By Bryan Gruley
The coyote hung upside-down from a wire in front of the small-town bar, shot through the back. His brother lay dead on the sidewalk beneath him, bleeding into the snow. Inside the Town Pump Saloon, two tables full of guys in camouflage celebrated with longneck Buds and Miller Lites.
I love northern Michigan.
I’ve been going “up north,” as native Detroiters like me put it, since I was a kid. My parents bought a cottage on Big Twin Lake, about 40 miles east of Traverse City, in 1971. I still make the 335-mile trek from Chicago four or five times a year, mostly for the summer fun of swimming and boating and golf and beer drinking.
But the last several years I’ve been going up, alone, for a few days each winter. I go not as a skier or snowmobiler, but as a writer. I build a fire in the fireplace, plug in my laptop, and write. From Dad’s recliner or my late mother’s rocker, I have a picture-window view of the frozen lake and the snow-dusted evergreens lining the far shore.
How lovely that must be, my writerly pals tell me. How quiet and pristine. How splendid a goad for the imagination, especially for a writer who sets his novels in that corner of northern lower Michigan.
Well, yeah. I do tend to get a lot of words down up north. But the real inspiration, the stuff that centers me in my fictional world of Starvation Lake, comes less from the silence and the solitude than from seeing dead coyotes in front of a bar.
I take walks around Dad’s lake. I can smell the cold, feel it in my nostrils. The bare branches at the tops of the oaks and birches have turned silver. The crunch of ice and snow beneath my boots is the loudest sound I hear. I take note of the beer posters flapping in the wind on the side of the Twin Lakes General Store. “Welcome, Snowmobilers,” they say.
I go for drives between the plowed walls of snow on the county roads. I watch for handmade road signs: “Fresh Turkeys For Sale.” I hear the propane trucks rumble past. I slow to glimpse the tree hung with dozens of pairs of shoes a few miles north of Kalkaska. It never fails to give me the creeps.
I stop in the Hide-A-Way Bar on the real Starvation Lake, order a patty melt, listen to the regulars argue about hockey and Obama and snow blowers. One guy tells me he saw a flatbed full of dead coyotes the other day. The weather forecast calls for a thaw on the big Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend; that would be lousy for business. The regulars shake their heads with worry.
I take a few photographs, jot some notes. But these things may never wind up in one of my novels. I take them in as a lumberjack takes in a hilly landscape and decides which trees must go and which should remain.
In truth, the coyotes and the signs and the smell of cold will do more work on me than I will on them. I go to northern Michigan in the winter so the setting will set itself, partly in my brain, partly in my heart, partly in my gut. Then I can take it back with me to Chicago, and keep writing.
Do you have a place that inspires or informs your writing?