Revisiting the Road No Longer Traveled
Twenty-five years ago, a narrow footpath through these woods led the way around nearly the entire perimeter of the lake, approximately 10 feet from the shoreline. One could meander around the lake, cutting through the trail outlined by birch trees, and explore without losing sight of the still waters. Rows of rustic cottages lined up along the other side of the path; each summer home proudly displaying camouflage brown or rust shades of shingles and siding that hid the homes from the distance. I knew this because one of those cottages was owned by my grandfather. He built his cottage himself in the 1960s with the help of his sons. My dad spent his childhood summers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at this lake. When he had kids of his own, he continued to bring us to the lake for our primary family vacations. My brother and I spent our warm summer days collecting pretty stones, fishing, floating in the water on innertubes, hiking the lake’s footpath, and capturing small frogs and toads with the intention of keeping them as pets.
The summer I turned seventeen, my grandparents sold the cottage. As a teenager, I was fully immersed in school, sports, and trying to catch the attention of cute boys. I had not visited the little cabin in the woods for several summers, because life was starting to move faster. The lake was too disconnected. I could not call my friends while I was away because a calling card was too expensive and my pager would not find a signal in the deep woods. High school was too exciting to slow down to visit the lake house when I was fifteen and sixteen. But when the cottage sold, it seemed important to make one last trip.
That last summer in the Upper Peninsula was a good-bye and I wanted to capture every inch of the land for memory. I took pictures of the cabin, and the boathouse, the docks, the woods, the lagoon, the concrete stairs where my dad and his eight siblings had carved their names, lily-pads, and birch trees with my point-and-shoot disposable camera. I took many, many pictures of the lake. I wanted tangible evidence of the lake. The area was undisturbed, peaceful, as natural as a semi-developed forest could be. The lake and my childhood were inseparable; completely intertwined because peaceful summers in the quiet, remote woods was the same as being a child with few worries.
The pictures closed the chapter as best as I knew how. And I didn’t go back to the lake after that year. As time passed I thought less and less about it. In the following decades, I graduated from college, mourned my grandparents’ passing, finished a masters degree, got married, bought my first house, started a second masters degree, became a CEO, merged my organization, quit my second C-suite job to start my own business, and grew into the confident, capable person I am today. I experienced a list of life events that the seventeen year old sitting on my grandfather’s boat dock deck, watching the water and listening to a soundtrack blare from a discman portable CD player, would never have envisioned. I also never imagined the ways in which the world around me would change.
It took a pandemic to bring me back to the tranquil forest of my younger years. In the interim twenty-five years, life was too busy to slow down and visit a secluded lake on the outskirts of rural America. I was too busy investing in the life I wanted and building a career to spend a slow summer in Michigan. The lake was too disconnected. I had too much to do. But when the pandemic forced me to work from home, the noises of city life got louder as my life became confined to my home office. After a year of communicating with professional peers solely through a square Zoom screen on my laptop, the sirens, the loud music, congestion, and discontent with the city increased in volume in my head. Then a potential client inquired about a site visit to her location in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her business wasn’t near my grandfather’s cottage, but in an attempt to connect with this prospect, I began sharing stories about my childhood summers on the lake. And I wondered why I had never gone back.
So I did. I rented a cottage on the opposite side of the lake from where my family had once owned property. Once we arrived and I stepped out of the vehicle, the distinct aromas of birch, pine, dirt, sand and water hit my nose. The smells of lake life had not changed at all. The earth had stayed grounded here. My own life had moved on at city speed. But here, in this space, life had evolved more slowly. The rental cottage felt like a trip back in time. We knew we would not have internet service or television. But my cell phone was also completely out of range of a tower. I was off the grid more intensely than I had anticipated. For the first time in a very long time, the world slowed down. The days lasted longer, but the worries in my own mind were less demanding. I could think. I could just ‘be.’
For the first time in a very, very long time, I had no way to communicate with anyone who was not immediately nearby. No news, no television, no emails, and no texts or phone calls. I appreciated it, but I worried. I wondered about our pet-sitter back home, and was concerned over the possibility that anyone I cared about might have an emergency and be unable to reach us. When I heard the coyotes howling in the woods at night, I wondered what we would do if we had a late night emergency ourselves. Technology can remove uncertainty. Uncertainty can be frightening, but it can also spark faith and creativity.
When daylight came, I explored. It became clear that the rest of this remote lake in the woods was not entirely off the grid. I walked past a FedEx truck, as well as a dial up internet serviceman who happened to be installing internet in another property building. A significant number of the cottages I knew as a child had been replaced by structures that looked more like typical single family homes, causing me to wonder how many families lived here year-round now. Maybe appropriate connectivity has made it easier to weather the harsh winter conditions. A lakefront homeowner told me his house had internet access. He needed to stay connected. Most of his vacation renters required access as well.
None of this was surprising. With over one hundred and fifty homes lining this lakefront, technology had to be available. Although some of these families may be living here year round now, most were probably not “Yooper's,” the appropriate slang term for individuals who lived in the U.P., or Upper Peninsula as residents. Most of the others on the lake were likely vacationers, whether they owned the buildings they were staying in or just renting. They drove in from suburbs or major metropolitan areas to get away, just like I had. Connectivity was expected. Most had cell phone service, too — my carrier was unfortunately not one that offered service in the most remote parts of America. Unlike me, regular visitors had not been away from this lake for the past twenty-five years and were prepared for digital access.
The technological upgrades did not bother me, although I wondered if the lake would feel as compellingly meditative if one remained completely connected to the rest of outside life while simultaneously vacationing in the woods to get away from it. Without my own cell phone available, I did not know the answer. But when I decided to traipse the footpath around the perimeter of the lake to find the patch of beach I had formerly played on as a child, I realized the path was gone. It had never been a formal path; it was only a dirt trail created by the feet of many people taking the same route through the wooded underbrush. It was not the easiest way to circle the water. The smooth dirt roads the cars travelled over were far less cumbersome. But the lakefront footpath was the most scenic, although it had required interaction with neighbors as a person cut through another owner’s waterfront.
And yet it was gone. Not enough feet had travelled around the lake in the past twenty-five years to keep the brush and trees from growing back completely. At one or two crossroads, remnants of the old path remained where someone could walk about five feet along the former makeshift road before encountering a tree or large shrub that ended the footpath abruptly. Why was it gone? The path was how one met their neighbors. Many years ago, cottage owners expected to see fellow vacationers taking a walk or trying to get to the central campground by cutting through their lakefront trail. As a child, I would wave hello to people sitting on the beach or sunning on their boat dock. Some occasionally started conversations. The community was friendly.
It was clear that people were now using the main roads for recreation and pedestrian activities instead. I saw joggers and walkers in numbers I never saw on the dirt roads as a child. At the end of the day, when the lake was still and quiet, one could now hear the sounds of ATVs racing up and down the dirt roads until dusk. I should have expected that society had changed here too, just like the rest of America. There are full adults who had not yet even been born the last time I visited this lake. The footpath was a distant memory to me; merely a reminder of a time when one met people by walking around and having conversations. It had never even existed in the perspective of some that had never walked it.
Very few of us have the luxury of travelling back to a significant place from the past twenty-five years later and find so much of it unchanged. The sound of the birds chirping was still the loudest noise on many evenings. The tall trees were the same trees that had grown over decades. The serene lake was still the same glassy water. Even so, I could not help but pause to wonder if the overgrown footpath is representative of a neglect of nearby relationships in our culture today. Perhaps we no longer find use of well-worn paths that require maintenance and interaction with people, when we can meet strangers on social media and follow them all year round from any where and any place.