Cold wind galloped across the sand like a wild stallion on a rampage. But the flames burned hot and kept us saddled in beach chairs arrayed around the fire ring.
Our six bodies huddled near the blaze, each snug inside hoodies and windbreakers, shoes just far enough from the searing heat to avoid trouble.
I don’t know exactly where the other five minds were at that moment. Casual observation suggested two of my companions were chatting about someone I don’t know, two were buried deep in their cell phones, and a furtive glance up toward the cabin suggested the fifth member of our party was thinking about abandoning the end-of-September beach party and heading indoors for the night.
The sun had set long ago. The gusts off the lake were beginning to feel like sharp knives that cut through our jackets. But the Milky Way was glorious. Satellites raced across the stars like distant fireflies darting toward the future.
I pulled the hood closer around my ears as my mind drifted away from conversation, cell phones and indoor warmth. My thoughts wandered and began forming a geographic comparison between home and this remote outpost.
Our gathering wasn’t next to West Grand Traverse Bay, but instead on the edge of West Bay, a Lake Superior inlet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We had ventured north on the last weekend in September to Grand Marais, a tiny town about a four-hour drive north of Traverse City.
I mentally compared the two communities as my companions wrestled with their phones or tossed verbal volleyballs back and forth over the flames.
Both communities have frontage on a Great Lake. Both are known for being surrounded by nature. Each is near a National Lakeshore. Both derive a substantial portion of their business income from four-season tourism.
But 15,000 people live in Traverse City, compared to just 322 in Grand Marais; Grand Traverse County’s population is around 93,000, while Alger County’s is only 9,000. Traverse City has multiple large shopping districts; the single business district in Grand Marais stretches a block and a half on a single street. The nearest shopping districts to Grand Marais are in Newberry, population 1,500, 40 miles away; and in Munising, population 2,400, 50 miles away.
Traverse City residents enjoy close access to medical care, cultural resources and multiple employment opportunities; Grand Marais residents not so much. Traverse City’s economy is incredibly diverse, while Grand Marais basically lives on tourism.
I was amazed at the good condition of highways and roads in and around Grand Marais; maybe they’re so smooth because they get so little traffic. On Saturday evening in Grand Marais it seemed there were almost as many ATVs as there were cars.
The Lake Superior beach was beautiful. But so are the beaches in Leelanau, Benzie, Grand Traverse and Antrim counties. And the beaches in the U.P. are battered by more bitter winds than we get down here.
I know from past experience that Lake Superior beaches can be sunny and warm in August; but the lake rarely is comfortable to swim in, certainly not on the last day of September.
Both communities overflow with charm.
Grand Marais is a single delicate blossom high on a mountain meadow, pristine and seen by few adventurers.
Traverse City is a garden of multi-colored flowers closer to the main trail, a mix of wild and domesticated blossoms viewed by a wide variety of visitors.
Residents of both communities enjoy their hometowns. I like to occasionally visit a remote enclave like Grand Marais — but I also like to return home.
The last days of September were a great time to visit the Lake Superior shore.
Fall colors were just beginning to appear. The little community was peaceful. The night sky was amazing. The wind carried more than a hint of the coming winter chill, but also offered a bracing reminder of nature’s healing touch.
I was sad when we drove out of the tiny town by the big lake — because it marked the end of a precious little weekend. At the same time, it felt good to be heading home.