We Went Somewhere

A fellow blogger challenged a few other bloggers in a small band of writers to write about a memorable trip with my special someone. I thought long and hard about it. I’ve had so many memorable adventures with my wife, it was difficult to pick one. I concluded that, because I have no mementos of any kind to remind me about some of our travels, I should write about a trip about which no evidence exists but memory.

It’s odd, and a bit distressing, that neither my wife nor I have ever been people to make photographic records of our travels, though I have begun to do it a bit more in the recent past. I wish we had taken pictures of our travels around Europe and Australasia. I wish I had taken a camera on my trips to Moscow and Beijing and Dubrovnik. But the trip I most wish I’d recorded on film was closer to home.  At the time (this would have been about 1988) we lived in Chicago. I had recently quit my job with an association management company to form my own ill-fated business venture. But I wanted, first, to take a long vacation, something neither of us had ever done. So we decided to make a circle trip around Lake Superior. My wife took her accrued vacation time, I took time in advance of starting a business, and we set out. We had no particular destination in mind. We just wanted to go see what there was to see.

We drove quite a distance the first day and spent the first night at a tiny motel a few miles outsides of Duluth, Minnesota. The motel was old—very old. It was either poorly constructed or its sheer age had taken an enormous toll on the place. I think ours was the last room available for the night and we were warned that it wasn’t quite up to snuff, but we took it anyway. I remember that the floor tilted so much that it was hard to maintain balance. The bed almost filled the room, with hardly any room for our suitcases.

Much of the rest of our trip is lost in cloudy memories. The lack of photographs makes my attempts at recollection quite a chore. The next day, though, I remember driving alongside the lake, with an occasional detour into heavily forested areas. I have absolutely no recollection of crossing the border into Canada, nor do I remember where we stayed the second (and subsequent) night. But I do recall that we wandered in and around Thunder Bay, Ontario for quite some time, maybe two days or so. From there, we spent a few days drifting around Lake Superior, stopping when the mood struck us. We must have gotten some literature about the area we drove through, but that memory is long gone, as well. I recall two aspects of our trip much more distinctly than others.

Somehow, we learned about a train trip that began in Sault Ste. Marie. The destination or perhaps the end of the line, was a small French-speaking village whose name I do not recall but which, if my research serves me properly, probably was Hearst. On the train ride, we chatted with a couple from Detroit. The guy had just retired from an assembly line job with an auto maker. His wife was a home maker. Both of them were about as free of knowledge about the world outside Detroit as anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t recall the guy’s name, but his wife was Norma. The reason I remember her name is that we cruelly nicknamed her (not to her face, mind you) “Abnorma.” During the day-long train ride, we stopped on several occasions to pick up passengers. The stops were not at stations (they were few and far between) but where people flagged down the train (I assume there must have been designated “flagging” stops). Abnorma complained about the stops and, if memory serves, wondered why the people didn’t just go to the nearest station instead of making the train stop for them.

We had dinner with them at a restaurant near the B&B where several of the train’s passengers stayed. I do not remember the food, but I remember it was truly local fare (which thrilled Janine and me), which astonished Abnorma. First, she wanted English menus. When told they were not available, she complained to her husband. Then, she wanted the ingredients changed because they seemed “odd” to her. Janine and I felt embarrassed to be associated with them. I am sure we tried to establish with the wait staff that we had just met this couple on the train and were not in any way, shape, or form cut of the same cloth. Especially not the burlap bag from which Abnorma must have emerged.  We managed to go our separate ways after dinner and for the remainder of the trip.

The next aspect of the trip that I recall more distinctly than most was the time we spent wandering around Mackinac Island. I don’t recall getting to Mackinac Island, but obviously we must have parked the car and taken a ferry. We visited the Grand Hotel, though we did not stay there because we were on a budget that precluded such luxuries. I remember wandering around on foot for a good part of the day and then renting bicycles and circling the island on two wheels.

I remember, quite vividly, during our drive through northern Michigan that I tried to persuade my wife of the wisdom of buying some remote forested land. The beauty of the forests we drove through enchanted me. I envisioned living far, far away from other people in the heart of that gorgeous forest. Never mind that we had no money to speak of, nor any way to make a living in the wilderness. I have never been a particularly practical person in the aftermath of natural enchantment.

You’d think I would have much more to write about a two week excursion around Lake Superior and, on our return, skirting Lake Michigan. But my memory betrays me as I try to remember more. Photos would have helped. If I had kept a journal about the trip, I’m sure my words would have served as a trigger for memories buried deep inside my head. Alas, I have neither to help dredge up more about the trip. But I remember enough to know we both loved those two weeks on the road. We talked about our trip for a long time, but those discussions have gone the way of my memories. Having written this little bit, I think I’ll see if Janine remembers more than I. She usually does. Perhaps she can resurrect that time.

Subsequent vacations (which have been rare) have been more meticulously planned. As much as I hate to admit it, there’s something to be said for knowing where you’re going and what you want to see when you get there. Our Thunder Bay trip, as I call it, was fun, but I suspect we missed quite a lot by not knowing much about the areas we visited or drove through.

The lesson to me in this trip down memory lane is that keeping a journal and taking pictures are valuable practices. Unfortunately, while it’s possible to create the skeleton of a retroactive “journal,” it’s impossible to produce a photo album from memories.

Why did I choose recollections of a trip taken thirty years ago instead of three weeks in France just two years ago? Because I have photos from France and I wrote some about that trip. If I hadn’t written about the Thunder Bay trip, a year or two from now I might have lost a little more of the fading memories of that time.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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