with its sensuous green bells hanging elegantly down. It seemed these pears longed to be admired and perhaps lovingly harvested again. Grasping one in my right hand, it was tempting.

We circled round the still proud farmhouse with its darkened, silent rooms. I climbed the steps, stood on the front porch, and immediately felt the silence of the old house overhead like hands outstretched, cupping the air, catching the scattered words of our mundane conversation. Do old houses miss the sound of idle chatter? Do its floorboards creak in nostalgia for brief reminders of us? I certainly like to think so.

Then, feeling the deep silence of the house seeping perhaps a little too deeply inside us, we headed down the hill to meet the trail to the dunes. We were greeted by an owl silently gliding from her perch in the old pasture to take shelter in the anonymity of the forest. In that strange light of the departed day, black-eyed susans glowed nearly iridescent, giving off sunlight they’d absorbed throughout the long summer day.

At last, we arrived at the steep bluff overlooking the lake. There we found the final remnants of sunset — a blaze of innumerable, inseparable shades of orange, gold, and blue. This was our destination and we had dutifully arrived with predictable punctuality… and yet part of the mission was to wait. Wait here. Wait for the sun to completely disappear. Wait for the stars to silently appear, one-by-one. Wait for the blue above to deepen as the blue below to recedes into shimmering white noise enveloped by darkness.

Waiting for the earth to rotate is like any other task of waiting. We busied ourselves admiring the wild apples precariously perched along the bluff. We sat on the cool sand and stared at the horizon to watch the colors shift in the rapidly changing light. We walked carefully out onto the dune to admire clusters of early asters and the bright white trunks of birches all glowing star-like in the scant remaining light.

And then, because it had been so richly rewarding, we waited a bit more. Along the shoreline far below, distant campfires sprang to life like twinkling orange stars at water’s edge. We saw the big dipper and speculated on the identities of astronomical clusters we thought surely must be named (and pledged to look them up later).

A quick glance at the time and we knew it was time to head back to meet the real guest of honor. Carefully, we tread through the lush darkness of the forest, giggling at the inherent spookiness of it. And then, in the clearing ahead, the full Sturgeon Moon blazed from atop the eastern tree line. Here she was: the guest of honor I’d been waiting years to meet.

Her glow was so bright it stung our eyes as it cast silvery glowing streams of mist over the surrounding pasture. We marveled at our shadows as we walked in the strange beauty of it all.

Nearing a familiar turn in the trail, the owl returned to fly circles near our heads — ever closer but completely silent. We saw her silhouette cross the glowing silver of the moon before retreating to her post in the shadows.

As we walked past the white-washed farmhouse glowing brightly atop the hill in the moonlight, I half-expected to see a glow within it — perhaps a single lamplight near one of the windows — but was partially relieved that I did not. The old outbuildings were like magnets of darkness, drawing in the surrounding shadows while bouncing our voices eerily back to us.

The moonlight gracefully dappled the trail back to the car, but at intervals disappeared behind hills leaving us in complete darkness. We were both a bit afraid… and so we kept talking, each of us in turn like a nervous duet whose carefully notated lines allowed no breaks for silence.

Turning the final bend, the forest canopy opened up and moonlight poured in more brightly than ever. We quit our hurried pace and stood at last in dumb silence. For a moment, I tried considering what it was we had been so unspeakably afraid of. The shadow to my left which seemed to occupy three-dimensional space quickly reminded me some thoughts are better left unspoken.

Then, surrounded by the confines of our car and guided by the familiar road home, we drove along and watched as the moon danced about in the tops of trees. Later that night, in the stupor of half-consciousness, I noticed a wide silver beam of moonlight had drifted across the bed. I smiled and happily returned to my dreams.

in hindsight

30. July. 2022

[Cathead Bay Trails, Leelanau State Park: hike with James, 11:15-12:20pm]

Jason T. McKinney
Jason at Leelanau State Park

The last time we walked this trail, there was six inches of powdery snow on the ground. The trees were bare, and the sun shone through to the forest floor. It was January 1, 2020, and the New Year was full of promise — the vast blank slate always offered by January.

Had we known what was coming, I’m sure we would have still walked the trail — perhaps even more fervently — but I’m sure we would have been so consumed with worry and planning we wouldn’t have had time to marvel at the sheer beauty of that cloudless winter day. Maybe hindsight is a greater gift than foresight?

Today, our feet fell on a much different trail — surrounded by greens and bright explosions of purple, white, and gold wildflowers. Rather than bundling up and bracing against the wind and cold, we slathered ourselves in the summertime sauces of sunblock and mosquito repellant. Seeing these woods at their most alive, in the height of summer, the contrast is nearly unbelievable.

Mud Lake, Leelanau State Park

Mud Lake was fully visible and in full glory with waving cattails and delicate waterlilies. We stood on the shore to take in the fulness of the scene, both of us cataloging the contrasts. In that long ago January, it was impossible to see the lake gleaming white along with the fresh snow and everything it covered. But, now, it was rippling in the breeze and alive.

Tamarack Cutoff

Coming to the woods on a busy summer weekend, we were pressed for time as usual. So, we charted a shorter course by turning at the Tamarack Cutoff. My quadriceps remembered this steep climb into the forest, my eyes the deep ravines running in so many directions — like fire escapes placed haphazardly.

As we reached the thickest part of the forest, where the hemlocks and oaks nearly block out the sky completely, I remembered that walking in these woods feels like walking through the pages of a notebook. The scurrying of eleventy chipmunks and the lushness of the greens, though a stark contrast to the hush and muted nature of winter, still encourage the mind to quietly sift through lines of thought and ideas unexplored. The mind busies itself while the feet dutifully move forward largely unsupervised.

If you’re a nature-loving artist in Northern Michigan, learn how you can collaborate with me in Sanctuary Sketches. Click the link to find the Collaborating Artist Survey.

J.T. McKinney

For the first time in many months, James and I talked about the future — hopes, plans, ambitions bouncing off green boughs. We stopped at the lake overlook to gaze out over the aqua expanse of Lake Michigan. The air was clear enough that we could see the Fox Islands in the distance. In more ways than one, I felt we had come full circle at last. Finally things are beginning to be clearer and we dare to stare ahead again… and to dream.

Lake Michigan Trail, Leelanau State Park

fruits of labor and beauty

14. May. 2017

[Tweddle & Treat Farms, SBDNL: hike with James, 2:30-4:45pm]

Tweddle Farm, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Tweddle Barn

Walking through the tall grass in these fields that have gone fallow, it’s easy to get the sensation of walking in two places at once – the present and the past.  The self-sowing perennials have lived on long past the homesteaders who planted them, continuing their brave march into the increasing wild – poppy, periwinkle, daffodil, forsythia.  What began as a planting for pure beauty has multiplied.  It’s a happy thought: if we can labor for our survival, we can also labor for pure joy, and those may well outlive us far longer than any of our strife for our own mortality.

The outbuildings – gleaming, freshly painted, empty vessels.  What they now hold cannot be seen.  They hold the memories of harvest, daily chores, and an abundance of human and animal emotion.  On this spring day, even the dandelion springing up from the cracked stone walls seems to be trying to convey some message: sunnier days are coming.

Trail to the Treat Farm

We wander the meandering path connecting both farms – a corridor of towering, ancient maples, beech, hemlock, and the hollow ghosts of black ash.  The trees, most of them still in their bud and blossom, were lit by sun streaming from a virtually cloudless sky – turning the buds into sparkling chartreuse gemstones floating all around us on branches too numerous to see.  Meanwhile, the floor of the forest is carpeted with the lush greenery of squirrel corn, violets, trillium, and a host of other wildflowers, all holding up their white, purple, and yellow gems.

Trillium along the Treat Trail

After a long winter, when the songbirds return, we are very nearly deafened by their constant comment.  Chattering along as they were, we know we are not the only ones pleased with this spring’s promises of prosperity and warmth.

At the Treat Farm, we meander through the abandoned orchard with its fossilized apple trees – some with holes clear through their trunks, still managing to commune with earth and sky through the shreds of ancient wood that remain.  These apples must taste heroic!  [We came back in the fall, took two apples, and learned it was true!]

In the backyard we marvel at a thicket of plum trees – filled with more blossoms than there are stars.  Their fragrance must surely still waft through those drafty farmhouse windows into the now silent and abandoned kitchen.  Planted so near the house, these were placed for both beauty and survival.

From the old orchard we walk the trodden path that zig-zags through scrubby grassland, up into the dune forest.  Before realizing it, we reach the very edge of the sand and stare out over the perfectly blue horizon. 

Walking the trail back, retracing our steps, I ponder the heartache that must have come from being forced to abandon all of this, to leave the blossoms and beauty behind.  And before the farmers were ousted, it was the natives who were exiled. So much of what we love about a place is immovable and immortal when compared to us.  But, maybe on the quietest evenings, when the moon illuminates the fields and the air is alive with the sound of crickets, weightless feet wander these paths once more, reconnecting, remembering, enjoying these fruits of labor and beauty.

The Treat Farm

from a visit to Platte Plains

09. September. 2017

[Platte Plains Trail, SBDNL: hike with James, 11:00am-1:00pm]

As our tires left the smooth and measured asphalt and began the uneven, rocky descent of Trails End Road, I realized we were asking a lot of the woods. I always come expecting to take away a sense of comfort, peace, wholeness – all those things. Today, however, we came expecting to lose our sense of hurry.

I wanted countless needles of pine to hide me from the very numbered minutes on the clock. I wanted deep shade and hidden bogs to drown out the march of time, to swallow up the second hand sweeping constantly over our lives, measuring every moment while limiting possibilities. I wanted the forest to shut out time itself, constantly ushering us onward like a tour guide weary of his job now simply going through the motions.

Here it is the end of summer and I’m left with that feeling of regret that follows a season of unexplored possibilities, trails left unexplored in favor of fulfilling responsibilities and obligations. As our feet set upon the padded trail winding deeper fullsizeoutput_2b54and deeper into endless green, I pondered the road not taken and why making that turn at the metaphorical crossroads is harder than we ever imagine.

By the time we were halfway to the Lasso Loop, my mind had stopped its ceaseless questioning. Instead, I admired the green mosses lining the trail, catching the sunlight, practically glowing, lighting the whole way. I walked with James who has been just as busy and preoccupied as myself. I was delighted to turn and see him pausing to admire a variety of exotic-looking woodland mushrooms.

These woods are the most mystical-feeling acres in the national park, in my opinion. While I don’t claim to believe in wood nymphs, faeries, gnomes, etc., walking through these woods you sense a very old and benevolent yet playful presence that encourages such fancies. The greens here sparkle almost golden in sunlight while birds carry on the day’s conversation high above.

The Lasso Loop enchants with steep climbs and descents, guiding you alongside hidden, ancient bogs where countless worries fall away never to rise again, lost in the flurry of cattails, mired in rich muddy loam. Leaving the trail briefly to visit a bog, I realized I’d forgotten all about schedules, timeliness, and hurry. On this trail there is no speed limit or minimum; you won’t be going any faster than your feet can take you. Your heart and mind may come and go as they please.

Rejoining the trail, I became eager to reach the beach. As we got closer, I was amazed not to hear the roar of the wind ripping across the giant lake. Instead, there was only fullsizeoutput_2b57an eerie calm. Making the final ascent up the dune, you would never have known a sapphire wonder awaited on the other side.

The path descending to the beach always feels like a homecoming. A 180-degree sweep of crystalline blue ahead, dune grasses ushering you forward, you suddenly lose awareness of your footsteps. Your feet, lost in the sand, seem to move effortlessly toward the blue beyond.

Suddenly, rather than feeling at the mercy of time, I felt in harmony with it. For once, instead of feeling constantly headed someplace but never quite arriving, here I was at the center of everything. No further to go. Nothing more to see.

We sat on the beach to take in the whole expanse. From this spot, you feel you are at the exact midpoint on the giant arc of Platte Bay. Without a driving wind, the waters lapped at the sand with an unusual reverence while the stillness of the lake surface was like staring into a sky beneath and above all at once.

Gazing at the gentle ripples on the surface, I thought of a harp string suspended with immense tension between the two outer points of the bay. To get the fullest sound from a string, the harpist plucks right at the midpoint and this fullest vibration sets all the surrounding strings into sympathetic vibration. If the hands, while searching for the tune or grappling for the right rhythm, wander too high or too low of the midpoint, the pitch will still be correct, but the tone becomes strained, not as full, and not harp-like.

I’m not sure how long we sat there, staring at the water, finding center. I lost count of how many times we each said aloud, “I can’t believe how clear and calm it is!” I’m also not sure how long it took to make the familiar journey back to the trailhead, passing once again all the day’s fresh discoveries. How much, how long, how many… none of it seemed to matter so much.

I asked a lot of the woods, today, and that’s exactly how much I left behind.