Northern Michigan Vacation: During my tenth summer, I set out to make the best sand sculpture Charles Mears State Park had ever seen. It would be a turtle, I decided, having just learned in school that Michigan’s state reptile was a turtle. I would remake the Lake Michigan beach as a turtle worthy of its standing in Michigan, an island of sand. It would be huge.

My friend Lindsay agreed to help. Each year our families, old friends, vacationed together for a blissful ice cream–slathered week in Pentwater, at the shore of Lake Michigan. I grew up downstate, but that annual week turned my heart deep blue, filled it up with the watery rhythm of shoreline, bent my compass northwest. When at last I moved Up North it was to come home, to belong to the big blue lake.

But back then I had only a fumbling understanding of how deeply I loved Michigan. I only knew that I wanted my sculpture to belong to the beach, not to a vacationing interloper like me. Cobbling together fourth grade history lessons, I determined that bright plastic buckets and shovels were inauthentic. People who really belonged to the land, I reasoned, would have woven sand-toting mats of beach grass.

“Why can’t we use buckets? And how will we carry water?” complained Lindsay, a year older and three wiser. We’d come to an age where her interest in me was tenuous, easily bored. But a summer day is long, the hot hours empty except for the sound of waves. She helped me find shells, unbroken ones, to craft the elaborate mosaic I’d planned for the turtle’s back. We worked the whole afternoon, and when it felt finished I looked up at her.

“Well?” I asked, and I meant the turtle, I meant for her to tell me that the effort was worth it and we’d made something stunning, something bigger than a sand turtle.

“Your bellybutton is huge,” she said. “I mean, I’ve never seen such a deep one.”

She was right. The turtle was unremarkable and flat, its sand already aged to the color of the whole beach. She left then, tired of the game, and I found myself alone in a stretch of sand so big that two girls could never remake it. It was the first moment I realized the dizzying scale of the universe. Wisconsin, though invisible beyond the vast blue western horizon, was actually close, and I was a turtle made of sand.

I think of Lindsay and the turtle every summer, when heat finds me beach-bound and bikini-clad. I never forgot what she said about my belly button, and so, the summer after my second daughter was born, I noticed that the deep tunnel—a tattoo from my own mother—had changed shape. Now it was peaked on top, a revision of something I’d always known.

That summer I taught my older daughter how to make drip castles, dipping our hands in a sloshing bucket of wet sand and letting it pour out in quick-stacking drops. At first she couldn’t do it and suddenly punched over what I’d made, pouting.

“I can’t do it. I’ll never do it,” she proclaimed, jabbing her short toes in the sand. I understood her, how hard it is to shape the sand the way you want, to change it from shifting grains to something that belongs to you.

The baby began to cry, the wax and wane of her wails nearly paralleling the rise and retreat of the waves. It was a difficult moment, the girls’ frustrations at once small and enormous. To eat, to build, to make something out of sand: it’s all we ever want. But the dazzling sun beaded the lake. The summertime chorus of seagulls and shrieks rose loud in our ears. The baby nursed beneath a fluttering cotton blanket, and I noticed something I’d already noted a thousand times: the way Lake Michigan is bigger each time you look at it, bigger and more blue.

Elise gave up pouting and returned to the bucket, determination fierce in her fists. Her castle was stubby, indelicate, a perfect start. She smashed it again, this time in pride. She belongs to this lake too.

This article was originally featured in the July 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Order your copy online at!

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski