As part of a compilation of short essays written by women that was first featured in the July 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, Leelanau County writer Bronwyn Jones recounts episodes of her life that share a common theme: water. From first exploring the Northern Michigan beaches near the Sleeping Bear Dunes in her youth to finding deeper meaning in the sand between her toes, discover how the fresh waters of Michigan have shaped Jones’ life.
I went to the beach at Glen Haven that day because the water was calling. Because it was February 15, 55 degrees, and the sun was shining. Because I’d recited every by-heart love poem I knew the day before emceeing the small stage at Lars Hockstad Auditorium for the Sol Michael Folk Festival. Because even though I was living alone, I was happy, and I wanted to walk on the hard-packed beach sand way past the Bear, leaning into the wind, watching the waves break iridescent blue-green.
As a child growing up in New Jersey on the windward side of the Palisades, just a short drive from Manhattan, going to the beach meant something completely different. We’d pack the International Harvester station wagon and hurry over the George Washington Bridge on to the Cross Bronx Expressway and into diesel-fumed, bumper-to-bumper traffic headed to the Long Island shore and Jones Beach. It could take hours before we stepped on to the hot sand, inhaled the salt smell of seaweed and ocean water.
The contrast was tantalizing. From my grandparents’ turn-of-the-century Michigan farmhouse, Empire Beach was only a bike ride away, and the silky, clear water that smelled like leaves and sap bore no relation to the brined wet of the Atlantic. I remember exploring North Bar Lake, the mouth of the Platte River, Otter Creek, and Point Betsie. In the 60s and early 70s, they seemed uninhabited and wild, playgrounds that engrossed my senses, and lodged in my imagination like a homing beacon.
So, on that day after Valentine’s Day in 1998, I was walking northwest toward Sleeping Bear Point, a south wind pushing the water into restless, shimmering peaks. A figure appeared ahead of me—tiny, distant. I was too absorbed dodging the tongues of waves rushing up the slant of sand toward my feet to pay much mind. I looked ahead once more, and the figure was gone. But moments later, as if a mirage, it was there again, closer.
I imagine an etiquette to beach walking in the off-season, an almost arrogant desire to feel alone in the grand, sculpted landscape. Yet, the expanse of dunes punctuated by naked trees perhaps also calls out a collective memory of boats in the Manitou Passage and necessary courtesies among travelers. I considered turning left and hiking up and out of sight, but the sunlight reflecting off millions of shards of silica suspended in the turbulence of breaking surf was too compelling.
And so we met. His face, as I remember it, was wide open to the beauty of that afternoon, flushed from the wind. He exclaimed about the brilliance of the day, the long shore drift and the waves. And just like that we were in conversation about writing, friends we were surprised to share in common, poetry, the magic pull of Lake Michigan.
We courted all that spring and summer, walking miles of beach. He was a hydrogeologist and a poet; he taught me the names of rocks embedded beneath our feet: fossiliferous limestone, quartz, olivine, porphyritic riolite, hexagonaria. He pulled Petoskey stones from the wet ground like a magician pulling coins from behind my ear. And he explained how the sand brushing against our skin as we swam held particles from the Precambrian igneous rock of the Upper Peninsula, scraped south by glaciers thousands of years ago. We fell in love talking about what sifted out to drift and settle into the varve at the bottom of the lake.
A year later, in late August, on a dune overlooking the place of our meeting, family and friends gathered around us, early morning sun casting the shadows of a waning summer. We were married by the mayor of a small town, the wife of a friend. But really, we were married by the community of this particular northern place; the people, biota, air, water wrapping us closely together. And 15 years later, that communion of elements continues. The hum in our bones and tug of the waves connects us to something much greater than ourselves, eventually sending us home like lightning going the other way.