I’m working my way through The Best American Travel Writing of 2005, and this morning, I came to an essay by William Least Heat-Moon. “By the Big Sea Water” is a wonderful account of his first time seeing Lake Superior while in the North Woods of Minnesota. On a trip away from their Kansas City home, he and his father stop for some smoked fish in a questionably constructed shack on the water, a meal that has him craving a repeat for years.
At first I was enjoying the essay merely because it was about that great Great Lake of ours. But then he broke my heart a little, as the essay ends with a nostalgic longing that can’t ever be alleviated. As an adult, he returns to the area and attempts to recreate his experience, but as we all know, most memories full of that degree of magic and wonder can never be reconstructed. Even when he tracks down the fish of his past, he learns it was only a small part of the experience he sought.
Obviously this made me think about my time in Marquette, about how there may be a day when we are able to return, and how it might not present the same magic I remember. The time and place and people that make our Marquette are so intertwined that it would be impossible to recreate those memories. Even if that is so, even if we can’t ever go back, isn’t that why essays like Heat-Moon’s exist? Because even if it was only on paper, he found his way back.
And he does say some wonderfully accurate things about the lake:
With a topographical abruptness hardly typical of the state, the road seemed to fall away as it rolled down a cliff; ahead was a distant horizon, not of dark trees but of a pencil line linking two radiant shades of blue. It was impossible to discern which reflected the other. There I had my first glimpse ever of a body of water showing no opposite shore.
The blueness, its depths, the wind having it all, bespoke remoteness and cold even in midsummer. I couldn’t then have articulated it, but I felt I was on the brink of a wilderness, and intimidating mysteriousness.
That is what Lake Superior does to people, hypnotizes them with its size, its attitude, its cold. And who would change it? What’s better on a gray October afternoon than an angry lake, hurling water over the roadside rocks and throwing a cold mist into your face? Warm, small pools of water don’t offer the same intensity, and they don’t make you feel as insignificant, as grateful, as alive.
“That day, Lake Superior wrote itself into me.”