Foot Fiction–Hiking with Hemingway in Pictured Rocks

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I’ve just returned from a second trek through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s 42-mile stretch of the North Country Trail, where I swatted mosquitoes and schlepped through boot-devouring stretches of muddy trail in search of some incredible lakeside views, primal, almost pleistocene vistas of glaciers that appear just recently melted into great, cold lakes. We listened to creatures creeping around our tent one night and to a thunderstorm sweeping off Lake Superior the next. We startled a family of ruffed grouse near Chapel Rock, and a bald eagle soared over our heads just after Au Sable Light House. Loon calls tinted eerie twilights, punctuated by the cracks of twigs breaking under heavier (likely scarier) beasts. We marveled at the biodiversity of ticks, slugs, and beetles crawling into pretty much everything. On Thursday, pestered by thick clouds of mosquitoes that don’t respect DEET let alone personal space, we hiked the final five miles out and promptly ordered a pizza. There is no better ending to a 5-day communion with Nature than half a pizza. (If you hike Pictured Rocks, call Main Street Pizza in Munising–they deliver to the Munising Falls Visitor Center upon request!)

There is plenty to say about Pictured Rocks, but I think I covered the nuts and bolts pretty thoroughly in my earlier write-up; you can read about that misadventure here.  Aside from finishing the distance from Grand Marais to Munising which made this trip significantly more fulfilling, my hike was also colored with the memory of Ernest Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories, a collection of short stories based in part on Hemingway’s boyhood rambles in our state’s northern forests. I taught the book last semester for the first time, and despite its cool reception among my sophomore students, the book continues to enchant me. Hemingway’s characters often bristle with machismo as a means of covering up paralytic anxieties (and especially gerontophobia), and Nick is no exception; Hemingway’s Nick is a less likeable Peter Pan, who, when not bumming along train tracks or seeking glory in European armies, hunts and fishes (often illegally) in the Michigan woods. Nick jet-sets across the world, to war and back, always with a big, two-hearted river in mind. “I would think of a trout stream I had fished along when I was a boy and fish its whole length very carefully in my mind, fishing very carefully under all the logs, all the turns of the bank, the deep holes and the clear shallow stretches, sometimes catching trout and sometimes losing them,” Nick says, lulling himself to sleep in the middle of the ocean, aboard a steamer headed for war (“Now I Lay Me” 144).

In this, Nick is like most Michiganders, whose lives and livelihoods are always shaped by the water that carves out the Mitten and the UP. While we often forget about the wealth of water in southeastern Michigan–this part of the state long ago buried its networks of creeks, streams, and eddies in tile culverts to create arable farmland–it is impossible to miss the sheer tonnage of water trickling through everything up North. You can see and hear, taste and feel the water moving beneath and around you here, turning solid cliffs into shifting dunes. On stormy days, including three of our five days during this early June hike, water envelops the entire landscape in trickles and crashes and squelches, defying efforts to keep it at bay. Immersed in rushing streams, pounding waves, and still, silent shorelines, hikers in Pictured Rocks are mesmerized by the lake, spirited by its spell.

This passage from “Big Two-Hearted River,” one of the first in the “Soldier Home” section of The Nick Adams Stories, captures the fluidity of our landscape and especially the magnetism that binds us to it (rather perfectly, I think):

He came down a hillside covered with stumps into a meadow. At the edge of the meadow flowed the river. Nick was glad to get to the river. He walked upstream through the meadow. His trousers were soaked with the dew as he walked. After the hot day, the dew had come quickly and heavily. The river made no sound. It was so fast and smooth. At the edge of the meadow, before he mounted to a piece of high ground to make his camp, Nick looked down the river at the trout rising. They were rising to insects come from the swamp on the other side of the stream when the sun went down. The trout jumped out of water to take them. While Nick walked through the little stretch of meadow alongside the stream, trout had jumped high out of water. Now as he looked down the river, the insects must be settling on the surface, for the trout were feeding steadily all down the stream. As far down the long stretch as he could see, the trout were rising, making circles all down the surface of the water, as though it were starting to rain (182).

Many readers often find Hemingway to be a bit boring, lost in the mundanity of his clean-cut style. But here, Hemingway lulls his readers into the magic of this scene with his repetitive, simple syntax, inviting us to follow Nick’s eyes and ears as he watches and listens to the river; the trout keep leaping, and we keep watching, mesmerized by the iridescent patterns they trace on the surface of the water. I’m especially struck by the quiet of this passage; the river slides by making no sound, fish feeding silently as day slips into night. I see swarms of floating insects, backlit like snowflakes, settling on the surface of the water. The river centers the scene, and our eyes–Nick’s eyes–watch its ecosystem perform a soundless symphony in a windless calm. It extends as far as we can see. Half-fantasy, half-reality, Nick’s perspective produces a landscape that threatens to drown us in its immersive beauty, sweeping us along in its quiet current. We aren’t sure whether to stay in this pleasant, perhaps dangerous stillness, or to struggle against it like fish caught on the line. Left in Hemingway’s hands, surrendering our imaginations to his slow description, we wait for him to start reeling in the line. When will this pastoral loveliness fracture? What ugliness follows? I’m not bored while reading this passage; I’m hooked. And I feel the same way about the Upper Peninsula’s quiet gorgeousness, centered by a lake from which I don’t want to look away.

Foot Fiction posts chronicle the stories that feed my wanderlust and shape my experiences of the places I visit; when I’m not on the road, I am at home in the library, reading. I’ll keep my literary thoughts short and purposeful, and I’ll include images from my camera, taken on the trail, in every Foot Fiction post. The photographs in this gallery are, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, centered by Michigan’s endless lakes, flowing though everything, human and animal, stony and sandy. The camera, despite my mechanical ignorance, managed to capture the surreal loveliness of the UP in Hemingway-esque terms, highlighting water features both large and small, liquid and solid, in each shot. I hope they draw you to the UP next summer or even later this season, like a mosquito to bare skin, eager to jump into Michigan.

Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. Print.

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Foot Fiction: Hiking With Hemingway in Pictured Rocks by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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