In the summer of 2018 I was at a crossroad in my life. My mom was selling our family home of thirty-odd years, the place I had spent the majority of my life. I was lucky enough to have grown up on Walloon Lake, we moved there in 1987, and even though I ventured out into the world many times, sometimes for years I would always find my way home. Especially, in the summertime.
I’ve seen some cool shit in my life. I’ve been to the black beach in Hawaii, the Pitons of St. Lucia, the Louvre, the skyline of Chicago from rooftops along the gold coast, El Capitan, Yosemite. Sting Ray City, Grand Cayman. I’ve been around. And out of all those aforementioned destinations, I’ve never seen so much pure, dynamic beauty as is found in Northern Michigan. The sky’s change daily to different portraits no artist could ever capture with canvas. The clouds shift over the lake with a rapid agility because of the “Big” lake five miles directly to the north. Walloon is a glacially formed lake, which explains it’s perfectly textured sandbars and beaches. Its deepest point at 100 ft. (allegedly), for the most part makes it a shallow haven of aqua-marine clear water, quickly warmed by the sun to tolerable, if only slightly hypothermic temperatures by May.
A tradition started as kids, and continued well into adulthood was the test of manhood every spring to see who would be first in the lake following the ice melting. The record is held by me; sometime in early March, with ice chunks still visible surrounding my legs. My mother was not far behind with early April or some ridiculous date in early spring where the temperature actually broke 70. The lake was a paradise. My three younger brothers and I enjoyed every day, sometimes at the expense of others on a purely juvenile level, but c’mon, we made our own fun and were extremely creative idiots. My poor mother.
A fantastic example is us using our dock as a personal aircraft carrier, launching anything and everything we could find, mach 2 off a shitty homemade ramp made of cinder blocks and plywood right into the drink. You name it. We splashed it down. Retrieval of items would sometimes require a massive search and rescue operation, complete with mask and snorkel. The mini-tramp and boathouse jump into three feet of water would follow, culminating with our bright idea to move the big trampoline out to the dock. I was dumb enough to attempt anything aerial related first. As I launched twenty odd feet up and completely over-rotated, the look of panic and then acceptance of a this-is-going-to-hurt moment sent my brothers into fits of laughter well before the sound of my belly flop echoed across the water. I cracked two ribs, and we put the trampoline back on land. This behavior continued throughout our lives, but eventually they moved west, tired of the brutal winters, and no oceans within sight. I don’t blame them. Winters last six to seven months, and every warm sunny day is infinitely precious. I know that’s why locals feel so much pride in living there year round. We earned every beautiful summer day by paying a threefold winter toll. And that’s exactly why we appreciate them more than any tourist ever could. We earned it. And suddenly I was about to be one of those visitors.
So, as I sat on the dock contemplating all that had happened and all that could, my phone rang. One of my all-time greatest friends was having a similar experience, although I was not aware of this till later. Through the years he had come up to stay at the house, play golf, and generally just spend hours having good times on the water. Hours were spent drifting on the water, swimming in sand bars, and chasing sun spots when cloudy. The countless scratched, mixed CD’s cluttered the glove compartment of the boat like an overdue tenant’s mailbox. Music, was always priority one. High replay artists on the boat included 311, Sublime, Dave Matthews, Blink182, John Mayer, Tom Petty and The White Stripes. Epic times were had, and now he was going to buy a house in the general area after living most of his life down state near Detroit. It didn’t surprise me, and I was thrilled to hear he would be moving in, even if I was moving out. Of course, the task of finding a place, making an offer, and closing could take weeks… a whole summer even….and would require lodging at my house during the search…. sounded good to me.
Blake arrived in early June just as the weather turned picturesque for weeks on end. Although younger, I looked up to him in many respects. The way he ran his life, his business, style, taste, down for whatever attitude. We met at Western Michigan University during his undergraduate career, and my second degree, as neighbors in a student apartment complex. Although I had a bedroom literally a floor away, I became the guy on their couch. They had HBO. And a grill. And sports were constantly on TV or being played in the parking lot. Golf, Hoops, Baseball, Volleyball, Tennis, you name it, we played it. Till the wheels fell off or the sun went down.
Blake and I had our first near death, but really fun experience during a particularly bad snow storm one nasty Kalamazoo winter. At some party literally miles from the apartment, roads closed, 3 AM, completely underdressed for the vortex of wind and snow in front of us, we decided to walk it. Using our t-shirts, we created facemasks to counter the cutting wind chill. Our backpacks which had contained cheap beer completed the surreal setting of what appeared to be the Andes, when in fact it was W. Michigan Avenue. It snowed two feet in as many hours that night, creating mounds of powder, whipping everywhere creating a snow blinding effect most go to Nepal for. We walked 2.8 miles through that crap, drafting off one another, as each man took his beating from the wind leading the way for several hundred yards, then switch when you can’t feel your eyelids. Within sight of the apartment, and the closing feet, the storm suddenly stopped. The wind dropped, the sky cleared and stars illuminated the new mounds of snow like drops of diamonds. It reminded me of the final scenes of “Alive” when those dudes walk out of the Andes. Not comparable, but still relevant. I’ve never eaten so much food or slept better in my life.
Now as grown men, we both had similar earth shattering stuff going on with family, and upon his arrival the simple shit shooting we had always done, turned to more serious topics. Then I realized what was going on. Like war veterans with thousand yard stares that only the other could understand, we sat across from each other drinking Oberon in the sun and had the most honest conversation I could remember in our 13 year friendship. We were both dealing with loss in our families, and both had grown tired of practicing smiling in the mirror like Bruce Wayne. Through multiple games of HORSE, three hour dock sessions debating music, movies, sports and grilling every night outside I think we both felt better knowing at least someone else understood on some level what the other was going through. It was more than empathy; it was a shared new perspective on life that turned good friends into blood brothers. That there was absolutely more to life than sitting on your ass, waiting to watch the Wheel, Vanna and eventually death. The parallels were hard to ignore, the wounds deep. But each visit I noticed a distinct change in my friend. A much more positive, enlightened attitude that became infectious. I started looking forward to the future, and the unknown that lay ahead. In many ways I think that last summer on Walloon allowed us both to get over some pretty heavy shit.
The months that followed were essentially the same fun weekend played over and over, with the exception of when Blake’s wife, Nicky, would join him as well. Nicky is funny, smart and speaks fluent sarcasm so obviously I love her too. It was an endless last summer, up until he finally closed on his current home in early fall of that year. The inevitable pain of leaving the lake after thirty years was lessened by the fact that I knew I will always have a home with my friends up north.