Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ode à la Grand Marais

When I was twenty-two, my best friend Jon and his girlfriend Jill invited me to join them for a weekend festival in Grand Marais on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  It was something of a family tradition for Jill, and apparently that year was the first summer the honors had been opened up to non-family members.  I was flattered, and didn’t have anything else going on that weekend, so I said I’d be there, on a lark.  I haven’t missed the Fisherman’s Picnic since.  The first few years I was there I learned the history of the group – who the regulars were and how the stateside kids had gone up and met the Canadians and they had all hiked up the rivers and jumped from bluffs and played in rapids together and other harrowing feats.  Near-death experiences in the formative years nourish life-long bonds; this I know as someone who was once seventeen.  I know how romantically dangerous a street dance on a Saturday night can be, juxtaposed against afternoons leaping forty feet into an icy brook with complete confidence.
But by the time I showed up, we were older, if not necessarily wiser.  When I started going up we were walking back to the campground from town as cautionary tales – with our cigarettes, and our liters of vodka and the innocent DQ Mr. Misties we poured the Karkov into.  We were higher than the kites we flew all afternoon Saturday on the beach, but we didn’t care, because it was the most fun we’d have in one weekend all year.  To be a hedonist among puritans, just once a year, is an experience I highly recommend.  It will discombobulate you, but luckily that word sounds a little dirty, so you’re already on the right track.We went on for several years, kayaking in the harbor, Bingo-ing at the legion hall, and climbing on the rocks overlooking the bay.  One weekend per year, we got to get all our crazy out at the end of summer and come back to the city to be serious for the oncoming winter.  That is, until Jill’s parents bought a house in town.  We all claimed to have figurative roots in the town, now suddenly they had put down literal ones.  And it's an adorable little cottage a block from the main drag, with an extra bedroom.  Then something different happened.  Jill, who had long since broken amicably from my best man, married the guy she was destined for.  And they had twins.  Twins!
Ages on, most of us still make the pilgrimage every August, though now things have changed slightly, and not in any way I could have predicted. My friends and I still go up north every summer, and those with kids bring them along.  We all have mellowed, though we’ve done so at different paces.  Some of us have children, others don’t.  Some of us still camp, others don’t.  Most of us still hike out to the bonfire one of the nights, and get just a little bit silly.
I was the first at the campsite this year, and that’s never happened before (I didn’t even make it up first the year that I paid for it).  My initial priority was getting my tent up and checking out the rainbow over the bay to the East.  When my campmate arrived, he & I enjoyed a couple beers and some homemade brittle and waited for the familied friends to get in touch.  After they did, we were anchored in the town with them and in the festival for the weekend.  I don’t have children, but I know quite a few of them, and it is a humbling moment the first time you turn to the baby you think you know and realize you’re talking to a fully formed human child, capable of running, and laughing, and skipping stones, and you have stories that predate her.  She did not exist when most of your life took place.  She is a Descendant.
When you have so many years of history in a place it is tempting to claim it as your own.  When you can no longer differentiate the years you were down by the lake from the years you were up on the hill – and no one thing happened in any specific summer or another – you don’t just have a history, you have a mythology.  Yet while it’s tempting to claim it as your festival, it is so much bigger than you.  It is the one who shaped you, not the other way around.  It went on for decades before you arrived, and it will go on just as merrily if you never come back.  But you are that little girl.  You are a product, a Descendant, of it, and you owe a little piece of who you are to it.  Here’s to you, Grand Marais… may you shape and mold many good friends to come.