My wife and I bought an old house – built in 1940 and composed of drill-proof Portland cement, two-by-sixes that are actually 2” by 6”, and hand-mixed plaster applied by master craftsmen – but outside it’s noisy with a busy two-lane boulevard behind us leaking traffic noise through two rows of pine trees.
We’ve stuck around for nearly four decades because we’re located on a shady island in the middle of the city called The Tree Streets with walkable sidewalks and bicycle access to local shops and a twenty-mile-long Tweetsie Trail.
If you desire pure tranquility, twenty-five-miles of handmade stone fencing, three thousand acres of walkable Eden, amazing architecture, gourmet meals, romping farm animals, giant trees, fish-filled ponds, and easy access to Lexington with all its bourbon-infused amenities, this is the place.
Shake it, don’t break it.
The Shakers didn’t believe in sex. You heard that right: the past tense is appropriate for obvious reasons.
They believed Jesus was above and beyond all the rooting and grunting, and that He was coming back soon, so they forsook those worldly pleasures, trading them for dancing. Perhaps you’ve heard their famous tune: Lord of the Dance, a.k.a Simple Gifts.
Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
— Simple Gifts, written and composed in 1848, generally attributed to Elder Joseph Brackett from Alfred Shaker Village.
I don’t remember Jesus shaking His leg that much in the Bible, but the Shakers made that jump and stuck to it. One of the main buildings in the middle of the village was constructed for dancing, and you can almost hear those sliding feet and orgasmic wails still ringing off the walls.
Jeremiah 31:13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
Architecture is another fascinating aspect of Shaker Village. Men lived on one side of a building; women were housed on the opposite side. There are two entrance doors on each end and each side of the brick housing units, and two sets of stairs to the second floor so the sexes would not come into contact inside the dwelling.
“That would really fire you up, don’t you think?” said my wife looking at those twin sets of stairs. And some Shakers did sneak off to the woods from time to time, and they adopted local children, but the majority died off by the 1920s.
At its peak in the mid-19th century, there were 2,000–4,000 Shaker believers living in eighteen major communities and numerous smaller, often short-lived communities. External and internal societal changes in the mid- and late-19th century resulted in the thinning of the Shaker community as members left or died with few converts to the faith to replace them. By 1920, there were only twelve Shaker communities remaining in the United States. As of 2019, there is only one active Shaker village: Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, in Maine. Consequently, many of the other Shaker settlements are now museums. – Wikipedia
My cousin Tom, a traveling motorcycle mechanic and financial entrepreneur, happened to be camping north of Lexington – Shaker Village is located an hour straight south – and he bought tickets to the James E. Pepper distillery tour down in the city’s industrial district that’s now being revived as a tourist attraction. He’d called several other distilleries, and they were all sold out, so one needs to plan ahead to secure a bourbon tour.
Colonel James E. Pepper (1850-1906), Master Distiller, was a larger-than-life Bourbon Industrialist and flamboyant promoter of his family brand. He was the third generation to produce 'Old Pepper' whiskey, "The Oldest and Best Brand of Whisky made in Kentucky," founded in 1780 during the American Revolution. His namesake distillery in Lexington, Kentucky was at one point the largest whiskey distillery in the United States. -- Distillery web site
Ironically, when the economy crashed in the late 1800s, Pepper lost his business. But his wife stepped in with her own money to save the day by investing in racehorses. My wife thought this was the best part of the tour, and I think it would be interesting to look at how many of these pre-income-tax industrialists would have fared without the brains and inherited cash their wives afforded.
In 1923, the James E. Pepper brand was being marketed to pharmacists and was endorsed by more than 40,000 physicians, commanding a price six times higher than before Prohibition began. In October 1929, as warehoused inventory dwindled, some distilling was allowed to resume at the Stitzel-Weller distillery and was used as a source for the brand's bottling operation. The approaching end of Prohibition brought about a period of heavy investment in large production facilities, and the distillery was purchased around 1934 by Schenley Industries, just as the large-scale operation was able to resume.
Waxing the cork by hand. George Pepper Bourbon Distillery, Lexington, Kentucky.
If peace and tranquility, amazing architecture, rich history, and smooth bourbon sound good, then Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky near Lexington is the place to be.
We’ll go back soon and stay as long as it takes until our ears stop ringing.
My buddy in Reno is a medical doctor (psychiatry) and believes we are a virus, ourselves. This is not a new idea:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals.
Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not.
You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.
There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.
Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.
You’re a plague.
-- Agent Smith (Matrix, 1999)
During our conversation, it occurred to me that humans have taught this viral concept to their offspring throughout the ages:
Unsurprising, if God is truly Omnipotent. One of our Methodist ministers over the years, Larry Owsley, tells this wonderful story.
He’s a pretty bright guy, and was an advanced reader for his age when he climbed up into his grandmother’s lap and asked:
Can God do anything?
Oh yes, he can do anything, she said.
Can God seed the universe using comets containing DNA particles?
Her face turned red. She thought for a moment. Then said:
No, he certainly cannot do that!
My wife and I have avoided the fray, but we’ve heard about runs on toilet paper, guns, and especially ammunition. Do you think all our bullets are produced in the U.S.? That would be a logical assumption, but it’s a global business.
Send Lawyers Guns and Money …
The mayor of Champaign, Illinois recently signed an executive order banning alcohol and gun sales.
Back when Obama was first elected, I happened to be in a gun/vacuum-cleaner store — customers called it The Suck and Shoot — and the owner, a short fat man, climbed up on the counter and screamed: “Get your guns now! This bastard is taking your guns! Better get your guns now!”
I live in East Tennessee, and that wasn’t surprising. Having grown up in the Midwestern gun culture myself, I was not alarmed to see racks of machine-guns (semi-autos easily reconfigured) lining Mahoney’s Outfitters when I first moved to town. Dan Mahoney, an Irish tenor with a beautiful voice, has soloed in our church choir for decades. He doesn’t have to stand on the counter and scream.
Following a two-month visit to Western Illinois this fall – helping my active mother recuperate from hip surgery – my wife Lana and I were free to drive back to Tennessee any way we chose.
Pumped up on Jim Harrison’s “Brown Dog” novellas set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, we needed to lay eyes on this special place, and as always, interesting characters popped up along the way. Even Brown Dog uncloaked in Paradise, Michigan.
Furthermore, Lana’s college friend Donna and her husband Phil enjoy a condo jutting out off a basalt platform overlooking Lake Superior at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and they had previously invited us for a weekend, so we wandered home across America’s stunningly beautiful heartland lake country.
31 August 17
The drive from Sheffield, Illinois to Galena – where U.S. Grant briefly resided – is usually delightful: endless cornfields rolling north in static undulations of unglaciated hills snaking beside the Mississippi River.
But this time drifting Canadian wildfire smoke hung trapped above the ground in the ghostly-still air, reminding us that California simultaneously roiled in flames, and that Grant loved big cigars.
Normally we take time to wander the streets of the Galena – lowercase galena in science textbooks – with its wonderful shops and picturesque hillside quaintness, but we decided to turn in early. The next morning we rolled into Wisconsin, emboldened with sunshine and covered with breweries.
1 September 17
Meandering north through corn-beans-corn, we arrived at the Potosi Brewery, home of Snake Hollow IPA, a wonderful beer if you like yours hoppy. Then the Great River Road north sent us toward Pepin as we enjoying seeing the well-decorated laid-back small towns along the way.
Our 1950’s era Pepin hotel lacked everything except two sleep-able beds and a bathroom, but a walk down to the dockside found us at the Harbor View Café where the motto is best from scratch. While dining we overheard customers say they drove down from Minneapolis twice a month to enjoy the always-changing but consistently-good fare. The spicy lamb cassoulet was tasty, indeed, washed down with the mandatory local craft beer.
Lake Pepin, a man-made reservoir on the Mississippi River west off Wisconsin’s Route 35, provided a lovely backdrop as we after-dinner strolled the top of the levee surrounding a harbor filled with people cooking and drinking on sailboats while the hardier rolled out into the sunset with fishing poles lashed to down-riggers.
3 September 17
We stopped at Duluth on our way north to Two Harbors, and the old downtown manufacturing center was covered with tourists strolling the promenade, enjoying the Portland-ish rose gardens, dozens of thriving restaurants and shops sporting sunny views of the lake. One gentlemen mentioned that locals were soaking it up because they knew what lay ahead. Short-sleeved walkers all around us belied the coming white season, the majesty of Lake Superior’s shining blue soon turning to the leaden-grey gales of November.
A couple of hours up the Bob Dylan Way (Highway Sixty One) we arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota, a quaint village on the western shores of Lake Superior where our friends Phil, Donna, and Moses – a charming three-year-old cocker spaniel – accepted us graciously into their spacious condo filled with glass facing the ever-changing “Gitche Gumee” (the great sea in Ojibwa).
Clouds, sun, radical shifts in color and mood, moon, clouds, lake, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of God’s artistic capacity happily traipsing past each day … our friends have delighted in this gift – both physical and spiritual – for over twenty years and are still mesmerized.
4 September 17
After rising early and dining on Phil’s hearty eggs and sausage, we toured Highway 61 north with Phil behind the wheel of the family van, Moses sitting on my lap peering out the windshield, and the women happily reminiscing in the passenger seats as we tooled up to Grand Marais, Minnesota with an extended side-trip on the Gunflint Trail to snatch a peek at the Boundary Waters, a treasure both Phil and I have fished on separate occasions, an astounding 1,090,000-acres of fresh water lakes covering both shores of the US and Canada.
As we looked northwest into the horizon, loons spontaneously serenaded, a bald eagle passed at eye level yards in front of our rock overlook, wheeled, and fell into the abyss.
The next morning we drove down to the docks to see iron ore loaded onto a massive lake hauler, but we arrived a few minutes late only to witness it steaming away toward Sault Saint Marie where we’d soon visit and watch similar ships pass through the locks.
Parting with good friends and carrying wonderful memories, we thanked Phil and Donna for their grace and hospitality, talked of future visits, then headed south to the Wisconsin state border – then east – with a glimpse of Apostle Islands passing by the driver’s side window as we cruised down Highway 13.
6 September 17
Between Bayfield and Marquette we passed iron ore mining towns – Ironwood, Bessemer – then lunched on remarkable onion soup at the Portside Inn at downtown Marquette on a bright fall day filled with tourists and shoppers.
Endless rounds of Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (warning: if It’s A Small World still rings in your head, you may want to don ear plugs) lead you audibly through an excellent display of nautical science, specialized equipment, geographic explanations, descriptions of shipwrecks and stories of real-life derring-do that will spin your head. The bravery of those masters of the Inland Sea is legendary, while technology has kept more Edmund Fitzeralds from finding the bottom of its inhospitable depths. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a must-stop, indeed.
A lovely drive down Highway 28 to Paradise found us at the end of the day inside the Magnuson Grand Lakefront Hotel with a balcony view of the ever-changing face of Lake Superior, and evening of sun, clouds, mist, and shifting light.
If you are a reader, then it’s possible you have met or have at least seen a character step out of the pages and cross your path.
This has happened to me twice.
Two years ago, when I was writing Jellybeaners, Lana and I passed through Tellico Plains, Tennessee on a motorcycle trip. Tellico Plains is actually renamed “Kituwah Falls” as the novel’s fictional setting.
While eating a light lunch at a local restaurant, I witnessed the main character walk in – a six-foot wiry raven-haired half-Cherokee beauty – look at me, pull herself to her full height, smile, then back out and stride off down the street.
Now two years later we stumble across Brown Dog, the part-Ojibwe hero of Jim Harrison’s UP novellas, a character here described by the New York Times’ Anthony Doeer:
Brown Dog has no other name. He’s simply B. D., a scoundrel, a “backwoods nitwit,” a “kindly fool,” a goof as lovable as Sancho Panza and a libertine as promiscuous (if not as discriminating) as Don Juan. Picture a smuttier, older and alcoholic Huckleberry Finn, who happens to be Native American.
The long-haired whiskey-soaked half-Indian Brown Dog – or his doppelganger – stumbled into the Little Falls Inn while we soaked up burgers, but he was much longer-in-the-tooth than the 49-year-old protagonist, which made sense because Harrison published the last Brown Dog novella in the early 90’s. Our BD paid us no mind and remained in character, affixed to a female, a second muscle-bound hand wrapped around a beer mug.
7 September 17
After breakfast we drove to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, amazed at the size of the falls and the water’s brown color, the effect of tannin in the soil that’s swept downstream.
8 September 17
Ambling south, we arrived at Sault Saint Marie (sue saint mah ree) mid-morning and happened to walk up to the locks just an iron ore ship Herbert C. Jackson, a seeming identical twin to the Edmund Fitzgerald, slipped through, then slowly descended to Lake Huron below as the life-sized crewmen we just chatted up minutes ago morphed into miniature Toy Story characters hauling string-ropes.
“The Soo” is an American city past its prime, though its Canadian twin appears to thrive, and there’s new talk of widening the locks to accept heavier commerce, which may bring a new financial spring for both as the Great Lakes eternally serve our distribution of goods with an efficiency outstripping trucks pounding interstates into oblivion and high-sulfur Wyoming coal trains hogging rail lines as commuters sit fuming on overcrowded expressways.
A friend of mine from high school moved to Seattle after college, loved his IT job at Boeing for nearly thirty years, but retired the day after his work buddy suffered a heart attack on a traffic-blocked expressway, expiring in his car, unable to exit, unable to receive help from outside the blocked lanes.
We can do better.
Spending the night in St. Ignace, Michigan – located on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge – we ran across another novel-worthy character who’d literally built his own functional tractor out of an assortment of parts-on-hand: a straight six Ford motor, a massive steel u-bar for the frame, used wheels and tires, a drive train constructed of welded bolts and assorted gear drives from the parts bin. You can tell you’ve encountered a “character” when their spirit shows through … brightly. It’s an experience beyond words, but you know it when you see it.
This wiry retired farmer dressed in oil-soaked overalls and reeking of knowledge gained from life experience, travel, and wide reading told us we’d just missed a parade of 2,200 antique tractors crawling over the Mackinaw, and that there were such annual parades for motorcycles and semi-trucks covered in lights.
We bid adieu after two beers and several enjoyable stories, then drove down to the waterside where antique tractors glowed in the orange-red sunset of a near-perfect fall day, Lake Huron shimmering in the background.
9 September 17
The next morning we paused at Bridge View Park, a memorial to the iron workers who built the Mackinac Bridge and enjoyed outstanding views bathed in warm sunshine, cumulus clouds reflecting on still waters, and then crossed the Mackinac Bridge onto the Lower Peninsula, where we meandered along the western shores of Lake Michigan.
Spending the night in Ludington, we watched the sun set on a ferry stuffed with tourists as it pulled out for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a system of conveyance allowing travelers to avoid the clogged arteries surrounding Chicago and Gary and enjoy themselves with brews and views instead of fumes of doom.
10 September 17
The next morning we eased out of Michigan on a cloudy day and transitioned into yellow-corn-sandy-soil northern Indiana, something I noticed having grown up in black loam Illinois where thick green stalks stand 6’ by the 4th of July.
During our last day on the road we slipped through Indiana into Kentucky and decided to spend the night at the well-designed Dale Hollow Lake Inn on the Tennessee / Kentucky border, where we enjoyed one last night of changing lake scenes while deer munched grass below our veranda.
Even with the exquisite scenery, renewed friendships, outstanding food, unexpected delights and character revelations, we realized our quick week in the UP was simply a training mission for longer, more laid-back excursions to come, perhaps by motorcycle or camping trailer because …
Midwestern lakes always leave you longing for more.