I stopped my skiing in the tunnel of pines, my own private entrance to Narnia, and looked around as I always do. The late afternoon-sun blinked through the boughs. Far-away sounds mingled with the nearer chirps of birds. I closed my eyes and drank it in like a prayer.
All this, Dad taught me to love, I thought.
It was on all those weekends at the cabin on the Muskegon River, and before that, weekends at Uncle Bub’s cabin near Grayling, that Dad taught me the beauty of trees whooshing in the wind and rivers running swiftly by. It was in nature that I first felt the near presence of God. And it was in nature, now, that I felt Dad’s presence as surely as his strong hand on my shoulder.
Here at Blandford Nature Center, my favorite quick getaway to the wild in the middle of the busy city, I knew Dad’s spirit was with me even though his body had left this life two weeks before. He had assured me beforehand that he was not afraid. So I have tried not to be afraid since then.
I felt no fear this Saturday afternoon, when the sky was bright blue and the snow unsullied white. I had taken out the skis knowing this might be my one chance this on-and-off winter.
Dad and I used to go cross-country skiing at little getaways up north. This was a way to honor him as well as let myself breathe.
A little farther on the nature center’s gentle trails, I realized something more. For all the years of my adult life, I had spent much more time away from Dad than with him. Yes, I always had the ability to call him up or drive an hour to visit him, and the loss of that is huge.
But for the most part, when I was with Dad, it was his spirit, not his physical presence, that was with me. Just as his spirit was with me now, on the Blandford ski trail, just as strongly as it had ever been.
And in that sense, Dad is just as alive to me now as he ever was.
In fact, it’s the spiritual essence of people that abides with us most of the time. The things they have taught us, the memory of good moments and the anticipation of more is how they are present to us when we are not with them — which is usually far more than when we are.
Thinking of Dad in this way made me think of one particular ski getaway we shared back in 2001. I treasure that weekend as much for what it taught me about people as for its precious memories of Dad and me. I’ll share it here in the form of a column I wrote then for The Grand Rapids Press:
MANISTEE NATIONAL FOREST, AWAY FROM PEOPLE — We were skiing through the woods, my dad and I, with that lovely shoosh sound cross-country skis make on new snow. That and my breathing were all I heard until I came to a stop and listened to … nothing.
Maybe the muffled roar of a far-off snowmobile or a dog’s lonely bark. A few bird chirps. Stubborn wrinkled oak leaves stirring in the wind. Mostly, blessed quiet.
This is how Dad and I wanted it. Just us, out in the woods, with few other people around. We do this once a year, go up to a swell little cabin near the little burg of Wellston and cruise the groomed trails of the “Big M” ski area. It’s a chance to commune with nature, reconnect with each other and live like slobs for a weekend.
Oh, we like running into the odd person here and there. This past weekend, in the Big M warming hut, we ran into a guy who my father had as a student at Michigan State University 25 years ago, and who used to work with one of my best friends. People like him we were delighted to meet.
Otherwise, the fewer people the better. We didn’t really need them for our getaway experience. Just us and the snow were good enough.
In the glide zone
As I shooshed through the woods, I found myself slipping in and out of the glide zone — the mental terrain where I was focused on the moment, the soft pine boughs and woodpecker-ravaged stumps and good cold air.
Out of the glide zone, I thought about stories I was working on, kid problems, what I wanted for dinner. Ski while you’re skiing, I reminded myself. Later, you can eat while you’re eating.
It wasn’t long before we got to that eating part and spun out of the glide zone like a Pinto on black ice.
We’d driven into Manistee for dinner when a woman pulled alongside our Ford Explorer. “You’ve got a flat tire!” she yelled, pointing at the wheel. We’ll call her Good Samaritan No. 1.
We pulled into a parking lot and had a look. “Yep, she’s flat all right,” we said, speaking from years of manly experience. Nothing we couldn’t handle. We got out the spare and the jack and went to work. I grabbed the tire iron and started loosening lug nuts. One, two, three … hmm, this baby’s a toughie. Maybe if I put my shoulder into it and give ‘er a real good yank —
(I can just hear all the grease monkeys yelling, “DON’T DO IT!!”)
Yank! Oops. That lug nut looked like a piece of crushed tin foil. Time to call AAA.
Good Samaritan No. 2, a clerk at a nearby store, helped Dad make the call. Meanwhile, Samaritans 3 and 4 stopped by and asked if they could help.
Samaritans 5 and 6 pulled up in their tow truck and, after a few valiant turns, declared the crushed lug nut unloosenable. “Only thing we can do is take you to a tire store and they can fix it for you Monday morning,” they said.
God help us
Talk about a day going south fast. It’s 5 p.m. Saturday, an icy breeze is blowing and we’re 15 miles from our cabin. I’m focused on the present now, baby: How do we get back out there? How do we get back into town Monday morning? And what the heck are we gonna eat?
“There is no spot where God is not,” my grandma used to say, and I always believed her. Just across the street was a bus with its engine running. Dial-a-ride, the towing guys called it. It’s actually called Manistee County Transportation, the most wonderful public transport system in the world.
I walked over and asked if they could help us out. Driver Dave Hoffrichter, who was just about to get off work and take his wife to dinner, said no problem. He hauled us back out to our cabin in the woods, telling us about how he takes senior citizens shopping and high school kids skiing. For our $2 fare, he worked an hour overtime. Definitely Good Samaritan No. 7.
Add Joy Bass, the woman whose cabin we rented, as a big No. 8. Take my van to breakfast and dinner Sunday, back into town Monday and anywhere else you need to go, she said, throwing in two cans of soup and a loaf of bread.
On Monday morning, tire shop owner Phil Ludwigson (No. 9) took that crummy lug off and fixed our flat for a measly 12 bucks.
So Dad and I got an extra day to re-connect, ski and loaf, thanks to our newfound friends. Suddenly, we were darn glad to have people around.
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