Traveling north to Irons, back through memory.
Before the US-131 freeway ran all the way to Cadillac, north on M-37 was just about the only way to get to our family’s cabin in the woods near Irons. My dad built the cabin long before I could drive and as a young passenger I never got bored during the countless hours that we spent traveling up and down that road. I liked its rolling hills and wide sweeping curves. I never tired of looking at the old stone farm houses and decrepit barns, the moss covered dilapidated shacks and the ramshackle house trailers. I liked passing through the scattering of tiny rural communities with their ancient town halls and their solitary, yellow blinking traffic lights. I didn’t mind the slow going through the sequence of small towns—Grant, Newaygo, White Cloud and Baldwin—while driving through their M-37 stretches of shops, gas stations, hardware stores and bars.
As I grew older the affection I had for M-37 gradually turned into something closer to disdain. The roadside sights that I enjoyed looking at as a kid gradually grew ugly as the—and I—aged; the hills, curves and constantly changing speed limits, unperturbing to the young, wide-eyed passenger, became irritating impediments to the older, impatient driver. When it became possible to take the freeway all the way to Highway 10, I didn’t hesitate making traveling up and down M-37 a bittersweet memory.
Last weekend my son Chris and I took another trip to the cabin. If I had been driving I wouldn’t have taken 37. I would have instead taken the freeway north to the Reed City exit then west eighteen miles to where 10 and 37 intersect just north of Baldwin. But then I wouldn’t have had the chance to subdue the bitter and rekindle the sweet. I wouldn’t have again seen that old wooden train trestle that spans the White River just south of White Cloud. I wouldn’t have remembered the billboard that was once on the left—White Cloud, where the north begins and clear waters flow. I wouldn’t have recalled stopping at Jonses’ for ice cream cones or for huge cinnamon rolls at the Hilltop Bakery.
If I had been driving I wouldn’t have remembered and then told Chris about all of the times stopping in all of the bars—about how my dad, his grandfather, once locked the owner of Government Lake in the basement and about how tough a joint Kalley’s was. Still trapped in memory would be the chain-smoking barmaid who told me I couldn’t smoke my pipe in her Baldwin tavern; same too for the regulars at Diamond Lake where my brother Mark and I spent a snowy afternoon drinking and playing pool. If I had been driving we wouldn’t have stopped in that run-down White Cloud tavern, would not have seen the sad-eyed barmaid or talked with the one-armed, scraggly-bearded fellow who was sitting by himself at the bar.
That night I thought about that sad-eyed barmaid and the one-armed drunk while we were sitting around the camp fire. Above us the sliver of a crescent moon peeked through the barren branches of the late blooming oaks and to the west a bright planet dazzled like a diamond in a blue-black sky. When Chris handed me the bottle of Bulliet Rye I took a long swig, thought about the drive up 37, and added to my collection of memories.