Searching for Jim

It was 2016 when I was half way through Jim Harrison’s collection of fiction. One night, while working second shift in a government job, I read the news on my phone, Jim Harrison was dead. I should have seen it coming. At his age it wasn’t to be unexpected that he would pass away. The River Swimmer was added to my list of read books on Goodreads the week before and I was then reading The Big Seven. With a pen in hand Jim was added to the long list of American writers we would no longer reap the benefits of.
Last year, 2018, my wife and I took a trip to Grand Marais where we quickly learned Jim owned a cabin for a good portion of his life. I sat at the bar of the Dune Saloon and noticed a picture on the wall. Jim was laughing or smiling and I pointed at the picturing asking the bartender, “is that Jim Harrison?” I was the only idiot in the room that didn’t know Jim lived in the area. This was common knowledge and to my dismay I had to acknowledge that although I had read a good portion of his work, unlike most of the people in the room that had known him personally, I didn’t know much about the man.
The few things I did know about where from his own books and things that I suspected were his own traits coming through in his characters. He enjoyed red wine, women, fishing, solitude, and dogs. Cigarettes were a must in life. A man of Michigan, the state that I grew up in and still live, was the setting for many of his tales. There appear to be several Michigans that one can know. There is the state in the southern region where poverty and crime are normal and we don’t have much pride in where we come from. Then there is the southern Michigan that has money and good jobs, that is able to enjoy the better things in life. There is country Michigan, where hunting and factory life is normal, Jesus is thanked every Sunday and you better own a truck. Then there is northern Michigan that is still a mystery to me. This is a place where English changes, time slows down, the weather is quick to winter and slow to spring, troubles are forgotten, and sleep is guaranteed.
I have seen very little of the northern part of my state. At the Dune Saloon, I was introduced to the 1970’s and 80 in a time capsule that had been locked away for forty years. A jukebox sat against the wall with music that had not been changed since 1986 and a pool table was waiting for a game to be played. The bathroom walls were covered in decades of people carving their names into the dried bone colored wood. Old barrels were being used as table tops and the brass bar running along the bottom of the bar was kept polished by the feet that rested on it every night. Jim came here often and I could imagine what things might have been like when he stopped in. as a writer, I know that very few people that I am close to will actually read anything that I write. No, the conversations would have been about other topics, the weather, best places for fly fishing, how to cook a perfect tenderloin, where is the best red wine from, or the legs of the Menonite girl that had walked by outside earlier that day. Jim was a normal guy and he wrote about normal guys.
The cabin that I had heard about was purchased and while I still drove out to see it that final hundred yards of the trail, I could not pass because of the no trespassing sign posted on a tree. I had to respect that while Jim once lived there it was no longer his place, and hell, he might not appreciate me stopping by if he still was there.
I should have trusted Jim’s taste on that trip. While my wife and I ventured around trying out different places to eat and drink, with crummy pasties polluting our pallets, the best food was found at the Dune Saloon on the last night we were in town. The view of Lake Superior was something that has to be experienced for oneself. The large polished rocks on the beach that is combed every morning by collectors and those who make money selling them to tourist, are something that I have never seen elsewhere. The sandy beaches of lake Michigan are littered with beach bunnies and over developed kids in bikinis leaving their trash for others to pick up long after they are gone. Lake Superior with the cool breeze blowing in from the north and the freighter ships dropping off ore in the distance was the complete opposite of its southern neighbor.
While I enjoyed Munising, the painted rocks national park, the breweries in the U.P. the quiet nights, and the laid back days, there was one thing that stuck with me. Who was Jim? What was the Michigan that he knew? Who was I as a writer and what could he teach me along the way? What the hell was this state that I was living in and why didn’t I know about it?
I learned about Jim’s house in Leland Michigan, how he had two daughters like me, and all the crazy friends he had. There was much more to see and experience from his world that still exist today. Those final years that he spent in Arizona he longed to be back in Michigan. His final books were set in the state and even he admitted that he was too old to enjoy the winters again or cross the trails that kept him whole. Now I am in Traverse City, following him again to learn what it was he enjoyed in life. I have a week and a list of places to go. Unless the gods roll their dice against me I should learn something along the way.

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