Sometimes leaving the Great Lakes State instills a greater appreciation for all the wonderful things that Northern Michigan offers, one of the biggest being the abundance of freshwater. Molly Ames Baker writes about her trip to the desert and how it provided some fresh perspective for her. Find the original essay in the May 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

Dumping my shoe, I watch—holy cow!—as a river of red sand pours to the ground. These 100 million-year-old grains of desert sandstone create a small-scale geological event right by my foot. Alas, I’m too tired and thirsty to care.

Peeling off my sock, I find a fine red dust covering my toes, caked-on layers stuck between each and every one. I instinctively reach down, brushing off the dust as I would the coarse, gritty sand of a Lake Michigan beach. But try as I might, it won’t come off.

The kids are begging for ice cream, but all I want is to dip my sweaty, swollen feet into the clear, blue water of the big lake. Of course, this isn’t an option. We just finished a too-long, family hike at Arches National Park, and truth be told, I’m bonking worse than my 8-year-old son. The Colorado River is a few miles away, but it’s just not the same as my fresh and sparkling Great Lake. The Colorado is murky, fast-moving and wholly foreign to this Michigander.

Canyon country is utterly spectacular, especially after a winter (and spring) of sub-zero wind chills and inside recess. Our kids explore this new world with wide-eyed wonder, finding every prickly pear in sight and scrambling up the rock fins. Many a Midwesterner yearns for the desert with its dry heat and eternal sunshine, sagebrush and saguaros. But for me, the initial attraction of this arid landscape is starting to wear thin as we make our way through the Four Corners. I feel baked. Scorched. Parched.

Turns out, I need water. Not just the recommended 64 ounces per day to support vital body functions. Not just a babbling brook or an inland lake. I’m talking big water. As in the Great Lakes—vast, deep expanses of freshwater; the kind that feed the soul.

The fact that we live in a harbor town on the biggest lake in America is so incredible, so extraordinary, so profound to me that more often than not, it doesn’t really sink in. Being in Harbor Springs, it’s easy to assume the lake plays an integral role in our everyday lives, simply because it’s there.

But at what point does the lake become just a scenic backdrop?

How easy it is to go about our daily lives—hectic work schedules, after-school activities, running errands around the bay and back—without so much as a glance at the water. Days, weeks, even months can go by before we get to the lake, if at all. In fact, on any given day, it’s a wonder we give it a second thought.

This hit home a few years ago, when an old friend called out of the blue and asked point blank: “Okay, so what are you doing to raise your kids on a Great Lake differently from what I’m doing here in central, landlocked New York?” As usual, my clear-thinking friend makes a good point. If I’m not making a conscious effort to connect my kids to the lake, we might as well be living in “Anywhere, U.S.A.”

What we need is to be more intentional. To experience the lake not just on those postcard summer days, but over time, through the seasons, and in all kinds of weather. By discovering a connection that is personal and ever-evolving, we can make the lake more central to our lives.

Right now for our family, that connection is about rocks. Whenever we’re at the lake, we end up bringing some home, whether held in a fist or stuck in a pocket. So as I pick up my shoes and socks and head to the car, biding Arches a weary goodbye, it’s no wonder a piece of jagged sandstone catches my eye. It’s just the right size to add to our collection on the dashboard. A little piece of desert to bring home as a reminder: grateful am I both to visit canyon country and to live by big water.


More Northern Michigan Water

Purely Northern Michigan Water

Rowing a Northern Michigan Boat

Women on Water: Learning to Love Water

Photo(s) by Molly Ames Baker