One of the many gifts my wife brought to our marriage was a generations-long family tradition of spending summers in Pentwater, Michigan. If I were, like a true Michigander, to hold up the back of my left hand as a map of Michigan’s mitten-shaped lower peninsula, I would point to the outside knuckle at the base of my little finger, to show where Pentwater is located, on the eastern side of Lake Michigan, between Muskegon and Ludington.
Pentwater was established in the years after the Civil War as a lumbering and furniture making center. There is still some manufacturing in town, but now the lovingly maintained Victorian homes from that earlier time are mostly occupied by retirees. The village’s main street runs parallel to the Lake Michigan shoreline, and perpendicular to Pentwater Lake, which connects to the big lake through a channel. Along the Lake Michigan shoreline north of channel outlet is Mears State Park beach. Our cottage is in the woods about a mile north of the state park.
In Pentwater, we are “off the clock,” both figuratively and literally. Solar time governs daily activities. The day begins at sunup, with a walk through the woods into the village, along the channel, and out to the signal beacon at the end of the channel breakwater. From that vantage point, the beach curves away, about 20 miles north to Big Sable Point, and about 10 miles south to Little Sable Point. The vast expanse of the lake spreads far beyond the horizon, to Wisconsin, 60 miles away. The lake bottom close into shore is only a few feet deep. But a couple of miles out, the lake is over 500 feet deep, and a little further north the lake is nearly a thousand feet deep. Lake Michigan is big –its surface area is about the same size as West Virginia. Arching over it is the vast blue dome of the sky.
Sheboygan, Wisconsin is directly across on the other side. The good people of Sheboygan are revered in our house, as — according to assurances we provided our children when they were small — at sunset the faithful citizens of Sheboygan catch the sun before it falls in the lake, and then using means both secretive and mysterious, transport the sun back around to the Michigan side of the lake in time for sunrise the next morning.
At midday, the noon whistle in the village sounds, which means it is time to take the bicycles out from under the cottage. We ride out Park Street, past the volunteer fire department, past the library, past the school, and out across the Pentwater River into the countryside. The road traverses a short stretch of the Manistee National Forest, and then rolls out into fields of corn, orchards, pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms. As a lifetime city dweller, it is always a little bit of a surprise to me how close the countryside is.
In the afternoon, we pull the kayaks out from behind the dunes and down to the water’s edge. These are the open cockpit, flat bottom kind of kayaks. They are more stable in the lake’s choppy water. When our kids were small, we would have point-to-point races and distance challenges, but these days I prefer a more leisurely paddle along the Lake Michigan shoreline, or through the channel and into Pentwater Lake. It always strikes me how out on the water, even just a couple of hundred feet offshore, the trees, houses and people back on shore look so small and the lake seems so immense. I suppose that is the reason we go on vacations, to get that kind of perspective. From a distance, all those problems that loom so large can seem so small and unimportant.
As I paddle along, the small boy in me comes out, and I imagine that I am a voyageur, looking for natives with whom to trade for pelts and furs. Actually, the presence of natives is not such a stretch. A prized photograph in my wife’s family’s archives shows her great-grandmother standing on the beach, next to a Native American on a pony. (The presence of the Native American has never been fully explained to me). One of the most interesting features of the photograph is the appearance of the hills in the background. Today the hills are thickly wooded with huge, mature trees, but in the picture the hills are as bare as the face of the moon. The trees were cleared as lumber to help rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire. The wood from the first cut of the virgin forest is still so highly prized that today salvage crews retrieve sunken lumber from shipwrecked boats entombed in the icy depths of the lake’s bottom.
After kayaking, it is time for a swim. My experience with lake swimming prior to first coming to Lake Michigan had been uniformly unpleasant, involving algae-laden brown water and muddy lake bottoms. Swimming in Lake Michigan is an entirely different experience. The lake bottom and shore line are covered with fine, white sand. The vast freshwater reservoir itself is a parting gift of retreating glaciers. The water remains generally clear and clean and refreshing. In the last century, the lake has endured a number of insults – industrial pollution, farm runoff, and invasive species. It is a wonder that the lake is as healthy as it is. We all have a stake in maintaining its health. We can live without oil but we can’t live without water, and the Great Lakes together contain over 20% of the world’s fresh water. A late afternoon swim is a compelling reminder of water’s restorative power.
When the kids were smaller, we would all gather for dinner at the large dining table in our cottage – our kids, my brother-in-law’s kids, and my wife’s cousin’s kids. A hungry, tumultuous mob. We would have barbecued chicken, corn on the cob and green beans from the Farmers’ Market, and fresh bread baked in the wood-fired clay oven my brother-in-law and the kids built next to his cottage a few summers ago. (For obscure reasons, the clay oven is referred to as “Bob.”) We also have local fresh fruit – cherries, apricots, melons, and blueberries. Among the many gifts my wife brought to our marriage is a particular talent for transforming blueberries into delicious treats – blueberry pie, blueberry crisp, blueberry cobbler, blueberry muffins, and more.
We pick the blueberries ourselves at Hayes Farm, out beyond the Driftwood Golf Course (nine holes for ten bucks. If no one’s there, you put your money in a coffee can by the first tee. Just make sure to bring a sand wedge.). With the kids working as conscripted labor, we can harvest many buckets of blueberries in a short time. The farm owners encourage pickers to eat blueberries while picking, which is part of the pleasure. The smaller, sweeter Jersey blueberries are better for baking. The larger, juicier Bluecrop blueberries are better for eating fresh, or for freezing. We put together dozens of freezer bags of the berries, so that in February, we can have the blueberries on oatmeal, like sweet purple marbles of preserved summer sunshine.
On Thursday evening, there is a band concert in the bandstand on the village green. Families gather and sit on blankets or folding chairs, and little kids run around playing chase games or eating ice cream cones from the House of Flavors ice cream parlor across the street. My own kids used to like to sit in the branches of a big maple tree behind the bandstand, but two years ago the maple was struck by lightning and they had to remove the rest of the tree. The band members run from their mid-teens to their mid-80s. They play a medley of tunes, including marches, college fight songs, and patriotic melodies. For example, the band might play the Wisconsin fight song, the official words of which, I am informed and believe, are: “On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin, We don’t know the words.”
The highlight of the concert is when the band plays “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which features a crowd-pleasing piccolo solo. Out in front steps a little girl no bigger than your thumb. With presence and aplomb, she plays the solo as if she were the designated herald for the dawning of the new age.
After the concert, the thing to do is to walk up Hancock Street to the Antler Bar. The Antler Bar looks exactly like you’d expect a place in rural Michigan called the Antler Bar would look. There is a big set of antlers on the wall behind the bar, and several other sets on the other walls. The walls are also covered with sports memorabilia. Like all right-thinking people everywhere, the management of the Antler favors the University of Michigan. (The Village Pub up the street favors Michigan State. We do not patronize The Village Pub – even though it does have a cool outdoor terrace with a view of Pentwater Lake). For the boating crowd, the Antler serves upmarket draft beers like Stella Artois and Guinness, but the thing to do is to order a longneck Bud, and then drop a quarter in the jukebox. You can play any song you like, as long as it is by Bob Seger.
Because Pentwater is on the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone and so far north, it doesn’t get dark there until quite late. In late June and early July, the sun doesn’t set until about 9:30 pm, and it isn’t completely dark until almost 10:45 pm. Even after a round or two in the Antler, the sun will likely still be above the horizon. Walking home along the beach, we can watch the sun set. As the sun sinks slowly toward the horizon it casts a cascade of colors across the western sky; and the orange, reds and yellows of the sunset give way to purples, blues and greens after the sun has gone down. After sunset, a small gesture of appreciation for the good people of Sheboygan always seems appropriate. All hail the citizens of Sheboygan, faithful Stewards of the Sun.
When darkness has finally gathered, the sky reveals a brilliant display of stars. Because there are no nearby metropolitan areas, the stars are uncommonly clear. The Milky Way is a broad smear of stars arching across the sky. In August, when the skies are clear, we go down to the beach with blankets and lay on our backs to watch the Perseids meteor shower. The shooing stars arch across the sky about one a minute or so. At times the shooting stars appear so frequently that it can feel as if you are the one that is falling.
In mid-August, the village hosts its annual Homecoming celebration. There are games and prizes on the village green, a sand-castle contest on the state park beach, and a Coast Guard water rescue demonstration in Pentwater Lake. In the afternoon, there is a parade through the village. Proud veterans in uniform carry the flag, and girls in shiny costumes twirl batons. There are squadrons of antique cars (this is Michigan, after all). Political candidates work the crowd. There are floats from various local businesses, and there are also separate floats for Mrs. Asparagus and for the Cherry Princess. The highlight of the parade is the locally famous Scottsville Clown Band. The Clown Band marches in costume, with some dressed, for example, as clowns. A disturbingly large number of the (male) band members are dressed as women. The parade culminates with a band concert on the village green.
On the Saturday evening of Homecoming weekend, the village shoots off fireworks from the channel breakwater. The brilliant colors of the fireworks are beautiful as they reflect off the Lake’s shifting surface. The Homecoming fireworks are always a bittersweet pleasure, because they signal that summer is coming to an end. The next day, it is time to close up the cottage, pack up the car, and head home to school and to work.
When my oldest daughter was young, she would cry as we pulled away from the cottage. I know she was crying because summer was over, but as time has passed, and now that she has a job and a life of her own out on the West Coast, and she can’t come out to the Lake most summers, I appreciate that she was also crying for the fleeting days of her youth, gone now and beyond retrieval. That is a part of parenting I never anticipated — that as a parent I would mourn my own children’s lost youth.
I always wondered what Pentwater looks like out of season. In October a couple of years ago, I had a business trip to Lansing, and afterwards I drove out to Pentwater to have a look. It was one of those sunny October days when it was warm enough to wear shorts and to walk barefoot on the beach. The scene was strange – everything was familiar but somehow altered. The cottages were all closed, the trees had changed colors, and the dune grass was dry and brown. The sun was much further South in the sky than I had ever seen it, and at an odd angle too. As I walked along with the warm sun in my face and the warm sand underfoot, and not another soul around for miles, I thought to myself, I could do this forever.
The word reverberated as if it had been sung in my ears by a heavenly host of angels.
Man. I went to see what the beach looked like out of season and came away with a glimpse of eternity so convincing it took my breath away.
Tell you what. Get yourself something cool to drink, and let’s go out and sit on the screen porch. We can talk about anything you like. Or we can just listen to the breeze rinse through the pines, and further off, the waves falling on the shore.
Yes, better just to sit quietly. July doesn’t last forever. We should savor it.
Another busy day in the village
Painted Ladies of Pentwater
Until we journey to the Timeless Shore, we should savor the time we have