I was complimented recently on my writing, it came via someone with a tenuous Facebook connection. It’s the first time anyone who wasn’t a friend or blood relative (and therefore obligated to like my writing or at least lie to me and say they do) told me they found my writing funny. (But funny in a good way.)
It made me feel, just for a nano-second, what it must be like when famous people get recognized. It was awesome and I thanked him…and then felt like a total fraud because I haven’t given two thoughts to my blog in months!
Four summers ago, I wrote about Taking Tea with Tornadoes describing my experience with the art of Japanese tea ceremonies during severe low pressure fronts; it has been quite a while since I’ve explored the Land of the Rising Sun. Please allow me to apologize in advance for my take on this venerable, ancient culture. “Sumimasen” すみません
I have the heart of a wanderer…and the expense account for ramen noodles on a good day. So, I have to adventure vicariously–taking a trip on the Orient Express for me means getting on board with digital media.
Allow me to recommend a few curiosities I’ve discovered along the way.
Walking the public pier along the Holland State Beach allows one to appreciate both an exercise in free speech and the quasi-felonious joys of graffiti expressionism.
I have never been so brave or confident in what I had to say that I was willing to risk a $250 fine and possible jail time to tag a public edifice in order to say it.*
Vandalism is, at the very least, a misdemeanor offense, but what I want to know is…is it art?
And if it is art, what is it saying?
Based on my hour spent cataloging this year’s liberal art tributes on the rusting canvas of the masses, the message depends on the viewer:
If you look hard enough, you can find answers.
Although….you may also be left wondering what the question was.
Thoughts from Danny Duncan!
Danny thinks “It’s fine!”
But, he scrawled his sentiments in a tucked away place on an overhead pipe, so I suspect he’s playing it cool.
Some people put themselves out there, courting ridicule…possibly unaware that a Tinder Date may be using a pseudonym.
Everyone has an opinion…whether that opinion is worth scrawling on a pier support is in the eye of the beholder.
Dreams are apparently dictated with impermanent ink scrawled on a blue-green background and will melt with time and the coming rains.
Lacking the words to express their deeper emotions, some fall back on a classic:
Friends slap high fives (or low ones) wherever they can.
Some HIGH FIVES bury the headline:
OTHER HIGH FIVES come with best wishes from ON HIGH!
Emotions run high…leaving some confused…knotting their hair with suspense.
Will Jeffrey or Won’t Jeffrey?
Perhaps the message echoes an earlier time—a plea forPeace, Loveand Hope symbolized by a badly divided pie chart?
The VEGANS were a bit demanding and psychedelically so:
Some pier polluters promote poignant pleas:
Perhaps what you take from the message boardwalk is only that which you brought with you?***
FORSOOTH, FIE, ALAS
One word scrawled among the masses stood out. I was astounded that classics such as Shakespearean language describing a two-week time frame have made it to modern vernacular (even if the spelling hadn’t):
Then, later, during a rare session of live tv watching, I was bombarded by a commercial which dispelled my illusions. (And possibly also my allusions.)
I almost despaired to have lost a belabored delusion of the persistence of language.
But then, after watching King Lear drop bodies at Grand Valley State University, I decided that Fortnite actually is a modern variant of Shakespearean storytelling—if only Shakespeare had lived in the age of the rocket launcher.
I travel for a purpose. Generally, that purpose is to get to a destination. Sometimes, however, for my son’s sake, I travel for distance. For pleasure. To lose myself in the rolling roads dividing the countryside into rows of waving cornstalks and fields of bucolic cows chewing endless mouthfuls of grass. Usually there is an Aaron Copland sound track playing in my imagination.*
Recently, however, I had this experience backfire…and go hilariously bad. The tale ends up with a life-saving intervention from the Michigan DNR and a ‘Hail Mary’ airport pick-up. Join us for the missed-flight entertainment, if you dare, on the adventure I am calling:
F*ck the Road Less Traveled
It all begins with meeting a friend from afar.
Like most heroic quests, ‘Jay’ comes a long way to meet me. (Okay…technically she is visiting family, but still, meeting me is the added cherry on the trip-from-Japan Sundae.) Unlike most of my ‘internet friends’ who are likely market-research algorithms with questionable profile pics, Jay is a real live person.
Jay is so terribly cool, she met up with me at the nearby Panera for an hour of lovely conversation–despite juggling jet lag, a toddler, and the joys of accommodating myriad family obligations to meet up with someone she only knows in the digital sense from Nanowrimo.**
I was geeked. Her dad joined the venture–mostly because he was her chauffeur–but he was an engaging story teller who kept the conversation rolling. When our time together ran out, he invited me to come up to the family reunion scheduled for Saturday next.
“Sure.” I say. “But I’ll have to leave in time to get my mother-in-law from the airport.”
“I live in the woods, so, when you get up there, just call me and I’ll meet you so you can follow me back to the house.” He assures me.
“Oh, I have GPS. I’ve been up in that area before. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Saturday rolls around and I cram my kid in the car and we’re off winding the back roads of beyond because I haven’t yet figured out that my car’s GPS has been avoiding highways on purpose. We arrive with only a few rural/off-map detours. (Okay…we got lost three times finding the house. But for me, that’s ONLY three times.) This makes me unbelievably cocky. If you don’t know me well, know this…if anyone can get lost going someplace, it’s me. But, I’ve come to rely on my son’s innate desire to travel to get us where we want to go.
Jay is warm, her daughter is adorable, and her father is welcoming. A yard full of strangers don’t question me or my giant son’s right to be there. The picnic is a nice, if brief, interlude at someone else’s family reunion. Before long, it’s time for us to leave to meet a plane. I tender our regrets clutching the scrawled map Jay’s father painstakingly wrote out for me to follow back to civilization. Upon leaving, I immediately take a wrong turn and don’t figure it out until it is far, far too late. Much to my son’s delight.
If you have never been to Fremont, Michigan, I highly recommend you visit. Especially if you want to become part of the witness protection program. Because, I promise you, once you move there, no one will find you again. Ever.
We are in the car, driving in the wrong direction, down a dirt path and I’m alternately swerving to avoid trees that are apparently just growing in the middle of the track we are following and I’m questioning whether the map is wrong or I am.***
It’s when we finally hit tarmac that I make my worst mistake of the day. There is an option to turn left or right. A quick glance at my dashboard GPS is of no help. So, with my son as the designated navigator we turn left. The most mistaken 50-50 shot of all.
This is where the paved road ends…
When asked whether we should turn around or keep going, my son’s intrepid response?
“Straight!” He barks from the back seat.
I eyeball my GPS doubtfully, tap the screen and gauge how far it is through the unmarked green area to the road it depicts on the other side.
“Well, it doesn’t look like it’s too far…about half an inch.” I think to myself. “How far could that be?”
Those of you who have ever taken a snowmobile trail are probably laughing your heads off at this point. I, however, haven’t a clue.
And into the woods we go…
Need I mention it is a one-lane track?
And that we need to hit Highway 31 pretty darned quick if we are going to have a chance to make the forty-some odd miles back to the airport in G.R.?
Pretty soon, things get a bit desperate. We’ve been in the woods for at least half an hour. We are definitely going to miss the flight we were scheduled to meet!
Who do you call when, at fifty-one years of age, you are lost and need assistance?
*Gets cell phone*
BEEP.. BEEP.. BOOP.. BEEP.. BOOP…
After a frantic conversation in which I fear signal loss almost as much as I fear the drones of mosquitoes following our car like we are to-go container they are trying to figure how to open, Mom comes to the rescue…
Insert appropriate theme song here
…of my mother-in-law anyway.
“I’ll go.” Mom promises. “But you owe me! I was already in my pajamas for the night!”
We keep driving. The huddling clouds overhead limit what visibility we do have beneath the canopy of the old growth forest we are traversing.
I’m not exactly panicking…yet.
But I’m thinking about it.
When along comes the cavalry…
I have to unroll my window in order to ask for directions.
The mosquitoes, at least, were deliriously happy.
The nice young men from the DNR—wait…doesn’t that mean Do Not Resuscitate?—correction, the Forest Service Department of Agriculture (it says it right on the door, Kiri) give me some directions on how to get out of the woods.
“You’re gonna come up on a fork in a bit, take it to the left…then you follow the road until you see the exit to Highway 31. It’s not that much farther.”
I thank them, and slap at mosquitoes trying for a second pint of blood, before I hastily close the window to depart.
Our vehicles squeeze past each other like fat ladies wearing hoop skirts moving through a narrow hall.
And then we are back on the trail, slightly more confident that we will make it home.
There’s the fork…
And more trees than you can shake a stick at.
And then we come to what looks like another choice…
This turns out to be a random opening in the forest.
“What the actual hell?” I am cursing young men who think they gave detailed directions but obviously skipped a few steps.
If I knew how to use Google Earth, I’d check to see if our little blue Prius was captured in the center somewhere.
While it is possible to go left, that way seems certain doom based on the quantity of wild flowers and stumps in the way.
We veer right and hold on to a waning hope.
The GPS is now openly mocking me.
It dances in circles around and around but never moves toward Highway 31 and freedom.
We pass the dusty roundabout, heading right.
Pretty soon, we see a verdant meadow, puffy clouds, and dream of escaping this wildness nightmare.
But those fantasies are dashed by what looks like the burial site for other lost travelers cleverly disguised as a “Coastal Plain Marsh.”
Leaving the erstwhile, granite grave markers in our rearview mirror, I can’t help but feel like the forest is trying to tell us something.
But what could it be saying?
Apparently, it’s telling us it is time to go home.
There, in the distance, it beckons us.
The way out!
Ahhhh….civilization…or as close as it comes in rural Michigan.
As we drove home…we admired the sights we thought we’d never see again…
Even traffic cones were a welcome sight!
We passed the bakery with the oddest name ever for a location smack in the middle of an alluvial plain.
And then, like the plains of Africa in the song by Toto, the rains came.
Bedraggled and drained, we make it home in time for dinner.
And it’s going to take a lot to drag me back to Fremont unless I’m giving a guided tour, perhaps by a team of strapping forest preserve on-call rescuers? For emergency purposes only, of course.
Until then, I grow restless, longing for some solitary company…and a song to sing me home.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*I mistakenly Googled Erin Copeland and got a completely unsuitable track the first time. #NOT MY MUSIC.
**If you do not know what NANOWRIMO is, we are apparently not as close as my imaginary internet friends.
Do you appreciate the rare? The exotic? The exceedingly slow burn to coition?
Do you savor the anticipation an eighteen-year wait brings?
Then you may be ready for the giant phallus. The amorphophallus titanum to be precise.
If you happened to wander into Meijer Gardens this week, you may have stumbled across the shy and retiring Titan Arum–a bloom colloquially referred to as a Corpse Flower.*
I’ve been a long-time fan of the gardens, but even I was caught by surprise about the arrival of the local beauty–nicknamed Putricia for her odiferous nature. On impulse, I dashed to the gardens on Tuesday to get this shot of her before she made her full-blown debut. The garden staff estimated that she wouldn’t fully bloom until Friday…but they were to be caught off guard.
Wednesday night, the spathe–or giant solitary petal that goes around the spadix (the stabby, sword-like center spike) was still tightly closed.**
For a better description, you can go to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s website for a great breakdown of the particulars. The site was extremely helpful in providing the follow image to steal:
Rumors abound around this hard-to-get coquette. According to this chart, it may bloom every four to five years. I’ve read elsewhere, it can take much longer because it relies on perfect conditions being met in order to propagate. The flower is in danger of becoming extinct in nature because of habitat loss and other causes.
At the Meijer Gardens, Putricia took eighteen years before she was ready to blossom. But she is finally strutting her stuff. And perhaps because she was so slow in arriving, she hurried up her appearance in time for me to dash over to meet her on Thursday. And, I have to say, she put on quite a stately show.
I couldn’t say how many people came, but the lines curled throughout the building when I was there. If you are brave, you might get to see her yourself–at least, for the next 24 hours anyway.
If you want to save your feet (and nose) the effort, a link to video of the flower’s expansion, you can find it in this article located in the Detroit News.
Here’s the picture I snapped with my cell phone:
Personally, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the stench by the time I got to her. She’d already lost some of her bloom. (Probably being visited by thousands of people takes a toll on a girl.)
Whether standing in line for over two hours for a minute in the limelight with this sultry Sumatran Stinker is your idea of fun, only you can decide.
As for me, I am happy that I went and hope we can look forward to a bright future ahead.
And now, I have camping to get packed for. My son is totally puzzled as to why I would bother to stop and chat with you for this long anyway. For this reason, I’m attributing any typos to his impatience.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Strangely enough, no one requests a corpse flower for their bridal bouquet. Probably due to having to wait decades to ensure you’ll have one in time for the nuptials.
**Look, I’m not a botanist. There’s plenty of sites you can go to for actual plant terminology and description. But we both know you aren’t going there, are you?!
I was reminded today that being human takes practice and it is, thankfully, not as hard as propagating orchids. I did not know, when I headed to the Meijer Gardens Orchid Show, that I would learn that flowers grow in forms of glass, peat moss dreams, and human bonding–both casual and eternal.
Sleepless after ill-conceived, late-night revels with the Princess Bride and Futurama, I staggered to Meijer Gardens Saturday towing a camera with a mostly-dead battery.*
Thank goodness for iPhones.**
My son dragged me to a corner and refused to budge while we both waited for salvation in the form of a fearless babysitter incentivized by college debt and the promise of at least a Benjamin to keep the orchid’s safe from harm.
The minute my child disappeared with his sitter, I was off. My goal—to photograph as many blooms as possible before my teenager got bored and came back. So, basically, like the count down timer on a nuclear device–I was set to go!
iPhone camera in hand, I stalked exotically named flora.
I hadn’t hit my stride when I ran into a mother and her 26-year-old son. We were fighting to capture the same bloom without flashing each other to blindness.
The mom struck up a conversation as I waited my turn at the luscious fuchsia petals that somehow managed to be the stealth bomber of the orchid enclave.
I was too focused on the flowers. I almost missed hearing that this well-spoken young man has Asperger’s. And like a flower turned to the sun, I lit up meeting him.
To his mom, I said, “My son has ‘classic autism’, he’s non-verbal.”
“I know. I saw you earlier with him.” She confided, nodding toward her son, “We reached him through his love of photography.”
Her son took a break from photographing the coveted blossom. We shook hands. He told me his name and then asked me for mine. I spelled my name out for the young man. He dutifully entered it into his phone—taking delight when I asked if he knew how to spell my last name—citing the Harry Potter – Salazar Slytherin reference. He showed me his phone and he had it letter perfect.
Unfortunately, in the hustle, I totally missed taking his name down. (The day was about photography not blogging, so my notes were whatever I could slap into my phone between pictures.) Looking later, high and low, I couldn’t find his name. If you know this young man, tell him I said ‘Hi’ and ask him to find me.
But, because I met him, my whole day changed. I wasn’t there just for the flowers, but to flower in the company of human experience.
And in writing about each person I met, I decided, I needed to invent an appropriate orchid name.
First, I met…
The Freckle-Dusted, Curly Charmer – a/k/a Rachel
In such a small space, it is not hard to run into people—several times even—at various stations.
I inadvertently stalked this couple throughout the gardens: Rachel and her very tall, camera-shy companion, Kyle—a smug owner of a Samsung Galaxy phone who taunted me periodically with the amazing shots he could take.
Not to be outdone–here’s one of the best I captured:
We exchanged observations while snapping pictures.
Almost every plant had a ribbon—though some of them could be the floral equivalent of an ‘Honorable Mention’ participant award as far as I knew. I have a policy of admitting my ignorance up front—it saves time and effort.
“They all look so beautiful,” I told her, “I really don’t know how the judges could evaluate the merits of any flower.”
That’s when Rachel dropped her orchid bomb!
“I’m sort of a cheater.” She confessed.
When pushed to explain, she said, “I was a biology major at Grand Valley [State University] and I had this professor who showed us how to propagate orchids using a method of injecting genes to create new flowers. So, I understand a bit more about this than most.” ***
This whole time I’d been standing next to an orchid whisperer and hadn’t known it!
Later, while trying to recapture what she told me, I tried to find an appropriate article on ‘gene splicing’ but failed. I did, however, stumble across an actual process to gene-test an orchid’s D.N.A. to discover its parentage: Orchid DNA
Basically, you can C.S.I. an orchid’s ass to find out ‘Whose your daddy?’ so to speak.
In our many encounters, I mentioned how rare it is for me to get out and interact with the world.
(True Confession Time: I was a bit giddy at the orchid extravaganza. I probably seemed a bit drunk with excitement—kind of like a deranged puppy with a floral fixation.)
I asked if I could take her picture for my blog—and tried to set a ‘privacy’ setting so her picture wouldn’t be plastered all over my feed. But the challenging wifi or vicious internet pixies played havoc with the Facebook options.
Rachel shrugged, saying she didn’t mind. This only encouraged me.
“It’s hard for me to go places sometimes.” I laughed and gave my iPhone a little shake. “So, I kind of live on Facebook. It’s weird, I can live so close to people I know but never get together with them. And yet, this summer, a friend from Japan is coming here and we’re going to meet at the nearby mall!”
Then Rachel said something profound.
“Facebook—it makes the far world closer and the close world farther away.”
It struck me as so true, I made her repeat herself so I could type it in my phone. Yes, I am that pushy.
Every time I ran into Rachel and Kyle, we’d fall into conversation. Well, I babbled at them and Rachel willingly exchanged floral witticisms that I could not possible recreate here. You’ll have to come up with your own horticultural insights, I’m afraid.
Except, I can share one universal truth: “Crab grass is the bitch bane of gardening.”
Everyone I met was friendly, tolerant of my intrusions, polite and sharing. None more so than my next flowery friend.
Gratia Umbra a/k/a Elizabeth N.
A slender blond with an elegance that matched the floral occasion, Elizabeth carried with her a functional camera and used it like she knew what she was doing. So, of course, I asked whether she was planning on posting them online and could I ‘friend’ her to see them.
She politely accepted.
If I were to name her using floral taxonomy, the Latin to describe Elizabeth would be A Shade of Grace or Gratia Umbra.
To Elizabeth, who got the shots I could not make. Thanks for sharing.
I could not conclude this story without letting you know of the absolute perfect ending that almost didn’t happen. A providential duo I would regret not knowing.
Defining them by a flower name that accurately tells you who they are is impossible. But I’ll try. For this couple, you absolutely have to use a crossbred variety. Match a shy, subtly engaging flower with a showy, over-the-top genus to create an utterly unique new combination. I give you:
Painted Hearts x Mirrored Souls
Sometimes, you just know. You look at a couple and know they are meant to go together So it was when I met Nick and Oberon.
I was done photographing the official orchid exhibit. But there is an arboretum that is part of the Meijer Gardens that is a glassed-in heaven in January.
I almost didn’t go. But, rare is my chance to visit the gardens and luxuriate in the peace it brings. And I’m so glad impulse led me to meeting a very special couple.
I wandered to the wall of orchids and sniffed to try and find the one that exuded a glorious, heavy smell that was sweet just to the point of being overpowering.
One of the garden volunteers—the human variety, not the plant kind—corrected me when I told her I loved a particular flower for its heavenly perfume.
“Smell this.” Is all she said.
She thrust a small pot under my nose–tiny fringy leaves with even smaller white flecks you could mistake as dots among all the greenery.
Those dots were actual orchid buds, so small, you had to pay attention to see them.
I did as instructed.
It was like being punched in the nose by the goddess of spring. This confirms a long-held suspicion and I told her so.
“I think the smaller the blossom, the stronger the smell.” I nod in satisfaction. “To make up for not being so showy and bright.”
Saying nothing, she put the pot back and I moved on my way.
Without knowing it, this was the perfect segue to my last encounter of the day.
Getting ready to depart, I was stopped by an incongruous sight.
Among the elderly wanderers, nodding white heads in appreciation of the wonderful view, the families with children, grandparents, and photo-happy parents, there sat a glaring anomaly—a tattooed duo dressed as if headed for a punk rave or a New York grunge art review. Ready for something, anything, more hip than an arboretum.
To Nick and Oberon—for the story about the beehive ink alone—I am indebted. The explanations of a clamshell with the number 13 drawn on your wrist. The laughter and the stories too personal to share here. The tattoo review was the most unique floral exhibit of the day. So if I had to pick flowers to represent you, it would have to be these two–so similar and yet so different, and perfectly matched.
You opened up to a stranger, one arguably stranger than most. You shared your origin stories like the super heroes you are. You let me take pictures that said a lot more about you than words could.
You let me remember what it was like to be young, in love, and filled with the adventure of it all. Thank you.
And yes, I will happily descend upon you the next time I’m in Chicago. I’m dying to color in all those black and white tattoos. Let’s find out if you are brave enough to hand me a needle to try.
And to my final floral tribute – the young man who made it all possible.
You invited me to be part of the human race instead of just an observer. At 26, you understand that connecting with people is more important that getting a perfect shot. I will remember you always and name you for your warm spirit as well as the small bits of fuzz that dotted your baby face.
My Velvet-Petaled / Open Invitation
You are not in my notes, my phone, my email.
I’ve looked for you everywhere.
You are the one who caused me to look up.
To put the camera down.
Hopefully this will find you, somehow.
To the autistic young man at the flower show.
You reminded me to be as well as see.
I dedicate this blog post to you, for without you it would not have happened.
You will forever be a gentle poem in my heart:
And for those curious as to the title of this post, it was the flower name I most identified with. We should all be opalescence on the edge!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*If you ever catch me with a fully-charged device, assume I’ve been kidnapped by aliens and that this is a clone doing research for the impending invasion of Earth. Act accordingly.
**Curse you, Kyle, and your fancy Samsung with those neato photo features. Smugness does not become you!
***This quote is from memory. So, take it with a large grain of salt that I got this at all right.
If my child remembers me for anything, let him remember me for this…
Friday is a dream day-come-true for my ‘little’ man. A half-day of school as a start to the mini-fall break weekend. Road trip, here we come!
We discovered “The Ledges” by joyous accident on a past excursion when we wandered east of our standard Exit 59 pitstop.
This time, we travel to Grand Ledge on purpose, hauling my Canon EOS Rebel XS with the intention of cataloging the experience.*
You can find a description of Fitzgerald Park at the park’s website. But understand, no words can convey the simple pleasure in tramping leaf-strewn, mud tracks that wend along a slow-moving river. This will not stop me from trying, however.
Posting this humble shot to Facebook, a friend introduced me to the true art of nature to be found in the ephemeral sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy.
The sluggish current is dotted with geese and ducks, fattening on late blooming bugs confused by the unseasonable warmth. Ignoring the catastrophic implications of global climate change, my son and I tramp the trail fantastic in search of adventure. Who knew it would end in the best darned French fries this side of Mackinac Island’s truffle fry extravaganza?
Between a rock…and a hard place…you will find a reluctantly posed teenager.
Walking leaf-scattered paths on a sundrenched day doesn’t present many dangers. One thing you can count on when charting a wooded trail is that generally nice people abound.
Everyone we meet is friendly, and after a moment, recognize my son’s quirky tendency to plop down in the middle of the trail to jot numbers as just another sight along the way.
Tree Swallows Rock – looking like the strangling coils of a wooden snake
Leaves crunch underfoot. My cane helps me balance across the footpaths where humus formed of decomposing plants and steep inclines make traversing the narrow passage challenging.
The slope gets gradually steeper until you begin to have sympathy with yaks in the Himalayas.
I am calm in my repose, whistling to my son periodically when his goat-like surefootedness keeps him yards ahead. He disappears around a bend and I hail him to halt. He waits impatiently for me to catch up. Aside from being short winded, I have nothing to fear. Or so I think!
There is no warning. No scary music. Though I sing a half-choked ululation when I am startled by the sudden appearance of a garter snake—or is it a ribbon snake?—dashing frantically away from clumsy feet stomping through its territory. I squawk like a demented chicken, hopping to avoid the tiny red, yellow, and green striped reptilian flag whipping past. Its curving body signals a fervent desire to have nothing to do with me.
I swear it looked like this–Northern Ribbon Snake by Nick Scobel. thank you for the loan. I was too busy shrieking to snap a pic.
A later search on the internet at The Michigan DNR website assures me that I was in no danger—but they fail to take into consideration the effect a small snake has on an unsuspecting woman, on a hill, with slippery, squishy, rotten leaves and rocks and roots to upset an already precarious balance. I’m lucky I didn’t fall into the river, is all I’m saying.
It was a truly idyllic while. We passed the trestle bridge (pictured above, on separate days) where we’d experienced the sound and fury of locomotion just weeks before. It is a quiet sentinel as we pass.
The famed ledges are rocky outcroppings where lichen and verdigris—the coppery extrusion that rusts to a gorgeous blue-green powder adorning many a Catholic cathedral—turn the mundane slabs of sedimentary strata into a magical realm.
Fairies and sprites no doubt whisper from moss-coated crevasses. And red and gold leaves mark a journey through streams of light, chariots with invisible riders steering the autumnal march.**
The trail ends for us at the juncture of West River and Harrison Streets in Grand Ledge and we face the choice of turning left, crossing the walking bridge to Island Park, or going right heading into town. I lure my son away from a moored pleasure boat with the promise of lemonade and a snack toward the option that would let me sit down for a while.
This is how we stumble onto the best d*mned French fries for a hundred miles, if not more.
The Crossroads Barbeque is a most serendipitous discovery. The unassuming block-front, dark glass exterior doesn’t inform the prospective customer what delights are in store. You have to be on the lookout for such a dining experience—it is not to be missed.
I am more thirsty than hungry, but travelling with a teenager means we stop for food on an almost hourly basis. I am so glad we did. And not just because we get to meet the nicest guys behind the glory: Lee Burmeister, co-owner, and Cam, “You can call me Hershel Frobisher,”*** who describes his managerial style as “Giving everyone a hard time.”
Inside Crossroads BBQ, a giant rectangle of space is marked along one side with tables and seating and an open, wood floor that almost has room for a small band and dancing. After meeting Lee Burmeister, co-owner, or as he referred to himself, “Pit Master” of the joint, I could imagine an after-hours crowd breaking out into impromptu two-stepping, or perhaps heavy metal thrash jams, filling the space with sound.
The walls are covered in my kind of kitsch, fire engine red walls interspersed with giant chalk boards scribbled with bright, handwritten menus make the space warm—no doubt an interior design nod to the spicy cuisine offered up.
A cast iron pig ‘oinks’ the daily special—which is what leads me to add an order of fried chicken to my son’s enormous French fry basket. I am not sorry.
My son graciously lets me try a wing as he inhales the rest of the golden-crispy half of chicken that comes out. We’d already been bestowed a platter from heaven—a wholly satisfying mound of fries that suggests the magic of the Ledges walk leads to this particular pot of gold.
I did not come to Grand Ledge to write a blog post, travelling with autism has its limits. But sometimes, the discovery of delicious splendor demands a little improvisational review. I beg a scrap of paper—and am given a hunk of butcher block from a roll—to make my notes. I pepper the crew with questions, while my son explores and attempts to move a piano to find the secret behind a blockaded door. The proprietor is an understanding guy—letting me know he has a nephew on the spectrum. He is un-phased by my questions or questionable parenting.
The secret to the fries is easy—a beer batter coating and a bath in scalding soy oil—they are presented towering high in a thick pile. If you don’t think too hard about it, you can tell yourself these are a healthy treat. The chicken is about as moist as a bird can get without feathers. The secret, I’m told, is “high humidity.” I immediately picture the chickens sitting in a sauna before heading to the fryer.
The fries edge out the chicken by a crispy, salty bite. Then again, I tasted them first. I think I’ll have to go back again and try them in the reverse order. It may take a few taste tests to narrow down a winner.
Lee is affable and proud to show off the winning trophies from regional and statewide chili championships—the latest being a sharp, neon glass sculpture—depicting a 2nd place victory at the BWL Chili Cook-Off in Lansing in September. It’s no surprise that they came a close runner up to “Hottest Chili” considering their claim-to-flameingredient.
The secret to the hottest chili? The pepper of course. Feast your gaze upon this innocuous looking baby:
The Carolina Reaper no doubt lives up to its name. A customer, curious about our conversation about the heat index of a chili so hot it comes with a disclaimer warning that the pregnant, nursing, or elderly might want to give it a pass.
The cook serves up a portion of the diluted sauce and the man eagerly accepts the viscous, volcano-red serving—but one taste and he passes on the offer to try the unadulterated chili by itself.
You could not pay me to try one though. No amount of money is worth taste bud annihilation.
Mid-conversation, my teenager loams large dragging me toward the exit, but I managed one last question. “Do you need to wear protective gear—like an industrial painter’s mask—when preparing the pepper?”
Both Lee and Cam, hold up black, rubber-coated digits.
“Rubber gloves are all we need.” Lee eyes his thick latex mitts for a second, and adds, “But a mask wouldn’t hurt.”
One quick group photo and we’re gone. With only a wafting odor of fries to remind us that Shangri La exists.
We scarper past the Masonic Lodge where a sandwich board outside informs us that pasties are the fundraiser of the day. It’s a shame we are too stuffed to take advantage.
For another hour, we cross the bridge we abjured earlier. We interrupt squirrels and Canadian geese, disturb a young lady fishing, and then my son tries–again–to break into the Grand Princess hitched alongside Island Park. It is time to leave.
We start the walk back and I am serenaded by demands for our next outing:
“Boat ride, boat ride, boat ride…”
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Intentions aside, I sadly neglected to recharge my batteries from the day before— where I photographed my son’s school field trip to Post Family Farm. Who would’ve thunk taking 205 pictures of pumpkins would drain a camera battery dead?
**You’d have to be soul dead not to find poetry in these woods.
***I’m not explaining this joke. I find it much funnier this way.
The chatty family at breakfast–who shares an understanding of the role of stress in caregiving those with special needs. How did Alicia do on her conference call, I wonder?
Biking hither and yon, a velocipede pedestrian torquing her camera like an unwieldy bolo tie at every scenic vista. I’m kind of suprised I didn’t garrote myself with my Canon by accident.
What I have learned thus far:
Strangely, the police station is not open for tourism. They were polite, but firm. I’ll just have to count the windows and make my best guess.*
Ditto for the hospital. Though, a very nice nurse did mention that patients could be airlifted via helicopter, saying, “When in doubt, we ship them out!” She was also very pleased to tell me that the medical center was one of the few “free standing emergency rooms” in the state. Now, to Google exactly what the significance of that is so I will be duly impressed…
The airport is a parking lot for planes…planes with highly trusting owners. Apparently a 12-and-a-half-million dollar jet called a Citation Sovereign + landed there just a few weeks ago. I speculated that the ‘plus’ stood for that extra half million. I wonder if they left the keys above the visor?
People on vacation are willing to talk to strangers–probably in greater detail than they would anywhere else. Especially the newly weds.
Congrats once again to the couple from Holland who showed me their wedding photos and chatted in the shade by the Arch Rock waiting area. I’ll make sure to check out Kollen Park the next time I’m visiting Holland. May you live a long and happy life together, may all your worries be in your past.
Seriously, for such a small island, there is an inordinate number of hills. And rocks. And horse hockey.
I managed the tour of the Grand Hotel, getting some good photos and ideas for the finale–yet to be written–but what I really gained was an appreciation for the staff. The many kind people who work there–as well as a mother who took time to chat with me while her son ‘shadowed’ an employee in the program in hopes he might work there himself when he graduates from high school.
I shall take my sweeties and go thither…
Who doesn’t walk their bicycle with an umbrella on a sunny day?
This mom had worked there in the summers of her youth–right around the time the hotel was last renovated. She confirmed that the wallpaper was original, they have no ‘servant stairwell’ (cross that one off the list), and that the wait staff, musicians, and bartenders were housed in buildings down from the hotel, back in the day. The building women stayed in was the John Jacob Astor house which is now called The Grand Cottage. The men were housed elsewhere–possibly in a building called “The Twilight” which is a forest green house down the hill, take a left, and the first on the right. (You can’t miss it.)**
Slipping in and around busy bartenders, waiters, flower vendors, and the myriad other people working the hotel, I was routinely helped, with courteous, generous insistence.
My favorite stop had to be the Tea Shop. The Jamaican clerks were all natural charm and chatted about tea choices and even laughed when I read off a menu item identifying the contents of a $130 cocktail available in the nearby bar.***
I finally asked how I could say ‘Hello’ in the patois of Jamaica. A painstaking effort was made to help me try and say it right: ‘Wha Gwahn’, is what it sounded like. Which could almost be a contraction of ‘What’s going on!” I also practiced the appropriate reply: “Arri, mon!” (Perhaps, ‘All right, man?”) Strangely, the language seems even harder to speak when stone cold sober. Go figure.
I ordered my tea and wandered off to drink it, forgetting entirely to pay. The assistant apologetically brought this to my attention–as if they were at fault for wanting payment!
The young lady and I chatted for a bit. I told her about my son and asked her about autism awareness in her native land. She told me that everyone knows about autism because a great lady wrote a book about her son and it became very well known. I only wish I had taken down the name of the book! Antonette concluded by saying, “Don’t be afraid to bring your boy. Jamaica will be a great place for him. It’s all love!”
How can you turn down an invitation like that?
Her manager called her back to duty, I hope she wasn’t in trouble for taking so much time with me. If he only knew the kindness of such a gift. The thought that somewhere, out there, is a world full of people who would welcome my son with open arms.
It’s all love indeed.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*As dedicated a writer as I am, I wasn’t willing to get arrested to achieve my goals.
**Maybe you can’t miss it, but I certainly did. It is only gravity that keeps me from wandering off this planet by mistake.
***Maybe you’d prefer to save money and make the 125th Anniversary Cocktail at home? A quick search online reveals a bottle of the 100-year Grand Marnier Centenaire costs only $116.00, the 150 Anniversaire Grand Marnier comes in at $219.99 a bottle (Kaching!, and edible gold leaf–strangely enough–is the least expensive ingredient. It’s available, of all places, at Walmart for $76.45 for a pack of 25 squares. Don’t believe me? Check it out here: Gold Leaf at Wally World.
And bonus points go out to anyone who noticed what is particularly strange about the bicycle depicted in the close-up of the wallpaper. I didn’t see it the first dozen or so times I tried to upload the pic from a location Where the Wifi was Iffy. (Which once I wrote that down, looked like a book title for a modern day sequel to Where the Wild Things Are.)
I hit the island like a tropical storm…wearing makeup and shorts and a sweater and a rain coat. (I’m prepared for anything.)
The confusion at the docks means either I gave my luggage to a porter…or someone just made off with my computer.**
Once I’m checked into the B&B where I’m staying, I dive for a bike to start my two-wheeled therapy.
In a giddy rush, I tackle the 8-mile circumference with stop-and-go glee.
Stop-and-go because everything is a picture.
And I mean, E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.!!!
I’m stopping at every cove, each turn reveals a new sparkling shore.
I even photograph the rocks!
(I chuck it at the rolling surf, continuing my life-long experiment in how much I suck at skipping stones.)
There are oddly shaped trees and new construction–I wonder what the islanders have to say about the double-decker mansion going up on the east side??
I meander my way past a makeshift driftwood chair and table hosting a solitary cairn.
I stop to chat about this and that before, I’m off again, weaving my way until I am fish-hooked by a marker signifying the filming of ‘Somewhere in Time.’ A rock with a plaque reads “At this site on June 27, 1912 Richard Collier found Elise McKenna” making fact of fiction.
Does stopping to take a picture mean I’m perpetuating the lie?
The omnipresent seagulls make me a little paranoid…I mean, they are following me everywhere.
I stop to write bad poetry about seagulls pinned to the sky by the wind.
I circle back to the noisy, tourist-engorged center of town…
I clickety-click my way to “The Dock Shack” to ask a few questions about the island’s private harbor to make sure a scene in my book will actually work. I’m assured that the larger boats could dock at the privately owned pier at the far end where my heroine meets a watery fate. (Though, not fatal, as she’s only twelve.)
I have qualms about whether a golf cart could get through this narrow passage way…but then decide that fiction makes all things possible. (No matter how improbable.)
And then, thirsty, but elated, I belly up to the best scenery you can find–overlooking a miniature golf course. I dine with a view of happy families as far as the eye can see.
I sip my watermelon/elderflower cocktail–fluffing my violet so it doesn’t get sucked up the straw.
And I listen…
To the “Good Game” family as they cheer each other on:
“Go, Team Justin!”
(If he’s no taller than his putter, that makes him four, right?)
“Go, Team Evan!”
(Stoically, Evan waits his turn as Justin putt-putts the ball to the cup in what had to be eleventy-hundred strokes.)
Everybody is a winner!
“Crack!” this is the sound their sister’s swing makes as she whacks the ball–hard–and it hits the flag sinking into the cup in a single move. I doubt professional golfers could duplicate her efforts.
She’s all poise and nonchalance as she retrieves her ball.
Everyone high-fives each other and they totter off the 18th hole.
As they leave, I can still hear their echoing ‘Good Games’ wafting behind them.
Then there was the artist earlier in the day. I’m perusing her exhibit and overhearing a NSFW conversation about a date that went nowhere.
“And then, I ask him…’Are you a good kisser?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know. You be the judge.'”
The conversation goes in and out like a static-y station on the radio as I move from room to room. I hear the last bit as I bring my purchase up.
“And then he offers me the couch…’Or,’ he says, ‘you can sleep with me, if you want,’…but that was too weird, so I didn’t go to bed with him.”
To me she says, ‘That’ll be six dollars.”
The waiters behind me are bantering, bringing me back to the here and now. Despite the chill of dusk, there is something warm in their words. They speak in drawling tones–a language born under a hot sun, where humidity slows the syllables and hard consonants are too much work.
Is it…French…? Or…Spanish? I can’t quite tell.
When the waiter returns, I start to ask…and then notice under his name, the tag actually says, “I am from Jamaica.”
We chat for a bit and he tells me he’s been coming here for five seasons now. Flying in from Detroit or Chicago and driving up together.
It’s then that I notice his name, and I’m startled into asking:
“Fitz? Isn’t that a German name?”
He looks at me with his soulful dark eyes–a rich brown to match his skin–apparently unperturbed by my rudeness. “Oh yes, there are lots of Germans and Irish in Jamaica.”
I don’t question it at the time…but now I am wondering if he was pulling my inebriated leg?
I borrow a menu from my neighbors–a father and daughter who’ve been sharing the view of the perfectly manicured lawns.
We exchange “Where are you froms?”
Turns out–we live about ten miles away from each other.
I learn that I’ve been sitting next to a member of the cast of Annie–a production run by Hope College. Ellie tells me that she’s playing “Molly” and that she has a few lines of dialogue as well as singing. She speaks like she’s been in theater for years. She’s ten!
I ask in a conspiratorial whisper, “Do you have a real red head to play the lead?”
She shakes her head. “No, they dyed her hair!”
“Would you have dyed your hair for the part?” I ask.
She considers this. “Well, if it was for a big theater. Yes. Not for just a local production.”
My head is spinning, and not just at the savoir faire of the pint-sized talent beside me.
I eyeball my drinky-winky…
Hey, where’d it go?
I pay my bill, trying not to wince at the total.***
“How much alcohol was in that drink?” I ask Fitz.
“Only a shot and a half of vodka, plus the elderflower liquor.” He seems surprised by my lack of backbone…or knees. “Should I call you a ride?”
I hold up my helmet. “No…’v got my bike. The B&B ‘s not far.”
I pour myself out of the restaurant, slurring my way back to the bike rack. I miss every single horse plop on the way back to the B&B.
Surrounded by families biking, building cairns, playing golf, and being chauffeured by a proud parent from stage to island and back again…I’m tipsy enough to be missing my son. And hoping he’s having as much fun as I am.
There is no high like the freedom from parenting…but a little elderflower liquor certainly doesn’t hurt.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Also drunk blogging…
**Hint…I’m typing on it right now.
***Welcome to the island, all major credit cards can be maxed out here.
Some days, you just gotta get your funk on! So, of course, you go to your local specialty cheese store. If you are feeling blue, have they got the cheese for you!
I recently explored the highly-select, curdled delicacies of The Cheese Lady. This particular gouda merchant has been in business for over five years within walking distance of where I work. I have never been to such a specialized store since I visited the short-lived “Get Oiled” lubricant emporium at a nearby mall.*That establishment overestimated a beer-drinking town’s appetites for strictly olive-oil based tastes. Fortunately, cheese goes magnificently with beer. So, against the economic odds, The Cheese Lady is thriving.
You wouldn’t think you’d find someone willing to pay $28.00 per pound for a cheese.** But, if you casually drop into the conversation that you are a blogger, apparently they are willing to break out the 15-year-old, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, to dazzle your senses.
I was given several different samples to try–like many addictive substances, the first taste is free. My personal favorite was a strong cheddar with a soft name: Prairie Breeze Cheddar. If you go to their site, you can read the details–or misread them as I did–and learn that this cheese is made by milking the Mennonite Amish in Iowa. I hope it isn’t a painful process, but even if it is, it is certainly worth the price for the pleasure. (I’m sure there is a bondage joke somewhere straining to break free in that sentence.)
Prairie Breeze has the bite of a 10-year aging process and the crystallization that makes each nibble a squeaky pleasure against the back of the teeth and palate. It is also made of vegetarian rennet – in case you are squeamish about abusing animals for your taste buds but not enough to eschew cheese consumption entirely.
I’m a bit of a foodie, I know a hard Italian can be found beyond the covers of a romance novel.***But this place had names for cheese I’ve never heard of. I’m scanning the wall of exotica and I point to one that just screams to be tasted, which is how I ended up the victim of what has to be a practical joke cheese.
If you have a penchant for the pungent, you may want to give it a try. (Or, if you are a wicked prankster and have a cheese-loving victim in mind…) Sample the Red Witch. She’s to die for. Be warned, I had to spit the offending Wiccan out of my mouth because it went past my ‘blue cheese’ tolerance levels into a zone I gaspingly describe as “People Actually Eat This?” It is definitely an acquired taste. It was also created for a specific event so it’s a limited ‘pleasure’ to be had before it’s gone, gone, gone.****
You don’t need a special occasion to stop by. However, it’s a great location to throw together a one-of-a-kind gift. The store sells decorative baskets so you can pull together your sundry delights. There are cheeses galore and more–gourmet items you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. There were some gorgeous, if pricey, clay sculptures, cheese boards and other sundry specialties to round out your gift giving. Crackers, jams, and dried fruit combos abound. It is definitely a store for the upper market, but, even an everyday person like me can drop a few dollars or sample for free the forbidden fruits of years of cheese making tradition. I missed out on the dessert cheeses this time around. I plan next to hit the blueberry stilton and tantalizing-sounding cranberry wensleydale–in honor of my favorite British duo: Wallace and Gromit.
I may even beg a little mango ginger or lemon stilton while I’m at it. I am not above groveling. For cheese is a pleasure one should not deny oneself. It is a gift from the moldy gods! And there’s nothing funky about that!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Not the real name of the establishment, I’m saving their dignity. I entered “Get Oiled” in wonder a few years ago honestly expecting someone to jump out and yell, “Surprise!” revealing it to be a giant hoax. The next time I visited the mall, it was no longer there. Perhaps it was a Potemkin Olive Oil Village?
**You’d be wrong. *nibbles 1-ounce purchase*
***I’m looking at you, Fabio!
****While eating the Red Witch, I highly recommend you gasp, “I’m melting, I’m melting,” before sinking to the floor in a collapse, just to add authenticity to the experience.