October 22, 2020 | Narrative
places to go, you to see
a (mid)western love story
When my boyfriend came to Michigan from Colorado for a month last summer, he was in for some late mornings. Ben runs on activity, a calendar that looks like a haywire game of Tetris or the kinetic thrum of guitar strings. All of this is to say he does not typically sleep in until noon, but one particular party in the relationship does, especially when outside it feels like the world is ending.
Despite these late mornings, he got me outside anyway. Being outdoors with him put a flashlight beam on the corners of the world where things didn’t feel catastrophic, with his studly tie-dye fanny pack, an app where people review hikes (who knew!), and a bureau of knowledge on hiking etiquette (hikers going uphill have the right of way, which I unfortunately did not register until I was halfway downhill). I’ve lived in Michigan pretty much my whole life, but I’d never noticed the way the streams here are adorned with little white flowers or that the wooden benches are named after old conservationists. After months of staring at the same walls in my house, it felt comforting to know there was always more to see.
No amount of preparation or understanding of hiking etiquette could have steered us through our first hike together at Young State Park. We pulled into the parking lot to see one of the trails sunken in rainwater from last night’s storm, a damp graveyard of fallen fragile trees. We agreed that this wasn’t promising, but pressed onward and parked, eventually stepping down from his electric blue Toyota RAV4 (affectionately and reverently deemed Blueno) into a place that was half-forest, half-aquarium.
It was as if the lake encompassed the park itself, an Atlantis of picnic tables. A park worker in a four-wheeler sloshed through the parking lot; long grasses poked up from under the water with a reassuring wave. Nothing to see here. Yet we stood and observed. I think it felt nice to see an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence that didn’t hurt or signify the collapse of society as we know it: this landscape of new shores where a lake could lap on asphalt. It felt like coexistence.
When we got home, I wrote the first poem I was proud of in months. We cooked together, an oft-tumultuous endeavor that sometimes ends in 8 cups of crunchy rice or bread burnt black, but we keep trying anyway. Outside the window, a rainbow sifted up from the blue of the sky.
Deadman’s Hill was the second hike we went on together. The air was cool and mossy, filled with the sound of our feet following each other in the dirt. Ben was wearing a tie-dye bucket hat—the one he always wears—a bobbing kaleidoscope I follow around corners and up hills and pretty much anywhere while we talk about anything. We didn’t know about the view at the top of the hill until we reached it and looked out unexpectedly onto what felt like the whole world.
We were seeing Michigan from above, a panorama of summer trees and sunburnt noses. Our pedestal was a rock placed several yards from a wooden sign telling the story of the man for whom the trail was named—not for his actual name, which was Samuel Graczyk, but for his fate in 1910. He was “a fun-loving lumberjack” who was soon to be married but even sooner became the victim of a fatal logging accident while driving a team of horses down what is now called “Deadman’s Hill.”
The layers of green forest made the world feel plentiful. On the wooden fence blocking off the steep part of the hill—perhaps where Samuel died—names and years and hearts and plus signs were etched in with whatever makeshift engraving tools Jessica from ’88 or Scott + Penny had on them at the time. The green felt like perpetual renewal, yet the impromptu memorial on the fence—an ode to past loves and selves—made it feel like everything stayed the same. Michigan winters had come and gone, thunderstorms had felled trees and flooded parks, but it was still the same place Jessica or Scott or Penny had stood and also let the world remind them it was wide.
Ben and I met in a place where people depart to see the world from above. It was Detroit Metro Airport in April of 2018, where I was shifting from foot-to-foot in anticipation of ADOCH. After accumulating months of Facebook anxiety and watching extremely dated room tours on YouTube, I was actually going to put real faces to my future college experience. Ben was the first one I saw. He pointed out the Brown socks I was wearing (a choice I had heavily considered not making because I was embarrassed) and struck up a conversation.
This conversation lasted two sentences before my mom, excited to see me finally relaxing about this whole college ordeal, essentially said “I’ll leave you to it” and got on the plane. With my boarding pass. I then had to pursue her while Ben stood with his suitcase, having no idea what he was getting himself into.
There wasn’t a plane we could board or a rock we could stand on to see what was to come laid out under us; how, when I fly above Michigan, the cars look like scuttling insects and the pools look like scraps of blue felt. But I imagine how it would’ve looked. Imagine the sporadic awkward Facebook messages that summer before first year passing under us like disparate clouds. The bleachers where we sat for a football game the first time we hung out on campus, blinking in the sun. The bobbing sea of people in an overheated tent for ANOCH, in Findy, in Wayland Lounge where his band played. The outdoor rave we had in the middle of the night next to Blueno (the real one, not the car). The laps we made around town in the middle of the night to talk about everything, the wind turbines patient and steady beyond India Point Park.
How we still talk about everything, be it in a dingy dorm lounge or on the train to Boston to meet someone from his far-ranging constellation of friends. We follow each other through the valleys and knolls of our conversations, silences, songs; this is where I feel safe, the space between a period and the start of my next sentence. Watching that bucket hat bob in front of me with the promise that no matter where I follow it, there will be something new. A drowning park or a lumberjack’s haunting grounds, a new way of seeing things or a bench to set our thoughts on, side by side.
In our first year at Brown, we lay down in front of EmWool to listen. That was the only plan: to discover what sounds we walked past every day but never noticed. I imagine seeing us sprawled out in the dirt there, our breath rising from us like we’re chimneys, the distance between our fingertips small from any vantage point.