Jan 27 2013 11:14 am

cheap asphalt and tough winters

Soros was late and Frank was nervous. He had parked facing the street and held the steering wheel with his thumb and his four fingers reached across and tapped the dashboard. He kept ducking his head slightly and widening his eyes and looking left and right and then he’d slouch down into his seat and sigh and look at his knees and drum on the bottom of the steering wheel with both hands.

Across the street large airplanes took off and landed with loud roaring noises behind a high chain link fence. The low sun shone through the fence and made intricate warped shadows on the heaps of dirty snow. It was warm for Buffalo in January and the melting snow had concentrated gravel and dirt on top and made everything seem grittier.

There wasn't a patch of unbroken asphalt in the parking lot bigger than a dinner plate. Cracks ran over the whole thing. Frank registered this as something he'd seen before and semi-consciously explained it as a combination of cheap asphalt and tough winters. He had no idea if this was true but it seemed plausible enough and explaining it to himself this way allowed him to leave it behind.

Then finally Soros pulled into the lot and parked next to Frank and got out of his car with a leather shoulder bag and his derby cap, which Frank thought was stupid. He got in Frank’s car and said “Hello, Frank. How are you?”

“I’m fine. I wish you would show up on time though. It makes me fucking nervous.”

“You know how it works, Frank. I have people watch for a while.”

“Well, it makes me fucking nervous. Let’s do this already.”

“You need to relax. I bet your blood pressure is through the roof my friend. I think we should go to get a drink. I want to check in on Black James.” Soros then opened his bag and dug around in it and produced a derby cap identical to the one he was wearing. “I have something for him. He always says he likes my hat.”

Frank drove west toward the city. From his bag, Soros took a shoebox shaped package wrapped in loud birthday themed wrapping paper with a card and a bow taped to the top. He looked into the backseat and then placed the box there. “Money in the glove box?” 

Frank nodded and said, “Yep. Just like always, Soros.”

James lit up when he saw Soros. He thanked him profusely for the hat and bought a round of drinks. He said, “I was going to go ice fishing today but I’m glad I didn’t. Glad I stopped in here. Good timing, huh? How’d you know I was going to be here? Ice is too thin anyway.”

“Does the fish taste better from under the ice, James?” Soros asked, genuinely interested.

“Oh it does. Yes it does. A lot better. Firmer too. Only way to eat fish, really, in my opinion.”

Soros sipped his drink and sat quietly for a minute. Frank sat next to him staring straight ahead. He had finished his drink immediately and wanted to get moving. Soros turned to him and said, “Frank, what do you think about the gun control issue in this country? I mean, clearly if there were no guns, there would be no gun violence, right?”

Frank took a long deep breath and turned to him and said, “Yes. I guess so.” Soros was fond of making arguments that established some extreme position as obvious and then worked back to the claim in question by showing that each step was of arbitrary significance.

“Suppose that it were possible, of course, ignoring practical concerns, of course.”

“Of course,” said Frank.

“And clearly, also, if there were only one thousand guns, in private hands, of course, then there would be less gun violence then at the present moment in this country, correct?”


“How about ten thousand guns? Surely, yes?”


“How about one million? Ten million? Surely there are more than ten million guns at the current time owned by private citizens of this country, yes?”

“I have no idea.”

“The actual numbers don’t matter here, my friend, I’m merely trying to make a point.”

Frank shook his head. “OK. I don’t think any of it matters. Not the facts. Not the points. I think I should probably just get going.”

“You think you should probably get going.” Soros said this quietly almost under his breath. “He thinks he should probably get going.” Soros said this more loudly and turned to James as he said it. “Fine. Get yourself going. I find my own way back.”


comments 35

Nov 27 2012 12:56 pm

mass nouns and the Cartesian stove

I’m going to miss a lot of things in Michigan, but mainly my wood burning stove. I realize there are wood burning stoves in New York too, but I like this one because it’s next to my desk. I like this one because it’s in my small house out in the woods a little bit, close to the lake and the rivers that I was just starting to figure out a little bit, the house with a tamarack in the back yard and big aspens too in the background which you can hear and see in the wind in the summer. They are definitely aspens. The ones right next to the house I think are white birch.

The soil and the sand and the rocks were pushed around here all over the place. They rode giant ice conveyor belts and piled up into big hills over thousands of years. These weird Midwestern mountains are a little surprising when you round the bend and they rise up into the sky over the otherwise flat landscape.

Coming north out of Kaleva, when you make that last hitch around Healy Lake and are headed due north again, that view of the backside of Crystal Mountain is surprising. But the most surprising view is when you’re driving southeast on 115 and crest the last hill past Copemish before you start the descent into Mesick. Here you can get a look at a really big moraine, one that stands every bit of eight hundred feet above the Manistee River valley floor. That’s a lot of relief for around here.

The perched dunes and big bays of the Lake Michigan shoreline in Benzie and Leelanau counties are like a miniature, flat topped fjordland made up of sand and gravel. The Valders ice went north and left these more or less sturdy aspects of the landscape as we find them now. Lake Michigan continued to drop and some of the big bays turned into big lakes like Crystal (9,854 acres), Platte (2,550 acres), Glen (4,871 acrea), Leelanau (8,608 acres), Torch (18,770 acres), and Charlevoix (17,200 acres). If the lakes keep dropping, Grand Traverse Bay (168,320 acres) will soon be a very large inland lake.

The Platte Lake Embayment, the one closest to me, actually has nine total lakes in it. During the Algonquin stage, it was a large bay with several islands made from the tip-top bits of the Platte interlobate moraine.

Once captured entirely by a giant channel of meandering glacial melt water running south from Glen Lake to Manistee, the outwash plains washed out and the Betsie River finally ran north. Now it dumps out near the town of Elberta, where you can find the Cabbage Shed, by far my favorite bar in Benzie County. The Platte River was also partially captured by the Glen Lake Channel, but now it runs northwest too and dumps into Lake Michigan at the southern most point of Platte Bay. There are great views of Sleeping Bear Dunes and South Manitou Island here, and very good silver salmon fishing.

If you want to get in touch with the last ice age you can go to Otter Lake, to the east side of the lake, and look down into the spring hole. That is apparently water welling up from the old Glen Lake Channel. Hugh told me once that he doesn’t like running a boat over that spring hole because he feels like he might get sucked in. Hugh was really nice to me. Hugh is a good guy. 

The salmon and steelhead here are a blip on the geological radar. They don’t really even measure on the human radar. Even the so-called ancient native char are recent invaders from their Mississippian, Atlantic, and Beringian refugia, small lakes where they hunkered down against a wall of ice, literally a wall of ice, pumping glacial flour through their gills, waiting to disperse over thousands of miles and establish themselves in every kettle lake and slough from here to the Yukon.

And yet all these fish seem of a piece with this landscape. A cold river is a cold river and gravel is gravel is gravel.

I have a poker that I can use from here, right from my desk. I’m here at the computer and I can grab the poker, hook open the stove door, poke around in the fire for a few seconds, push the door closed, go back to the computer, and take a sip of bourbon. I shit you not. It’s very gratifying, particularly when there’s snow on the ground, which there is right now.   

My stove is like Descartes’ stove. I don’t ever crawl inside, but it has made me doubt everything. It has made me doubt self-employment and the luxury of making my own schedule. It has made me doubt my lack of routine and the psychological turmoil that it produces. It has made me doubt picking up a part time job to make ends meet. It has made me doubt our political system.

I guess the grass is always greener. But from a few clear and distinct certain principles I am moving forward into said green grass. My stove has been a crucible for radical new ideas like 401k’s, health insurance, and a brand new Ray Nagin, one that’s 200 pounds heavier, a lot whiter, with a different accent, and with a very different relationship to his President.


comments 65

Oct 3 2012 7:52 pm

kill them all

He was a large man with a white beard, I suppose not unlike Santa Claus but less jolly. He wore a new red Tom Raper RV mesh backed baseball hat, a blue flannel shirt, and brand new deep blue denim overalls.

He was a pilot and a flight instructor in single engine airplanes but not anymore. He was also learning how to fly helicopters but then he crashed one during his final lesson to become a certified helicopter flight instructor. He had trouble getting into and out of the boat, perhaps from the helicopter crash. I don’t know that for sure but it seems like it could be true.

It was the end of the day and we were floating down the wide, slow river and the maple trees were yellow and orange and red and there was no wind and we were the only ones on the river and I wasn’t rowing, just drifting and there were some birds singing a little bit and you could hear the water running through some of the log jams and it was warm in the sun.

He had a deep, sonorous voice, a beautiful voice, and he sang softly here and there throughout the day, just little snippets of songs mostly, but as we were slowly drifting down the river at the end of the day through the bright maple trees he started to sing again. He sang out in his full baritone, “Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?” He sang it slowly and it was beautiful. And I’m not exactly what you’d call a spiritual man but a beautiful song is a beautiful song and this guy could sing.

And so we drifted and he sang slowly and Jesus got all the way laid in his tomb and he was just about to get raised up when a big dog came tearing down the far bank barking as loudly and as fearsomely as he could. The man didn’t stop singing and the dog didn’t stop barking. And then someone up on the hill started yelling at the dog to “shut up” and to “get back up here” and he was screaming at this dog and the dog was barking and our man was still singing and it was all quite disorienting and I started to push on the oars a little bit to get us down river.

The man continued to sing and he jumped up an octave to really belt out the last three “trembles” and he held the last one with some vibrato high and loud and the dog was still barking and the person up on the hill was still screaming and I was pushing us faster and faster.

For the last line of the song the man dropped down to his original baritone and sang it slowly and held the last note until it faded to a whisper and then he stopped and it was quiet in the boat but the dog was still barking and the person on the hill was still screaming and I was still pushing the boat down the river.


comments 26

Aug 26 2012 8:03 pm

Todd let mail pile up

Todd let mail pile up. He let it pile up on his kitchen counter, next to his computer, he even let it pile up in the mailbox. Sometimes when he was retrieving the garbage can he would take the mail and throw it directly into the garbage can and wheel it right back into the garage. He’d only pay his bills when someone called him or when the city hung a paper tag on his front door saying that the water would be turned off the next day.

Jason had a brass letter opener and an old clerk’s desk. It sat in the hall just inside his front door next to the coat rack. He brought his mail everyday to this desk and opened all the pieces he had to open with his letter opener and he would file them into the wooden slots inside the desk. They were arranged chronologically; the first slot to the left held the most recently opened pieces of mail. Jason could always tell the difference between junk mail and important mail and he never opened the junk mail by accident. He took this to be a clear indication of how in-tune he was with the world.

Todd and Jason fished together when they could. They were brothers and they were good anglers. But Jason fished with Todd mainly because Todd was his little brother and Jason had certain ideas about how families should interact and one of these ideas was that brothers are supposed to fish together. Todd fished with Jason mainly because he knew his brother thought they should fish together and he felt guilty turning him down.

They fished a small river and took turns rowing. Todd always caught more fish.


comments 28

Jul 30 2012 7:31 pm

gravel and chatter

We saw five or six lake trout or steelhead or coho or maybe big browns working bait against the inside of the break wall in Frankfort a few weeks ago. They were in about four feet of water and they would cruise along tight to the boulders and dart away and then back, occasionally turning on their side and slashing forward in a silver arc. I never saw anything like this in Ludington. I’m sure it happens there too, but I never saw it.

The two lane road from Thompsonville is in pretty good shape and rolls through old pine plantations, stands of big aspen, and some cedar swamps. It’s easy to hit seventy five miles an hour and it’s just long enough, about ten miles from there to here, to tune out. I was using the big dune buggy as a landmark. It sat exactly across the road from my turn. They wanted six thousand dollars for it. Someone must have paid them because it’s gone now. The other day I shot past my turn and hit 31 before I knew anything was wrong.

The roads to the upper Manistee are all gravel, dirt, chatter, and sand wallows. They eat trailer lights, wheel bearings, and license plates. The dust has worked its way into everything on my boat. It’s not easy to love, that river, mainly because it’s hard to get to. The lower Manistee is fine, I guess. It actually has boat ramps and paved roads and lots of smallmouth. But it’s big and everybody rips around it in their sleds like gasoline is going out of style.

I’m having a hard time tearing myself away from the Pere Marquette. Not like I have to, but I feel like I should. Not that I’m some old salt on the PM, far from it, but it only takes getting thrown into something big and intimidating to make me appreciate the human scale and the familiar.

I’ve moved twelve times since 1997. I’m pretty fucking sick of moving. I seem to be circumnavigating some point in Ohio, and not entirely on purpose. At least the last two moves have been in the right direction: north.

I’m still guiding. You should book a trip. I’m also working on a movie about cedar drift boats and mousing for browns with the hardest working guide in Michigan, Center City Philly Croff. Everybody relax.


comments 19