letters to Harrison

Letters to Harrison: 1

I still remember the day you died, now three years ago but feeling like yesterday. Out of all the deaths I could imagine yours was the one I had the most respect for. It wasn’t the suicide or drug overdose that we hear so much about, although you did flirt with those from time to time. I dread the care facility, the place where you rot away and people forget about you while they steal your stuff. Bedpans and seated showers are not the place for me. You died doing what you always did and weren’t going to stop from old age or loneliness, I know your wife died six months before. It seems like we all have someone waiting for us on the other side. How was it greeting Anthony Bourdain to the other side? I can imagine the feast you had prepared of duck breasts and pigs cooking in every way possible. They are selling his things now and I have seen some of yours. You are scattered around the country now, autographed books, your photo at Dick’s Pour House, French wine, and people still complain that you owe them money. Have a check ready for when they arrive. Tomorrow I will be cooking up a batch of pumpkin bacon soup from one of your favorite cookbooks by Fergus Henderson. The house will smell of bacon and garlic, and I will become fat as I prepare for winter. Hunting season is here and while we don’t have dove or quail in these parts it is calming to be in the woods and clear one’s head that the world always tries to fill with someone else’s gibberish. We all need to get away, even the crickets are singing their song in the city longing for a time that there wasn’t a city, when all of this was theirs and the only concern they had was what to eat and who to breed with. Humans were like that once until things became so damn complicated. What is it about our nature that causes us to destroy the little bit of good that we have? Are we all greedy? Is it some kind of lustful thirst that we can not satisfy pushing us toward our own demise? The empty bag of potato chips beside me might hold the answers. We continue to take until there is nothing left.

letters to Harrison

Searching for Jim: Part 5

Tacos was the mission for the day. Sarah had seen a place on Front street where food trucks parked for the day and sold a variety of food with a bar located nearby. The Fleet is a year round bar that uses the parking lot outside for a seasonal food truck rally. After we parked several blocks away at an affordable parking lot, $1.20 for two hours, we found the food trucks and roamed around seeking the most creative menu items we could find. At Happy Tacos we found our lunch and placed the order. I had the lamb patty cheese burger taco, crunchy shrimp taco, and the Korean spicy pork taco. At four dollars a pop they didn’t disappoint and left me full the majority of the day. Sarah had a similar menu.Once lunch was over we traced our steps back down Front street and found two shops we had spotted along the way. Sarah took Zoey with her in to the basement shop filled with local arts and crafts while I went a few doors down to Nolan’s Cigar Bar. This was the only place in Traverse city where a person can sit and have a drink while enjoying a cigar. I went to the room next door and immediately found a wall covered in tobacco pipes and jars sitting on shelves filled with pipe tobacco. Two young men smoking cigars asked me if I needed any help and I replied that I was looking for something unique, something that was blended specifically for the shop. They had an entire case that filled the bill. The man had me smell the blends one at a time and I chose the most popular blends that they offered from Cherry festival to their Downtown Blend. I went home with four bags. Looking on the wall before I cashed out, I said to myself that I didn’t need a new pipe. I had no use for a new pipe. I really like that red pipe. I think I will buy that red pipe. That was what I did, I asked to see the red bent stem Italian hand crafted by Lorenzo pipe and it was added to my order. A handful of matches were added to the bag and I was out the door.We passed by Horizon books and afterwards regretted not going in but time was limited. I found online that they had several first edition and autographed books by Jim in their stacks. We visited a few shops and I found myself in Brilliant books looking for some books of poetry by Jim. They had a decent selection and I bought the two that I felt would be the hardest to come by. At the counter I asked the clerk if he had anything else by Jim that I didn’t see and he proceeded to tell me a story.
“We had a memorial display for Jim after he died. We found a nice smoky picture of him with the dates of his birth and death and set it up in that corner. We thought it would stay out for a month or so but three years later it was still there. We had people coming in several times a week to see it. Then one day someone came in and stole the picture, sneaking it out the door.”I paid for my books and the clerk asked if we had seen Jim’s house out in Leland. I had to confess that we had not, we only stopped at Dick’s Pour House and had gone the wrong day to Blue Bird Tavern. The clerk told me another story about his mother coming to visit and being from the area. She had taken her son to Dick’s and said she knew the owners. He though she was making stuff up because of her age but it turned out she did know the second generation of owners of the place.
Once we left I went into The Franklin, a well known establishment who catered to a small but well known group people, Jim being one of them. Marilyn Monroe was on the wall along with Sean Connery and Albert Einstein. All of these people had eaten or drank at The Franklin at one time or another. Jim’s face was plastered on the wall right in the middle with his cigarette in his mouth and his eyes squinting as if he was thinking “what are you staring at?” I didn’t get to take the place it with the few minutes I had but I did notice the girl working the front desk who barely spoke English and had a French copy of 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. Maybe one day he will be added to the wall and I will have another reason to go back and enjoy an old fashion at the bar.
Our last stop was at The Cheese Lady and once my wife picked out a few flavors for her mother we left Traverse city happy to not see it again for a while. The traffic, even in the off season, was thick and sticky like a weird fungus you can’t get away from. The cars come to a halt and you sit there wondering when you will be able to move again. The city, like the old insane asylum, is a prison in a way. The only way to really get around is in a helicopter or a small bike where you can weave in and out of traffic and hope to not be caught by local police for riding on the sidewalk, a ticketable offence.
We went to sleeping bear dunes and took the Empire trail to the lookout. The idea was to have Zoey walk the three quarters of a mile to the lookout and ware her out so that she would sleep good overnight. Instead she fell asleep in the car ride there and continued to sleep as I carried her to the lookout, uphill.
Zoey eventually woke up and proceeded to hoot, holler, and cry at every little thing. The walk back was just like the walk in, me carrying her in my arms while I went up and down the hills to the car. The final hundred yards, all of it downhill to the parking lot, was where Zoey decided to walk the rest of the way.In town we stopped at Joe’s Friendly Tavern to enjoy some Cherry burgers. I asked the waitress if this was a place that Jim had ever gone to. She went into the kitchen where a cook named Matt was working and had been there long enough to remember Jim. Joe’s was a known Hangout but we were also told he preferred to go to Art’s Tavern instead. I wrote off the stop as a success considering how delicious the burger was and seeing that Jim would go here.
The beach in empire reminded me of Lake Superior with large stones lining the shore. People walked along the water picking up stones and tossing them back as if it wasn’t up to their standards.
The drive back to the cabin felt long and in the end all we wanted to do was enjoy a fire our last night here and drink the bottle of Cotes Du Rhone I bought a few days before.That night the wind howled and once the fire was burning red coals shot into the air with each gust. Half an hour in and half of the bottle gone we went inside to call it a night. A storm rolled through and the roof shook as sheets of rain slapped down and still this was the quietest night I had enjoyed in a long time. There is something calm about the north, the lack of cars driving past, no sirens in the night from a car crash or shooting, no neighbors leaving at all hours of the night, the only lights that are on are the ones you didn’t turn off. I can understand why people flee north into the solitude of a remote country. The few nights of good sleep I have had in the last two years were not at home but in the north in a foreign land that I barely know. I hope to be more familiar with it, learn what it was that kept Jim there for most of his life. Its not difficult to figure out. Life is slow, calm, people live with the seasons and on the lake it is no different from a town on the sea. Cabin fever is a real phenomenon. There are five radio stations to choose from and people still read books. The north is a time capsule to a better time, when people thought about what mattered and sometimes it tortured them to the end.

letters to Harrison

Searching for Jim: part 4

The day appeared to be a bust. For some reason I thought that Dick’s Pour House was in Traverse City but I was horribly wrong. Our mission was to hit the peninsula with all of the wineries visible from Traverse City. For years I had heard stories from people about going to Traverse City and how the wine was “soooo amazing.” I had gone on the south west Michigan wine trail several times and found most of the wines to be far superior than anything I had tried from up north. Harrison on the other hand had a different opinion. “I have yet to find a domestic red wine worth drinking.” His taste stayed with the French reds and I had to admit a fondness for Italian reds and the occasional Cotes du Rhone. I found no harm in exploring a region that has been working on creating tasty wine and thought maybe Jim was selling himself with not exploring what was available in the region.
The day started out with breakfast at the Flap Jack Shack, a retro establishment that looked like it was straight out of a 1970’s film with wooden beams holding up a cathedral ceiling, orange seated stools around a bar with a marble top and glass tiled side. The only thing missing would have been shag carpeting but that was likely removed years before due to health code violations.
I chose a sausage gravy omelet while my wife ordered a skillet meal. Zoey had a banana sushi dish coming her way. The place was packed when we walked in. the day was 9-11 and the television wouldn’t let me forget what the day was. For days now I had gone without a television and the one day I try to forget for my own sanity I have to see images of the trade center towers and the pentagon building on fire. Meanwhile the current president is on record stating that trump tower is now the tallest building in New York city on the day that it happened.
After filling my belly and watching zoey cover her face with peanut butter and whip cream we drove through town and went up the county road into the peninsula in search of some good wines. Our first stop was an old school house, Peninsula Cellars reminded me of a few places back home, specifically Texas Corners brewery that also used an old school house for their place of business. The tasting was cheap, $5 for five wines and everything on the menu we tried was to our liking. Not wanting to spend all of our money at one place we bought one bottle and went about our travels. I will say I am looking forward to having Detention again at some point and the Foreign Exchange Student was a delight on my tongue. Take that as you will.
Next on our travels was Bonobo Winery, a scenic place that over looked the wine fields and had a deck that people could enjoy with a glass or five. From the start there were a few things that were odd. It was $12 to try five wines and there were only five wines to choose from. The wines were nothing to brag about and their prices said more about the owners than their quality. As we went through our tasting more people came in and they appeared to be models straight out of a mall shopping catalogue. All the women in this place were blonde and tried to fit some kind of breasts, waist, bust ratio that I was not too impressed with. Hair was blonde and cut to a specific length that wasn’t too long or too short. Blue eyes were either fake or real. Tans were fake, sprayed on by some latin American pool boy.
A storm rolled in and while we were waiting for our last couple of glasses two guys that could have been fill in for the movie Sideways walked in. the mouthy good looking guy kept making comments and asking to do things that were not only never done but also illegal under the law. No, you can’t grab your flight of wines and sit on the deck watching the storm roll in. none of the wines appealed to us and in the end we raced out of the tasting room to the car in down pouring rain to find an antique shop next door to de-douche from the experience.
The antique shop was amazing. A three story barn with tons of things to look over and Zoey found an old metal doll house to test her tetenous shot against. Downstairs I found a copy of Hemingway’s By-Line: a collection of correspondence and articles written by the man over four decades. This was put together after his death but considering how hard it is to find his non-fiction I had to dish out the $16 for this hard cover edition with the dust cover.

Next in line was Bower Wines, the second oldest winery on the peninsula and featuring dogs on many of their bottles. The place was busy and to do a tasting there was to spend an hour waiting for a spot to open at the bar and to wait for the drinks to eventually be poured. I ended up enjoying a 2018 wood free Chardonnay and bought a bottle to take home. I learned a little history of the wine industry for the area but nothing spectacular. Before the 1990s the wine trade did not exist here, so maybe in Jim’s defense they did not know what they were doing at first and his opinion was correct for the time.
The rain cleared and we were on our way. 2 Lads were waiting for us and the place did not disappoint. The view over the lake was spectacular and at first the tasting was a bit of a disappointment. $12 a piece to try five wines and there were a few snacks to enjoy with it. Who ever had the idea of adding a spicy dip to the snacks is a fucking idiot and should be taken out back and beaten. Regardless, the wine ended up being good and I had the pleasure of trying a Cab Franc that was so tasty I paid the $35 for a bottle that I never could justify otherwise.
On our way out of the peninsula we stopped at Brys wines and by this point we didn’t want to do a tasting, burned out on bad wine and over priced samples that said “our stuff is so good you should be pleased that you tried it.” I found the more a place charges the less confidence they have in their product and for good reason. Brys was also $12 for a tasting of five wines and at this point we decided to just buy a glass and sit on the deck. I was a nice view but the point to was to figure out where to go from here.
We had not thought that for ahead and decided to hit Dick’s Pour House regardless of the drive. Dick’s was on Leland Lake and we had 30 minutes of driving to kill. We pulled up to Dick’s and found a small one story diner that had been remodeled several times over the years. There is a famous photo of Jim playing pool in this place and these days there is no pool table to be found. The two lights with green domes still hang from the ceiling but a table top bar now sits under it for people to congregate. Hear heads hang on the wall. The bar has an art deco design from the 1920s or 30s. next to the bathroom entrance hangs the picture of Jim playing pool.

Its easy to see where the table once was and who knows why they decided to get rid of it. I ordered a blue cheese and bacon burger with Horny Monk beer from petosky while my wife ordered a salad. I would learn later that Dick’s was on its third generation of owner and that the people running it still knew who Jim was. Instead of talking to anyone we ate our meal, paid the tab, and left. Dick’s had a similar flare as the Dune Saloon with the taxidermy and old wooden bar, it was easy to see that this was the kind of place Jim would go to. In the corner of the place was the old wooden booth that the payphone would have been in.
We left Leland and went home. The day had been long and involved, and in the end, even Zoey was eager to be done with the day. You know you have done too much when a two year old feels like it had its butt kicked.

letters to Harrison

Searching for Jim: part 3

The day started out in a hurry with my wife doing a tour of the Traverse city insane asylum that has been converted into a mall and office space. Some of the buildings are apartments and housing for the elderly but it has become well known for high class restaurants like Stella, fine wine such as Left Foot Charley, and hearty beer like Earthen Ales. It is easy to spend a day at what is now known as The Commons. While my wife was touring the site for two hours, I had an appointment at Landmark Books owned by a man named Paul. I had met Paul in Kalamazoo during a meeting with fellow typewriterholics. We are a strange bunch and when we start bragging about what he have found, seen, and almost bought, the conversation could be mistaken for a bunch of high school guys talking about the cute girls we almost scored with.

I have a Fox typewriter that I have been unable to fix on my own and Paul thought he might know a few tricks to get it running again. My suspicion led me to think that the spring for the carriage return is broken and that it would have to be completely torn apart to replace the one-hundred-year-old part. I met Paul at the store, chased my daughter around the brick walled tunnels of the building, and returned two hours later to see a look of frustration on Paul’s face. “I can’t fix it.” The beautiful machine, with its glowing black body and gold pinstripes would have to sit on a shelf, good enough to be admired but impotent to the touch. The thirty dollars I saved on not being able to fix it freed me to purchase a few other things I had set my eyes on.
Across from the counter was a shelf filled with books by Jim. Some had the paper marker stating that they were sign by the author and I took a look. A third print of Dalva was still in hardcover and looked brand new. To the left was a signed copy of The Woman Lit by Fireflies. Both were signed and both were added to my modest pile.

To the right-hand side of the store sat a glass case and while waiting for my wife to finish her tour I roamed around and found the case filled with proof editions of Dalva, Legends of the Fall, among first prints of other books. These had come from a collection owned by a retired CEO of some large company who settled down in the area. Not related but also bought from the same collection was a signed copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. For an affordable sum of $2500 you can take it home today. I have a feeling that such a rare thing might stay in the case until some other collector with spare cash to burn comes along and sets it on his shelf to brag about and masturbate to in his private time.
I asked Paul if he had known Jim and to my surprise he said yes. I asked him what he was like? “Jim could be abrasive and short with you when he had been drinking, but that was all the time. When he wasn’t drinking…” He paused for a moment and thought about his next words. “he was fun to be around and pleasant but that was rare.” He sounded as disappointed as I felt. I had a feeling this would be the case for many that knew him. In an interview I found on YouTube Jim said that he had been asked why he was now putting out a book a year when that had been rare before. “When you stop drinking a gallon of vodka a day you are able to do a lot more.” I bought the autographed copies of Jim’s books along with a few other trinkets and left The Commons.
After the morning trip to the insane asylum, we went to Folgarelli’s, an Italian delicatessen that provides the area with cured meats and deli style sandwiches. Jim mentioned this place in his book The Raw and the Cooked. Before going out for a hunt he would stop in and buy a sandwich to go and eat it out in the field when he was hungry. There was also the selection of French wines that would have brought him in. The wine wasn’t enough to brag about, my own home town of Kalamazoo has several places to choose from with dozens of French reds to choose from. Maybe I’m being stuck up about this and a place like Folgarelli’s was the best that one could do in the area under the circumstances, however after being there I will say that if there is anything to brag about with this place it is the food at the deli. That didn’t stop me from buying a bottle of Cotes Du Rhone.

My wife picked out a sandwich from the long list on the wall and I search in vain for certain meats that would feed my appetite. I decided on The Godfather, a meaty sandwich with Italian dressing, red pepper spread, and prosciutto. There were a few other ingredients but they fail my memory at this time. The sandwich had a balance of flavor that you will never find at your local Subway or Arby’s. the bread was not too hard and not too soft. There was enough meat to keep you satisfied but not feel like a glutton. The red pepper was enough for a kick with the Italian dressing, of which I rarely like on anything. By the time I finished the sandwich I felt stuffed and would have to walk it off later. My daughter, who is two, and I feel like I must point this out with any story about her these days, proceeded to eat a small portion of a pasta salad and followed it up with tossing handfuls of it on the ground. A smackable sin in the house that I had grown up in. for me I see it fit to take away the meal that is not being appreciated and eating the remains in front of her. This of course did not work since she already proved that she didn’t care about the food to begin with. Either way, she didn’t have to finish it and I ended up leaving with a stretched stomach and a sense of self-loathing from eating too much so early in the day.
A few blocks over we found an antique store that was larger than it had appeared from the front. Three stories and filled with all kinds of eye-popping trinkets, we spotted everything from coins, dolls, wagons, pipes, and even, I’m not kidding here, an airplane. The pipes were a bunch of Dr. Grabows that are a dime a dozen but people seem to think otherwise. In a tiny room on the second floor I found what I didn’t know I was looking for, an Aztec portable typewriter. This was a steal at $50 and I picked it up and paid for it right away. We continued through the store and didn’t find anything else to go rushing to the counter for.

We tried to find a playground to take our daughter and while we did find one next to lake Michigan, we wanted something that was free from stuck up kids in uniforms who didn’t want to get dirty playing with a two-year-old. We left downtown and drove to Interlocken state park, not far from where our cabin is located. A few hundred yards past the main gate there was a beach with a playground and nobody else was around. Our daughter ran to the playground yelling “slide!” and climbing the stairs to make her first of many trips down the plastic amusement park ride. I walked the beach and found the water calm, with a small breeze and a blue sky framed by the trees along the shore.
I knew when my wife suggested coming here that it was a place that I could add to my list of Harrison stops. Over the years Jim would do lectures and talks on the campus here reading poetry and telling funny stories to student and staff. I can see why people would come here. It’s not lake Michigan and that alone is a big appeal. The park is isolated when compared to most. There are two lakes and a campus for marching bands and other musical studies to practice and perform. Writing lyrics like poetry is something that needs to be learned even if one starts to practice with a gift in the subject.
While relaxing in the park a school of ducks swam by and my daughter, being the pigheaded individual that she is, ran to the shore and scared the fatty delicious beasts away. Not satisfied with the short interaction she found acorns on the shore and tossed them into the water. When she ran out of acorns she went into the water and fetched the acorns she had already thrown. This continued until she was waist high in the water six feet out and still reaching for more. My wife and I stood on the shore trying to call her back out but of course, being Zoey, she went out until her legs floated to the surface and she was bobbing around in the water. In the few seconds that this happened I was amazed to see what was happening. She turned her head to the side and I watched her take a breath. Her arms moved to paddle and her legs kicked on after another. At no time did she panic, instead she was trying to swim. I kicked off one of my shoes and my wife slid her sandals off walking into the water and picking Zoey up as she bobbed around in perfect freestyle swimming fashion. Once Zoey was set on the shore she turned around and tried to walk back into the lake. This did not go over well. She apparently had no idea what had happened and that she could have drowned. The hundred yard walk back to the car was filled with screaming fits, tantrums, crying, earth shattering howls, and her standing her ground that she was not moving from until dad picked her up and carried her to the car dripping wet and covered in sand. I wondered if Jim’s daughters had ever done something like this, causing early gray hairs and a few more wrinkles in a matter of seconds. We left the park and went back to the cabin.
That night my wife and I sat around a camp fire. The cool night air was perfect for star gazing as a rabbit kept saying hello and small toads ran away from our feet as we came and went from the cabin with bottles of Cinnamon Girl from Left Foot Charley. Sarah told me about the tour of the hospital and we talked about where we would go tomorrow. It would be another day and there was still much to see. I wondered where Jim would take me next.

letters to Harrison

Searching for Jim: part 2

My travels took me to Leland Michigan, the county that Jim lived in for a good portion of his life. There, not far from the shore of Lake Michigan is a place called Blue Bird tavern and bar. My wife and I made our way through town first stopping at the Leland book store. Unlike Grand Marais, the book store had a small section dedicated to local writers and half a shelf was filled with Jim’s books. While I have most of his fiction, the non-fiction and poetry can be hard to find. So, I bought Just Before Dark and The Shape of the Journey, a collection of poems including some posthumously released.

The three of us walked through town where my daughter threw a fit several times and had this strange fascination with throwing rocks into the lake. When a duck swam by minding its own business she screamed “DUCK!” and the animal dived under the water, passing by three boats, before resurfacing again at the end of the dock. It is no wonder you have to shoot one out of the air during hunting season otherwise you might never find the darn thing.
Eventually, we made our way to the Blue Bird only to find the front door was locked. I couldn’t find anything posted outside as to what was happening but a woman came around the back of the building to water plants and she explained things to us. “This time of year, the blue bird closes on Mondays. It’s a wonky time of year and they reduce their hours because of the lack of tourist.”

I was disappointed. I had seen photos of Jim playing pool inside and appearing to have a good time. According to some articles I had read this was a usual hangout when he was living at the house. Feeling defeated we left and decided to try and make up for the disappointment with a place across the street called The Cove. Parked outside was an old Buick pickup truck and a boat car, or floating car, or a car with a boat motor. I don’t know what it was called exactly but it was red and looked like something out of the 1950s. The Cove was dark inside with a deck overlooking the bay. The town was a series of old shanties that were in various states of disrepair, the wood, bone dry and never painted, cracked and aged with the seasons.
The special at the Cove was white fish. This surprised me but it also didn’t due to the fact that white fish has no flavor and you can make it taste like anything you want. After much debate and not wanting to spend the money on these options we were reading on the menu we finally decided to forget about the cost and enjoy the deck. I ordered the stuffed white fish and my wife had the fish and chips. Why on earth fish and chips is a $25 dish I will never understand. This is street food, poor people street food. Nothing changed about it. They aren’t stuffing the cheapest fish with foie gras or mixing the batter with unicorn semen. These items are defrosted, battered and dropped in a deep fryer. There is no reason that fish and chips should cost more that ten bucks. But we caved in and waited for our food. Thankfully we did not order drinks.

My meal, for all of its glory can with a salad, hand made roll, a side of mashed potatoes and a vegetable of the season. This season was corn, cooked with butter. I’m not sure who put this meal together or why it was priced the way that it was. The fish was the only labor-intensive item on the menu. The salad was chopped romaine lettuce and only romaine. The mashed potatoes were put on the plate with an ice cream scoop. Then there was the corn. Yes, it was good, yes it was perfect, but for $25 I would expect a little more that half an ear.
Out on the water the little red car drove up the dock and people rushed over to our side of the deck to see it. I already had to deal with the old couple that was turning around glaring at our daughter who was having a bad day and I have to say that she will likely have more of those in her future. The car turned around in the dock and drove back into the lake disappearing in the distance.
The stuffed whitefish, while it was good, the only thing that impressed me was the shrimp and scallops they used to stuff the fillet. The wrapped pieces had paprika dashed on top and the fatty oils balanced the salt sprinkled on top. These two pieces were good and I can not say anything to the contrary. I don’t know if these were anything that Jim might have had, hell I don’t know if the Cove was around when Jim lived in the area. All I know is that a man I know told me that he ran into Jim at the Blue Bird Tavern several times and I would learn more about that later.
We left Leland, bellies full and hoping that we could loosen our belts at the next stop light. That night I pulled out some of my books and found a passage in The Raw and the Cooked where Jim talked about Folgarelli’s and the sandwiches they made there. I mentioned it to my wife and she said it was a place she had wanted to go for years. That would be our next stop but for another day.
On the way home we stopped at Left Foot Charlie and bought some bottles of Cinnamon Girl cider to have out by a fire. One the way home it rained. Zoey took over an hour to fall asleep and we didn’t get to make the fire. It was that kind of day.

letters to Harrison

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.