Friday, December 23, 2016

A Christmas Story

A story of 20th Century America, first published in 2011 and now revised to accommodate a fresh perspective on the 21st...

It's said there’re only two seasons in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: winter then a few days during July. And never bet the rent on July.

Flush with the enthusiasm of youth, to an aged local I once proclaimed my desire to live on the Range. With narrow grey eyes the old man drew a hard look down at the presumptuous kid and said, “Well…it's pretty nice up here. Winter’s kinda long, though.”

Undaunted by tall tales, Heather and I decided to see for ourselves. Christmas is for family but just this once we’d go off to the wilderness intent on creating a living gift of memory for just the two of us.

A friend of a friend rented cabins along the Montreal River, outside Ironwood. Arrangements were made.

Though decidedly rustic, nestled in the woods our cabin proved cozy and warm. With a Finnish sauna at our disposal and a waterfall on the river for added ambience, we'd be the only tenants for the duration and were game for winter adventure.

Our host provided snowshoes for use by guests. Temperatures headed lower as we set off downriver beside the Montreal, through skeletal trees over snow covered ground. Apart from the occasional deer track, we blazed trail. It'd already been a long day and after a while, Heather returned to the comfort of the cabin. I pressed forward alone, exhilarated.

In the forest, the blue half-light of winter leaves its mark on the soul. I hiked a fair piece until near dark and spent time upon a log, listening to the trickle of water over ice, the only sound in the world.

I returned to the cabin, path laid plain by the river through the woods, moonlight shining over all.

It was high time for a sauna, which sat maybe 100 feet across pure winter from the cabin. Inside, benches lined the room while tongue & groove cedar made for a tight seal. A metal basket filled with Lake Superior cobbles adjoined a fireplace, already well stoked by our host. A bucket sat next to a spigot. We poured water over hot rock to raise the temperature beyond steady reckoning, then indulged in the physical and spiritual cleansing of a proper Finnish sauna.

Tradition dictates a roll in the snow upon leaving the sauna. Sated with the heat, I left my shoes and clothes for Heather to carry and stepped naked out into a universe of ice beneath shimmering stars. Breath suspended in the frigid air, I hurled myself onto the snow and rolled over exactly once, just about the most deliriously bracing movement of my life.

I yelled, “Goodness gracious!!” (or words to that effect) and actually beat Heather back to the sanctuary of the cabin.

We bundled together to sit awhile, gazing at the wilderness outside our window. The next day was Christmas Eve. We slept like contented children, secure in the knowledge that whatever further gifts winter had in store for us, we’d be on the receiving end come morning.


Snow depth is inconsistent in the forest and travel proved easy. We found Bobcat Lake asleep beneath a blanket of white then pressed deeper through the Ottawa to a high vista over the woods and a creek that meanders through tamarack swamp.

The top of the ridge was covered with animal tracks and at its edge, snow was tamped to a bright sheen. From there a well worn slide ran all the way down the precipice, across the frozen creek below and ended in a black hole of open water in the ice. Thick waterproof fur covering layers of seasonal fat, a pair of otters amused themselves by climbing the long way up the hill, then sliding back down all the way to that hole in the ice.

As a kid, I'd been taught that 'play' was one of the signal things that separates humans from animals. What we don't know about animals is a lot. Hell, what we don't know about us is a lot. Lacking the otter’s fur coat and layers of winter fat if not their sense of play, we soon left them to their games atop that windblown ridge.

Our next stop was the mouth of the Presque Isle River at Lake Superior. County 519 was plowed clear but at the South Boundary Road all such industry ended. Unbroken snow on the road into the park proved that no one had recently preceded us. Icy crust scraped the undercarriage of our battered old Subaru as we made our way in to where the trail leads down to the falls.

All was ice and snow, a world frosted over in white. My beloved river ran high and roily. Most of it pushed angrily beneath a shifting, groaning ceiling of ice. Never had we seen treachery and beauty so freely interwoven. A dangerous river along its lower reaches, the Presque Isle that day invited disaster, as even the slightest misstep meant certain death followed by burial at sea.

We explored thoroughly, if ever careful of our step. The hour grew late. As we hiked back up to our car, a wicked cold wind increased its grip on the wild world. Light flurries turned to moderate snow.

No sooner did we make it out of the park and back onto the easy going of 519 than the car coughed and balked, some seventeen miles from the nearest phone and with winter bearing down hard. We were reasonably well prepared, the backseat piled high with winter clothes just in case. Though the car grew worse with every passing mile, we managed to limp all the way back to Ironwood. Where late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, smack dab in the middle of the region’s only busy intersection, the old Subaru sputtered and died. No amount of coaxing made it start again.

We stood beside the car in the street, feckless and perplexed. The wind grew stronger still and the temperature plummeted. A State Trooper stopped traffic and helped get us out of harm’s way. He stayed with us while we tried to come up with a plan. Time was short, what with the region's slender services shutting down by the minute as people hurried home for their holiday.

Amidst a steady stream of last minute Christmas shoppers, Heather and I worked the pay phones in front of the local Kmart. A car dealer in Hurley stayed open late to provide a tow. A used car lot with the only rentals on the Range agreed to remain open until Heather secured the lone taxi that worked the area to get there. Strangers offered help and advice. Everyone bent over backwards to assure we’d be safe.

The mechanic said he’d never seen a carburetor so badly frozen. Somewhere along the way I’d purchased fuel with excessive moisture content and the brutal weather proved more than the car could withstand. Once thawed they’d fix it, though with the holiday falling on a weekend that wouldn’t be ‘til three days later and a full day after our cabin was spoken for by others.

Still, everyone agreed that had the car died just an hour before it did, there was no telling how or whether we’d have made it out of the woods alive.

Heather arrived at the mechanic's driving a well-used, mid-seventies land yacht; a lifeboat to us. We guided the beast back to our Christmas cabin. Here our host offered us the comfort of his mother’s home for the additional night, as she was away for the holiday.

We’d made reservations at a local ski lodge for Christmas dinner. Warm in the cabin and bathed in relief over a narrow escape, we made ready for our big date.

Outside, things continued to deteriorate.

In the woods it’s sometimes tough to tell just how bad the weather is. Full dark when we left the cabin, we’d traveled only a bit when we realized we were again adrift on the storm. This time in seventeen degrees below zero with a forty-five mile an hour wind hurling snow every which way through a world of howling fury.

Out on the highway, visibility proved nil. The red glow of brake lights flickering through a whiteout brought us to a halt. A four car pileup had the road completely closed. Emergency crews were at the scene. We sat and waited, land yacht rocking side to side in the wind, heater pumping to the max.

Discretion finally recognized as being the better part of valor, I doubled back and picked my way through side streets towards Hurley, hoping to find refuge on Christmas Eve.

There was a restaurant in Hurley called Walter’s Café, one of the periodic attempts to bring fine dining to the Range. Things being what they are it didn't last and that's a long time gone now. But on that night so many years past, the windows on Walter’s Café glittered festively and inside two winter weary travelers were served a Christmas feast for which Walter should forever be proud.

When we left the Café, a full moon hung in the sky south of Hurley, while just to the north roared the Beast. The Superior snow machine was on full bore. Beyond the woods the demarcation between comfort and risk stood plain in the night. We returned to our cabin and spent the last of Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire, music of the season playing softly, a bit of fine wine and gifts exchanged between us. Outside, winter raged.

In the best tradition of the northwoods, no one is a stranger in time of need and all folk are neighbors, never more so than when thrown to the mercy of the wild. That year, two hapless tourists could hardly have been more grateful for gifts so freely given.

If the most precious gift of all is giving and Christmas is the special season set aside for that, then we were made rich that Christmas Eve.


Over the decades since then, America seems to have been made cruel. Never more so than today, when it's widely acceptable to mock tenderness for weakness, treat compassion as the province of fools and when so many of us embrace righteous meanness as if that could ever be a proper aspect the American character.

I believe different. I believe as I was first taught and as life went on to teach me, that if Americans are at all a special breed it's in no small part because as a nation of immigrants each of us or our kin have all, at one time or another, been strangers to this great land. And none of us would be here today but that each successive generation in turn received some sort of helping hand from those who came before.

What's true is that for America to actually be that shining city on a hill we so like to brag on, we must every day work collectively to create a lasting light that illuminates the miserable universe of human darkness.

Otherwise we'll all face winter alone and stuck on thin ice, at the mercy of the storm…


  1. If I were as tough, yet humble as you, I might survive such extremes. Instead I can only deeply admire your spirit and humanity. May peace and happiness surround your every breath, and love guide your steps in this rugged yet fragile condition we call life.

  2. I'm reminded of the classic Jimmy Cagney line at the end of 'The Public Enemy' -- "I ain't so tough." Thank-you, David. For your kind words, good wishes and most of all, for your generosity of spirit. If I've learned one thing from the Odyssey, it's how profound is the generosity of spirit in most people, especially the poor or otherwise undervalued. Maybe it's because circumstances have required them to surpass grasping, I dunno. But I'm persistently humbled by the generosity I've encountered throughout my travels. My best wishes always, friend.

  3. Nice piece, Frank -- both the prose and the photography. But that's no surprise.

    The only surprise is an oversight: "He stayed with us while we tried to come up a plan." You can "come up a plan" all you like, Frank. But I'd much rather you came up WITH one. :-)


    1. Fixed. Thank-you, Russell. You know it's true of writers/editors what they say of Doctors who treat themselves...