Meet Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine’s new executive editor, Cara McDonald. In her first editor’s note, she reflects on starting her career at Traverse and the journey that brought her back home to Northern Michigan. Stay up to date with Cara’s monthly editor’s notes when you subscribe to our print or digital magazine.

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If I said Deb Fellows had given me a gift, I’d of course be only one of thousands of people in this region to be able to say that. It’s almost incomprehensible to think of what it took for a then 24-year-old Deb to have the vision to create a magazine that would result in four decades and thousands of stories that shone light and lifted up, challenged and delighted us—a monthly love letter to her beloved North.

But there’s one gift in particular that has come back to my thoughts: the recycled gift bag with the mysterious two lumps wrapped in tissue paper that she gave me at a particularly rowdy company holiday party.

Four years before that party, I was fresh out of graduate school and beginning an editing job at Traverse Magazine. From my rented room in an old white Victorian on Monroe Street, I walked along the bay to work that summer, and every day it was like some kind of miracle, realizing that this was my home, the subject of my professional focus and my playground.

I was given the opportunity most young writers would kill for: freedom. With a generosity of spirit and experience, Deb and the editing team at the magazine turned me loose with the wildest of stories and the chance to find my own voice.

I paddled a kayak for days along the Pictured Rocks, explored the coast of Isle Royale and portaged a Grumman canoe farther than I’d like to remember. I shadowed winemaker Mark Johnson and rode horseback with Mackinac Island locals, learned to fly fish and hopped a whistle-stop train to the middle of Northwoods nowhere. I spent some nights in a U.P. ghost town and some nights in Grand Hotel. I drove and interviewed my way through the North, visiting farms along the way and driving home with apples and pumpkins rolling around the back seat.
A person couldn’t have had a happier, more otherworldly introduction to regional magazine journalism. As much as I loved the stories, so too did I fall hard for my fellow staff. They became lifelong friends and colleagues who have kept me connected to the North no matter where life intervened.

Woman holding fish

Photo by Cara McDonald

And it did. After four years, I had a terrible, conflicted longing. I was eager to grow my career and broaden my horizons, yet I had an ache whenever I thought about leaving. One thing I knew for sure: if I didn’t leave then, I would never leave, because I would have fallen so completely in love that I would never live anywhere else again.

In hindsight, maybe that should have been my destiny, but the universe has a funny way of working things out.

I packed up my cat and German shepherd and moved to Indianapolis, then Denver, then the Colorado mountains. I worked at other regional magazines, founded and edited three of my own, folded one, married, had two wild boys.

After two decades away, my heart was battered—by Covid-19, loss, grief, a catastrophic wildfire. My sister sent me a candle for my birthday. The label simply reads “Homesick: Michigan,” with a silhouette of our fair peninsulas and a heady floral scent. (It’s supposed to smell like Michigan, but how do you capture riverbanks and apple blossoms, wet dog, pine cones, the smell of a just-started outboard motor?) As I lit it and watched it glow, my heart was telling me: go home.

Not long after, Deb called me with the unthinkable news that she was retiring and the magazine was in search of an editor. The whirlwind that followed found me reimagining everything, from what I’d wear (fewer boots, more swimsuits) to where we’d live, to if my mountain kids would find a love of the water buried deep in their DNA.

Coming on board as MyNorth and the magazine joins the Heritage Broadcasting family is a special time to envision the magazine’s future as well as my own. We are lucky to be linking arms with like-minded people who care as much about the North as we do, and the opportunity to take on this role as we grow together has me feeling both humbled and lit with excitement.

The trajectory of my life was shaped by my time here, and I am thrilled to make my way back to the place, publication and people that have meant so much. That has been Deb’s gift to me, and one for which I will be forever grateful.

The lumpy gift bag? That holiday party was my last; I was heading off to a new job just a few days later. All those years ago, as snow swirled outside and martini glasses clinked, Deb handed me the bag. Inside was a pair of hilariously large, vintage sparkly red-orange pumps. “So you can click your heels,” she said, “and always come home.”

Cara McDonald is the Executive Editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. She can be reached at Cara@mynorth.com.

Woman with a horse inside a barn

Photo by Cara McDonald

Photo(s) by Cara McDonald