Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Apple Butter 17

Every year since their wedding, our friends Janine and John have held an “Apple Butter Festival” to commemorate their anniversary. I am ashamed to say that it has taken Pam and I seventeen years to finally attend. I was a little nervous knowing what a big event this was and that I was coming in seemingly as a stranger. It ended up being an awesome time for both Pam and I.

It’s said that ritual is an aspect of culture that helps to bring people together and Apple Butter is just such a ritual. The entire weekend is centered around a large copper kettle that contains the ingredients of this amazing concoction. The kettle is propped up by a steel tripod, which suspends the works over a smoky wood fire. The blend in the kettle must be stirred constantly to keep the mixture from burning and everyone in attendance takes a turn to keep the butter churning. This year the pot started cooking at 11:00 a.m. and went until about midnight before the mixture was declared to be “done.”

While the fire and the kettle were the center point of the festivities, there were many ancillary activities that occurred around the focal point. The younger attendees kept themselves busy with football, soccer, ping pong and a variety of other games. There was a tie-die station, an arts and crafts table and, of course, lots of food. It seems that all who attend bring something for the table so there was a wealth and variety of delicious sustenance. It was all so good and it was difficult to pace myself during the day. Other distractions included hay-rides, a water bottle rocket launching competition, glow sticks, and the company of some really cool people. It was great for Pam to see her old friends again and I really enjoyed meeting Janine and John’s family and friends. A truly nice group of people.

Sometime after midnight, Janine began to test the ingredients in the kettle to see if they were ready. Once they got to the right consistency, she added the spices and the butter continued to be turned over the open fire. When everything had a good chance to merge together, the fire was removed and the butter was parceled into small jars. Everyone there devoted themselves to the production of bottling the apple butter, helping with the pouring, wiping the jars, putting on the lids and sorting the jars out on two tables. It was quite a production. I’m not sure how many jars they ended up with but there had to be at least a couple hundred.

After the apple butter was set aside, the fire was restored to the fire pit and we sat around listening to the lids of the jars contract as a vacuum was created within. The popping sound the jars made was an interesting contrast to the cool country night. We sat up for a while before retiring to our tent the catch a few winks.

In the morning, everyone chipped in the break down the little village that had emerged out in the field around where the apple butter was cooking. We got our share of the apple butter, said our goodbyes and headed for home. During our drive, we reminisced about how much fun Apple Butter 17 was and promised ourselves that we would attend again.

Thanks for a great time Janine and John and happy anniversary. See you next year.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I love my Corgi dogs!!!!

A picture is worth a thousand words.
Here's a few from our camping trip.

An American Exile: If a deer poops in the woods…(conclusion).

So, we returned home in our own sweet time and brought a conclusion to our journey. What began as an exile, in the negative sense of the word, actually turned out to be a healthy time away from what was–up to that time–a very stressful time in my life. We had planned on a grand adventure to an area of the country that Pam and I were both eager to see and failed in our original intention. What emerged was a voyage of surprise and a passage through a stream of personal emotion. The fresh air, the sites we saw, the time away from everything provided for an interesting contrast to the gloomy backdrop we had come to find ourselves against.

Our return marked that it was time for us to stop looking backwards and to start looking forward. This was the first time since in the nineteen years Pam and I have been together that we have not been involved with the beginning of the school year in some form or fashion. Remarkably, the current situation was not much different from the time right after graduate school when it seemed our calling in art was so far away. It was reassuring to know that, like then, we would find fabulous opportunities that would guide us through the next several steps of our careers.

I thought back over our travels and recalled those memories that would seemingly stick with me now that we had completed our trip. I remembered the sound of the falls at Presque Isle and how entranced I was by the traveling waters. I remembered Quinn’s celebration of the new larger tent with laps that were punctuated by him throwing himself into the nylon corners in order to make the 90-degree turns. The sight of this from the outside of the tent was hilarious as the whole structure would shake and jiggle. I recalled trying to sleep in the minivan with Pam, Pam’s cot and three restless corgis during a wind-driven thunderstorm. I reminisced about the eerie feeling of loneliness I had walking back from a night shoot at the falls in pitch-blackness. Despite feeling alone, however, it was hard not to imagine all of the things that could be lurking in the dark just outside of the beam of my flashlight. I thought about how stressful and how fun it was to spend so much time alone with Pam and my three beautiful corgis. There was the thrill of seeing the beauty of the Upper Peninsula, the sunsets and sunrises, the many waterfalls, a full rainbow in the middle of a thunderstorm, and the sheer awesomeness of Pictured Rocks. There were the sustaining elements of free wi-fi at the occasional McDonald’s, the amazing fire pit grill I was given years before, the warmth of a snuggly dog on a cool night, and, of course, the cinnamon rolls at the Falling Rock Café.

There we many memorable aspects to our journey but one phenomena that seems to really stand out has to do with the wildlife we encountered. There were prairie dogs, bison, elk and numerous birds and waterfowl but it is my encounters with the deer that sticks in my mind. On one of my hikes through the Porcupine Mountains, I stopped to photograph the rushing waters of the river that ran parallel to the trail. Kippie waited patiently while I took my pictures. After I finished, I grabbed Kippie’s leash and stood up to see three white-tail deer in front of me. Kippie was oblivious. I marched towards them softly, camera in hand and was amazed at how calm they were. They stood and watched me as intently as I watched them and then, the one closest to me took on a strange pose as it stared in my direction. I couldn’t believe it! This deer was taking a crap right in front of me. After the deer scampered off into the woods, I couldn’t wait to tell Pam and show her my prize picture. This had to be some sort of sign! Pam humored me and assured me that seeing a deer take a dump in the woods was not that big of a deal. I insisted this had to be some sort of a sign…what was that deer trying to tell me?

Almost a week after the pooping deer incident, Pam and I took a long hike to the Lake Superior shoreline at Chapel Rock in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. As we were hiking back, trying desperately to make it back to our car before the sunset, Pam stopped me along the trail. She pointed to a deer, not far from us just off the trail. I raised my camera to my eye and stealthily approached the deer. As the deer moved, I moved and Pam whispered at how beautiful a creature this doe was. As I quietly pursued the deer, it stopped and took a crap. “Holy shit,” I thought to myself, “two pictures of two deer pooping in the woods.” This really had to mean something! As I continued following the animal, I remembered Walter Hastings and began assaulting this poor deer with my flash…just to say I did it. This finally encouraged my friend to head of deeper into the woods. I turned to Pam and said; “See? What are the odds of that happening twice?” Pam admitted that it was odd, but left speculation as to the message of the “deer gods” to me.

While I am still pondering these encounters, I have yet to determine their true meaning. Were the deer telling me not to be afraid, to “crap in the face of danger”? The deer’s irreverence was unmistakable. Were they telling me that you just have to do what you have to do? Was it a message of vulnerability they were sharing with me? I was confused. As I tried to decipher this message in the context of my entire journey, I pondered my situation. Perhaps the antlered deities were re-assuring me that it was okay to be on unemployment, maybe they were telling me not to take it personally that I was replaced by someone nearly half my age with a quarter of my experience. Maybe they were simply encouraging me to reclaim some of my earlier irreverence and to be true to myself instead of being someone living a charade. It was hard to narrow down exactly what I should take away from this experience…besides pictures.

Deer poop aside, this was an excellent adventure that was a much needed distraction from the worries of my life. It was a great chance to think, to fill my experience with amazing scenery, and it gave me the opportunity to find a way to feel better about my situation. I looked at this as an exile but it turned out to be a wonderful encounter. This exile gave me the chance to rework my understanding of the American dream and I made new connections to my work and my life. All-in-all, not a bad deal. I was refreshed and now ready for new adventures. An American exile would become my dream…a dream that will sustain me for the second half of my life. Wish me luck!

Friday, September 24, 2010

An American Exile: Let sleeping bears lie!

After three days of exploring the Pictured Rocks area, it was time to start making our way back home. We broke down our camp, made one more stop at the Falling Rock Café, and headed east. We made a plan to go to Whitefish Point on the way, so we headed in that direction.

During the day we zigzagged along county roads and arrived at the Whitefish Point Lighthouse just as the sun was going down. Maybe it was the extra cups of coffee and the cinnamon rolls we had at the café, maybe it was the extra scenic stops along the way, or maybe it was our sense of not being in a hurry but it seemed as though we mistimed this particular stop on our adventure. Pam really wanted to make a stop at Whitefish Point because of the beach and the numerous dead wood that seemed to wash up there. This spot, where Lake Superior narrowed into the straits, was littered with bleached ghosts of former trees…a pretty impressive sight really.

Pam was a little disappointed that we missed this opportunity so I devised a plan to stay there overnight. We headed to the nearest town where we were met by an 8-foot sculpture that included the greeting “Welcome to Paradise.” It was fitting that our greeter was a chain saw hewn bear in full hunting garb complete with a shotgun. Paradise???...Okay I’ll buy it!

We spent the night at the Vagabond Motel where I was beginning to be overwhelmed by the irony of this particular layover. After nearly two-and-a-half weeks on the road, we finally got to sleep in a real bed. We showered, we snacked, had some libations and rested our bones. Oddly enough, I had trouble sleeping and was glad to get going the next day.

After spending some time at Whitefish Point, we moved south and then east towards Sault Ste. Marie. I was determined to see the locks of the Soo so I could cross that particular item off my list of things to do. We got to see two incredibly gigantic cargo vessels pass through the storied locks. It was a very cool thing to see!

As we continued south towards Michigan’s lower peninsula, we chased some very dramatic thunderstorms. It was ironic, I thought, that we started out being chased by the weather and now, I was hunting it. This made for an interesting drive and some interesting photographs. We arrived late to our destination and set up camp at the D.H. Day campground in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I could tell Pam was tired because she strongly questioned why we were going to a “day camp.” This was perhaps, a flashback to her days at the Arts Camp.

The next couples of days were pretty uneventful as we explored the dunes, relaxed on the beach and hung out at the campsite. I was a little sad knowing that our adventure would soon be coming to an end but I was also excited to get back to things and start moving forward. I knew that I would not return the same person as when I left. As the momma bear of the legend had ended her journey on the shores of the Leelenau Peninsula, so too would I.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An American Exile: Screw the elements…and while I’m at it, screw you too!

After a week in the Porcupine Mountains, Pam and I headed east again. While we enjoyed the beauty of the area and the many waterfalls, we were really looking forward to seeing the amazing features of the Lake Superior shoreline in the Pictured Rocks area. We drove to the Bay Furnace campsite in Christmas, Michigan and set up camp once more.

On the first day, we took some time to set up our campsite, do some laundry and, again, recharge all of our batteries. We found a great little coffee place in Munising called the Falling Rock Café, plugged in and grabbed some great coffee. While we were waiting for laundry and waiting for batteries we got a pasty…Michigan’s strange version of a calzone. That was interesting but the cinnamon rolls were out of this world. For the next several days, we would spend lots of time here, drinking coffee, using the Internet and pouring through the stacks of old books in their collection.

I found a strange old book their called Hunting with a Flashlight and a Camera. Looking through the pictures in this book, I was reminded of some of the photographs in the Hastings Nature Museum at Interlochen. Walter E. Hastings was somewhat of a naturalist who hunted with his camera. The pictures he took of deer with a strobe flash always amused me. The clash of nature and technology was never so obvious and the resulting “deer in the headlights” images were far too much to bear without a chuckle.

Over the next few days we explored the Pictured Rocks area. Pam drew and painted some more and I hiked and photographed like crazy. It seems I was really in a groove and my creative drive had clearly stuffed all of my anxiety way down into a deep place. I was feeling something I hadn’t felt in a while...optimism. I could clearly feel that becoming an artist again was a process that was going to see me through this transition.

I think the sign that things had finally started to turn was that the weather was not bothering me anymore. I was driven to make more work, my vision was becoming more focused, I was really starting to feel a sense that I was in control and I reveled in being out in the elements. This exile of mine had turned from something oppressive to a journey of transformation. I could feel the victim in me fading away and I could feel my confidence re-emerging. No, the weather wasn’t bothering me at all. In fact, I was feeling irreverent. “Screw the elements,” I reminded myself…”and while I’m at it screw you too!” I felt my old self a little bit, ready to kick ass and take names later. But that would have to wait. First, I had some art to make.

An American Exile: Going Off The Grid

We could only stay at our site in the Union Bay campground for two days as the busy Labor Day weekend was approaching and there were lots of reservations. We decided that we would pick up and head to the other end of Porcupine Mountains State Park to the more remote campgrounds near the Presque Isle waterfalls.

Overnight, the rain had started, was heavy at times and continued intermittently through the morning. Our tent was soaked and, once we ventured outside, we found that it was sitting in a gigantic puddle. I was surprised at how little this bout of weather was affecting my spirits. We had some coffee, some oatmeal, broke camp, and took hot showers before heading to our next location.

When we arrived at the Presque Isle campground there was only one sight that was available through the long weekend. We took it, staked out our site and set up our wet tent. By this time it had stopped raining but there was definitely more coming. We unloaded what we could out of the van and into the tent and set up a strategy for the weekend. It was Thursday and the weather seemed as though it was going to be iffy until Saturday. We would head into the nearest town to do laundry, re-stock our supplies and recharge our batteries–literally, we were running low on power and would be in our remote location for four days.

During our re-stock, we stopped in Walmart and decided on a new, larger tent. Our current tent was a little tight, especially with the two cots, three corgis and Pam’s new stool (her souvenir from North Dakota). We found a great tent that gave us lots of room….We could sleep without touching the sides, we could stand up to change our clothes, and we could get out of Quinn’s way when he decided to run amok. Our new purchase along with fresh supplies, clean clothes and recharged batteries for all of our devices put us in pretty good spirits as we headed back to the campsite. Our strategy would be to sleep in the van so that we wouldn’t have to deal with the weather…what a smart choice that turned out to be!

Through that night and the next day there was lots of rain and the wind was steadily picking up. We pretty much stayed in the van all day, having set it up like a lounge with pillows, blankets and our folding chairs. Hunkering down and blowing off the entire day like that was relaxing and gave me the chance to clear my mind by doing some NY Times crossword puzzles…an activity that I find soothing and stimulating all at once.

As the sun went down and the wind picked up, I noticed that the sunset was going to be fantastic. I grabbed my camera and headed to the beach to take advantage. When I got to the bottom of the long wooden staircase, I was floored to see Lake Superior take on the character of the ocean. The light was beautiful, the waves were big and angry and crashing on the rocks. This was awesome!

We had picked a spot where we were off the grid…no cell phone coverage, no Internet, no electricity…and it was beautiful here. I hardly noticed the rain in my excitement of the moment and felt an overwhelming sense of my surroundings. As I photographed, I worked my way down the beach to the mouth of the river, then, as the light faded, I worked my way up the path that ran next to the river. By the time I made it back to the campsite it was completely dark and my shoes were soaked but I didn’t care because I had such a great time chasing the light and taking pictures. I started to realize that maybe this was why I was in “exile.”

By the time the weather broke it was Saturday. I spent the rest of the weekend hiking through the many trails around the falls and taking pictures. I was feeling really great, getting lots of exercise and making lots of great photographs. Quinn and Kippie accompanied me on many of my various hikes and helped me to explore the area around the falls. It was great to have time to myself, to be able to think clearly and not feel stressed. Pam spent her time drawing at various locations and hanging out with Oonie.

I seemed to find some strength in the beauty and power of the many falls and cascades that dominated the landscape. The Ojibwa had called this area kaugabissing, "the place of the porcupines," and I remembered that the porcupine was seen as a symbol of gentle innocence and trust. I pictured myself as a porcupine, donning a fierce exterior complexion but possessing a soft underside…my enigma, as it were. This was my strategy for dealing with the world, for keeping people at arm’s length…my protection. The porcupine’s quills are stout protection from many predators except the kingfisher. Pam and I learned at Sullys Hill Nature Preserve in North Dakota, that the kingfisher was the one hunter who knew to attack the porcupine from its soft underbelly. The method of my recent demise started to make sense and I began to put it all in perspective. I had fallen victim to a clever predator. Perhaps I would have to re-evaluate my defenses.

Regardless of this rationalization, I was off the grid and feeling safe. This part of the Upper Peninsula was a great place in which to find distraction and sort things out in my head. The disappointment and peculiarity of the previous week…even the previous months…started to fade away and, though we didn’t make it to our planned destination, I felt that we had found a great place to hide.

Friday, September 10, 2010

An American Exile: A Break in the Weather

So, we headed east with our sick vehicle. When you know your transmission could go at any moment, every mile is an adventure. We briefly stopped in Grand Forks, North Dakota to visit some friends…a nice distraction from our troubles. We walked the dogs by the river before heading out of town and I took some night photographs by the bridge.

It rained most of the time we were driving back towards Michigan. We slept in the car at a rest stop because I really just wanted to get somewhere and plant myself for a little bit. I was getting tired of so much transition. We didn’t really know where we were going, just that we wanted to at least get to the Upper Peninsula so that if something did happen to the van, I could get to the truck without too much trouble. By Tuesday afternoon, we had put a pin on the map in the Porcupine Mountains. We would head there and camp for a few days. We headed for the east end of the park towards Union Bay campground.

When we arrived, we booked a site for two days. It was a modern campground, which meant electricity, flush toilets and showers. We lucked out and were able to get a spot right on the shore of Lake Superior. Gradually, we pulled apart our still damp gear and set up camp. Pam and the corgis were especially happy to get out of the car and we looked forward to relaxing. We cooked a hot meal, took showers, and reorganized our stuff.

On Wednesday, the sun was shining, it was warm and we had a great view. Finally, something was going right for us. The five of us hung out on the rocks next to the shore and basked in the sun. The warmth was amazing and it seemed to breath life into my spirits. In the afternoon, we drove around the park and took in some of the beauty of the natural environs of the U.P. This was the distraction we had been looking for. There was finally a “break in the weather.”

An American Exile: Defeat

From Devil’s Lake we continued west along US 2 to Minot. We were soggy from the rain and half our stuff was strewn across the back of the van in a useless effort to try and dry out. The trip was gloomy with dark clouds and more rain and the high humidity made everything we touched damp.

Once we reached town, we headed for Ron’s Transmission & Auto Repair. The shop was a dingy, greasy garage that was strewn with cars, parts and dirty equipment. Ron was a quiet sort who jumped right in to our problem with concern. He had Pam start the car and pulled out the transmission stick. He touched the stick with his left forefinger and thumb, rubbed them together and mumbled something about the fluid. He smelled the fluid, rubbed some more on his fingers, smelled, rubbed…I’m not sure but think he might have tasted it too. Anyway, after a pretty careful deliberation he blurted out: “yup, it’s burnt all right!” I stared at the sharply bent brim of his cap hoping to get a glimpse of his eyes…hoping for some clue that this wasn’t a big deal and we could continue on our trip. Sadly, all I got was that the transmission was definitely going to “go” at some point, could be ten miles, could be ten thousand miles but it was definitely going to “go” at some point. He suggested that we fill the transmission up with fresh fluid (it was low from our little incident) and hope for the best. While he performed this task, Pam and I both used the bathroom, trying desperately not to touch ANYTHING.

Later, we found little solace at Buffalo Wild Wings, one of our favorite spots to stop. We could feel the defeat and that feeling ran deep. Pam and I sat there solemnly eating hot wings and trying to figure out what we were going to do. We were both really edgy at this point. A week of traveling with what seemed like no ups and mostly downs, contending with the elements, and putting up with each other. With all that had been going on, this seemed almost like too much to bear. We were beaten and still waiting for the other shoe to drop. We decided to head in the direction of home, knowing that we could not return to the place we were staying for two more weeks, knowing that our transmission could seize up at any minute. Given our situation, we did the only thing we could do at that moment and headed back towards Michigan hoping that the minivan would make it. It was almost as if we were being forced back to the very thing we were running from in the first place. We limped back towards home knowing that there was no home.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

An American Exile: Paul Bunyon Was A Loser!

The next couple of days of our journey became kind of a blur. We headed out of Michigan (finally!) and made our way through Wisconsin before stopping for an overnight somewhere in Minnesota. Pam, the corgis and I seemed to be settling into a road rhythm of sorts…driving, pit stops, sightseeing and the occasional wrong turn. Pam stopped at a cheese shop in Wisconsin for cheese curds or “squeaky cheese” as she terms them. Before heading into North Dakota, we stopped in Bemidji to see their Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox statues. They were incredibly folksy-looking and we did the usual tourist pictures…with the dogs included of course.

As we wandered around the adjacent Indian outpost, I thought about how Paul Bunyon was a great American folk hero and how I could incorporate him into the tale of my life as I made this trek. Once we were on the road again, I mentioned my plans to Pam and insisted that I needed to read the Paul Bunyon stories again to refresh my memory. “He lost!” she blurted and continued to fill me in on some of the details. I immediately realized that this was a bad omen. How could I embrace an American hero who lost by inches. It was almost as if I would have to concede that I had come so close only to be set back to square one.

So, I set out to learn a little about this folk hero and his sturdy blue companion. To make a bad feeling worse, I learned that Paul Bunyon was probably more of a marketing ploy than a character that had developed out of the lore of this area of the country. My optimism sunk as I realized the symbolism of this discovery. Here I was struggling through an American experience, looking for insight, looking for hope, looking for inspiration and I was slapped down by a fiction of our long capitalist system. Marketing is one of the things that is really wrong with this country. We spend so much time, energy and money in creating the impression of how things are instead of really making things right. The banking system is completely fucked up, taking money from the government and then throwing people out of their homes yet there are more bank commercials than ever painting some rosy picture of the services they provide. BP fucks up an entire ecosystem and then spends millions and millions to improve their image instead of going the extra mile to really make things right. Maybe this is the result of capitalist competition or maybe it’s because of TV and the Internet but why do we, as a country, allow ourselves to be scammed in this way and why do we embrace marketing as such an important part of our culture. Marketing is a form of lying and there is way too much falsity nowadays.

Anyway, after this revelation, I had a strange feeling hanging over me. We headed through North Dakota approaching Devil’s Lake. We would stop for a peek but then would continue towards Montana. Our plans, however, were abruptly interrupted by a smoking car and a swift turn to the shoulder of the highway. I had a flashback to earlier days when I jumped out of my 1972 Camaro only to find the rear wheel on fire. There was a moment of panic as Pam popped the hood and I looked inside to see where the smoke was coming from. No fire, thank God, but there was oil all over the engine. We reached out to AAA as we realized we were in the middle of nowhere. As we hooked up the minivan, the conclusion was some sort of problem with the transmission but there were signs that this wasn’t too bad. We straggled into Devil’s Lake considering our prospects for answers at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday evening. We would have to hold up here for a while and possibly reconsider our plans. At least we have the luxury of time.