A Northern Michigan Love Story

When Emily Bingham was young, she loved being in Northern Michigan almost as much as she loved being in love. Each time she pinned a new Northern Michigan town on her map—like Torch LakeFrankfortTraverse City and Leland—she was also pinning a new memory in her heart. Read on for Emily’s Up North love story originally published in the November 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


I have always been a romantic: I give my heart away so freely that if you get close enough, it practically falls into your lap. But if I smile at you and say, “I can’t wait to take you Up North,” you know it’s for real.

Born a suburban Detroiter but raised on summers at Torch Lake, I love Up North the way some of my sweethearts have loved vintage cars or vinyl records. Up North is my thing. If I love you, I will lead you there, driving you to all my favorite spots, watching your face when we step out from the trees at Pyramid Point to see the sheer expanse of sand and the glory of Lake Michigan below. I want to see your awed expression when you take in each wonder—a certain twist of river, the silent cedar forests, this freshwater sea. I will give you my North like my seventh grade crush once gave me a painstakingly prepared mix tape, except my hits include a secret beach on Cathead Bay, penny candy at Brownwood Acres, and the best tucked-away trail near a bend in the road to Alden.

The cost of all this sharing is that Northern Michigan is now a landscape of lost-love memories for me—each one a tiny red pin marking the map, piercing my heart.

The first time I realized I was in love—like, real, true love—I was sitting on the big couch in the living room of my family’s cottage. I was a few months shy of my 17th birthday, and my parents had granted permission for my close friend, a high school hockey player with bleached blonde hair and a rumbling, lemon-yellow late-80s Firebird, to visit from Detroit for a weekend. When I heard that car’s tires crunch to a stop in the gravel out back, I ran to the window and watched the boy as he pulled his duffel bag out of the backseat—the car’s hot engine ticking under the hood, my heart beating so hard I could feel it in my throat. On the night before he drove home, alone in the blue light of the cottage’s tiny TV, I dared to rest my head on his shoulder. He turned and kissed me. I might as well have floated right out of my skin.

That couch in a Torch Lake cottage was the first pin on the map. When we went our own ways after high school graduation, I wondered how I’d go Up North without thinking of him. I wish I could have told 18-year-old me, crying into her pillow, that there also would be plenty more pins to come.

Because of course there were; I was young and loved being Up North almost as much as I loved being in love. From Frankfort’s pier to Little Presque Isle, I got to know the North as I got to know each new sweetheart—all the while getting to know more about myself and the capacity of my heart.

Then one spring, the opportunity arose for me to move to Traverse City full-time, where I met a local boy who didn’t need an introduction to the magic of Up North. To me he was that magic: carefree and comfortable in his skin, with early laugh lines alongside eyes the color of Lake Michigan on a clear morning, and his own secret beaches and river bends to share. We’d only been together a few months by the time the cicadas started in on their late-summer refrain, yet already I was dreaming of a wedding in Leland, where we’d first locked eyes.

There were signs, early on, that something was missing. But our first summer was gone in a blink, and I didn’t want it to end. And so we adventured on into fall, then winter, then spring. And it continued, year after year, all the while my little map collecting more pins until it seemed there wasn’t a corner anywhere Up North—or in my heart—that didn’t have his name on it.

But still that missing thing gnawed at me. And then late one night, as he turned away from me on his pillow to fall asleep, it became clear. Countless times I had watched his face as we stepped out onto some bluff or hilltop, and I knew that look of joy, awe and curiosity—but he didn’t look at me that way. I wanted that. I wanted love that moved me like the deep woods or the Big Lake: the inexplicable pull, the desire to keep returning for more.

The Leland wedding never happened. Yet even as the answer was obvious, when we finally parted ways a few months shy of what would have been our seventh year together, the heartache from those innumerable pinpoints was almost unbearable. The memory of our time together felt as raw as an open wound, and the thought of visiting all my old favorite spots—which had since become our old favorite spots—made my stomach feel hollow with grief. That person and those places had become inseparable to me. How would I ever experience them without some degree of pain?

But here’s what I wish I could have told myself then: even during the dreariest, darkest, stripped-bare days of winter, it’s a fact that another summer will come. The geography of the heart is limitless, if you let it be.

Time passed, and with some distance, the bitter part of the bittersweet feelings began to fade. The pins for him, as for all my lost loves, still ache some days, seeing as how they are stuck inside me forever. But now they mostly just serve to further affix the map of Northern Michigan to my heart. And so last summer, on a trip to Cathead Bay with my new sweetheart in the passenger seat, I decided to briefly detour through the neighborhood where I’d once lived with my long-term Traverse City love. As I slowly drove past our old place, I could picture, as if on a transparent overlay, the riotous gladiolas we’d grown in the yard, and my gauzy blue curtains in the upstairs window—all gone by then, replaced by a tidy lawn and utilitarian sheers. “Cute house,” my fella said. I smiled and turned the car away, excited to show him more of my Up North. I didn’t fear the risks of loving once again, because no matter what, this place will always be mine.

Emily Bingham writes from Ann Arbor. 


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