Last week we visited our old stomping grounds in and around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Rhinelander, WI. I’ve been spending time North of the 45th parallel for most of my life, walking amidst the tall trees and swimming in the crystalline lakes. I’ve hunted for orchids and mushrooms in the green days of summer. I’ve biked through landscapes of autumn colors that belong in a Van Gogh painting. I’ve climbed mountainous snow banks, and plunged into Lake Huron through a hole sawed in the ice. I’ve hooked walleye and bass as the trees begin to bud and birds return home in the late arriving springtime.
This is a part of the world that I love and know well. The plants, animals, and weather are familiar. Coming back is satisfying and comforting, like pulling on that old hooded sweatshirt when the cool breezes blow off the lake for the first time as summer grows old.
K and I never expected to live here, and we didn’t expect to leave as quickly as we did when the Foreign Service came calling. But life takes us down unexpected paths. I thought about this last week as we walked one of our favorite hiking trails in Rhinelander. Hansen Lake trail is not an “official” trail, but rather an improvised network of footpaths that have been worn down over the years by hikers and mountain bikers enjoying the beauty of the small lake. There is no map, and the trail twists, turns, and forks in ways that are challenging to remember, especially when one hasn’t hiked it in almost three years.
I may have accidentally led K and J down a leg of the trail that lengthened our hike by a bit. This would have been fine were it not for the inopportune arrival of a summer downpour. We had the choice to turn back or press forward to finish the loop. We opted to press forward, only to discover that the main trail was flooded out and we had to follow a side trail that would take us back to the road which I could then follow to our car while K and J, both soaking wet, took shelter at a ranger station waiting for me to get them.
That last leg of the hike, alone, through mud, soaking wet, got me thinking about choices and paths. What if we had taken a different trail? What if we had turned back when the rain started? Would I be dry right now? What if we had never moved to Rhinelander? What if we had never left? What would our lives be like now? What adventures would we have had? What work could I have accomplished? What, of the amazing things we’ve seen since leaving, would we have missed?
Life is mysterious, and full of questions that are not completely answerable. I catch glimpses of what a life here would have looked like as I talk with old friends who remain. I get a taste for the good that is here, as well as the frustrations. The truth is that I don’t know if leaving was a completely good or bad thing. I think there was a bit of both. We love Foreign Service life, but there are things that we miss about being more stationary, like family, friends, routines.
The one thing I do know with certainty is that it is good to come back to these Northwoods. There is some part of this place that is lodged in my soul, and that calls me back periodically, like the birds coming North after winter. Maybe someday, when we are old and gray, we will find a spot on the shore of one of these lakes to nest for a longer time, watching the sun set and listening to the loons singing their amazing song. Until then the journey will continue. There’s still a lot to see.