Nonfiction by Aram Mrjoian
In the shallows of Mullet Lake, a handful of boats languorously bob tethered to a white dock. The water is unsullied and perennially cold. Two paddleboats are tied to nearby trees on the shore. Spiderwebs collect across their seats and rudders. The beach is but a few feet until grass devours the sand. A fire pit waits well-stocked with wood, birch branches galore, a four-inch stretch of bark more than enough to ignite a serviceable flame. Parallel to the shoreline, a wide gravel path accommodates joggers and cyclists in the summer, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers in the winter. Mullet Lake is far enough north in Michigan’s lower peninsula that the latter methods of transportation are seasonal necessity. The path follows along M-27, a two-lane highway stretching northeast from Indian River to Cheboygan. Topinabee is a blip in between. An L-shaped building, what at first glance resembles a weather-beaten motel with a dilapidated playground, stands across the road.
Tucked in the line of rooms that faces the water, my family owns Unit #11. Since my grandparents first purchased it, we have never called it a cottage or cabin or lake house. Unit #11 is sandwiched between two larger blocks owned by more expansive dynasties; their property has accrued from generation to generation, as some of the original owners have slowly been bought out, but #11 remains isolated, an island perhaps totaling 300 square feet in area.
The interior holds a modest bedroom with a bathroom stuffed in the back corner behind a kitchenette. When I was young, the kitchen and sitting area were divided from the bedroom, until my dad and I eventually knocked the wall out, hiding and reinforcing the gap with unstained two-by-fours. Two summers ago, with the help of my younger brother, my father later tore out the carpet and replaced it with faux-wood flooring. These major changes happened at a glacial pace. They first took years of discussion, finding dates when my brother, who lives in Oregon, or I could make the trip at the same time as our dad.
The linen closet is stuffed with the same sets of towels, sheets, and blankets that have been there for decades. These linens travel up and down the state each summer to be laundered. The oven and stovetop are finicky and antiquated. Small alterations are made season over season, but Unit #11 is uninhabited for most of the year, unbothered and relatively clean, with a few daddy longlegs milling about the bathroom and kitchen cabinets and the thermostat hovering just high enough so the pipes don’t freeze in the winter. We don’t own any of the boats on the dock, but The Breakers, the bar and grill next door, has held onto a metal paddleboat for us for the past few years. It almost sank last time we packed a cooler and set out on the water.
You’ll often hear Michiganders talk about heading “up north” for the weekend. The term holds the vague promise of rustic simplicity. Things hypothetically move slower; more time is spent outdoors. There is an abundance of fresh fish. Ice cream parlors and fudge shops beckon. There’s always a more secluded spot for those willing to travel in one cardinal direction.
Seasonal lodgings like the one my family owns are scattered throughout Michigan. Similar to Unit #11, some of them — often by design — are cramped and austere, meant to be hideaways from the incessant bustle waiting back home. My family, for example, has debated temporary Wi-Fi and television solutions for our time in Topinabee, but we return to the conclusion that these services are unnecessary, and the place has stayed almost technology-free, though without fail the phone service improves each year so that it becomes easier to get lost in ephemeral distractions. Other lodgings are larger than suburban homes. They boast multiple lavish bedrooms with private waterfront balconies, wine collections stashed in elaborate dining areas, and rumpus rooms for extended vacations. When someone invites you to a cabin or cottage, you never know what accommodations you’ll drive up to when you reach your destination. I’ve arrived at one or two mansions convinced my GPS guided me to the wrong address. Regardless of size, these temporary living quarters become lifelong projects, the in-progress Shangri-Las standing by in the infrequent moments we can escape the daily grind.
These days, I’m lucky to get to Topinabee for one extended weekend a year. Before moving to Tallahassee to pursue my PhD, my fiancée, Kelsey, and I made the six-hour drive from Chicago whenever we could spare the days off. We spent our vacations reading on the shore, skipping stones, and eating dinner next to a bonfire. We always designate a day to drive into Petoskey to stroll the same stretch of downtown that holds my favorite bookstore and coffeehouse. I find serenity in the annual routine.
Like our unit, the surrounding area has changed with time, too. There are more breweries and wineries. The roads have been widened and repaved to accommodate heavier traffic. Renovated gas stations offer a larger number of pumps and last-minute groceries. Next door, The Breakers is (for the better) unrecognizable. Once a dive filled with barstools of chain-smoking regulars, my parents used to bring my brother and me there for microwaved mini-tacos and hotdogs when we were kids. It was a dim room filled with dented furniture and a begrimed pool table. Now, the restaurant boasts a broad, multi-page menu ranging from classic American grease to fresh fish and (sort of) healthy salads. The owner has added two stories of outdoor seating. There are more cars in the parking lot. Hungry boaters speed across the lake and flock to the restaurant’s dock in search of midday sustenance. No longer a hole-in-the-wall, The Breakers has gone from dive to destination.
But, from my limited yearly impression, things for the most part maintain the status quo. Nearby, in Indian River, the riverside archery and tackle shop remains staffed by the same curmudgeonly old man who only accepts cash for temporary fishing licenses and other purchases. Red paint continues to chip off the Dairy-Mart. A gallon jar of pickled hard-boiled eggs stand their ground at the cash register of the liquor store. The same few roadside diners sling the same array of early-bird specials. Next to the mini-golf course, a reliable fish market has sold primo turkey jerky for as far back as I can recall. Permanent residents and tourists stand side by side casting fishing rods across the channel that connects Burt and Mullet lakes. For now, the waters remain frigid long into the summer. Nothing appears busier, even though it is. The developments hide under the immovable cover of lakes and forests and local landmarks.
While my rare excursions to Topinabee span perhaps a week per year, I hope going up north will always be so evergreen and predictable. I worry most about the climate. Earlier this year, on Memorial Day weekend, Kelsey and I — along with two close friends who have their own family cabin nearby — visited to run a marathon along Little Traverse Bay. On race day, by sunrise, I began to dread the unseasonable heat. I was hoping for cold weather, but spent most of the run smothered in sweat. I watched a runner collapse from heatstroke at the finish line. I fear the day I’ll make my annual pilgrimage and jump in Mullet Lake to find the water is as tepid as the lakes in Florida. I fret that the heat will imprison me, that I’ll be too sluggish to do anything more than lie prone across the bed in front of the air conditioner anchored to the frame of the unit’s rear window. When will the winters become too mild for ice fishing? At what temperature will the pike and perch float to the surface? I wonder what age I’ll be when the demand for fresh water drains the Great Lakes so that Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is elevated above five muddy canyons, the region’s resources sapped dry, leaving the outline of a grand hand waving goodbye.