Going up north to The Woods these days is always bittersweet. The whole trip up US131 and across M115 is like taking a trip through time. I remember similar trips when I was a young boy. The expressway actually stopped at Cedar Rock, (M57) and continued north of Reed City. We would take Northland drive through small towns, passed fruit stands and yard sales that sometimes dad would stop at for mom to take a look. We always, Always stopped at Paris park for dad to ‘stretch his legs’, though I think it was more for rambunctious kids to expel energy in and around the cedar swamp that the park backed up upon. That was a magical place for me. The shallow clear water stream twisted and turned among the trees turning the mossy ground into islands. Little light seeped through the dense dark green foliage so the brown twisted trunks disappeared into darkness. This was the image I had in my mind when I later read of Merry and Pippin peering into Fangorn forest. Getting my mom’s signature call to come back we arrived at the picnic table for a little snack of crackers and cheese whiz, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and kool-aid. Sometimes we went across the street to the fish hatchery to put a nickel into the vending machine, twist the handle and scoop out a handful of fish food to toss into the ‘pond’ and watch the fish swarm!
We had our own road markers that we used to mark our journey; Paris park, a long straight stretch of highway north of Reed City that, at the end of the stretch, curved north past a rest area and told us that the exit onto M115 was just over the hill, and the Narrows at Cadillac. Yesterday’s trip up for mushrooms brought something new and old. My friend Howard came along for the ride and to see The Woods. We talked of camping trips he’d taken and even camping trips stolen to Higgins Lake as a boy. He remembered stopping for breakfast at the Narrows of Cadillac in the early to mid ’70s, and as we crossed the causeway he pointed to Burke’s Waterfront Restaurant. ‘That’s the place.’
We turned in. Friendly staff got us seated in the back room and poured coffee. We looked around at the wood paneled interior and through the wall of picture windows that looked out on Lake Cadillac and enjoyed breakfast.
Our waitress told us that Burke’s had been here for 40-50 years and Howard mentioned that one reason this restaurant stuck in his mind was that when he was here as a boy a particular song was playing from a jukebox: Green-eyed Lady by Sugarloaf, and he thought at the time ‘what an awesome song!’ As we ate and enjoyed the view we laughed because the music that was being played was almost exclusively ’70’s.
We continued on to our destination, taking the same route we always took cutting north off M115 onto a dirt road that shot straight North, then East on another county road until coming over that familiar hill Grandpa and Grandma’s cabin sat as it always had on the corner where two old roads met. The Cabin used to be an old schoolhouse when Grandpa and his brother bought it in the early ’30s. Ancient Maple trees still line the road, the small apple tree my grandma planted in the early eighties sits out front, and the White Indian Trail Marker stands at the corner by the roadside. The bittersweet hit as I turned onto the gravel road and pulled off to the right instead of pulling into that familiar drive to the cabin. The cabin belongs to someone else now and I can only view from a distance. It is a crushing feeling to know that this is no longer a destination place. Howard and I walked over to the Indian Trail Marker.
It needs some care. I’ll have to contact Woody Unruh when I get home. I adopted this particular marker last year and pledged to restore it when the Michigan weather roughs it up.
The oak trees and electric fence are gone from around Mr. Pike’s fields but the farmhouse and yard look the same. Traveling up the county road the short distance to the front entrance of The Woods we turn in the shared drive with my Great Uncle Herb’s cabin. I still call it that even though my cousin Denny’s kids own it. There were no cars there and we slowly drove passed the cabin and the ancient Maple we used to climb as kids. This was our own ‘Party Tree’ to reference the Lord of the Rings again. For years the Brooks family reunion took place under and around this tree. Uncles, Aunts, and Cousins we might only see but once a year gathered for a single day to celebrate ‘family’. Food was eaten, games were played by kids, I remember digging through a pile of sawdust for trinkets and coins, and there was always the vast 160 acres of Wood to explore! Now, today, we could only drive in about 50 yards.
Downed trees crossed the two-track so we walked in. The Woods were the same and different. The two-tracks were overgrown with forest undergrowth and brambles yet still clear enough to recognize what they were.
I knew exactly where this road less traveled led, and where it branched into the railroad grade, and the big hill, and the back roads to the big field where Uncle Rich’s cabin sits and we used to grow sick eating blackberries while our metal Shedd’s peanut butter pail remained empty.
I remember thinking that Grandpa would never have allowed these paths and tracks to become overrun and blocked. But Grandpa has been gone since ’81, and Grandma since ’95. My dad used to come up and cut wood and drive the many pathways but he passed in ’93. Uncle Sonny is in his ’90s now, still hale but that energy is expended now in hunting, fishing, and flirting with widows.
The Woods and its pathways are now untended. The shepherds of the Woods are gone except for the brief trips we younger (58 year old!) family can carve out of our busy lives, and that only to walk the paths as we can. Howard and I enjoyed our few hours in The Woods, and though we left empty handed, (at least of Morels) I know that I personally left with more memories of the early times when the same sounds of bird and buzzing insects, smells of plants and trees, new growth and vegetation going to mulch, followed behind me like a cape or sail as I careened through the summer Woods in dark and dappled sunlight bending beech trees to my will and exploring the paths worn to dirt and deer paths that led into new discoveries.
As we walked out of The Woods we saw a couple vehicles up by Uncle Herb’s place. I walked up to say hello to my cousin Denny’s wife and kids. He had just passed last year and they had come up to the cabin. I remember Denny when we were much younger. He was 11 years older than I and that difference is more marked in youth.
It was nice to reconnect with family, and though distanced by busy lives we discovered that we are mostly living in or near Grand Rapids, they also told me where Denny and other family were buried including Great Grandpa and Grandma Brooks who’s farm had been on the other side of Uncle Herb’s cabin, so we stopped at the little cemetary before we left the area.
While we didn’t find any mushrooms, it was a day trip well spent sharing a special place with a friend, and reconnecting with family. Perhaps it isn’t The Woods that have changed. Time marches on, as they say. Events and people mark our lives and alter our lists of priorities. Perhaps it’s us that have changed. Time spent in carefree youth is swallowed up in weightier matters that legitimately occupy our minds and lives to the exclusion of frivolous pursuits like walking pathways that, once remembered, can’t be forgotten again. Bittersweet or not, I need to drive up North more often, step over some downed trees and breathe deep of the Woods and, for now, more anticipated memories.