Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this piece, the author celebrates the eccentricities of her home place.What typifies a northern lower Michigander like myself is perhaps not a dedication to cold, but rather a love of extremes. If you’ve been to the “mitten,” as it is called, you’ve probably heard the adage, “Don’t like the weather? Wait twenty minutes.” While this sassy one-liner is likely not unique to the Great Lakes State, it sure is reflective of our climatic reality. Cast in sepia-toned sentimentality are both my 1988 hospitalization for heatstroke and the seemingly radioactive hand-warming heat packs given me by my husband one Christmas after repeated digital frostbite. The thing is, we Michiganders feel good when forced to submit to Mother Nature’s whims. In fact, it seems as if Mother Nature is at her most peri-menopausal on the Lake Michigan coast. Drive up U.S. 31 during a whiteout-style blizzard and you’ll understand the true essence of “lake effect” snow. For those living on the coast, such ferocity of wind and precipitation is not only expected, it is, in a sense, revered. If you are itching to become one with the sublime, drive out to the pier in Frankfort, Michigan sometime in February. The mammoth ice gargoyle that is the lighthouse will chill you to your existential core. When you’ve been through decades of cruel winter beauty like that, you learn to build a fire. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll invite your neighbors to share the warmth.
About a week before Christmas, Benzie County, my alma mater in the school of life, suffered a freak winter storm. Power was out all over the place. In times like these, a friend in need is a friend indeed, but a friend with a spare generator is better. Even the main bar shut down, so serious was the situation. The locals were held hostage under Ma Nature’s powerfully icy grasp. Small children shivered, fathers looked on in dismay as the gigantic trees they spent hours chopping down and hauling inside for display were now made comically sadsack by the deadened Christmas lights adorning their branches. It was a rough time, but not for Jake.
My friend Jake has fashioned his 20-acre property into a veritable paradise for lovers of northern Michigan’s common-law marriage of snowfall and sand dune. About half a mile back from his hand-sawn, hand-milled, hand-constructed, modern–day log cabin is his similarly hand-crafted, wood-fired, eight-person sauna. Next to that is a tiny off-the-grid cottage. Downed power lines? No problem; cozy up to the woodstove. Freak blizzard? Even better to cool you off with, my friend, when you’ve been soaking up a sweat in the 180-degree sauna heat.
About a week after the storm ended and power was restored, the motley crew of myself, my husband, our ten-month-old son and his wild aunt and bearded Godfather made our way up to Jake’s place for a classic “sauna party.” By the time we arrived at 5:00 p.m., winter twilight had fallen, making our exodus necessarily post haste. We still had half a mile to walk uphill through sixteen inches of snow, all the while weighed down by the necessary sauna party accoutrements of wine, beer, ham, pickles, cheese, crackers, and carrot ginger soup. My husband did the heavy lifting as he volunteered to push our son’s yuppie SUV stroller over the deadfall and through the woods in a funky version of the classic rhyme.
We arrived and were met by Jake, beer in gloved hand. Although he had gone up early to stoke the cottage and sauna stoves for our arrival, neither was quite ready yet. No problem, our son would remain in his snowsuit for the time being while we warmed ourselves with libations and conversation.
When the heat did come it was “good — real good,” as my cousin likes to say. If you’ve ever “done” a sauna, you know the primal pleasure of stripping off all of your clothes and climbing into an intensely hot cedar womb, only to move deeper and deeper into the heat until you are almost one with the glowing heart of the sauna stove. Then, when you can’t handle the heat for one more second, you burst forth au naturel from the sauna into a snow bank. Your body undulates. Your pores constrict. For one brief second your mind becomes an ice crystal, its neural pathways dancing fractally to the movement of the spheres. You whisper a prayer to the hoarfrost moon and pull yourself unwillingly back into the sauna box for another wave of corporeal pleasure. It goes like this until you can stand no more, and you return, towel-clad, to the cottage for a gallon of ice-cold water and some salty treats.
This is what we did, in turns (a group staying back to tend to our son), at Jake’s place. For several hours reality receded as we were consumed one after the other by sauna and snow, our conversations punctuated only by fire-tending and cork-popping. Does it get any better than this? I don’t know, but I don’t need to find out.
For me, these sauna excursions are lower northern Michigan at her best. It’s been said that northern Michigan as a place is a cruel mistress, and this is true. Climatically, her weather “patterns,” if such diabolically pinballing barometric dances can be called that, are unforgiving and unrelenting. Geographically speaking, most towns are somewhat isolated, and draw their income from sand and ski tourists (or “fudgies,” as we locals affectionately call them), making the economy almost as unpredictable as the weather. So yes, northern lower Michigan is a cruel mistress, but mistress she most certainly is. You don’t marry Beulah. Or Elberta. Or Empire. No, sir, these saucy sorceresses refuse betrothal to anyone, preferring instead to remain independent, fearsome and entirely awe-inspiring.
And this could be why we northern Michiganders love our extremes: because, like a good sauna, they knock the bullshit right out of a person. Whether you’re a card-carrying NRA member or a trust fund hippie on permanent holiday, if you’re from Benzie County, you know how to thrust off your artifice and bow to the power of Ma Nature, who, after massaging your ego with picturesque July picnics on the dunes, will just as surely leave you stranded on a snowbound side road with no cell reception just six months later. So here’s to you, Great Mother. May I never be so foolish not to recognize, in your northern Michigan splendor, the sublime in the quotidian: the sauna in every snowstorm.