When I was a child the distance from my doorstep to Heaven was exactly one hundred and twenty five miles. The majority of the drive was just like any other, until our car took the final turn down Trails End Road. At that precise moment it felt as if I had been plucked from the real world and deposited in a realm of magic created just for me. The headphones came off, the windows rolled down, and the smell of warm, moist forest permeated the interior of the vehicle.
My dad would drive down the two-track off the main dirt road and I would watch the familiar trees and ferns pass by, checking to make sure that all were accounted for and thriving. After the last long curve the vehicle would head straight toward Otter Lake. We passed the trail head to the blueberry patch, which in that day was still only known to locals, and then I could see Otter Lake shimmering through the trees just a few yards ahead. The car would turn again, pass the neighbor’s cottage, and then pull into our own “driveway”; a worn half-circle of dirt and moss in the back yard of a dilapidated structure that blended into the forest as if it belonged there. We had arrived! The weather worn green paint peeling off rough logs was more beautiful than any million dollar mansion. The slightly sagging roof covered in brown leaves and dry pine needles beckoned to me. I stepped out of the car and moved toward the base camp for my summer adventures.
The air would be cool and the ground spongy as I approached the three cracked cement steps which led to the door. I would descend; and as I pulled the rusty handle on the old screen door the creak of hinges rang out like church bells announcing the beginning of Sunday service. Sometimes I can still smell the musty air from damp wood and decomposing vegetation that was The Cottage.
I can still picture every detail of the inside of the cottage, as well as I am able to visualize the house that I grew up in. The main room had a vaulted ceiling of sorts, shining with the silver exterior of panels of insulation. There was a half wall which extended from the original roof down to the ceiling level of the addition and this served as the display for all of our functional decorations such as fishing poles, nets, and straw hats for blueberry picking. The living room had a cozy fireplace surrounded by mismatched couches and chairs. There was no television. There was an old radio and on rainy days or after dark my parents, my sister, and I would all sit in the living room reading, doing puzzles, or listening to Garrison Keillor tell stories of Lake Wobegon.
I began every vacation by walking straight through the cottage, down along the worn path that stretched from the screened porch to the shore of Otter Lake, and then out onto the tilted and patched wooden dock. I would sit down and stare at the shimmering water, wondering what treasures were in store for me this year. Then I would begin my ritual of freeing the dragonflies. Yes really. I would find all of the dragonflies and damselflies that were caught in the spider webs spun between the wooden posts of the dock and I would carefully hold their bodies while breaking the threads of the web to remove them. Then I would hold them in the palm of one hand as I ever so gently peeled the sticky threads off of their wings. It would take a long time because I had to be very careful not to tear the delicate mesh of veins that allowed them to fly. There were often quite a few of the smaller blue and purple damselflies, typically not the large black and yellow dragonflies which could probably soar right through the webs and barely notice the delay. They were always so patient. They would stay very still while I pulled the webbing off of their wings and then they would wait a moment when I transferred them to the railing on the dock before flying away. It was as if they knew that I was there to help them. Maybe they had a legend of a giant who would save them from being eaten by the spiders, so that when I came they knew who I was.
There were many traditions that filled my summer vacations, and several favorite places that anyone from the area would probably know. I swam in Lake Michigan and Platte River at Platte River point, ate ice cream at The Riverside Canoe, climbed the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, and traveled to Traverse City for one day of shopping for new school clothes and dinner at Bob Evan’s. Sometimes my family and I would go to the water park Arnie’s Funland.
I was devastated that day in 1995 when we received a letter from my Grandma telling us that we would only have the cottage for two more years. Two years! Just reading the words made me feel sick to my stomach. My place of magic would soon disappear. There had been an attempt by several of the families who had cottages in the area to renew or buy off their lease from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but it did not go through. My utopia would become public land, trampled by thousands of feet that would never know they were stepping on sacred ground.
I’ve been back to visit the site where our cottage once stood many times since then. My husband and I even got married on the shores of Otter Lake before the cottage was torn down. I am thankful now that the area is being preserved in its natural state and not covered with pavement, strip malls, and subdivisions. Though I cannot take my own children to stay at the cottage, I can stand on the shores of Otter Lake and tell them the stories. I can leave them with this legacy of our family and hope that there is a place that will mean as much to them someday.