What happens when two old friends from high school graduate from college, settle down on opposite coasts, have kids, and decide to reunite for a fishing adventure on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? It seems an unlikely vacation choice for two guys who grew up in the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City. We haven’t done much to enhance our outdoorsmen credentials as adults either. My friend, Jack, lives in L.A., and I’m in Atlanta … not exactly bucolic settings. But there was something about the whole Hemingway thing that attracted us—his writing about Northern Michigan, Nick Adams fishing on the Two Hearted River, etc. Neither one of us had ever been to the Upper Peninsula, but it seemed like the right place to go. Even Longfellow conspired to promote the place with his poem Hiawatha, creating word pictures of a pristine, primal wilderness that now exists in the Hiawatha National Forest on the Upper Peninsula. Surely Longfellow’s “the shores of Gitche Gume” had to be on Lake Superior or Lake Michigan or perhaps even Lake Huron, all lapping the coast of the U.P., and all calling to us.
After landing in Traverse City, we hopped in our rental car and headed north. Our plan was to explore the top part of the Lower Peninsula before crossing the Mackinac Bridge to the U. P. Let me start out by saying that when we were kids, our families spent our summer vacations on Cape Cod; and I had spent time in Maine, so we were both kind of biased toward the New England coast. Certainly we didn’t expect anything in Michigan to rival the historic architecture and charm we were used to back East. I have to say, we were pleasantly surprised. Some of the little towns we explored, like Charlevoix and Harbor Springs, were as inviting and architecturally attractive as those in New England. The views of Lake Michigan are much like looking at the ocean. In fact the word “lake” sells it short. Looking across Lake Michigan you get the same sense of expansiveness and wonder you do looking at the ocean. It’s really a fresh water sea.
We continued exploring and ended up in the village of Petoskey just before dinner. Here was another delightful little town. The historic architecture was preserved along streets that meandered up a hill giving a great view of the sea, sometimes called Lake Michigan. Gaslights lined the streets, and little shops invited exploration. But dinnertime was approaching, and we’d put in a long day, so we ducked into a place called City Park Grill.
While waiting for our food, we noticed people up front walking around, setting something up, but we didn’t think anything of it. Toward the end of dinner, musical notes penetrated our conversation, and we realized a band was getting ready to play. Jack and I were both in a band in high school, so we were more than a little interested in checking out this little ensemble. We quickly paid our tab and found a table right up front next to the band.
Sitting on a bar stool, a guy picked the strings of an electric guitar. He had a lot of personality and introduced himself as Larry Garner and talked about the Larry Garner Blues Band. There were three other members of Larry’s band sitting behind him, and he introduced them one by one. The first was the bass player, a big guy with bleached blond hair named Honey Bear. Next came the drummer, a free spirited young fellow named Mad Dog. Finally, there was the keyboard guy. As the band started its first number, Jack and I looked at each other and wondered what his name was. Apparently we’d been talking or not paying attention when he was introduced, or maybe he wasn’t introduced at all. We weren’t sure.
Larry was the sole vocalist and played a mean guitar as the band regaled us with Juke Joint Woman and other great pieces. With any blues band there is a certain casual, soulful mood created, as the band members get into the music and generally feel the message. As Larry, Honey Bear, and Mad Dog became one with the music, experiencing it with their body language, the keyboard guy sat stiff as a board, expressionless, staring blankly ahead. His fingers danced skillfully over the keys as if operating independently from his body. This guy became a real puzzle to us. He was tall with a military crew cut and chiseled features. The other band members would talk to each other between songs and look at each other from time to time; not this guy. He stayed in his own world. He looked like a stern German, and we felt obliged to give him the name, Klaus. It really seemed to fit. I mean everyone else had a name. This guy needed one too.
In the course of playing, each musician would occasionally have his own solo opportunity. Larry would do his own thing on the guitar for a bit, and we would all clap and acknowledge his artistry. On another song, Larry would say, “Take it, Mad Dog,” and Mad Dog would go nuts on the drums, and we would all clap and say, “Way to go, Mad Dog.” On another song, the bass took over for a little solo, and we would all clap and say “Right on, Honey Bear.” There was clearly a strong group dynamic at work, a unity between the band and the audience. Larry invited us in, and we all obliged. The one hold out in this group love fest seemed to be Klaus. While he did have his solo opportunities, and he executed them perfectly, he didn’t seem to feel the experience. He didn’t really bond with the audience; he didn’t even seem to have bonded with the band.
As Jack and I downed another beer, it became increasingly obvious to us that it was our job to bring Klaus out of his shell. The next time he had a solo, we applauded loudly and yelled, “Way to go, Klaus.” We felt a little positive reinforcement would help him get into the spirit of things. We continued to cheer the other members of the band, but our applause and verbal encouragement for Klaus were cranked up to the highest level. Unfortunately it had little effect on the enigmatic musician. He sat there, ramrod stiff, emotionless, executing his keyboard stylings with complete efficiency. Of course he may have been more responsive if his name had actually been Klaus, but at the time that seemed like a minor detail. We wondered if he was perhaps in the witness protection program and just wanted to keep a low profile. Maybe he was an informant for the U.S. Marshalls and they inserted him into bands playing in Northern Michigan in order to keep him one step ahead of the mob. If so, I hope we didn’t blow his cover.