It started innocently enough with an invitation to go Up North and ski for a couple of days. Wanting to go both for the opportunity to ski and to be polite to our inviters, we bundled off on a January Friday to Bellaire. Our hosts had purchased a studio condominium in a small project near the summit of the resort, with views over the valley, across Lake Bellaire, glimpsing Torch Lake and then West Bay, quite stunning indeed. The condo had everything one needed – living area with a wood-burning fireplace, two sleeping areas accommodating four people, a compact but full kitchen, bathroom and storage. Describing us as smitten would be an understatement.
By Saturday morning the weather had turned warm, resulting in rather “soft” snow conditions. I spent the day perfecting my downhill fall, saturating my jeans and dying my legs blue under my long johns – a most satisfying way to pass a winter day. Dinner at the resort dining room was surprisingly good and the resulting mellow mood from fatigue, good food and wine was impossible to fault. Sunday morning found my wife and me at the office of the real estate folks, learning about the project, its amenities and prices. Two weeks later we returned, renting a condo in the same project, bringing our kids with us to ski, and before the weekend was over had signed a contract for our own condo. A few minor issues were eventually resolved and by March 1st we drove a rented van north with basic furnishings for our getaway place – a studio with a loft and those incredible views.
A couple remaining weeks of skiing slid into a perfect Spring, which then morphed into a classic Summer. We boated, learning the delights of the Chain of Lakes, in particular Torch Lake, lauded by locals as “the world’s third most beautiful lake according to National Geographic”, a claim that the magazine does not confirm. We ate burgers and fries on the deck at the Dockside, devoured excellent fresh chicken from Ruthie’s and dallied regularly in Bellaire, a wonderful small town at the base of the resort with all that one really needed – a serviceable grocery, an Honest-to-God wood-floored hardware store, a couple of gift shops, a restaurant called Mrs. Pete’s, still frequented by Pete himself even though no longer married to Mrs. Pete, a single-screen movie theater and a slightly, but not seriously, over-priced gas station.
Other small Up North towns were nearby, each with its own charms – Petoskey with its famous Gas Light District, Charlevoix boasting a drawbridge, quaint marina and the best breakfast spot in Northern Michigan, Harbor Springs with art galleries and beautiful Victorian homes. Traverse City was also close by, with additional resources: restaurants, a broader range of food ingredients, shops.
As the years passed, we quickly went from the little studio to a larger condo, then to a visually tired but solid chalet home. Over a couple of years we remodeled the cottage into our perfect hide away, Woods Edge, not huge but with plenty of room for family and friends. More weekends than not, we travelled the 3 hours up on Friday and three back on Sunday, sometimes staying a little longer. We always spent Thanksgivings Up North, usually joined by friends. The day after Christmas became the start to a week of winter skiing, and Ann and the kids would stay for a couple of weeks in the Summer while I would head downstate Tuesday through Thursday to keep the work fires burning.
We settled in like locals. I joined the Resort Board, we enjoyed the community, the rhythms, the incredibly beautiful Nature – skiing, boating, hiking, picnicking and partying with our family and our friends Up North. The kids learned to play, to drive and to become independent, on their own but never far out of sight of us or our community circle. By down state standards, perhaps we were free-range parents, but not in the context of the close-knit environment of Bellaire and the resort. Sure, the kids had some bumps, bruises and scrapes (and so did my wife and I for that matter), but they developed that elusive quality called judgment.
I became used to the regular question: “Don’t you get tired of all that driving almost every weekend, just for two or three days Up North?” The answer was easy – a resounding “No” – the driving time was quality time together; we heard what our kids were doing, what was happening at school, what their friends were up to, their joys, their frustrations. There were no DVD players, no smart phones or tablets, only a variety of music on the cassette player. They in turn heard what Mom and Dad were up to, our frustrations, little victories, puzzlements and decisions; in short, that time kept us a close family, and the time in the outdoors while we were at the cottage just added to that closeness.
We all loved being Up North, living the small town life, trusting and being trusted, enjoying relationships based on the individuals, not social or career considerations.
Once as a visiting friend and I parked in Bellaire to do a bit of shopping, the friend mentioned, as we left the car, that I had not locked it and had left the keys in the ignition. I thought for a minute, then realized and responded that I always left the keys in the car up here, just like I did, and my parents did, in the smaller town where I grew up. Life was safer Up North, we knew most of the town, people were more likely to offer help than to take something. And it dawned on me that I had recognized a key reason we had created so much of our life Up North – for us it was important to
“live where you can leave your keys in the car”.