Smoke lingered over tables, and fog hovered over the ground outside. The sun was just beginning to crease the tree line; its rays shattered by the forest, spreading shards of sun across the dewy grass. The gravel parking lot made popping noises as heavy pickups pulled in and out of the sleepy restaurant. The highway murmured with early morning truckers, as regulars gathered at their tables inside. They hassled and haggled, harassing the waitress as she sent insults flying back. A slight scent of coffee and grease filled the restaurant, only barely cutting through the predominant odor of cigarette smoke. Eggs and fried potatoes swam in grease as they were brought to the table, to be diluted and washed down by black coffee. (No sugar, no cream. The real mans drink.)
It was a classic greasy spoon, small town cafe in northern Michigan. My father and I stopped at a similar restaurant every year on our way north for our weekend hunting trip. The restaurant and town normally changed year-to-year, but the food and atmosphere never did. Taking back roads up north, we would pass through a hundred towns, each with its cozy diner – cigarette smoke rolling out like a chimney and all.
It was part of our ritual as we drove north in Old Betsy – our old, rusted out, baby blue Suburban. Dressed in boots, blue jeans and camo jackets, we would ride in silence as the early morning hours turned light. The cab was laden down with tents, food, propane tanks and guns. (Notice the great combo of combustible gas and gunpowder in an old truck that was a ticking time bomb on wheels.) Twisting through back roads, the excitement would build. As towns whizzed by, I would start salivating at the thought of a cigarette smoke filled diner, the greasy bacon and syrup drenched pancakes. Stomach gurgling and churning, we would finally stop. It was the pre-game speech we always needed. Once back on the road, the excitement moved to the weekend. Where would we hunt? How many of which game would we see? Should we camp off Fire Tower Road or go to “The Pines?” And most importantly, what would we eat those next few days?
The early morning drive would reach a pinnacle as a dusty road appeared to the right. Hidden under the cover of trees it would have been easy to miss, but my father knew this land too well. After years of spending time with his father and friends, it was time for his boy to share in the childhood joys of a weekend up north.
It was Saturday morning, and the sun shown brighter than the day Noah stepped out of the ark. Setting up camp, unloading guns, and digging a new out-house were driven with excitement. We would soon grab the guns and head out across the ridge, speckled with yellow and red fall color. (Depending on if we could get the Michigan State football game on the radio. That always took priority.)
Year-to-year our luck would change. Some year’s dinner was what we shot, some it was what we brought. Maybe a few times it wasn’t even bad luck that kept us from bagging anything, but our susceptibility to an afternoon nap in the musty tent. Beneath the shade of the pine boughs, the warm sun would cut through the cool October air, filling the aging tent with the scent of years past.
Huddled at night around the whistling propane stove, we would talk hunting stories. As our dinner cooked, I would hear about all the great hunters from the past. Grandpa Kleynenberg, Uncle Pat, Grandpa Nolan, Pat Burns, and so many others I can’t even begin to name. I was being home-schooled in how to outsmart a squirrel, how to blend in, and how to be a man in the woods. The weekend was never about the hunting, but always about this. Though I never met his dad – Grandpa Kleynenberg – sitting around listening to my father reminisce about their times up north brought me closer. It made me feel as though he was right there with us, sitting on the hunting stool next to me in the tent. I could see Danny and my dad’s friends sitting around a campfire at night, talking cars or hunting stories from the day.
If the days were glorious up in Irons Michigan, the nights were brutal. Shivering under bundles of coats and sweatshirts, the sleeping bags did little to help. During this restless sleep, I understood what complete blackness was; it was like nothing I had ever witnessed. I would hold my hand above my nose, yet was unable to see an outline, as it was enveloped by that northern darkness. Morning would bring warmth, thus sleep. Instantly canceling any plan we had to hunt early, though little heartbreak was felt at this.
Old Betsy would fight its way back to Vestaburg on Sunday afternoon. We had only been gone for a day, yet it remains some of the best days of my childhood. Cigarette smoke, in light doses, yanks me back to these days. The smell of it brings about cravings and images of the greasy plate, spoon and cup diners in northern Michigan. These thoughts lead me further north along M-37. They lead me to the trees on Fire Tower Road, which at first sight looked as though they were ablaze, with the red and yellow leaves flickering in the breeze, as if flames licking up the forest. The smell of winter green, and the sleet that fell one weekend turning the forest white. The sunny Saturdays in the damp tent, and the Sundays driving back, sipping Diet Pepsi and listening to NASCAR.
Moments like these are suppressed, forgotten in the bustle of life. Swept up by our own ambitions, we relinquish what we once cherished. Until a trigger is pulled, and the dam holding back such memories springs forth with an abundance of “remember when’s?” And we are left wondering, where did time go? Why is life so complicated?
Life was once sweet, and can again. These memories are all we need. We hold a firsthand account of what is simple and pure, just by looking back at our own lives. Though it is in our past, if we dig deep enough we find it. Though the pungent smell of life may choke us, we have firsthand memories that remind us of who we are.